By Hanna Sistek
By Hanna Sistek
May 31, 2012
Tarik Nesh-Nash says it was the Arab Spring that first motivated him to hack Morocco’s politics through technology.
By the time protests began in December 2010, Nesh-Nash, now 34, was already both technologically apt and politically active. The son of a human rights activist, he had also already volunteered for the Red Crescent Morocco, worked for Microsoft in Seattle, Wash., earned a master’s degree and left software to work as a protection delegate in Iraq with the International Committee for the Red Cross.
“I had plans and ideas, and the Arab Spring brought them all together. I thought: ‘This is the time to do it!'” he told me over Skype.
Among other projects, Nesh-Nash conceived of and became part of the team that built Mamdawrinch, a just-launched site to map incidents of bribery in Morocco. Built with Transparency Maroc, the Moroccan chapter of Transparency International, the site tackles what Nesh-Nash says is an “endemic” problem in the North African country. Transparency International ranks perception of corruption in Morocco as about as bad as it is in Greece and Columbia, but slightly better than in India. (“Mamdawrinch” means “we will not bribe” in Moroccan dialect.)
The focus, says Nesh-Nash, is on the petty corruption that has become part of everyday life in Morocco.
“I wanted to open up the debate on the topic,” says Nesh-Nash.
Suppose people in certain parts of Morocco — such as small towns where the local administration or the mayor might be worse than average — report corruption more often than folks elsewhere. Geotagged reports should show up as clusters on a map — certainly something for locals to talk about.
So far, the reports on Mamdawrinch document events ranging from bribes given to national ID card officers in order to receive a card to corruption in a psychiatric emergency ward. It was built by a team of four in two months thanks to funding from Transparency Maroc.
With Facebook, Twitter and YouTube integration, and mapping through Ushahidi, the site is an evolution of previous bribery-tracking applications, like India’s I Paid a Bribe. It doesn’t publish names associated with incidents unless they can be verified by media reports.
So far, the site has gathered 73 reports. The site hasn’t had any publicity yet, and since it doesn’t address current issues like parliamentary elections or the constitutional rewrite, which would naturally catch people’s attention, Transparency Moroc is banking on a media bump to grow a base of users.
What reports that will come, if past projects are any indication, are likely to come from men, aged 18-45, who live in cities — that’s the type of person who interacted most often with Marsad.ma, an election-monitoring site Nesh-Nash built for fall 2011 parliamentary elections.
Marsad.ma offered people the ability to report what they saw during elections via SMS, but that, too, is a problematic point of entry: United Nations human development statistics peg the literacy rate in Morocco at 56 percent. Asking someone to write in with a report is problematic in a country where nearly half population cannot read or write, but may not be a deal-breaker. I Paid a Bribe has accumulated over 18,000 reports in India since its launch in August 2010, all done in a far larger country, with a slightly higher literacy rate, but with similar issues around poverty and the digital divide. Eighteen thousand reports in a country of 1.2 billion doesn’t sound like a lot — but it was enough to get noticed.
“Data is powerful and if you have enough data, no office can ignore you,” says Subrahmanyam Ivatury, the technological coordinator for I Paid a Bribe. The site is an initiative of the Janaagraha Center for Citizenship and Democracy in Bangalore. It confronts corrupt authorities with citizen reports and asks what kind of action the authorities are planning to take. It’s a tedious task.
“Working with the government to make process changes takes time,” Ivatury admits.
As a sort of grown-up sibling to the nascent Mamdawrinch site, I Paid a Bribe offers some examples for Nesh-Nash’s effort. In India — which ranks slightly worse than Morocco in Transparency International’s corruption report — Ivatury and team have trained 200 college students to put up posters about the site in government offices. The posters, coupled with SMS — meant to use the ubiquity of mobile phones as a bridge across the digital divide between rich and poor — could put a powerful tool in the hands of citizens. But I Paid a Bribe’s text-message outreach has been underutilized, Ivatury says.
So Nesh-Nash is looking offline for ways to build engagement too.
“Internet alone is limited,” he says. “We need to start partnering with NGOs. They are very good at collecting funds and campaigning, lobbying and having a network on the field.”
Mamdawrinch is one of several I Paid a Bribe-like sites springing up around the world, in the wake of the India-based platform’s success. In Kenya, a local version (http://ipaidabribe.or.ke/) is already up and running, and as more people get in touch with I Paid a Bribe, Ivatury is compiling a qualification document to assess the seriousness and resources of potential partners.
“There is a big need to share know how right now,” Nesh-Nash says. “In Vilnius I sat down with a Bulgarian person who built a similar site (like Mamdawrinch) and exchanged ideas on how to better integrate it with Facebook.”
He is contemplating setting up a free tech-sharing site after attending a conference in Lithuania about tech-enabled tools for transparency. Among the other participants were Prijavikorupcija in Macedonia and the global Bribespot. An even more recent initiative is the Tunisian I Watch. And the globalCorruptiontracker is trying to map it all.
Does this brand of online transparency tool have a future in North Africa? Mamdawrinch has only been online since January 2012 so it’s as yet unclear. But it fits Nesh-Nash’s trajectory as an online activist, building tools to try, with varying success, to influence the growth and direction of his home country’s reformation. Marsad.ma covered the election, but that was a last step.
His earliest project, he told techPresident, was Juriste.ma, an online encyclopedia of law content — shades, here, of American law-liberator Carl Malamud. With a Moroccan friend who was based in Seattle, Mehdi Slaoui Andaloussi, in March 2011 he answered King Mohamed VI’s Arab Spring-inspired speech — in which the king promised to redraft the constitution, rather than face the kind of uprising that was destabilizing other regimes — by building a platform to let citizens vote on individual articles of the old constitution, leave comments and suggest new laws. He stayed up all night working across an 8-hour time gap with Andaloussi by communicating via Skype.
That site garnered 150,000 visitors and 10,000 comments; some suggestions that appeared there also appear in Morocco’s new constitution. And in the run-up to elections last fall, he launched Charik.org — charik means “participate” in Arabic — for citizens to highlight the national issues closest to their heart.
“The idea was to involve citizens in the political decision process, and to make politicians pay more attention to the popular demands,” says Nesh-Nash.
Then came Marsad, to track the elections that would put people into government, and now Mamdawrinch, to — hopefully — expose it when officials open themselves to corruption.
“What drives me today is to use technology for more participatory democracy,” Nesh-Nash says.