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'Politicians are keen to get on board'
Gautam Raju is the 27-year-old Indian-Australian co-founder of Oursay, a popular Australian web-based platform for citizen-politician engagement. Having just announced Oursay's first event in India (on the future of higher education in India, with minister of state for HRD Shashi Tharoor), Raju spoke to Rukmini Shrinivasan.
Can you tell us a little about OurSay and what it's done in Australia?
Oursay is a democratic media platform that connects the public to media and leaders. The way it works is we open a forum, we go out to the community and we say to the community : 'We have a leader who is committed to answering questions posted on our website. ' So we invite users and the public to come on to our website, post questions and then everyone who registers on the website gets seven votes which they can distribute across any of the questions on the website, and then when the forum closes, the questions with the most votes, the leader will then respond to.
Have you been able to commit to the public noninterference of the leader in the process of selecting the questions?
Yes. So in Australia we've worked with people such as the Prime Minister [Julia Gillard] all the way down to local council members, and every single time we've had them respond to the top-voted questions. We've also gone outside of the government and political sector and we've had sports leaders, academic leaders also commit to responding to questions.
What do you make of the current state of political interaction with citizens through social media in India? Is it very different from what you've seen in Australia?
I would say that the politicians in India that I have met with are very keen to get on board. It's actually easier to work with them than it is to work in Australia. I think there's a shift happening where a lot of people are moving towards engaging in such platforms and as that happens, I think more Indian politicians and leaders are going to be more interested in using these sort of tools to reach out to the public.
What has the response been so far?
I have been so surprised by the huge uptake that we've had in three to four days of launching on OurSay. in - we've had 200 questions, 700 votes, which is bigger than any uptake we've had in Australia. And the quality of the questions has been amazing. It's not that we just put a website up and hope people pose questions. We've actually done a lot of community engagement around it. So we've reached out to civil society and the wider youth population through our youth partner Youth Ki Awaaz. That's how we've been getting really informed and really insightful questions about the future of higher education in India.
Most social media engagement usually hits the '10% internet penetration' wall. How do you go beyond this?
My biggest concern is how do we reach rural India. For one of our first projects with Oxfam India we used Gram Vaani technology which was Interactive Voice Response System to engage rural communities in a debate. What we found is that it's incredibly successful. As part of any OurSay process that we run, we're always going to be running a phone line in these communities to make sure that we're sourcing questions from people in these communities who don't have access to the internet. Eventually we want to be able to connect the phone line to the website so everyone can contribute together in one place.
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