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A Case from Mexico City: Laboratorio para la Ciudad’s Mapatón CDMX

By RODRIGO TÉLLEZ

LABORATORIO PARA LA CIUDAD

Laboratorio para la Ciudad’s Mapatón project was mentioned frequently during the collaborative workshops in Mexico City, as team members from both London and Mexico saw in it many examples of the practice of legibility; similarly, it is referenced in many essays in this publication. Here, we provide a detailed account of this experiment in civic innovation: its origins, results, and how it stands out as a model of how governmental processes can be made more legible to citizens by involving them in the resolution of complex problems that affect their everyday lives.

Mexico City is home to an incredible diversity of people and cultures, but it is hindered by infrastructural deficiencies. In a city of such big scale (the metropolitan area measures 4,887 m2 ) transportation is one of its main problems. Finding ways to improve how people move within the city requires imagination and cooperation from decision makers and society alike.

The megalopolis lacks an updated map of the approximately 1,500 bus routes that circulate within—and well beyond—its limits; it is calculated that around 14 million trips are made everyday. Keeping up-to-date, quality information about this system represents a task that seems almost impossible to tackle. Conventional processes for the generation of mobility data are time-consuming and expensive. Consulting firms are hired by the government to provide this service, this implies contracts for hundreds of thousands of dollars and a trail of red tape that makes an already arduous task more ineffective. In an effort to find an alternative solution to the issue, Laboratorio para la Ciudad brought together and managed a group of 12 organizations that included NGOs and other government offices to explore possible courses of action. The result was Mapatón CDMX: a crowdsourcing experiment to map the city’s bus routes through civic collaboration, gamification and technology.

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The development of the Mapatón project was not easy; it took roughly a year’s time and a series of pilot tests involving hundreds of volunteers to design the application. Also, it was vital to develop a communication strategy that could call the attention of the public and persuade as many Mexico City inhabitants as possible to collaborate with the government in the city-wide exercise. At a time where trust in governmental institutions is perilously low, the process of building mutual trust between civil society and government was essential to enable both to work together to solve a common problem.

The premise of the game was simple: to map routes of licenced public transport (buses, minibuses and vans, the city’s most widely-used form of transportation) from start to finish. Users scored points according to the routes they travelled, which was monitored and recorded via an app for Android devices that gathered GPS data from the user inside the bus. Mappers could participate individually or form teams with friends and family. As an incentive, the participants with the highest scores earned cash prizes or electronic devices.

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Citizens had a two-week period in which to participate in the game, after which a group of volunteers went through the collected data to validate routes and clean up the complete database. A total of 2,765 prospect routes were mapped, of those, 1,763 were considered useful and were entered into the final database.

The experiment of the Mapatón was a success by any measure. 3,996 people registered to use the app and 736 teams were formed. A total of 51,308 kms (31,881 mi) were mapped, a distance that amounts to 1.2 times the circumference of the Earth. Users spent a total of 685,188 minutes (translating to 475 days) actively mapping. All this demonstrates that citizens had an authentic interest to participate with the local government in finding ways to improve life in their city.

It is truly groundbreaking that in a period of two months local authorities gathered information that could have taken more than a year to obtain through traditional methods, and at a fraction of the cost. Additionally, resorting to these methods would have implied some kind of ownership, and therefore restricted public access, to the information from whoever covered the cost of gathering the data, while the database created from the Mapatón results is available to anyone through an API and in General Transit Feed Specification format.

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Just one day after the database was published, PIDES Innovación Social (an organization that was a member of the Mapatón work group), in collaboration with Google, hosted a hackathon that awarded cash prizes to teams who came up with innovative digital solutions using the Mapatón database. And we at Laboratorio para la Ciudad continue to run into ways people are using the database for different purposes. For example, urbanist José Manuel Landin used it to map the frequency with which busses pass through a certain route, representing a synthesis of information that the city had never had access to before the Mapatón.

The information gathered by the game’s participants is of value to a variety of potential users. City planners, academics and the local government see the database as an important tool to make better informed decisions and create multi-layered visualizations and maps. For entrepreneurs, it provides free, unrestricted access to information that could significantly improve applications focused on mobility and other digital products.

Future iterations of Mapatón are as yet undeveloped, but the prospects are exciting. The work group is thinking of ways to make the app available to other cities around the world that face similar transportation problems, in order to provide them an example they can use to organize their own version of the game. However, releasing the source code of the app is not an option, as it would allow anyone to tamper with the algorithm that rewards points.

The Mapatón in itself did not set a path to a particular public policy; one could actually argue that the need for such an exercise is the result of a series of very complicated policies (among many other factors) put into place decades ago. But it did prove that providing citizens with the right tools to transform their environment and an attitude of full disclosure and transparency from the government sets the scene for new, different and certainly very positive forms of citizen engagement.

The Mapatón CDMX work group consists of Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Centros de Transferencia Modal (Cetram), the Secretaría de Movilidad (Semovi), PIDES Innovación Social, Krieger Electronics, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP México), Planeación & Desarrollo SC, M+urbano, Transconsult, Ally and Urban Launch Pad. The project was supported by the Hewlett Foundation and the British Embassy in Mexico.