BY VIVIAN ONANO
In 2013, for the first time Brazil hosted a hackathon to use technology to open up the legislative processes to the general population. This initiative was supported by the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies (Lower Congress) with the aim of increasing transparency and citizen engagement in the legislative processes. At the time of the hackathon in 2013, Brazil was already a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). It is a founding member since 2011 along other 7 countries namely: Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the USA. As a founding member, Brazil endorsed the OGP declaration and announced their action that led to government launching open data portals and publishing their data.
The hackathon took place in two phases and the processes were as transparent as possible. In the first phase: there was a public call for conceptual projects from teams of one to three that are aiming at increasing government transparency and citizen participation using parliament open data. 99 projects were submitted and 22 were selected to proceed to the second phase of the process. In the second phase: 45 young developers participated in a hackathon at the Brazil National Assembly for a period of four days (29th October — 1st November,2013). They engaged with the parliamentarians, technical staff and the members of Chamber of Duties, sharing and acquiring knowledge among themselves, and validating their ideas and applications. On the last day, they shared their projects with the organizing team and were given one extra week to refine them and compete for the top three prizes. Because this activity was meant to promote cooperation and not strictly a competition, all the top three winners received the same prize, USD 2,200. The top three winners were;
- My National Congress (Meu Congresso Nacional): An application that brings the population closer to the congressmen/women by publicizing the commissions they participate in, the bills and amendments that they presented during their time in office and how they spend public money in exercising their duties. Even though the information on the platform is in Portuguese; it can be translated to any other language.
- Monitor Brazil (Monitora Brasil): Mobile only application for Android and iPhone users to view data on all activities of the House of Congress on their phones. They can monitor bills, look at parliamentary quotas and view Congressmen/women fact sheets. The app interfaces with social networks to enable citizens to share that information on their social networks
- Deliberatorium (Deliberatorio): It’s an online card game that was created with open data from the House. It brings the House’s dynamic to a physical game not just inside a computer.
Even though the hackathon led to the establishment of the My National Congress that has increased transparency and accountability among the legislators on their public expenditure, promoted collaboration among the parliamentarians, civil society and the general public, and increased citizen interest in the parliamentarians work whether they are fully representing them or not through bills and amendments supported. The process leading to it had its fair share of challenges including but not limited to: access to useful data from the government websites, lack of standards for the published data, data upgrade not guaranteed that led to breakdown of some of the applications due to API changes without any disclosure.
The success of the hackathon led to the creation of a Hacker Lab in the Brazil Parliament under the leadership of Mr. Cristiano Ferri Faria. The Lab was created to continue the work that had been started through the hackathon and create collaborative projects with the civil societies and parliamentary staff. It is open for access and use by the citizens. Different web platforms for increasing transparency in legislation and citizen participation such as e-Democracia are housed here.
The creation of the Hacker Lab in the Brazilian Parliament was a great political move to institutionalize open Congress and to continue to support transparency, accountability and participation from the citizens. Hacker Lab is the only public lab built in and fully funded by the Parliament in Brazil. The future of this important initiative remains in question because of the current regime in Brazil that is not focused on citizen engagement and freedom of speech. Being that the Hacker Lab is government funded its autonomy in such unfavorable political climate cannot be guaranteed. Their work has been lauded by OGP, but it will need more than praises to keep the initiative independent, credible and sustainable.
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