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.
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.
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?
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.