Technology has become synonymous with progress, but in Latin America (LATAM), where 44% of people have no access to the Internet, it’s clear that this progress hasn’t been felt by all.

So how do we create technology that is more inclusive and offers opportunities to reduce inequality rather than uphold it? In LATAM, the open data movement has enabled the rise of the Civic Tech community – groups who use this data to develop digital solutions based on the requirements of people who need them. LATAM has collectively made great advances in opening up the data that feeds Civic Tech, but we need more to be truly impactful and that will only come through more human (not technological) collaborations between government, communities, civil society, and the private sector.

The problem is that the data we need opened simply does not exist. For a long time we thought that our governments didn’t want to give it to us. Bad, bad government had all that data in their hands, but kept it to themselves. Eventually we learned that wasn’t completely true.

Bad, bad government had all that data in their hands, but kept it to themselves. Eventually we learned that wasn’t completely true.

The first time Paulina visited a public office in a state close to Mexico City, she arrived at 9 AM and left at 9 PM. The government officials she met with didn’t want her to leave until they had figured out a strategy for their project. Before leaving, she asked them if this was unusual. They looked at her and said, no, they pretty much work 24/7. There are an amazing number of highly motivated people within the government who have few resources and support to carry out open data and other initiatives. They need us, the Civic Tech world, in order to achieve their goals.

Paulina’s first ABRELATAM, an event that brings together open data activists, was in 2014 in Mexico and the topics were a little rookie. Questions along the lines of “What does open data mean?” and “How does it work?” Last month she attended another LATAM meeting of open data organizations that was full of signs indicating a mature ecosystem. This time, the common concerns among the community were about sustainability, capacity building, and integrating these topics into general education. Progress is evident in the applications that have collected thousands of datasets to improve health services, fight corruption and so on. And Mexico chaired the Open Government Partnership from 2014-15.

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Photograph: ABRELATAM

Civic Tech communities in LATAM have emerged from groups who want to create technological tools to solve public problems. These communities are rich with the contributions brought from their diverse members: engineers, chemists, teachers, doctors, high school students, social studies experts, among many others. Three good examples that have arisen from them come from Uruguay, Mexico, and Argentina.

February in Uruguay is Movilidad Regulada, the time when each citizen has the opportunity to change his or her health care provider. This process started in 2009 to avoid health providers’ monopolistic practices of bribing potential customers. Last year, Uruguay’s DATA built a platform based on government generated data (you can find all the government’s databases on their Catálogo de Datos Abiertos platform) where you can see and compare the status of health providers in the capital, Montevideo.

After the tool’s first edition reached 30,000 users, DATA was able to request more information from the government to share with consumers, such as the number of caesareans per health provider. This is the kind of data not open by default, but the community’s push to open it found that 44% of births are by caesareans. This is almost four times more than what the World Health Organization recommends, a fact that can empower both patients and healthcare providers to rethink current trends in medical services.

Open data will not make dramatic societal changes on its own, but the resulting platforms can contribute to improved quality of life through more transparent processes. We can ask for data, organize it, and make it truly public so that people can make more informed decisions about their health.

Paulina shared a panel with Daniel Carranza from DATA Uruguay at ConDatos last year in Chile. He summarized the state of open data in LATAM as, “We might not be saving lives directly, but we are improving the infrastructure of a service that most likely will improve the quality of life of our standard citizen, that is a good thing that maybe in the future will save someone’s life.” Open data will not make dramatic societal changes on its own, but the resulting platforms can contribute to improved quality of life through more transparent processes. We can ask for data, organize it, and make it truly public so that people can make more informed decisions about their health.

Mi Negocio is a platform to empower entrepreneurs in Mexico State to start-up new businesses legally. Before Mi Negocio, a lack of transparent processes for start-ups to follow led to high levels of corruption. Through checklists and easy to access forms, this platform makes the process clear for the business owners and holds vendors and inspectors accountable. The Mi Negocio platform isn’t novel in its resources – the data already existed but was just inaccessible. Opening it up required engagement from two organizations in Mexico: IMCO (Mexican Institute for Competitiveness), a think tank dedicated to investigation about public policies, and Cívica Digital, a software business that creates digital solutions for public problems. Together, they trained 6 municipalities to open and share data to feed the platform. Unfortunately, after being trained, some municipality administrations and political parties changed. When this happened, Mi Negocio changed with them, meaning, it stopped working because the new administration didn’t have the buy-in or training. Given the nature of changing governments, for civic tech platforms to consistently work they have to be made along with community groups who can keep them running.

The Mi Negocio examples demonstrates that we need the three main sectors of society to fulfill the potential of open data: Civil Society (in this case, IMCO), Private Sector (Cívica Digital) and Government (Mexico State). One sector cannot build it all alone.

Caminos de la Villa is a beautiful example of how the Civic Tech community initiated change through open data. This platform maps slums in Argentina through community generated data. It is designed to collect data from the people that live there – identifying schools, canteens, health centers, NGOs working in the neighborhoods, etc. – and staying current so community members can monitor neighborhood changes, through NGO and community collaboration. Through mapping the needs and assets of slums (20 so far), Caminos de la Villa has given them the recognition and visibility that will eventually work towards improving public services and other benefits that are needed to improve quality of life.

In all these examples, the major thing they have in common is collaboration. Throughout our history, Latin American countries have been fighting corruption and inequality. The open data movement has helped bridge relationships between civil society, government, and the private sector to build better cities. We believe the communities coming out of this movement, and powered by open data, will be the driving force for positive change and will empower governments through information and accountability in the next decades to come.

Thanks to the following people who helped with data and interviews: Daniel Carranza (DATA), Fabrizio Scrollini (DATA), Juan Ignacio Lacueva (Wingu), Mariana Tapia, (IMCO).

Correction: 23 May 2016. In the example of Caminos de la Villa, the term “slums” replaced “rural zones” according to the terminology that the organization uses and a more accurate description of the areas.