Alejandro is proposing a new, intermediary-free process of public participation that connects governments to citizen knowledge using big data and innovative technologies. Alejandro leverages pre-established government commitments, works with local community members to gather information, and returns all information collected back to the community in order to contribute to the public knowledge base and empower local actors to make information-based demands of the government. This approach rebuilds the lost trust between communities and the government in an effort to create more effective social policies and incentivize local participation without intermediaries.
The New Idea
Alejandro Maza is narrowing the communication gap between citizens and public institutions by using a number of civic participation tools combined with new technologies that allow citizens to express their concerns, needs, and suggestions to policymakers. These methodologies facilitate the processing of complex data sets including open-ended questions which allow for new channels of participation focused on the citizen’s preferences and incentives, not only government’s possibilities for data recollection and analysis. More complex and comprehensive data sets then help policymakers craft programs that directly influence the social wellbeing of their constituency and re-design failed programs. Alejandro has designed a series of innovative technological tools that allow for open, inclusive, pluralistic dialogue between citizenry and institutions. This use of information technology and data bases allows for the inclusion and analysis of data obtained in multiple formats, including data gathered without internet access. The most significant innovations in Alejandro’s model are his coordination with the government to ensure impact in public policy, the use of big data for community gain, and the organization’s dedication to empowering communities with information gathered from surveying community members.
Unlike other civic participation initiatives, Yo Propongo operates in a way that ensures that the information it collects is being used productively by either the government, civil society organizations, or the surveyed community. Yo Propongo works with the government on the condition that the participating government agency agrees to allow Yo Propongo to make public all the information gathered in a project. Yo Propongo directly negotiates with the Mexican government in order to do away with confidentiality surrounding the data collected from communities which, as the organization has proven, facilitates a political discussion that will further social wellbeing. The organization also charges the government for its services, and these two characteristics of Yo Propongo’s work protect the organization from collecting information that is either unused or misused. Alejandro has thus built impact in public policy into Yo Propongo’s daily operations.
The use of big data technology for community benefit is another of Yo Propongo’s innovations. Big data refers to data sets that are too large to analyze by hand or using other traditional data analysis methods. There are a number of recently developed technological systems that are able to analyze such data sets, but these systems are normally used exclusively by corporations, think tanks, and other large business actors. Big data technology used for social benefit is thus, in and of itself, a new idea. Yo Propongo uses this cutting edge technology to gather and analyze information, but it also returns the results of big data analysis to the surveyed community in an effort to empower the community with information. Big data systems are incredibly advanced technologies that enable Yo Propongo to collect and analyze huge data sets of information from communities in formats that allow survey respondents total freedom of expression by providing multi-channel communication tools (such as SMS text messages, or social network based platforms) that allow citizens to communicate in a natural way that can be secure and anonymous.
Yo Propongo’s totally transparent manner of conducting its surveys and returning analyzed information to the surveyed communities serves as a way of restoring the broken trust between the Mexican government and its citizens. The organization’s methodology ensures that information is collected with a maximum degree of trust between respondent and interviewer by intentionally selecting locally esteemed community members to conduct the surveys. Survey participants have an assurance that they will see the final report of information collected, which was not the case previously when the government would hide results that it did not find desirable. To date, Alejandro Maza has been able to reduce the costs of civic participation to sixty Mexican pesos per person. This price both incentivizes the institutions to conduct large surveys while providing useful information to both the communities surveyed and the institution that commissioned the survey.
Unilateral, non-evidence based public policy design is prevalent in Mexico. Government programs meant to solve social and environmental problems, like most government decision making processes in Mexico, are designed without the participation of the benefitting populations and therefore, without a real understanding of the problem itself. The resulting programs therefore do not adequately account for local context and are ill equipped to deal with socio-cultural realities. Government centralization results in uninform decision making processes. The lack of adequate information, communication, and civic participation in politics significantly reduces the probability of social programming success and adoption. This contributes to the disconnect between government and society, resulting in inefficient policies that do not resolve pressings social issues and decreases government credibility in the eyes of citizens. Furthermore, the government’s information collection capacity is limited, which means that many citizens are excluded from civic participation activities.
Today’s traditional methods of collecting information from citizens in Mexico have important limitations. They are costly and most citizens see them as ineffective, if they are at all familiar with them. There is a fundamental lack of government capability to collect and systematize data sets gathered over a long period of time. Surveyed populations tend to distort the truth because being interviewed by a stranger, speaking with a public officer, or filling out a written survey makes them uncomfortable or unsafe. There is insufficient linkage between the surveyed population and the government after the survey has taken place. Survey results rarely, if ever, are returned to the surveyed population and there are no follow-up mechanisms in place for these processes. Finally, traditional methods are very limited in their ability to collect and analyze qualitative information. They are also extremely costly. In terms of civic participation, unfortunately, this is exactly the type of information that policymakers find themselves using.
In the past few years, Mexico has made a greater effort to use technology to encourage civic participation. Regardless, these new proposals are still limited in that they do not include the most marginalized segments of society because they rely on access to electronic appliances and require technology that these populations do not have. Furthermore, these proposals have not had a demonstrated impact on public policy. Even more significantly, information collected using unsophisticated technology bars citizens from access to the results of their participation because survey results are never analyzed on their behalf or distributed to them.
Alejandro Maza and Yo Propongo are attempting to change the status quo in government by helping government actors to adopt inclusive, open, and participatory processes that aid in public policy and social program construction and promote a trust-based relationship between the fragmented social and public sectors. Yo Propongo does this with the help of 5 steps.
First, Yo Propongo approaches the government or organization that seeks assistance with a plan, action, public policy, or program based on citizen need to generate positive social impact. Once this contact is established, a negotiation process occurs. During this negotiation, Yo Propongo explains to the client that all information obtained in the process must remain transparent and accessible to the surveyed community. Once this is agreed upon, the contract is finalized and Yo Propongo begins its information collection process.
Next, Yo Propongo constructs user-focused statistical mapping instruments that are specifically designed for the local context. These instruments are developed so that users can participate and receive feedback through channels that seem natural to them like SMS, apps, video surveys, web pages, etc.
The third step is when information is collected. Yo Propongo uses the statistical mapping instruments it developed to solicit citizen participation while identifying local problems and citizen needs. In order to do this, Yo Propongo first conducts focus groups and one-on-one interviews with community members to explain the Yo Propongo information collection process. This helps the organization to identify community leaders and key actors that will help facilitate mass participation in the community. These leaders and key actors are trained as interviewers and sent out to collect information from individuals in their community. The fact that interviewers are respected members of the community establishes immediate confidence in the interview process and opens more communication channels than would otherwise be possible.
Next, Yo Propongo analyzes all of the information gathered using a technological platform built for participatory intelligence. This innovative tool allows for the collection, automatization, and analysis of hundreds of thousands of previously isolated data points. Yo Propongo’s information analysis system creates a virtual cloud using a variety of classification algorithms, natural language processing, feelings analysis algorithms, GIS exploration, data stratification, and network maps that allow data to be explored interactively and deepen knowledge used to facilitate new initiatives.
The fifth and final step is to return the results to the community members who participated in the process using the communication channels most commonly used by participants. This allows these communities to monitor the performance of public policy actors and offer feedback. This is significant because if the government counterpart is not willing to modify the social situation that it is monitoring, the information can serve as a tool for communities to put social pressure on the government and demand improvements.
Yo Propongo wants to create an efficient communication channel from the people to the government, and vice versa; “one policy maker” that solves social problems while including local people affected by the problem. Citizens are informed, engaged, and have the tools to ensure that public programs are being implemented efficiently.
To date, Yo Propongo has worked with various branches of the federal government, three state governments, and two municipalities. Thus far, the organization has had more than 60,000 participants and has managed to lower participation costs to 7 MXN (53 cents, USD) per person. With a team of 15 people and 7 scholars, Yo Propongo is developing technologies and processes that are scalable and replicable through collaboration with local governments and organizations both in Mexico and globally.
Yo Propongo’s short term goals are to become the leader in civic technology in Mexico, to have a presence in at least 20 cities and 3 countries, and to document success cases to be shared and replicated by academic institutions and international organizations. The organization’s midterm goals are to have a presence in 20 countries and to reduce operation costs to less than one cent USD for every 100 responses received. It also aims to make Mexico a pioneering country in terms of using this type of technology for civic participation by having more than half of local governments use Yo Propongo’s open source platform to approach citizens. In the long term, Yo Propongo plans to create the world’s largest open source database for civic participation and to continue as a vanguard of technological innovation in the field of democratic development.
From a very young age, Alejandro showed interested in science, social impact, leadership and entrepreneurship. He got involved in social projects like missions and science fairs, was on the Board of Directors of his preparatory school, and fundraised so that his high school could do community service projects in marginalized areas of Mexico. Alejandro’s parents raised him to value social responsibility and excellence while encouraging him to pursue his interests and fight for his ideals.
Once he entered university, Alejandro continued to develop these interests in a more focused manner through classes in economic theory and applied mathematics. He simultaneously worked as a research assistant at Stanford University in social impact study for a social entrepreneur and as part of the editorial committee for a scientific magazine.
This experience, along with international trips that allowed him to learn about other cultures and realities led Alejandro to view the lack of interaction between the government and citizenry as an opportunity to develop adequate mechanisms that already existed in the scientific world and mix them with diverse social proposals that could help solve this problem. From that moment on, Alejandro has worked with passion and dedication on developing a high impact social entrepreneurship model that allows for citizens’ voices to be included in public policy designs meant to respond to real social needs. Alejandro is convinced that, through use of his technological model for civic participation, he will be able affect truly profound change in the world.