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Culture Hacking: How One Project is Changing Transparency in Chile

BY David Eaves | Wednesday, May 16 2012

A few weeks after the launch of Inspector de Intereses — a Chilean website that allows citizens to map money trails in politics — the team at La Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente, the organization behind the site, had an interesting visitor. At the doorstep stood a member of parliament, carrying a stack of papers which outlined his interest in various corporations. He had received the team’s letter inviting him — and his colleagues — to update his records, and here he was, ready to do so, in person no less.

That eager senator wasn’t alone: about 20 percent of Chilean parliamentarians took the opportunity to update their records. In a country where conflicts of interest are not regularly discussed or acknowledged, this was an interesting shift, a change in culture and in process that was a part of Ciudadano Inteligente's strategy to make more transparent the link between money and power in Chile.

La Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente (the Intelligent Citizen Foundation) is a Santiago, Chile, based nonprofit similar to the Sunlight Foundation in the US or MySociety in the UK. Founded by Felipe Heusser, it is committed to using technology and transparency to help create better informed, responsible and responsive citizens.

In theory, Chilean the law requires that politicians both disclose their corporate interests and abstain from voting on issues related to those interests (as well as those of their family members, up to three levels of affinity). In practice however, that law has not been taken too seriously. Indeed, not only do many politicians fail to disclose companies in which they or their family have interests, those that do often scribble them on the backs of pieces of paper. Scraps of illegible paper hardly comprise a system that creates confidence. This is where the Inspector de Intereses project comes into play. It documents the corporate interests of Chile’s national politicians with the goal of exposing (or preventing) conflicts of interest when votes related to those corporations, such as legislation on mining or agriculture, take place.

What struck me in speaking with Heusser is that Ciudadano Inteligente doesn’t just have a cool app on its hands — they have, and are executing on, a theory of change. The end game for them is to illuminate the relationships between money and politics, and ultimately they want to promote new legislation to regulate political donations. This lesson alone is worth remembering over and over again. Sometimes we get carried away with how technology can create an app or website that will expose a problem, but there is no larger strategy, no sense of how to actually change the situation. There is almost a belief that simple exposing the problem is sufficient, as once exposed, people will demand it be fixed. Such transparency is an essential step, and sometimes is creates the right conditions for change, but the history of social, political and environmental campaigns are littered with examples where awareness-building was not sufficient. The best lesson Ciudadano Inteligente may have to teach others is understanding that websites like Inspector de Intereses are not just an end unto themselves, but also a tool for achieving a political objective. And in order to be effective, you have to understand how you are going to use that tool.

For Ciudadano Inteligente, the case of developing stronger disclosure and campaign finance rules started with getting hard, reliable data on who has ownership stakes in what companies, and how they are currently voting — in other words, to gather and investigate the evidence to determine whether there really is a problem, and if so, how it can best be addressed.

And of course, getting that data wasn’t easy. Heusser recounted for me the three databases his team pulled together to create the engine that drives Inspector de Intereses: First, the government-supplied database of all corporate interests disclosed by MPs; second, a database they pulled together from the public register, register of commerce, and public sector record, to build what Heusser terms a “family tree of data,” similar to the one that powers; and finally, a dataset that combs through each politician’s voting record.

The first dataset, although purchased from the government, was woefully incomplete, so Ciudadano Inteligente sent letters to every MP in Chile, explaining the project and inviting them to update their records. There were errors in the data — thanks, Heusser says, to the quality of government data reporting and not to Ciudadano Inteligente's work — but because of the response rate they got and the thoroughness of their efforts to correct flaws, the entire project enjoyed strong protection from would-be critics.

What immediately became apparent to the project team upon reviewing the data was that 40 percent of MPs were not disclosing their assets at all. This alone was enough to garner them a fair bit of media coverage.

Heusser warns, though, that while the story was initially picked up by some online news sites, they didn’t get as much traction as they’d hoped. However, nothing helps with media like good opposition, and in their case the leader of Chile’s extreme right-wing party attacked the project publicly which resulted in the mainstream media becoming much more interested.

But real impact shouldn’t be measured in terms of media coverage. And this is what I love about this project — they have anecdotal evidence to suggest it is changing the way elected officials behave. Indeed, many politicians have, off the record, shared that they and their colleagues are being more careful to be more comprehensive when listing their corporate interests. This is because elected officials are no longer certain what information is publicly available — and will therefore end up in Inspector de Intereses databases. This uncertainty means they err on the side of disclosing more than would be public. As a result, Chilean citizens and journalists now know more about potential conflict of interests than they did before the project launched.

In other words, by creating a set of checks and balances that lives outside the government’s immediate realm Ciudadano Inteligente is able to apply pressure on government officials to change their relationship to disclosure that has a significant impact on accountability. We’ll be watching closely to see what happens next year to that 40 percent of MPs who didn’t disclose any assets.

A few technical details for those of you who are interested in the nuts and bolts: The project’s code is open-source and available on GitHub (though Heusser warns that it’s not exactly plug-and-play, given the specific data structures they were working with); and while they do not currently have an API, they are interested in the possibility of creating one, and are looking into developing a more deployable version of the project with an API that could allow other NGOs to deploy the tool and play with their own databases.

More immediately, they are looking into update the database records again this year.

Disclosure: Heusser was the conference director for Personal Democracy Forum Latin America, a conference techPresident's parent company hosted in Santiago in 2010.

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