With respect and admiration, we honor the work of Ashoka Fellow Cleodon Silva. He made the world a better place for all those he met. Cleodon Silva is creating a model for civic participation through open source georefencing technology, in order to adequately help communities, citizen organizations, businesses and government entities identify local social needs and design appropriate solutions.
Cleodon created the Lidas Institute in order to provide citizens with information that can inform their civic engagement. Through participatory geopositioning exercises, he helps identify social needs, holds local government more accountable and reconnects people with their neighborhoods while promoting citizen participation. He does so by mapping existing information about cities through the agregation of existing data and scientific indicators, and by analysing them against knowledge produced by local communities. Cleodon understood early on that the first step to producing relevant information was to rethink the way urban areas are divided-up and administered. In order to get citizens to connect to their surroundings, he has reorganized all the districts of Sao Paulo into subunits called Units of Participative Planning (UPPs). The area covered by these UPPs is determined according to the way the majority of citizens in any given part of the city interact with their environment.
With these urban subunits as its starting point, the Lidas Institute has developed a virtual platform, Base Comum de Conhecmiento Cidadão (BCCC—Common Grounds of Citizen Knowledge). Using geopositioning techniques and open source software, this online space agregates various data points about each UPP, while making it visually easy to understand and absorb the information displayed. In order to further incite civic participation and deepen citizens’ understanding of their neighborhoods, anyone can also add, edit and share information that might be relevant for their communities or for the city as a whole.
By thus merging scientific and popular knowledge, Cleodon is facilitating the diagnostic of important socioeconomic and cultural issues. However, the BCCC is merely a tool he then uses to promote and design appropriate responses from the bottom up. Particularly concerned with the wellbeing and civic education of younger generations, and recognizing their propensity to readily assimilate the technological tools he has developed, Cleodon has therefore been training youth between the ages of 16 and 29 to master this tool. As a result, he helped create COOPLURB—the Cooperative of Urban Logistics—with these youth. They began by using the UPPs and the BCCC to design low-cost market research for small and medium enterprises looking to establish their businesses in low-income neighborhoods. They have since amplified the scope of their work in order to affect public policy on such issues as the rights of children and adolescents, and to facilitate the work of citizen organizations (COs). Cleodon is now establishing partnerships within COs in order to bring the methodology to other urban centers throughout Brazil.
Although the digital divide in Brazil remains vast, it has decreased significantly in recent years. A growing number of Brazilians now have access to the internet thus enabling the use and gradual democratization of various new social media tools that encourage online collaboration and information sharing. However, this increasing supply of data is rarily transformed into digestable knowledge, which has a series of important consequences.
For example, the way governments handle official data poses a fundamental challenge. While the Brazilian state is obliged to make a large amount of information publicly accessible, some of it simply remains unavailable, and most is not well organized or properly disseminated. When the data does exist most people are unaware of it or don’t know how to access it; and when they do, they often do not know how to use it. Moreover, because the data generally depicts a statistical average, it rarely represents the reality of each neighborhood, thus reinforcing the perception of many citizens that their local knowledge is inaccurate or, worst yet, irrelevant. Disagragated information makes it difficult for people to identify specific social needs or design appropriate responses. This is true as much for government entities when making important public policy decisions, as for COs and small businesses, which must understand the markets or communities they work in, in order to propose locally relevant solutions.
For individuals, this wealth of disagragated information tends to be overwhelming. As cities and the volume of virtual interactions continue to grow exponentially, citizens often become disconnected from their local communities. In most mega-cities, especially those that have undergone rapid urbanization such as Sao Paulo, it is extremely common for people not to know what is happening in their very own neighborhoods, thus making it more difficult for them to get involved and participate in the resolution of important social issues.
This phenomenon is of course agravated by the way urban areas have been conceived and managed, at least within the Brazilian context. Historically, municipal governments have opted for the creation of large districts within cities. These districts tend to be administered in a centralized way, with little regard for the diversity of “realities” that co-exist in these vast areas. This not only leads to poor public policies and, often times, bad reporting—as a result of insufficient or inaccurate information—but it also encourages citizens to develop a generic and inaccurate understanding of their cities.
Although the many social media platforms that currently exist could serve the purpose of making neighborhoods and communities better, they rarely are used for more than the sharing of trivial information and do little to instill a strong sense of citizenship. Youth tend not to get the type of support they need to see that potential through and thus lose the opportunity to become knowledge producers. In public schools, for example, teachers are ill equipped to serve that role because they generally are not particularly adept users of such information technologies. While these virtual platforms could be used to transform citizens from mere consumers of information to producers and intepreters of knowledge, very few of them actually do. Even fewer have been able to employ such tools to the benefit of marginalized populations.
The methodology Cleodon has developed has four distinct characteristics: 1) it divides urban areas into subunits to reflect the way citizens interact with their environments 2) it agregates existing official information in order to make it accessible and understandable for individuals through user-friendly, open source technology 3) it teaches individuals, COs and small businesses how to use this tool to develop appropriate community-based solutions and 4) it transforms individuals, and especially youth, into knowledge producers and disseminators.
By establishing UPPs, Cleodon aims to help citizens reconnect with their communities. Whereas São Paulo’s municipal census information has traditionally been classified by district, these UPPs help to reorganize the city into smaller areas that accurately reflect the way space is used by all Paulistanos. The Lidas Institute then rearranges and aggrates the official data that relates to these areas and makes it publicly accessible, in order to provide citizens with information that reflects their UPP’s or community’s reality.
It is through the BCCC—an online mapping tool—that the information can be accessed by citizens. All anyone needs to do is enter a specific address and postal code in order to find out which of the 270 UPPs they belong to and have access to an expansive amount of corresponding information. Realizing that official data alone cannot tell the whole story, Cleodon and the Lidas Institute went one step further by making the platform open source and interactive. Thus, Cleodon is turning tacit knowledge into hard data and citizens are now becoming one of the database’s main source of information. In addition, the BCCC is also making it increasingly difficult for government entities to manipulate public data while democratizing the access to information. Although the platform is user-friendly, Cleodon’s organization offers workshops and field work experience in order to teach individuals to use it. The Lidas Institute piloted the methodology in 2001, through a partnership with the CO Casa dos Meninos. It worked with 30 youth living in the borough of M’Boi Mirim—one of the most empoverished and violent parts of the city of Sao Paulo—in order to create a digital map of the area they lived in. Using official data, they developed local indicators relating to such things as the number of children between the ages of 0 and 6, the number of unemployed heads of the family, or the state of small businesses based in those 270 UPPs. They also mapped the location of schools, daycares, community centers, hospitals, health centers, and COs, among others.
The objective is obviously not to gather data for its own sake, rather it is to foster better decision-making and to encourage the design of appropriate solutions to social needs through broader information sharing. Believing in the technology’s potential, Sao Paulo’s Municipal Counsel on the Rights of Children and Adolescents (CMDCA-SP) partnered with the Lidas Institute in 2007 to lead a diagnosis of the rights of children and adolescents for the entire city of Sao Paulo. By accurately depicting the annual birth rate in a specific UPP, for instance, and comparing it to the number of existing public daycare centers, the Institute was not only able to inform citizens and COs about the level of social needs in that particular area, it also legitimized through scientific data a citizen-led demand for better access to childcare. This information, which can be constantly accessed and updated online, has been instrumental for the work of several COs, i.e. as Creche para Todos (the Daycare for All Movement)—but also for government entitites that did not previously have access to this level of accurate and detailed data.
In addition, this geo-referencing methodology is being used to develop low-cost market research services for small and medium size enterprises looking to set up shop in different areas of the city. Thus far, Cleodon has been able to develop these services through the creation of COOPLURB, a youth-led Cooperative of Urban Logistics. Cleodon teaches groups of youth how to conduct field research, use mapping, geo-referencing and mockup tecniques, and aggregate census information in order to create regional maps of local needs or demands, through the BCCC. Cleodon chose to work with young people because he recognized the propensity with which they could appropriate themselves of the technology and because of the high-impact such skills could have on their lives. These youth now head-up the cooperative and have jobs for which there is a high market value. Cleodon’s goal is to train 30 youth per UPP in order to conduct similar initiatives throughout the city.
In 2003, the youth that lead COOPLURB established a “map-newspaper” that allowed them not only to report on important events that took place within their community, but also to locate them on the map thus helping residents relate to the information. Cleodon is now opening a newsroom to teach youth between the ages of 18 and 29 about video-journalism techniques. The news reports they produce address social needs identified through the BCCC methodology and are inserted directly onto the maps, thus creating another level of interaction and information on the virtual platform. Cleodon facilitated a first experiment with the youth as part of their work with the CMDCA-SP. Through mapping exercises the youth identified areas with the highest need for childcare services. They then identified a number of abandoned facilities, such as community centers and schools, in those same areas and created a news report backed up with their hard data pleading for the government to transform the abandoned buildings into daycares. The report was embedded onto the interactive maps and the story was quickly picked up by a local TV station that disseminated the news even further. Beyond partnerships with the citizen and private sectors, Cleodon is beginning to work with government. His partnership with the Federal Ministry of Culture will be an instrumental part of his spread strategy. The two entities have partnered to use the BCCC methodology to map all information relating to the country’s more than 4,000 “Cultural Hotspots” in 1,122 cities. (The Ministry of Culture developed Cultural Hotspots under Gilberto Gil’s leadership to incentivize culture in the country’s most remote areas.) By bringing this online platform to every region of Brazil, Cleodon will not only be contributing to building better community-led information he will also pilot its use for government entities.
Cleodon is now focusing on building a stronger team with the youth trained through his program in order to develop the Lidas Institute’s financial and organizational sustainability through fee-for-service activities and further capacity-building for his staff. Such institutional strengthening will allow him to disseminate the intiative to other urban centers throughout Brazil.
Cleodon was born in Garanhuns, a city located in the interior of the State of Pernambuco, in the Northeast of Brazil. He was strongly influenced by his father, who taught him about the importance of being autonomous in life. Although he came from a poor family, Cleodon was able to study in a private school thanks to a scholarship. This is an experience he does not look back fondly upon, and one through which he suffered a lot as a result of class discrimination.
As Cleodon was creating his highschool’s first student council in 1964, a military coup occured in Brazil. Despite the violence purpotrated by the state, he created a news bulletin to report on government abuses, but, out of fear, his parents quickly put a stop to it. The values he had so dispised in his private school were gaining a whole other dimension with the military regime.
It is around the same time that Cleodon decided to give up a degree in the “hard sciences” to study philosophy, political science, and sociology in order to better understand the Brazil’s historical moment. This is how he first got involved with political movements in Brazil. He eventually began working with the unions in factories and became one of the leaders of Sao Paulo’s large workers’ strikes in the 1970s and 1980s, just as Lula Ignacio da Silva was heading similar battles in the Northeast of Brazil.
Cleodon learned about the precarious situation of workers and the lack of hard data about the inner-workings of the factory. He began aggregating and mapping data to understand the correlation between occupational health complications and working conditions within the factory. He did so by hand with the ultimate aim of using the hard data to push for workers’ rights and institutional reforms. He soon realized, however, that he would need to familiarize himself with computer programming in order to reach this goal. He taught himself codes and began developing his own mapping softwares. This is when he realized that by uniting his social work with geo-referencing he could achieve a high potential impact.
In 1988 Cleodon created the Lidas Institute an organization from which he led various projects to map risks associated with work conditions. In the 1990s, however, with substantial changes in the labor movement and the persecution of its leaders, the Lidas Institute changed its focus to work more broadly on urban policies with a strong emphasis on children and adolescents. In 1992 Cleodon initiated his first geo-referencing social project in the city of Sao Paulo. It is more recently with the advent of open source technology that the initiative began reaching its full potential. Despite these changes, he was always moved by the conviction that information and knowledge are the basis of all democracies.