A permanent hacker space in the Brazilian Congress


(This post by Dan Swislow was originally written for the Opening Parliament blog.)

On December 17, the presidency of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution that creates a permanent >Laboratório Ráquer or “Hacker Lab” inside the Chamber — a global first.

Read the full text of the resolution in Portuguese.

The resolution mandates the creation of a physical space at the Chamber that is “open for access and use by any citizen, especially programmers and software developers, members of parliament and other public workers, where they can utilize public data in a collaborative fashion for actions that enhance citizenship.”

The idea was born out of a week-long, hackathon (or “hacker marathon”) event hosted by the Chamber of Deputies in November, with the goal of using technology to enhance the transparency of legislative work and increase citizen understanding of the legislative process. More than 40 software developers and designers worked to create 22 applications for computers and mobile devices. The applications were voted on and the top three awarded prizes.

Brazilian civic hackers.

Photo: Brazilian Chamber of Deputies.

The winner was Meu Congress, a website that allows citizens to track the activities of their elected representatives, and monitor their expenses. Runner-ups included Monitora, Brasil!, an Android application that allows users to track proposed bills, attendance and the Twitter feeds of members; and Deliberatório, an online card game that simulates the deliberation of bills in the Chamber of Deputies.

The hackathon engaged the software developers directly with members and staff of the Chamber of Deputies, including the Chamber’s President, Henrique Eduardo Alves. Hackathon organizer Pedro Markun of Transparencia Hacker made a formal proposal to the President of the Chamber for a permanent outpost, where, as Markun said in an email, “we could hack from inside the leviathan’s belly.”

The Chamber’s Director-General has established nine staff positions for the Hacker Lab under the leadership of the Cristiano Ferri Faria, who spoke with me about the new project.

Faria explained that the hackathon event was a watershed moment for many public officials: “For 90-95% of parliamentarians and probably 80% of civil servants, they didn’t know how amazing a simple app, for instance, can make it much easier to analyze speeches.” Faria pointed to one of the hackathon contest entries, Retórica Parlamentar, which provides an interactive visualization of plenary remarks by members of the Chamber. “When members saw that, they got impressed and wondered, ‘There’s something new going on and we need to understand it and support it.’”

A screenshot of the website Retórica Parlamentar.

Photo: Screenshot of the website Retórica Parlamentar.

The new space will also offer an opportunity for the Chamber to work with citizen innovators to expand upon existing platforms for citizen engagement in Brazil like the Chamber’s e-Democracia project, which we profiled last year in an OpeningParliament.org case study. Faria said that the collaborative space can build on and evolve the model the Chamber already works with. “We set up [e-Democracia as] a participatory platform in the way that we thought was good, but now we need to change it for these [citizens] to take it over.” Participants in the new lab will be encouraged to use public data and open source software in their work.

The Hacker Lab is still in its formative stages. Faria said that he is in the process of organizing open meetings with leading civic hackers from all over Brazil in order to determine the best way forward for the space, and to plan new hackathons, contests and workshops in the coming months.

Faria also noted that the Chamber will be eager to share its experience with other parliaments around the world–including through the Open Government Partnership’s new working group on legislative openness — so we will continue to bring you information on the Hacker Lab as it moves ahead.