TechCivica: Empowering Citizens through Tech Innovation

Using technology to tackle citizen security challenges in Mexico
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Note: the following blog post was written by NDI Program Officer, Victor Salcedo, and first appeared on NDI's DemWorks blog. You can also check out the recap of the event on Storify.

The connection between technology, innovation and citizen input is a paramount one. One cannot effectively happen without the other, as uses of technology must be designed and created with prospective users in mind. Thus, the bond between citizen interaction and technology directly relates to the benefit and improvement of society; for instance, by finding solutions to issues that directly affect citizens, such as violence and crime. In Latin America, technology has allowed notable changes in the economic, social and political realms. As the region continues to be plagued by violence and insecurity, the identification of solutions through joint citizen and government collaboration, could yield public policies that effectively mitigate current problems.

NDI is supporting those engaged in such projects through TechCivica, an initiative that creates ongoing opportunities for civil society representatives, government officials, political parties and technologists to interact, coordinate, and identify creative solutions to problems related to transparency, public integrity and violence in their communities. TechCivica, made possible by the support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), tries to be at the center of innovation, technology and coordination among these different actors to emphasize collaboration and creation of new ideas.

On March 16 and 17, NDI launched its inaugural TechCivica event in Mexico City, Mexico to discuss, learn and put into practice knowledge to address citizen security issues affecting the country. In coordination with SocialTIC, Nova Mexico and Codeando México, the event gathered more than 50 participants over two days to attend workshops and a day-long datathon.

The first day began with both plenary and small-group discussions on the use of technology-based tools for addressing issues such as corruption, transparency and greater access to reliable data. Afterwards, participants joined different collaborative sessions on design thinking, introduction to data management, social media metrics, data visualization, machine learning, a subfield of computer science to allow computers to learn with minimal programming, and more. These sessions focused on providing practical demonstrations of how different technology tools can leverage data for information campaigns and research. For instance, the Design Thinking session had participants go through the process of how to toast bread, from start to finish, and find ways to make it simpler and account for unforeseen problems, such as what happens if you don’t have bread? In the Introduction to Data session, examples of uses of data gathering and naming provided an overview of the importance of knowing what data to collect, how to ask the right questions to get desired answers and how to quickly analyze information.

On day two, participants were divided into groups for a day-long datathon, an intense collaboration among participants working on different projects using data for innovation. Building off of the discussion from the first day, participants were able to approach their projects with tools and knowledge to include a greater number of individuals, locations and problems. Post-it notes were used to create names and map processes; interviews were conducted with different groups to validate approaches and ideas; caffeine became a trusted ally during the final stretch before project presentations.

Eight projects were presented, all addressing different citizen security issues from migration, gender violence and social media fact checking. One of the projects, entitled MIGRAME, proposed creating a Monopoly-style game about the difficult situation that migrants face when trying to reach the United States illegally. The premise of the game is to humanize the hazardous situation of migrants that travel through or are stuck in Mexico. Another project called Gender Violence Online, looked into different hashtags on Instagram, a social media app, to try to identify the hashtags most commonly used on postings associated with gender violence. The team created a database to compile the findings, and a few hashtags, such as #vivasnosqueremos (“We want us alive”) were marked as those commonly used for this topic. Another team took a different route and concentrated on verifying information on social media, a topic that is very much in demand. The project, named Opposites, would allow the user to do a simple query of any topic and receive information both related to the topic, as well as its opposite to obtain a more diverse point of view. 

With this event in Mexico City, TechCivica is just getting started. Apart from continuing to link participants that attended the March event, the TechCivica team will organize two more events in the region, specifically in Central America. The insights gathered in Mexico will serve to identify comparative stories and solutions to citizen security issues. Innovation is about effective uses of technology with citizens in mind, a bond that, when appropriately implemented, can generate positive changes in any society.

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