Transparency or Bust: Riding a Hacker Bus to Change Brazil

BY Alex Bruns  May 1, 2012 at 2:45 PM EDT


Photo of the Onibus Hacker by Bruno Fernandes.

There’s a buzz in the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Actually, it’s more of a rumbling sound coming from the turbocharged Mercedes diesel engine on the Onibus Hacker, a coach-turned-activist transport carrying members of Transparency Hackers through the city to promote its agenda of open governance and civic awareness.

Known in Portuguese as “Transparência Hacker,” the Sao Paulo-based activist group stresses it’s not a typical “hacking” organization but one that uses public data to reach its aims.

“The hacker community doesn’t actually call itself anything,” Pedro Markun, one of the group’s organizers, told the NewsHour. “I call myself a hacker … but a lot of people call themselves lawyers, journalists, some call themselves activists, some say they are just curious citizens.”

The organization promotes government transparency through community activism, both online and on the street. It took a detour to attend the Sunlight Foundation’s “Transparency Camp” in Arlington, Va., over the weekend.

“I think of our role as stressing the limits of democracy,” said another organizer Daniela Silva. (Read more on the international focus of the camp here.)

“Transparency is something that works really well when it’s done in a very radical way, but I think it brings a lot of difficulties to people’s lives when it’s done just halfway,” she said.

To go the distance, the group has published re-formatted copies of government webpages, posted corporate finance data on the windows of businesses in Sao Paulo, and traveled through Brazil in the Hacker Bus.

“There is a process of opening up and being radical about the collaborative construction of the politics of your own space, your own city, your own neighborhood that is really powerful,” Markun said.

He was moved to political activism after the Sao Paulo municipal elections in 2008. Discouraged by what he considered corruption in the political process, Markun found himself drinking a beer with his neighbors at a local bar and lamenting the election results.

At the time, Markun was working on developing mobile applications for the music industry.

“It was that same day I realized that for the next election I am not going to sit on my hands and do nothing so I can complain later because now I have a tool which allows each and every citizen in the world to be as powerful as a media company. That day for me the balance of power shifted,” he said.

Silva was working with him at the time at the House of Digital Culture, researching transparency as part of the thesis for her master’s degree at Faculdade Cásper Líbero. Visiting a boyfriend in Vancouver in 2009, Silva took a side trip down the Pacific Coast to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View for Transparency Camp West, an “unconference” event put on by Sunlight. When Silva returned to Brazil, it wasn’t long before she and Markun hatched the idea for a “Transparency Hack Day.”

“When you have a bunch of incredible people and they are in control, good things happen,” Silva said.

Along with the other early members, Markun and Silva began creating digital tools and applications to use existing public data, but also to scrape new data. The idea was for the group to not just see inside the “black box” of government but to manipulate the political process, affecting change by exposing the inner workings of the Brazilian democracy.

“Transparency as most people understand it is minimal. It’s not an end to itself,” Markun said. “It’s much more than looking at data, it’s actually messing with it.”

Brazil has almost 76 million Internet users, putting it in the Top 10 world’s Internet user populations. The country also has a compulsory voting law. The two factors combined lend themselves to creating a politically interested online population in one of the world’s most dynamic emerging nations.

An outrage spread in Brazil after the Ministry of Culture removed the Creative Commons license from its website. Creative Commons is a global non-profit organization that uses legal licensing tools to allow for the reuse of works published online. In response, Transparency Hackers created a copy of the Ministry’s website for citizens to cite. Another mirror site was created after a blog post by former Brazilian President Lula da Silva was put online without a section for comments or citizen feedback. These projects have led to larger changes for Transparency Hackers.

In 2011, the group set a goal of raising 40,000 reais (about US$21,000) and used Catarse, a Brazilian crowdfunding site, to source donations. By July, nearly 500 people from across the country donated around 60,000 reais and that fall, Transparency Hackers was the proud owner of a road-weary, but running, big white bus.

The Hacker Bus has made a half dozen trips so far, traveling as far as 1,200 kilometers to Porto Alegre. The bus carries a group of volunteer hackers, activists, lawyers and journalists around the country to conduct workshops for communities to develop tools such as local street mapping applications and gathering citizens to write local legislation.

In 2011, newly elected president, Dilma Rousseff, signed the Access to Information Law. The language of the law was, in part, crowdsourced by the government to an online community of activists who participated in the drafting process.

“We wrote part of that text. We shared a previous version of (the law) on our mailing list and people would add suggestions; we added text that is now part of a Brazilian law. This is what lobbyists do. So, it’s not uncommon, it’s just uncommon for people like us,” Silva said.

As the law was passing through the Senate to Rousseff’s desk, Markun developed the website Queremos Saber (“We Want to Know”) for citizens to search public information such as government salaries and contracts and submit queries to government agencies, to be used under the new law.

And last month, at the first annual meeting of the Open Government Partnership in Brasilia, a Hack Day was held in conjunction with the meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Rousseff. At the event, Transparency Hackers joined forces with other groups from across the country to develop new applications and visualizations for sharing data that they hoped could be used at the event and into the future.