Thoughts on economics and liberty

Invitation to help establish a parallel (citizens’) government in India

Arvind Kejriwal's recent video was interesting but because it was not backed up with technology, his idea that people write to him with their issues and that he would respond to them personally is simply unviable.

The idea of citizens looking after themselves is pivotal to the idea of liberty. Given the level of mass technology now exists (including mobile phones and internet), it should be possible to establish a citizens' government that COMPETES with the elected government. Such a parallel government (there can be many of these!) can not only point out key problems, but DIRECTLY resolve them, without the help of the elected government, making it redundant (as it already is, in India).

The concept is based on CROWD SOURCING, and requires technology to funnel all relevant information into (a) the press, (b) government and (c) NGOs such as RTI bodies/ social NGOs.

The idea behind this is to establish a platform like the ones established by Ushahidi. This remarkable world-leading Keyna platform was designed in TWO DAYS. Indians, with their IT expertise can surely do better.

I invite you to offer your thoughts and expertise to establish such a CITIZENS' GOVERNMENT. A facebook group has already been established to discuss further. Join it and invite as many people as you know to this group.

Let's start thinking about this, together, and see where it goes. A suitable website (or multiple websites) can be established in due course, as the concept and technology is refined.

Basically I'm looking for technology savvy people who can operationalise this concept based on crowd sourcing, using mobile phone technology (plus internet). The idea is to involve our massive, educated population in doing analysis and other activities that will directly help Indians to improve their quality of life.  Instead of waiting for 5 years for a new government, let's just take charge of our own lives – and our country.

The idea is to establish a platform by which people can directly complain about their problems, and where possible resolve their problems directly, as well. This is about total empowerment. This is also a way of linking the citizen (demand for service) with the supplier of service (could well be a private agency that uses this information to provide answers).

Here's an extract from Macrowikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams (taken from here) that, along with Arvind Kejriwal's thoughts (linked above), my experience in districts with constant flow of petitions from villagers (most of which do not get responded to), and in managing disasters, prompted this line of thought. 

This is a case of AFRICA leading the world. I'm sure we can do better. 

1. REBOOTING THE WORLD

On Sunday, January 17, a full five days after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, a text message sent from a cell phone in Port-au-Prince was translated from Creole into English and posted on an interactive crisis mapping site that was being closely monitored by emergency responders. The text was a cry for help from a survivor and it appeared to have been sent from beneath the rubble of one of Haiti's largest supermarkets. By that time, the odds of finding survivors had diminished sharply and many in the emergency relief community were giving up hope. The situation on the ground was dire indeed: without access to food or water some tens of thousands had already perished beneath the immense piles of concrete strewn across the city. But the text message posted online suggested a miracle: could the person who sent it still be alive? Was it possible they made it through the excruciatingly long wait for help? An American search-and-rescue team raced to the scene to find out. Many hours later, after having cut through several feet of concrete, the rescuers had a horrible realization: the body being pulled from the rubble was that of a child. The small, frail frame of a seven-year-old girl emerged from the supermarket wreckage, deeply shaken and barely alive. The little girl, overwhelmed with relief and emotion, recounted her terrifying experience to her astonished family. She had managed to survive on a small ration of leathery fruit snacks, and a whole lot of hope.

It was a glimmer of light in an otherwise tragic story. Indeed, few people will soon forget the horrendous damage inflicted by the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck near Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, causing more human misery and economic damage than any earthquake on record. In a mere forty-five seconds of seismic contortions, an astonishing 15 percent of the nation's population-1.5 million people?was rendered homeless. Tens of thousands were dead, and hundreds of thousands more were injured. Any semblance of the usual infrastructure emergency crews depend on (roads, hospitals, water, sanitation, electrical power, and communication networks) was obliterated. Vast regions of the 250-year-old city utterly toppled.

The ruthless and indiscriminate wrath of nature's forces, however, was just a prelude to the real misery. Circumstances on the ground made life astonishingly difficult for first responders. The sea- and airports were congested and there were too few trucks to transport supplies and no safe place to store them. No one?not the army, the government, or the aid community?had a clear picture of the full scale of the catastrophe unfolding around them. There was confusion about precisely which supplies had been received, and in what quantities. There was also a lack of coordination among aid agencies and other entities about which people and areas to prioritize and how to overcome this logistical nightmare. This initial lack of coordination, in turn, left Haiti's earthquake victims (already among the poorest people in the world) utterly destitute, without food, water, or clothing, separated from their loved ones, and many in desperate need of medical attention. Yet, out of the rubble, and in the face of tremendous suffering, came a powerful story of how an ad hoc team of volunteers from around the world came together to concoct an information management solution that far surpassed anything the official crisis response team had mustered, including the world's largest emergency relief organizations, the U.S. State Department, and even the U.S. Army.

At the heart of the volunteer effort was a small Kenyan-born organization called Ushahidi whose crisis-mapping site allows users to submit eyewitness accounts or other relevant information in a disaster situation via e-mail, text, or Twitter?and then visualize the frequency and distribution of these events on a map. Ory Okolloh, a prominent Kenyan lawyer and blogger, first came up with the idea in 2008 when violence erupted in the aftermath of Kenya's disputed election. After hearing many disturbing reports of rape, looting, and murder from friends and family across the country, she suspected that the government and the official news agencies were grossly underreporting the violence. The proof came when her own vivid reporting on her blog Kenyan Pundit triggered a flood of e-mails and texts from hundreds of Kenyans who had witnessed or experienced violence firsthand. The volume of reports soon overwhelmed Okolloh's ability to authenticate and document them using her blog, so she sketched out the basic parameters of an Internet mapping solution, and with the help of some fellow Kenyan technology whizzes, built the Ushahidi platform over a long weekend. Within hours of its launch, the site was collecting user-generated cell phone reports of riots, stranded refugees, rapes, and deaths and plotting them on a map, using the information supplied by informants. For the first time, interested parties could see at a glance which areas of the country were experiencing trouble. Indeed, the site collected more testimony with greater speed and broader reach than the media or the local officials, except in Ushahidi's case there was a big difference: Okolloh didn't have government grants, official mandates, formal command structures, or elaborate communication protocols; just a loose group of committed individuals under effective grassroots leadership harnessing rudimentary open-source technologies to help those in need.

When disaster struck Haiti two years later, Ushahidi's director of crisis mapping, Patrick Meier, sprang into action. Meier had been enjoying a quiet evening watching the news at his home in Boston. It was 7:00 p.m. when he first learned about the earthquake. By 7:20, he'd contacted a colleague in Atlanta. By 7:40, the two were setting up a dedicated site for Haiti on the Ushahidi platform. By 8:00, they were gathering intelligence from everywhere, in a global effort to crowdsource assistance for Haiti.

Since the majority of incoming text messages were in Creole, they needed a translation service. And since most reports lacked sufficient location details, they needed a way to quickly identify the GPS coordinates so that incidents could be mapped as accurately as possible. So Meier reached out to dozens of Haitian communities for help, including the large diaspora in Boston. Soon hundreds of volunteers around the world were using Ushahidi-Haiti to translate, categorize, and geo-locate urgent life-and-death text messages in real-time. Many of the volunteers spent weeks on end on their laptops in a dimly lit school basement in Boston that Meier converted into a makeshift situation room. Although located some 1,640 miles from the scene, the volunteer crisis mappers used Skype to relay critical information about the location of potential survivors to search-and-rescue teams on the ground in Port-au-Prince. They responded to requests from the World Food Program and the aircraft carrier. USS Carl Vinson in the middle of the night. And to better link calls with specific GPS coordinates, they even got direct access to DigitalGlobe's high-resolution satellite imagery and to the U.S. Army's video footage from military drones. By the time Meier's group had honed their process, text messages were being translated into English and posted online just minutes after they left a mobile phone in Haiti. And as a result of their dedication, Ushahidi's crisis mappers found themselves center stage in an urgent effort to save lives during one of the largest relief operations in history.

"If a relief worker from the Red Cross has a field office in the neighborhood of Delmas," says Meier, "they could subscribe to Ushahidi to receive information on all reports originating from their immediate vicinity by specifying a radius." Not only were responders able to specify their geographic area of interest, but they could also select the type of alert, say collapsed buildings, medical emergencies, food shortages, or looting. Now as the focus shifts from crisis relief to rebuilding in the years to come, Meier thinks Ushahidi's crisis-mapping tools could just as readily be used by Haitians to hold crisis-relief organizations, private contractors, and the local government accountable for higher standards than have been the norm during the many years of failed efforts to lift the impoverished Caribbean nation out of poverty. Indeed, this everyone-as-informant mapping heralds some pretty profound changes as the wild world revolutionizes the work of humanitarians, journalists, and soldiers who provide aid and assistance in some of the most unforgiving circumstances imaginable.

In the old crisis management paradigm, big institutions and aid workers parachute into a crisis, assess the situation, and dispense aid with the limited information they have. Most aid organizations don't have good systems for sharing information, and certainly don't like ceding turf or marching to the beat of another organization's drum. The resulting fragmentation leads to poor decision making, redundancy, and confusion, and often to wasted money and wasted opportunities.' To make matters worse, the end recipients of disaster relief are almost always treated as helpless victims and passive consumers of other people's charity. This makes for perversely compelling television drama (so-called disaster porn temporarily boosted CNN's ratings by 95 percent), but it fails miserably in delivering results. Indeed, a report produced by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies following the international community's response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami highlighted the need for better coordination as well as victim participation in future disaster relief efforts to help ensure that the needs and interests of disaster victims are not sidestepped in the rush to implement solutions.'

The new paradigm for humanitarian efforts turns much of the conventional wisdom upside down. Rather than sit idly waiting for help, victims supply on-the-ground data using cell phones or whatever communication channels are available to them. Rather than simply donate money, a self-organized network of volunteers triages this data, translating and authenticating text messages and plotting incidents on interactive mapping displays that help aid workers target their response. And rather than just forge ahead with narrow institutional priorities, new communication channels like Ushahidi enable the whole emergency relief ecosystem to operate like a coherent entity. Sure, a lot could go wrong with this distributed model. People could get the address wrong or exaggerate their situation. But as data accumulates, interactive crisis maps can quickly reveal emerging patterns and vital information in an emergency situation: How many miles inland did the tsunami kill? Which roadways are passable and where are the closest temporary emergency wards? Are the incidents of violence and looting broadly dispersed or concentrated around certain neighborhoods?

Given an open platform and a complement of simple tools, it turns out ordinary people can create effective new information services that are speedier and more resilient than traditional bureaucratic channels.

What is remarkable is that the Ushahidi-Haiti project might have taken a government agency with loads of money a year or more to execute. Yet, thanks to social innovators like Okolloh and Meier, the crisis-mapping community rallied to pull it together in a matter of days with absolutely no cost to the taxpayer.

Note that while this platform has been tested so far only in disasters, this doesn't really matter. THE WHOLE OF INDIAN IS A DISASTER ZONE. So it will apply perfectly in Indian conditions.

Addendum

People are asking what can the citizens' government (electronic platform) do? Here are a few initial thoughts

Let me add

In the first instance those with a technology bent of mind and willing to explore this further please raise your hands. These people will be separately connected on a google group that will explore the idea and its operationalisation, and then provide a proposal to the Freedom Team.

This is an entirely technology-based idea and will need solid IT expertise before it can be developed further.
 
Google Group to discuss the technology solution:

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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15 thoughts on “Invitation to help establish a parallel (citizens’) government in India
  1. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    On FB:

    Sameer Panje Great initiative, Sanjeev. I had something similar in mind when I had proposed the idea of a shadow cabinet on the FTI discussion forum. Let’s take this to every household possible in India. :)

    Sanjeev Sabhlok Actually this is quite different to the shadow cabinet concept. Do read the blog post. It is a technology solution that will empower the people dramatically to solve their own problems.

     
  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    sabhlok: @wahsarkar Just a crowd sourcing platform to capture citizens’ issues and resolve them. It depends on building a platform.

    sabhlok: @snehithb Self-government doesn’t need anyone’s permission. Plus this is a PURELY TECHNICAL platform concept. Crowd sourcing. Join if u can.
    ===
    wahsarkar: @sabhlok good initiative. But I assume that you are aware of India’s internet penetrability.

    snehithb: What’s next? A parallel universe? RT @sabhlok: Invitation to establish a parallel (citizens) government http://t.co/j5BJ6aoK

     
  3. Sameer

    This is potentially phenomenal. I can see this going places and working wonders. Apropos @wahsarkar’s point about Internet penetration in India, I don’t see that as a major issues. That barrier can be broken through leveraging the penetration of mobile phones. SMS, IVR & if required, smartphone apps are more than sufficient to bridge this gap.

    Sanjeev : My team has a good exposure on the technology aspect of this solution. I’ll bring them into the loop. Simultaneously, we’ll have to work out a comprehensive plan for the rollout. All the best. :)

     
  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    ON FB:
    Kamal Sharma The concept is fine…but we need boots on the ground also.

    Sanjeev Sabhlok No, Kamal. This is entirely driven by crowd sourcing – i.e. people will communicate (through SMS, etc.) their problems, and service providers will get this information distilled into manageable nuggets. This is, above all a competitive product to government. It threatens to make government redundant.

     
  5. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    On Reddit
    (http://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/sadnd/invitation_to_help_establish_a_parallel_citizens/)

    COMMENTS
    It’s setting up a dangerous trend. I guess the intention is now to set up a government that will have all the intellectuals who are otherwise not present in the government setup. We had similar leaders with bonafide intentions back in ’47 too..
    What if tomorrow Mayawati takes sanyas from politics and sets up a parallel government of Dalits? What if that Owaisi does the same and creates a separate government for Muslims?

    Parallel governments are illegal. It will be shut down if it ever happens

    MY COMMENT
    Why do people jump to conclusions without understanding the concept? (“It’s setting up a dangerous trend”). This is about EMPOWERING citizens to (a) identify their problems – including specific corrupt officials, (b) providing this information to the government, the press and NGOs, and (c) providing a clear path to self-government in the modern IT-driven world. Do read the blog post carefully!

     
  6. Raman

    I am one of those who work in tech industry and interested in empowering citizens.
    I and couple of my friends are trying to implement a mobile application that can be used to crowd source complaints. We don’t yet what “actions” we would do with those crowd sourced complaints, but we definitely want to expose the complaint heat map at a public portal.

     
  7. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Raman, that’s great. Would you be willing to join a google group that takes this idea further?

    s

     
  8. GRRAO

    sirji
    if ushahidi can do it then indians can doit. my mobile numberwe can connect ona common platform websitesetc google can also help or open source is better
    let the technology be with sanjeevji if u agree since it cannbe in netural country for politician needs.
    first people problemcan be attended then emergency ofcoure accidents calamtiites hosptials civic students corruption ideas solutions etc
    just dont use word parallel since itconveysdifferent meanings like baba ramdev problem wewill face from govt police local and our owm MIG middle class mentaility people no words leading to viollence only idea like football game referee on the spot should be there like sanjeevji of ftii members etc

     
  9. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    On FB

    commentator:
    an interesting concept. too early in the day to talk about envisioned vs actual level of participation. hope it does not end-up being just a sounding board or a forum for armchair philosophers!… one thing more – what is this talk about a ‘parallel government’ and/or ‘competing with the government’?… are you planning to stage a coup or wage a war – Mr. Sanjeev Sabhlok?… i personally feel that this line of thinking is not the right approach!… don’t get me wrong – i’m very much in favour of improvement & transparency! my main concern – after reading your thoughts, Mr. Sabhlok – is the clash that i foresee between thought & action!… i would like to wait and see how things shape up here, before taking a decision on this… great concept though – my best wishes

    My response:
    pl. do note that I’ve made clear that there can be multiple citizen (self) governments in this concept. A government is something that governs a system. To govern, you need (a) a reporting mechanism, (b) an actioning mechanism, (c) a monitoring mechanism.

    A family government is a form of citizens government, but at a microscopic level. The media is a form of citizens government, but does not have any actioning or monitoring mechanism.

    The idea here is to beef up the reporting and monitoring mechanism, and to get the ENTIRE COMMUNITY to action things. In other words,
    a good number of things currently in the “control” of municipalities would be taken over DIRECTLY by the people, by short-circuiting the process of reporting to the elected government (which is dysfunctional).

    This is a citizen sovereignty concept. It clarifies in no mean terms that citizens can have their own government the way THEY want.

    If the people of India DON’T want self-government, then of course, this idea will die.

     
  10. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear GR Rao

    The technology must be open source and available to ALL Indians. I’m not a technology person, anyway.

    Re: the title, Baba Ramdev’s concept raised furrows because he called for a SENA – which has the meaning of armed supporters. This is radically different, a version of self-government. No one will be confused if they spend 2 minutes thinking about this language.

    And I’d like to have MULTIPLE competing platforms, often designed by political parties themselves, since these platforms provide them with immediate information on which to act and therefore better represent the people. I propose that this first platform (if it gets up) would have the banner of all associated groups, including the Freedom Team of India.

    s

     
  11. Soumik Bhattacharyya

    The concept and the relevant website is developing pretty fast. But I’m a bit concerned about the poor people (often they are the ones who suffer the most – not only out of corruption but multiple issues), how will they benefit from this platform?

    I mentioned earlier that we may for the moment concentrate on the general public, but even after we develop this may not change….the poor cannot access mobile sms/websites. Any suggestions?

     
  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Soumik

    We will need to multiply our efforts through technology to the extent possible. Remember none of are able to devote full time to such a thing given financial constraints. We don’t have any funding – yet. So we have to do what is possible through automation and volunteers.

    It is also important for us to understand and learn about the limitations (if any) of our approach through direct experience. We could then work out alternatives which don’t require us to either devote exceptional time or resources but get better results.

    In brief, let’s get the platform up and running, let’s pilot it, and as we learn, we can innovate/change/attract resources.

    s

     
  13. Prasad MBD

    Most of our statestics are not correct. for example, if you ask any one about his living syle he will say that he is poor, because if he says that he is poor some one will give more benifits without any effort. As I have seen most of the people so called below the poverty line, sell their food grains supplied by the public distribution system and buy a finer variety at 25 times the cost. The daily wage earning labour has mony to spend daily for liquer but no money for eating. the middle class can spend Rs 300 for hair styling every month but not prepared to bear extra burden of of atleast Rs 100 on LPG or Rs 150 on electric power bill. Every one irrespective of finacial status wants subsidies from the government. first of all we need think how far the subsidies are rational.
    Mostly the curruption stars for subsidies and poverty eradicating programmes of the governments.