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Open Data Gives New Lease of Life for Civil Society in the South Caucasus

BY Onnik James Krikorian | Thursday, April 3 2014

Eric Barrett, Executive Director of Jumpstart Georgia at the Central Open Data Hackathon in Warsaw (Onnik James Krikorian)

Two weeks ago, on March 21, 2014, the Georgian chapter of leading international anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International called on the country’s citizens to turn off their mobile phones for one hour to protest government surveillance. The action came in the wake of revelations that the previous authorities were intercepting phone calls, text messages, and internet traffic on a systematic basis. The European Union calls the situation that still exists today under a new government, "a jungle of misuse of the possibilities of technology to record almost everything."

Yet, despite concerns regarding the amount of data collected on citizens in the former Soviet republic, large online databases of government information might actually be giving the media and civil society in Georgia a new lease of life in fighting corruption and engaging citizens. “For years the government pushed more and more datasets online,” says Mathias Huter, an Austrian who spent four years working with Transparency International Georgia as a senior analyst. “Turning it into a usable format is the challenge.”

Open Data

In 2011, when Georgia became a signatory to the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an inter-governmental platform to "promote transparency, increase civic participation, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to make government more open, effective, and accountable," NGOs became particularly active in sifting through that data and releasing it in more machine-readable formats. They also created parallel databases while others such as the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) took advantage of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.


Giorgi Kldiashvili: Opendata.ge, Georgia

Three years later, civil society continues to be behind a new drive to introduce data into the mainstream although Huter admits that many obstacles remain. Transparency International Georgia, for example, is lobbying the government to adopt Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) which allow others to incorporate open data more easily into their own sites without endangering the stability or security of the source database.

“What you need is a lot of time as well as the freedom and resources to dig into a lot of data without knowing what the story will be,” he told techPresident a day after officially leaving Transparency International Georgia to set up his own consultancy firm in Austria. “What we found has a bigger impact is to go to local journalists and work with them at their desks to help them understand how to use open data sources to better tell a story. Before they could only rely on rumor and speculation, but now they can actually substantiate it."

Data Journalism

And that model seems to be true elsewhere with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) using its own Investigative Dashboard developed in cooperation with Google Ideas by two Knight Fellows, Paul Christian Radu and Justin Arenstein. The dashboard uses a crowd-sourced database of information and documents, access to existing online databases, and a research desk to track down additional data. Like many organizations worldwide, Transparency International Georgia also uses the tool.


OCCRP Reporter Khadija Ismayilova on Corruption in Azerbaijan

In neighboring Azerbaijan, ranked 127th out of 177 countries for corruption by Transparency International, reports by local journalists working through the OCCRP made international headlines with their investigations into the business dealings of the family of President Ilham Aliyev. Khadija Ismayilova, an award winning investigative journalist, spent three years researching business enterprises in the oil-rich republic to no avail until the dashboard allowed her to trace ownership to offshore companies based in Panama and registered in the name of the president’s two daughters.

“It is absolutely indispensable as a tool,” Ismayilova told techPresident, seemingly also undaunted by a resulting campaign of intimidation and blackmail to prevent her from continuing with her work. “As the government tries to restrict our job inside the country, the Investigative Dashboard helped us to overcome barriers. We use international databases to discover how much is being stolen by our government, and as that amount is impossible to spend and hide inside one country, as the crime goes transnational, as journalists so do we.”

In Armenia, OCCRP partner Hetq Online has also used the dashboard to track down money laundering by Armenian government officials and a Bentley-driving member of the clergy to shell companies also registered abroad.

The investigative dashboard

Data Visualisation

But data journalism is insufficient on its own to fully inform the public. As a result, local NGOs such as Jumpstart Georgia, initially established by Jumpstart International to collect and release local map data, are also involved in visualization. “A tool is a tool. It not something people consume,” explains Executive Director Eric N. Barrett. “Visuals are consumable and what I call ‘edible evidence.’ There are things that people consume, share, respond to, and act on. That’s one of the beauties of visualization over text. You’re not going to have a 30-page report go viral. It’s just not going to happen.”

Utilizing new multimedia tools alongside data journalism and visualization practices, Jumpstart Georgia works with other NGOs and online media to reach the widest possible audience. This year alone it has formed a partnership with Liberali, a Georgian news and current affairs magazine, while, funded by Jumpstart International and the Open Society Foundations (OSF), also working with four NGOs in the area of the preservation of historical landmarks, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), the disabled, and a social enterprise start up.

“With this project we’re using the same sort of format as The New York Times — scrolling stories based on data, but with photography, video, and maps,” says Barrett. “It’s storytelling in a way that’s much more engaging. If you do it right, a visual can really be a spark of discussion or conversation around issues that people don’t usually talk about. It just develops momentum. Everyone needs to decide for themselves, but at least various issues should be discussed. We want that to happen based on facts and not rumor.”

Screenshot of data visualization projects by Jumpstart Georgie

The problem, however, is that not all data is available or reliable, with government open data policy more concerned with procurement tenders and land registries to satisfy international donors and investors. Barrett specifically points to the national statistical service, GeoStat, as a particularly bad example. “Every time we focus on an issue in which we use that data, experts in the same field come back to us and say that it is unreliable at best,” he says. “This is the environment in which we’re working.”

A new Jumpstart Georgia project to raise awareness of environmental issues in the country could nonetheless prove pivotal in supporting the actions of grassroots activists currently protesting the construction of a hotel in a major central park in Tbilisi, the country’s capital. Resembling a ‘mini Gezi Park,’ a far larger environmental action in neighboring Turkey, activists have prevented construction there by camping out and blocking access to the construction site while also using social media tools to mobilize supporters to prevent eviction by police.

But despite their success so far, activists understand that a campaign to raise public awareness and engage city residents is also necessary. Data journalism and visualization will likely prove key in that regard and Jumpstart Georgia’s work will indirectly and unintentionally help.

“Vake Park is very problematic because in order to legally build there you have to change its zonal status,” explains Barrett. “But if you go to the municipal database of zones and look at the park you realize that the space that they’re building on has not been changed at all. Is it that they haven’t updated the public data or is somebody building there illegally? We think that the tool we’re building now, which has several visual components, is very relevant to the issue of the environment.”

The 36-year-old Texan, who now calls Georgia home, says the tool should be released within the next two months and will allow the public to interface with municipal information more easily. “The database they have at City Hall is very cumbersome and difficult for people to use,” he says. “It’s very slow and just not very useful. Ours will allow people to flag places of concern and hopefully in an actionable way. We also want to allow people to express what they actually think green space should be.”

Crowdsourcing additional data and opinion will allow Jumpstart Georgia to produce visualizations to engage city residents. “The issue is who decided this, when did they decide it, and why wasn’t the public involved in the process,” Barrett continues. “Hopefully this tool will empower people to at least raise these issues in a space that is dedicated to this purpose. Without that, it’s not an acceptable way to develop public policy or make decisions.”

And as a sign of things to come, what was claimed to be Europe’s largest college Open Data hackathon was also held in Tbilisi last month, further highlighting the new direction that the media and civil society in the region continues to take. Jumpstart Georgia, for example, is also inviting female journalists and activists to gather at their offices every week in order to learn how to code. “We want to empower a whole new generation of people to take ownership of their communities,” says Barrett.

Onnik James Krikorian is a journalist, photographer, and media consultant from the United Kingdom based in the South Caucasus. From 2007-2012 he was the Caucasus Regional Editor for Global Voices.

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