Civic technologies are still small projects in Latin America
Business Management

Civic technologies are still small projects in Latin America

Civic technology is causing a buzz in Latin America. Sure, it may only be taking the form of small projects popping up across the region, but support for this type of activity continues to grow. However, one of the biggest issues hindering the sector is a lack of understanding as to what civic technology actually is.

Essentially civic technology should be an enabler: a tool that helps to bring politicians and the public together to work in the best interests of the community. This can include solutions to fight corruption and increase government transparency, through to helping citizens contact their representatives or improving the delivery of public services.

“Civic technologies are still small projects in Latin America, found in the public and private sector and also in social organisations,” says Thiago Rondon, Founder and CEO of AppCívico, an organisation that aims to promote the development and use of civic applications in Latin America.

He goes on to explain the need for them in the region.

“Several initiatives by social organisations ­– with little support or resources – have conducted experiments and in some cases had a positive impact, but this is only occasionally. We need civic technologies to impact our democracy, politics and public services as an ecosystem.”

Funding is one of the sector’s challenges, leading to a lack of incentive for many technologically-minded individuals in the region to get involved.

“Funding is a major challenge for Latin America, making it unable to develop an ecosystem of civic technologies that can propose solutions and demonstrate new possibilities for participation in democracy, inclusion of public services and discussions around new public policies. We need to be able to create platforms so that it’s not the government alone that proposes new solutions,” says Rondon.

Interest in civic technologies has led to the creation of several funds designed to nurture innovation in this area, the latest being the Latin American Alliance for Civic Technology (ALTEC). Created by philanthropic investment firms Omidyar Network and Fundación Avina, ALTEC has a fund of US$3.5m to support the development and promotion of civic technology platforms.

“Civic technology provides a great opportunity to make governments more transparent and responsive to the needs of their citizens and for citizens to participate actively in the decisions that impact their everyday lives,” notes Felipe Estefan, Investment Principal at Omidyar Network at the ALTEC launch.

“ALTEC will be the leading power behind resources to the most innovative solutions for the issues facing citizens and governments across the region,” he adds.

Looking for scalable solutions capable of delivering a significant impact on civic engagement and democracy, applications for the first wave of funding closed at the end of March and hopeful organisations are now waiting to hear if they have been chosen. Overall, 20 projects will be awarded funds of up to $150,000 each, plus technical support over the next two or more years.

ALTEC is not the first of its kind, however. Omidya and Avina worked together in 2013 on the Accelerator Fund for Civic Innovation. Credited by some as the venture that began the civic tech revolution in Latin America, this fund invested $2.3m in 26 different civic tech platforms across nine different Latino countries.

Projects that were given support included the platform Caminos de la Villa, which digitally mapped Buenos Aires’ slums and A Tu Servico in Uruguay, which gave citizens access to up to date information on public health services that were available to them.

Rondon’s AppCívico was another initiative supported by the accelerator fund. The organisation works to promote the development of civil applications in Latin America through technological support and project management for institutions working to improve citizens’ quality of life. Working with nonprofits, companies, politicians and the public sector, it looks at ways to empower people and is currently collaborating on 15 different civic tech projects.

“We work in events in various sectors to encourage civic technologies to be part of the corporate, public and social mentality,” says Rondon. “We want to open people’s minds and explore the potential of each sector.

“One example is when we recently organised an event in partnership with São Paulo’s Secretary of Health and the SENAI School of Computer Science to propose new open source solutions. We ran a hackathon with students, startups, large companies and non-profit organisations and over a weekend developed 13 projects based around seven challenges mapped by City Hall itself,” he enthuses.

“Another example is last year, in partnership with the Movement Against Election Corruption (MAEC), we developed a solution for fairer and more transparent political campaigns using blockchain technology for real-time traceability of electoral donations.”

The work of organisations such as the Omidyar Network and Fundación Avina is invaluable to the region; however, Rondon thinks this is only a good start, and that much more needs to be done.

“We need to stimulate and provoke so that new funds for civic innovation can be established across the region, including new investment models,” he says.

“Like elsewhere across the planet, Latin America is experiencing a complicated time of instability and sadly technology is currently causing more harm than help to the region. Social networks, fake news factories: these are making our virtual world increasingly dangerous, just as technology is creating inequality around who has access to them. It is important to invest in civic technology so that we can strengthen our democracies and public policies and improve public participation in these. This will have a positive effect across the board,” he concludes.

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Keri Allan

Keri Allan is a freelance journalist and editor who has been covering the engineering and technology sector for over 15 years, writing for titles including E&T Magazine, The Engineer and Arabian Computer News.

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