By Felipe Estefan

How can civic technology help transform Brazil?

When Priscila Belfort disappeared in Rio de Janeiro, in 2004, her mother Jovita turned to the local police for help. Jovita quickly realized that the government was not properly set up to resolve cases like her daughter’s. Most of all, having to go to the homicides investigation department for help put an extra burden on the struggles of people whose relatives were missing. Determined that other mothers and families would have the support they needed to locate their loved ones she embarked on a mission to get the police in Rio to open a bureau devoted to missing persons cases. In 2014 the Rio police opened the bureau which solved 88% of cases that were reported in its first year of operations.

Elsewhere in Rio, faced with the potential that their high-performing public school would be demolished to make space for the 2014 World Cup, students and teachers of the Friedenreich Municipal School began a campaign to mobilize support in order to remain open. The community won its campaign, the school remains open, and today it is the best performing school in the State of Rio.

In Sao Paulo, when the city government began forcefully removing the basic items that homeless individuals were using to protect themselves from the elements, citizens mobilized to reverse the policy. Sao Paulo citizens also came together to ask the government to close Avenida Paulista, one of the city’s major avenues, to traffic on Sundays so it could be used as a community space in the heart of the city.

In Recife, when citizens woke up to the fronts of their houses being numbered for an unannounced demolition project by the city administration, they came together to protect their homes.

Throughout Brazil, citizens are acting as agents of change in their communities, working together to ensure their voices are heard and their needs are met. Every day individuals and communities across Brazil are stepping up and taking action. They know their futures can’t wait for elections, and they can’t depend solely on the unilateral actions of elected officials.

All of the campaigns above, and many more, succeeded. The common denominator and driving force behind their success was Nossas, a civic technology organization that leverages innovative approaches to empower and mobilize citizens in the pursuit of social good.

Working directly with communities as well as building tools for digital mobilization, Nossas ensures that citizens are able to create campaigns in support of causes that matter to them, to garner support for their cause, and to channel the support strategically. Since its foundation in 2011, Nossas has grown to have affiliates in nearly a dozen Brazilian cities and has engaged hundreds of thousands of members, changing over 100 public policies throughout the country to date.

As Nossas’ reach and impact continues to grow, so has their ability to innovate in order to empower citizens. Most recently, they created a feminist chatbot called Beta, which is making it easier for citizens to mobilize in support of gender equality. Since its launch earlier this year, 45,000 individuals have interacted with Beta.

Most notably, Nossas has worked with communities at the local level to try and engage everyone, regardless of who they are and where they come from, giving a voice to those who previously didn’t feel heard or empowered to act on the issues that affect their lives.

In the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Nossas is working with the local residents to enable them to participate in the decisions that impact their lives, as well as to report abuses by the authorities when those occur.

The powerful stories of how mothers, families, residents, and communities have worked with Nossas to become the champions of change have now been captured for the first time in a new documentary, Nossas: a lab of other futures, being released this week.

These are stories of ordinary people who, rather than being discouraged by the political and social challenges facing them, decided to engage, mobilize others, and lead new solutions. These are stories that show how change can be created when courage and conviction are combined with the power of reach of civic technology.

Brazil is currently undergoing one of the worst political crises in modern history. The combination of widespread corruption scandals and a growing mistrust between citizens and political elites have ushered an era of disenfranchisement, disillusionment, and disappointment. The crisis of representation that defines this new era is particularly concerning as Brazil approaches a critical presidential election in 2018.

For many the current system seems unable to yield the results that they would like to see, for example, due to widespread corruption. Yet the reality is that citizens still have to navigate through the challenges they face every day, and they can’t stop pursuing better futures for themselves and their communities.

For instance, for a citizen trying to feel safe in his or her home, or for a family trying to access water or electricity, or for a parent whose son or daughter may has gone missing, getting engaged to seek a solution is not something they can wait to do. It is something they must do.

Under these circumstances, reforms cannot wait for elections, citizenship cannot solely be exercised at the ballot box, and political innovation becomes an imperative.

Nossas has been at the forefront of political innovation at a time in which doing so is both the most challenging and the most necessary it has ever been. Omidyar Network has been proud to support them on this journey since 2014.

In a moment in which many in Brazil may lack hope, Nossas remains proof that there are ways citizens can help transform their communities. Ultimately Brazil’s destiny is not only in the hands of elected officials, but in the hands of all of those who are willing to shape their own future.