Jorge Soto is engaging citizens, government, and institutions through in an active dialogue about social change and a real-time examination and monitoring of social systems by utilizing innovative online platforms and web-based tools. Through Jorge’s work, governments receive citizen reports, citizens gain power and ownership through a collective voice, and institutions are better able to serve their communities.
The New Idea
Based on his understanding of technology and his experience working with citizen organizations (COs), Jorge realized the need for platforms enabling citizens, institutions, and governments to interact in real-time to solve social problems. He founded CitiVox to create a network of online platforms that allows communication between political decision-makers, enterprises, COs, and citizens around a variety of topics from local community issues to national social crises. Unlike other organizations that lack the infrastructure to handle a high volume and variety of projects, CitiVox analyzes the content of diverse proposals to create public, actionable reports to send to the appropriate organizations or agencies. For example, during recent elections, Jorge launched a CitiVox platform to collect citizen “reports” of voting fraud, electoral offenses, and violence through a variety of social media from Twitter to text messages. The system aggregated thousands of reports, over two-hundred of which resulted in direct legal action. Using the CitiVox platforms, governments can make better-informed decisions and move toward increased accountability through access to real-time information and collaborative tools for change.
To encourage their use, the platforms are easy to use, anonymous, and free. They do not simply diagnose a problem using existing technologies, like other COs do. By analyzing the information submitted through the website or social media channels and preparing a summary report, Jorge conveys this information to officials in a practical form. This information is also made available for the public to access. CitiVox’s comprehensive reports provide decision-makers with actionable information required to solve social problems. Furthermore, Jorge and CitiVox often go beyond these reports and actively engage with citizens and the government in real-time to advocate and arrive at policy changes. Jorge not only seeks to help citizens’ voices be heard but also to empower the government and institutions to solve problems through increased transparency, accountability, participation, and collaboration.
CitiVox is already collaborating in six countries in Latin America with governments, COs, multilateral organizations, and companies, so these organizations can better understand and serve the public. Within a few months, Jorge plans to launch an open source version of the CitiVox website so that citizens can create social networks or report any type of social problem. The new platform will give politically motivated citizens the tools to organize themselves and advocate for government accountability in solving problems ranging from the simple—pothole repair—to the complex—election monitoring and drug trafficking. In turn, the increased accountability CitiVox generates lends greater legitimacy to the public sector. By reducing the communication gap between governments, institutions, and citizens, CitiVox is boosting citizens’ faith in public institutions.
Latin America’s institutions, government, and informed citizens lack forums to communicate with one another. Decision-makers are often unable to analyze the information and communication streams available in order to respond effectively. As a result of a long history of authoritarian regimes, citizens are especially hesitant to speak out against problems such as violence and crime because they fear repercussions either from corrupt government officials or members of their communities. This mistrust of authority and government aggravates the lack of communication, meaning that many problems go unreported and unaddressed.
The lack of clear communication among institutions, governments, and informed citizens leaves a pervasive, detrimental impact on Latin American society. For example, a dearth of powerful civil demands for government accountability and transparency has led to pervasive corruption and fraudulent elections, perpetuating government abuses. Furthermore, the citizen distrust in institutions due to graft leaves misconduct and crime unreported. In turn, violence and exploitation escalate amid a police force ill-equipped or unwilling to face organized crime. Such is the case in Monterrey, where an alarming number of restaurants have closed due to the increase in violence and rapid exodus of city dwellers seeking safety in less dangerous Mexican states. The crime and lack of public gathering spots leads many citizens to rarely leave their homes other than to go to what jobs remain in the city. Combined, these factors cause a further decline in communication among institutions, government, and citizens.
Grassroots organizations and emerging COs in Mexico are often formed to meet specific societal needs. Unfortunately, they lack the expertise and technical knowledge required to reach new audiences, recruit more actors, and engage stakeholders in activism and advocacy through media. Barriers to community organization and citizens sense of powerlessness may also lead COs to shy away from engaging with the government or supporting institutions in the joint pursuit of transparency, accountability, and comprehensive solutions.
Novel technological tools are beginning to offer ways to promote accountability, but their impact is still quite superficial. Several COs attempt to bring citizens and institutions together by offering communication technology services, such as mapping community problems. However, these technologies only offer visual depictions of social problems, rather than provide actionable information and recommendations for policymakers. Furthermore, powerful social media tools including Twitter, enable citizens to communicate with institutions and government officials, but these platforms are primarily one-sided, giving citizens an opportunity to voice concerns or pinpoint problems but leaving decision-makers either overwhelmed by the quantity of information or excluded from engaging in a meaningful dialogue. As a result, citizens expressing their informed opinions often come across as shouting matches rather than collectively voicing their community concerns. Without the communication or collaboration of citizens, institutions and authorities, serious problems like drug trafficking increase daily. Despite numerous advances in the region, without a significant communications transformation, social problems are likely to worsen.
In 2009 Jorge launched a series of web-based tools to address issues of civic engagement and the question, “How can citizens use technology to change society?” He designed new technologies to empower citizens to become informed and engaged, to enable government to hear from and respond to its constituencies, and to help institutions to reach new changemakers. Jorge is building a series of real and virtual communities to actively confront and find solutions for social problems.
Jorge began his work with the development of forums that build community by bringing people together around issues. For example, in 2011 Jorge hosted Mexico’s first “hackathon,” bringing together the skills and resources of computer programmers, developers, software engineers, and hackers to help COs solve social problems with technology. In doing so, he not only created alliances between hackers and COs, two groups who would ordinarily not interact with one another, but also facilitated substantive projects to affect change. As a result, one group of hackers created a web application to display which government agencies were denying the most requests for information. Another group created an application programming interface to provide real-time riot monitoring in the state of Oaxaca. In creating these relationships between hackers and COs, he has increased the reach and voice of non-profits and their social causes. Jorge plans another hackathon in the coming months, this one focused on children’s rights.
Jorge’s next endeavor was the creation of an election monitoring tool which collected reports of Mexican electoral offenses, violence, and fraud from Twitter, text messages, and emails. The tool was remarkably successful, receiving some 11,000 reports, 200 of which later faced legal action. This tool would become We Take Care of the Vote, which was soon implemented in Yemen, Benin, and throughout Mexico, allowing Jorge’s organization to provide real-time election tracking and monitoring. Official trained observers as well as citizens were able to report election crimes and concerns via text messages. In Benin, the system received more than 1,000 reports while the Yemen system received 8,000. This kind of civic participation in Yemen, which only enacted universal suffrage in 1990, demonstrated citizens’ understanding that democracy involves not only voting, but also protecting the right to vote from corruption.
In response to a 2009 proposed Internet tax increase, Jorge and his team launched another site, Necessary Internet. The site monitored all tweets opposing the tax, then analyzed the information and sent a daily summary of the 120,000 daily postings to each congressional representative. In response, they were invited to participate in a Senate discussion to present their findings. The new tax did not pass. These experiences were formative for Jorge because they helped him realize the power of technology paired with personal engagement.
Following this success, Jorge’s organization realized the importance of converting citizen reports into actionable information while guaranteeing confidentiality and safety. He created Project Tehuan in partnership with the Center of Citizen Integration and a number of national and international governmental agencies, COs, as well as private business associations in the state of Monterrey. Project Tehuan is a mass collaboration technological platform that enables citizen participation in important social issues. Citizens may send the organization Twitter, email, text or web-based reports of anything from potholes, car accidents, and medical emergencies, to information on illegal activity. The agency then facilitates collaboration between citizens and public agencies as well as agencies’ responses by consolidating and publishing citizen reports. Citizens may also receive notifications and alerts according to their preferences to be better informed.
In the first six months, some 50,000 community members used Project Tehuan to exchange information, report problems, and communicate directly with the government in real-time. The project has had many successes, including citizens’ working together to find a stolen car only eleven minutes after the theft was first reported. Project Tehuan represents a powerful way to incentivize government and institutions to hear and respond to citizens. It also encourages a community of informed citizens to actively engage their government and support agencies, and has demonstrated how that engagement can be sustained over time. Today, CitiVox has a presence in eight countries through Internet-based programs managing projects such as crime reports, the protection of journalists, legislative transparency, education problems, election monitoring, and the protection of children from violence. Jorge provides his partner COs with training in product use, as well as one-on-one consulting throughout the entirety of the project. To date, CitiVox’s business-to-CO strategies have received 271,000 reports and interact with an average 144,000 citizens each month.
After managing these custom-made programs, Jorge saw that CitiVox faced scalability limitations due to the development work required to build each custom-made platform. He realized that in each of their successes, citizens initiated the conversation on social media before there was ever a software solution. Jorge saw the weaknesses of relying on citizen information from those sources alone: the overwhelming amount of information on sites such as Twitter, the limited amount of attention decision-makers are able to devote to it, and the distraction of irrelevant posts. It was then Jorge then realized he wanted to create a free, consumer-based platform to focus even more on the citizen voice.
The free platform, also called CitiVox, aims to create a more organic interaction that galvanizes citizens to come together around topics of interest. While not exclusively focused on social action, the goal of CitiVox is to create a platform for social action as well as sustained interaction. Jorge plans to identify and adopt ten projects each year from CitiVox, citizens, and CO interactions, for the kind of deep engagement and additional support it currently gives to its custom-made programs.
CitiVox’s new online platform allows users to create and share community action boards, post texts, photos, and videos to start conversations around shared interests or issues. Users can interact with the posts on community boards, which are integrated with social media. Most importantly, rather than controlling user interaction, Jorge wants to ensure his organization, citizens, COs, and the government understand it.
Jorge grew up in Veracruz, the son of two doctors, one very liberal and the other very conservative, who often discussed Mexican politics with him. From a young age, he also witnessed rampant fraud, as several of his friend’s parents openly engaged in corrupt acts. Their actions contributed to a local culture that accepted such behavior as normal.
Jorge was a curious child, often taking apart electronics to learn how technology worked. In college he developed an interest and talent in computer technology, studying electronic systems engineering and later nonprofit administration at Columbia University.
Two turning points early in his career marked his decision to dedicate his efforts to social change: (i) widespread and corroborated fraud in the 2006 presidential election, and (ii) the eruption of narco-trafficking-related violence in Monterrey; transforming it from one of the safest cities in Mexico to one of the most troubled and dangerous. In 2010 Jorge was particularly affected by the death of two students at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, one a close friend, who were both killed in the crossfire between the Mexican military and drug cartel members. Dismayed by the violence and frustrated with the lack of local action against it, Jorge moved to Mexico City to find new ways to use his technology skills to affect change. After completing his studies, he was equipped to launch his first technological initiatives to foment communication and civic participation through CitiVox.
At only 29, Jorge has already received significant international recognition for his work. Using this momentum, his eyes are set on global expansion and the creation of new platforms to achieve even greater social impact.