Aleem Walji, Head of Global Development Initiatives, Google.org
Two members of our team recently attended an international conference at the Carter Center on the right to information (RTI). I must admit that I didn't have much knowledge in this area and didn't even realize that the US passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOAI) more than 40 years ago. Today, roughly 70 countries have adopted legislation that theoretically gives their citizens the right to ask for and receive from their governments information on any number of issues, including property records, tax files, and identity files.
This may sound rather vague and unimportant. But in some developing countries access to birth certificates can be critical in getting access to basic public services like immunizations, basic education, and land records (important as collateral when seeking loans). For the poor, this access is particularly important, but finding even simple records of identity can be much harder than you might imagine. The ability of bureaucrats to control access to what is "public" puts them in position to make all kinds of demands. For example, getting access to a birth certificate (technically a public record) can take months, involve dozens of steps, and include bribes at every stage. Without basic identify documents, the poor are often left without access to essential public services reserved for "official citizens".
Governments increasingly are putting public information online, even in the developing world. However, "online" doesn't always mean searchable or crawlable. In other words, you have to know where it is to find it. How would you even know where to look? Participants at the conference were captivated by the idea of making high value, high impact public records like land registries and identify documents available online in a format that is easy to search and find. Google's experience in digitizing books and making them available online was cited as the kind of effort that could be useful in helping give people in developing countries access to the public information they need. There is some work already happening at Google on making government records crawlable.
The possibility is exciting. Could poor rural people get access to birth certificates, death certificates or land titles one day through their mobile phones? It's worth thinking about. Even if they have to pay to access them, the cost of getting access to critical data at important times would more than pay for itself. As the penetration of mobile phones in rural areas has shown, people are willing to pay for access to tools and information that give them what they want when they need it most.