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We are Watching You! Tech helps Africans hold Governments to Account

By Loren Treisman Special to CNN | 8/12/2013, 10:39 a.m.
In Nigeria, a simple application created by developer Pledge 51 enables citizens to access their constitution by mobile phone and has been downloaded more than 750,000 times.

Editor's note: Loren Treisman is Executive of Indigo Trust, a grant-making foundation that supports technology-driven projects in Africa. She holds a PhD from Cambridge University and has expertise in international development, health and the use of new technologies to stimulate social change.

With hundreds of millions of Africans owning mobile phones, citizens are becoming increasingly well connected. This is providing a powerful opportunity for citizens to access critical information about their parliaments and to report on human rights violations, corruption and poor service delivery.

These interventions are amplifying the voices of marginalized communities and helping citizens to hold governments to account.

For citizens to actively participate in democracy, it is critical that they are able to access information on parliamentary proceedings and elected representatives. MySociety is contributing to this process. It has partnered with local organizations across Africa to build sites like Mzalendo in Kenya and Odekro in Ghana, which enable citizens to access information about parliamentary proceedings and their elected representatives, rate their MPs and gain a better understanding about government's inner workings.

They've taken this process one step further in South Africa. The Open Democracy Advice Centre has created a platform where citizens can submit Freedom of Information Requests. A data repository has been created online, enabling journalists, analysts and campaigners to utilize this information to hold government to account and campaign for improved service delivery.

There's a real thirst for this information in Africa. In Nigeria, a simple application created by developer Pledge 51 enables citizens to access their constitution by mobile phone and has been downloaded more than 750,000 times. During protests sparked by last year's fuel crisis, where an increase in the price of fuel resulted in soaring commodity prices, this enabled citizens to exercise their rights against police forces.

Misinformation fueled this crisis, with few citizens understanding the new fuel subsidy payment or oil revenue share in their country. A local organization called BudgIT aimed to address this by generating simple infographics which took citizens through these complex processes in a visual format.

Utilizing the power of social media, this sparked more informed debates and dialogue that contributed to restoring order. The team has since produced a whole series of images that breakdown the Nigerian budget by state and sector, enabling citizens to better understand the country's budget and to utilize this information to ensure that allocated funds are translated into improved services.

Across the continent, platforms are being developed that enable citizens to use SMS from basic phones to report challenges in service delivery. In the impoverished Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, residents have submitted around 3,000 reports on issues like poor sanitation, electricity and transport to the Lungisa platform from their mobile phones, Facebook and the web. Remarkably, most of the issues have been resolved by the city council.

In Northern Uganda, the brutal Lord's Resistance Army conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, leaving infrastructure and service delivery in dire straits. A Peace, Recovery and Development Plan has been put in place but progress is limited. Only a few health centers have been established, there's a severe shortage of drugs, medical workers and equipment and corruption is commonplace.