Published on Sustainable Cities

Speak up, citizens of La Paz! Barrios de Verdad is listening

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Also available in: Spanish
Residents in La Paz use mobile phones to practice submitting feedback to their municipal government via the Barrio Digital tool.
Residents in La Paz use mobile phones to practice submitting feedback to their municipal government
via the Barrio Digital tool. (Photo: Barrios de Verdad team)
Information and communication technology (ICT) has expanded the frontiers of connectivity and communication.  Nowadays, we don’t think twice before ordering an Uber or using Open 311 to report an issue to our municipality. In the developing world, the impact has been even greater. For example, in Latin America and the Caribbean, cellphone coverage increased from about 12 subscriptions per 100 people in 2000 to over 114 in 2014, and local governments are getting creative in using this technology to reach out to and engage with their citizens. 

The city of La Paz in Bolivia is piloting a new tool called Barrio Digital—or Digital Neighborhood—to communicate more effectively and efficiently with citizens living in areas that fall within Barrios de Verdad, or PBCV, an urban upgrading program that provides better services and living conditions to people in poor neighborhoods.

The goals of Barrio Digital are to:
  1. Increase citizen participation for evidence-based decision-making,
  2. Reduce the cost of submitting a claim and shorten the amount of time it takes for the municipality to respond, and
  3. Strengthen the technical skills and capacity within the municipality to use ICT tools for citizen engagement. 
How does it work?

Barrio Digital relies on SMS and web technologies used not only by PBCV and the municipality but also, and most importantly, by the residents of the neighborhoods who are the beneficiaries of the tool.

If a person in the neighborhood has a question or complaint, they can text it to a local phone number; the text is received by Barrio Digital, which replies with a tracking number. The person then can use this tracking number to follow up and monitor the municipality’s response over time.

Residents can also submit questions or complaints online. The website offers other features too, such as georeferenced data on projects in each neighborhood.

The program thus helps those in lower income groups save time and money when expressing grievances to their municipality. It helps them keep their local government accountable and encourages civic participation and responsibility.

What is more, using ICT to enhance citizen feedback helps the Barrios de Verdad team become more efficient in its own operations and maintenance. Instead of sending its technical team or engineers to fix clogged storm drains, fill potholes, or repair community centers across various neighborhoods on a rotation-basis, the program can now categorize and map complaints and reported problems to prioritize the issues and deal with them accordingly.
What are the lessons learned?

Funded by the Cities Alliance Catalytic Fund, Barrio Digital was publicly launched by La Paz Mayor Luis Revilla on October 26, 2016. Below are a few key lessons emerging from the experience so far:
  • Building trust. Listening to people’s issues is important, but if no one responds, whatever the tools, the system will not be trusted, nor will it be useful. Making sure the feedback loop between citizens and the municipality is closed is key to success. 
  • Investing in public awareness. People won’t use a system if they don’t know it exists, or if they don’t understand how to use it. Thus, public awareness, consultations, and training are essential parts of the strategy. Barrio Digital carried out consultations and training sessions in more than 15 neighborhoods to help the local team design the system’s online platform, geographic information system (GIS) components, and SMS submission and response workflow.
  • It’s all about people. The end users of tools like Barrio Digital should be involved in the development of these tools. To figure out how users think and to what technologies they have access, Barrio Digital carried out both social and technology assessments of end users as a first step. The team also organized a series of workshops on technology literacy to help residents of PBCV neighborhoods, especially the elderly, simulate feedback submission and follow up.
  • Importance of a champion and a strong team. The development of Barrio Digital required a vision by the mayor and the local government, and their willingness to innovate and invest in new approaches to citizen engagement. Having a tool like Barrio Digital requires strong commitment from the municipality, which needs to make sure that it actively monitors the feedback from citizens and takes necessary actions in a timely manner. The technology was developed in house, by the Barrios de Verdad team, with technical support from the World Bank, using open source tools. The knowledge and skills that PBCV acquired during the development of the online platform gives the municipality the freedom to make changes on its own without incurring additional costs. It also has the option to scale up the program to cover new neighborhoods over time.
Check out the “Barrio Digital” tool here:
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Zoe Elena Trohanis

Lead Disaster Risk Management Specialist

Alexandra Endara

Citizen Engagement Consultant and Project Coordinator, Social, Urban, Rural, and Resilience (SURR) Global Practice

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