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“The right intention”: Setting up civic engagement platforms

By Fabrizio Scrollini

“Por mi Barrio” (For my Borough-FMB) is a new initiative implemented in Montevideo, Uruguay by DATA Uruguay and that is based on the Fixmystreet software. FMB allows locals to report incidents to the local government turning this process open and transparent. I know what you are thinking: please not another post showing how technology “changes everything” while trumpeting the benefits of a particular software platform. Bear with me. I will do my best to avoid blatant self-promotion.

pormibarrio-reportesYet another platform?

Fixmystreet (FMS) is one of many platforms now available world-wide that allows people to report incidents across a city. Potholes, signs, public lightings are problems that often frustrate neighbors, and require measures from city governments. FMS is a new channel for citizens to report incidents through different devices, and to actively participate and change the way the city is governed, resulting in more transparency and accountability. But such grandiose claims often meets skepticism for good reasons. As Duncan Edwards notes in a recent post about technology for citizen engagement: “For now, I don’t think tech is a game changer, it just opens up new tactics for some actors to play a game that I’m not sure is the right game, or at least not the only game that could be played.” Nonetheless, a recent paper by Sjoberg, Mellon, Jonathan and Peixoto, shows that if citizens have a good experience (i.e. an answer) the first time they use FMS, they are more likely to submit a second request increasing their participation. Here is the dilemma: we want citizens to use these tools so they can participate more. Yet are we thinking of them as users or as citizens?  Here is where the idea of constructive engagement with governments plays a role: it is not only important that requests are answered and potholes fixed but also that platforms are setup according to certain core elements.

Governance, Technology and People

I believe that three elements are important when dealing with platforms such as FMB: governance, technology and people.

In terms of governance rules should be clear. In the case of Montevideo, DATA Uruguay signed a formal agreement with Montevideo City government establishing a clear set of rules and responsibilities. The government would allow interconnection to their systems through APIs[1] allowing users to track their requests. DATA would provide an open source technology to interact with government services and engage users. In Montevideo, the government not only provided the infrastructure, but it also committed resources in terms of communications and software design. Montevideo city government was a pioneer in Latin America in terms of public software and open data, thus engagement about this topic was fairly straightforward. Furthermore, DATA signed an agreement with the local Ombudsman setting up effectively a third party where citizens can go to in case a solution is not provided.

In terms of technology there are many things to consider. Building these solutions is at the very basic providing civic infrastructure like roads or benches. But these “roads and benches” are a bit different. These are “roads” mediating a complex civic process. Thus transparency (as in open/free software) is important. By using FMS anyone can inspect how the system works. Design and usability are also key aspects and DATA contributed its share to improve FMB. And because it is open, other people can “fork it” and use it.

PormibarrioAnd of course, the people factor is crucial. DATA in partnership with the City Government and the local Ombudsman office, is reaching out to local councils and grassroots organizations setting up workshops about how to use FMB. In this way FMB is considered a tool to reach out not so well-off parts of town (where there are actually more problems) and engage people in other discussions about the neighborhood, getting feedback about what works (and does not work) in this platform.

But are these initiatives really effective? In FMB’s case, 43 % of the 1,000 requests sent through the web have been fixed by Montevideo City and the rest has been formally recorded. If you kept reading, I might have convinced you that the way you set up your initiative can be crucial for its success, whatever system you choose to use (FMS, “out of the box” solutions or inventing it from scratch). As an old Buddhist saying goes “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” This is known as the “right intention”. So, when engaging with technologies as a government official, a civil society advocate or a donor, ask yourself the right question: What do you seek to achieve? Several paths are available, constructive engagement with governments in the right conditions, is one of them.

 

[1]In computer programming, an application programming interface (API) is a set of routines, protocols, and tools for building software applications. An API expresses a software component in terms of its operations, inputs, outputs, and underlying types (source Wikipedia.org).

 

Fabrizio-ScrolliniAuthor

Fabrizio Scrollini
Chairman of Data Uruguay, and lead researcher of the Latin American Open Data Initiative

Fabrizio Scrollini is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Chairman of DATA, an Uruguayan based NGO working on transparency, open data and human development. As an academic Fabrizio is interested in accountability institutions, access to information,transparency and open data.

As a practitioner Fabrizio worked as an advisor  for several organizations in Latin America and Eastern Europe focusing on transparency and state sector reform. Previously Fabrizio earned a Master of Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand and briefly practiced as a lawyer in his native Uruguay.

You can reach him @fscrollini in twitter or at [email protected]. If you felt this post was another blatant attempt of self- promotion write to him and he will profusely apologize.

April 28, 2015

1 Responses on “The right intention”: Setting up civic engagement platforms"

  1. Clive Bacon says:

    Thanks for posting this blog Fabrizio – very helpful as I consider working with civil society and government here in Lusaka Zambia.

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