E-Government vs. E-Governance in Sri Lanka – A place for Web 2.0 and mobiles?

An article on the future of e-government from the US proclaims that Web 2.0 will “transform service delivery, make smarter policies, flatten silos and, most importantly, reinvigorate democracy” and facilitate a shift “from monolithic government agencies to pluralistic, networked governance Webs that fuse the knowledge, skills and resources of the masses.”

Phew!

There are undoubtably great examples of e-government working meaningfully to empower citizens (and even non citizens). Two diverse examples are the British Government e-petition service and the US Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) blog, Evolution of Security. The British Government’s e-petition service statistics are interesting:

  • Over 29,000 petitions have been submitted, of which over 8,500 are currently live and available for signing, over 6,000 have finished and 14,601 have been rejected outright.
  • There have been over 5.8 million signatures, originating from over 3.9 million different email addresses.

In Sri Lanka however, e-gov remains just a great idea.

The only e-gov website I’ve personally used is that of the Department of Immigration and Emigration to renew my passport. Of the others, the less said the better. The Government of Sri Lanka Official Web Portal is a rather sad affair. The standard of English across the site is atrocious – but I’ll let that pass (try reading their “Descliamer” (sic)). E-Gov in Sri Lanka should after all be tailored first to the needs of those who speak Sinhala and Tamil. But tellingly, the site is only available in Sinhala and English – so much for constitutionally guaranteed language rights!

Worse, the site is replete with bad links and erroneous information. Try for example clicking on Disasters and Emergencies. . The NGO link has a hilarious misspelling (or maybe it was deliberate). The Health and Nutrition section has a link to yet another portal (a portal linking to a portal – and I thought e-gov was about efficiency?) which does not work. And just check out the link to Traditional Medicines of Sri Lanka (even though there actually is a Department of Ayurveda that the portal is blissfully unaware of). The list goes on. Sadly, the most useful website of them all – that of the Government Information Centre – is hidden behind a button called GIC – 1919, which makes sense only after you know what 1919 and GIC stands for. You know there’s something seriously wrong with e-gov when the humanitarian section of official website of the President of Sri Lanka has only a single mention of a human (though one wonders whether the person mentioned also fell into the animal welfare directives of the Mahinda Chintana).

In sum, e-gov in Sri Lanka is a mirror image of government – it simply does not work as it should. The problem here is one that Anthony Williams points to as well. “Single-window services constitute one-way information flows to the citizen. In today’s social-media environment, these one-way conversations fail to build credibility and trust in government. More importantly, they fail to harness the knowledge, skills and resources that could be tapped by government by using a more collaborative approach to service delivery and policy-making.”

The question then arises as to whether governments are really interested in this kind of two-way conversation with its citizens or indeed have the capacity (human, technical and financial) to moderate and fuel such discussions all the official languages of a country. Sri Lanka’s regime certainly isn’t. There’s simply no political will to create, to sustain and act upon any information that embarrass the incumbent regime. Forget about “G-Webs” as Anthony calls them – in Sri Lanka e-gov will only ever be a one way, top down, static website driven monologue. It’s always about “delivery” but never about feedback, participatory decision making, transparency or accountability – never mind what ICTA and the World Bank would have us believe.

Why for example is it that the monumental corruption in government as brought out by the COPE Reports fail to register on the Official Website of the Government of Sri Lanka? Try searching for “Cope Reports” and the answer is revealing. (Confusingly, Official Website of the Government of Sri Lanka is not the same as the Government of Sri Lanka Official Web Portal – so much for non-duplication of services).

I guess over 2 billion rupees lost to corruption in Government is really outside the remit of e-gov, save for the website of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (which also does not operate in Tamil). Mind you, this is the same government that then has the gall to accuse of NGOs of non-transparency and financial mismanagement.

From the non-functional and dysfunctional to the blatantly racist, Sri Lanka’s so called e-gov framework is a mess that does not in any way hold government more responsive, accountable and transparent to citizens.

As Anthony points out, “You can’t expect radical change too fast. Governments are large, complex beasts subject to a number of constraints. In fact, the institutions of democratic government were deliberately designed to induce stability and prevent radical change. Stability can be quite healthy, but implementing change is difficult and onerous when deep and resilient traditions combine to frustrate progress.”   

While I agree, what’s missing here is an emphasis on governance and how ICTs can help strengthen it in contra-distinction to e-government. Citizens can now use a range of methods – from mobile phones to digital cameras – to document the litany of grievances with regards to illiberal governance. From capturing the many aspects of corruption to the lackadaisical attitudes of local government authorities that for example result in garbage that’s uncollected for days on end, ICTs allow civil society hold government and non-governmental bodies accountable even when they are themselves unable and unwilling to do so.

Key ideas in this regard could be:

The elephant in the room however is the political will necessary to support and act upon information generated by these mechanisms. Governments, not NGOs, are primarily responsible for the well-being of citizens. As Anthony notes, “It’s about political will and a willingness to be open and to incorporate feedback and put it into practice. At the same time, digital communications make geography less relevant and reinforce the need to open up the policy-making process to global participation. Governments that choose not to open up or those that fail to foster active participation in governance will eventually lose legitimacy and authority.”

Has e-gov in Sri Lanka made government or governance better? Is it not the case that most of the strategies employed by ICTA for e-gov are doomed to failure, even if no one in it, for obvious reasons can or will acknowledge it? Can e-gov mechanisms really succeed or stand any chance of success when you have thugs in government running amok, a culture of impunity, the breakdown in the rule of law and massive levels of corruption with absolutely nothing citizens can do through current e-gov mechanisms to address these issues?

More effective, meaningful and sustainable solutions to our growing democratic deficit lie in exploring ways through which ICTs, including mobile phones, can help empower citizen centric governance mechanisms. It’s possibly the case that government and governmental agencies will be deeply suspicious of or even actively hostile to such measures. But as Anthony succinctly notes, “Governments can either be active participants in this process or unwilling bystanders.”

Watch this space.

UPDATED – 14th April 2008

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) confirms that South Asia remains far below the world average and is the lowest ranking region in Asia when it comes to e-government. Sri Lanka in fact has slipped in the UN DESA e-gov rankings, from 94 in 2005 to 101 in 2008 amongst the countries surveyed.

Download the report here.

ICT4Peace in 2007: Significant work, applied research and challenges

It’s been an bloody eventful year, literally and metaphorically.

Sri Lanka’s war escalated dramatically over the course of the year, with the LTTE suffering significantly at the hand of a Government hell-bent on its complete destruction. The timbre of democracy in Sri Lanka took many blows, not just through the erosion of human rights and the exacerbation of humanitarian crises in the embattled North and East of Sri Lanka, but also through the continuing unconstitutional rule of the present regime. Demonstrating a racism and rabid intolerance mirroring that of the LTTE, the regime in the South displayed a totalitarian bent that in living memory was the worst it has been for democratic governance in Government controlled areas in Sri Lanka.

Work on ICT4Peace was placed against this sombre backdrop. Clearly, though we established significant markers in ICT4Peace writ large, the continuing violence, anxiety, insecurity and war means that there is very little to celebrate. I am convinced however, as never before, that ICTs can make an impact in a number of ways despite the rise of violence.

Human Rights Monitoring, Reporting and Advocacy

Key in this regard is a Human Rights Monitoring, Reporting and Advocacy platform for two leading human rights NGOs in Sri Lanka that InfoShare designed and developing using HURIDOCS. When I first met a representative of HURIDOCS in Geneva in 2007 and told him about the system, his first response was how we had managed to create a world-class system without even one single questions asked of them. Clearly, they were impressed.

Strategically, the system came at a useful time for the two organisations currently actively using it (in addition to other HR consortia interested in using it for their work in SL). The Sri Lankan government’s placement of extremely sharp and loquacious experts of spin and counter-propaganda to man its key High Commissions (Switzerland) and diplomatic fronts (SCOPP) posed a severe challenge to even leading HR advocacy groups in Sri Lanka. These organisations were good at international lobbying and HR advocacy, but unused to collecting, recording, storing and disseminating HR violation in a systematic manner, which meant that what they produced and released in the public domain was mercilessly decimated by the Government spin doctors as partial, inaccurate and untrue.

Moving away from the collection of records from, in some cases, Microsoft Word and Excel, into the highly structured and comprehensive HURIDOCS standard was more of a organisational challenge than technical, as is always the case with most ICTs introduced to the NGO sector to augment their work. Adequate training had to be given and human resources considerably strengthened in order to use the system, which over the coming years we hope will set a local and international standard for strong HR monitoring and advocacy.

Our human rights system features:

  • Web based interface: The world’s first fully web based Human Rights monitoring and reporting system. The database will run on Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, ensuring the highest accessibility and a system highly resilient to changes and upgrades in operating systems.
  • Admin interface: This consists of a full implementation of the internationally recognised HURIDOCS data gathering/interpretation system with a full-featured data management interface with which organisations can enter, edit and manage human rights information.
  • Public advocacy website: This is equipped with charts, GIS maps and reports for data analysis as well as functionality to manage publications, articles and news related to human rights issues.
  • Multiple user access levels that define whether a user can view public information, view confidential information, modify information or site settings. This enables organisations to give selective access to the data management interface to individuals and partners that they may wish to bring into future monitoring work. Further, this enables any partner anywhere in Sri Lanka or abroad enter data directly into the system that organisations can then verify and approve for publication.
  • UNICODE standards based data entry: For person names and place names, the system includes extra fields to enter the same names in Sinhala and/or Tamil. Unicode text is used to make these fields searchable.
  • Data export formats: currently exports to CSV, an industry cross-platform standard that enables users to view information on Excel or any other spreadsheet programme on any operating system
  • RSS feeds of all new and updated content that enables critical updates of human rights to be accessed via email, SMS, mobile phone, PDA or newsreaders
  • Automated periodic (day end/weekly/monthly) situation reports, available on the website as an archive and also available as an RSS feed.
  • Database backup: the data on the server will be automatically backed up daily.
  • Security: SSL will secure all data being transmitted between the user’s computer and the server.
  • Browser compliance: all features are supported on Mozilla Firefox 2, Internet Explorer 6 Service Pack 2, and Internet Explorer 7.
  • Over the wire and on-disk industry grade encryption and data security.

Fully complaint and backwards compatible with HURIDOC’s own (ageing) WinEvSys, our system is several generations ahead of it. We have planned an exciting range of features, from full mobile and PDA integration to advanced data visualisation including GIS that we will progressively build on to the system. I worked closely on the design and development of this system and am looking forward to its evolution.

Citizen journalism and New Media – Groundviews

Groundviews

Groundviews, launched in November 2006, came to be recognised over the course of 2007 as a site for original and path-breaking content on Sri Lanka. The site went on to win the first international award any civil society web based initiative / site has won in Sri Lanka an award of excellence in new communications conferred by the Society for New Communications Research.

SNCR Award

The content featured on the site over 2007 has responded to key events and processes in Sri Lanka with content that, on occasion, would not have been published in traditional media. Ground reports from the embattled North and East were useful foils to critically appreciate traditional media reports and propaganda on the war. Leading news and information websites such as TamilCanadian News, InfoLanka, Colombopage, Global Voices Online and numerous other blogs and websites, both local and international, now regularly link to the site.

Over the course of the year, Groundviews took on the malpractices of traditional media, web censorship, compelling perspectives of life in the midst of conflict, legal and political analyses, articles that critically analysed disaster response mechanisms and frameworks, issues such as the case of Rizana in Saudi Arabia that were largely ignored, at the time, in traditional media and on a number of occasions had to deal with the challenges posed by trolls and other miscreants.

In addition to this, Groundviews digitised and uploaded as well as archived and featured progressive videos on war and peace in Sri Lanka and fully incorporated Facebook into the website (to my knowledge, the first citizen journalism initaitive in the world to begin a Facebook Fan Page as an extension of the main site).

As of today, Groundviews on average gets around 20,000 pages views a month and around 700 page views a day (click here for more stats on the website and its readership).

Citizen journalism and New Media – Vikalpa, Vikalpa YouTube Channel and VOR Radio

Vikalpa

Vikalpa was launched in 2007 to address the need for citizen journalism content in Sinhala and Tamil that critiqued the status quo. Even though Groundviews was and still is a place for tri-lingual content, much of the submissions came to me in English and I didn’t have the time to actively elicit and / or create content in the vernacular from the field.

With ICTA and UNESCO funding, Vikalpa started to generate content from the field on issues related to Groundviews but with an emphasis on the vernacular.

Vikalpa, which is run and edited by a team of two at CPA that I helped train in citizen journalism basics, has developed its own identity. Wholly based on UNICODE standards, that to date poses some problems with input of Sinhala to the site, Vikalpa nevertheless generates around 600 pageviews a day, which is incredible given what I thought (wrongly) would be the more limited audience of web users interested in alternative news and information in the vernacular (Sinhala / Tamil).

Vikalpa is the first and to date only CJ website in Sri Lanka that produces content in Sinhala and Tamil, including audio and video.

Vikalpa Video

To this end, though not yet officially launched, the Vikalpa YouTube Channel was a pathbreaking exercise. Exclusively using the Nokia N93i (as an experiment to challenge ourselves to take mobile phone based news gathering to the limit) the channel was in the 3rd week of December ranked in the top 100 list of Directors on YouTube (ranked #82) for a video we uploaded that featured perspectives of the embattled city of Jaffna in Sinhala, that alone was viewed over 4,000 times. The channel itself has been viewed over 1,300 times since we created it, with many videos featured in it viewed hundreds of times.

Again, I was proved wrong on just how much of an audience there is for CJ content critically analysing war and peace in Sinhala and Tamil.

VOR Radio

Voices of Reconciliation Radio (VOR Radio, Sri Lanka’s first and only civil society podcast website, was strengthened in 2007 over a hundred hours of programming, largely in Sinhala and Tamil, of content that explored social, political, economic, cultural and religious issues across all communities, ethnicities in Sri Lanka, including many voices and podcasts from communities in the East and North of Sri Lanka.

Notable in this regard was full selection of recordings from the first Women’s Tribunal in Sri Lanka on 25th November 2007, that includes deeply moving and compelling personal narratives of violence against women (click here and select November 2007 from the drop down list to get a list of all the podcasts).

Work with the ICT4Peace Foundation: ICT4Peace internationally

ICT4Peace Foundation

In my capacity as Special Advisor to the ICT4Peace Foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland, I was part of several interesting meetings over the course of the year culminating in the launch of the ICT4Peace: An International Process for Conflict Management at the United Nations in New York on 15th November 2007.

I penned a brief write-up of this event for the PeaceIT! magazine put out by the Crisis Management Initiative. A full list of documents on this process, including the report of the event, can be found on the ICT4Peace Foundation’s website here.

In addition to this, I also made a submission on behalf of the Foundation at the United Nations OCHA +5 Symposium held in Geneva in October 2007.

The Foundation also launched in 2007 the web’s first wiki that catalogues real world examples and applied research of ICT4Peace.

Publications and writing on ICT4Peace, New Media and Citizen Journalism

I wrote far more in 2007 to web and traditional media, as well as chapters to books, than I did in 2006. Most of my writing, that can be found on this blog, Groundviews as well as on my personal blog, were written as personal responses to and critiques on the situation in Sri Lanka.

Of my writing on ICT4Peace per se, the most notable submissions were:

Other significant developments and writing related to ICT4Peace, New Media and Citizen Journalism

So what?

I’m often asked what all this means. My response is simple. As noted at the beginning of the post, despite the increase in violence domestically, Groundviews, Vikalpa and VOR Radio in particular, but also the burgeoning Sri Lankan blogosphere in general offer a range of rich and varied perspectives on democracy, peace and war in Sri Lanka.

Some of the voices for example featured on VOR Radio are now no longer with us. The perspectives on Groundviews have engendered discussions and greater awareness on issues that traditional media has only managed to cover through stereotypes. Vikalpa has exposed little known facts of life even in Colombo, such as the existence of high security zones within the University of Colombo.

As I note in my article on citizens journalism on Madrid11:

There is no guarantee that Groundviews will foster a new social movement in support of peace. There is no guarantee it will secure peace, in any greater degree, on the ground and in the north and east of Sri Lanka, where it is needed most. There is no guarantee that hate speech will not take over the timbre of online debate. The more Groundviews is successful in fostering new voices in support of peace, the more it will become a target of concerted attacks to prevent its growth.

And it is here that our greatest challenge lies. Not in the technology itself, but in the creation of a social and political movement – one fostered by citizen journalism mediated through new media and new technology – that is able to maintain, in some small way, the hope of a just and lasting peace in Sri Lanka.

This hope fuels Groundviews, not as a simplistic magic bullet against terrorism, but as an increasingly important vehicle for ordinary citizens to record their views in support of democracy as the only way through which terrorism can be effectively combated.

Challenges

One of the greatest challenges I’ve had to deal with this year has been in responding to the significant challenge of trolls and hate speech online. Two spikes of hate speech and trolling on Groundviews – one for around 2 to 3 months in early 2007 and the other, ongoing at the time I write this and after our award, suggest that with every expansion of the sites to new audiences brings with it a share of new trolls and anonymous commentators who seek to use the fora to promote their own blinkered viewpoints that they parade as patriotic. This despite clearly stated guidelines for submissions and the tone of manner of discussion.

Editing and deleting these comments invariably brings the argument by those who have little tolerance for its otherwise (see comments in response to this post), that the sites flagrantly violate the freedom of expression.

Some of the trolls started their own blog posts to name and shame the sites and one other, most recently (and hilariously, I think) started his own blog for posts and comments rejected from Groundviews.

On the one hand, this demonstrates the high visibility and veracity our citizen journalism sites command locally and internationally, in English as well as in the vernacular. A comment or post on any of the CJ sites we’ve created is guaranteed more visibility than a personal blog. This is its own attraction for those trolls.

On the other, I’ve often had to make judgement calls, based on the guidelines and also on what I feel a particular post or comment may engender in subsequent comments and submissions. All of the posts on Groundviews deal with highly emotive and divisive issues, more so in light of the widening, violent disconnect between pro-democracy NGOs (and the public writings of those working in or associated with them) and the larger polity and society in the Sinhala South (and their counterparts amongst the diaspora, who often tend to be more rabid, intolerant and insufferable).

It’s been tremendously challenging to edit Groundviews in particular (and the other sites less frequently) because I’ve had to continuously weigh personal threats to self and family that come in the form of comments and emails against the need to keep the forums as open as possible to content that may rile the pseudo-nationalists and patriots, but are viewpoints that need to be features precisely because they are being erased apace in traditional and other media in Sri Lanka.

The most challenging comments however are those that may be overwhelmingly spiteful, but carry an essence of truth in them that if only the person could articulate sans the viciousness, would be genuinely useful to further debate. Interestingly, efforts to communicate with those who communicate in such a manner have on occasion proved fruitful. One case is with someone called Justmal, who made some rabid comments earlier in the year against me personally and others published on Groundviews, but over time, has demonstrated a marked ability to engage intelligently with the content therein.

On balance, I think that moderated fora work better than unmoderated discussion spaces. The lessons from Moju were well learnt in this regard, even though the challenge of moderating is quite honestly extremely draining with little that comes in the way of thanks save for the content I’ve engendered that serves as a vital record and archive of discussions for posterity.

Final thoughts

ICT4Peace, a field that since 2003 I’ve worked hard to define through applied research and practice, came of age in 2007. Through the work of the ICT4Peace Foundation at the international policy level and my own, more humble efforts in Sri Lanka within violent conflict, I think the acronym and what is means and stands for is now part and parcel of the debates on conflict resolution, Online Dispute Resolution, SSTR, civilian-military relations, crisis management and humanitarian aid.

I’m looking forward to 2008 to consolidate this appreciation of ICT4Peace.

Nokia N93i and Citizen Journalism in Sri Lanka

Vikalpa YouTube Channel

Reading Reuters/Nokia Collaboration Has Potential for Citizen Journalists on MobileActive echoed what I’m currently facilitating in Sri Lanka with the help of the CPA Media Unit.

We are using a Nokia N93i phone to capture content that is feeding into Sri Lanka’s first citizen journalism YouTube channel, the Vikalpa YouTube Video Channel. The channel will be formally launched in the near future with more content added online.

Vikalpa, the first and only vernacular citizen journalism initiative in Sri Lanka to date, follows Groundviews, launched late in 2006, that was Sri Lanka’s first ever citizen journalism initiative.

Coupled with VOR Radio, we want to explore ways through which digital media and mobile devices such as the N-series Nokia phones with their built in mobile blogging, multimedia, wireless and video editing features can be used to strengthen the voice of citizens in support of democratic governance, human rights and peace.