10 Most Read Posts in 2013

Below is a selection of the 10 most read posts at DemocracySpot in 2013. Thanks to all of those who stopped by throughout the year, and happy 2014.

1. Does transparency lead to trust? Some evidence on the subject.

2. The Foundations of Motivation for Citizen Engagement

3. Open Government, Feedback Loops, and Semantic Extravaganza

4. Open Government and Democracy

5. What’s Wrong with e-Petitions and How to Fix them

6. Lawrence Lessig on Sortition and Citizen Participation

7. Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

8. The Effect of SMS on Participation: Evidence from Uganda

9. The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability

10. Lisbon Revisited: Notes on Participation

The Effect of SMS on Participation: Evidence from Uganda

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I’ve been wanting to post about this paper for a while. At the intersection of technology and citizen participation this is probably one of the best studies produced in 2013 and I’m surprised I haven’t heard a lot about it outside the scholarly circle.

One of the fundamental questions concerning the use of technology to foster participation is whether it impacts inclusiveness and, if it does, in what way. That is, if technology has an effect on participation, does it reinforce or minimize participation biases? There is no straightforward answer, and the limited existing evidence suggests that the impact of technology on inclusiveness depends on a number of factors such as technology fit, institutional design and communication efforts.

If the answer to the question is “it depends”, then the more studies looking at the subject, the more we refine our understanding of how it works, when and why. The study, “Does Information Technology Flatten Interest Articulation? Evidence from Uganda” (Grossman, Humphreys, & Sacramone-Lutz, 2013), is a great contribution in that sense. The abstract is below (highlights are mine):

We use a field experiment to study how the availability and cost of political communication channels affect the efforts constituents take to influence their representatives. We presented sampled constituents in Uganda with an opportunity to send a text-message to their representatives at one of three randomly assigned prices. This allows us to ascertain whether ICTs can “flatten” interest articulation and how access costs determine who communicates and what gets communicated to politicians. Critically, contrary to concerns that technological innovations benefit the privileged, we find that ICT leads to significant flattening: a greater share of marginalized populations use this channel compared to existing political communication channels. Price matters too, as free messaging increase uptake by about 50%. Surprisingly, subsidy-induced increases in uptake do not yield further flattening since free channels are used at higher rates by both marginalized and well-connected constituents. More subtle strategic hypotheses find little support in the data.

But even if the question of “who participates” is answered in this paper, one is left wondering “as to what effect?”. Fortunately, the authors mention in a footnote that they are collecting data for a companion paper in which they focus on the behavior of MPs, which will hopefully address this issue. Looking forward to reading that one as well.


Also read

Mobile phones and SMS: some data on inclusiveness 

Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

Mobile Connectivity in Africa: Increasing the Likelihood of Violence?

Mobile Connectivity in Africa: Increasing the Likelihood of Violence?

Regarding the above picture of DRC government troops with their mobile phones, Alexis Madrigal from the Atlatinc wrote in his column last year:

I don’t know what to say about this photograph aside from suggesting that an enterprising PhD student write a dissertation on “Cell Phones in War.” How are fighting, killing, and controlling territory different when you can call your brother after battle, post a photo of your squadron on the march to Facebook, or play Angry Birds between skirmishes?

Part of the answer to Alexis’ question comes in a newly published article in the American Political Science Review by postdoctoral fellow Jan Pierskalla and PhD candidate Florian Hollenbach (ht the Monkey Cage).

In a nutshell, the authors’ findings suggest that cell phone coverage in Africa increases the likelihood of political violence. The abstract is below:

The spread of cell phone technology across Africa has transforming effects on the economic and political sphere of the continent. In this paper, we investigate the impact of cell phone technology on violent collective action. We contend that the availability of cell phones as a communication technology allows political groups to overcome collective action problems more easily and improve in-group cooperation, and coordination. Utilizing novel, spatially disaggregated data on cell phone coverage and the location of organized violent events in Africa, we are able to show that the availability of cell phone coverage significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict. Our findings hold across numerous different model specifications and robustness checks, including cross-sectional models, instrumental variable techniques, and panel data methods.

It will be interesting to see how this paper resonates with different audiences, such as the ICT4D community and political scientists. Some have already started to question the methodology and underlying assumptions in the paper.

But despite the findings of this study, like it or not, at some point technology cheerleaders will have to come to terms with a simple fact: if technology helps us overcome problems of collective action, there’s no reason to believe that this can only happen when it comes to virtuous collective action. And it shouldn’t take a PhD to know that.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

Mobile Phones and Gender Inequality: Can We Hear Her Now?

While the growth of mobile phones is undeniably impressive, when we look at issues more closely, mobile phones are far from being the panacea that some purport it to be. This master thesis [PDF] by Kari Mackey adds to a literature that examines the relationship between mobile phones and gender inequality. 

Here’s the abstract: 

Are mobile phones the best vehicle for reducing gender inequality in the developing world? ICT experts champion the use of mobile phones to improve women’s lives, and various stakeholders have invested millions of dollars to launch mobile phone programs for women. Yet, given high female illiteracy rates, patriarchal societies, and other structural and cultural barriers in developing countries, many scholars contend that limited access to ICTs can perpetuate gender inequality. Rooted in the theory that women’s empowerment and equality are inseparable and necessary components for the realization of sustainable economic and social development, this paper aims to determine if stakeholders are jumping on the mobile phone bandwagon too soon by using a multivariate regression of cross national data to demonstrate whether or not mobile phones fall short of advancing women at the same rate that men develop.

And a snapshot from the conclusion: 

According to this study, mobile phones alone are not enough to reduce gender inequality. In fact, there appears to be no relationship between mobile phones and gender inequality, or one particular vehicle that is shown to be best at closing the gender gap. Rather there seems to be various moving parts working in unison. While increasing women’s literacy, reducing religious favoritism, and strengthening democracy are demonstrated by this study to be statistically significant contributors to greater gender equality, this research was limited in scope. There are 40 surely other variables out there, such as cultural attitudes, affecting gender inequality that have yet to be put through the rigorous test of statistical analysis. In order to determine what they are, it is clear that better data and additional scholarship are needed.

Trac FM – Monitoring Service Delivery

The Indigo Trust has awarded a grant of €13,500 to TRAC.fm to expand the network of organisations that use its data collection software to inform their social campaigns.

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Trac FM provides radio stations in Africa with software and support to involve their listeners in reporting on failing governments services through SMS. Through Trac FM’s online interface, radio presenters get a clear and instant overview of SMS-poll results which they present to listeners during radio debates. Stations invite local leaders to comment on collected data and Trac FM makes sure data reaches responsible authorities. Trac FM wants people to be part of the running of their society and provide them with a platform to participate and discuss policy issues in an accessible and objective way.

Interesting initiative. Would be interested in finding out whether they measure their impact on service delivery and, if so, how.

ITU releases latest global technology development figures

The ITU released its latest numbers on global technology development. Here’s a snapshot of some of them:

ICT Facts and Figures report predicts that there will soon be as many mobile-cellular subscriptions as people inhabiting the planet, with the figure set to nudge past the seven billion mark early in 2014. More than half of all mobile subscriptions are now in Asia, which remains the powerhouse of market growth, and by the end of 2013 overall mobile penetration rates will have reached 96% globally, 128% in the developed world, and 89% in developing countries.With many markets saturated, and penetration at over 100% in four of the six ITU world regions, mobile-cellular uptake is already slowing substantially, with growth rates falling to their lowest levels ever in both the developed and developing worlds.

ITU estimates that 2.7 billion people – or 39% of the world’s population – will be using the Internet by end 2013.

Internet access, however, will remain limited in the developing world, with only 31% of the population forecast to be online at the end of 2013, compared with 77% in the developed world. Europe will remain the world’s most connected region with 75% Internet penetration, largely outpacing Asia and the Pacific (32%) and Africa (16%).

Household Internet penetration – often considered the most important measure of Internet access – continues to rise. By end 2013, ITU estimates that 41% of the world’s households will be connected to the Internet.

Over the past four years, household access has grown fastest in Africa, with an annual growth rate of 27%. But despite a positive general trend, 90% of the 1.1 billion households around the world that are still unconnected are in the developing world.

Gender Gap

The report also reveals for the first time global figures on the number of women (1.3 billion) and men (1.5 billion) using the Internet. The figures represent 37% of all women, compared with 41% of all men – but the gender gap is more pronounced in the developing world, where 16% fewer women than men use the Internet, compared with only 2% fewer women than men in the developed world. However, despite the disparities, the gender gap continues to close, with access to mobile technology increasingly within reach of women worldwide.

The full report can be accessed here [PDF].


High-Frequency Data Using Mobile Phones: Incentives and Accountability

Great research note  [PDF] by Croke et al. (2012). Here’s the abstract:

As mobile phone ownership rates have risen dramatically in Africa, there has been increased interest in using mobile telephones as a data collection platform. This note draws on two largely successful pilot projects in Tanzania and South Sudan that used mobile phones for high-frequency data collection. Data were collected on a wide range of topics and in a manner that was cost-effective, flexible, and rapid. Once households were included in the survey, they tended to stick with it: respondent fatigue has not been a major issue. While attrition and nonresponse have been challenges in the Tanzania survey, these were due to design flaws in that particular survey, challenges that can be avoided in future similar projects. Ensuring use of the data to demand better service delivery and policy decisions turned out to be as challenging as collecting the high-quality data. Experiences in Tanzania suggest that good data can be translated into public accountability, but also demonstrate that just putting data out in the public domain is not enough. This note discusses lessons learned and offers suggestions for future applications of mobile phone surveys in developing countries, such as those planned for the World Bank’s “Listening to Africa” initiative.

Of particular interest to me is the fact that part of the design used financial incentives as a means to reduce nonresponse and attrition rates. In the technology and development world there has been lots of talk about “incentives to participate”, where the practical shortcut is often the provision of financial incentives. In Tanzania, for instance, the authors report that “respondents who successfully completed an interview were rewarded with an amount varying from $2 to $4″, not a negligible sum in the Tanzanian context.

Interestingly, in the working paper [PDF] from which this note is drawn, a footnote sheds some light on how effective these rewards were:

Remarkably in both Sudan and Tanzania the amount of the reward did not have a discernable impact on response rates.

But these findings are not as surprising as they may seem. Indeed, there is a good deal of evidence from behavioural economics pointing out that financial incentives might not work as well as traditional economics (and economists) would predict.

And a noteworthy excerpt on the limits of transparency and the role of existing institutions and actors:

One lesson is that  providing citizens with relevant, timely, and accurate data  about the actions of politicians, policy makers, and public service providers is not sufficient. For the data to have impact, they need to be accessible and disseminated widely, and in ways that allow them to be utilized by already existing institutions and actors.

This is an interesting point, although I am not sure to what extent existing institutions are enough. In the field of technology and governance, I believe that it has become quite clear that very little is achieved when technological solutions are not coupled with institutional innovations.

But that’s another story. In any case, a great read, and the type of effort that is badly needed in this space.

‘Where’s my wife?’ Electronic SMS tracker notifies Saudi husbands


For the uncritical cheerleaders of the “mobile revolution”:

Denied the right to travel without consent from their male guardians and banned from driving, women in Saudi Arabia are now monitored by an electronic system that tracks any cross-border movements.

Since last week, Saudi women’s male guardians began receiving text messages on their phones informing them when women under their custody leave the country, even if they are travelling together.
Manal al-Sherif, who became the symbol of a campaign launched last year urging Saudi women to defy a driving ban, began spreading the information on Twitter, after she was alerted by a couple.

Read the full story here.

Mobile phones and SMS: some data on inclusiveness

I just came across some interesting analysis in a study about SMS usage among low-income populations in Asia, by Juhee Kang (Michigan State University)  and Moutusy Maity (Indian Institute of Management Lucknow). The study uses data collected through a survey conducted in 2011 with 9,066 low-income mobile phone users (bottom of the pyramid) from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Picture by juicyrai on flickr.

Some of the numbers provided should serve as a reminder that having a mobile phone does not necessarily mean that a person uses SMS. In other words, if you think your project is inclusive “because it uses SMS” and “nearly everybody has a mobile phone”, think twice: there’s a chance your project is not as inclusive as you’d like to think.

A few excerpts from “Texting among the Bottom of the Pyramid: Facilitators and Barriers to SMS Use among the Low-income Mobile Users in Asia”:

Of the total 9,066 respondents, 54.3 percent own a personal mobile phone (N=4926).

Approximately thirty two percent (32.2%) of the mobile owners have ever used SMS.

While the distribution of the users is similar between urban and rural, it was found that a large proportion
of the non-users live in rural areas (73%).

The reported daily income was higher among the users (USD2.88, SD=2.80) than among the non-users (USD 1.51, SD=2.58).

The non-users tend to have lower education as 83 percent of the non-users had only primary schooling or no formal education.

The users also have a higher level of access to other media such as TV, radio and personal computers than the non-users.

And some sobering conclusions that development practitioners should bear in mind:

We argue that the quantity of mobile phones in the Global South does not automatically translate into the high quality impact of mobile communication. In fact, the path between mobile access and developmental impact seems to consist of multiple stages of mobile service adoption and utilisation. While many development practitioners currently make positive assessments about the growing penetration of mobile phones in developing countries, it is still uncertain how these mobile phones can bring positive benefits to the poor, and what types of services can lead to socioeconomic development.

Making a mere provision of information via SMS may not reach the mobile owners who use mobile phones mainly for voice calls, in particular the poorest and the least educated of the poor. The study found that the barriers to SMS adoption are beyond the issues of affordability and literacy and the problem lies in the current limitations on usability and the lack of familiarity with text-based communications.

You can read the full study here [PDF].