The Thought Hub

Technology for the Public Good

by Colombina Schaeffer
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At Ciudadanía Inteligente we are pleased to see Jamaica embrace additional social accountability through the citizen-based initiative JAMP, a citizen initiative using technology to champion change via social accountability. Ciudadanía Inteligente was born in 2009 as a project in Chile: Vota Inteligente (Vote Smart), a project that promotes electoral participation through technology. The project developed into an organisation that seeks to strengthen Latin American democracies in the era of digital technologies. Since 2009, many things have changed. We transited from a project that informed citizens about their candidates, promoting an informed citizenry and vote, to an organisation actively thinking and acting to promote and secure meaningful citizen participation in public decisions. In the last years, we have sought to democratize the rules of the game (ie, advocating for crucial change at the institutional level), empower citizens (ie, training young activists), and opening public management (ie, through participatory policy making at the local level). 

We work designing civic technology, that is, technology for the public good. The community of organisations working in this field has increasingly realised that it is not about building platforms, apps, and technology. It is about asking the right questions: what problem do we actually want to solve? Technology for what? Putting the emphasis on the “civic” side of these kinds of projects: the community of citizens and organisations that come together around and through a platform, whatever form it takes. Usually, this involves other kinds of approaches, such as research, articulation, advocacy, strategic communications, partnerships, facilitation, and methodologies that promote collaborative thinking, knowledge generation, and problem resolution. 

We will soon change our name. From Ciudadano Inteligente (in Spanish, “ciudadano” signals a male citizen) to Ciudadanía Inteligente (a smart “citizenship”). It is not only a small or semantic change, but one that attests to deep changes in our organisation, societies, and in what we understand democracy needs today. In the digital era, technologies have become a double-edged sword. From a utopia of a connected, horizontal, distributed world, where access to information and connections would allow for a more efficient, democratic control of power and decisions, to a dystopian world where few corporations dominate the web, and thus information and knowledge production, concentrating power. We, citizens, have turned into digital services’ consumers and data producers with little control over it, paying a high price for supposedly “free services” (ie, email accounts, social network platforms, browsers) that feed on our collective use, exchange of information, and data/knowledge production.  

Democracy has not been left untouched. The promise of information, transparency, access, openness, and participation has not been fulfilled. On the contrary, citizens have confronted, now with increased evidence, that the economic and political systems and powers are imbricated and mostly at the service of private interests. Public faith and trust have declined. Authoritarian, populist, and extremist voices feed from fear, inequality, anger, and disenchantment. Using the same tools that promised to fulfill the democratic utopia, including technologies, these voices have won space in the political sphere, feeding already polarised debates, promising to secure rights for some, while shrinking the rights of many (vulnerable populations, migrants, women, sexual diversities, ethnic minorities, to name a few). 

Democracies confront crucial challenges today, in the world and in Latin America. We change our name to point to a crucial one: inclusiveness. Democracy needs us all. It needs to secure and guarantee rights for all. It is about expanding rights and civic space. Ciudadanía Inteligente believes that democracies can change for the right reasons and in the right direction: a direction that balances power, and uses it to ensure that not only goods and services are distributed equitably but that ideas and knowledge are distributed equitably too.  

Jamaica’s democracy, like all others, is also in need of strengthening. Citizens play a crucial role. We therefore encourage you to collaborate and engage in this new space, participating in further developing Jamaica’s democracy through the power of collective action, voice, information, and technology. As we say in Ciudadanía Inteligente: “juntxs somos más fuertes” (together we are stronger).  

Cuidadania Inteligente facilitates a 200 women meeting to draft program proposals for Presidential and Parliamentarian 2017 elections in Chile.  

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