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India: Monitoring traffic violations on Facebook

The upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi are expected to bring a number of things to the city: athletes, tourists, and, less excitingly, traffic. To help monitor the situation, the Delhi Traffic Police (DTP) have started using Facebook to collect information about traffic violations. The project has recently caught a lot of attention from the mainstream media, social media and the common man in India.

The attention surrounding the DTP's use of Facebook can be attributed to the fact that it is one of the only initiatives of its kind in India. Corruption permeates Indian society, ranging from the level of a traffic policeman demanding a 100 Rupee bribe to scams worth billions. The government and its officials are seen as corrupt, and the ability of the citizens to monitor the government is very low. Transparency in government departments is almost non-existent, and in several cases, the identities of whistleblowers have been revealed, exposing them to threats and even death. Only recently, a Right to Information activist was murdered. Government departments contribute to the problem by failing to respond to citizens, maintaining high amounts of secrecy and making things difficult for those fighting against corruption. In such an environment, any new method of increasing citizen engagement with the government is bound to get some reaction.

The DTP initiative intends to help manage traffic during the upcoming Commonwealth Games by encouraging citizens to report issues and post photographs of traffic violations on Facebook. The DTP then follows up on these violations. Several hundred people have been booked based on these reports and photographs, including police officers. The DTP also has a Twitter account (@dtptraffic), which it uses to give constant updates on traffic movement and to warn people about slow traffic and jams.

Not all of the buzz is positive: some people are questioning the legality of the initiative, seeing it as an example of citizens spying on citizens and questioning the possibility of manipulation of photographs. Still, judging by the number of people following the DTP's account on Twitter, ‘liking’ their profile on Facebook and writing blog posts, the initiative is proving to be quite popular.

The Foreign Ministry and the Postal Department are jumping on the social media trend, starting their own Facebook and Twitter accounts. The DTP have, until now, limited their use of social media platforms only to bring traffic issues to notice. But their initiative opens the possibility of inclusion of more technologies and further such initiatives in future — perhaps even using social media to report cases of corruption in the Traffic Police force.

Cues can be taken from several civil society initiatives. RTI India is a web community that reports and works on corruption and right to information issues. Praja is working on an Open Data project with the Government of Karnataka to make government data available to the public online. Kiirti is a one-stop citizen platform where people can file complaints about all kinds of civic issues and work toward resolving them. The Accountability Initiative is working on the accountability of government institutions, which includes policy research, creating better quality data, and seeking ways to disseminate the data to public. However, there are still very few online initiatives ready to deal with the massive issue of corruption and to help citizens engage with the government directly.

The Delhi Traffic Police’s initiative and its popularity is just one instance, but it highlights the need of people to connect with the government and their eagerness to participate in civic issues on a government-owned platform. It also opens up a bigger debate to analyze: how government departments are using technology to ensure transparency and what needs to be done further. This case should drive the people working with online technology and activism to consider how to make it easier for people to engage with government departments, obtain information and report on corruption safely. It should also encourage them to develop platforms that could help do these things. With the help of technology, India's stringent anti-corruption laws, Right to Information act and ideal of democracy just might become meaningful.

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