Civic tech to lead the way for a more open society in Mexico

A discussion with Mariell Gutiérrez, Miguel Salazar and Diego Arredondo about the open source civic tech scene in Mexico, the work they have done and their various projects.

Can you present yourselves and tell us how you got involved in civic tech?

Diego Arredondo: I got involved in civic tech a few years ago, in 2014. Prior to my involvement in Codeando México, I worked within this collective called Wikipolítica. It was the beginning of my involvement in politics, I had lots of ideas, dreams and also some frustrations with the current system. We experimented a bit, mostly with Loomio, but then I found out about Codeando México and joined them.

Mariell Gutiérrez: In my case I worked in politics before, my job consisted in supplying my municipality with open innovation and participation tools. At some point I found out about Codeando México whose team was hiring. I applied for a job and got it, and I quickly fell in love with their philosophy: open source, open data, collaboration and so on. At the moment we are trying to make our community grow, and that is a really exciting mission!

Miguel Salazar: I also work in the Codeando México team. My background is that of a computer scientist, but I am also interested in data science. I help with the technical stuff. My involvement in civic tech is connected to my former work, see I used to be a software developer at Oracle (which is a computer tech corporation based in California) and at some point I realized that I wanted to merge the tech world and the social world together. I explored this idea a bit on my own, but then found out about a job offer from Codeando México, which was just perfect for me, and that is how I got involved with them.

Can you tell us more about Codeando México and the tools that you work on?

MS: We mostly work on tools that allow other people to build platforms. We are a kind of amplifier for the tech community. For instance, one of these tools was a platform that used to be hosted by Codeando México. It allowed organizations to post challenges or problems online which the tech community would then attempt to solve. The engine behind that platform was actually adopted by several governments, including the National Digital Strategy. It then became a program called Retos Públicos, which made it so that it was no longer organizations that posted challenge, but governments. There was also Explica la ley that was designed for clarifying legislative text for the public through expert analysis, and then Congreso Abierto, which aimed at opening up congress data. And at one point we realized that we were doing two things at once: trying to create some platforms as well as binding together the community that do build these things. Last year we decided to pick and so we started focusing on building the community, that is what we are working on at the moment.

MG: Four years ago, Codeando México made a tool called, which was the first mexican platform designed for pushing open data. It was meant for governments and organizations to have at least one option for opening their data. Now, as Miguel said, our current focus is the community, so for that we try to make sure collaboration becomes key in all participatory processes.

Explica la ley makes legislative texts easier to grasp !

What made people in Mexico take an interest in civic tech, is a crisis mandatory for that?

MS: Some kind of crisis obviously helps because it makes people want to try and solve the issue. We have a lot of crises in Mexico: political, social etc. But sometimes there might not be a technological answer to them, part of our job is realizing which problems are worth picking for building tech solutions and wich are not. But in some cases we also build platforms that are just meant to improve something that is already working decently. Datamx was not an attempt at solving a crisis. It was an idea that had been floating around for a while and that we thought would be beneficial.

MG: I think we are also influenced by what they do in the USA. We are very close to Code for America. We gather a lot of information about their experiences, especially what they do in the Silicon Valley. But it is true that we are facing some crises in Mexico, our government has to deal with economical instability and use every resource available. We try to provide some resource for them.

DA: The whole civic tech movement is really diverse. There are many different kinds of incentives to go and get involved in civic tech development processes. But it is true that most people in Mexico are not happy about the situation. Everyone is fed up with corruption, violence, inequality etc. I think the Occupy movement that was born in 2012, Yo soy 132, represents a turning point for the country. Like in many other cases it gave a voice to people who were tired of all these bad aspects of a lack of government transparency.

Yo Soy 132 protest, Mexico City, May 19, 2012. (picture: Wikimedia Commons)

How popular is civic tech in Mexico, does it reach everyone?

MS: When we talk about tech, the most common case that we can think of is people wanting to build an app. But when you want to do that you are automatically excluding people who don’t have acess to smartphones. I can’t say that our approach is perfect, but we try to optimize the use of technology. Let’s take an example: let’s say that there is a problem with stray dogs in my neighborhood. I will ask the community to think about something deeper than the obvious solution. Instead of building an app for reporting a stray dog in my neighborhood, why not build an app that helps different non-profit organizations collaborate in finding and sharing information about stray dogs in an entire city. That is one of the things we are working towards: how to identify the better problems?

DA: Maximizing the impact of civic tech is a huge challenge. What we are starting to see is that governments are trying to pay attention to what we do. They are becoming aware of the power of technology. Some of them are even listening pretty carefully and realizing that civic participation is a way for them to do a much better job. I think that is the first step for inclusiveness.

Are there private companies doing civic tech in Mexico? What is the difference between their work and yours?

MS: There are quite a few tech companies that build gov tech, which is not exactly the same as civic tech in the sense that civic tech is also about the culture, the mindset, the process etc. These gov tech companies sell technology to the government and don’t identify in the same way. So with that in mind, I would say that we have around ten identified companies that are focused on building civic tech and share similar values although not all of them have opened up their source code, so as you can see, it is still a sprouting network.

DA: As Miguel said, this is still an ongoing debate. To me, pursuing civic tech means pursuing open source, the two things are strongly linked. In Mexico we have to keep pushing and make people understand what is at stakes and what open source means, for instance some people still think that open source is some kind of piracy, since in their mind there is no way to build softwares or tools with no intention of making profit off of it.

MG: We are also struggling with the question of how to communicate, how to talk civic tech. We have a lot of organizations that use technological tools but who simply do not know about civic tech. Some organizations that could fit our model are just not aware of this debate. Changing this is a challenge!

What do you think about open source civic tech movements that have emerged abroad, like g0v in Taiwan or Podemos in Spain?

MS: Each civic tech community responds to their local context. What works here might not work in Germany, and what works in Germany might not work in Taiwan. Every community needs to address and respond to local issues. I think that both the USA and Germany have the most active civic tech scenes, and on the contrary, I feel like people behind or are not part of the global conversation on civic tech. They do classify as civic tech but they mostly build tools for better participatory processes. The definition of civic tech around the world needs to be standardized so we can have a common framework available for all nations.

DA: I think we are in the process of building that common framework, although it is true that context is essential. There are huge differences between all of these movements. Different communities have different points of view, but it is definitely interesting to hear them all. I agree with Miguel that you can’t simply copy a model, but you can try and fork it. What I have seen and heard from the global community is still very interesting though. I think this is a conversation that will change a lot during the next 10 years, especially on the topic of whether or not civic tech should be completely open or that we can’t enforce open source.

Occupy Taiwan Legislature, March 19, 2014 (picture: Wikimedia Commons)

What do you think the future holds for civic tech and for politics in general?

DA: There is one certainty: technology is not going back. Unless there is some sort of huge catastrophy, we will keep moving forward. We have a lot to define. Our generation has had the privilege to witness the birth of the Internet and its core values. These are being jeopardized: you can either go for a more open and decentralized option, or massive surveillance, massive control etc. These two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive but there is definitely a clash between those two visions. This opposition is really important for the future.

MG: More than a prediction I would like to make a wish: I really hope that civic tech will be perceived as more of a pragmatic thing than a moral one. Openness is simply more efficient. In countries like Mexico, people are looking for solutions to solve different problems. Solutions that civic tech movements can provide. In Latin America, where capitalism and neo-liberalism has failed, civic tech can offer a more open way of making society work.

MS: First of all, I would like to mention a quote by Rufus Pollock, who founded the Open Knowledge Foundation, and said that governments in the future wil not be defined as left or right, but rather as open or closed. By that, I think he means that governments need to open up. In my opinion, the governments that will succeed are the ones that are not afraid to take that open path. There is a book called The Rise of the Collaborative Class, which states that the cities that are doomed to succeed, are the ones which will attract most of the talents of the world. I think this translates to governments. The one that manage to offer the best services to their population are the ones which will succeed.

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