Tech 4 Accountability

Articles on the use and abuse of technology for accountability, transparency and human rights

During my last visit to India, I participated in a few meetings on questions such as strengthening the right information act, the role of the PDS, and other social issues. In all these meetings there was a vigorous debate on how mobile phones could be used on each of these issues given the rapid spread of mobiles in rural India. Despite periodic discussion about the use of technology, I did not hear viable ideas among my activist friends. I believe that this is in part because most of them are not advanced users of technology, and they have definitely not […]

Need for public service mobile application foundation for India

Andhra Pradesh is now experimenting with the system of authenticating cash payments in programs like NREGA and old-age pensions using a biometric device. In an example that I saw in Tirupati district, the device was installed in a post office that disburses wages and pensions. The device had a fingerprint scanner to authenticate the identity of the user, and it also had a SIM card through which the device communicates to a centralised database, from which the post office downloads a list of people and the amount that must be paid to them. When pensioner comes to the post office, […]

Biometric device or a mini computer?

After watching a news report on the appalling number of schools in India without even a building to house it in, I saw an advertisement mentioning “My classroom has no walls, I have no ceiling”.  I would have thought that it were a fundraising advertisement to build schools, but for the white smiling face in the ad.  It turns out in this strange world that classrooms without walls can also be sold as an opportunity.

Classrooms without walls

“Do you want to wear an anklet or do you want to go to prison?” said a US consular officer in Hyderabad about the tagging of some Indian students in the United States to monitor their movements. These anklets contain a GPS device that closely monitors the movements of the students, and will alert officials in case they move beyond areas that they have been authorised to. The anklets provide a useful analogy to the Unique ID (UID) project by the government of India. Let me explain. In an article entitled Prison without walls, Graeme Wood argues that such radio […]

Understanding UID through “radio tags”

“To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, listed and checked off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about…to be ruled is at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected”. Proudhon quoted by James Scott in Seeing like a state. The power of information is often used by those in powerful positions to control others.  The right to information movement inverts this principle and turns the gaze on those in positions of power by making their actions visible and thus amenable to democratic control.  Sharing information […]

Politics, technology & accountability II

In an earlier post I asked if there are technological answers to the problem of accountability, or if accountability is purely a political problem needing political solutions.  I then argued that while accountability is best seen as a political issue, technology can have an impact on the political terrain, and thus have an impact on accountability.  Let me illustrate this an example. Micro-politics of accountability At the heart of accountability in government programmes lies the process of specifying a set of responsibilities, clearly recording activities of various agents, cross verifying this information and holding agents accountable if there are breaches […]

Politics, technology & accountability I

Improving accountability depends on political and social initiatives, and not technological solutions. But technology can shape society and politics in limited ways. This article looks briefly at how the Unique id project can help in improving accountability of the government to people in India.

Will the Unique ID project improve accountability?