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The Mexican Homeless: ICT for Change in Central America

On a bright, sunny street [YouTube video] in Mexico City, two men walk past a homeless man slumped against a bin and heavily graffitied wall: “We have rich and poor,” says one of the men “I wonder how long that guy has been drugged there amongst all these rich folk…”

The story is the same in every major population hub around the world. Yet there is some evidence to suggest things might be slightly worse in Mexico City. In fact, NewsLinq placed it as number five in its top 25 global list of homeless cities… and it was heavily highlighted as part of this year’s Homeless Day.

Now, like in many other parts of the world, ICT might be able to make a difference. Today data can provide solid evidence of what is really happening on the ground. Yet beyond this, local initiatives can also help raise awareness for the social plight in the Central and Latin America.

“Many of the ICT for change stories are from Africa and Asia,” says Juan Manuel Casanueva, CEO and co-founder of SocialTIC [Spanish], over the phone from Mexico City. SocialTIC is an organisation that operates through Central and Latin America to empower change-makers though the strategic use of ICTs, open data and digital narratives. This includes advocates, journalists and those involved in social policy.

“We [in Latin America] have not been good at telling our stories and sharing our experiences,” he adds. The question we should be asking is, “How can we participate more?”

Casanueva feels this region has been overlooked because it has the “wrong language” - Spanish certainly is more prevalent than English - and there has no huge international aid effort. However, he also accepts culpability and admits there has been a failure on the part of initiatives in the region: “We also need to take more control of knowledge sharing”.

The Mexican homeless story is not unique but does highlight core challenges. “Grassroots organisations in Mexico City are very connected,” says Casanueva. But now they are experimenting with ways of using technology to gain more “hard data” on what is going on amongst the homeless population. These organisations have now become “data gatherers” he adds. And they’re using this data to “identify patterns”.

This means maps and graphics are emerging on where the homeless people are staying and there is an increased need to train people on how to use this information. This in turn is causing a shift in how grassroots organisations address social issues. Because as more solid evidence appears on what is actually going on, these groups are finally able to enter into “a dialogue [with policy makers] based on facts, where previously evidence had been anecdotal”.

Down in Nicaragua, SocialTIC is working on another project where the “digital gap” causes much more of a problem. The challenge there is how to make sense of the technology available. “SMS can be a bit complex for ordinary grassroots organisations,” explains Casanueva. This means the question remains: “What can you do offline? What can you do online?”

In rural Nicaragua not everyone has access to the internet and so when organisations make contact they need to “identify what advocacy can be done in the online world” without forgetting the offline world.

Younger advocates adapt better to the online world [such as it is],” continues Casanueva “but they sometimes need to be reminded that not everything can be solved with tech – that is a big challenge at the moment.”

The ICT for social change community is still relatively small globally but Casanueva is sceptical of northern world solutions working in “our regions”. For Central and Latin America, there is more to be learned from other Global South regions, he adds as “the complexities are quite unique”.

Often communities need to tackle their own issues as the “government might not be an ally” and “we can’t rely on government data”.

“Northern models can be very inspiring,” he concludes “but often fall down when it comes down to practicalities”.  Maybe we just need more relevant stories from Central and Latin America to show the world what is going on?


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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