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In Lima, Peru, The Digital Public Square is a Work in Progress

BY Susannah Vila | Tuesday, February 19 2013

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Public transport is a heated political issue in Lima, Peru. It is a city of nearly 9 million people and most rely on a complex system of buses to get around. In 2010, when the local government announced that it would be adding a rapid transit route called The Metropolitano, citizens had a myriad of questions and concerns, but no clear idea of who was responsible for answering them. In response, Todos Somos Dateros, which means "we are all information providers," began aggregating these concerns and channeling them to city-level decision-makers.

The project was the brainchild of the Lima-based participatory technology agency, La Factura . The experiences and problems they saw from 2010 onwards are common to many initiatives that use online platforms as a means of strengthening civic participation.

If You Build it They (Probably) Won’t Come

Camila Bustamante , who co-founded both La Factura and Todos Somos Dateros, started by identifying the components necessary for the project to have an impact. These nuts and bolts included: the technology, the audience, and a civil society partner with expertise and networks. While La Factura’s developer worked on the technology she set her sights on the audience and the networks.

As Bustamante recalls, “the discussions were already happening online — on blogs and Twitter – but it wasn't getting channeled to decision makers. Her task was to get people who were already engaged with the issue to share complaints and suggestions online. She worked to reach this audience via social media and a series of events and workshops. She created the Todos Somos Dateros newspaper , installed kiosks in particular stations so that people could share feedback more quickly and easily, and polled dateros — "information providers" — for ideas. All in all, the initiative aggregated around 1,000 citizen reports.

While Bustamante worked on community engagement and mobilization she developed a partnership with the Lima-based urban mobility NGO, Ciudad Nuestra ("our city"), which brought an in-depth understanding of how improvements to the city’s transportation system are implemented. They also had strong relationships with the local government.

“We knew what we wanted: we wanted citizens to support authorities to improve the transport system, in this case, the Metropolitano,” says the former director of Ciudad Nuestra, Juan Jose Arrué. “It was up to us to figure out how information sent in would actually be used.” To make the information as usable as possible they designed a categorization system that forced users to add (feasible) solutions as well as complaints. They also  held public meetings with experts and created short bulletins that they emailed or hand-delivered to officials.

One full year after its launch, Todos Somos Dateros had its first meeting with the municipality. While officials seemed to welcome the information, they never acted on it.  

Launching a New Initiative in Tandem with Public Officials

The challenge for Todos Somos Dateros was that that the team couldn't get anyone to act on citizen reports. Arrué sees this challenge as one of the factors that led to low citizen participation.

“If you send in a report, the next day you are going to be waiting for not just a response but also a resolution. If you don't see this, you won't trust the platform anymore.”  

Todos Somos Dateros and Ciudad Nuestra decided to launch a new initiative using the same technology. This time, they would begin by building partnerships with the municipality. Because they knew the public officials who were interested, and because there was a growing community of cyclists in Lima, they chose cycling as their next theme .

While officials were, according to Arrué, genuinely interested in responding to cyclists’ concerns, bureaucratic slog prevented them from doing so. If someone made a simple request to add a bike ramp the process of cutting the red tape necessary to access funding could take a up to a year.

“They really wanted to make the district better for cyclists and they were part of the project design process from the start,” says Arrué. Although the municipality genuinely wanted to respond to reports, doing so promptly was almost impossible. The fear of being responsible for failure to respond to a slew of citizen requests spooked officials. To address this, Todos Somos Dateros created a new feature that users working in the public sector to organize reports within an interface inspired by Google Mail. The goal of this feature was to make it easier to stay on top of complaints that needed to be addressed. But it was too little too late, and the initiative generated less traction than the Metropolitano project.

Calling All Users

For Arrué, the experience with Todos Somos Dateros Cyclists suggests that the quantity of citizen participation is not as important as an initiative creating responses and resolving reports. “It doesn’t matter if we get 50 or 50,000 reports,” he says “what matters is if the project is designed as a collaboration between civil society and government because this makes it more likely that we will be able to generate responses.”

Moving forward, La Factura has opened the technology it developed to anyone who wants to create an initiative. So far there have not been many promising new projects. “As civic hackers we’re idealistic and we think big picture - we want technology and civic participation to change the world,” says Bustamante, “most people, though, are only likely to get involved if it is to fix something that directly influences their day-to-day life.” With this in mind, Bustamante is looking to users who want to aggregate and map data about issues, like earthquake safe zones, that are more directly relevant for residents.

Todos Somos Dateros and Ciudad Nuestra’s experiences demonstrate the importance of building and implementing a strategy that brings together the right people at the right time. The technological platform that they have (through a lot of trial and error) developed is a dead-simple, usable and attractive tool for participatory mapping and data collection. It includes features like an “open data” button for downloading reports from the website as a spreadsheet with one click. To move forward it doesn’t need to acquire a large quantity of active users. Rather, it needs a few good ones: initiatives with the resources, skill-sets and networks to develop a strong strategy. Unfortunately this is much easier said than done.

This is the first of a series of profiles on technology in advocacy initiatives from the engine room.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.