On Thursday evening, an attentive clutch of MCDM faculty and students gathered in the private lounge at Capitol Hill’s Liberty Bar to hear Jorge Soto’s story of how he and partner Oscar Salazar created CitiVox and began connecting the Mexican government and the people of Mexico. The Citivox app may seem charmingly superficial at first glance, with its screens for reporting potholes and other neighborhood nuisances, but it represents a huge leap forward in the relationship between local governments and citizens.
Soto recounted the catalyst for Citivox as the 2009 midterm election in Mexico. The persistent call of the Mexican people for transparency in elections led to the creation of the cloud-based, open source application. “We have an 18th century voting system, our democratic processes are from the 19th century, and the government responds using 20th century technology. But the citizens are using 21st century technology,” stated Soto. Frustrated by the inability to the government to respond to ordinary complaints – one statistic puts the response rate to emergency calls at 50% – Soto and Salazar created the platform as a way to “… reduce the gap between citizens and institutions.”
Citizens report on the platform via Twitter, Facebook, email or even by phone, about dangers caused by road conditions, power outages, and other problems. Reports are geo-tagged, assigned for remediation, replied to by officials, and made public. It’s a way, says Soto, to group public conversations and try to foster understanding of the communities by each other and by local officials for better decision-making. The application aims to create more trust between citizens and governments, and it appears to have had a definite impact.
One of their early campaigns, in conjunction with social activist group Article 19, also helped bring to light violence against journalists in Mexico – the second most dangerous country in the world for reporters. Another smaller example was that of a stolen car being recovered in just 11 minutes after being taken, thanks to active citizen reporting about sightings of the vehicle on a Citivox platform. Soto was clear that he and his partners are entrepreneurs running a for-profit company. They channel revenues toward free work for NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Their aim at the same time, though, is to improve the lives of everyday people and create “smart and open cities”.
Soto and the Citivox team have taken their platform around the world – from providing election monitoring in Yemen and Venezuela to connecting local government with the people of La Paz in Bolivia.
In Mexico, there is not what Soto terms “a culture of participation”, he says, citing the 6% participation rate of Mexicans in government as opposed to 37% of Americans. He hopes that increased participation and awareness will push his country toward a state of more rapid innovation. He added that of the total budget of Mexico for technology, only 8% is spent on innovation. “We don’t have a Jeff Bezos or a Bill Gates,” he pointed out. “…to innovate and continue to disrupt markets – as entrepreneurs, we need to understand that.” With his work on Citivox, Soto is working to exactly that goal.