Digital Rights and Democracy
Exploring the intersections of digital rights debates with democratic politics, especially in post-colonial societies in the global South, has been a constant focus of our research, advocacy and field-building efforts. In times of data governmentality and the automated public sphere, building an inclusive democracy which furthers citizen voice and meaningful participation for those at the margins, is what we strive towards.
Spoorthi – A spatial data system for the inclusive cities agenda
In 2018-19, we made significant headway with our action research project Spoorthi that seeks to build a proof-of-concept for a community-based spatial data system for inclusive local governance in urban poor neighbourhoods. The project, supported by the United National Democracy Fund (UNDEF), is being implemented in east Bengaluru in partnership with two other city based organizations, the Association for Voluntary Action and Service (AVAS) and the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP).
As part of this intervention, 24 young women and men from the urban poor neighborhood of G. Baiyappanahalli have received training on digital literacy, basic data analytics and the importance of civic engagement, in order to equip them to play a leadership role in data-supported problem solving and grievance redressal in their communities. In partnership with this cohort of ‘data stewards’, the project has been working to set up a community based spatial data platform that systematically tracks community grievances pertaining to Water, Sanitation and Access to Health (WASH) services. Built on baseline data, collected by stewards through a digitally mediated survey, the platform provides data on various community parameters and household level information in the WASH sector. In January 2019, a prototype version of the platform was demonstrated to an external project review team and was received positively.
A heightened awareness of digital tools, data based techniques and urban governance mechanisms was reflected in the stewards’ keen enthusiasm in initiating a data campaign for improving transportation services in their community in March 2019. Stewards not only actively spearheaded the process of a perception survey through which the issues of public transportation in the area were mapped, but also collectively brainstormed advocacy strategies on how their demands for improved bus services could receive a sympathetic and supportive hearing from the concerned officials at the local transport authority.
A critical strategic intervention we made in the year 2018-19 was the establishment of an alternative media platform, Bot Populi. This space is dedicated to looking at all things digital from a social justice and global South perspective. In partnership with the Just Net Coalition and five other organizations invested in a progressive politics of social and economic justice, Bot Populi has been conceptualized as a media space to foreground the missing global South perspective in the digital and data rights sphere.
In 2018, we explored raising resources for the initiative and were able to bring together some funding to kick-start the project and assemble a part-time team at IT for Change to work on this. By January-February 2019, the project team developed a mock-up for the media space, outlining initial design and content elements, which was presented to the collaborating organizations and advisers at a side-meeting within the Just Net Coalition workshop program in March 2019. IT for Change will be working to formally launch Bot Populi in June 2019 in Tunis at the RightsCon summit.
Writing and publications
Through academic research, writing and other inputs, IT for Change continued to make critical interventions in the areas of digital rights, democracy and communication for social change – deepening our connections with leading media and communication scholars in London School of Economics, University of Sydney and University of Cambridge. We were invited by Loughborough University to join a global network of scholar-activists working on the public sphere to propose new ways to think about emerging publics.
We introduced the idea of “institutional listening” as a way of conceptualizing the new regimes of citizen rights needed to translate voice into the right to be heard in datafied democracy. The unique Southern perspective that IT for Change brings to the debate on digital rights has garnered much appreciation. In April 2018, Anita Gurumurthy was invited to speak at a public event organized by the University of Sydney, where she made a presentation on interrogating the digital rights debate from a Southern standpoint. Anita Gurumurthy was also invited to deliver a keynote at the Conference on Data justice organized by the Data Justice Lab, Cardiff University in May 2018, centred on the theme of exploring social justice in the age of datafication.
We also made a lot of headway in terms of writing for peer reviewed journals and contributing to edited volumes. We authored a paper on Democracy and the Algorithmic Turn- Issues, Challenges and the Way Forward for the July 2018 edition of the Sur International Journal of Human Rights, which outlined the ways in which democracy is being remade through datafication. This essay was translated into Spanish and Portugese as well.
We also contributed a commentary on the political practice of empowerment in digital times from the Southern perspective, to a Routledge publication on Power, Empowerment and Social Change that is scheduled for release in late 2019. Additionally, we were selected to contribute to a forthcoming edited book by the University of Minnesota Press on the Global Debates in the Digital Humanities where we are constructing theory ground-up, bringing in insights from the work of our field centre in Mysuru with adolescent girls on intergenerational leadership and grassroots citizenship.
We have been invited to participate in key academic and research conferences at the national level by civil society think tanks and mainstream institutions.
- In October 2018, Anita Gurumurthy participated in the expert round table on Artificial Intelligence, organized by the Tandem Research Collective in Goa.
- In January 2019, Meenakshi Yadav made a presentation at the Communication Quotient, an annual conference on Contemporary Media and Communication Ecology: Discourses and Dynamics, organized by Symbiosis School of Media and Communication in Bengaluru.
- In March 2019, Deepti Bharthur provided an input on potential themes for future research into the digitally-mediated public sphere at a round table on Social Media and Democracy in Bengaluru. This event was organized by the Centre for Internet and Society in collaboration with Social Science One, and the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age.
Events and forums (global)
In 2018-19, we continued to make our presence felt across global networks, venues and platforms. IT for Change was invited to academic and key global institutions as experts on the data connection to development and democracy. Notably, these included:
- Parminder Jeet Singh, Deepti Bharthur and Nandini Chami attended the RightsCon Summit in Toronto in May 2018, and participated in several panels and sessions. In its capacity as Secretariat of the Just Net Coalition, IT for Change also organized a satellite event titled, Contending with the digital horizon – What next for social movements?, on Day Zero of RightsCon. The event was aimed at brokering a dialogue between actors from social movements and members of the digital rights community, with a view to exploring the possibility of creating common pathways for data and digital justice.
- In June 2018, Anita Gurumurthy was invited to provide an expert input on gender-inclusive e-service delivery, building on IT for Change’s work on the EGOV4WOMEN policy toolkit, at the United Nations Public Service Forum and Awards Ceremony in Marrakech.
- In November 2018, Anita Gurumurthy was a panelist at the session The Internet between Emancipation and Dystopia at the FES Conference on #Digital Capitalism: All Power to the Corporations. From the standpoint of the experience of observing the evolution of the Internet in India, Anita reflected on what it means to reclaim the emancipatory potential of the Internet in the age of digital capitalism.
- In April 2019, Anita Gurumurthy was invited to speak at the International Conference on Labour and Social Protection at the Social Justice Cluster of the Asia Europe People’s Forum on the crisis of production and the future of work in the digital paradigm.
Our work has had impacts both on the ground and in the discursive space of policy change. The Spoorthi project has produced a cadre of grassroots leaders – information and data stewards – equipped with a critical understanding of citizenship rights and local democracy and equipped with the skills to work towards inclusive local governance in their communities. Our writings and advocacy at global and national levels have continually brought in a cutting-edge ‘South-centred’ understanding to the mainstream debates on digital rights.
Plans for 2019-20
We will continue our efforts under the Spoorthi project to build the capacities of data stewards and roll out the community-based spatial data system. We will also seek to engineer critical linkages with local city based agencies such as the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board for the platform to have greater impact. In the coming year, we will also focus on building up Bot Populi as a go to space for critical technology justice debates and issues – crystallizing our dissemination and outreach strategies for various constituencies and influencers in the space and furthering our cross-media engagement. We have already identified and initiated conversations with a pool of contributors – cutting-edge thinkers on the digital economy, data justice, labour rights, platform governance, social justice movements, surveillance capitalism and a host of other themes – in order to ensure a steady stream of articles to attract and retain a dedicated audience. We will continue to contribute to field-building in digital rights, striving to understand changes from the standpoint of the global South.