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[PIC] Platform for Citizen Integration: A Push for More Digital Participation in Costa Rica

We definitively live in an era where two distinct, yet not separate processes are taking place: physical/spatial detachment and digital connectivity. Based on findings by UNESCO’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development, one in every 3 persons around the world has online access. With more than six billion mobile subscriptions around the world – half of which are smart phones, the world’s population is more connected than ever, and all-together it forms the largest source of information in history.

It is also well known that the capacity of accessing, organizing and distributing extreme amounts of information has become the force behind the success of companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Apple, which for many years worked on developing digital applications that became successful social platforms. Google Maps is one example. With more that 54% of smartphone users around the world reporting that  they have used it at least once, Google Maps has become one of the most powerful software behind spatial navigation and data sharing in the world.

Most recently, and with the ability to plug into an enormous variety of databases, apps such as Google Maps have become critical tools for the so-called ‘spatial agents’ that are constantly trying to make visible what for many years was – or felt, invisible to many. In a sense, the ‘spatialization’ of processes of appropriation, dissemination, empowerment, networking and subversion, now often see their beginnings in the digital realm. And in many places it is working. Examples like mapping of favelas, bike paths, bus routes and social gatherings and demonstrations – all struggling territories, are cases where these technologies have allowed important social movements to begin and gain strength.

But as new technologies emerge as dynamic tools for socio-spatial development, new struggles also surface and developers need to be aware of this in order to truly have an impact in the real world. In a recent conversation with Margherita Valle, one of three initial developers behind PIC – Plataforma de Integracion Ciudadana or Platform for Citizen Integration – a digital platform project in Costa Rica, we discussed some of these issues.

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PIC is the continuation of Valle’s thesis project titled New Paradigm City: Urbanism in the Digital Era, where she focused on the relation between innovative technologies and a new definition of citizenship. According to her own words, “PIC was developed to integrate the social, economic and spatial realms of urban life into a digital platform. It is seen as a tool for social cohesion and collaboration, where a new urban paradigm is proposed: one that is smart, open and slow (slowness in the sense of pause, which allows for reflection, which is required to change the status quo). PIC is developed based on ideas contained in Harvey’s The Right to the City, Christian Felber’s The Economy for the Common Good and Manuel Castells idea of The Network Society. This platform wants to ‘unearth’ the civic sense that we lost, to value critical inquiry and transparency in our actions as citizens.”

Margherita and team of developers had three goals in mind when they created PIC. The first one was to promote a stronger sense of democracy, one based on bottom-up approaches that could influence creative policy innovation and information sharing. The second was to promote, expand and strengthen partnerships and initiatives that shared public space as a common ground for change. The third goal, which fills an existing void in Costa Rica, was to create a tool and databases that allowed coordination and collaboration between different sectors of society to improve the quality of life of citizens, reduce inequality and generate stronger participatory processes at different scales. The developing group is composed of a variety of collaborators – from technical software developers to sociologists, urban planners, political scientists, anthropologists and communication experts and the platform was launched four months ago.

Despite its recent opening to the public, the platform can already be considered a success with numerous visits per day and many institutions and civic organizations becoming participants. Just as an example, the Major of the city of Curridabat, one of the most important towns in San Jose’s Great  Metropolitan Area, has pledged to support PIC’s proposed collaborative design methods to generate public policies based on citizen’s input and demands instead of the current top-down governmental regulation process with often little community input. But PIC’s vision into the future has the developing team more concerned with how to solve the challenges that have emerged than with its current accomplishments. As Margherita comments “inverse urbanism and collaborative design processes require a strong cultural shift.”

Among the current challenges that Margherita cites, two become critical for the success of such tools. Even though Costa Rica seems like an ideal country to start a platform like PIC – with an electoral roll of 3.078.321 citizens and a higher number of internet subscribers (4.715.840 by the end of 2014 of which 89% from mobile devices), the developing team struggles to incentivize the cultural shift that needs to occur to go from an individual use of such technologies to a more civic participation on alternative applications such as PIC. “There seems to be a fear of data sharing still, which is understandable, but which cuts short a lot of other possibilities” – Valle points out. But if platforms such as PIC really want to have an impact, this is a critical point: how is data-sharing stimulated and most importantly: managed. Marketing and educational processes are already in place, but PIC’s team wants to get as much support from public institutions as possible.

And this is where the other major problem seems to be: in the intersection between current formal and informal processes that are set in place and emerging methods of data generation and management. This seems to be true especially in local institutions, where political interests and traditions still drive the acquisition, administration and delivery of information. This has become clear for PIC’s developing team as they often get ideological support from community leaders, who then struggle to further support the project as issues of ownership of information and public investment are delicate to handle under current regulations. Unfortunately, many times this means that the populations that would be more benefitted from these tools do not get access to critical information or tools that could be easily generated or shared by the institutions we have in place today.

To conclude, it is important to mention that despite some of PIC’s struggles, the project continues to reach projected milestones; and that differently from how some institutional leaders think, a tool like this will only strengthen the democratic and pacific traditions of places like Costa Rica.

If interested, you can read more on PIC’s experience on their official page – http://www.picapp.org/, or their blog: http://pic-cr.tumblr.com/.

PIC on TED (Spanish): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZonwEBPYDE&feature=youtu.be

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