Today I was a panelist in one of the activities of the Global Partnership for Social Accountability Forum. The panel was called Government as a Platform: from Social Accountability to Institutional Reform and this was what I prepared for the occasion.
So I was asking myself, why I am here. I mean, not the philosophical question, but what do my experience offers in terms of seeing the government as a platform, as an enabler of civic tech, citizen engagement, and social accountability.
And I think I’m here because of Rosie. Rosie is a bot, an artificial intelligence who happens to have a Twitter account. We created Rosie because, in Brazil, congresspeople can claim reimbursement for small expenses, such as lunch, flight tickets, taxis and other things one might need in need in the task of being an elected representative.
These claims generate tons of data, which are very difficult to audit. A department with 4 people can have up to 1,500 claims a day to review. Rosie can review two million claims in roughly an hour, in a simple computer (I mean, no expensive data center needed).
Once she finds something suspicious, she tweets asking for people to help in corroborating or rejecting the claim she’s flagged. And she tags the politician giving them a chance to clarify the usage of public funds.
She does not go to the courts because she only deals with tiny expenses: it would be a waste of time, and a waste of more public funds to get attorneys and judges involved. Raising the issue in the civic space was her smartest choice.
So, this is Rosie. And when I tell Rosie’s story, usually people ask: do they hate you at the Chamber of Deputies? Or the other way around: you must hate the Chamber of Deputies to decide to create a bot just to poke them, right? And actually, none of these ideas are true.
On the one hand, public servants working on the transparency portal in the Brazilian government were very enthusiastic to see their work was enabling such an interesting initiative in the civic space.
They were thoughtful and offered a lot of support in the back and forth messages via different channels: not only the official communication but also via social media and GitHub (an online platform for developers and data scientists share their code). They even invite us to discuss the next steps for their digital and transparency strategies!
The politicians themselves also have invited us to go to Brasilia (the federal capital) to present and discuss the project. They changed their behavior: in the post-Rosie era, their meals cost 10% less than pre-Rosie.
On the other hand, we don’t hate the Chamber of Deputies. The reason why we started the project targetting them was basically because we admire them.
I’m not saying that politically we were aligned with everything they pass, but that they have been doing a great job a platform. That is to say, behaving as enablers of the civic space.
First, they offer good quality open data. This is not trivial. For example, their counterparts in congress, the Federal Senate, don’t: back then the Senate just offered aggregated data about claims like that. The Chamber of Deputies offers disaggregated data, in different formats, an API and everything.
Second, data is machine-readable. Sure they have a portal for humans to browse all data. But Rosie is eager and she wants it all. What I mean here, for example, is that PDF and neat reports are great ways to make information accessible to humans. It is very important. But if we are talking about technology, about how citizens can use technology to empower themselves, data should be readable also by Rosie.
Third, the data is updated. That’s also not trivial. While the Chamber of Deputies updates their dataset mostly on a daily basis, other parts of the Brazilian government do it twice a year for example!
Fourth, data were documented. Citizens might struggle with public financial management jargon, data labels might be abbreviated or use acronyms not familiar to lay-people, thus we have to offer resources for people to understand what that data is about. The Chamber of Deputies offered a great user manual for their data and systems.
Finally, they supported us. The humans behind the Chamber of Deputies, as I mentioned, were honoring their mandate to serve. We could engage in short feedback loops, and they helped us go through the challenges, they improved their services and enabled Rosie to do more.
In sum, my message is: Rosie just exists because the Chamber of Deputies allowed it. And they allowed it not merely because of the enforcement of the law, but because of the way they understand the access to information act: not as a checkbox to tick, but as an opportunity to create another fruitful opportunity for transparency, citizen engagement, and social accountability.