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A central conundrum in the digital age is that the potential for technological solutions to fast-track social and economic development is simultaneously under-estimated and overstated. We’ve been involved in one project that has had a crack at doing tech development differently, avoiding this pitfall – The Asia Foundation’s Urban Safety Program in Myanmar (USP), funded by the UK’s Conflict Stability and Security Fund ).
Over the past two and a half years, the USP team has been working in three townships (the lowest level of government administration in Myanmar’s highly centralized system) – Taunggyi in Shan State, Hpa-an in Kayin State and Hlaingtharyar in the Yangon region – to support the government to respond more effectively to residents’ safety concerns.
The team began by working with township authorities and service providers to understand which safety issues were relatively uncontroversial and could be addressed through community engagement and dialogue. The initial scan identified three main candidates: road safety, personal safety and crowd safety. Through a local tech start-up, the team developed a simple Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping tool that captures, analyses and presents data spatially and geographically.
The tool turned out to serve more purposes than were originally envisaged. By helping local civil servants in the township administration, including the local police, digitize hard-copy forms into electronic records, the tool provides authorities with a means of analysing their data and strategically targeting limited resources. Without having to collect any new data, the tool quickly identifies priority areas for response, such as traffic accident hotspots or high crime areas. It demonstrates visually the value of existing administrative data to those involved in its collection.
The team worked collaboratively and iteratively with local authorities to develop the tool. The process was crucial, ensuring stronger ownership and alignment with actual needs, rather than us providing an all-singing-all-dancing tech product at the outset. As different branches of the local authority contributed their data to the tool, it became possible to visualize a range of different indices simultaneously – street lighting and traffic accidents, for instance. By reinforcing the frequently interlinked character of such issues, and by presenting these during committee meetings, the team began to see a greater appetite among local officials to work together to solve shared problems.
As the database has expanded, the team has been able to bring together several different levels of government to discuss particular community issues, such as drug use harm prevention and gender inequalities. The success of this visualisation tool – evidenced in the enthusiasm with which it has been taken up – has allowed the team to persuade local authorities to improve the quality of their data through, for instance, allowing for sex and age disaggregation.
While it is proving to be a success in terms of helping address the originally envisaged problem of urban safety, technology on the USP Project has also, more importantly, improved coordination between government agencies, something that is one of the biggest hurdles to development where state capabilities are weak.
Top-down data collection is only one piece of the puzzle and while the USP has allowed for improved methods for collection, analysis and coordination, it has also facilitated validation of that data by communities, formal and informal residents.
In each of the three townships there are many informal, unregistered residents for whom the local government receives no budget and has no incentive to provide services. In Hlaingtharyar, of approximately one million residents, only half are formally documented residents and the other half are informal. As a result, shared services, such as waste collection, water and transport are stretched, exacerbating tensions between the two communities.
In partnership with local NGO Women for the World, a group of local activists with a history of working with informal communities, USP conducts “Ward Safety Audits” that bring together formally registered and informal residents to reach a shared understanding of the problems they face as a community.
The data collected through the ward audits is also fed into the Township GIS Tool Database. It helps local authorities understand the missing layer that their data doesn’t necessarily pick up – the community’s voice – and the valuable contribution that can make to proactive problem-solving.
An important consequence has been that the project has seen a shift, however slight, to local governments providing services to informal as well as formally registered residents. In Hlaingtharyar township, the local authorities have made waste removal service available in informal settlements.
And slowly, through the momentum created around a data-driven solution, co-created within a very specific niche of Myanmar’s local government administration, the USP team have been able to raise more difficult and sensitive issues with the government. Slowly. Three years ago, it was almost impossible to talk to the township administrators or other government officials about gender inequalities. Now, there is much more acceptance that gender-based violence is a problem in communities and the program team is planning to support a group of women’s civil society organisations in Hpa-an where they are seeking to use ‘gender-focused’ funds for road safety, to show it is not just a ‘men’s problem’.
The uniqueness of the program is how it has used technology. The database platform gave the team a basis for a constructive conversation with local officials who weren’t interested in technical guidance or training and were already pretty competent in their jobs. These conversations, in turn, built trust between different government departments and between local authorities and communities – perhaps the program’s greatest achievement to date.
Technology, USP-style, is not an end in itself but a means to these other ends. The key shift in thinking that underpins the project’s success is that technology isn’t being used to solve a problem on its own, but as the basis for ongoing collective, local problem-solving.