“Solving Public Problems with Technology” and CitySENS

We have been selected to participate in the course “Solving Public Problems with Technology”, organized by Prof. Beth Noveck and other members of the Governance Lab. This course aims to “offer the knowledge, tools, tactics, and networks to help change agents create actionable public interest projects that improve people’s lives.”


The course will be offered in-person for graduate students from the MIT Media Lab, the New York University (NYU) and the Arizona Stat University. It is additionally offered, online, to selected individuals and teams worldwide. The course is geared to the purpose-driven participants passionate about a public problem and helps them develop a project from idea to implementation. The course starts in September and lasts till December.

At Kyopol we have followed the work of the Governance Lab for a while. Under the leadership of Beth Noveck, they have become one of the leading players on the Open Government field. The course’s programme is one of the most focused and accurate we have seen anywhere, and we loved its action-oriented approach. In short: we thought that it matched very well the current status of the CitySENS project and decided to go for it.

Last July we became one of the 15 UnLtd Spain‘s GameChangers. With the support of our mentor, Daniel Torres, we plan to leverage all the research on “good Open Government” and all the advocacy and networking activities we have done so far, and concentrate our energies on delivering an increasingly powerful prototype of CitySENS.

The course’s weekly workshops and small-group, online discussions will provide an extremely fertile and challenging environment to discuss about our advances.

As part of the course, we are supposed to create a blog were we report about our advances. We will use this post as a mini-blog, in order to maintain the consistency of our “Road to Lórien” blog.


Solving Public Problems course

2014.09.11 – 1st week assignments: Problem definition

As part of the first week of the course we were asked to reflect on the problem we aim to solve. Here you have our…

Problem Statement for “CitySENS”, the Civic Information System for enlivening communities

What problem do you seek to address? What is the need?

Most local governments find themselves in a very difficult situation, which includes growing demands and challenges, reduced resources and capacity and a diminishing legitimacy of political actors and institutions. A situation that urges city governments to transition toward new governance models based on Open Government principles of Transparency, Public accountability, Civic engagement and an intelligent use of technology to support them.

By opening up political processes to citizens’ scrutiny and participation it is expected that new reflective, creative and implementing powers can be summoned, which will help tackling the many wicked urban problems. Therefore, Internet technologies need to be leveraged to foster an improved and more effective participation. But so far governmental initiatives have failed to exploit Internet’s collaborative potential: even the most successful experiences have been quite modest experiments with little real impact and almost no continuity, scalability nor replicability.

Why? There are many causes, but the main is that Citizen Participation poses serious conflicts of interests to political elites and civil servants, who would like to have more legitimacy because of citizen participation but at the same time, want to retain their discretionary decisional power. Citizen participation is desired but unwanted. Thus, governments’ attempts to promote it have frequently been half-hearted and designed for “top-down” control.

In order to stimulate meaningful Participation it is necessary to promote new tools that really focus on the perspectives, needs and capacities of citizens. These tools should still grant municipal authorities the privileged role they deserve in participation, but withdraw from them an “absolute” power and control, in order to open up their monopoly of civic engagement tools and processes.

The Spanish context: a privileged “window of opportunity”

Last years’ events have shown how in Spain there is a growing share of citizens that are not only worried about the crisis and its social effects, but are also willing to act together and work with others to help those in need. Thus, thousands of neighbors have met in public squares, organized assemblies, formed groups… to dialogue with each other and organize actions that ameliorate the general situation.

They are aware that government alone is not going to provide the solutions. In fact, in many cases governments are rather seen as part of the problem, as their actions (and/or inaction) are contributing to aggravate social emergencies. Hence, people have created different initiatives that have acted in diverse areas, like sanitary exclusion, unfair evictions or infant malnutrition. These groups have strongly networked between them and their actions have combined cooperation with public institutions with autonomous actions, and also with pressure or even opposition to public authorities when it became unavoidable.

But this kind of citizens’ collaborative work has proven to be very difficult, as there is a shortage of tools and methods that support it effectively. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are good to spread news and give visibility to salient initiatives but they are not well suited to sustain local, on-going, fractal efforts, or replicate them. There is a strong need from social movements to improve their civic connectivity by means of new tools and new sources of knowledge and guidance. Local authorities, on their side, often feel frustrated because of their inability to connect with the citizenry and get to know about their concerns.

There is an unfulfilled need for tools and methods that enhance the ability of both citizens and politicians to work together in solving their daily problems, and thus promote a renewal of politics. Tools that are powerful and attractive, and have been specifically designed to meet local actors’ needs and empower them to act in a symbiotic, deliberative way. Tools that not only seek to strengthen the capacity of the government to establish a collaborative and ongoing dialogue with citizens, but also empower citizens themselves to interconnect with each other autonomously and coordinate actions, initiatives and resources that are necessary to address their civic interests.

Concrete “pain points” that need to be solved

Currently it is difficult for citizens, first of all, to get to know about all civic activities and events happening in their city that match their interests. It is also difficult for citizen groups, Civil Society Organizations (CSO) and social movements to reach out beyond the “usual suspects” and those who are already connected to them, a problem that local administrations suffer too. For them it is, additionally, very difficult to know what citizens want and what they are worried about.

These interrelated problems would be addressed by our platform, CitySENS, which aims to provide a central repository where all relevant civic actors, events and initiatives would be listed. This would lower the cost to keep informed and make involvement easier and more effective, which in turn would facilitate that a “critical mass” of citizens get activated and become civic-oriented networked citizens.

By working together with all relevant local actors (including citizens, citizen groups, CSOs, neighborhood associations, local media and local government) we will identify the essential sets of information, shared knowledge and relationships that are required at the local level to increase the effectiveness of civic engagement. We will create a platform that gathers, structures and publishes all relevant information, facilitating its viral circulation.

Furthermore, by means of a meaningful gamification and an optimized user experience, CitySENS aims to motivate individual citizens and local actors to contribute their share of information, help to curate and spread it, and slowly also establish new links and cooperation with each other.

Who are the people most impacted by this problem?

CitySENS aims to benefit the entire population of the cities where it will be implemented. We understand that not everyone can take part in everything, or engage with the same level of participation. CitySENS will prove relevant and useful to both active and engaged citizens and those who wish to participate more sporadically. In fact, it will also help those who just want to stay informed, and even those who do not participate at all, as they will be indirectly benefited.

We want to provide the tools necessary, yet unavailable, that will drive civic action and foster communication between representatives and those represented. Citizens, administrations and all types of organizations can benefit from the continued use of spaces for dialogue and civic mobilization.

2014.09.17 – 2nd week: Crowdsourcing and Personas

After the second session we were asked to reflect about crowd-sourcing in the context of our project, and to create some “personas” that characterize the future users of our system.

This is actually an exercise we did a long time ago. We identified different profiles from the domains of “Government Organizations”, “Civil Society” and “Citizens” and reflected on their needs, motivations, capacities, life-contexts, etc. Our personas included a mayor, a city councillor, a public worker from the municipality, a local journalist, the chair of a neighborhood association, a member of a cultural association, an “extremist”, a researcher, a retired person, a young student and an immigrant.

In the meanwhile we have replaced “imagination” with real ethnographic work: we have done a lot of participant observation and shadowed “real world people” that broadly corresponded to our personas (we are still missing the ‘mayor’, but he is clearly not the most important one user 😉 ). Working together with social movements in Alcalá de Henares we have also launched a “collaborative calendar” project, the “Agenda del Henares”, that allows us to validate our most important assumptions and our theory of change and also has helped us to strengthen our ties with our future community of lead users.

During the last years we have thus slowly followed the collaborative path we had set ourselves to co-build CitySENS.

Collaborative Creation of Kyopol

Now we face the final real work: to construct the prototype for CitySENS and to pilot it in Alcalá, before scaling its use to other Spanish regions.

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