Ory Okolloh begins the panel on activism asking “Will blogs cause a revolution in Africa?” She’s a realist – blogs aren’t going to overthrow Mugabe any time soon. But perhaps blogs can inspire “micro-activism” which can cause big change in a small community.
She gives the example of a Kenyan politician using a blog to communicate with his constituency and provide better service, and follows with the blogger activism that caused the editor of the Daily Nation to apologize for his paper’s copying of a blogger’s work without attribution – activism can be as small as holding people in power accountable.
Her project, Mzalendo (pronounced: “me za len do”) uses new technologies to try to hold Kenya’s government accountable. The project is named for the Swahili word for “patriot” – she began it with her anonymous partner “M” because they were sick of not knowing what’s happening in parliament. She points out that it’s basically impossible to actually get the Daily Hansard – a public document that outlines the business of parliament – as a member of the general public.
Unfortunately, the Kenyan press doesn’t provide a lot of help. Journalists have some advantages that citizens don’t – they can take notes and make recordings in parliament. But yet there’s very little substantial reporting that comes out of the mainstream Kenyan press.
Ory shows off the website of the Kenyan Parliament, pointing out that it’s got little more than a “we’re updating, please come back” message… and has been like this for more than a month. A site went live, including bios of Kenyan politicians, and their constituents suddenly discovered that some ministers had no university degrees. MPs were upset, and demanded the site come down… but the site is still mirrored on the site of the firm that designed it, and Mzalendo copied much of the information that was on the site for their site.
Ory observes, “In Kenya, you hide information without knowing why you’re hiding it. With technology, you can break that open.” Mzalendo is putting draft bills online and reporting their status, letting people search by issue, and providing a bill tracker so you can watch the progress of a piece of legislation. They’re offering a database of MPs, searchable by gender, province, district, and party affiliation. Coming soon is a list of bills sponsored from 2003 to the present. It’s difficult to put voting records online, because many Kenyan votes are voice votes. But a searchable Hansard online is a future goal.
Impressively, the whole site is done with WordPress and some custom SQL queries. All the software is open source and Ory and M plan on releasing it so that other projects around the continent can use the same tools. All meetings on the project after the first have been virtual, held via Google chat and email.
Ory is now working to encourage Kenyan bloggers to attend parliament, file reports on what they see and share the sorts of details you are unlikely ever to see in a newspaper.
The future challenges for Mzalendo:
– finding more participants
– gaining local publicity. They’ve been approached by lots of international journalists, but the local press hasn’t woken up – even when the Daily Nation did a story, it was done by their US correspondent.
– expanding the readership – many Kenyans aren’t online, but the readership is still mostly Kenyan, primarily folks who are finding the site through Google.
(A summary of Alaa’s talk coming soon – I’m trying to catch up!)