Brazil is a country plagued by problems of rampant corruption, political and otherwise, but that doesn’t mean politicians completely ignore the everyday complaints of citizens. At least that’s the premise that Colab–the winner of the 2013 AppMyCity competition–is built on.
Colab is a two-way communications platform for citizens and city officials and won the prize for best new mobile urban app. Co-founders Bruno Aracaty and Gustavo Maia came up with the idea while developing a political campaign for the municipal elections in Recife, Brazil in 2012.
They started using Facebook polls to ask citizens about specific issues they cared about, with some impressive results: In a week, one poll received over 50,000 responses. “We came to the conclusion that people wanted to talk, but public sector candidates didn’t have a clue what people were thinking,” explains Aracaty.
In March 2013, the pair launched Colab in Recife. But it wasn’t long before people in Sao Paulo wanted to participate. Soon, Aracaty and Maia realized that people all over Brazil wanted to join.
Today, anyone can sign up for Colab and report problems to city officials–things like potholes, broken streetlights, and cars parked on the curb. It’s kind of like SeeClickFix, a U.S.-based app that helps citizens report problems to officials.
There are about 50,000 Colab users across Brazil. But that doesn’t necessarily mean city officials will listen. Colab does have an agreement with the city of Curitiba, which uses the app’s free dashboard to monitor and respond to citizen complaints. “In Curitiba, they’re solving and responding very efficiently. In other cities, not so much,” admits Aracaty.
While lots of Sao Paulo citizens post requests and complaints on Colab, the app’s creators have had trouble getting city hall to use their service. “Sao Paulo has lots of sub-city halls,” says Aracaty. “There are some very weird issues with how a city hall can hire a service. It’s just very difficult. It’s difficult in order to prevent corruption, but in the end, if you’re trying to do something right, it’s hard as hell.”
Still, Colab is trying to expand into a number of Brazilian cities, and eventually, to international locations. The service is free for both citizens and cities at the moment, but Colab is planning a premium version for city officials that will feature things like push notifications and mini-polls for citizens to help with decision-making. Some cities have complaint phone numbers, but not every city. We are trying to be the 311 for free for every city,” says Aracaty.
Ariel Schwartz reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).