Owning vs. Partnering — Thoughts about Open Government

One of our startups, avisora.mx, was recently involved in a bit of controversy. I wanted to share what happened and to set the record straight.

Versión en española aquí

Background.

Avisora is a platform that allows citizens to report the problems they encounter on a daily basis. These can be simple infrastructure issues like broken street lights, trash, graffiti etc. or more serious concerns like corruption, robbery or other crimes. We launched it over a year ago but, beginning early this year, it really started taking off. One of Avisora’s goals is to promote voting, so in addition to learning what’s going on around us, we can see which issues have broad consensus among participants. It’s a way to separate the signal from the noise. When a report gets a pre-defined number of votes, it is autoforwarded to the appropriate contacts within state and/or municipal government.

We started autoforwarding reports to the city of Guadalajara (GDL) in January while also posting them on their public twitter feed with a link back to the Avisora report.

I don’t know if there was a connection but soon after this autoforwarding began, the municipal government of GDL announced that they were purchasing a product from a company in Spain (Ciudapp) that appears to be functionally identical to Avisora. This generated a wave of backlash and anger from the local communities who wanted to know why had they spent taxpayer money on a product from Spain rather than supporting the Jalisco / GDL-based entrepreneurial ecosystem. The mayor (Enrique Alfaro), perhaps caught by surprise, seemed to dig himself in deeper by suggesting publicly that he looked all over Mexico and couldn’t find anyone capable enough to develop such a product. As you might imagine, social media and the press were not kind to him.

While I DO believe that it’s preferable to use local suppliers when possible, I respect the government’s right to direct taxpayer funds to whomever and for whatever they believe is appropriate for their needs.

In my view, however, the support of the local startup ecosystem isn’t the biggest problem here. The more critical issue, the issue that is NOT being addressed, is one of approach:

Opting to buy a product and treat the solution as an internal, government-owned, initiative, rather than partnering with an external and pre-existing community-based solution, perpetuates a problem rather than solves it.

There is a reason that platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been instrumental tools to effect social change — they exist as independent entities, moderated by communities, and beyond the ability for governments to control them. This community-based approach offers several advantages over state-owned initiatives:

The information is more trustworthy.

  • Community-based solutions get to the raw unfiltered truth of what’s going on. As such, they often surface reports that are critical of government. Corruption, officially-sanctioned violence, incompetence — unfortunately these are a reality in our community and one that governments would often prefer not to become public knowledge. By becoming the caretakers of such information, governments open themselves up to claims of suppression, manipulation, and selective disclosure.

It offers a seamless user experience across all of Mexico

  • It’s reasonable for the city of GDL to focus exclusively on its specific needs but, in the end, citizens also live in a state and a country. Imagine a different reporting system for each municipality in Mexico (GDL alone is spread over seven) — all slightly adapted for the unique local needs. Not only would it be a confusing mess of a user experience, it would be impossible to compare one region to another. Instead what’s needed is a kind of pan-Mexico, Facebook-like network with a single, unified user experience that is purpose-built to encourage cross-geography collaboration, conversation, and consensus around issues.

Its survival is not dependent on any political party.

  • Sadly, these types of internal governmental technology initiatives don’t last long when a new political party takes charge. The “out with the old, in with the new” approach means that the investments made by this administration are unlikely survive long enough to make a real impact.

It stimulates the private sector

  • Imagine a government surrounded by an open API that encourages hundreds of startups to innovate, experiment, reinvent social government. Of course we could expect that many (if not most) of these experiments to fail — and that’s okay. Those that are able to successfully channel the power of the citizenry will thrive and will not only stimulate the economy but enable or better-informed, more responsive government.

It frees the government to focus on its core competence — governing.

  • Governments, by definition, make poor startups. Attempting to overlay nimble, startup culture onto a large, risk-adverse organization like a municipal government usually results in a double failure: (1) Social, mobile technology innovation moves much more quickly that governments can adapt to and (2) It diverts attention and resources from the government’s primary role — tending to the everyday needs of its citizens. By working with startups and not trying to become one, governments get to take advantage of speed and innovation that is a result of a robust startup ecosystem.

Governmental agencies in Mexico are at a critical crossroads. Until very recently, governments were limited in their ability to assess what is really happening in the day-to-day lives of its citizens. With the advent of the internet, mobile phones, and social media, access to this data could be comprehensive and inexpensive. The government needs to recognize this new paradigm and use it to its advantage.

Global politics works by harnessing the power of existing, external platforms. Their openness and ability to reach across all socio economic, geographic, and political bounds is their power. Successful politicians have learned how to harness the power of platforms like Twitter and Facebook to communicate, collaborate, and learn from their constituents.

Forward-thinking governments will recognize the opportunity to leverage this new power and will set the example for others to follow. Governmental agencies in Mexico need to loosen their grip and participate in the larger digital ecosystem — not own and control it.