How can we inspire young people to use technology for promoting transparency and accountability in West Africa?

What half a decade working in civic tech in Côte d’Ivoire has taught me about motivating the youth.

After more than five years’ experience working in democracy and governance, specialising in citizen participation, election monitoring and advocacy work around transparency and anti-corruption, I realised that one of the serious pitfalls regarding technology and social media was how many young people think of them solely as “entertainment”.

They might not know, I thought, that they can do enough to entertain themselves every day through other means, or that the same technology can be used for other purposes which may improve their lives and their community.

Two points stood out as I reflected upon this. If we are to motive youth to use technology to improve transparency and accountability in the public sector, then:

  • Technology has to be seen as more than entertainment.
  • The time horizon has to be long term rather than immediate.

Encouraging citizens to actively follow the government and hold it to account is hard work. But technology is making things easier. It offers the possibility to enable the government and its institutions respond to the needs of the population.

Technology has an important role to play in effectively influencing governmental actions and in making citizen engagement in governmental affairs interesting and sustainable. Tech can empower average citizens.

Transparency and accountability engagement options in Côte d’Ivoire

Tech is helping to reshape the notion of civic engagement from a solitary fight to a mutual or community work to reach a shared goal. Here are some success stories that I have participated in which use technology in civic engagement:

1. Using social media to encourage citizen participation in elections

“La Brigade numérique pour les élections apaisées” (“Digital Brigade for Peaceful Elections”) was a unique contribution to the electoral process made by young Ivorians in the presidential elections of 2015.

Some members of the “brigade for peaceful elections’’.

The Brigade mobilised 50 young Ivorians (25 women and 25 men) to spread peace messages, encourage electoral participation and educate the public on voter registration and electoral processes through social media. Graphics and other visual aids were developed and distributed with the Brigade’s messages in order to boost online reach.

An example of message spread via social media.

The active role members of the Brigade have taken attests to the positive role Ivorian youth are playing in support of a more peaceful and democratic election in their country. (Click here to watch le Grand Format’s television coverage of the Brigade.)

2. Increasing transparency and integrity in elections through observation of voting stations and a data collection centre

To increase citizen confidence in Côte d’Ivoire’s historic 2015 presidential elections, which took place after years of civil conflict, the Civil Society Organisations Platform for Elections Observations (POECI) conducted advanced statistically based observations of the election process during the two years preceding and on Election Day.

Observing Election Day in a sampled polling station from the start to the end allowed the civil society coalition to collect reliable data on the process in real time. Observers, 50 percent of whom were women, transmitted their observations on the opening of the polling station, the turnout rate, the violence or peacefulness of the day, the reliability of the electoral officials and equipment, and finally on the results for the presidential candidates in each specific polling station.

All these observations were transformed into coded data sent by SMS.

The data centre manager explaining how the election data collection system works during a press conference.

Ultimately, POECI’s findings confirmed the official results, and thereby bolstered the credibility of the electoral process.

POECI’s data collection centre, which gathered and processed SMS in real time reports from observers deployed throughout the country, was composed of 28 data clerks, managed by one tech expert, all of them youth. Their effective work during Election Day enabled POECI to gather 100 percent of the data, a first in a sub-Saharan country using the parallel vote tabulation methodology sponsored by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) through USAID funds.

3. Awareness raising and influencing policy-making decisions via online surveys and social media

One other innovation involving technology for good governance was crowdsourcing in the policy-making process. It was a perfect example of how citizens can engage with governments using technology, and how this engagement can shape the functioning of governments and transparency.

In December 2016, the government didn’t release the draft of the new constitution to the citizens before it was tabled it to parliament. Parliament in turn was given a week to read and analyse the document before being required to vote on it. But an anonymous group of digital activists found the text, and released it through a web application called #CivConstitution and enabled the citizens to have access to the draft to read the constitution article by article.

The web application also provided the opportunity to express views by denouncing an article, making a modification proposal, or approving it.

#Civconstituion became a trending topic worldwide because of the noise generated by average citizens.

A snapshot of the #CivConstitution web platform.

Even though citizens’ opinions were not taken into account during this constitutional reform, the action of these digital activists was noticed by the government and reinforced public pressure to be accountable to their constituents.

They understood the necessity of organising consultations and dialogue in case of a new constitutional reform or another fundamental text revision.

4. Increasing public service delivery through crowdsourcing and mapping

Effective public service delivery depends on allocating resources to the most critical needs of a community and then deploying them as promised. For many governments, however, there is limited transparency and accountability around service provision.

Lacking information about citizens’ needs, administrators often have no easy way to determine what public policies and budget to provide for these demands. Without outside pressure from citizen input, government employees in charge of service delivery lack the incentives for sorely needed actions.

Currently, Côte d’Ivoire is facing floods created by the mid-year rainy season. #CivInondation is based on the popular crowdsourcing tool Open Street Map. It’s a website that allows people to report local issues from a computer or smartphone. Along with geolocation, a report can be developed on categorical features, such as destruction of roads, houses and material damages, or people in danger. Pictures and videos can be easily taken and uploaded as complementary or detailed information.

An overview of #CivInondation platform.

Open Street Map Côte d’Ivoire, the organisation behind this initiative, sends a daily report to the department or body responsible for fixing it. The tool doesn’t just send problem reports to government offices — #Civinondation also makes the reports available to the public.

Tech for transparency: We cannot delay!

We are a young continent. The average age of citizens in sub-Saharan Africa 20 or less, and like teenagers and 20-somethings the world over we love social media, mobile gaming and online celebrity chit-chat.

But if we can focus just some of that familiarity with technology and the online world into building solutions for our accountability and transparency issues, the potential for change is hard to underestimate.

To do that, those of us already involved in civic tech and activism have to prove that it works, and keep telling the stories of our successes.

To attract young men and young women, tech for accountability and transparency has to be seen as something that can really influence change in governmental actions and in their lives. Those actions must affect individual lives, but also give a sense of participating in building a better society.

The use of tech by youth can change. The image of citizen activism, such as demanding more from government, can be exciting and inciting if we focus on spreading the message that it’s possible to use technology to engage citizens on a large scale, and they don’t need to be experts to use technology for useful purposes.

Developers and civil society activists can look at tech for accountability and transparency as a vocation, if we provide more platforms to explain what can be done and share experiences. In December , Open Africa Initiative will organize a national tech camp preceded by a hackathon focusing on good governance and anti corruption questions.

You can follow us via twitter at @OpenAfricaINI and share your experience to help us.