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Buenos Aires, A Pocket of Civic Innovation in Argentina

BY Rebecca Chao | Tuesday, December 10 2013

Last week, Buenos Aires' Open Government launched an interactive timeline of its 100-year-old subway sytem (Credit: Screenshot)

When an online non-profit newspaper in Minneapolis, Minn. hit a roadblock while using public data, it took a cue, of all places, from a city in Argentina. In September, the Minneapolis Police Department decided to change the publishing format for its crime data – from excel to PDF – making it difficult for the journalists at MinnPost.com to use it. So they turned to Tabula, a data-scraping app created by Manuel Aristarán from Bahía Blanca in the Buenos Aires province.

In only a few years, the government, civil society and media in Buenos Aires have actively embraced open data. The Buenos Aires city government has been publishing data under a creative commons license and encouraging civic innovation through hackathons. NGOs have launched a number of tech-driven tools and Argentina's second largest newspaper, La Nación, has published several hard-hitting data journalism projects. The result is a fledgling but flourishing open data culture in Buenos Aires, in a country that has not yet adopted a freedom of information law.

A Wikipedia for Open Government Data

In late August of this year, the Buenos Aires government declared a creative commons license for all of its digital content, which allows it be used for free, like Wikipedia content, with proper attribution. This applies to their new open data catalog that allows users to visualize the data, examine apps that have been created using the data and even includes a design lab for posting app ideas. Launched only in March, the government has already published fairly substantial data sets, including the salaries of city officials. The website also embodies the principals of openness in its design; it is built with open-source software and its code is available for reuse via GitHub.

“We were the first city in Argentina doing open government,” Rudi Borrmann tells techPresident over Skype. Borrmann is the Director of Buenos Aires’ Open Government Initiative. Previously, he was the social media editor at the city’s New Media Office but he also worked for many years in digital media.

Rudi Borrmann speaks at an open data conference in Buenos Aires (Credit: Buenos Aires Data/flickr)

The push to release data via creative commons license is not commonly practiced by governments, most of whom are still debating its ownership. Data can be a lucrative thing and something governments don't necessarily want to hand out freely. In Oklahoma, for example, the state brought in $65 million over five years from selling personal data like motor vehicle licenses and birth dates to insurance companies, employment screening services and legal services, and others.

Helen Fu of the Citizen Media Law project has outlined a number of U.S. states and cities that copyright their data. She writes, “In New York, for instance, state and local agencies may comply with their obligations under the state Freedom of Information Law while maintaining their copyright, and the public records law 'does not prohibit a state agency from placing restrictions on how a record, if it were copyrighted, could be subsequently distributed.'”

In Buenos Aires, however, the release of the data was merely a baby step along a long, hard road of getting open data to a place where it would be useful as well as actively used.

“We had to also tell them [civil society] that there are opportunities in using that data, through hackathons and building a community around the initiative,” says Borrmann. When he first tried to introduce the concept of open data and hackathons to civil society, he says that they looked at him as if he were “an alien.”

Fast forward only a year. The second government hackathon drew over 400 participants and media and civil society have taken the initiative to launch a number of their own events. “We feel that our best success is about the community that has been created around it,” says Borrmann, noting that the first hackathon attracted mostly developers while the latter one drew journalists and civil society members.

Part of the current success of the city’s open data initiative is its ability to experiment and learn from its mistakes.

Jessica Lord, a Code for America fellow, had the opportunity to visit the government offices in person. She wrote in a blog post, “The department is encouraged to explore and try new ideas; absent is the idea that the government can’t try something and later decide to scrap it if it turns out to be less useful than anticipated.”

She also notes that the Open Government department is run by young, tech-savvy employees, “quite uncommon here in the states,” writes Lord. “I’d not been [in] a room of government workers with such a young average age.”

Buenos Aires has also cleverly taken a two-fold approach to open government: The Open Government department cleans, release and creates apps for the data while the Open Government Culture department helps other government agencies manage their data and creates public campaigns for their open data initiatives.

Lord writes, “We’d love to see these cities create departments like the those in Buenos Aires.”

Before Open Government was "Open Government"

While the Buenos Aires government has certainly played a significant role in fostering enthusiasm for open data, trying to trace the roots of open data in Argentina is a bit of like trying to answer the chicken and egg question – who created the initial push, civil society or government?

Manuel Aristarán, who created Tabula, for example, developed his own open data platform back in 2010, two years before the city of Buenos Aires. Back in 2001, the government of Bahía Blanca began publishing public spending data. “That is quite rare in Argentina,” Aristarán told techPresident. The administration was very amenable to releasing data and so “they were pushing a very aggressive transparency agenda." He explained that the government "managed to build this portal of budget and spending data before open government was called open government.” However, the information provided by the government was very difficult to make sense of. “You couldn’t see the biggest tenders or how the budget was organized,” says Aristarán. In 2010, as a personal project, he built a website to scrape the data from the government websites and to make it more accessible and comprehensible to the public. He named the site, Gasto Publico Bahiense or “Public Expenditures Bahienese.”

A screenshot of Gasto Publico Bahiense

At first, Aristarán's site got little attention. But then, one year after it launched, the government became peeved with his platform and began requiring that users fill in a captcha to access the site. “They gave some BS reason about trying protect the security of the data,” says Aristarán, but in reality, the captcha just made the data more difficult to scrape with software.

“This actually backfired because I told people in the press about it since it was an obstacle to access the data, and the whole thing got a lot of exposure, all the way to international press,” says Aristarán. “I have to be grateful to the guy who tried to block us. After that, I got a lot of support from a lot of transparency activists and now I’m trying to grow this project and extend it to other municipalities.”

Aristarán went on to become a Knight-Mozilla News Fellow where he developed Tabula with the help of Pro Publica. MinnPost used it to create a city crime map even though the Minneapolis police department has returned to using Excel to publish data. Tabula has also been used by the BBC, says Aristarán.

While Aristarán is a web developer by trade and doesn’t have a background in journalism or nonprofit, he stumbled upon a need that he could fill with his technical skills. Putting together developers and those in media or the civil society sector is exactly how the magic happens, Paula Alzualde explains to techPresident. She works for Wingu, an organization that aims to connect those from the tech sphere with NGOs. “When they cross for one some reason, it’s amazing what happens. We get very good apps,” says Alzualde.

Alzualde cites “Tomalo y usalo,” or “Take it and use it” as a successful app that was created during the 2012 Latin America Development Hackathon, which she helped to organize. The event brought together a number of those from various sectors, including development and tech, to create civil society apps. Tomalo y usalo, which was an idea of Fundacion Huesped, an NGO that addresses HIV/AIDS issues, allows users to search for the location of HIV/AIDS test centers around the country.

Alzualde says that Wingu holds a database of over 13,000 NGOs and “has very strong bonds with NGOs.” She says they work with them on a procedure they call the “anti-selling process.” When working with NGOs on technology, she must often tell them, “'No, you do not need this, this is too complex for you.' We are very careful about implementing technology.” Wingu’s next project is working with equal rights group, ACIJ to create a Ushahidi-based slum map in Argentina.

“It’s going to map public development infrastructure developments -- water, pipes, eletricity, cables, networks -- and also public services,” says Alzualde. They then plan to overlay these points with a map of Argentina's slums. “The idea is that the neighbors will text us and send messages and make claims and comments about these projects on the slum map: ‘I haven’t had electricity for two weeks or there should be a hospital but it’s not happening.’ It’s going to be a social platform, not just a map.” Most of the toughest work for them, however, is done offline, “to encourage them to use it,” explains Alzualde. She says that in the slums, the Internet penetration rate is about 90 percent with 25 percent using smart phones and the rest using cyber cafes since “most of them don’t have a computer.” She says it will be a year’s worth of work to fully develop the slum mapping project.

In a similar vein, Mariano Blejman, a journalist of 20 years and a current Knight Fellow for the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), is connecting journalists with those who work in the tech field. He created the Hack/Hackers Buenos Aires chapter in 2011 where he has grown its membership to 1,700, making it the second largest chapter in the world. He also helped to organize the second annual Media Party in August and it was the first time it attracted such widespread attention; a number of distinguished guests spoke at the event including Jacqui Maher, assistant editor of interactive news of The New York Times and news application editor Brian Boyer from NPR, among others.

“We put editors, civic hackers, designers, interactive story tellers together in one place and we’ve been very good at merging people," says Blejman. "It's an opportunity people to influence media outlets which are not innovating.”

After organizing the first media party, Blejman saw a number of issues that needed to be addressed in the second media party, such as the overproduction of apps, ensuring apps are used and that the productivity of hackathons continues long after the event.

At the front line of data journalism in Argentina is La Nación, which recently became a partner news site in the Knight-Mozilla Open News fellowship, alongside the New York Times, BBC and the Guardian.

In 2011, La Nación discovered that the federal government had spent $34 billion in eight years in funding private buses. They were able to identify 20 companies that benefited from the public purse. It was at this time that Angélica Peralta-Ramos, La Nación’s Multimedia Development Manager, realized the newspaper’s need for more data journalism training. “The journalists were in front of a pen drive full of information and weren’t able to ‘solve the puzzle’ without help from a programmer,” she told Nieman Lab. Peralta herself was not originally a journalist but a computer scientist. The data journalism team is a small one – only ten people – yet they have already made quite a splash, winning one of eight awards in the Data Journalism Awards 2013 alongside those with much larger and better-funded teams like at The Guardian.

Even though the city of Buenos Aires has a freedom of information law, the federal government has not yet passed the bill, which has stalled now for several years. Yet, the government recently issued a law that would allow public officials to exclude delcaring the assets of family members and relatives, making it easier for officials to hide their wealth. Taking matters into their own hands, the data journalists at La Nación collaborated with a number of transparency and government monitoring NGOs to obtain the financial assets of over 600 public officials, with a focus on prominent members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, as well as candidates running in the 2013 legislative elections.

The information was only available in hardcopy, however, so La Nación employed the help of 30 volunteers who manually entered the data into a number of online organizing tools like Google Docs and Trello. The result was a comprehensive, searchable database of public official's assets.

La Nación's latest project lists the financial assets of over 600 public officials (Credit: Screenshot)

Challenges Ahead

While the civil society and media sectors have forged ahead in using open data, Borrmann tells techPresident that up in the ivory tower, openness to open data has been lagging. “Only technical schools are starting to create areas focused on working on open data,” he says.

In an interview with NYU’s govlab, Borrmann explained the significance of academia in using and pushing for more open data. “They have the means, the resources, the methodology to analyze…because in government you don’t have that time to analyze,” he said.

Another issue with open data is getting other branches of the government to modernize. Borrmann says that a lot of the Open Government’s work is done behind the scenes. “In general, you have very poor IT infrastructure all over Latin America” that interferes with the gathering and publishing of data, he says. “So in some cases it’s not about publishing or not publishing,” but about “having robust infrastructure for the information.”

It seems that the behind the scenes work is bearing some fruit. Just last week, on Dec. 6, the team behind the Buenos Aires open data website launched an impressive, interactive timeline, based on a similar timelapse map developed by a 2013 Knight-Mozilla Fellow, Noah Veltman. Against faded black and white photos depicting the subway from different decades over the last century, colorful pops of the Subterráneo lines emerge alongside factoids that go all the way back to 1910.

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

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