The role of social networks and electronic media in engendering an emerging political consciousness among the global youth can hardly be overstated. Even on a more local level, there is a void between the government and the electorate, fueled by our inability to do much about the crumbling pillars of bureaucracy, plagued by corruption and inefficiency; a void that is slowly being filled by social entrepreneurs through technology.
Bribespot.com, based in Germany, is one such effort. Their goal is to create “an interactive map to identify hotspots of corruption in local communities.” While there is nothing pioneering about their idea–they don’t claim otherwise–what is probably unique to them is the sheer scale at which they aim to take this nascent website: “a cross-country, cross-platform avenue that provides data on types, forms and impact of petty bribery”.
We interviewed the website’s founder Artas Bartas, where he takes us through the exciting journey of how Bribespot.com came to be and what they hope to achieve in the coming few years. Download the app, explore, and decide for yourself whether you want to be part of the change or prefer carrying on with your air of practiced indifference.
1. Where and how was the idea of something along the lines of Bribespot.com conceived?
The original idea came more as a thought experiment. Foursquare was grabbing a lot of headlines at the time, but the only thing I would see there was my friends checking into bars that were 500 meters away from their house, so I wondered “if we wanted to do something useful with this geolocation thing, what could that be?”.
And so we built a prototype one weekend with some fellow geeks. Turns out people liked what they saw, so we continued tinkering on this project until we started seeing what is lacking and what kind of features the service would need to provide to become more than just a niche product.
2. A large percentage of the world’s most corrupt countries are in Africa and the developing economies of Asia. Did you consult any locals while creating an implementation strategy?
We always try to talk to people on the ground, mostly, because that is the best way to get ideas on how to develop and promote your service. Besides, when you live in Western Europe you take many things – such as ubiquitous Internet, widespread adoption of latest smartphone models, progressive journalists, and law-enforcement agencies ready to respond to evidence of crime – for granted. Talking to people from Asia and Africa makes you reconsider some of these assumptions and reflect on how to accommodate the fact on your service.
Just this summer, I had the pleasure of taking part in the Summer School on Integrity, organized by the Lithuanian Chapter of Transparency International. It was an awesome event that brought together 120 young people from 60 countries to learn about how they could contribute to tackling corruption in their home countries. I got a chance to talk to some very bright people from Egypt, Tunisia, Afghanistan and Ukraine there and realized that we need to attend more events like this.
3. What sets you apart from websites like: http://www.ipaidabribe.com/, which not only have been developed locally, but may have a better understanding of the corruption that plagues the Indian bureaucracy?
That is true – the idea of collecting bribe reports online is nothing new and there are many, many local and regional initiatives in this area. The main difference between us and other initiatives is our long-term goal. We said to ourselves from the very start that we are not really interested in political side of tackling corruption, e.g. organizing mass rallies, talking to Government and trying to turn our service into a mass movement that could be used to influence local elections.
Instead, we see ourselves as a global, nimble technology provider. To put it simply, we want to provide anti-corruption activists around the world with the best tools to document, analyze and publicize the evidence of petty corruption and let them decide for themselves how to use that information best. Besides, since we operate on a global level, made our service available on mobile devices, and making it available in local languages, we are in a good position to provide cross-country data on types, forms and impact of petty bribery.
4. You claim that your website makes it easier for people/organizations fighting corruption to identify bribe hotspots. Wouldn’t the anonymity of the report raise a question mark on its authenticity?
While we could be debating this issue for a long time, the bottom line is that when it comes to reporting corruption, anonymity provides far more benefits than disadvantages. Knowing that their identity will remain secret, allows people who would usually fear for their lives or well-being to go ahead and report their encounters with crooked officialdom. Meanwhile, seeing a lot of random individuals report the same situation gives us more confidence in the authenticity of these reports. Plus, we run a whole set of measures aimed at identifying and suspending suspicious reports.
5. Any unusual stories, among the ones that you have received, that you would like to share?
To me personally, the stories of bribes paid at the customs are the most interesting ones, because it seems that custom officials have very rich imagination when it comes to inventing the reasons for holding back your merchandise. See here, for example. The story that cracked me up was published a while ago and came from Kenya. There a customs official at the airport wanted to deny visitor an entry into the country, because he was carrying too many shoes with him. Naturally, the problem went away once the traveler agreed to pay 5 Euros in “processing fee.” Then again, there are also many not so funny stories about people having to pay bribes at hospitals to get necessary surgeries or basic care. Reading those accounts makes you realize what a sham ‘free healthcare’ can be.
6. Was there a long-term goal you had in mind when you started developing the website and the app, or are you guys taking things one-step-at-a-time?
So far, we were largely experimenting with the service and seeing how people use it. The reason is very simple – when it comes to business, you understand that there is a clear goal you want to achieve and some well-established ways to get there. So you can draw the trajectory of your startup pretty clearly. But when it comes to service like Bribespot, we are facing a completely uncharted territory and many questions we face – from what is our business model to how do we handle collected data – need to be answered by means of trial-and-error.
7. You have been featured in WSJ, NYT and a bunch of other forums; what does the road ahead look like?
While we have many ideas for improving and extending the service on our drawing board, for now we just want to focus on promoting the service among smart, young, upwardly mobile users in the developing countries. We think that these groups of people are very receptive to new technologies and innovative services and at the same time, they are also intolerant of petty corruption giving them plenty of incentives to vent frustration on our website.
And the more people use our service, the easier it will be for us to understand in which direction we should develop it further. To reach these people, we are planning to localize Bribespot to a number of key countries (it’s already available in English, Thai, Russian and Hindi) and work closely with influential bloggers in these countries to spread the message.
Artas Bartas, founder of Bribespot.com is originally from Vilnius, Lithuania, but currently lives in Berlin, Germany. You can send him your feedback directly; his twitter handle is: @artasbartas