Free labs for activists

An initiative in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, seeks to combine political knowledge with hacker culture to democratize and strengthen development. Português

Henrique Parra Filho
23 November 2016
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The Instituto Cidade Democrática (Democratic City Institute), in Brazil, is about to launch and coordinate a very interesting initiative, part of the public project Redes e Ruas (Streets and Networks) of the Municipality of São Paulo, called Laboratórios Livres de Participação Social (Free Labs for Social Participation).

The premise of the project is to unveil the universe of political participation in the internet by experimenting with four free applications that put collective intelligence at the service of communities.

The action will go through 7 different Pontos de Cultura – cultural entities, institutions or collectives certified by the Ministry of Culture –in different areas of Sao Paulo, coordinating more than 35 activities related to the initiative.  

For the Instituto Cidade Democrática, the development of applications of social participation must be in the hands of social movements and social collectives. This autonomy is fundamental to enhance collective actions and empower the communities, encouraging their participation in the social and political life of the city.

These values have guided the coordination of another successful initiative from the Instituto Cidade Democrática – the “Contest of Ideas” that aimed to collect and debate ideas regarding the accomplishment of the Sustainable Development Goals – and now also inspire the action of the Free Labs for Social Participation.

The project wants to get more in touch with the Pontos de Cultura that are already embedded and active in the communities, first understanding their political actions to later model together the use of free digital apps that enhance them.

The apps selected to be part of the Labs are chosen very carefully – among the criteria that guide that choice, the most important ones are:

(1) the app must be free, with the code and API open – guaranteeing more access and participation on their development and use;

(2) the app must be accessible to or have participation of the State or of public institutions – developing state capacity and transforming institutions is also a major goal of the project;

(3) it has to have an active community, preferably with social groups and functioning collectives in São Paulo - this factor, seems to be fundamental to build actions with more political, institutional and social impact more sustainable through time.

Engaging the Pontos de Cultura is essential to connect the apps to the community, legitimizing and empowering their feedbacks and suggested improvements.

The background plan of the project is to articulate communities, government, cultural collectives and developers to collaborate together in order to build common goods that can be effectively embraced by society. 

The action of the “Free Labs for Social Participation” will entitle three phases:

Phase One will work to understand the reality of each Ponto de Cultura and currently existing projects. Upon that knowledge, build personalized strategies for intervention in the territory with the apps. Make an effort to apply the apps on various projects carried by the Ponto, enhancing their use and identifying possible improvements;

Phase Two aims to understand the codes and the philosophy behind the development of free apps of social participation, understanding how people can contribute to their operation without necessarily knowing how to program;

Phase Three will bring developers, programmers, Pontos de Cultura and the communities together, allowing debates about suggested and necessary improvements and providing feedback.

Free Labs for Social Participation is a bold and exciting initiative that has the potential to significantly improve the quality of life in the communities they are used.

The apps chosen to be part of this project are the following:

Mapas Culturais

What is it? Mapas Culturais (Cultural Maps) is a free software for collaborative mapping for Culture, which contributes to the collective administration of cultural life in the communities.

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What is the role of the Ponto in the community of the software? The app is usually managed by the public administration, being adapted to the needs and requirements of this kind of “user”. Being managed by cultural agents it has, however, great potential to become collaborative. This certainly will generate a new type of appropriation of the tool that will enrich its use. The incorporation of the community as a new “user” will certainly bring more challenges to the developers and can encourage them to think about new solutions.

Where is it working?

Where is the code?

What is it? is an open source app of collective deliberation developed by a startup from Seattle and available through a BSD license. Its first use in large scale will be done by Taiwan’s government, in the participatory platform vTaiwan, originated from the movement that occupied the Parliament in 2014, the “Sunflower Student Movement”. The novelty in is its use of algorithms to help people to gather each other in groups according to their political positions.

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What is the role of the Ponto in the community of the software? Both the testing of new functionalities as the improvements reports, besides being able to contribute on how to evolve the software, are a way to enhance its capacity of incidence (how to better use the group’s information, how it generates concrete action,etc).

Where is it working? It is an unofficial experiment concerning proposals for open government in the city of Sao Paulo

Where is the code?


What is it? It’s an open source app of collective deliberation made available through a BSD license, developed by a project in Princeton University. The architecture of Pairwise is based in crowd source discussion, like Pairwise has been used in large scale debates of the Federal Government in the scope of the Netmundial Conference and by the Government of Rio Grande do Sul in the context of its digital team. The processes that used Pairwise in Brazil involved more than 200,000 people in each development with important results regarding engagement and quality of the proposals.

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What is the role of the Ponto in the community of the software? Interface improvements, new experiments on systematization of the results.

Where is it working? — Report of the experience with the Federal Government’s Pairwise in 2014:

Where is the code?

Cidade Democrática

What is it? The Contest of Ideas of Cidade Democratica is a social technology certified by the Fundação Banco do Brasil (FBB) and by the Financiadora de Estudos e Projetos (FINEP), two of the main organizations that investigate, recognize and certify social technologies in Brazil.

This technology articulates the use of Cidade Democratica’s free software with a method of engagement in the communities able to stimulate the people’s social participation and foster the emergence of collaborative communities around public proposals.

The Contest of Ideas of Cidade Democratica has already taken place in 15 cities since 2011, having being completed in two Brazilian States (Sao Paulo and Para) and in cities of different socio-economic profiles and population sizes.

Besides that, Cidade Democratica’s free software inspired the design and development of the digital phase of the Conferência Nacional de Juventude (Youth National Conference) carried out by the Federal Government. 

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What is the role of the Ponto in the community of the software? Interface improvements

Where is it working?

Where is the code?

It is quite obvious that the selected apps are two different types of tools. While Mapas Culturais is a collaborative device for cultural data,, Pairwise and Cidade Democrática are engines of collective deliberation. It is essential to understand the needs and characteristics of the community in which the apps could be applied in order to be able choose correctly which app better serves the purposes and projects of the Ponto de Cultura. Using more than one app is also possible and can bring interesting insights.

The Instituto Cidade Democrática and Free Labs for Social Participation aim to empower civil society by collecting data and sharing knowledge – and the apps are a powerful tool to engage society and strengthen democracy.

Translated from the original in Portuguese by Patricia Velloso, member of DeemocraciaAbierta’s Volunteer Program

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