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Citizens’ observatories: mainstream or gadget?

Citizens’ Observatories is one of the emerging trends to look out for in 2015. Will the new streams of location-based data and information improve the quality and effectiveness of public services and the interaction between authorities and citizens?

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Citizens’ observatories are all the rage. With their mobile phones citizens can report flooding, (illegal) waste dumping, broken streetlights and other problems with infrastructure, measure and report air pollution, (bathing) water quality, odour, noise and even report cases of corruption. In return citizens can receive early warning on natural disasters and health-related information. Technologies and methodologies are developed that involve end users in all the stages of the process. The solutions build on existing navigation platforms and location-based services and can therefore be implemented at low cost. The new streams location-based data and information will improve the quality and effectiveness of public services and the interaction between authorities and citizens. Crowdsourcing is the way to go! It will lead to paradigm shift in governance and create a specialist high-tech sector for this type of services that generates high quality jobs.


The reasoning behind citizens’ observatories is that an increase in quality and quantity of information leads to an improvement in public services and governance and this will lead to improved quality of life for citizens, who are then happy to provide even more data to the government. But will this virtuous circle become a reality? Until now only pilots and try-outs have been implemented, there is not much evidence that citizens’ observatories will live up to their promise. For some proposed solutions, you have to install cumbersome add-ons for your phone and most of them are very technology-oriented. In general it is not clear why citizens would keep providing information in the long run: what would the return really be (why bother)? And where is the cost-benefit calculation to show that the proposed solutions can not only improve governance, but also make it cheaper? In the end it is the citizen who pays taxes! Then there are the private and security concerns: what seems to be alright now may not be in the citizen’s best interest later. The citizens want good governance and real influence, not a placeholder masquerading as true value. At worst the citizen gets a cover up for real accountability, at best just some gadgets that will bring fringe benefits.

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