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PdF Latin America: Lighting Bonfires, Planting Seeds and Building Networks

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, November 24 2010

Photo credit: "Sunset Over Santiago" by Deanna Zandt

These are my notes on the first PdF Latin America conference that just finished last week in Santiago, Chile: Latin America is a hotbed of efforts to watchdog government using the internet. Politicians and political operatives clearly "get" the lingo of networked politics, and have drunk the social media kool-aid, though it's hardly clear that they're listening to their constituents any more than talking at them using digital tools (why doesn't this surprise me?). The hacking of civil society by we-government activists is just starting to flower. And the United States is viewed with mixed feelings by our friends to the South--a source of democratic inspiration and political consternation.

I'm somewhat hesitant to draw firm conclusions about the conference, so take what follows as a sketch of my thinking, not an authoritative guide-map. First of all, our main goal in coming to Latin America was simply to start a bonfire and see who was attracted to it--not to make big definitive declarations about how the internet is changing politics in the region. Second, most of the two days were programmed, conducted and digested in Spanish, which I no hablas. Though we did have simultaneous translation between English and Spanish for the whole event, you obviously miss many nuances along the way, and I'm well aware that there were many local and historical references made by speakers and participants that didn't get translated at that well. And third, we tried hard to avoid imposing a North American frame over the conversations. So for me to offer conclusions now obviously means doing exactly that.

But while PdF Latam is still fresh in my mind, I did want to offer my observations and reactions to the event. (Over on the PdF Latam blog, you can get a richer sense of what went on thanks to several contemporaneous posts by our friend Natalia Fidel of Argentina, and also from PdF Latam editor Diego Beas, who was busy during the event helping curate the show, but who has offered some post-mortem thoughts as well.)

  • When it comes to using the internet to watchdog government, Latin America is a hotbed of vibrant projects. From Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente in Chile to Congreso Visible in Columbia to Congreso Aberto in Brazil, the idea of mashing together information about legislators, bills, votes, campaign money, and personal financial disclosure records is strong and spreading across the region. Indeed, when Felipe Heusser (PdF Latam's conference director, and the co-founder of Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente) described a new "conflict of interest" tool his organization had developed to expose hidden relationships between elected legislators, private businesses, and pending bills, you could feel the whole room come alive with attention.
  • Political players "get" the lingo, if not the practice, of networked governance. I had the privilege of co-interviewing former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, who gave a long opening speech illustrating his understanding of how the web was seemingly leveling the political playing field. When I asked him whether he could support the idea of "we-government," where citizens co-create better government services using public data and/or their own bottom-up information, he embraced the concept without batting an eyelash. We are all on Mt. Olympus now, he claimed, saying that everyone was equal in their ability to participate now, thanks to the internet. Of course, that statement was received with some skepticism by some in the audience, who tweeted, Really? If so, why are their still hunger strikes here in Chile? The unanswered question that hovered over much of the proceedings--which took place in the hyper-modern setting of the Telefonica headquarters building in the wealthier part of Santiago--was whether the net was actually changing the balance of power in the class-stratified countries of the region. (Of course, one can ask the same thing about its role in the United States, as a new study by the Pew Internet Center which just came out today reminds us--the rich here are also richer online.)
  • Compared to the U.S., where political acceptance of blogging and other social media tools took several years, my impression of Latin American politicos was that they are rushing in where others feared to tread. Speakers like Soninha Francine, who managed the e-campaign of presidential candidate Jose Serra in Brazil, and Hernan Larrain, the online campaign chief for President Sebastian Pinera of Chile, made abundantly clear that the gospel of Twitter and Facebook has plenty of converts in national capitols across the region. (Francine did point out that it was just two years ago that Brazil prohibited political candidates from having more than one website, but that backward policy has been since scrapped.)
  • The hacking of politics and civil society is just beginning to flower. One project from the region that stood out was Vasco Furtado's WikiCrimes, which is a Brazil-based effort to improve the actual reporting (and investigation) of crime in places where people are often too distrustful or afraid of the police to even make formal reports. Furtado, a professor at the University of Fortaleza, believes collaborative crime-mapping can make it possible to improve actual record-keeping and thus spur improved police services. Of course, the project is still in its early days (with about 20,000 reports collected so far). One lovely side-benefit of Furtado's work is an open-source mapping tool called WikiMapps, which runs on the same software and allows anyone to build their own collaborative maps (and Brazilians have responded with maps of everything from local noise to start-ups to vegan restaurants).
  • America both inspires and confounds our friends in Latin America. On the one hand, the spirit of innovation and bottom-up activism that emanates from the American poli-tech community was clearly embraced at PdF Latam. Speakers like Jeff Warren (the MIT Media Lab whiz at the heart of the Grassroots Mapping project), Deanna Zandt (author of the social-media-activism how-to book Share This!), Roberto Lovato (lead organizer of the Basta Dobbs media activism campaign); Claire Williams Diaz (Twitter's director of social innovation and philanthropy) and Eric Gunderson of Development Seed (who showed off some seriously terrific data-hacking of election returns from Afghanistan) all justifiably wowed the crowd.
  • At the same time, it was also clear that the history of the United States's many interventions in Latin American politics casts a long shadow over any Yanqui-led project in the region. While I noticed a strong interest on the part of many participants to understand how Barack Obama had used the internet to help win the White House, people also seemed wary of uncritically embracing his administration's efforts to spread its version of teh Interent gospel. As my longtime friend and even-longer-time Latin America expert Marc Cooper noted in his own blog post after the conference, Alec Ross--the senior innovation adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton--did not win the audience's affection with his audacious invocation of slain revolutionary Che Guevara. Ross's idea that "the network"--shifting coalitions of self-organizing communities using open and interactive communications technologies--will replace the charismatic individual leader as the agent of social change in the 21st century, is a very good one. But he delivered it seemingly without any appreciation of either Che's meaning to Latin America activists as an anti-imperialist leader or of the actual anti-democratic practices of Cuban communism that Che supported. (We will get the video up of that session soon, hopefully.) And hence Ross was criticized by voices from both the Latin left and the right in the PdF Latam audience.

    One side note: I think I was the only person in the room who applauded Ross after he clarified his remarks and made clear that he was citing Che only as one example of the outdated "man on the horse" model of 20th century leadership. And I give him a lot of credit for opening himself to direct questions from PdFLatam-ers, who weren't afraid to ask some hard ones. But his response to a question about Wikileaks, which he called a lawbreaker and an example of how the Internet can be used for evil, dismayed me, even though it's obviously the official line of the US government. In my view, by publishing the War Logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, Wikileaks is performing an absolutely vital public good and helping insure some accountability for powerful actors in the United States who would rather we not know what they're doing in our names.

  • The interchange with Alec Ross, like the rest of the conference, did validate our belief that it would be good to bring the PdF conversation to the heart of Latin America. Thanks to new media, and new participants in the conversation, the world is a smaller place, and it's vitally important to create gatherings where people who are inspired by the potential of technology to change politics and governance for the better to get together, share ideas, and civilly debate our disagreements. As we left Santiago and flew back to New York, I think the whole PdF team felt that we had helped not to plant seeds so much as to bring some fertilizer and some water to plants that were already flowering, and we also came home with some seeds of our own to share here.