How can a smartphone app improve city infrastructure by connecting the public and local government? We asked Diego Mendiburu, CEO of app development company Fáctico.
How did your work as a reporter inform the type of apps you create?
As a journalist living in a country where it can be difficult to do investigative work, I believe everyone should get involved in the creation of content that advocates for an increase in governmental accountability and transparency. The goal for my start-up company, Fáctico, is not just to create technology, but to run projects that promote freedom of speech and citizen engagement. We are a multidisciplinary team of journalists, civic hackers, internationalists, and designers.
We believe that our responsibilities as citizens extend beyond casting a ballot on election day. Citizens should participate daily in politics; simply sharing concerns as a community could be enough to create change.
What can apps do that other media cannot?
Apps provide an outlet for community members to connect and give purpose to their conversations.
My team developed Los Supercívicos, an app that uses humour to shame traffic violators in Mexico's sprawling capital. Here, street vendors and delivery vans block streets and cars drive in bicycle lanes with little fear of punishment. Users create geo-localised, 30-second video reports about public services and urban infrastructure, to help produce a massive database. Non-governmental organisations, think tanks and local government have access to this data. They can review the reports, create better public policies and use public funding in a more effective way.
How did the Los Supercívicos app change the way major public infrastructure or public service issues in your community are managed?
Based on our data, the government has fixed nearly 100 issues reported by users of Los Supercívicos.
When a user sends a report through the app, we identify the issue and share it on social networks, tagging the appropriate authority. If the issue is resolved, we highlight both the 'before' and 'after', creating a cycle where citizens report and authorities act.
This creates a communication bridge and raises confidence in both public servants and the government. We work closely with the Mexico City authorities, specifically the Agencia de Gestion Urbana (Urban Management Agency), who will send case numbers directly to our users.
One citizen reported that a major building company poured fresh cement over several trees during the construction of a residential skyscraper on one of the main avenues in Mexico City. This is a common practice by some building organisations, as they will later receive government permission to remove the dead trees for vehicular access. Government officials discovered this report through a social media post from our app and sent workers to remove the cement and save the trees.
Many of the stories we receive are related to the poor pedestrian infrastructure in Mexican cities. I created a report about a dangerous street junction that lacks a street light and a pedestrian crossing line. The government reviewed my report and responded by adding the light and crossing to ensure pedestrian safety at this junction.
How did you approach the Mexico City government with Los Supercívicos?
Luckily for us, Los Supercívicos is such an influential app that the Mexico City government was eager to hear about the project and find ways to collaborate.
In my experience, governments' main objective is not the use of technology, but instead to reach citizens in different ways to change negative perceptions about the quality of public services and infrastructure.
Unfortunately, smaller governments do not appear to share that interest. We are struggling to have officials from counties and boroughs join our platform, as they tend to ignore citizen demands or simply blame the state government for their lack of efficiency due to limited funding.
How can an app promote voting among young people?
The 2018 Mexican election presents two main issues: managing incorrect information on social media, and determining the best way to encourage nearly 18 million Mexican youth to vote.
We created web app Ligue Político to help inform first-time voters about candidates in their area. The app includes verified information about all of the candidates, and aims to become the go-to platform to learn about politicians and their experience as public servants. Our collaborative data collection model will help to tackle misinformation during electoral periods.
Do you see any other public services that could soon become digitised through the use of apps?
Yes, but not necessarily with apps. Mexican governments still have a long road ahead. Most of these services can remain on the official government web pages. Apps are just another tool that gives users the power to create content, but can be expensive to maintain and require internet access.
Governments should focus on digitising processes and making them more accessible to the entire population. Entrepreneurs have the freedom to experiment, and to create communities of active citizens who can use technologies to pressure governments for better public services.
Do you have any advice for first-time app developers?
Yes: don’t make apps. I’m not joking. It is incredibly difficult to create a successful app, because many people only use a handful of apps each day. Users must first hear about an app, then search for it in the app store, then download it, then log in. There are simply too many tasks that users must complete before even accessing an app's features. And finally, the app must provide a major benefit to the user to avoid deletion.
It’s better to test potential app ideas by building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – a prototype of your invention or service, including only the most basic features. This could include publishing a simple website or an online form to test the basic hypothesis of the product. Nowadays, most websites can do just as many things as a mobile app.
If you still plan on building an app, my best advice is to assemble your audience ahead of time. Ensure that you already have thousands of potential users before you start developing your app. Then, you will have a solid user base before you release your product. We established our audience prior to the launch of the Los Supercívicos app with great success.
Diego Mendiburo is a member of the British Council's Future Leaders Connect programme. Applications for Future Leaders Connect, the global network for emerging policy leaders, are now closed and will reopen in 2020.