After several events and questions received on social media in Mexico, we have noticed an interesting phenomenon: there is a perception amongst hackers and civil society – what is lacking to improve security and life in the city is an app that allows citizen reports to be sent.
In SocialTIC (and in our recent past) we have experience in the design, implementation and follow up of these type of projects in different parts of the world. Here, we sum up some of the most important reflections on four of the most common questions associated with citizen reporting projects.
1.- Do citizen reports work?
Answer: Yes. Citizens that do not report are citizens that do not demand and that do stay tolerant, mute and passive towards the problems that affect them directly. Many of the most serious problems experienced in Mexico go unreported, and therefore are not as visible. We don’t have the information we need to understand the problem.
Citizen reporting is useful only when it turns into a catalyst of information and pressure so that the right institutions will solve the problems and address situations reported. If citizens do not dare to report, for fear or their disappointment in institutions, nothing happens. It is common to hear the phrase – why report if nothing will happen anyway?
Reporting works only if there is pressure for it to be taken into action. Reporting could follow a virtuous circle where once the reports are resolved, citizens increase their bonding and trusting in the authorities, rising their level of involvement. On the other hand, when a report is filed and nothing happens, this circle will continue when distrust and apathy rise. Citizen efforts must go beyond sending a complaint; they must pressure institutions to take action based on the reports. This pressure must be direct (to the government representative responsible for the solution of the problems) and political (if the problems are not solved, we must vote for those ones that would solve them).
2. What makes citizen reporting work?
Answer: A citizen complaint or report works only if adequate information exists, and then it reaches the person who is responsible for its solution, and then the reported problem is solved.
It could be complicated for a citizen report to have all the necessary information to solve the problem, because, on many occasions, citizens are not explicit enough when describing an incident or identifying where it happened. This is specially complicated if the reporting platform is Twitter or an SMS message, where few words are available for the report. It is common for it to be sought through conversations after the report, via email, DM of Twitter or SMS, to tell and rectify information on the report. And, after that conversation, it is necessary that whoever receives the complaints has an adequate team dedicated to work on them; also, that it has confidential identity and personal data protection protocols, especially if the report is linked with acts of violence or corruption.
Also, each report must be easy to track, and its status to be known, preferably publicly. At an internal level, there must be a follow up to the solution after the communications themselves. Otherwise, it would be easy for citizens to think that the institution does not do anything to solve the reported problems, and that citizen reporting is an act of demagogic simulation.
3. Are there citizen reporting apps?
Answer: There are several distinct platforms to perform citizen reporting. Traditionally, this was made by phone (e.g. Locatel in Mexico); nowadays it is technically easy to enable apps that send information like questionnaires to a management, and to view them on citizen reporting platform. Citizen reporting became popular in 2008, after Ushahidi was used to show the outbreaks of post-election violence in Kenya. Since then, multiple similar platforms have been developed, each time with particular features to enable different types of phenomenon reported.
The basic functions of an app for citizen reporting are relatively easy to develop and could get done during a hackathon. However, once the pilot stage starts with real reports, it is common to identify that the needs of performance, security and functionality rise, making the development more complex.
The different existing platforms have become sophisticated throughout time, especially in functions that are often not at visible for the user. The main challenges are: to have multi-channel inputs (web, SMS, Twitter, mobile applications, Facebook application, call center, etc); generating encrypted reports; enabling confidential conversations with users; visualizing graphic reports and maps in real time to have manual and automatic geo-localization of the reports; and to enable a working flow for the follow up of the reports. Ushahidi, See-click-fix, Akora and Datea are some of the examples commonly used in Latin America.
4. What are the bigger challenges for citizen reporting?
Answer: The main challenges for citizen reporting nowadays deal more with the operating side than with the technical. While it is necessary to have technological support to make the collection of citizen complaints or reports more efficient, projects of this type incur inevitably in the following operational challenges:
It is necessary to communicate extensively and clearly with the target population so that they know how to report, what to report, and what would happen with their report.
The organization that receives the reports must have their processes and personnel trained and dedicated to check the incoming reports, to contact the reporters when information is missing and to validate if the report should be public and/or sent to the person or institution that is responsible for its follow up and solution.
The organization that coordinates the project should establish the processes or alliances that are needed so that people and institutions responsible for following the report do exist, and that these requests are duly resolved.
The organization that receives the citizen reports must communicate the impact that has been generated as a product of the citizen participation; preferably by directing that communication with a combination of numbers and stories that stimulate active participation.
The organization that receives reports should have protocols in place, and be able to redirect the reports that could be considered an emergency or that could put someone in danger.
Before starting a citizen reporting project, verify that those involved in it could face the challenges described here. Remember that there are other alternatives to empower the citizens, even when the supporting institutions are not willing and prepared to solve and act when facing a report or complaint. Apps like CircleofSix have supported networks amongst family members and known people facing emergencies and risk situations.
For more information on reflections and experiences on citizen reporting, check out our 2013 webinar, as well as the reviews on projects in Mexico 2012 and Venezuela 2012.