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How Civic Tech Can Help Us Be Better Citizens

These Argentine initiatives show how the Internet can be good for democracy.

By | [email protected] | August 30, 2018 11:55am

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Yes, the World Wide Web is dark and full of terrors. Fake news goes viral, embroiling political leaders and laypeople alike in perpetual conflict and influencing election results. Trolls are free to viciously attack you on Twitter any time they don’t like what you have to say. We already know the bad and the ugly sides to the Internet and social media – but what about the good? What if our digital selves can actually do something positive for our democracy? As it turns out, your couch activism might work if you find the right tools.

We’re not talking about the insipid routine of posting and sharing content in support of your particular assortment of causes on Facebook either. When people talk about civic technologies, they’re referring to much more than that. Usually developed and rolled-out by non-profit organizations, civic techs give citizens the opportunity to express themselves and tell the government  exactly what they think about its policies, plans and actions.

To strengthen the relationship between the people and their government, these non-profit organizations develop apps, platforms or software to bridge the gap between the oftentimes lofty policy and the very citizens these policies are meant to govern. And, as is the standard protocol for today’s day and age, they use social media as part of their digital campaigns to promote transparency and citizen participation.

Argentina is not exempt from the Information Age and its subsequent results. We certainly have our own examples of civic technologies. Some of these initiatives have even been replicated in other Latin American countries.

Let’s play “who is your ideal candidate?”.

Yo quiero saber’ (or, ‘I want to know’) was developed by Fundacion Conocimiento Abierto, the local chapter of the Open Knowledge Foundation. Launched in 2015 for the presidential election and again in 2017 for the national midterms, this platform’s aim was to disseminate information about how the candidates in question would deal with certain situations or problems if they were elected to office.

Prior to each election, citizens were able to interact with this tool and answer a series of questions, such as: “Do you think vaccination should be mandatory?” or, “Should we keep our higher education public?” After the user answered, the website showed each candidates’ statements regarding each topic, allowing the voter to discern which candidates were closer to his or her political position and ideologies. This platform has been used in Mexico and Colombia and will be employed again in Argentina next year.

Yamila Garcia, Conocimiento Abierto’s Executive Director, believes that social media and the internet work together to create a promising future for these kinds of initiatives. “This is an ecosystem powered by small media startups and it is here to stay. You don’t need to be a technologist to do it. If you have an idea, you can put it to work and incentivize others,” she says.

The non-profit organization Directorio Legislativo is also focused on the intersection of open data, transparency and democracy. A few months ago, they launched their newest campaign, ‘Hola, ¿Congreso?’ (Hello, Congress?,) which aims to aggregate questions from citizens regarding exactly how the Argentine Congress works, and then demand accessible answers to these questions from lawmakers. 

Directorio Legislativo also uses social media as a means to encourage users to ask their questions on the website specially created for this campaign. “You can share this very quickly, it gets to a lot of people and it encourages other people to participate and support the questions of others,” Mercedes de los Santos, one of the members of the organization, explains.

Since last May, Directorio Legislativo has received hundreds of questions. People seem to be particularly interested in lawmakers’ contact information, the chances of being able to develop one’s own bill and the penalties that senators and deputies face when they don’t attend Congress.

One platform to reach them all.

Activa el Congreso (or Activate the Congress) is one of the youngest civic tech initiatives on the block. Like their predecessors, they also seek to bolster the relationship between citizens and lawmakers. Conceived during Argentina’s long and turbulent abortion debate, this platform allows people to contact senators or deputies directly via their Twitter and Facebook accounts or by phone. The end game being to give citizens easy access to the most direct ways to reach their representatives and potentially influence their decisions. This is particularly imperative when it comes to the countless undecided questions at hand. So far, it has facilitated some 128,000 messages.

To the leaders over at Activa el Congreso, social media is obviously a prime place to express and exchange opinions, but it doesn’t necessarily allow for the opportunity to actualize real impact. So the team developed this platform, which serves as a “mechanism to express our wishes, sensations, proposals, and ideas” regarding Argentina’s political agenda, according to Inti Bonomo, one of the key members who developed this tool. Think of it as a more direct channel of communication, where social media assumes an auxiliary role next to the actual conversation being had. Thoughts, ideas and questions aren’t lost in the social ether – they end up on the lawmaker’s desk, albeit in 1’s and 0’s. 

“Technology isn’t neutral. We can talk about transparency and open data, but we still have a long road ahead of us if we want to use it in a positive way,” Bonomo points out. Once the current abortion debate has passed, Activa el Congreso will focus on other topics, like the 2019 Budget bill. (needs updated) Maybe: Now that the abortion debate has passed, Activa el Congreso will focus on other topics, like the 2019 Budget bill. “There are a lot of subjects that we need to take into consideration and that might create interesting discussions,” he says.

It was also during the abortion debate when Wikimedia Argentina flooded their social media with incendiary content. During the vote in the Lower House on June 13 and 14, the organization was especially active on Twitter. Their content can now be discovered on Wikipedia with a quick google search.

Luisina Ferrante, Wikimedia Argentina’s Education coordinator, considers the internet as “a digital territory where meanings are disputed.” And Wikipedia plays an integral role within this ongoing conflict. “It is one of the first sites that appear when you search something on Google, so it sets the perception regarding a topic,” she describes.

Wikimedia Argentina keeps this in mind when creating new entries at the free online encyclopedia we’ve all come to know and love, and they encourage users to continue adding content focused on social justice issues that still don’t occupy space on the popular website. For example, one of the main projects of the Argentine chapter of Wikimedia is, without surprise, centered on human rights. Its goal is to expand the current content about the crimes against humanity committed during the country’s last dictatorship and the subsequent trials. 

Even though all of these platforms and ideas are soundly based in technology, their developers never lost sight of the importance and efficacy of organic engagement in the real social fabric of Argentina – ‘IRL’ if we’re speaking internet. For example, Directorio Legislativo posted some of the questions they received from their users on walls near the Congress. Activa el Congreso called upon their users to join the demonstrations demanding legal abortion during the (now failed) attempt to decriminalize abortion. Wikimedia Argentina organizes hackathons to edit content. All of these organizations see the value in these IRL initiatives as a means to link the real and the cyber worlds and boost digital activism. After all, this is a sign of the times.