New smartphone app aims to combat corruption | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 20.05.2011
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Science

New smartphone app aims to combat corruption

Bribespot, a new app from a Lithuanian software developer, allows users to 'crowdsource' reports of global corruption and make more people aware of incidents of bribery.

Bribespot

Bribespot was conceived at Garage48 in Tallinn, Estonia

Last month in Tallinn, Estonia, dozens of developers, designers and programmers came together for something called Garage48 - a gathering where startups and tech projects go from concept to working-prototype in a single 48-hour period. One of the most interesting applications that came out of this weekend was Bribespot, a new website and smartphone application that lets people report incidents of corruption around the globe. To learn more about the project, which was created by people from Lithuania, Finland, Estonia and Iran, Deutsche Welle spoke with Artas Bartas, the project's team leader.

Deutsche Welle: So what is Bribespot, exactly? What are you trying to do?

Artas Bartas: Bribespot is a location-based (smartphone) app that helps to report incidents of corruption. It's absolutely anonymous. What we want to do is crowdsource the monitoring of corruption. This way, people who meet corruption face-to-face could report it and then we can take all the data and visualize it in a simple and straightforward way, in one place, on the Bribespot website.

How do you envision this working in practice?

Well, imagine a situation where somebody is going to the hospital. He is confronted with a situation where the doctor says: “In order to diagnose you, I would like a bribe.” In a situation like this you don't really have a choice. You cannot really do anything about it. You probably would agree to a bribe, and pay it, but at the same time, you feel that it's wrong. And you would like to have some way to report it or at least make other people aware that this happens in this particular hospital. Using our app you can report anonymously that this was the case, and the doctor asked for a bribe. And this was the amount of the bribe. So then what happens is other people who use the app, they can see the history behind it and you can also see all the activity on our website. We think that after awhile, when you have check-ins in the same place, people will realize that this is a big problem at that location, and something should be done about it.

So it's like Foursquare, but for corruption?

Exactly.

Artas Bartas

Artas Bartas is the team leader of Bribespot

Now, I imagine that most of the people who live in places in the world where there's a lot of corruption - in the developing world - probably most of them don't have smartphones. Do you see that disconnect? Are there other ways that people can submit data points, like through text messaging?

Yes. You're exactly correct. And I think it will help if I give a little bit of background on this project and where this focus on smartphones comes from. I'm originally from Lithuania, which is in Eastern Europe. Corruption is not as big of a problem as it used to be, but there are still instances of it around. And at the same time we have all these smartphones and adoption rate are skyrocketing in the Baltic States right now. So we thought, thinking exclusively about the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe - the region where you have some corruption and you also have a [rapid] spread of smartphones, maybe we could solve the problem of corruption by producing some kind of technology for these smartphones. This was our initial motivation and this was how we actually started working on this project.

And it wasn't until later on that we realized that this has a potential for a much wider audience for people in India and Africa, and places like that. And once you start thinking about those places, then you realize that yes, just focusing on iPhone and Android is not enough, and you have to think about other ways that people can report those things. And I'm sure we can come up with all kinds of creative solutions. For the moment we just wanted to tackle something very specific and very concrete, and that was corruption within our region, Eastern Europe, and so we thought that a smartphone app would be the best way to do that.

Are you a company? Is this just a fun side project to see if this will work? Where do you see this going in the future?

It started off as a fun project. For me, it was more of an experiment to see what can you do with this modern technology, if you start thinking more creatively about them? But once we finished the prototype and we went around and showed it to a few NGOs and people who are involved in fighting corruption, the response was overwhelmingly positive. People were very excited and many of them didn't have a clue that you could do a thing like that just using smartphones. So we got more and more calls and recommendations that we should concentrate on this project and build it in a scalable, usable platform that any NGO could employ to fight corruption in their country.

Bribespot team

Bribespot was created by developers from Lithuania, Finland, Estonia and Iran

Right now, we're in the process of recruiting sponsors that could help us fund this initiative. Because all of us, we're freelancers, and we have other jobs during the daytime and whatever we do on Bribespot, it's usually in our free time, which is evenings and weekends. Naturally we would like to spend more time on that. But then you also have to pay your bills and your rent, so in a way, you're forced to do other things. I spoke with my colleagues today and we would be very happy to form a non-profit organization which could take this technology and scale it and make it available as many NGOs out there.

Now, what about the privacy of the users? If you have people who are in potentially politically sensitive countries like Iran or Zimbabwe, and they're transmitting data about public officials or other officials in their area - do you have records of which phone its coming from? The IP address and things like that?

If we talk about the technological side of that, the only information that we have about the users is the MAC address, the unique number of the mobile phone. That's the only unique identifier that we have from the users. But we want to go further than that. We want to anonymize even those pieces of information that we have about any single user. If you look into the scientific research and if you look at some smart-apps made by other people there are ways to anonymize those unique identifiers. Even if someone breaks into the system and downloads all the records, there's absolutely no way that he could trace the reports to any individual. This is what we want to achieve, not only to promise people that it's anonymous, but to make it technologically impossible to trace back people who reported bribes.

Interview: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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