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The ePaństwo Foundation: Supporting democracy and DSI in CEE
24th March 2017
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During our work mapping the DSI ecosystem across Europe, we have come across a number of exciting projects empowering people to better understand, view, improve and contribute to their democratic institutions.
One of these is the Polish ePaństwo Foundation, which is preparing to co-host the 2017 Central and Eastern Europe Personal Democracy Forum in Gdansk, a two day event examining the role of new technology in civic participation and transparency in public life. We caught up with their policy director and board member, Krzysztof Izdebski, to discuss their work, some of the challenges faced by DSI initiatives supporting democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, and the relation between citizen, state, data and democracy.
Toby Baker: What is the ePaństwo Foundation’s mission, and what's the starting point for your work?
Krzysztof Izdebski: Our aim is to develop open and transparent authorities, civic engagement and democracy. We take various types of public data and, using the power of Internet and new technologies, present it to citizens free of charge. We give the citizens the knowledge and the tools to make their country better.
TB: What, in your experience, are the biggest barriers in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) to realising that vision ?
KI: The biggest barriers are not on the side of citizens. All over the region we can see people willing to participate in public life, both online and offline. What makes them give up after a while is a lack of responsiveness from public officials. Some people begin to feel that it isn’t worth devoting much time to engagement, because at the end decision makers aren’t listening to them.
The biggest barriers are not on the side of citizens. All over the region we can see people willing to participate in public life, both online and offline.
As the result, the main challenge is to build solutions that will be used not only by civil society representatives, but also decision makers. On top of this, as a DSI and Civic Tech movement, we have to do much more to create tools that will engage those who tend to make political decisions based on emotions rather than facts or data.
TB: You describe a system with lots of interest from the public. What types of support exist for these bottom-up initiatives? For example, is there a well developed or recognised DSI ecosystem in Poland and Eastern Europe for innovators to connect with or find funding through?
KI: The general problem with the public administration in the region is that each ministry or agency acts as an individual silo. This means there’s no strong coordination between sectors. For that reason there are no general public institutions supporting the ecosystem.
On the other hand, there is some private support through foundations (some of which are funded by public institutions). For example, in Poland there are over 200 entities supporting technological startups. Unfortunately there are very few elements supporting the non-profit elements of the DSI ecosystem.
TB: How does the ePaństwo Foundation work to support DSI in Poland and Eastern Europe?
KI: We’re working through two main programs: Code for Poland and the TransparenCEE Network.
The aim of Code for Poland is to involve young developers in creating new solutions to the everyday challenges around the interaction between citizens and the government. We want to use the innovative potential of people to create applications for modern public services. The programme is supported by local activists and organizations from across the country. Together we create a space that connects people with ideas, problems, and abilities. Then those people can work together for the benefit of local communities - officials, residents and developers.
The TransparenCEE Project is a network of Central Eastern European and Euroasian NGOs interested in using technology in transparency and accountability work. We want to document, catalogue and scale local solutions regionally. Our objective is to ultimately make the technology for transparency work more transparent and easier to both finance and implement.
TB: Many DSI projects make use of open data. What is the attitude to open data within governments at the city and national level, and how are datasets being used by DSI practitioners?
As lot of things in life...it depends. The differences are especially visible when comparing cities. There are some, like Gdańsk in Poland or Lviv in Ukraine, which treat opening data very seriously and try to include citizens, startups and NGOs in the process. There are others which do not open anything, or you might even find a city hall that is completely unaware of open data.
Only through a sustainable and conscious policy can the open data scheme be properly managed.
For that reason we are strongly advocating for the implementation of open data policies in local law. Only through a sustainable and conscious policy can the open data scheme be properly managed.
We can observe a more comprehensive approach in some CEE countries. With the Polish, Romanian and Ukrainian central government open data initiatives, the region can be considered a leader in that field.
TB: With increased populism, declining faith in democracy and the rise of fake news, people and governments across Europe are facing an uncertain future. What are your predictions for DSI and democracy in the next two years?
KI: We are observing the growing number of fact-checking portals and other projects with the aim of bringing facts before emotions. Still we might have a problem finding the best way to communicate these facts to the general public. We can see the phenomenon - not only in the US, but also in CEE countries - that populists are taking over the narrative by applying a ‘fake news’ tag to every news they do not agree with.
On the other hand I am not so sure that fake news is a new phenomenon. It may now be more visible, but propaganda and lies one can see or read are as old as humanity. What is more dangerous - and will have a direct effect on our region in next two years - is that people feel more and more insecure if their democracy is in crisis. Therefore DSI should continue to concentrate very seriously on more general issues, such as fighting poverty, racism and isolationism. It’s isolationism that may be the biggest risk of all, as it limits the flow of data.