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Protests in Brazil Turn Digital

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, June 28 2013

While protests continue in streets, hacktavists retreat for a day indoors (Euqueriaser/Flickr)

Inspired by the protests on the streets, hacktivists are taking to their computers in large number. The first hackday was held on June 16, drawing around 200 engineers, journalists, lawyers and activists in São Paolo. These hacktivists brainstormed on how to make protests more efficient, from tear gas-resistant masks to easier access to public data. Another group of hacktivists met on June 19 in Rio de Janeiro to do their digital part for protesters.

“The idea [for the hackday] began in a chat between me and Daniela Silva, from Esfera [a think tank focused on technology and politics] and Transparencia Hacker, about what was happening [in] the streets and what we could do,” Organizer Gutem Nunes de Carvalho, a front-end developer, wrote in an email.

De Carvalho's co-organizers at Transparencia Hacker operate an online forum that promotes discussion about open data, government and hacktavism. “Anyone can join,” said de Carvalho. “Participants are lawyers, engineers, civil servants, journalists, designers, teachers and, of course, various types of hackers.”

Daniela Silva created an event on Facebook – where much of the organizing for the protests in Brazil is taking place – and invited members of Transparencia Hacker and other interested parties.

The hackday started at 4pm and ran past midnight. Participants worked on a wide range of projects, from writing an open letter to the mayor of São Paulo to determining the best path to take during the protest scheduled for the following day.

Natalia Mazotte, a fellow member of Transparencia Hacker, helped organize the second hackday on June 19, which was held at the Media Lab of Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Mazotte is a journalist and a fellow at the Graduate Program of Culture and Communications at UFRJ and longtime enthusiast of Transparencia Hacker. Since most of the activities take place in São Paulo, however, she started organizing meetings in Rio de Janeiro. “I think it's a nice moment to consolidate a civic data-driven group [in Rio de Janeiro],” Mazotte explained in an email.

Compared to the first hackday, the one in Rio had a narrower focus and a smaller group of participants – about 30. They tackled issues specific to the public transportation system in Rio de Janeiro. Mazotte explained that they came armed with a number of important and technical questions:

We thought it would be important to understand what is behind the escalating cost of this public service. How is the bus fare calculated? Who are the main shareholders in the private companies that provide this public service? Is there any connection between these shareholders and the politicians of the city? Is the distribution of the bus lines efficient and sufficient? On average, how many percent of the wage Brazilians need to spend for transportation? And other people around the world? ... After spending a week organizing some databases, now we're working on some ideas of apps and visualizations. Since this kind of data is not easily available (as [it's] supposed to be), the process ends up being slower and complex. I hope we can have something to show in the following days.

Although there were only 30 participants at the first hackday, they now have a discussion mailing list with more than 70 people. Another meeting is scheduled for next Saturday.

Since the protest movement began, the government has made a handful of concessions in a number of areas: public transport, education, corruption and political reform. For example, the government reversed the bus fare increase and halted plans to renew bus contracts, promising to make future contracts more transparent. Much of this, Gutem said, was accomplished with “data and social pressure.”

As for what happens next, de Carvalho is not particularly sure. He wrote in an email:

The future is uncertain. As you can see, the fight is not just about public transportation, but social issues. The Movimento Passe Livre (Free Pass Movement) ... will continue with its goal of getting a quality public transportation subsidized by the state. Some people are working on the subject of the World Cup, as FIFA impose a lot of rules, including not to publish the expenses related to Cup.

De Carvalho added that there are no current plans for another hackday.

Protesters are still demanding more significant and far-reaching reforms, up to and including to the constitution.

On June 26, Pedro Markun, Daniela Silva's partner at Esfera and a member of Transparencia Hacker, posted a document for proposed revisions to Brazil's constitution, built in just a couple of hours with a fellow hacktivist, Livia Ascava, using open source technology. Anyone can leave a comment or suggestion on the document.

“We [at Transparencia Hacker] have been playing with this idea that more than just accessing and understanding data it is really important to understand the political process behind it,” Markun explained in an email to techPresident.

While Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has made gestures towards political reform, Markun said that “she dismissed the idea [of reforming the constitution] because of some 'legal issue' on having a [constitutional] reform that does not encompass the whole thing.”

Markun continued:

Instead of waiting for the congress to propose changes and decide [what] the political reform should look like, we could directly write the constitution we want and send it as draft proposal to the house of chambers - changing the usual flow of politics and policies.

It is about empowering people with the ability to debate and create politics.

When asked what he and Ascava hope to accomplish with this initiative, Markun responded:

Nothing really. Just by having it online and proving that it is possible to do it, is good enough. Of course ... it would be really cool if that could actually turn into good political ideas and good political outcome regarding the so-needed political reform.

It's an experiment on changing the way we think and do politics.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.