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Interview with founder of Mumbai Votes Vivek Gilani

I have known about mumbai votes when I met the founder Vivek Gilani in 2008, since then I have been a part of the team coordinating activities in Powai for mumbai votes. I was highly impressed by this initiative, and believe this is the way we our going to cast our votes in future. Mumbai votes facilitates the decision making involved in choosing the best and worthy candidate for our constituencies or ward. Unfortunately I did a live interview with Vivek on Skype but somehow the call didnt record properly and so I am forced to copy paste his other interview which was done by Namita Singh for http://transparency.globalvoicesonline.org

Read below on mumbaivotes.com

Think of a world devoid of guesswork and ambiguity in democratic participation – one of the most vital aspects of our lives as free humans, is possible and within the grasp of the seekers. Imagine your city with all the amenities and progress that have been promised by each MPMLAand Corporator, before the elections, actually being carried out? Impossible? On the contrary, it is quite possible! The power lies with you andmumbaivotes.com educates you how to exercise this power.

Founded by Environmental Engineer Vivek GilaniMumbaivotes.com is for the residents of Mumbai to be able to make a well thought of choice about their electoral representative. With the want to let the truth unleash, Gilani, along with his team, goes about trying to inform the residents about all the promises made myMumbai‘s MPs, MLAs, Corporators and Candidates through video interviews, newspaper articles and manifestos.

What is Mumbaivotes.com?

The website gives you the option of selecting your area of residence and finding out who all were selected in the last held elections. Speaking about data accumulation, Gilani informs, “We try to survey the entire landscape of political information through these three distinct sources. First, we run a hawk’s eye through the newspapers and internet related articles appearing about any representative. Second, we interview local residents who are directly affected intimately on a day to day basis of Elective representative. Third, we mine criminal record information currently existing with the law and order information agencies. We go about doing all this using a benchmark which is transparent and easily accessible to the users of the website.”

Funnily, all this information which Gilani and his team retrieve for us, are actually out there un the open – for free!

Mumbai votes is the most comprehensive portal erected in India’s democratic history, designed to help you continuously monitor the performance of your MPs, MLAs and Corporators and their deliverance on promises. Check out http://mumbaivotes.com
Audio Interview: Mumbai_Votes

Vivek Gilani

Read the interview below.

What are the biggest obstacles to your success?:

I think, if it gets to the point that this information really starts hurting the political establishment, there can be certain obstacles. It has been seen as a nascent but important enough threat to them to raise an alarm. The mere act of just shining the light upon their incompetence in some cases has great ramifications on their political future. There has been a certain sense of defensiveness that has become palpable. They realize how transparent this movement is. It is currently seen as a threat to them, rather than an opportunity to showcase their capability of providing the kind of legislation that the city demands. Because of that perception of theirs, it becomes difficult to get a constant stream of video-interviews or appointments on time.

And another obstacle would be if they threaten or harm any of our volunteers or me! Not that it will deter us, but that would make college students think twice before they get on board.

How do you plan on overcoming those obstacles?:

There is only one plan – the INDIAN RAILWAYS!(laughs) I didn’t get here to escape, but there are political ramifications. However, what is equally true is that the hurt sentiments are also temporary. I don’t think a lot of politicians would act upon their impulsive feelings of momentary anger at Mumbai Votes if it prevented them from getting elected. But, how can one really guard against somebody really becoming vicious, and doing something hostile – how can somebody really stop that? I don’t really have any plan to overcome that.

What problem is your project aiming to overcome?:

It is aiming to overcome the problem of a lack of clear information being communicated from the political establishment to the citizens regarding what they have done to address the campaign promises that were made before the elections. That brings in the need to be informed, so any individual can assess what his/her elected representative is doing/or has done on the job that they vie for with such fervor during elections. Are they doing justice to the vote that was cast in their favor?

What are the roots of that problem?:

When information can tarnish reputations, and lay threadbare, the incompetence of politicians into the public domain, there can be severe repercussions on the future of those who have been incompetent. There has been a throttling of information – an invisible nexus between the political establishment and the election commission where both seem to be working in unison to ensure that, prior to election, there isn’t adequate time to research your candidate, thereby making a smooth launchpad for politicians, who do not truly deserve to get votes.

Why did you personally become involved in this project?:

Well, because I didn’t think anybody else was going to do it!

Are you providing unofficial channels of information that should be provided by the government?:

Partly, yes. The government certainly should provide a part of this information. But, it’s like the function of journalism – this information can never really be fulfilled by insiders. An unbiased citizen-based body needs to exist, irrespective of the information that the government provides you. I think that scrutiny is essential and should persist, even in the presence of an official channel of information. But I do believe that we are doing the government’s job. We are unearthing public information, or information that should be clearly available in the public domain. This information needs to be intricately carved out from their vast repository, such as, the parliament’s website, which does exist in the public domain but it’s so unwieldy! It’s almost designed for you to be unable to go through! Even if you go through it, you might not come back out alive. The information is so labyrinthine. It is incredible.

Why is the government not providing the information?:

It severely destabilizes the status quo. There is a lot of incompetence and lack of clear thinking among our elected representatives, and that would become explicitly clear if this information were to get out. That is what they are trying to withhold. They will not have a clear platform for playing identity politics and politics of other kinds, which in my opinion don’t have much merit. But they continue thriving on those issues by suppressing and subverting the true developmental issues that should be highlighted. It’s comfortable this way for them.

Is there a right to information law in the country where this project is based?:
How does the information published on your website turn into offline change?:

It turns into offline change by the mere act of the people, who now go to vote – they don’t throw a dart in the dark and walk out nibbling their nails, wondering if they voted for the right person. It’s direct offline change, as it results in offline voting. It also provides fodder for good conversation among peers, be it at the work place, in the college canteen or the family living room. What it then does is start creating a sense of entitlement, a sense of being a deserving citizen, where you start demanding this kind of information. It raises the quality of governance, which we feel we are entitled to, and feel we deserve. It brings up the whole idea of quality in a very important aspect of our lives.

How many people work on your project?:
How many hours a week do you personally spend on the project?:

For the last one year, it has been 50-60 hours, at least. But the idea now, is to create a self-sustaining structure, where I divulge a little control and let Mumbai Votes out of my very closely guarded control, because I feel that its essence will get mutilated the moment it leaves the very tight control of my hands. I haven’t allowed anybody to touch the philosophy of Mumbai Votes.
You can say, paradoxically that there isn’t complete democracy within Mumbai Votes. I don’t want to let that remain a defining feature. I am looking to build a management structure around it where people who have understood what Mumbai Votes’ core purpose of existence is take on a more managerial role. They will take on the entire research, analysis and communication areas of the project. I expect to reduce my number of hours to 15-20 hours a week.

How many hours does the whole team spend on the project?:

Around 10-12 hours a week, on a sustained basis.

How do you extract value from large amounts of data? How do you build engagement around it?:

All the data that we collect, is used to establish a baseline of an elected representative’s own-stated position about various issues. Every newspaper article that appears about every MPMLA or Corporator, which defines that person’s or party’s position on various political and public issues is used as the baseline for assessing their campaign promises versus their actual performance – what we call “consistency vs inconsistency.” Every statement adds to the baseline and is also used to assess whether it is consistent with the baseline or not. It is a constantly evolving baseline, which includes the manifestos, the annual interviews that are conducted, etc. Our assessment is directly done from extracts of the reportage that we do, through our video interviews and other content analyses. We actually do coding, conduct inter-code reliability processes, and ensure that our coding procedure is worthy, and numbers resulting from it are truly meaningful.

We have a team of MBA students, who are developing a social media marketing strategy, where Mumbai Votes can publish a semi-annual analytical report. These reports will then be circulated among citizens and organizations all over Mumbai, through channels like Karmyog and umbrella NGOs like the Association for Democratic ReformAGNI, and others. We want to make this content available to everyone, and hopefully start a tradition of an annual MP, MLA and corporator debate, which are filmed and possibly disseminated through podcast. The elected representatives will be presented with this analysis. It will become the fulcrum for an intelligent debate about what our assessment of their last years performance has been, and build from there, a roadmap for the forthcoming year.

What has been the most effective method of spreading awareness about your project?:

I think that Janaagraha has certainly been very effective. After t26/11 (the November 2006 terror attacks in Mumbai), there was a lot of interest generated in civic participation and democracy, though all the interest proved to be very temporary!. At that time, there were a lot of TV stations and newspapers covering Mumbai Votes. Every time a newspaper would write something about us, there would be a direct impact the next day – more than 4000 people would visit the website. Those were surges, of course! After that, there has been a more sustained kind of audience for Mumbai Votes. It has achieved a credible mass and the word-of-mouth is spreading.

What are the incentives to participate in your project?:

For volunteers (mostly journalism students), it encourages them to apply a lot of the theories and principles, which they learn in their journalism programs about how to do social science research: how you read for opinion-based sentences in news reportage, how you use news articles as sources which very often have a bias/slant as material for conducting an unbiased assessment. So, it helps them practice these principles. It leads them to learn to think critically, and to become self-sufficient individuals. It is an incentive for a lot of people, who are about to step into the workforce and are required to perform very complex tasks of management and critical thinking.

What skills and expertise would be of assistance to your project?:

We look for students who have done political/social science research to do the coding of media coverage.

We need people who can edit videos, understand technology really well, people who understand web design and IT management. Those are some of the core skills. It is a completely diffused project that does not requiring complex software. We have people working in different parts of the city and we use Google Docs to update information and give instructions to each other. So those skills – and, yes, we also need good communication skills, people who can write things that are not just ‘text messages’! It is hard to get people like that, though. I have to tell people several times, that life is not a long text message!

How do you plan on financially sustaining your project? :

We have been blessed with quite a few individuals in Mumbai who, after the 26/11 attacks, decided to come forward with support. I don’t know how they got to know about Mumbai Votes – maybe through chain e-mails. They came forward and decided to fund this with their personal funds. That has been quite an adequate model till now. As long as the funds come with no strings attached, and with a clear understanding that it is only going to be used for running the cost of Mumbai Votes. We want to continue with individuals who resonate with this idea and the activity.

What other organizations are you working with?:

We work with Janaagraha, AGNI, a very important group – Parliament Research Services, in Delhi, an individual/project in Bangalore, called Project Clean Up, and with Vivek Shangari and Karmayog. In addition to this we also work with academic institutions like Mumbai University and several colleges with journalism and management programmes.

Have you thought about developing your own tools?:

Yes. We have developed some tools.

  • Basically, an offline version of Mumbai Votes… We have developed this ‘Mumbai Voters Guide’, which we put out before the General Assembly elections. It is almost like a telephone directory of your candidates, with profiles of them – their political background, legislative records, transcripts of their video interviews, etc.
  • We are also on the verge of developing education tools, which is basically to demystify the legislative bills that will be up for debate in parliament, and the basic principles of the constitution of India. These have a direct impact on our life, and we want to convert them into video content, which we would like to disseminate through viral networks like YouTube to make them meaningful instead of just abstract concepts.
  • In the future, we want to have a mobile phone application, where you can ping the website for data on your elected representative.
  • We are also trying to pursue a project with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Powai/Chennai – to do optical character recognition of regional language newspapers, so that instead of photographing the regional language newspapers the idea is to develop a tool that can scan it, and the software will automatically identify articles and classify them under various categories. Right now, it seems to be too daunting, even for the people at IIT.
Has there been any communication between your project and government officials?:

No. They have heard of it, but I don’t think that there has been any official communication.

Are there any legal obstacles to your work? Any laws that should be changed?:

I do believe that the current obstacles are related to the archives of information of our media institutions – that certainly needs to be improved. Most respectable journalistic institutions have very interesting and interactive archives, but I know that there cannot be a law, that says, all newspapers must have excellent, searchable archives,.

Also, the whole fair use clause of the International Copyright Act needs to be upheld. There needs to be greater freedom to use newspaper articles for the purpose of research. There have been cases where you ask people to use their archive and they wouldn’t allow it. Before, we took a lot of content from a newspaper, then there was lot of resistance and they insisted that we pay a certain exorbitant fee for every news story we take even though we don’t intend to sell them, and just want to use them for research and to display them on our website. That can really be a great hindrance for a movement of this sort, because, nobody has that kind of budget.

What are your plans for 2010 and 2011?:

We do not want to become a body, where only professionals work, because the essence of this movement is that we are all citizens who have empowered ourselves. 2010 and 2011 is to solidify the research and analysis mechanism for Mumbai Votes and to create a comprehensive protocol for the Promises Vs Performance analysis for MPs and MLAs – enhancing it from now on, and trying to build in these smart tools for doing our ground research – our basic research.

Content Source:

  1. http://transparency.globalvoicesonline.org/project/mumbai-votes
  2. http://youthleader.in/2010/07/vote-sense-ibly/
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