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Big Data to encourage participation by an apathetic public

Alejandro Maza

01/28/2014 04:35

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I belong to the generation of social networks, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and occasionally, MySpace and MSN chat. I've seen how they've undergone a transformation from private communication spaces to places of public exchange. I've seen how they've ushered in new ways of communicating, of thinking, of building.

I've witnessed people's disenchantment with their institutions: Occupy Wall Street, the Arab spring, “#YoSoy132”,… These are just a few examples of the protest movements which, incidentally, had such widespread repercussions precisely thanks to the digital networks.


In my opinion, this disillusionment is due to the lack of connection between citizens and the government. This causes citizens to lose confidence in public institutions, which in consequence hinders the implementation of the policies these institutions develop.


Mexico has always had a whole history of rebellion and protest against the government. The sad irony is that this fact is not borne out by the levels of engagement. There are barely 16,000 civil society organizations (SCO) in the country, a very low figure considering the population as a whole. But if we succeed in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of individuals to protest, why can't we motivate them to engage? This question was the original seed that grew into OPI: Open Intelligence.


It all began with the citizen participation platform “Yo Propongo” (“I propose”)( Three years have passed since that experience, and we have since become established as the social enterprise OPI: Open Intelligence. We've worked in some of the most challenging regions in the country to challenge people in traditionally apathetic communities to get involved.


We believe the people who are the best at coming up with solutions for social problems are those who experience them in their daily lives. We work to incorporate the knowledge and local ideas that allow the development of more efficient public policies. Our methods set special store by participation, the analysis of big data, and follow-up.


Our company is currently taking firm strides towards the future, but it wasn't always like that. We set up the “Yo Propongo” project as a civil association, because we wanted to make a change in society. But the model was not sustainable. We realized that if we wanted to be scalable and reach a mass public, we needed to develop our own technologies and that without resources we were never going to be able to succeed.

We depended on volunteers, the our employees were getting paid below minimum wage, and we needed to attract the best talent in the country. As a civil association you depend on donations, and under the pressure to raise money, you fall victim to politics. Under this model you relinquish your autonomy and credibility. I was convinced there had to be another model, and that the traditional model just wasn't working for us.

Social entrepreneurship has no legal status in Mexico, but it's a system whereby businesses are not opposed to making a social impact, and I'm convinced this is the future. When you generate your own capital, you gain autonomy over your decisions.

For us this was essential; we don't depend on anyone else so our income continues to be transparent. Last but not least is that the model formalizes something that's key to social change, namely the undertaking of the government. The best way to achieve this is for them to pay for the service, as this way they're making a commitment.

Transforming the leadership model is a very ambitious challenge, but if we'd never tried it, we wouldn't have seen the significant impact our innovation has had on implementing public policy.

Alejandro Maza is the founder of OPI and the winner of the 2013 edition of the Innovators Under 35 Awards Mexico, an initiative of the MIT Technology Review supported by BBVA.