Making Steps Towards Digital Citizenship in Latin America, One App at a Time

By +SocialGood Connector Gabriel Cecchini

New information and communication technologies are having a great impact in Latin America as catalysts of citizen participation. They provide innovative tools for expressing and making complaints, demanding adequate feedback and — more importantly — tangible solutions from public authorities. The increasing number and quality of technological tools in the hands of citizens has the potential to provide greater transparency and accountability in Latin America. Despite the development challenges the region faces, these characteristics could pave the way for a promising future.

The use of these tools empowers citizens to become civic entrepreneurs. Through a single click, post, or upload, they can be instantly and constantly in contact with their peers, civil society organizations, and public authorities. It is no longer only about participating in democracy through voting and other formal consultations, but in an extended and intensive manner, 24 hours a day. Protests can be started by a single individual and quickly “viralize” through social networks to form citizen mobilizations of unexpected size (e.g., the Arab Spring, marches for corruption or gender violence in Latin America, etc.).

These citizen movements are an increasingly recurring phenomena to which governments must increasingly pay attention. In particular, younger generations — who represent the most active users of these technologies, especially in our region — already consider technology an integral part of their lives. For them, social media is the public arena is where they can express their voices and communicate with others.

Such technology is creating a new form of collaborative governance. Applications, platforms, and other digital tools are increasingly the result of partnerships between different actors from the public sector, the private sector, and civil society. Every day, we see how social networking companies like Facebook or Twitter and their different applications are actively used by citizens and governments as channels of communication. Civil society experts often work in conjunction with technology entrepreneurs and start-ups to develop innovative “apps”, platforms, and software to solve specific problems of corruption, environmental destruction, or poor transportation. These solutions work to make the lives of citizens easier and, at the same time, to hold governments accountable for their actions.

This type of collaborative and open governance is explicitly promoted through the United Nations and the Sustainable Development Goals. These goals emphasize the key role of partnerships between civil society, private sector, and governments, and how they each can contribute their material and human resources and their capacity for technological innovation to solve perennial development problems.

A remarkable and innovative case is Citi’s Tech for Integrity (T4I) competition, in which companies of all types or sizes can present technological solutions to promote transparency through crowdsourcing and in collaboration with allies and start-ups from the public, private and civil sectors. One of this competition’s installments took place last May in Buenos Aires, Argentina under the coordination of Laura Gaviria Halaby (@LauraGaviriaH) from Citi. 13 companies from 6 countries — including Mexico, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina — participated in a hackathon on integrity and transparency showing their technological solutions. Of the three winners, two were from Argentina.

The first prize went to the creators of Signatura, a digital signature and notarial company that developed a solution to guarantee transparency in public tenders; another winner from Argentina was RSK Labs, the first global platform to program smart contracts in government transactions. This installment of the Citi initiative was supported by the City of Buenos Aires government, the Anti-Corruption Office, and the Ministry of Modernization. Winners will have the opportunity to work with any company, organization, or government entity that has an interest in exploring or implementing these innovative solutions. Many other companies, including Microsoft, Facebook, Google, have been developing similar activities in the Latin American region with the support of public entities.

A crucial part of the debates around “civic tech” is whether the available tools can have a real impact on public policies or create channels of genuine dialogue between citizens and their respective governments. Citizens often complain but no one seems to be listening to them — or even worse, when they are listened to, there is no resulting response or action aimed at addressing their concerns. Authorities also can communicate with their citizens through fancy “open government” platforms and social media but end up having a one-way conversation, without the capacity to or interest in creating a productive dialogue or engagement that opens up debate with the possibility of making public policy decisions that could change the status quo.

In this regard, the “Yo Intervengo” (I intervene) “app” developed by a civil society group in Colombia to expose deficiencies or problems in public works (e.g., construction and infrastructure projects, etc.) is an extremely interesting example: it allows citizens to upload photos or other documents through their phones showcasing problems they find in public works and these pieces of evidence are then contrasted with public contracts the government makes available through its online e-procurement platform. The “app” makes it easy to organize the available information so that people can find the contracts and compare them to the public works projects that have been denounced as not yet completed, delayed, stopped, etc. Citizens or journalists can then investigate and report these cases to the public or to justice authorities. This is a good example of how this kind of technology allows for “connecting the dots”: citizens monitor their governments through easy-to-use “apps” that are linked to the information governments provide in their platforms, and look for solutions when inconsistencies are found.

These initiatives need money and resources in order for them to flourish. The Omidyar Network’s recent announcement of its plans to invest 2.9 million dollars in Latin America in order to accelerate and scale innovation in civic tech is a remarkable example of the type of support needed. Through the “Latin America Alliance for Civic Technology,” Omidyar, in conjunction with Fundación Avina, will foster the development of new transparent and responsive civic platforms. In the past, Omydiar has been instrumental in funding successful projects such as “A tu servicio” in Uruguay which provided citizens with information about public health services, “Caminos de la Villa” in Argentina, and “Codeando Mexico” in Mexico, among others.

For those interested in knowing more about current “civic tech” initiatives being carried out in Latin America, a list — though by no means complete — is provided by Humanitas360, a Brazilian think-do tank lead by Patrícia Villela Marino. You can see a map of interesting initiatives underway in the region here.

This post is part of the “SDG Solutions” series hosted by the United Nations Foundation, Global Daily, and +SocialGood to raise awareness of ways the international community can advance, and is advancing, progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. As the international community prepares to gather at the UN for the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development from July 10–19, this series will share ideas and examples of action. Previous posts in the series can be found here.