Innovation for Democracy
The 3rd I4D Café: How Can Technology Help Citizens to Hold Governments and Businesses Accountable?
Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted to report some infrastructure problem or illegal wrongdoing by businesses to the government, but just couldn't do it because you lacked information or evidence, or wouldn’t do it because you were afraid of the consequences? This happens from time to time. Sometimes, the threshold of such public participation can be so high that only a small group of citizens who are very active are willing to take action. However, technology, which has been rapidly evolving, may help to find the solutions to this problem.
In the third episode of Innovation for Democracy Café, Ms. Ya-wei Chou from FNF Global Innovation Hub discussed with two guest speakers about their experience in using technology to encourage citizens’ participation and collaboration on monitoring and examining governments and businesses: Mr. Thitiphong Luangaroonlerd, the CEO of Boonmee Lab in Thailand, and Ms. Peii Lai, Campaigner from Citizens of the Earth (CET) in Taiwan.
The Story of Hack Nakhon: Every Citizen Can Make the City Better
“The word ‘Hack Nakhon’ in Thai means that we can change Bangkok by playing with this digital city and we can also help making it better,” said Mr. Luangaroonlerd when introducing Hack Nakhon to the audience. Hack Nakhon, a project developed by Mr. Luangaroonlerd and his team, enables citizens to report problems they notice in the city to the government, such as flood, streetlight breakdowns, or dysfunction of bus stops, etc. Although the local government has already built such websites for the citizens, from the viewpoint of a user, Mr. Luangaroonlerd and the team found that those websites failed to incentivize the citizens to take action and not efficient enough. Therefore, they started the project of Hack Nakhon.
Hack Nakhon enables every citizen to participate in several ways. First of all, it is built on LINE, a communication app that is already widely used by the Thais. Secondly, the process of reporting problem is simple. When seeing a problem that needs to be fixed in the city, citizens can simply send picture or submit information in the app, and the report will be organized and sent to the government. Thirdly, to make the process more fun and engaging, Hack Nakhon team designed it game-like. After submitting the reports, players can gain rewards, and they can use these rewards to build their own virtual city in the app. Moreover, Hack Nakhon focuses on incentivizing not only those who want to have fun through the reporting process, but also those who truly hope to change the city. Those who contribute the most might have a chance to meet the mayor and discuss the problem with the mayor in person.
The goal behind Hack Nakhon was simple – raising both citizens’ and the government’s attention on the city’s problems. On one hand, they want to encourage the citizens’ engagement by reducing pressure on them when reporting problems and increasing their incentives to participate as often as possible. On the other hand, they want the draw the government’s attention to these problems by obtaining as much information as possible, because “the more information we have (…) it’s like a social pressure, some sort of like whatever popular problem on the internet is highly likely gonna get fixed more than whatever problem nobody knows,” said Mr. Luangaroonlerd. When the citizens could have as more information regarding infrastructures and public policies of the city as possible, they will know how to effectively pressure the government to take action.
Disfactory and Spot Disfactory: Citizens Can Co-create Technology for Democracy
Ms. Lai kicked start her story by a shocking fact: Taiwan is famous for the density of convenient stores, bubble mike tea shops, and temples; however, according to the statistics presented by her, the number of these aforementioned shops could not even compare to the number of illegal factories in Taiwan.
Why are there so many illegal factories? It is caused by Taiwan’s past economy model. OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) plays an important role in Taiwan’s economy, and those factories and manufacturers indeed bring prosperity to the society. Nevertheless, some of them also bring damages to the environment by emitting pollutions and discharging both solid and liquid wastes. Some of them are even illegal: they never registered and thus escaped their responsibility of complying with environmental protection regulation, which left the costs of their business to the environment. “The good things should happen in the right place, and it is injustice to ask the environment to undertake the risk only for your personal interests,” said Ms. Lai. This is the reason why she and the team from CET started the project of Disfactory and Spot Disfactory. g0v, the biggest civic tech communities in Taiwan and Asia, contributed tremendously to the Disfactory project as well.
Although the government adapted the policy of zero tolerance for the newly built factories on the farmland in 2016, the reporting process is still inefficient, and citizens are reluctant to report because their personal ID is required if they want to do so. Thus, this situation inspired CET to build an easy, safe, and private platform to collect reports from the citizens.
Through the website of disfactory.tw, citizens can identify the target factory on the map, take picture of that factory on-site, and upload it to the website. After receiving the picture, CET will double-check the information, and file a report to the government. They did encounter some difficulties, such as civil servants were unwilling to process the report. After communicating with the civil servants, the result turned out to be great, but they wanted to make it better and enable more people to participate no matter where they are. And this is why spot.disfactory, a game-like website to identify factory and farmland from aerial photographs, were created.
Designing a Human-centric Participating Approach with Technology
The idea of participating in public affairs and reporting problems to the government might sound complicated and difficult, but after the sharing of Mr. Luangaroonlerd and Ms. Lai, we know that with the help of technology and collaborations of citizens, governments, and civic tech communities, it is certainly possible to lower the threshold of overseeing the government and enable everyone to participate in public affairs. In addition, when designing any technology solution to encourage public participation, it is crucial to put yourself in the people, governments, and any users’ shoes. Only when their needs or concerns are taken into account can efficient ways of participation be designed and become the essential principle guiding the creation of a technology project for making governments and business accountable.