'A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens' | Big Bold Cities

'A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens'

Crowd-sourced maps and the humanizing of government

Cleaned data by ISHAQIBRAHIM in Carto. Photo courtesy of Mapaton

three colored squares'A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens'


Mapatón CDMX (Mapathon Mexico City) was a government-civil society collaboration that engaged more than 3,000 volunteers in mapping the city’s chaotic private transit system for the first time. The project deployed the full array of civic-tech tools: a custom-built smartphone game that enabled the city to crowd-source an open data set, and civic hackers who competed to build apps around the API.

But the diverse team of innovators who came together from 11 organizations to conduct this experiment was trying to build something less tangible as well—trust in government. And for that, they focused on the power of a few motivated, positive individuals to do good work which can then be amplified by technology.

“It’s not easy, these are processes. But ultimately it’s based 100 percent in trust.”  

Marina Gonzalez Magana

Program Coordinator, Innovations for Poverty Action

Democratic Challenge  

Many people within and outside of government perceive that “the system” is fundamentally broken, which is disillusioning and disempowering—creating a vicious cycle in which individuals are more and more alienated from impersonal, monolithic public institutions. The challenge is to re-humanize government, building personal connections and developing models in which individuals can team up and take positive action together, using government as a platform and convening force.

How’d They Do It?   

Mobility, not surprisingly, is a major issue for the Mexico City metro area. Every day, an estimated 3.3 million man-hours are wasted sitting in traffic, and travelers cross the border between the federal district and its outlying areas more than 4 million times.

The backbone of the city’s commuter transportation infrastructure is pereros, private vans tracing idiosyncratic routes that have developed over decades. But as of 2015, no accurate map of the routes existed, making comprehensive transit planning all but impossible. Surveys had been attempted, but traditional data-collection methods were both expensive and insufficient given the size and complexity of the system.

A group of coordinators came together from five lead organizations and a range of additional partners to develop a comprehensive and interactive transit map. The team met weekly over the course of 11 months, using trained facilitators to help build rapport and ensure constructive dialogue.

The project unfolded in stages:

A policy dialogue 

A policy dialogue to exchange knowledge and survey existing data resources, experiences, etc. and brainstorm ways that a digital map could be used.

Field visits 

Field visits to key transit points to learn more about problems in the system.

Piloting of smartphone apps

  • Pilot 1. The Urban Launchpad adapted the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s  Flocktracker tool, which can be used to count features, trace movement along a route, or collect surveys. During five days, representatives from the partner organizations and volunteers mapped 18 routes covering 3,000 kilometers. They concluded that using Flocktracker to map all routes would be too expensive.
  • Pilots 2-4. A custom MapatónCDMX app gamified the collection of route data. Users could earn rewards by documenting routes, and an algorithm adjusted the rewards over time, encouraging users to log unmapped or hard-to-reach routes. Testers included volunteers from the National Youth Institute (INJUVE,) university students, transit staff and bus drivers.

MapatónCDMX event 

The game was on, for 17 days in January and February 2016. Users could participate individually or as a team, and prizes worth around $9,000 were available for the highest-scoring players. In addition, students from Autonomous University Metropolitana (Iztapalapa) and the National Polytechnic Institute (UPIICSA Campus) mapped routes in exchange for specific rewards, including tablets and elective credits.

3-day clean-a-thon 

A group of 10 volunteer specialists reviewed the data to create a final database compatible with the standard GTFS data format. This involved removing duplicate entries, verifying that the recorded origin and destination matched the sign on the truck (as photographed by the mapper,) and making place names consistent both internally and with official designations.

Award ceremony 

Along with prizes for the winning teams, MapatónCDMX presented an open database and application programming interface (API) to the mayor, transportation secretary and public.

Although the technology provided efficiency and scaling opportunities, the essential component was the large number of people involved. In a city and country with a massive public distrust of government, convening partners and recruiting residents was no small task.

“It’s not easy, these are processes,” PIDES Innovacion Program Coordinator Marina González Magaña said. “But ultimately it’s based 100 percent in trust.”

To build that trust, González described a process of building outward from a small, dedicated and positive team. Innovation hatches from collaboration and teamwork, she noted -- it’s about finding people with passion for an issue, getting to know one another, and putting aside complaints and negativity. Though the system may be broken, there are individual agents of change within government that provide reason for hope, she said.

Codeando Mexico Director Miguel Salazar, who was involved with a spin-off Mapatón in Xalapa, echoed this sentiment. “You’ve got to find the key actors who can be the ‘amplifiers’ of good things,” Salazar said.

How’s It Going?   

  • During the MapatónCDMX public event, a total of 3,624 users participated, forming 690 teams.
  • 4,110 routes were mapped, of which 2,765 were valid for earning points. After data cleaning, 709 unique routes had been mapped in GTFS format.
  • The Mapatón model has been adapted by other Mexican cities, including Xalapa. “In Xalapa, four people inspired 400 citizens and made an impact on 400,000,” Codeando Mexico Director Miguel Salazar told NDI and Living Cities. “[This] demonstrates the kind of scale that’s possible and how technology can be leveraged to do it.”


Closing the distance

Face-to-face interactions can be awkward, unpredictable and inefficient (like democracy itself,) and technology allows us to avoid them in more and more scenarios. But in order to solve problems and facilitate collective action, governments will have to be deliberate about building human relationships—as the Mapatón team did with its dialogue, weekly meetings, site visits and volunteer programs.

Sustaining engagement

MapatónCDMX proved that a large contingent of volunteers can be mobilized for a high-profile event. The challenge, as always, is how to identify committed individuals and sustain their engagement over time. Lessons from the non-profit sector, social activists and political organizers could inform governments seeking to leverage volunteer service in areas beyond boards and commissions.

Leveraging existing work and workers

City workers are often overlooked as a rich resource for crowd-sourcing information, contributing to decentralized tasks and creating innovative ideas. Engaging drivers and other transit workers in mapping helped the MapatónCDMX pilots scale more efficiently and avoid re-inventing the wheel.  

Additional Reading

Innovation Point of Contact

Marina González Magaña
Former PIDES Innovacion Program Coordinator

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