Expansion of mobile telephony and internet footprints is bringing governance closer to the grassroots. Digital tools accessible through mobile telephone and internet platforms is increasing citizen’s power in advocating for accountability in governance and improvement in basic service delivery. Even in developing nations, more people are becoming aware of the possibilities for political participation, through digital platforms. Moreover, within the policy and research environments, there is a gradual realization that evidence can be crowd-sourced people, resources and finances can be mobilized remotely. Big Data is changing the face of political engagement, delivery of development project and basic service delivery, especially for underserved populations at the grassroots.
Urban local governments are perhaps hardest hit by the challenge of providing basic services. This is especially true in developing countries experiencing high rates of population and urbanization growth. While this is a major challenge; it is not intractable. The world of technology is speedily responding to these needs by providing access to often free or cheap digital platforms and tools for collecting and aggregating data that enables better service provision and increased political voice. Examples of uses of open source technologies abound. From India to the US; urban local administrators are utilizing Big Data in providing more efficient services at the grassroots.
The world woke up in the mid-2000s to the beauty of Ushahidi, an open-source crowdsourcing and mapping tool created in Kenya. Currently, Ushahidi produces Big Data used in mapping climate change impacts, violence and poverty clusters. In India, the SMS-based NextDrop app is used in notifying residents of Hubli and Karnataka when the next draft of water will be delivered. In Detroit, city administrators are already using Localdata to map urban blight across the city. Also, Open Gov for the Rest of Us is helping residents in low income neighborhoods in Chicago with tools to help them access and demand better information on service delivery. Textizen is also allowing poor communities in Benin Republic report on access to healthcare.
These digital tools make collation and use of Big Data possible, more importantly; they are often free or cheap. The low cost of Big Data could upset the power dynamics in civic engagement in the coming decades. Governments of countries such as Turkey and Burundi are already trying to limit grassroots access to social media platforms to prevent wide-scale mobilization against misrule. For dictatorial governments, big data will be the nightmare that multiplies avenues for citizens to speak truth to power. For democratic governments, Big Data provides the opportunity for better engagement with the citizenry. For policy makers, Big Data has the potential to foster better constituency relationships. For humanitarian organisations, Facebook has shown with the Nepal Earthquake how digital technology can help collate grassroots information during humanitarian crisis and natural disasters. Indeed, Big Data is the potential for equality of political voice and social access for individuals and communities at the grassroots.