First civic mini-Hackathon in the Henares Valley

HackHenares-Cartel.v4Last Sunday, January 11th, we organized the first “Mini-hackathon Civic del Henares”, together with the citizens’ organization Agua de Mayo.


For this event we summoned hackers and citizens from the municipalities of the Henares Valley. We invited them to share with us their local knowledge and to help us further design the CitYsens system.

The goals set for this workshop were twofold:

  • The first, more specific: defining the limits of any municipality neighborhoods Henares Corridor, as a way to identify problems with neighborhoods’ limits and assess how they will be treated in CitYsens.
  • The second, broader: to exchange experiences, concerns and ideas to co-design a Social Citizens Network that leverages collective intelligence in our cities.
  • And… well, we improvised on the fly a third objective:  to evaluate and solve together any doubts we may have on how to use Internet and social networks to enhance the work of social movements.


The hackathon was definitely a great experience that left us all participants a very good taste in the mouth. And not just because we finished the session by sharing a delicious “garlic chicken” :-) , but mainly because the collaboration and exchange of ideas that occurred were very enriching.


The event was attended by very different people, aged between 11 and 74 years. There were, of course, a few computer scientists and programmers, but also experts in marketing, logistics, social mobilization, architecture… a wonderful mix of citizens’ profiles!

And the result was indeed very positive: it fully satisfied all our expected and unexpected goals.

This was a participatory design workshop which, in its general features, would seem much similar to those usually included in any EU-funded project. These projects always brag about how earnestly they take “user-centrality” as one of the project’s cornerstones. This is not surprising, as they wouldn’t get funded if they wouldn’t [brag about it :-) ].

This is the reason why in its early stages these projects always program such design workshops, where information about future users’ needs is collected, to adjust to them the system’s functionalities.

At the same time, however, our event was… SO DIFFERENT!

The high levels of complicity, mutual commitment and harmony that workshop’s participants and organizers showed to each other… were quite extraordinary. And the reason why this happened was that the event was organized from below: for and by those below. A real “bottom-up” thing.

From the outset it was clear for everybody that our motivation to organize the workshop -and more than that: to create CitYsens- is to serve the social movements. It is not just to advance with a project. Nor to comply with a research protocol. Neither finalizing a “deliverable” or a “working package”. No.

Our goal was to meet with them, so we all can listen to each other, share our perspectives and create the relationships that will allow us, working together, find appropriate solutions for their problems.

An example that shows to what extent the workshop was different from those organized as part of more “official” projects is that, when we informed them that we would pay the meal… participants protested!! They didn’t like that the costs of the meeting were not shared with them. :-)


Another example: of four computer scientists who attended the workshop, four expressed their desire to stay involved in it voluntarily, as far as possible. The same with the architect. And the expert in logistics. And much of the rest of attendees! :-)

All this reminds me of the considerations made in my PhD thesis, Creating the ‘Symbiotic City’ [es], where I outlined a methodology that could guide the processes of collaborative construction of Civic Systems Software.

I quote a few paragraphs below:

“The truth is that researchers and designers nowadays do not have reliable methods to successfully address these issues (Gidlund 2011). These projects frequently suffer from a enormous imbalance between the power of the development team -which often fully controls the deadlines, agenda, collaborative methodology and allocation of resources- and the groups of users participating in the process (eg: De Liddo and Buckingham Shum 2010) -which would become a “silenced guest” as soon as they try to trespass against the limits established for their contribution-. The project manager thus tend to think that the users are meant to serve his needs, his design, his project, and not vice versa. From the perspective of designers, the process is more about “doing good” collaboration than about doing “good collaboration”, which would aim to really serve the needs of the people who will use the system (Davies 2009a systems; Akkermans et al. 2011). […]

If we want that a civic software system “works” -ie: that it is successful and provides enough utility to their different users as to make the willing to ‘adopt” it and make it operate sustainably- its creation processes must have a highly collaborative, interdisciplinary and emerging nature. The future users should really play the leading role in these creative processes.

This means that a truly trans-disciplinary collaboration is required, which not only encompasses the design of the system but also its processes of construction, testing, initial deployment and uptake of the system (de Cindio et al. 2007). Moreover, the collaborative design does not only refer to the functionality provided by the system; this collaboration should additionally provide the basis to develop the corresponding educational resources and to establish the operating procedures and governance frameworks that will guide its operation and administration.


[…] When we analyzed the Participatory Design field, we already showed that this is the real challenge that most projects face: to move from the discourse about the ‘centrality of users’ into a practice that really grants them autonomy and relevance; to generate processes which are attractive enough as to motivate representatives of the user groups to engage -even without receiving any compensation- along the entire process of collaborative design, construction, deployment and system operation.

[…] Our framework […] mostly constitutes a call for following the “common sense”. It primarily demands a change in attitude, towards more conscious, pragmatic and constructive positions. Our framework’s main idea is that the design and construction of civic software systems -including its features, its operating procedures and its governance models- should be undertaken through collaborative, open and flexible processes. These processes must prioritize the interests of users over those of the promoter of the project. The very process of collaborative construction should remain open, and thus be adapted to the circumstances of each project and the characteristics of their users.”

And that’s all for now! For sure, after this great experience we are going to keep working hard and… there will be more such workshops soon!!

One little comment on EU funding and #CAPSSI

[One year ago, Tim Bonnemann wrote a post at Intellitics’ blog about a new EU funded e-Democracy project: D-CENT.
This is the post:

Some days ago Dr. John May commented it and included a reference to my paper “The e-(R)evolution will not be funded”, which was published at the European Journal of ePractice. I commented too, providing some extra information on the paper, on D-CENT project and, more in general, on EU funded research.
Since I consider the subject quite relevant, I’m posting my comment here too]

Thanks John and Tim for the references.
Actually, the best place to get the paper on EU’s e-Participation is this:

…as this version includes some paragraphs that were deemed too “critical” for the journal. :-)

Coming to D-CENT: they are trying hard, and for example some of the trials/pilots they aim to do in Spain (with Guanyem Barcelona, Podemos) are connected with very interesting bottom-up initiatives which are really challenging and changing “Politics” in Spain.
But Tim skepticism was right: the project aimed to solve too many problems at once and, not surprisingly, they are not succeeding at doing it.
For sure: a lot of improvisation is clearly happening, as for example both Guanyem Barcelona and Podemos, that I mentioned before, did not even exist when the project was approved.
So far, there is not such a thing as the D-CENT Platform. Pilots at each country do different things with different tools, and probably the platform will never come into being as something “consistent”; if at all, the whole thing could be presented as a “Frankenstein platform”, but just to justify the funds and pretend the original plan was achieved.


EU’s CAPS calls (hashtag #CAPSSI) are an attempt to move EU funding in this area into the right direction. This must be acknowledged. These calls are the most hacker-friendly FP7/H2020 calls ever seen in Brussels. But so far… they are having little success. Other CAP’s projects, like CATALYST or CHEST (the ones I know best), are also delivering rather modest value so far.

In Brussels everybody knows this way of funding innovation is not really working.
But the problem is felt as systemic, as too complex and wicked, and out of the hands of any single actor to fix it. Thus… everybody just keeps doing. Pretending not to see the elephant in the living room.

Have a look at the video of the last CAPSSI-InfoDay, specially at the beginning of the event where CAPSSI call is explained, and at the event’s closure by Mario Campolargo, Director of the European Commission’s DG Connect (7:05:00 in the video).

CAPSSI Info Day - Mario Campolargo

The last part of his speech requests participants to be different, unconventional, and to bring out change along different EU research programs. His last words are something like: “Be different. Bring different solutions to our societies, that need to be different than in the past if they want to survive”.

The EU is somehow challenging project proposers to change what they do, how they do it and even who they are… but EU is itself not changing its way of doing, or the main characteristics of their funding calls: huge money, big multi-country consortia, paying for nice proposals but not for results or real impact, long multi-year projects, incredible bureaucracy and red tape, focus on big actors, poor impact evaluation, no follow up on closed projects, etc.

There is not a single “real innovation” in the funding mechanisms, or the incentives these provide, that stands extraordinarily out. Even its good intention, of using the CHEST project to reach out to smaller and more diverse innovators… has been jeopardized by poor execution and the bureaucratic burden imposed on the project participants.

It is thus not surprising that EU’s success continues to be so limited! As suggested in my paper, this is what normally happens when you “scratch where it doesn’t itch”, as the EU frequently does. As Einstein once said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

I first launched a conversation about the paper at PEP-Net’s blog more than three years ago. In different occasions during the last years several EU officers responsible for, or at least involved in, these areas have received my paper. But so far… I never obtained a real response from them. I’m not even sure if it was ever read. I even visited their headquarters and complained about what and how they were doing… but to no avail.

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It would seem EU officers were not aware that Mario’s words apply to them too: that even the EU needs to change, to do things differently, if it wants to survive.


PS: By the way, CitYsens was presented at the last CAPS-InfoDay too. You can see our three minutes presentation at the official InfoDay video (5:20:20) or directly here:

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“Solving Public Problems with Technology” and CitYsens

We have been selected to participate in the course “Solving Public Problems with Technology”, organized by Prof. Beth Noveck and other members of the Governance Lab. This course aims to “offer the knowledge, tools, tactics, and networks to help change agents create actionable public interest projects that improve people’s lives.”


The course will be offered in-person for graduate students from the MIT Media Lab, the New York University (NYU) and the Arizona Stat University. It is additionally offered, online, to selected individuals and teams worldwide. The course is geared to the purpose-driven participants passionate about a public problem and helps them develop a project from idea to implementation. The course starts in September and lasts till December.

At Kyopol we have followed the work of the Governance Lab for a while. Under the leadership of Beth Noveck, they have become one of the leading players on the Open Government field. The course’s programme is one of the most focused and accurate we have seen anywhere, and we loved its action-oriented approach. In short: we thought that it matched very well the current status of the CitYsens project and decided to go for it.

Last July we became one of the 15 UnLtd Spain‘s GameChangers. With the support of our mentor, Daniel Torres, we plan to leverage all the research on “good Open Government” and all the advocacy and networking activities we have done so far, and concentrate our energies on delivering an increasingly powerful prototype of CitYsens.

The course’s weekly workshops and small-group, online discussions will provide an extremely fertile and challenging environment to discuss about our advances.

As part of the course, we are supposed to create a blog were we report about our advances. We will use this post as a mini-blog, in order to maintain the consistency of our “Road to Lórien” blog.


Solving Public Problems course

2014.09.11 – 1st week assignments: Problem definition

As part of the first week of the course we were asked to reflect on the problem we aim to solve. Here you have our…

Problem Statement for “CitYsens”, the Civic Information System for enlivening communities

What problem do you seek to address? What is the need?

Most local governments find themselves in a very difficult situation, which includes growing demands and challenges, reduced resources and capacity and a diminishing legitimacy of political actors and institutions. A situation that urges city governments to transition toward new governance models based on Open Government principles of Transparency, Public accountability, Civic engagement and an intelligent use of technology to support them.

By opening up political processes to citizens’ scrutiny and participation it is expected that new reflective, creative and implementing powers can be summoned, which will help tackling the many wicked urban problems. Therefore, Internet technologies need to be leveraged to foster an improved and more effective participation. But so far governmental initiatives have failed to exploit Internet’s collaborative potential: even the most successful experiences have been quite modest experiments with little real impact and almost no continuity, scalability nor replicability.

Why? There are many causes, but the main is that Citizen Participation poses serious conflicts of interests to political elites and civil servants, who would like to have more legitimacy because of citizen participation but at the same time, want to retain their discretionary decisional power. Citizen participation is desired but unwanted. Thus, governments’ attempts to promote it have frequently been half-hearted and designed for “top-down” control.

In order to stimulate meaningful Participation it is necessary to promote new tools that really focus on the perspectives, needs and capacities of citizens. These tools should still grant municipal authorities the privileged role they deserve in participation, but withdraw from them an “absolute” power and control, in order to open up their monopoly of civic engagement tools and processes.

The Spanish context: a privileged “window of opportunity”

Last years’ events have shown how in Spain there is a growing share of citizens that are not only worried about the crisis and its social effects, but are also willing to act together and work with others to help those in need. Thus, thousands of neighbors have met in public squares, organized assemblies, formed groups… to dialogue with each other and organize actions that ameliorate the general situation.

They are aware that government alone is not going to provide the solutions. In fact, in many cases governments are rather seen as part of the problem, as their actions (and/or inaction) are contributing to aggravate social emergencies. Hence, people have created different initiatives that have acted in diverse areas, like sanitary exclusion, unfair evictions or infant malnutrition. These groups have strongly networked between them and their actions have combined cooperation with public institutions with autonomous actions, and also with pressure or even opposition to public authorities when it became unavoidable.

But this kind of citizens’ collaborative work has proven to be very difficult, as there is a shortage of tools and methods that support it effectively. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are good to spread news and give visibility to salient initiatives but they are not well suited to sustain local, on-going, fractal efforts, or replicate them. There is a strong need from social movements to improve their civic connectivity by means of new tools and new sources of knowledge and guidance. Local authorities, on their side, often feel frustrated because of their inability to connect with the citizenry and get to know about their concerns.

There is an unfulfilled need for tools and methods that enhance the ability of both citizens and politicians to work together in solving their daily problems, and thus promote a renewal of politics. Tools that are powerful and attractive, and have been specifically designed to meet local actors’ needs and empower them to act in a symbiotic, deliberative way. Tools that not only seek to strengthen the capacity of the government to establish a collaborative and ongoing dialogue with citizens, but also empower citizens themselves to interconnect with each other autonomously and coordinate actions, initiatives and resources that are necessary to address their civic interests.

Concrete “pain points” that need to be solved

Currently it is difficult for citizens, first of all, to get to know about all civic activities and events happening in their city that match their interests. It is also difficult for citizen groups, Civil Society Organizations (CSO) and social movements to reach out beyond the “usual suspects” and those who are already connected to them, a problem that local administrations suffer too. For them it is, additionally, very difficult to know what citizens want and what they are worried about.

These interrelated problems would be addressed by our platform, CitYsens, which aims to provide a central repository where all relevant civic actors, events and initiatives would be listed. This would lower the cost to keep informed and make involvement easier and more effective, which in turn would facilitate that a “critical mass” of citizens get activated and become civic-oriented networked citizens.

By working together with all relevant local actors (including citizens, citizen groups, CSOs, neighborhood associations, local media and local government) we will identify the essential sets of information, shared knowledge and relationships that are required at the local level to increase the effectiveness of civic engagement. We will create a platform that gathers, structures and publishes all relevant information, facilitating its viral circulation.

Furthermore, by means of a meaningful gamification and an optimized user experience, CitYsens aims to motivate individual citizens and local actors to contribute their share of information, help to curate and spread it, and slowly also establish new links and cooperation with each other.

Who are the people most impacted by this problem?

CitYsens aims to benefit the entire population of the cities where it will be implemented. We understand that not everyone can take part in everything, or engage with the same level of participation. CitYsens will prove relevant and useful to both active and engaged citizens and those who wish to participate more sporadically. In fact, it will also help those who just want to stay informed, and even those who do not participate at all, as they will be indirectly benefited.

We want to provide the tools necessary, yet unavailable, that will drive civic action and foster communication between representatives and those represented. Citizens, administrations and all types of organizations can benefit from the continued use of spaces for dialogue and civic mobilization.

2014.09.17 – 2nd week: Crowdsourcing and Personas

After the second session we were asked to reflect about crowd-sourcing in the context of our project, and to create some “personas” that characterize the future users of our system.

This is actually an exercise we did a long time ago. We identified different profiles from the domains of “Government Organizations”, “Civil Society” and “Citizens” and reflected on their needs, motivations, capacities, life-contexts, etc. Our personas included a mayor, a city councillor, a public worker from the municipality, a local journalist, the chair of a neighborhood association, a member of a cultural association, an “extremist”, a researcher, a retired person, a young student and an immigrant.

In the meanwhile we have replaced “imagination” with real ethnographic work: we have done a lot of participant observation and shadowed “real world people” that broadly corresponded to our personas (we are still missing the ‘mayor’, but he is clearly not the most important one user ;-) ). Working together with social movements in Alcalá de Henares we have also launched a “collaborative calendar” project, the “Agenda del Henares”, that allows us to validate our most important assumptions and our theory of change and also has helped us to strengthen our ties with our future community of lead users.

During the last years we have thus slowly followed the collaborative path we had set ourselves to co-build CitYsens.

Collaborative Creation of Kyopol

Now we face the final real work: to construct the prototype for CitYsens and to pilot it in Alcalá, before scaling its use to other Spanish regions.