Trying out FixMyStreet at Alcalá de Henares

Last Spanish local elections brought a new government to the city of Alcalá de Henares. A new government which is much more willing to commit itself to promoting citizen engagement in the city. We decided to make the most of this situation, and to proceed with an idea that was going around our minds for a few months: to try out FixMyStreet -a website that allows citizens to report to authorities problems in public spaces- in the Spanish municipalities’ context.

web.FixMyStreet

FixMyStreet is one of the most successful projects of mySociety, a reputed British charity and a pioneer in the field of Civic Tech, ie: creating websites and tools that empower citizens. All mySociety products are Free Software and are available for anybody that wants to use them in other countries. mySociety has made a tremendous effort to properly document their systems and facilitate its installation processes, which is not very common.

As part of our research for creating CitySENS, for years we have kept an eye on FixMyStreet and other similar systems (such as the American SeeClickFix). We have also observed with much interest the emergence of such systems in Spain. There have been many attempts to make these kind of tools work:Ziudad, ReparaCiudad, ArreglaMiCalle, ArreglaSanSe, MejoraTuCiudad, ArreglaMiBarrio (based on FixMyStreet)… and some others. Our impression is that, unfortunately, all these attempts were not successful. None has caught enough critical mass of use as to become sustainable.

web.ArreglaMiCalleweb.ziudad2web.ReparaCiudad

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we see it, there are three main reasons that explain this failure. First is the over-ambition and the lack of focus of most of these initiatives: the tools were activated from the first moment for the whole country instead of starting small and spread organically from the committed user base. Spain as a whole proved to be more than they were able to chew at once.

The second reason is the specific cultural and administrative context of Spain, which differs much from the UK’s. In Spain neither government nor citizens take it for granted that when there is an issue in the public place… it is public authorities’ obligation to resolve it effectively and efficiently. Public authorities will react… or not. Quickly… or slowly. This lack of civic culture generates a lot of cynicism, which in turns makes it difficult for these systems to work.

Finally, those cases where the website focussed in just once city, rarely were able to secure upfront the commitment from the relevant municipal authorities. But in this kind of “incident reporting websites” the council’s involvement is essential: they need to be committed to acknowledge and solve the problems reported in the website, if the website is meant to have any success. What kind of motivation could a user have to report a problem, if nobody will react and do anything about it?

CuidaAlcala1

Keeping all these reflections in mind, we now want to make an experiment in the town of Alcalá de Henares: Cuida Alcalá. We will test there whether, with the collaboration of municipal services and aligning the system’s roll out with explicit dissemination activities and participatory processes… it can get traction and attract a sustainable user base.

To achieve it, we first contacted mySociety team and met Benjamin Nickolls, the director of commercial services. They liked the idea and are going to provide us support in this adventure. We also verified that the municipal government liked the idea of having a FixMyStreet in the city.

For now we are testing FixMyStreet, translating texts, adapting the interface and other technical activities. But in the coming weeks we expect to define, together with the relevant Alcala’s public services, the activation plan for the system.

We’ll soon see how this experiment turns out.

If all went well … we could offer similar websites to other Spanish municipalities for a fee. This could in turn help us to finance the development of CitySENS, which still requires a lot of work.

CuidaAlcala2


 

…at the gates of the Alpha!!

It has been almost six months since we published the previous entry on our civic mini-hackathon. But if we have not written more often it was not because nothing happened… but because we have been working like never before!

Screenshot 2015-07-16 12.12.14We have been working restlessly in CitySENS, the Agenda del Henares  –which is more and more established as a source of civic info for the region: more than 3,200 events have been already published and it had received more than 100,000 visits–  and also supporting the efforts of Alcalá’s social movements for making it a better city, by providing them with our knowledge on citizen participation, communication and collaboration via ICT in their quest to introduce a citizens’ party into the city council.

Javier Bardón has led the reflection on our future plans, our business model, legal issues, marketing strategy, etc. He has been supported by Daniel Torres  –our mentor within UnLtd Spain‘s GameChangers program to support social entrepreneurs–, Caroline and Cristina Álvarez  –both leading the UnLtd initiative–  and Daniel Marote, Roberto Garcia, Ana Perez  –students at IE’s International MBA–  and Jaime Zarzalejos on legal issues.

2015.01.23.TallerEnIEBusinessSchoolThanks to this, we have now a much more defined picture of where are we going and the path that we must follow to reach our goals in a sustainable manner.

20150716.JesusAtWorkOnCitYsensVery important too: since March we worked with a programmer, Jesús Prieto, who we hired for six months using to the resources we obtained from our crowd-funding campaign at Goteo.org and a small seed-capital that our friends of UnLtd Spain awarded to us.

Jesus and I have spent these last months improving the initial prototype and strengthening its most essential features (search engine and maps manager, mainly).

2015.06.14.ScreenshotCitYsensWe have achieved good progress, and we are now almost ready to share with our ‘Pioneers Community’ an Alpha version of CitySENS, which will allow us to start a real process of “collaborative design” to make sure that the system’s functionalities and processes fit to the needs and capabilities of its future users.

Screenshot 2015-07-11 08.38.51Up to now, the members of the Pioneers Community interacted informally in the community’s Facebook group. But now we will be able to really work on the system itself, to slowly improve and co-create it.

The prototype can automatically import the information about events that get published in the Agenda del Henares. Our Alpha will thus display, from the outset, real event, organization and places information.

Our pioneers represent CitySENS’ future user groups: nowadays the community includes citizens, activists of all kinds, representatives of civic groups, neighborhood associations, as well as academic researchers, councilors, public workers and local media .

Those of you who have followed our evolution so far know that this collaborative work corresponds to the ‘Alphas feedback cycles’ that we aimed to perform… from the very beginning of the project. It constitutes, in fact, the heart of our methodology for the collaborative design of Civic Software Systems.

This collaborative work with our pioneers community, in workshops and also through virtual means, will help us to create a more mature system, a “beta” version, which could be used thorough Spain. Working together we will make CitySENS a reality: an essential part of the civic infrastructure of our cities that will help making them smarter and more human.

ResearchCreation.es.big


 

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.

2014.01.11.MiniHackaton.01

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.

2015.01.11.MapeoDeAlcala

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.

2014.01.11.MiniHackaton.06

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. 🙂

2014.01.11.MiniHackaton.05

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.

2015-01-11.ResultadosMiniHackaton

[…] 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!!