THE BLOG

Voices From the Ground: How Tech Can Help Services Respond to Citizens

10/07/2015 08:28 BST | Updated 07/07/2016 10:59 BST

There's been a lot of hype around digital citizen feedback platforms. The lure of using mobile phones to receive reports from citizens anywhere across the globe, neatly documented on a digital map has led to a flurry of applications.

The Kenyan mapping platform Ushahidi has over 10,000 implementations. It's been used across the globe in emergency responses and to monitor elections, forced evictions, outbreaks of violence and diseases like swine flu, to name just a few. What better way to get information right from the ground in real time?

But behind the hype, report numbers and response rates are often disappointingly low and practitioners working in complex environments are trying to understand why.

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Why should citizens bother reporting?

Put yourself inside the mind of a citizen reporter. Evan Lieberman from Princeton University did just that and asked the following:

'Do I understand the info? → Is it new info? → Do I care? → Do I think that it is my responsibility to do something about it? → Do I have the skills to make a difference? → Do I have the sense of efficacy to think that my efforts will have an impact? → Are the kinds of actions I am inspired to take different from what I am already doing? → Do I believe my own individual action will have an impact? → Do I expect fellow community members to join me in taking action?'

Reporters may also feel at personal risk or lack trust that their concerns will be addressed by officials, leaving them feeling despondent. Many other factors including social, economic and political context, societal hierarchies, previous experience with social and political interventions, time and perceived role in society are also likely to have influence.

Who will address their concerns?

Then there's the question of ensuring that whoever's receiving the reports, be it government, campaigners or charities, are willing and able to respond to reports coming in - a tough task in complex environments.

Somewhere between the hype and the cynicism, there are, perhaps, ways to amplify the voices of marginalised communities and ensure that their needs are met. At Indigo Trust, we spoke with some of our grantees to identify factors that can support this.

Use appropriate technology

In many developing countries smart phone penetration is low and using SMS may be best. Where language and literacy barriers are high, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) is one solution. Sometimes face-to-face interventions may be more appropriate.

The use of intermediaries

Intermediaries can be really helpful. Civil society groups or community activists speaking directly to citizens can submit reports on their behalf. They must be selected carefully or we risk excluding citizens who feel uncomfortable approaching them.

Adequate marketing

If citizens don't know a platform exists, we're fighting a losing battle. A low-tech approach using flyers and radio often works best. Civil society groups can also help spread the word.

Build in accountability mechanisms

For real impact, platforms must be managed by strong organisations and incorporated into well devised programmes that support better service delivery. Campaigners can analyse reports to identify systemic weaknesses and use the data as part of wider campaign strategies. Use of radio and other local media is key and making reports public can also help to increase social pressure.

Civil society can develop programmes which work with government to resolve service delivery issues or support citizens to do so. They can also integrate platforms into their own programming to better respond to the needs of communities and to monitor the real impacts of their programmes.

It's worth engaging with government and other service providers early and demonstrating a benefit to them. Cell Life has developed the Lungisa platform which enables citizens to report local service delivery issues in Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, South Africa. They've built a strong relationship with the City of Cape Town by demonstrating how the platform can enable them to respond more readily to citizens' needs and identify issues with subcontractors.

Understanding context is key. Interventions run entirely by or in strong partnership with local organisations are more likely to be successful, as they are better able to navigate local nuances and political structures and understand the public's needs.

Building confidence and trust with citizens and service providers

Building relationships of trust takes time and needs a strategic approach.

Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) have developed a platform which allows citizens to report challenges in local service delivery in Northern Uganda, a region where the Lord's Resistance Army conflict has left infrastructure and services in disarray. The local government were initially sceptical, but WOUGNET have provided them with training and are supporting them to address issues raised. They now see their role in helping them do their jobs better.

They're starting to see real impact. A new health centre has been constructed in Aloni Parish and they've ensured that health worker malpractice and corrupt practices in schools have been addressed.

Staying in close communication with reporters can help to build trust. It's worth focusing hard on getting some issues resolved early so that people have faith in the system. Training and ongoing support for reporters, intermediaries and service providers can also help build confidence.

To maximise success, funders should allow some flexibility to enable a more user-centred approach, which allows programme adaptation according to changing circumstances and need. It helps to remember the difficulties in scaling given the importance of local relationships and to use realistic payment schedules which enable timely delivery. Think beyond the ICT, judging applications more widely on change processes. Help make connections, be patient and allow for innovation. Give the small guys a chance by allowing for greater leniency in application procedures.

There won't be a one size fits all solution but it's my hope that in time, digital citizen feedback platforms will be used by passionate people with clear visions, which they're able to deliver on. In this way they can enable better decision making and help bring citizens closer to the authorities that govern them.

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If you'd like to learn more about the digital citizen feedback platforms described in this article, you can read this report, created by Indigo Trust: