Last week I and Gregory Asmolov traveled to Perm, a big industrial city west to the Ural mountains to meet regional online activists and local authorities. The World Bank, Nicolaas Witsen Foundation and regional ombudsman Tatyana Margolina invited us to show the opportunities offered by online crowdsourcing technologies.
During the trip, we observed several unusual effects of digital technology quite unique for both political and information landscape in Russia.
As many Russian regions, Perm Krai has drastic differences in the level of infrastructure. While regional center, Perm city, enyoys 3G coverage and accessible broadband Internet, people in distant villages of Kosa district, for example, can’t even use cell phones due to the lack of network coverage.
Kosa district also doesn’t have many roads and boats are sometimes more useful than cars. VolgaTelekom, the one and only Internet provider in Kosa, has recently raised Internet access prices in the central area of the district (the only place connected to the Internet via satellite). Now the unlimited Internet access plan costs above $300 a month.
No wonder people there were quite overwhelmed by such online tools like Ushahidi, WordPress or Perm-made StreetJournal.org. Kosa district is a typical example of a place unable to sync with the digital era leaving its inhabitants deprived of their digital rights.
Local Crowdsourcing Initiatives
Perm recently became a birthplace of two online crowdsourcing platforms: StreetJournal.org and dorogi.teron.ru [Roads.teron.ru – GV]. Both projects deal with social and urban issues and helped several users solve their problems by making the regional government react to the users’ concerns.
Dorogi.teron.ru has been created by Denis Smagin, a local IT enterpreneur, back in 2008 on a base of a bug tracker software. The project's aim was to identify potholes in Perm city. Later, as the project developed, Smagin added mapping module allowing not only to read about the potholes, but also to see them on a map. The project motivated the local department of transportation (now the Ministry of Transportation of Perm Region) to use the crowdsourced data and create a plan of road constructions.
StreetJournal.org, an online platform that helps citizens voice their problems, was created by the team of Perm-based IT specialists led by Alexey Shaposhnikov. The project allows users to report a problem in five categories: transportation and roads, security, social issues, city infrastructure and crime. After a complain has been filed, the system gives several days for the authorities to react (corresponding municipality departments are registered as users in the system). If the authorities do not react within this period, StreetJournal sends an electronic message to the responsible authorities. In Russia, starting January 1st, 2011, the authorities are obliged to respond to signed electronic messages, which provides much greater potential for crowdsourcing projects like this one.
Unlike dorogi.teron.ru, StreetJournal.org has a broader scale of issues and goes well beyond Perm. Nine Russian cities use StreetJournal.org and the geography of the project is expanding.
These two grassroots initiatives represent an important tendency – emerging online initiatives in Russian regions . Earlier,crowdsourcing projects were mainly created in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, but recent initiatives spread across the country and emerge even in the most distant areas. Activists in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, for example, created taktaktak.ru and netizens in Yekaterinburg, a city in central part of Russia, recently launched dalslovo.ru, a website for monitoring promises of Russian politicians.
Relations between the digital civil society and authorities
The usage of the term “digital civil society” here isn't accidental. Of course, the “traditional civil society” represented by offline NGOs and their networks is gradually “digitalizing” by creating websites, registering their accounts on Facebook and Twitter, etc. The Perm region is famous for its high level of offline civic activities. In 2002, the Moscow Carnegie Center called [RUS] Perm Krai “the most democratic” region in Russia. The region lost its “championship” three years later but stayed [RUS] in the top five regions with the most democratic regimes. Even five years later, when the political situation in the country changed completely, experts were noticing the high level of civil society development.
Besides traditional offline NGOs, a number of online communities slowly (almost in the same way as “traditional” NGOs are “digitalizing”) acquire civil society functions. People that previously didn't care much about any issues decided to change something with the help of crowdsourcing projects and organized into proto-movements.
Those two trends, digitalizing offline society and digital communities, gradually converge. In Central Russia, this convergence evolved into managing wildfire activity.
So how do the authorities fit into these processes? A Facebook status would say in this case “It's complicated.”
On one hand, Perm is one of few regions where bloggers are cooperated with, not threatened or ignored. The examples shown above illustrate this cooperation. Oleg Chirkunov, 52, Perm Krai governor, is a blogger himself. Back in 2008, Chirkunov has been one of Russia's first public officials who started a blog. This might explain Perm authorities’ willingness (or at least the lack of complete ignorance) to participate in crowdsourcing projects. In a blog dedicated to cooperation with dorogi.perm.ru, Chirkunov wrote:
С этими людьми мы точно не по разные стороны баррикад, и будет глупостью с нашей стороны не поддержать их активность.
The notion of the barricades reflects the usual view of civil society institutions as something inferior (in the same way as society, in general, is usually seen inferior to the power in many post-Soviet countries). At the same time, the phrase and Chirkunov's actions demonstrate the will to communicate and cooperate with those who can actually provide better tools for solving the issues the government is responsible for. It is digital technology that provides advantage for online civil initiatives over traditional centralized government systems of reporting issues. Crowdsourcing projects not only collect information, but also create pressure necessary to solve the problem. Unlike their colleagues in other Russian regions, the Perm authorities realize that.
During our visit in Perm, two representatives of local authorities (one is from the regional administration and the other is from the legislative assembly of the region), expressed another point that describes their attitude towards digital civil society initiatives: “It would be great if they would learn how not to involve us [the government – G.V.] at all.”
Uneven infrastructure and long-term infrastructure challenges, increasing activism, emerging “digital civil society,” a by-product of convergence between civil society activists and Internet users combined with “reluctant cooperation” with the authorities construct an unusual – and promising – online ecosystem. The unevenness of Perm case study represents the unevenness of Russia's political (and now digi-political) landscape where number of socio-economic, cultural and historical factors form unique forms of activism and society-government relations.