Open Data as a Way to Improve Citizen Engagement: Experience at UWI/Mona

[This comes from a press release on the LACNIC web site at <http://prensa.lacnic.net/news/en/2016noven/from-idea-to-implementation-open-data-as-a-way-to-improve-citizen-engagement>.  According to the LACNIC on-line newsletter,

“LACNIC is the organization responsible for assigning and administrating Internet resources in Latin America and the Caribbean in accordance with the rules developed by the regional community.

“Born as an initiative of Internet pioneers from different countries of our region, the organization is strongly committed to Internet development and stability, cooperating and articulating with all stakeholders.”

There is no definition of the acronym FRIDA.]

From idea to implementation: Open Data as a way to improve citizen engagement

FRIDA has made it possible to go from idea to reality. The University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica wanted to promote citizen participation in order to improve the national budgeting process and encourage transparency in the information on the use of Jamaica’s public resources.

They submitted their project to FRIDA’s call for proposals and were selected to receive a FRIDA grant. Indianna Minto-Coy, Senior Research Fellow at the University of the West Indies at Mona and one of the promoters of the project titled “Open/Participatory Budgeting for Improved Transparency and Civic Engagement in Jamaica,” told LACNIC News that “Funding received through FRIDA has been essential in moving from idea to implementation.”

According to Minto-Coy, the initiative proved that open data can have a transformative effect on society, as it promotes greater civic engagement and commitment.

What is the Project about and which are their main objectives?

The project aimed to assess the potential for the use of open data principles and international best practices in participatory budgeting to affect budget governance. This towards greater civic engagement and government transparency.

What advances were you able to achieve after receiving Frida´s grant?

Prior to Frida’s support, the project existed only as an idea. Funding received through Frida has been essential in moving from idea to implementation. Through this we’ve been able to: demonstrate the potential of open data for improved financial management, transparency and civic engagement in Jamaica; benchmark the current budget governance process in Jamaica using the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Initiative; and use Open Spending platform to publish and then demonstrate budget data in an open format through collaboration with the Ministry of Finance

Which results did you get from the focus groups and mobile surveys you carried out?

We had four focus groups and the implementation of a survey via the mobile phone (reaching 1749 of a population of a little under 2.8 Million). These demonstrated that a clear appetite exists for information via open data. Jamaicans as a whole have a desire to be more involved in national budget governance and crave more information. The findings also substantiated our initial view that greater access to information and inclusive governance hold the potential to increase trust and citizen willingness to become more active citizens. The implications for the desire to become more active citizens (e.g. increased desire to pay taxes) were among the points highlighted from the study.

Importantly though, while demand exists for open budget data, data providers (be they governments, NGOs or the private sector) also need to go beyond simply opening data to actually focusing on the ways in which users and potential beneficiaries engage with open data. Data visualization tools such as the bubble map we created were shown to have the potential to increase the use and understanding of open data and ultimately, the extent to which open data can have a transformative effect on society. To this end, we found a role for ICTs, mobile technology and new media as tools for citizen engagement and information-raising around open budget data. Such visualizations, their dissemination and the spread of their existence via mobile phones offer groups who may not be engaged in the budget governance process to understand more about the national budget and budget process. To this end, data visualization tools can help to overcome some of the traditional divides that have featured in ICTs over the years.

Finally, the act of engaging citizens via the mobile phone became a part of the intervention and awareness raising behind open budget data itself with persons then visiting our Facebook page to gain more information about the project itself. As such, the mobile phone was shown as serving an important role in enhancing the value and ease of research on open data principles and the wider open data for development movement. In fact, the act of implementing the mobile survey over smart phones, turned out to be important, not only for gathering information but the survey itself also became a knowledge-raising tool as it relates the value of open budgeting and transparency.

What was the repercussion of the Project within the government?

Support came from the government through the Ministry of Finance in accessing budget information. However, there has yet to be much take up of the project and somewhat expectedly given its sandwiching by national and then local government elections. However, while the FRIDA funding has ended, there is room to disseminate the findings and implications to the government ahead of the next budget cycle.

Which are the next goals to be achieved?

Following from the previous response, we did towards the end of this round of FRIDA funding, manage to secure the support of a political representative who has agreed to the implementation of a participatory budget pilot using the Constituency Development Fund. The aim is to secure additional funding to implement this aspect of the study. The potential for getting the attention of government and political leaders towards more directly impacting government will be even greater. Further, there is potential for the study to be implemented across a wider number of Caribbean and Latin American nations, given that the mobile carrier used has a presence across the wider Caribbean.

How would you summarize your experience with Frida?

The experience with FRIDA has been a very rewarding one. The FRIDA staff have been extremely professional and helpful in negotiating through this project. The focus has been on helping us to navigate the parameters and requirements of funding towards the successful completion of the project and accomplishing this in a way that is not onerous to the awardee.

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