On September 29, 2017, 23 people died and more than 35 got injured in a stampede at the Elphinstone Road station. Even though a committee was later formed to look into the reasons behind the horrific incident, a report unearthed at least 100 Mumbaikars having earlier reported the dismal state of the foot-over bridge through a popular social networking site. Some had posted photographs of the place, some had predicted an impending “stampede” as far back as in 2013.
What the government’s role and response was in relation to the incident will be seen as the investigation progresses, but the activity on social media raises a few pertinent doubts: Are social media handles equipped to deal with such real-world issues pertaining to governance and decision making? If not, where does the common man go to post queries and complaints? In this age of the internet, are we still expecting people to physically visit the concerned officials’ workplaces to complain? How do citizens keep track of issues which have been reported and the action being taken regarding them? Should we always expect a social media handle run by a third party to respond to our genuine queries? How do we trust them to actually forward our complaints to the right department? Won’t our voices be lost in the deluge of the thousands of other posts and opinions that fill our timelines?
The questions are many, the answers all lead to one solution: an upgraded democracy with a dedicated network that lets the common man voice concerns remotely, one where concerned officials have an easy-to-use interface that directly shows them complaints needing urgent attention, ongoing issues, and public opinion about stuff that matters. In short, civic tech.
Civic tech is a broad term that encompasses any technology that “enables engagement or participation of the public for stronger development, enhancing citizen communications, improving government infrastructure, and generally improving the public good”. It can be a website that disseminates important information about the government’s performance, lets users share their opinions about civic issues, provides analytics support to the government, or simply bridges the gap between citizens and their elected representatives.
Civic tech is also is a new term for us Indians, one that we’re not very used to hearing. We know about social media, we know about online shopping sites, and we know about entertainment websites. But the use of the internet to solve real-world problems and to foster connectivity between citizens and elected leaders is a novel concept. We are accustomed to an offline democratic system, one that functions on paper, with files. So how can democracy turn digital? How can internet be used as a tool to support the local democratic system?
This is where lies our biggest challenge as well as our biggest opportunity.
One of the most important challenges with the voters in India is that they don’t know their power because they’ve never had the chance to fully exercise it. Years of apathy and ignorance has led our nation to a state where people, especially the youth, are completely aloof of the working of governments and local bodies. Even the most aware of citizens believe that their power is only limited to voting in the elections, which is also sadly influenced by personal political allegiance instead of informed opinions.
The lack of information also stems from overlapping local agencies. In Delhi, for example, there is a perpetual conflict between the elected government and the Lieutenant Governor appointed by the Centre. The various local bodies such as PWD, MCD, DJB, etc often lack coordination and seem to indulge in blame-games about issues. There are multiple government websites. Some of them are regularly updated while some aren’t. Some websites have the features to contact the authorities, which works at times and at times doesn’t. Some websites simply don’t provide that option. All these problems further propel the public away from getting involved and taking action because they simply don’t know whom to approach and how.
So the primary concern is to educate people about policies, roles and responsibilities, governance models, and offer them knowledge that keeps them informed and interested in civic affairs. Then, as the next step, we need to make them realise that they are also part of this system, and that demanding transparency and holding the authorities answerable is their right as well as their duty. After all, in an ideal democracy, the ultimate power rests with the citizens.
The overall internet penetration in India is around 31%, with a stark difference in the figure for urban and rural areas (60% and 17% respectively). Moreover, the patterns of usage also differ, with urban population using the internet for social media, emails and similar services and rural India using it primarily for watching video and audio content. Therefore, any sort of online civic networking platform will face a huge bottleneck when it plans to expand its user base.
Small term solutions to this challenge exist in the form of offering offline options such as SMS-based participation, using phone-calls to access online records, or community-level engagement through assigned representatives. Long-term investments include laying stress on digital literacy and state-sponsored internet availability, which the current Central Government is also pushing through its Digital India initiative.
Any organisation that plans to step into civic tech in India will face its own set of challenges. First and foremost, the sheer size of the democracy – the huge number of people, the huge number of representatives, their officials, their departments, etc – makes the task seem daunting. You have to contact multiple agencies and convince them to get involved. And you have to convince the people that you are indeed offering them a working solution because they’ve come to believe that they will not get any response from the authorities even if they make an effort.
You cannot function as a for-profit firm. You cannot judge your ROI (Return on Investment) in terms of sales or service-packages sold or sign-ups. You need to bear the brunt, because some people will believe that you work for the government, and you will hear the brickbats intended for government reps. Your advertising has to be on-point and very different from traditional advertising campaigns, and you have to think of innovative ways to engage people in a country where politics is looked down upon.
As an organisation, the tasks seem mostly uphill because your impact is long-term and you don’t see immediate results. In fact, more often than not, you are greeted with apprehensions and doubts about your sustainability.
Because the future is digital, even for the Indian democracy. And the results are promising and beneficial for all:
The citizens are informed and empowered, and can collectively work towards constructive outcomes.
The leaders can gauge voter sentiments, make advertisements that actually connect with their people, focus on what matters, and resolve pressing issues.
Prominent issues that got lost in the sea of comments now get real, tangible results.
Finding meaningful insights gets easier, which were otherwise spread across status updates, comments, and other media formats.
The size and width of our nation seems manageable and accessible when we use online solutions. Ours is a huge and mostly disconnected democracy, but the beauty of the internet is that it is one of the easiest ways to connect people and integrate systems, no matter how numerous.
Citizens complain a lot about how the government doesn’t do enough, how local issues are not resolved, etc. Civic tech gives such citizens the driver’s seat and empowers them to be the agents of change themselves. Instead of giving them local solutions, it offers them a tool they can use to get to the solutions, a tool with immense potential to transform the democracy for the better.