Three New Papers (and a presentation) on Civic Tech


This blog has been slow lately, but as I mentioned before, it is for a good cause. With some great colleagues I’ve been working on a series of papers (and a book) on civic technology. The first three of these papers are out. There is much more to come, but in the meantime, you can find below the abstracts and link to each of the papers. I also add the link to a presentation which highlights some other issues that we are looking at.

  • Effects of the Internet on Participation: Study of a Public Policy Referendum in Brazil.

Does online voting mobilize citizens who otherwise would not participate? During the annual participatory budgeting vote in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil – the world’s largest – Internet voters were asked whether they would have participated had there not been an online voting option (i-voting). The study documents an 8.2 percent increase in total turnout with the introduction of i-voting. In support of the mobilization hypothesis, unique survey data show that i-voting is mainly used by new participants rather than just for convenience by those who were already mobilized. The study also finds that age, gender, income, education, and social media usage are significant predictors of being online-only voters. Technology appears more likely to engage people who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users.

Read more here.

  • The Effect of Government Responsiveness on Future Political Participation.

What effect does government responsiveness have on political participation? Since the 1940s political scientists have used attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy to explain participation. More recent work has focused on underlying genetic factors that condition citizen engagement. We develop a ‘Calculus of Participation’ that incorporates objective efficacy – the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact – and test the model against behavioral data from (n=399,364). We find that a successful first experience using (e.g. reporting a pothole and having it fixed) is associated with a 54 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report. We also show that the experience of government responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of government responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry, while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.

Read more here.

  • Do Mobile Phone Surveys Work in Poor Countries? 

In this project, we analyzed whether mobile phone-based surveys are a feasible and cost-effective approach for gathering statistically representative information in four low-income countries (Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe). Specifically, we focused on three primary research questions. First, can the mobile phone survey platform reach a nationally representative sample? Second, to what extent does linguistic fractionalization affect the ability to produce a representative sample? Third, how effectively does monetary compensation impact survey completion patterns? We find that samples from countries with higher mobile penetration rates more closely resembled the actual population. After weighting on demographic variables, sample imprecision was a challenge in the two lower feasibility countries (Ethiopia and Mozambique) with a sampling error of /- 5 to 7 percent, while Zimbabwe’s estimates were more precise (sampling error of /- 2.8 percent). Surveys performed reasonably well in reaching poor demographics, especially in Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. Rural women were consistently under-represented in the country samples, especially in Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Countries’ linguistic fractionalization may influence the ability to obtain nationally representative samples, although a material effect was difficult to discern through penetration rates and market composition. Although the experimentation design of the incentive compensation plan was compromised in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, it seems that offering compensation for survey completion mitigated attrition rates in several of the pilot countries while not reducing overall costs. These effects varied across countries and cultural settings.

Read more here.

  • The haves and the have nots: is civic tech impacting the people who need it most? (presentation) 

Read more here.

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 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].