Friday, February 17, 2012

POINT Conference, Day 1, Part 1/2

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina - The POINT Conference on Political Accountability and New Technologies is taking place from 16 to 18 of February 2012. In this post I'll share some of my non-comprehensive impressions of the first day, while you can check the excellent site, which includes live video feeds, and Twitter (@PointConference, #PointSarajevo) for more info from this great knowledge-sharing event.

Photo of the opening by Ivana Howard featuring (left to right) (), (), ()
The event is hosted by the Bosnian NGO Why Not (Zašto ne) as part of a regional project which had similar events in Belgrade last December and will have another in Skopje in the Fall. The Sarajevo event takes place in the Art Cinema Krtierion, very suitable facility with all the technical features, located in the city center. I am pleased with the overall organization, esp. because I speak the local languages and don't need translations to talk to the people from the vibrant crowd that probably gathers at this alternative cultural space regardless of context. The whole conference invites various kinds of stakeholders to interact and network, enabling very interesting results.


The morning session was quite inspiring. It started with TOL's Jeremy Druker who presented open-source media literacy tools NewsTrust, enabling crowd-sourced evaluation of media content. This remains relevant worldwide, most of the speakers spoke about control of traditional and other media by totalitarian forces, and the activits in the Egypt Revolution panel in the evening noted that the dark side of use of online tools in their country is use of vicious rumors - by the government against activists, and by the Islamic radicals against Christians.

Irina Šumadieva & stats
Then, several citizen participation tools were presented: Moldovan, and Macedonian These two applications are intended for citizens to communicate their needs to local authorities. The  transparency site  (Authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina) which tracks enormous amounts on government data.

Input by politicians

The session Using New Technology – a Real Leverage for Political Parties? consisted of the panel that joined young politicians from three mayor parties in Bosnia (out of 7 invited) and experts on communication, sociology, and political campaigning. The experts insights were quite on the target, for instance prof. Majstorović noted that even though the Internet penetration increases, it does not influence the decisive population groups. In a rural country like Bosnia the other media play the main role with the voters - everybody watches the main evening news on TV (and the nascent Twitter community comments during). This was corroborated by one of the politicians who said that "personal contact"--meaning face-to-face meetings and local events/debates--win their votes. "You need to put on booths over the knee" (moraš obući čizme preko koljena) to walk the muddy roads of remote villages to win people over to your party.

- pol. campaign expert, Danijela Majstorović - sociologist,
Tatjana Indzić - politician,  Denis Vrhovćić - politician, Mirza Ustamujić - politician,
Damir Kapidzić - communicologist, and activist Darko Brkan at the panel

As one could expect, the politicians appropriated much of the time, even though they did not provide many innovative insights. They all said that they care about their websites and value Facebook as means for connecting to their constituencies, because huge percentage of citizens use it. Going online won't win the elections, but you cannot afford to ignore this aspect.

Politicians seemed to interpret transparency in terms of PR: one of them pointed a shining example of his party colleague who responded to all comments on his blog (which was disputed from the audience). They did not speak much about political accountability too ("responsibility" in Bosnian). One of them cited the case of his party that allegedly used Facebook to organize an action for showelling snow as example of responsibility for the welfare of the citizens. In the age-old tradition of the ruling classes, they spoke about the hardship of being a politician, because the citizens think they are all crooks. One of them even spun the topic towards self-promotion by retelling an anecdote in which a woman passerby remarked that he was very handsome, but her friend scolded her because of his profession ("they are all the same").

However, he had a valid point: honest people in politics get bunched up with the dishonest to the benefit of the dishonest. This is even more valid for people who would like to enter politics in the future to change the world for the better, the current ruling practices would make them immediate target of this kind of labeling and mistrust.

The discussion contrasted activist way of thinking, based on individuality and values, and the way of thinking used by political activists/functionaries. For the later, individual expression, including via social media, is "guided" by the decisions of the party hierarchy. And the political party can easily "jump out" a politico who "jumps too high" (neodskačete puno, jer da odskočite niste više u stranci - as noted by Fayah) in public via new media. As a result, the parties use new media for top down "informing," which as the communication expert Kapidzić remarked does not equal communication with the citizens.

@MarkoZvkvc: "We shouldn't be angry
at politicians..."
The panel was a good learning experience, because it provided the activists a bit of direct contact with the political class. Some audience members were not so happy with the feedback by some panelists, but I agree with Marko Živković who said activists should not be angry at politicians for not using the full potential of new technologies. It's up to the people to force them to use them, on their own, they'll just do what they always do - use their positions to extract society's resources with as little expense for them. So the activists better learn who they deal with, and not rely on the should. We all know what should be done, esp. politicians who are not less intelligent than the geeks or human rights activists - proof: they get away with the current state of affairs. In this sense, the activists might think more about the need to mobilize the "regular" people they strive to represent.   

Next: Day 1, Part 2 - experiences of measuring truth, political campaign technologies, and Egypt; and a concert

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