Pioneering Open Government Innovations in São Paulo and Austin with the OGP Subnational Pilot Program

Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Gabriela Sakamoto/Flickr.

Cities are where real progress is made for sustainable development. They’re where governments are closest to their citizens and where essential public services like education, health and transport are delivered to people. However, with this proximity comes a responsibility for cities to be more transparent, accountable, and responsive to their citizens’ needs. A more open government at the local level can directly improve quality of life for all.

Last week (April 12, 2016), the Open Government Partnership—a global organization that works with countries voluntarily committing to greater openness and transparency—announced that it is opening up membership to subnational governments, including cities, municipalities and regional bodies. Fifteen pioneers in open government were selected for their commitment and leadership in driving innovation and reform at the local level.

To celebrate this step forward, we’re highlighting two of the fifteen urban pioneers—Austin, Texas and São Paulo, Brazil—who have made incredible strides towards improving people’s quality of life through open government.

Open Data for Better Transport in São Paulo, Brazil

With 11.3 million residents, São Paulo is one of the OGP’s largest subnational nominees. The city has been working towards a more open government by focusing on technology and has opened up data and decision making processes to support public participation. For example, the new Open São Paulo Portal has enabled more citizens to be part of decisions made about the budget as well as services like transport and education. The Open São Paulo Portal served as the starting platform for two laboratories, Mobilab and LabProdam, and continues to provide a collaborative space for citizens, tech innovators and the public sector to advance collective goals like better mobility.

Mobilab is a partnership between São Paulo’s public transport and planning agencies, private operators (like Easy Taxi), local citizens, universities and innovators. Established in response to public protests and dissatisfaction with public transit services and rising bus fares, Mobilab was founded on the principles of public participation and open data. The city recognized the need to innovate new transport solutions while also increasing transparency and public satisfaction. Opening up data from traffic signals, parking meters and public transit GPS systems, the lab has supported the creation of many mobile apps that have improved the way transit users plan their trips and travel throughout the city.

Similarly, LabProdam is an organization looking to “develop tools aimed at improving social participation, transparency, innovation, and integrity and conduct discussions and activities on open government, especially in the area of technological innovation”. One product they’ve developed is the Contador de Ciclista or “Cyclist Counter,” which measures the use of bike lanes throughout the city using simple technologies like webcams and mobile apps. The cycling data is then made public for cycling advocates, city planners and elected officials.

Citizen Engagement in Urban Planning in Austin, Texas

Over the past five years, Austin has embraced the open government movement as well as democratic innovation and citizen engagement. For example, instead of an executive decision by city officials, the city council openly debated their application to join the OGP pioneer program. A Council Resolution was passed to support the city’s participation, showing support for the principles of transparency, accountability and responsiveness.

Two excellent examples of civil society engagement are Imagine Austin and Code Next—initiatives that are helping to shape Austin’s urban environment through citizen engagement. Imagine Austin, a master planning and visioning effort adopted in 2012, is founded on co-creation and co-implementation with citizens, community organizations and businesses. The initiative created Austin’s long-term plan, guiding regional development for the past four years. During the two-year planning process, Imagine Austin received over 18,500 public inputs through community forums, social media campaigns, local media outlets, surveys and other media.

Building on recommendations that came from the Imagine Austin planning process, CodeNext is a new, collaborative initiative that revises and updates Austin’s zoning and land use codes. The project works with the community “to preserve, protect and enhance the City’s natural and built environment.” While urban zoning and planning codes are typically considered highly technical in nature, CodeNext is helping to demystify urban development among citizens—drawing on the community’s perspectives and using their input to shape the city’s development.

Creating a Culture of National and Local Collaboration

Over the next 18 months, Austin, São Paulo, and the rest of these 15 selected subnational governments will make progress towards becoming more transparent, accountable, responsive and participatory cities. Additionally, the national governments participating in the OGP will work with urban pioneers both in the pilot program and beyond to help create and implement city-level open government initiatives and policies through national action plans.

Cities will play a large role in helping the world achieve its climate and sustainable development goals—from the Paris Agreement to the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda. By prioritizing open government, these cities will also help create a more inclusive and equitable future.

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