Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

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

BY Susannah Vila | Tuesday, February 19 2013

Screenshot from

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.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.


tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.


Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.