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Can Open Data Make Government More Transparent in Mexico?

August 10, 2016
As the Open Government Specialist for USAID’s Mexico Economy Policy Program (MEPP), managed by Abt Associates, I was invited to present our open data work at USAID’s recent Digital Development Forum in San Salvador. In less than three years, Mexico has developed an active civic hacker scene, including Mejora tu Escuela (Improve your School), an NGO-led initiative that ranks schools by Ministry of Education evaluations, and Desaparecidos (Disappeared), a visual platform that allows any citizen to check profiles of people formally reported missing since 2014. MEPP’s work builds on these core principles of transparency and civic participation by supporting an unprecedented effort to expand state and municipal adoption of open government practices.

The country’s civic hacker scene started in 2013 after a newspaper revealed that Mexico’s Congress was about to spend $6 million to create an app enabling citizens to follow legislative processes. That prompted a group of socially minded hackers to propose creating an open-source, legislative tracking app; shortly after, a group of programmers presented an app that cost 0.01% (that’s not a typo: one hundredth of 1 percent) of the original proposed budget. The scandal was a watershed moment in Mexico’s development of civic technology, open data and open government.

Despite opening a channel for collaboration between citizens and politicians, civic hackers can only go so far, especially when it comes to corruption. Transparency International’s 2015 corruption perception index—in which the bigger the number, the more corrupt the country—ranks Mexico 95 out of 166 countries.

To promote transparency and begin to tackle corruption, and in collaboration with the National Digital Strategy Unit of the Office of the Presidency, MEPP helped launch the Red Mexico Abierto (Mexico Open Network) in 2014. Using a centralized platform, RMA offers governments practical resources to identify, format and upload public data, empowering citizens and improving public services. So far, these efforts have led officials in Torreon, Coahuila to re-use public data to improve hospital services, while the municipal government in Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz, has created a tool to track trash collection routes and generate real-time information for citizens. Current RMA members include eight states, 12 municipalities, and two auditing organizations, which together have opened 583 datasets. Over the next two years, MEPP will work with RMA to significantly increase membership and available public data.

Making Open Government Sustainable

One of the greatest challenges for Mexico and Latin America is ensuring the continuity and sustainability of open government. In particular, there is the risk that newly elected local leaders will either throw out previous progress in transparent government, or let important achievements wither through neglect. So MEPP is working with RMA to transform short-term political goodwill into permanent laws and institutional mechanisms. We’re also engaging younger audiences to embed open government expectations in new generations and maximize student involvement. Earlier this month, we sponsored four RMA innovators to participate in Campus Party Mexico 2017 (CPMX), Latin America’s largest youth technology forum, where they led workshops on recent online tools and moderated a hackathon on poverty reduction solutions.

By working with multiple players and levels of government, MEPP is making it easier for Mexico to open relevant data, as identified and prioritized by civil society. The more engaged citizens expect and use public data, the less likely that future governments will dare reverse hard-won victories in public sector transparency.