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Armenia's Capital City Launches Interactive Municipal Website

BY Onnik Krikorian | Friday, November 9 2012

Screenshot from iYerevan.am

Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, democratization in the South Caucasus, a region sandwiched between Russia, Iran, and Turkey which comprises Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, has not been without its problems. But, with Internet penetration slowly growing and some activists and citizens finding their voice online, international donors are increasingly looking towards Information Communication Technology (ICT) as a means not only to empower the population, but to also introduce much needed accountability and transparency into local and national government.

In Armenia, the smallest of the three countries categorized by Freedom House as "partly free," one such project is iYerevan.am.

Launched in the capital, Yerevan, on November 1, the site is funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It is an attempt to encourage residents of Armenia’s largest city, by some accounts home to just under half of the country’s population of 3 million, to engage with the municipality, which became an elected body in 2009, following the constitutional amendments of 2005.

At the press conference to launch the site, municipal officials made a point of stressing the interest of Mayor Taron Margaryan in actively encouraging the participation of residents in the city’s management and not least following high-profile demonstrations opposing urban development and the further erosion of the city’s green areas by environmental activists earlier this year.

“These types of online platforms for citizens are usually started by NGOs or activists, and that’s why this project makes me so proud of our municipal partners who have thoroughly embraced the concept,” wrote Tatevik Koloyan, UNDP’s manager for the project, in a post on the international organization’s Voices from Eurasia blog. “Less than 24 hours after its launch, the website already features several proposals from citizens, as well as proposals for public discussion from the Yerevan Municipality.”

Speaking to techPresident, Koloyan said iYerevan was inspired by the Russian StreetJournal.org. “UNDP Armenia developed a project proposal for the creation of a [similar] website that would serve as a direct link and real-time communication tool between the municipality and the citizens of the city,” she says. “The online map featured on the website allows citizens to tag or discuss their ideas and suggestions on how to improve the city, making it a better place to live and to visit.”

Koloyan says the project proposal was approved in June. “UNDP Armenia strongly emphasized municipality involvement in the project’s development and implementation since eventually it would be the municipality and its respective departments who would be receiving suggestions from citizens,” she explains. “Only with the municipality’s ownership and maintenance can each suggestion receive a respective response or action.”

Nevertheless, with Internet penetration still relatively low in a country with a GDP per capita of just $5,500 in 2011, it remains to be seen whether iYerevan is embraced by residents. Despite government claims that penetration stood at just over 60 percent (ITU data) in 2011, others believe the figure is much lower. According to a USAID-funded study the same year for the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF), Internews, and Yerevan Press Club, for example, only 34 percent of Armenians said they owned a computer with just 28 percent saying they accessed the Internet. That includes those with Internet-enabled mobile phones.

But, illustrating how connectivity is more prevalent in Yerevan, the same household survey also noted that while a staggering 86 percent of Armenians living in rural areas said they had never accessed the Internet at all, that figure was much lower at 56 percent in the capital. Indeed, with 43 percent of Yerevan residents having access to the Internet, many going online daily, there is at least some potential for e-governance sites to establish themselves as conduits for communication between citizens and the local authorities in the capital at least.

Even so, others remain unconvinced. “I’m aware of iYerevan and similar sites, but many others I know are not,” says Zhirayr Terzyan, a young Internet-savvy marketing professional who also works extensively online. “I don't think iYerevan will see massive adoption because Armenian Internet users are still very much media-consumers rather than creators or contributors.”

For now, such a belief seems to be supported by interest to date in the site. According to Koloyan, and despite television and other coverage including social media, one week after its official launch iYerevan had been accessed 882 times by 634 unique visitors with 48 suggestions made by residents. Nevertheless, it is hoped that this will dramatically change when an outreach and publicity campaign using traditional methods such as posters and flyers is launched towards the end of the month.

But, potentially confusing potential users of iYerevan, is the existence of another site, CityBugs.am, a project that won a Microsoft-sponsored hackathon in December 2011 and which was officially launched on October 1 this year with financial support from USAID, Internews and EPF. Like iYerevan, it too seeks to engage residents in the capital’s development and now has the cooperation of the Yerevan municipality. “There is lot of similar functionality [with iYerevan], but that project will not cover the same areas,” says Arman Atoyan, CEO and founder of the X-Tech Creative Studio responsible for the site.

Moreover, he says, there is the firm belief that over time such tools can benefit citizens, especially as Internet penetration increases. “Our slogan is ‘let's make our city a better place for our lives,’” he told techPresident, voicing a sentiment that UNDP’s Koloyan shares. “Through this site we aim to support the development of a constructive partnership between the local authorities and the citizens, resulting in more active civic engagement, citizen reporting, and a higher level of accountability from the local authorities.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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