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In Brazil, Championing the US Digital Services Playbook

In Brazil, Championing the US Digital Services Playbook

A civic tech start-up in Brazil has translated the U.S. Digital Services Playbook into Portuguese and wants to distribute it to elected representatives and government agencies.

  • Last year, a civic tech start-up in Brazil called Núcleo Digital (Digital Core) translated the U.S. Digital Services Playbook into Portuguese and began trying to distribute it to elected representatives and government agencies. Recently, through a colleague in a civic hacking community called HackersBR, they have succeeded in getting the playbook in front of a government administrator in Ceará, Brazil’s eighth most populous state.

    Digital Core first began working together as a digital lab in Sao Paulo’s City Hall. In 2013, the Urban Development Secretariat Chief Officer, Weber Sutti, invited Vini Russo, Digital Core’s CEO, to build a digital platform to support citizen participation in the review and revision of the Department of Urban Development’s Master Plan. To build his team, Russo reached out to activists he had known and worked with since 2008, all of whom had an interest in civic tech and updating democracy through technology.

    The website they went on to build made available “all the information related to the participatory process, such as schedules, results, news, and files…[as well as] innovative participatory tools, such as an online proposal form, a shared map and a collaborative draft bill, where any citizen could post specific comments and suggestions for each article.” The city of Sao Paulo’s website states that the platform made possible “unprecedented” levels of citizen participation.

    “We made it very fast,” says Maria Shirts, who helps with public relations and project management at Digital Core. “With free software and open codes. We like to say that we hacked City Hall. In a legal way.”

    After the successful implementation of the urban policy platform, the team stayed on at City Hall to build digital tools for other government agencies, facing considerable opposition in their quest to made government more open and transparent. “The City Hall, and our government in general, is very closed to new digital initiatives,” Shirts tells Civicist. “Two years ago it was very taboo [to share code on Github, for example]. We kind of changed this thinking.”

    Shirts says that her team was at City Hall for more than a year, and that they were starting to change the culture around technology. But in late 2014, Shirts says, “the data agency [PRODAM] began kind of a conflict with us because they have another kind of thinking.” According to Shirts, the agency refused to give her team the data they needed to build their platforms, so they began to think about leaving City Hall.

    It was at that time, September 2014, that the team translated the U.S. Digital Services Digital Playbook:

    It was our last month in city hall. We were already thinking that we were leaving, thinking ‘how can we leave city hall but also keep doing this job of opening government.’ We had a horizon but we were not sure where this horizon was going to take us…At the time we could think [only] about spreading this digital word in other sectors, for other parties, other candidates.

    The presidential election took place that month. “We were trying to show politicians that they should follow some kind of digital guidelines,” Shirts says.

    The U.S. Digital Services Playbook is a list of 13 “plays” that government can make for better technology policy and practices, beginning with “Understand what people need” and ending with “Default to open.” The reasoning behind each play is explained and the playbook includes a checklist of things to do successfully carry out the play, and questions to ask to ensure you’re making the right choice.

    For example, the checklist for “Default to open” includes the command to “Ensure that we maintain the rights to all data developed by third parties in a manner that is releasable and reusable at no cost to the public.” The key questions include “If there is an API, what capabilities does it provide? Who uses it? How is it documented?”

    The Maria Shirts and her colleagues left City Hall and started Digital Core in October. They have not had much luck getting the playbook in government hands. Their biggest coup, getting it in front of a staffer in Ceará, only occurred in the past few months, through one of their connections in HackersBR, a national network of civic hackers in Brazil. (HackersBR, while only four months old, has spread to more than ten cities already.)

    Shirts says that they also have a close relationship with the opposition, the Sustainability Network party, and they shared the playbook with some of their candidates in 2014, but none of them were elected.

    “Baby steps, but we are getting there,” says Shirts.

    Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer, tells Civicist that there was no attempt made to track international adoption of the USDS playbook but that she has heard it is being used in Puerto Rico.

    Although she says “I hope that everyone uses it,” Pahlka acknowledges that the playbook “was intended to validate an approach.”

    “It’s not possible to suddenly start following these practices without a lot of work,” she adds.

First Post



Mob justice and Cecil the Lion; a popular chatbot that can ask how you’re doing post-breakup; and more.

  • Governmental disruption: Steven Levy reports for Medium’s Backchannel on the rise of the U.S. Digital Service. Since USDS is already delivering measurable results for government IT development, here’s the money quote, from its deputy director Haley van Dyck: “Our institutional innovation strategy is, if we can prove our value over the next 18 months, we believe it will be asinine for the next administration to not continue to invest in this resource.” She also adds, speaking of the service’s recruits from high-tech companies: “about 66 percent of the people that came out for three months ended up going home, quitting their job and coming back full time. And it’s on the rise. I think it’s over 80 percent now.”

  • Presidential disruption: Political scientist Lee Drutman of New America has a nifty suggestion for how to test presidential contenders worthiness for the White House. Instead of holding debates, have them handle a simulated crisis, like a terrorist attack or a bank failure. He writes, for the Washington Post, “Film crews could record the entire simulation, then television producers could turn it into a reality-TV special. Make all the footage public, and journalists could comb through it and analyze who handled the situation best and why. Candidates could critique each other’s responses. We’d also learn about the quality of advice the candidates get.”

  • Speaking of quality advisers, the Donald Trump campaign has fired a political consultant, Sam Nunberg, whose racist statements on Facebook were first uncovered by Hunter Walker of Business Insider.

  • Social disruption: Writing for Vox, Max Fisher takes note of the recent online campaign against American dentist Walter Palmer, who killed a beloved lion named Cecil, and argues that “mob justice is not justice.” Indeed, it looks like the “human flesh search engines” of China are now here.

  • Writing for the Atlantic, Rose Eveleth asks a really good question: “Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?

  • Speaking of the future, in China millions of young people are hooked on a realistic chatbot named Xiaoice, made by Microsoft, that has mined the Chinese internet for human conversations, John Markoff and Paul Mozur report for the New York Times. The program “remembers details from previous exchanges with users, such as a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend, and asks in later conversations how the user is feeling.”

  • Uber disruption? Cory Doctorow tweets from FOO Camp: “Building a co-op Uber alternative that returned Uber’s share of the $$ to riders/drivers is ‘as hard as making Linux…” and adds, “Therefore, the existence of GNU/Linux proves that building a co-op, open alternative to Uber is eminently do-able.”

  • One of Uber’s top New York political consultants, Bradley Tusk, Mike Bloomberg’s former campaign manager, is starting Tusk Ventures, “a political consulting firm geared toward helping start-ups work with—and in some cases, beat back—government regulators,” reports Dino Grandoni for the New York Times.

  • Ideological disruption: If you’ve ever wondered what exactly is so grating about the “Aspen Ideas Festival” and all the other happy chatter that warbles down from places like the Aspen Institute all summer long, read the text of a speech author Anand Giridharadas gave at the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum last week. A tidbit:

    The Aspen Consensus, in a nutshell, is this: the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm. The Aspen Consensus holds that capitalism’s rough edges must be sanded and its surplus fruit shared, but the underlying system must never be questioned. The Aspen Consensus says, “Give back,” which is of course a compassionate and noble thing. But, amid the $20 million second homes and $4,000 parkas of Aspen, it is gauche to observe that giving back is also a Band-Aid that winners stick onto the system that has privileged them, in the conscious or subconscious hope that it will forestall major surgery to that system—surgery that might threaten their privileges.

  • Civic disruption: Chicago has announced a new system using public data to prioritize inspections restaurants most likely to have health code problems, “helping them resolve any issues as quickly as possible and prevent foodborne illnesses before they ever begin,” according to a press release from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office. The system was created as party of a $1 million grant to Chicago from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge.

  • The NYC City Council Speaker’s Office is hosting this week’s Civic Hacknight here Wednesday at Civic Hall with BetaNYC, with a focus on participatory budgeting and civic engagement.