Open Government: What does it really mean?

open government sort of means anything - Sudden Clarity Clarence

I have been researching open government schemes in recent weeks, specifically the way in which open government and open data is reported in the media. While I was perusing The Reboot website (HT @dalgoso) I came across a cracking blog post titled ‘Is Open Government Working?‘ It’s all worth reading but I was particularly interested by the following extract:

Part of the problem is the woolly, shifting definition of “open government,” which now seems to encompass any ‘innovative’ use of technology by the public sector. We need greater precision in our use of language. Are we trying to make public agencies more efficient, hold elected officials to account, tackle corruption, influence policy, or achieve any number of other objectives that fall under the open government umbrella?

I have been compiling examples of reporting on all things ‘open’ for weeks. Reading this gave me one of those rushes of recognition – I knew this already but I hadn’t put words to it yet. What I was reading time and time again were vague reports that are really about people talking about open government or open data, not really engaging with any of the data and making use of it. Coverage is rhetoric heavy – as one paper points out, that’s because of how ideologically constructed the ‘open movement’ is – and pretty thin on substance. This could well be because the entire concept of the ‘movement’ is way too vague to be useful.

I have read some supporters of the open movement who stress that the broadness of their interests is a strength: being encompassing allows different people to work together to create something really excellent. While this a noble aim, perhaps the lack of direction is holding back the real application of the open principles. It’s no good getting a bunch of data out there if nobody knows what they’re supposed to do with it.

Partisanship & Transparency: A modern lesson

“I have always had a propensity to justify my action. Not to defend. To justify. Not to insist that I was right but simply to explain that there was no perverse intention, no secret scorn for the natural sensibilities of mankind at the bottom of my impulses.” Joseph Conrad

The NSA leak scandal is rumbling on and the critics of Edward Snowden and the revelations in general seem to have begun to land some blows. They are also rather catty – Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker sneeringly referred to Snowden as a “grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” The man is a criminal, fully aware of the illegality of his actions, unlike Obama and the NSA who have committed no crimes – that seems to be the counter-narrative to this story. It is also one that, full disclosure, I don’t buy into. In the words of John Oliver on The Daily Show, “we’re not saying anyone broke any laws, we’re just saying it’s a little bit weird that you didn’t have to.”

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who has broken most of the major stories, yesterday released a rather tetchy article responding to these critics, describing them as ‘partisan’ Democrat pundits and more or less accusing them of hypocrisy. It seems to me that Greenwald, while being a little angry at the criticism, was merely trying to clarify his positions – justifying, not defending.

While the whole scandal is interesting I want to look at the question of partisanship. Greenwald has been described as untrustworthy as a journalist because of his open political agenda. He identifies Obama-ite Democrats as the most rabidly critical of his exposure of the NSA programmes in question – they’re only attacking the leaks because they hurt the President. NYU Professor Jay Rosen’s piece on the matter addresses the issue of partisanship in the media, making a distinction between neutrality or opinion in journalism as different types of persuasive techniques:

Politics: none is what most of the editors and reporters at the Washington Post practice and preach. (But not all.) It is not the natural, inevitable or “right” way to do journalism, but rather a form of persuasion in which journalists try to get us to accept their account of the way things are by foreswearing any political commitment, avoiding overt displays of opinion, and eluding strong conclusions via quotation or summary of competing arguments.

Of course they also try to persuade us by pointing to irrefutable facts, uncovering new information, and being accurate, truthful and fair, but this does not distinguish them from…

Politics: some is what the journalists at the Guardian practice and preach. It is not the natural or inevitable way to do journalism, but a form of persuasion in which journalists try to get us to accept their account by being up front about their commitments, grounding their freely-expressed opinions in fact, and arriving at conclusions through the sound conduct of public argument.

Later he goes on to describe ‘politics: some’ journalists as ones who are compelled to embrace the principles of transparency in their work. This is an interesting implication – the media cannot call for transparency in Big Business or in government while maintaining a mask of ‘neutrality’. Everybody knows that media organisations have political identities, particularly the most influential of them. The media, to be properly transparent, need to show their inclinations up front before analysis. Obviously, such inclinations need to be flexible and reasonable (I’m looking at you, Fox News) and cannot be used to obscure any of the facts in the story. But to deny it exists obscures some of the truth in the story from the get-go. That’s a pretty interesting idea and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a quite an unusual position.

The Conrad quote at the start of this post comes from the Author’s Note from his 1907 novel The Secret Agent.
This is a seedy novel, focused on a series of secretive anarchists in Victorian London. On its release it was regarded as unpleasant, focusing as it did on terrorists, suspicious organisations and manipulators lying under the surface all around the public – such themes are now regarded as hugely prescient for the century of uprisings and revolution that followed it.

The Author’s Note was included in 1920 and seeks to justify the novel in the face of such criticism. Conrad starts by admitting that such an exercise is immodest and a little vain before outlining exactly how he came to produce the story and why he thought it necessary to publish it. Perhaps in this short passage Conrad was, again, remarkably prescient: his agenda is to justify his position in the face of detractors. To do so, he must reveal his own motives, not simply attack the motives of his critics. A modern lesson indeed.

Digital Media Worse Than Traditional On Talking About Africa

A fascinating set of highlights over a recent report ‘Mapping the global Twitter heartbeat: The geography of Twitter’. Perhaps the brave new world of online media isn’t quite as fair and international as we might like to think.

Other than that revealed in the tweet that lured me in, there’s a bunch of very interesting info on how to get proper geographical data from Twitter. Where people tweet from, apparently, has little influence on, well, their online influence (square brackets my own):

Kalet et al. [the authors] also carried out a comprehensive analysis of geo-tagged retweets. They find that “geography plays little role in the location of influential users, with the volume of retweets instead simply being a factor of the total population of tweets originating from that city.” They also calculated that the average geographical distance between two Twitter users “connected” by retweets (RTs) and who geotag their tweets is about 750 miles or 1,200 kilometers. When a Twitter user references another (@), the average geographical distance between the two is 744 miles. This means that RTs and @’s cannot be used for geo-referencing Twitter data, even when coupling this information with time zone data.

Read the full report here

Chilling Effect in Uganda?

Many of you have probably been following the ongoing issues between sections of the independent media and the government in Uganda (here is a terrific overview if not). Essentially, the government claims it has been searching for a letter/the source for that letter detailing an alleged succession plan for the son of the current president, Yoweri Museveni. This letter was published just before the closures began.

On social media today my Ugandan friends have been sharing the following letter, supposedly from Nation Media Group to Museveni.

(NOTE: It has not, at the time of writing, been verified as the real deal but is being fairly widely considered such See below for update)

The tone of this letter is pretty unsettling. If this truly represents the position of Nation then it seems as though we can expect to see some more conciliatory behaviour from them – it sounds to me like they’ve decided that opposing the regime isn’t worth the hassle (not to mention the loss of revenue). This could be the chilling effect breezing into town.

It’s worth noting that my casual chats with journalist friends in the country have indicated that many think the media house searches were not what it seemed – could the source of the Muhoozi letter be that valuable, post publication? The police searches were ordered stopped by Ugandan courts yet they carried on. The rumours floating around are vague: they were looking for something else. Whether any such details will emerge in the coming weeks remains to be seen but the feeling remains that it would seem like a strange series of actions on Museveni’s part simply to recover a letter which is, by now, common knowledge.

UPDATE (UTC 14.08, 06.06.13)

The Monitor have just released an article called ‘What we agreed with the Government‘.

A hopeful/deluded extract, depending on how cynical you are:

f)    At no time during the consultations did we make any concessions or sign any agreements. We reiterated our willingness to uphold the highest standards of journalism as per our policy.

g)  We did not promise not to cover any issues as demanded by the Government representatives. We consistently reiterated at the meetings that our editorial guidelines are very specific that any matters that touch on the public interest will be covered fully, fearlessly and independently subject to the values of truth, fair comment, attribution and factual accuracy.

It looks like the letter going around social media was authentic:

In deference to the person of the President and to reaffirm our commitment to uphold our editorial policy, the NMG Board did write to President Museveni reaffirming this position and regretting that the government had found it necessary to shut down our businesses because of what it considered to be unprofessionalism on the part of our journalists. And, to his credit, all President Museveni said was critical for moving forward was a need to reaffirm the principles of fair journalism, and he specifically agreed that there should be no sacred cows.

How To Write About Writing About Africa

Originally written for Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. With thanks to Tom Murphy .

Satire is the highest form of mockery which, as we all know, is the sincerest form of flattery. People might not realise that you’re doing them a favour with your aggresive attack on their work and opinions. Don’t let that put you off.

Don’t let yourself finish five hundred words without making a snarky reference to foreign correspondents. Find ways to refer to Europe like Europeans refer to Africa. Reference how many languages there might be are in continental Africa (choose a very specific number between two and three thousand). Impress on your readers that journalists in ‘Africa’ are doomed to fail unless they cooperate with local press. Breeze over how many problems this is likely to entail.

Mock the use of meaningless, fashionable buzzwords like ‘sustainability’ and ‘entrepreneurialism’. Deride the use of meaningful, fashionable buzzwords like ‘middle class’, ‘technology’ or ‘investment’. Laugh endlessly at anyone’s foolish use of geographical place names in the continent of Africa – everybody knows that if you’re talking about the ‘Nile’ or ‘Africa’ you’re basically an ignorant racist.

Write in short sentences. It’s punchy and to the point. Reading your essay is like a boxing match. Except there’s only one combatant. The staccato is arresting but needs to be mixed up. The occasional longer sentence will grab the reader and their lazy stereotypes before you pummel those stereotypes with some hardcore perspective. Go back to short sentences. It makes all your opinions look more like facts.

Always attack sweeping generalisations. This is by far the most important rule for writing about writing about Africa, regardless of the specific context you are tackling. The next most important rule is to make as many sweeping generalisations as possible. All readers respond well to both hyperbole and hypocritical rhetoric.

Repeat conventional style and structure. This is a format that people know and love, why on earth would you want to change that? That Wainaina essay in Granta was amazing and so popular, just copy that. Sure, the style was original and unusual but that isn’t why it was so widely read. It was because it told people to do things. You could tell them to not be as idiotic as they were. If you keep writing these, someday everyone will be almost as smart as you. Almost.

Choose some easy targets like Bob Geldof and Bono. Who doesn’t hate those guys? Accuse them of ruining aid, development, trade, charity, music. Whatever. They’re made out of glue: basically anything you throw at them will stick. Before people think you’re being too obvious or zeitgeisty switch up your attack to someone like Tony Blair or Paul Kagame. This shows you have an awareness of both popular and political culture discourse. This will reinforce the reader’s suspicion that you are better than them in every way. Readers like to feel useless and stupid.

Now you’ve gotten started there are so many other actors to call out. Aid workers, peacekeepers, doctors without borders, engineers, human rights workers – especially human rights workers, the pie-in-the-sky lunatics – none of them deserve any of the approbations they get. Highlight the bad, ignore the good. Draw strict parallels between worst practices and the entire industry you’re attacking. There are no shades of grey when it comes to your fury. There isn’t even black and white, there is only catastrophe.

Swing your lens towards analysts. Accuse every other commentator of myopic viewpoints. Point out obvious limitations of the ‘Western’ view of Africa without defining what that means. Scream ‘why isn’t anyone else saying this!?’ at the heavens. Ignore anyone else saying anything.

End your essay with your lip-curled with contempt. You wish you could take everyone’s misconceptions away forever but you know it’ll never be. Continue fighting the good fight, regardless of reward. Hope to hell you don’t get asked to come up with any solutions to the issues you’ve highlighted.

The Momentum Of The Blogosphere

A bunch of awesome people @ #GV2012 — Source: 0neiros via flickr

Last week the Global Voices 2012 (#GV2012) summit was held in Nairobi. All of a sudden, the city I live and work in was inundated by all manner of awesome people. I kept seeing people I greatly admire talking about lectures and presentations, it was a hell of a treat to see so many intelligent people whose content I enjoy so much all talking together. It felt like a pretty big deal, even from the outside.

Check out a storify on #GV2012 here.

As I hungrily lapped up updates I started to notice a pattern: a lot of these voices whose opinions I so respected were not media professional. They were bloggers. Citizen journalists. Activists. Whether as a result of my embrace of Twitter or some other reason, I realised that my ‘go to’ sources for most news is no longer traditional news sources.

Don’t get me wrong, I still open up The Guardian or the Washington Post most days to flick through it but that’s normally only for sport or for op-ed pieces discussing ‘news’ I’ve already digested through non-traditional means like blogs or social media. There are a notable few journalists that I do follow but most fall into the categories like ‘worth keeping an eye on’ or ‘likes to argue’ or ‘friends’ – not ‘MUST READ’. With some of these – Charles Onyango Obbo is the example that springs to mind – I actively prefer their non-official output to their columns or news pieces in newspapers and the like. This was a slightly startling discovery.

This week I fired up the interwebs to discover that Whydev – one of the best international development sites around – has rebranded (and to everyone involved with that, you did a good job). I got weirdly excited by this. Then I noticed that the excellent View From The Cave had rebranded and, once again, looked great. These are terrific sites run by experts who are both passionate about the field and communicating their experiences and challenges to a wider audience.

These sites are awesome. Now that they look better, more people are likely to get hooked on their kickass content. I take back the ‘weirdly’ from earlier – I am excited by this!

The more we encourage wider engagement with niche or technical sectors the better off we will be. Events like #GV2012 top-trended world wide. Top aid blogs are starting to get attention from mainstream sources. Other top aid blogs now look and work really well. Hopefully, this is an example of snowballing (in a good way).

Getting big name publications to assign the topic a general reporter with no in depth knowledge of the issue or personal connection to it might bring wider attention to the issue but is it the kind of attention that we want? If the development/aid blogosphere continues to grow more robust and more accessible, those mainstream publications will a) start to steal their ‘niche’ article opinions from better sources and b) start to get circumvented all together.

I’ll say it again – I am excited by this!

Interview | Javie Ssozi – Helping Ugandan voices reclaim the legacy of the LRA war

Think Africa Press recently published a very thorough, balanced and well-written analysis of the Kony2012 furore and what it means for humanitarian organisations and their future campaigns – read it in full here. There was one section that really got my attention,

Kony2012 was unrivalled in its spread as a viral campaign and, in the UK, donations to international aid NGOs have been rising. But at the same time, these same strategies are possibly undermining the cultivation of more concerted, long-term commitments. (Kony2012 itself did not even sustain interest long enough to mobilise action for its Cover the Night campaign the next month.)

While I broadly embrace the sentiment that, long-term, the ‘success’ of the campaign will be seen in an entirely different light I think that this point of view misses a very important part of the video’s audience – Ugandans.

The website was set up in the aftermath of Invisible Children’s campaign. As the Think Africa Press article points out, the film had very little Ugandan input, focusing much more on the IC director, Jason Russell. For obvious reasons, many Ugandans were incensed by having their narrative, their issue, taken off their hands and presented to the world as a problem that revolves around the actions of North Americans. The founders of UgandaSpeaks wanted to combat that.

I caught up with Javie Ssozi, one of the co-founders of the site, to get some more information on the project.

Javie Ssozi

UgandaSpeaks was prompted by the KONY2012 phenomenon, a topic which has garnered an unbelievable amount of attention as well as a huge backlash from the development blogosphere and Ugandan journalists and activists. What do you think UgandaSpeaks can add to this discussion?

What UgandaSpeaks adds to the topic is not only valid arguments about the subject but also voices of Ugandans who have more experience in the legacy of the war in the North.  

There seem to be quite a lot of people involved in founding the site: who are they and how did you all come together?

The people who are involved in UgandaSpeaks are:

  1. Javie Ssozi
  2. Rosebell Kagumire
  3. Maureen Agena
  4. Echwalu Edward
  5. Ole Tangen

All of these people have had experience covering news stories or doing social work in Northern Uganda where Joseph Kony and the LRA committed terrible atrocities.

Who is running things, day to day?

We all work as a team even though myself (Javie) does most of the work related to the website. 

How many submissions have you had so far? Are Ugandans excited about this initiative?

Yes, many Ugandan journalists, storytellers and social workers have strong interest in the initiative. In fact, many young people who have just started their careers in storytelling and journalism have asked to join the UgandaSpeaks team. Many other Ugandans have shown support through retweeting and sharing our stories on Facebook and other social networks. 

A lot of the people behind UgandaSpeaks a fairly well known journalists and activists – who will be overseeing the film production aspect of your project?

 Javie Ssozi and Maureen Agena oversaw the production of the film.

Recently, there has been something of a backlash (see here) against the rhetoric of ‘telling positive stories about Africa’ – does a project like UgandaSpeaks go beyond a marketing/advertising push? How?

Actually the approach that UgandaSpeaks takes is more personal story driven. Our narrative takes shape from the experience of the teller. For example we do want to tell positive stories about Africa but also we realize that people have challenges. So, we allow for people to show both sides of their stories. 

Is your aim to place Ugandan authored stories about Kony in the international press or the national press?

I think we have already done this. But our aim is to share the stories of the people who have first hand information about what happened in Northern Uganda. Eventually we shall cover stories about all sorts of people and things around Uganda depending on our budget. 

Who is your audience and why are they your audience?

Our Audience on the KONY2012 topic is mainly people from the west because they know so little about Uganda. We just want to educate them and perhaps in doing so we shall recapture the narrative that KONY2012 video puts across. 

Have you had any approaches by Ugandan political figures? If not, do you think they staying away from this topic because of pressures from international aid/development organisations?

Eventually the Prime Minister of Uganda (Amama Mbabazi) did two YouTube videos on the topic. I  think our government officials are not technically agile as we (UgandaSpeaks/ independent netizens) are but also I think they have to follow some kind of procedure.

How do you feel about aid/development? Does it have it’s place or is it time to replace it with large-scale trade initiatives?

Aid is good because in one way or another it ends up helping someone somewhere. However, aid is NOT sustainable. Promoting entrepreneurship and trade would be a more sustainable way of supporting people in the developing countries. 

Is there a middle ground in the aid vs trade debate?
Since (most of) the aid is always ending up in the hands of people who will either miss use it or embezzle it, I think trade would be the way to go. And there are already a number of initiatives promoting trade between Uganda and the rest of the world. I believe more of these initiative would bring the ultimate change we need – and perhaps one day we shall be like China! This country has the potential to supply 3% or even more than that of the world’s food.