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Three Things Latin America is Learning About Civic Technology

BY Susannah Vila | Wednesday, July 3 2013

Aerial view of Lima, Peru (flickr/NeoKat)

Look closely at any recent wave of street protests and you’re likely to find a group of “civic technologists” trying to find news ways for citizens to participate in the public sector. These are the type of people that came together last week in Uruguay for Latin America’s first “unconference” on open government (which we live blogged here). Roughly 60 civic technologists talked for two days about their shared challenges and emerging best practices in using technology to engage citizens.

There was one particular question on everyone’s mind: how do we engage the right people at the right time to utilize government data and turn it into policy for lasting change? Three trends emerged from the “unconference”:

1. Top-Down Solutions: Donor-funded strategies that bring technologists together with NGOs, journalists, activists and other interested groups

Donors can encourage software creators and data wranglers to think like community engagement strategists. The Avina Foundation recently announced support for four new civic startups in Peru, Argentina, Mexico and Brazil through their Civic Innovation Acceleration Fund. As part of these grantees’ metrics for success, they will have to “form partnerships between organizations of civic software developers, movements and organizations in civil society, governments and communities of civic hackers, data journalists, and technologists.” Partnerships among different groups (with different constituencies) increase the chances that citizens engage with government data in a meaningful way.

Peru’s Datea, which I wrote about back in February, has already begun working with a local organizer to identify opportunities for the city government and civil society to use their platform.

2. Bottom-up solutions: Workshops that develop political autonomy and engagement at the grassroots level

No matter how good a team of civic technologists are at forming partnerships, they are still only likely to reach a minority of people. The reason that the Transparency Hackers community in Brazil takes so much time organizing communities - making about 20 trips a year bussing through the rural parts of the country to set up pop-up workshops in small towns (also known as "invasions") - is so that they can reach beyond the people who work with NGOs in capital cities. As Brazilian hacker and activist Pedro Markun put it, the Transparency Hackers want “to get more people to understand the flows of political information and [...]achieve the kind of political awareness that is necessary for change." At hacker bus workshops, they don’t necessarily discuss political engagement, but bringing people into the political process - starting in town squares and (sometimes) ending in the digital public square - is the goal.

3. Realistic Solutions: Engage deeply with niche groups

Are 10 users who are making the most out of a civic data application more valuable than 10,000 who just used it once? Possibly. Sometimes it does make sense to focus exclusively on a niche group of users for whom you know your application will be relevant.

At Abre Latam, I spoke with Javier Casas of a Peruvian NGO called Suma Ciudadana. Casas thinks the best way to create social impact with civic data applications is by engaging deeply with a tiny minority of the population who you know will find your application useful. This was the approach that Suma Ciudadana took with its this blog post and dig into the Abre Latam live blog.

TechPresident partners with the engine room to surface and connect emerging tactics and initiatives. This is the first piece of coverage from our partnership.

Editor's Note: The Civic Innovation Acceleration Fund is a project of the Avina Americas, Fundación Avina and Omidyar Network.

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