It began at the heart of a political campaign in the Brazilian city of Recife. After winning a prestigious award in 2013, Colab is expanding across the country – and the civic app’s creators have their eye on the rest of the world.
Colab allows citizens to report street issues such as rubbish or vandalism. But it also allows people to suggest improvements to their area, and rate public services – even down to the quality of football stadia.
“We were trying to help citizens communicate better with city government – but on the other side, to let the government tell people when they were fixing issues in cities,” recalls Bruno Aracaty, one of the app’s creators.
Aracaty was part of a political campaign in Recife (pictured above) which invited voters to discuss city issues on Facebook. The response was overwhelming – 50,000 people would take part in votes. While Aracaty’s candidate dropped out of the election to back the eventual winner, the Facebook votes sparked an idea of “collaborative management”.
Now 32 Brazilian town halls are signed up to Colab, which has 50,000 users across the country.
“We used to say that were we were a social network, but we’re actually a management platform,” Aracaty says.
“Everything goes in a format for town halls. They can interact with reports – open tickets, forward within their town halls, talk to the citizen.
“When you post on Colab, everything is directed to the department that’s responsible.”
Proposing solutions to problems
As with many apps worldwide, users can file a report for “daily issues, such as fixing a pothole or traffic light”. But Colab’s engagement goes much deeper, as it also allows people to propose solutions to problems.
“We started with high level proposals, but we had to narrow the scope so they were specific and geographically-located,” Aracaty says.
“You can suggest a road crossing, a bicycle parking spot, traffic railings, practical stuff like that.
“The location is important. It used to be things like ‘suggest a new law on education’, but we had to narrow it down.”
People can also evaluate public services. “So if they’re in hospital, they can rate the quality and the service,” Aracaty explains.
Buses, metro trains and schools can also be rated, along with football stadia - “there was so much public investment for the World Cup, so we put them in because of that".
Importance of using photos
The use of photos is important, Aracraty says, to make public services more efficient – so staff can see what problems look like without having to send someone out to check in advance.
“There’s a lot of inefficiency in traditional ways of reporting,” he says. “The mayor can check which department is responding fastest. There’s a gain in efficiency and transparency.”
The biggest town hall signed up to Colab is in the tech-friendly city of Curitiba. “They do beautiful work with Facebook that’s fun and engages with citizens as a whole,” Aracaty says.
“They were our first client. They were using Colab in a very thoughtful way – helping us construct solutions. We’re very grateful to them and we consider them a partner.
“They analyse Colab for routes to send their traffic wardens to. And they created neighbourhood days – where they check all the issues on Colab and make departments responsible for fixing problems.”
Now Colab is eyeing branching out beyond Brazil – “we’ll definitely expand to other countries in 2015” – and offering services to companies such as road repair firms.
“We had a lot of media exposure,” he says. “We made our first important contacts with cities and got more users – it was a real game-changer.”