The Writing’s On The Wall: Launching O17 Challenge for Crowdsourcing Better Cities.

Recently in California, a man was arrested for painting a crosswalk at what he thought was a dangerous intersection in his city. Bailed out by an anonymous donor, he got back to his neighborhood where he was greeted as a hero.

Certainly, when it comes to pedestrian crosswalks, no one knows better than the citizens who navigate the areas on a daily basis … but is there a less extreme way for them to promote concrete solutions to local problems, which ultimately benefit everyone?

Luckily, thanks to the recent growth of participatory approaches (crowdsourcing, crowdfounding, microtasking), turning to the crowd to generate ideas, funding, and data, is possible and increasingly simple. As many existing examples demonstrate, this results in a decentralization of decision-making that maximizes impact – especially at the local level.

And anything that happens at the local level – especially for issues related to sustainability – is made even more relevant today, after the launch last year by the UN of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In fact, while national governments are ultimately responsible for delivering on the ambitious goals, it is obvious that cities and local governments will be key protagonists. The reason is simple: for most of the goals, they are the ones providing the data on which national governments will be evaluated.

This is especially true for Goal 11 (“Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”), for which the “indicators” – ie. what exactly needs to be measured to monitor progresses toward the goal – will need to be adapted to local contexts. In detailing what does and doesn’t need to be measured, indicators will inevitably guide governments – hence local administrations – on what does and doesn’t need to be acted upon, and how. In practice, despite the good intentions, the global indicators may end up limiting concrete action on the ground.

And here is where citizens can step up, as they are in a unique position to fill the gaps by turning the approach upside-down. And not only because “they know better”, i.e  they can localize issues and solutions in a way that even local authorities could never afford. Thanks to technology, they can also provide those data that national statistical offices desperately need, and struggle to collect.

By assessing where the top-down UN approach of official indicators contrast with what is feasible on the ground, citizens can ultimately help to define better suited indicators – the ones that track real improvement in the quality of their daily life. These citizen-generated indicators may feed into official ones directly, complement them, or even challenge them. What matters is that they are informed by the concerns of the inhabitants of cities, who are the main stakeholders for Goal 11.

That’s why The Open Seventeen is challenging citizens and organisations representing civil society to come up with their own ideas on how to tackle Goal 11 in their city.

Candidates are invited to identify relevant open data (for example photos, satellite images, scanned documents, video clips and tweets) and define a crowdsourcing goal with clear, measurable outcomes. Many examples of existing projects are available on the initiative website to provide inspiration.

The Open Seventeen partners will then offer to selected candidates support and guidance on how to refine their project concept, help them set up a prototype crowdsourcing app on an open source platform, and promote the project through their networks. Two rounds of the Open Seventeen Challenge have generated 10 high-quality project ideas, in areas as diverse as generic drug information in Colombia, sexual harassment reduction in India and mapping educational and health resources in Tanzania.

The Open Seventeen Challenge is a joint initiative launched in 2015 by Citizen Cyberlab, in collaboration with The GovLab at NYU, The ONE Campaign, and the crowdsourcing company SciFabric.