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Israeli Transparency NGO Shows Voters How to Cast Informed Ballots

BY Lisa Goldman | Thursday, January 3 2013

Screengrab from Open Knesset website

In December 2010 the worst large-scale fire in Israel’s history decimated the Carmel Forest, a hilly wooded swathe of land near the northern city of Haifa, and the surrounding area. When 44 police officers, hastily recruited to bolster emergency efforts, were killed in a bus trapped in the burning forest by a fallen tree, the tragedy generated huge headlines and shocked the nation. In his report on the fire, the state comptroller declared it was a preventable tragedy; he laid a significant portion of the blame on the finance minister for his failure to allot urgently needed funding from the national budget to the Fire and Rescue Services (FRS), which had informed the government of its dire condition many months before the fire.

Galvanized by the comptroller’s report, a group of tech-savvy transparency advocates tried to ascertain via the finance ministry’s records how much of the national budget had been allocated to the FRS. But they were stymied by the ministry’s lack of transparency. Information was difficult to obtain and even more difficult to parse.

Ultimately, with the help of a sympathetic government minister, they were able to obtain, analyze and publicize the information online. This became Israel’s first Open Budget initiative.

In 2011, the activists founded HaSadna, or The Public Knowledge Workshop, thus formalizing what had for two years been an ad hoc arrangement between friends who were committed to transparency and civil society. Now with about 60 members, the volunteer-driven NGO is, according to the mission statement on its homepage “…devoted to liberating government data by building open-code websites that make the information easily accessible on the Internet for every citizen.”

HaSadna oversees several transparency initiatives now — perhaps most prominently the Ur-transparency project that the founding members initiated on an ad hoc basis in 2009, well before they established HaSadna as a registered NGO. This is Open Knesset, a site that drills down into information about each Knesset (legislature) member’s activities.

Open Knesset joins a long string of grassroots initiatives around the world that share the goal of making government data accessible to ordinary citizens — initiatives like Open Congress in the United States and Data.Gov.UK in the United Kingdom.

Hasadna’s idealistic volunteers come from a broad swathe of backgrounds – their numbers include top tier programmers and developers from Israel’s hi tech sector, community organizers, web designers, entrepreneurs and academics. Last year the board took on its first paid staffer when it hired Yuval Admon, a 29 year-old graduate student, as its CEO. In a Skype interview with techPresident, Admon explained the organization’s goal succinctly:

“We are trying to convey to the public, first of all, two main messages. One, that all the information the authorities have belongs to us — belongs to the people. We pay taxes for this information and no one can hide it from us. And two, be involved, be aware, use this information as a tool for being involved in Israeli democracy.”

With national elections slated for January 22, the traffic to Open Knesset, which usually receives around 20,000 unique visitors per month, has tripled — according to Admon.

While the official Knesset site’s member pages list a brief biography, contact information and party affiliation, the Open Knesset site provides detailed relevant information for each one of Israel’s 120 Members of Knesset. Alongside a basic biography, contact information and links to the MK's social media accounts, each dedicated page lists the number of bills s/he initiated and how many of them received a second reading; the number of votes the member was present to cast; the number of hours present in the Knesset; the number of committee meetings attended — and so on. Information about the MK’s party discipline is listed according to percentage, with an indication of whether it is a comparatively high or low ranking. On the left side, a word cloud indicates the issues the legislator has been most involved in promoting.

HaSadna’s volunteer developers write script for programs that scrape the Knesset website for this information, which a casual visitor to the official site would never find. The Knesset, said Admon, does not make it easy to obtain the information. But on the other hand, the CEO of the Knesset has met with HaSadna activists and expressed an interest in making government matters more transparent.

“Our whole policy is to cooperate with authorities whenever possible,” said Admon. “And where they aren’t interested in making things transparent, we have our ways of getting the information via really bright, talented volunteer developers who know how to write the code to get the information from ministry websites.”

“We are more of a movement than an organization,” explained HaSadna board member Hadas Eyal, a doctoral candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She added, “We want to create the scaffolding that makes things more transparent, so that volunteers in all sorts of fields have the information they need. We see ourselves as something between a guerilla movement and an organization structure.”

When Israel’s major political parties held their primary elections in November, HaSadna activists wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Open Knesset logo and armed with iPads stood outside the polling stations and showed voters the Open Knesset site, encouraging them to look at the page for the party members that represented them.

Open Knesset volunteers at polling stations during November's party primaries

“In 95 percent of the cases,” said Admon, “People were amazed. They simply did not know that it was possible to get this kind of information [about their MKs].”

In many cases, recounted Hadas Eyal, the representatives of various MKs, who were standing outside the polling stations as well, were chagrined to discover that the information on the MK’s Open Knesset page presented a picture that was significantly less flattering than the one presented in the glossy campaign fliers they were distributing. “There was some tension,” Eyal said laconically. “But people have to be transparent.” She added, "It’s really interesting to see that most people don’t think they 'deserve' to have access to information. They just don’t know that this information is in or should be in the public domain."

It may be a young, all-volunteer initiative built on an open source platform, but Open Knesset has significant influence. Meretz, a liberal political party, announces on one of its current campaign posters — seen on the party’s Facebook page — that Open Knesset ranks it “Number One in Promoting Workers’ Rights.”

Meretz campaign poster boasting of the party's high ranking with Open Knesset

Last week, the speaker of the Knesset wrote a formal letter to HaSadna to convey concerns expressed by MKs who felt their presence at parliamentary meetings was under-represented on the site. Admon shared the letter, dated December 25 and written on Knesset letterhead, with techPresident.

"It has come to our attention," writes Knesset speaker Yotam Yakir, " ... that you have chosen to count members' presence only on Monday through Wednesday, and according to these parameters you calculate the number of hours a member is present at the Knesset. The issue, of course, is that this undermines the many MKs who routinely appear at the Knesset for committee meetings that are held on Thursdays and Sundays."

Admon explained that since Thursday is the last day of the work week in Israel, MKs who live in areas distant from Jerusalem are routinely absent from the Knesset. Hence HaSadna's volunteers thought it would be unfair and unduly complex to give credit to MKs who do live in the city for appearing at the legislature, since they did not have to commute from elsewhere in the country.

Admon commented dryly, “It’s a funny thing that the Knesset comes to us and tells us what we should do about making information accurate on our free volunteer open source website, because they are the ones who should be updating their information and using an API that makes information accessible.” He added, “But it’s a good thing. It shows that we are having an effect, and that legislators care what the public thinks.”

A few weeks ago, HaSadna started a social network campaign to raise public awareness about the importance of being an informed voter.

“We’re saying, ‘Don’t go and vote just because you saw someone say something on the news. Visit the Open Knesset site to see what the members did and what they believe in.’ We are trying to help the people in Israel understand how important it is to be involved and informed,” explained Admon.

A video clip posted to the site brings the message home in colloquial Hebrew, using phrases familiar to the average Israeli.

Don't vote like dummies

According to all the polls, the next Knesset will set two historical precedents. Not only will Israelis elect more members from right wing parties than ever before, but they will also cast their ballots for the highest-ever percentage of new, untested legislators. According to Hadas Eyal, 60 percent of the MKs voted in on January 22 will be freshman legislators. Members of at least two newly-established parties will be elected to the next Knesset, and a significant number of current MKs will not be re-elected.

This presents a challenge for an all-volunteer organization composed of members with full-time jobs and families. In order to update the Open Knesset site with all the information available about the new MKs and new parties, HaSadna needs to hire temporary freelance coders and content editors that can work full time on the project going into the January 22 elections. To pay for the temporary staff, they are crowdsourcing the funding via Headstart, an Israeli version of Kickstarter. As of this writing, they have raised just over 40 percent of their 40,000 shekel (approximately $11,000) goal.

Meanwhile, the volunteers are continuing with creative initiatives to raise public awareness of the peoples' right to be informed voters. “We are now thinking of doing a flash mob on a bus,” said Hadas Eyal, in which two people pretend to get into a political argument and one resolves it by consulting Open Knesset’s mobile phone app. They are also going to deploy volunteers armed with tablets to engage people in popular public places, like Tel Aviv’s sprawling outdoor Carmel Market.

“Theoretically,” said Admon, “The dream is that Israel won’t need us any more because all the information will be open and accessible. We are just trying to make it happen faster and better.”

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