PACS news / November 5, 2019

Digital Impact: Reflections from Medellin

   Digital Impact Medellin was the final international stop on the Digital Impact World Tour before we wrap things up in Kansas City in May. It also offered a fun twist – for the first time on the tour, we partnered not only with local host MAKAIA but with a global thematic ally, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) of the UN Foundation. Among the many ways DIAL is working on data and development is by stewarding the Principles for Digital Development. Digital Impact Medellin was a unique and powerful partnership of international and local practitioners, deeply involved with using digital data for social transformation.

          The City of Medellin has focused significant attention on open data as it transforms itself into a regional technology hub. The city is quite forward looking and there is an active commitment to civic tech innovation. This includes open data portals, nonprofit/government partnerships, and university research investments. The impressive investment in library parks throughout the city brings physical infrastructure for children and families to access broadband and improve their digital literacy skills. In addition, the country has robust privacy laws and telecommunications policies that allow experimentation with new means of reaching remote communities.

          As in many cities around the world, Medellin has a lot of resources that are not as widely available in rural or remote areas. Our host organization, MAKAIA, has played a leading role in building the data capacity of organizations in the city while also experimenting with partners to improve digital access and data use in more remote areas of the country. Through a partnership with Microsoft, for example, MAKAIA ran a pilot project using television white space as a means of bringing high speed internet access to coffee farmers. This idea is of great interest to others throughout the country who seek to ‘wire’ the remote communities currently cut off from the internet by mountains, deserts, and physical, linguistic, and cultural distance.

          Within the city itself, the reach of the civic tech community and the breadth of the city’s commitment to open data is impressive. One possibility here is that nonprofits, civic tech innovators, the city government, and capacity-building organizations such as MAKAIA could work together to foster more digital literacy among the general population.  At Digital Impact Medellin, our discussion during the Digital Dependencies panel centered on the sense that Medellin has many of the institutional puzzle pieces for a functioning digital civil society, but lacks two key ingredients: policy frameworks and trust. The former, policy frameworks, is consistent with lessons learned elsewhere. All around the world communities are in the process of creating the rules of engagement for data exchange, sharing, destruction and use between the public, private, and independent sectors. The second ingredient, trust, is harder to objectively identify, measure, or build. It depends on historical dynamics between people and sectors, and requires a deep understanding of digital data that few people – anywhere – have built over time.

          The issue of trust in digital civil society is global. Civil society is about people working with each other and then working across sectors. Trust is key. What that looks like, how it is manifest, and how it can be supported when digital data are part of the connective bonds remain to be seen.