Technology and the Right to Information

Sri Lanka took over twenty years of activism to get Right to Information legislation. This elephantine gestation has an upside. We now have an RTI law, at least on paper, that is amongst the strongest in the world – the Canadian-based Centre for Law and Democracy think-tank flags it as the third best out of one hundred and ten countries. Recent media reports flag already notable cases where RTI has been used to gain information, and also where it has floundered, with government still getting into gear around responding to requests and also actively resisting compliance by feigning ignorance. This is to be expected, given that we are just over a fortnight into the enactment of the law. What’s lacking are innovative approaches to raising awareness and taking RTI, which rests entirely on the demand from citizens for information from public authorities, to the grassroots – linking it with the daily lives of those who need timely, accurate information the most.

Realising the potential of RTI in 2017 requires twinning it with last mile technologies citizens already have, notably the mobile phone. Much of the implementation of the law, even with proposed digitisation government records, relies of paper based transactions. Awareness raising to date has followed tried and tested models of workshops, training of trainers, lectures, roundtables, panel discussions, various websites to promote and monitor the implementation of RTI, frequently asked questions, short guides, posters and booklets. Clearly, a concert of approaches embracing the reach of mainstream print and electronic media is needed. But where discussions fall short are ways through which to harness the reach and influence of social media, instant messaging and SMS. Imagination to use more traditional communications vectors – like the postal service, are also lacking in RTI promotion. Methods can range from public notices in all post offices around RTI and pre-paid forms that can be filled out and posted on demand, and stamps promoting the law. If the President can send us all greetings on the 1st of January, by the same token, his office can leverage their influence over telcos to send out a message or two on what is a law that is the embodiment of yahapalanaya – giving to citizens the power of oversight, scrutiny and accountability.

There is also the excellent trilingual 1919 hotline and related website, run by the Government Information Centre which falls under the Presidential Secretariat and predates RTI legislation. I proposed last year a way in which the website and hotline service could be revamped to support and strengthen RTI implementation. This kind of platform can serve as an intermediary or as a concierge service, providing citizens with both the information they need to make use of RTI and thereafter, on demand, providing them with the means through which to lodge RTI requests. These requests could be tracked, monitored and delivered through the same platform, not unlike the RTI portal in Uganda called ‘Ask Your Gov’ or India’s ‘Your RTI’ platform.  This idea, proposed as part of the Open Government Partnership process, was apparently approved by Cabinet and is slated to, again on paper, come online by the end of the year in some avatar.

But given the vicissitudes of government, what can be done aside from this, by civil society? A great deal, if we can only think out of the box. Cutting-edge technologies like bots – completely automated, algorithmic agents that work with popular instant messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Skype and Viber to process natural language queries posed by users. Installation is as easy as adding a friend or new account to the app – completely intuitive, second nature to most users, and non-technical. When installed, a query like “Who is responsible to give me information in a public authority?” will generate a response that takes from Section 25 of the RTI Act, presented in a manner that strips away the legal jargon. This is not just a random question. It is one of many that Transparency International Sri Lanka has uploaded to a dedicated website dealing with RTI in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list. While at present it requires a citizen to go to this website and seek out the relevant section and question, the same question asked from a bot from any platform that supports the technology can result in the immediate delivery of accurate information, for free, over desktop, mobile or tablet, anywhere in the country, at any time.

Sadly, bot technology is only possible, at the moment, in English. This may make it of limited use at the last-mile and the grassroots. What technologies can be leveraged at this stage around RTI? Much can be done with public-private partnerships that see local government entities partner with telcos to inform subscribers around their rights under RTI. These can range from SMS campaigns that are limited to specific grama niladari divisions, to the promotion of RTI through billing – printing on what millions get every month details of how to access information on RTI. Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR), tried and tested technology used by banks to ordering a pizza, works on any phone and without any Internet connection. Structured queries – navigated by voice in Sinhala, Tamil or English, or by punching a number on the keypad – can offer even illiterate citizens information around the basics of RTI for free, if government with the support of telcos create an RTI hotline anyone can dial into. Any telco knows with a great degree of accuracy where a mobile is at a given point of time. Government institutions – departments, ministries and other public authorities that fall under the RTI legislation – are fixed locations with specific geographic coordinates, that don’t often change. It is possible, not unlike the international roaming activation reminder that automatically pops up over SMS when a subscriber goes to Bandaranaike International Airport, to have the details of the relevant Information Officer appear on phones that come within say a ten-meter radius of the main entrance or reception of a public authority. To avoid spam, citizens can opt out from these SMS updates, but the idea is to promote by default to everyone the fact that every public authority needs to now have, by law, an Information Officer citizens can address queries to.

But say government will soon realise the folly of promoting accountability and start to block or back-track.  What then can civil society do? Technologies like FrontlineSMS are easy to install and free, allowing the smallest community based organisation to send short messages, over any mobile network, to a select group of RTI enablers or champions, who then forward the SMS to a broader group, and so on. Just ten out-going messages can, if forwarded to ten more, in just ten hops, reach one thousand citizens. Costs are kept to a minimum, yet the reach is potentially unlimited if sufficient numbers of citizen-cells are architected and activated, per division, district or province.

I haven’t even touched on what’s possible over social media, albeit with a demographic bias weighted towards those between 18 – 34, or in effect, first, second or third time voters. Given that this demographic would be amongst those most involved and interested in politics, the promotion of RTI amongst them is critical in order to create over the longer-term a citizenry unafraid of using the law to hold government accountable. Short-form videos, leveraging popular YouTube stars like ‘Gappiya’ to incorporate RTI in their programming, animated images called GIFs, posters, stickers for use in instant messaging apps, short audio recordings called podcasts, fan pages, public chats on Viber – these are just some ideas to piggyback on the ubiquity of mobile devices connected to social media in order to promote RTI, aside from mainstream media campaigns.

Ways to promote RTI don’t necessarily have to embrace technology. The reverse side of train and bus tickets, for example, can promote RTI, reaching millions every single day. I would argue though that the promotion of a law that is only as powerful as those who use it and how often it is used needs to embrace what are already today vectors through which news and information are disseminated online. RTI champions in 2017 cannot ignore how technology, both pervasive and persuasive, can assist in every aspect from initial query to final response. We have a really strong law. We can also be a country that showcases how RTI can be entrenched amongst a connected citizenry.

I really hope I see that in my lifetime.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 26 February 2017.

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