El Hacker Cívico: Civic-Minded Techies Gain Sway with Government in Mexico and Beyond

in the Huffington Post: “A handful of young hackers looked up from their laptops when Jorge Soto burst into the upstairs office they shared in an old Mexico City house one morning last spring. Soto wanted to be sure they’d seen the front-page headline then flying across Twitter: Mexico’s congress was set to spend 115 million pesos (then US $9.3 million) on a mobile app that would let 500 lawmakers track legislative affairs from their cellphones — more than a hundred times what such software could cost.

To many in Mexico, what became known as the “millionaire’s app” was just the latest in an old story of bloated state spending; but Soto and his colleagues saw a chance to push a new approach instead. In two days, they’d covered their white office walls with ideas for a cheaper alternative and launched an online contest that drew input from more than 150 software developers and designers, producing five open-source options in two weeks.

Lawmakers soon insisted they’d never known about the original app, which had been quietly approved by a legislative administrative board; and a congressional spokesman rushed to clarify that the project had been suspended. Invited to pitch their alternatives to Congress, a half-dozen young coders took the podium in a sloping auditorium at the legislature. The only cost for their work: a 11,500-peso (then US $930) prize for the winner.

“We didn’t just ‘angry tweet,’ we actually did something,” Soto, a 28-year-old IT engineer and social entrepreneur, said at the time. “Citizens need to understand democracy beyond voting every few years, and government needs to understand that we’re willing to participate.”

Seven months later, Mexico’s president appears to have heard them, hiring Soto and nine others to launch one of the world’s first federal civic innovation offices, part of a broader national digital agenda to be formally unveiled today. Building on a model pioneered in a handful of U.S. cities since 2010, Mexico’s civic innovation team aims to integrate so-called “civic hackers” with policy experts already inside government — to not only build better technology, but to seed a more tech-minded approach to problem-solving across federal processes and policy. What began as outside activism is slowly starting to creep into government….Mexico’s app incident reflects a common problem in that process: wasteful spending by non-techie bureaucrats who don’t seem to know what they’re buying — at best, out-of-touch; at worst, party to crony contracting; and overseen, if at all, by officials even less tech-savvy than themselves. Citizens, in contrast, are adopting new technologies faster than much of the public sector, growing the gap between the efficiency and accountability that they expect as private consumers, and the bureaucratic, buggy experience that government still provides.

To break that cycle, a movement of community-minded “civic hackers” like Soto has stepped into the void, offering their own low-cost tools to make government more efficient, collaborative and transparent….The platform, named Codeando Mexico, has since hosted more than 30 civic-themed challenges.

With Soto as an advisor, the team seized on the scandal surrounding the “millionare’s app” to formally launch in March, calling for help “taking down the Mexican tech mafia” – a play on the big, slow software makers that dominate public contracting around the world. In that, Codeando Mexico tackled a central civic-tech target: procurement, widely considered one of the public spheres ripest for reform. Its goal, according to Wilhelmy, was to replace clueless or “compadrismo” crony contracting with micro-procurement, swapping traditional suppliers for leaner teams of open-source coders who can release and revise what they build in near real-time. “It’s like the Robin Hood of procurement: You take money that’s being spent on big projects and bring it to the developer community, giving them an opportunity to work on stuff that matters,” he said. “There’s a whole taboo around software: government thinks it has to be expensive. We’re sending a message that there are different ways to do this; it shouldn’t cost so much.”

The maker of the costly congressional app in question, Mexico City consultancy Pulso Legislativo, insisted last spring that its hefty price tag didn’t reflect its software as much as the aggregated data and analysis behind it. But critics were quick to note that Mexican lawmakers already had access to similar data compiled by at least five publicly-funded research centers – not to mention from INFOPAL, a congressional stats system with its own mobile application. With Mexico then in the midst of a contentious telecom reform, the public may’ve been especially primed to pounce on any hint of corruption or wasteful IT spending. Codeando Mexico saw an opening.

So it was that a crew of young coders, almost all under 23-years-old, traipsed into the legislature, a motley mix of suits and skinny jeans, one-by-one pitching a panel of judges that included the head of the congressional Science and Technology Committee. Drawing on public data culled by local transparency groups, their Android and iOS apps – including the winner, “Diputados” — allowed citizens to track and opine on pending bills and to map and contact their representatives — still a relatively new concept in Mexico’s young democracy.”

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