Citizens Network Watchdog Poland checks the facts

In times of disinformation and political marketing, citizens need someone to watch their hands. It can be difficult and time-consuming to check how an authority, especially one at a local level, functions. Citizens Network Watchdog Polska, the winner of the Polish-American Freedom Foundation’s “Sector 3.0” award, wants to help us carry out this task.Technology can be a tool to defend universal values, such as individual freedom, the guarantor of which should be a democratic state. One of the foundations of a democratic state is full access to information for its citizens. In recognition of the good use of new technologies to conduct educational activities that encourage active attitudes and social control of the authorities

– announced Radosław Jasiński, Program Director of the Polish-American Freedom Foundation, while giving reasons for presenting the award, emphasizing the merits of the association Citizens Network Watchdog Poland.

How to control the authorities and how to encourage young people to become active citizens – we talked to Katarzyna Batko-Tołuć, board member of the association Citizens Network Watchdog Poland, who has just presented the tool:

Filip Żyro: was designed in such a way as to engage Internet users and encourage them to actively control the authorities. What were the main objectives of the project?

Katarzyna Batko-Tołuć: It is an idea to involve citizens in checking the authorities but also to organize assistance in analysing the documents obtained by Citizens Network Watchdog Poland, which it is not able to analyse them all on its own.

The benefits of this cooperation are mutual. Citizens have the opportunity to have a relatively easy and pleasant look into how power is ‘exercised’. They gain a lot of knowledge for themselves and influence the change that our organization can take further.

Our organization, on the other hand, in addition to obtaining the data needed for presenting proposals of changes, has an informed mass of citizens behind at the outset.

How is all this possible? Surely the task is not easy, because the answers you get differ significantly in form.

Yes. In order to be able to involve people in mass data analysis, similar documents are needed, which can be read and marked according to a certain pattern. This is our resource necessary for The Citizens Network is able to obtain answers from thousands of institutions at the same time. We use the website to do this. This is an application for mining data. There we can simultaneously ask all the entities in a specific category, e.g. municipalities, about the same thing, receive their answers and disclose them.

And what do you ask about?

Our first question was addressed to municipalities and explored how many requests for information they receive each year. The municipalities responded in different ways. One in the body of the message, the other sent a scanned letter. And we needed information that is a summary of them all. This was the reason for asking; in order to be able to express our opinion on the interest of citizens in obtaining information. How often do people ask? Do small municipalities receive many applications? Do the municipalities answer the questions? This knowledge is then used to discuss possible changes in the law. However, in order to be able to comment on the general picture of the situation, we need to review the response of the two and a half thousand municipalities and record this information in a machine-processable format. It’s a tedious, exhausting, and frustrating job – if you don’t have an idea of how to organize such an analysis. is an idea for a standardized analysis, which is also fun.

Your association’s mission is to control the authorities at various levels. What is the situation with regard to the transparency of power in Poland? Is it not enough to verify the authorities at every election? Why should we always watch the government’s actions during their term of office?

Let me start by saying that the authorities are simply seen as public institutions or other entities carrying out some important state tasks or functioning due to public money.

Our questions do not always serve to control the government. Sometimes we want to gain knowledge that will allow us to take part in public debate and bring important arguments to it. The reasons for doing this is, for example, to avoid creating laws based on false premises. For years the lobbying of local governments has been very strong, as they have convinced the judiciary and academia that they are right to do so, with the aim of restricting access to information. A popular ‘old story’ is that people ‘flood’ the offices of ‘small municipalities’ with requests for information. We’ve checked that it’s a myth. When we checked for the first time, municipalities usually received up to 50 applications per year, although this number has increased slightly in recent years. And it seems that we, the citizens, were the only ones who were interested in acquiring this knowledge.

Another example is drawing attention to some new phenomenon. The first open campaign in the framework of was about how the communal fanpages in social media are run. There are no legal requirements here. But I guess it’s worth setting some standards. And before the discussion begins, it’s worth checking the facts.

As far as the control of authorities is concerned, it may be manifested by checking whether an authority complies with the law. For example, when a new law comes into force that affects the exercise of power. Citizens can check whether it is being applied and thus strengthen its application. After the introduction of the law giving patients the right to treat pain, we checked whether hospitals were prepared to implement this right. And our first joint research as part of which we implemented with the pilot group, concerned whether the authorities contact each other by electronic means. Theoretically, they are obliged to do so, but it turned out that they do not. We have investigated why this is the case and what the scale of the phenomenon is, and now we will try to change the situation.

We can also ask the authorities to make their actions more transparent. We asked for disciplinary rulings of attorneys, notaries and bailiffs. The ethical conduct of these professionals can be important to people. Before we get the help of a particular lawyer we may want to know if this person is trustworthy. Access to information can help us make decisions that will affect our lives.

Often, only citizens can force institutions to act in such a way that finding an answer to a question that concerns us is not an ordeal.

And finally, the last argument is that it is worth showing the authorities that they are under scrutiny. The idea is that observation impacts the behaviour of the observed.

What are you going to do with the data obtained in the “mining” process?

The data is used to trigger a change. It’s a necessary condition, but change itself depends on further strategy, cooperation with other actors and sometimes luck. Experience is important to ensure that the right action is taken at the right time.

Some examples from the past. Data on the number of applications submitted by citizens to municipal offices every year allow us to effectively block lobbyists’ attempts to limit the right to information. The data on pain treatment allows to ‘remind’ hospitals about their responsibilities. Data on how often municipalities run their newspapers allows for further research, how much it costs, how much it contributes to the elimination of independent local press.

What are the challenges for you during the implementation of the project? How do you envision the further development of

There are a lot of challenges. This is just the beginning. The most uncertain thing was the reaction of our followers, i.e. people active on the Internet. Are they going to get involved? Other questions we’ve been thinking about are: Have we planned the right pace of providing them with data for analysis? Is everything going to work out right?

The first experiences show that the idea appeals to people, there are already 119 people with us, but we have given them too little work.

At this stage of development, each new campaign requires a lot of work. In the future, it may be possible to automate processes. In addition, we are currently testing only one method of analysis, we have ideas for others, but this requires a much larger budget. We would also like to develop ideas for gameplay to involve players. And we dream of using artificial intelligence. A big challenge is also posed by the availability of the service. Perhaps we will discover that there is still some work to be done on the accuracy of the grades – although we have a very solid methodology here. In a word, there is a lot to do in terms of technology.

And there are social ideas. The data we collect should be available to others. It is possible to imagine that our data will become an inspiration for our own actions and further questions for someone who works both centrally and locally. For example, it seems already now that the data from the “Likes for the Mayor” campaign on the rules governing social media will be useful both for local activists and for organisations such as the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

Above all, however, if works out, it would be good if this tool could either be made available to other organisations or if we could carry out joint campaigns. We have already shared the mechanism for data mining – that is, the very collection of answers – with the “Source” Environmental Action Center. They, in turn, checked how collective hunting was reported and whether it was occurring in line with the changes in the Hunting Law. We think that this mechanism can be useful in many areas, but in order to be able to do so, we need time for testing, for gaining experience and for obtaining money for development.

I am sure we are going to succeed. The question is when. I am a little impatient because I know that it is very important to have knowledge based on facts and to know that citizens can ask authorities questions and hold them accountable. So we wouldn’t be fooled by what the politicians are serving us. Therefore, I would like to develop in a dynamic way. For this, we need money to finance technology, but we also need to devote our time to it. The mechanism for data acquisition, the mentioned “data mining” we have been creating over four years, counting from the beginning of forming the idea. Then we tested it for two years. It seems a very long time, but it was just a leisure activity. Now, thanks to our partner – Gerere Fun for Good – after a year, we’re after tests and completed our first open campaign.

Source: Sektor 3.0
The portal of non-governmental organizations is the media patron of this event.

The text was published thanks to Sektor 3.0. Sektor 3.0 is a project of the Polish-American Freedom Foundation. Its implementation has been entrusted to specialists from the Foundation for the Development of Information Society.

Content on licence SYNC AND CORRECTIONS BY N17T01.

Original text in Polish: Sieć Obywatelska Watchdog Polska sprawdza jak jest.


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