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Success And Failure As Moscow Pushes Digital Apps

The Russian capital has invested in new mobile applications aimed to better aid and involve citizens. The results are mixed: parking app is good, democracy app not so much.

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin taking a selfie
Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin taking a selfie
Anastasia Yakoreva

MOSCOW — Over the past two years, this city's government has proudly launched several mobile applications meant to improve the lives of both residents and visitors: “Moscow Transit,” “Moscow Parking,” “Active Citizen” and “Discover Moscow” are among the most well-known and well-used.

A closer look finds mixed results in both the effectiveness and popularity of the apps. Most of these projects were developed by the Moscow Municipal IT department, which has become more active since Artem Ermolaev, a former Cisco employee, took over.

Anton Nocik, a blogger and media manager who has been generally critical about such initiatives, has given many of the projects high marks. “The parking app is good,” he said. “It works on both iPhones and Android phones, it shows the parking zone, lets you pay and even takes foreign credit cards.”

According to city officials, “Moscow Transit” is the most downloaded of the municipal apps, with around 300,000 users, while the parking app has also been quite popular. But according to Nocik, the least useful and engaged of the projects is “Active Citizen,” which was meant to allow citizens to weigh in on issues related to city governance. He has a point.

Pointless chatter

Last April, nearly 2 million people got a letter from Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, in which he offered to talk to them “directly and without middlemen.” To start out with, he asked residents to share which topics they thought the mayor should be discussing with residents.

Many bloggers think that the letter might have been sent illegally, without the proper authorization to use personal information: in this case, email addresses used by users to register for the “Moscow Government Services Portal.” Nonetheless, there were plenty of responses, with some 400,000 people answering the letter within the first three days. That’s when the city first had the idea for the “Active Citizen” app, which was released in May. Since then, the department says it has surveyed citizens on more than one thousand municipal questions. That’s also when it became clear that quantity is not the same as quality.

According to the rules, the questions citizens can weigh in on must be related to the functioning of the city or regional government, and almost any Moscow agency can offer a question for people to vote on. People have a week or two to vote, and then the results of the survey are sent back to the requesting agency for a decision within 14 days on how it will fulfill the wishes of the majority.

At the moment, the desktop version of the app has a couple interesting questions up for a vote: Citizens can pick the design for two new metro stations, they can choose the dates for school holidays and decide whether the Moscow ring road’s shoulder should be planted with flowers or grass.

An "Active Citizen" event in Moscow — Photo: Facebook page

But crucially, the most controversial subjects related to Moscow’s governance are nowhere to be found. There were no questions about the school consolidation, which both teachers and parents have been protesting in the streets about, nor were there questions about the reduction in the number of hospitals, which likewise has sparked demonstrations by both doctors and patients.

In a radio interview, Ermolaev explained the lack of controversial questions by saying that the app only allows citizens to vote on issues where the city can actually provide the option that the majority says they would prefer. “We only publish questions when we know we will be able to follow the will of the majority, no matter what people prefer," he explained. "There are some decisions that the government makes that are not popular, but it’s a democratically elected government, which is responsible to the citizens for its actions.”

He also reminded listeners that the “crowd” doesn’t always know best. One of the questions the app asked citizens was “what kind of sport and recreation is essential at parks?” The most popular answer was “Segways.” But that ended badly: The number of injuries in parks increased substantially since Segways were allowed in, and the project is being reevaluated.

Competing with the private sector

“Moscow’s government is trying to be totally self-sufficient,” explained Ekaterina Aksenova, the general director of “Strateg,” a general contractor for large government sites. “They have to do everything on their own. That’s because the resulting systems are better protected, and they can’t run into unexpected problems, like if a company decided to stop supporting an application.” As a result, the government’s apps often come into direct competition with apps developed by private companies.

One particularly clear example of this involved a program for teachers to input student grades and schedules into an online workbook. Since 2010, a company called “Diary” had provided an electronic notebook for teachers and administrators, but in 2014 it was replaced by “Electronic Journal,” an app developed by the city government. The change has not been welcomed by educators.

“In the past couple years, “Diary” was the only good thing in the educational reform,” explained the director of one of Moscow’s schools, who requested anonymity. “For us, going to “Electronic Journal” is like going from Europe to Central Africa: Nothing works on it, all the data disappears. Many schools have gone back to keeping records on paper. On top of all that, I get calls from the Department of Education saying that if I don’t change to the new system, I can say goodbye to the director’s chair.”

A petition on Change.org that calls for schools to be able to decide for themselves which system to use has already gotten 14,000 signatures.

Continuing the “self-sufficiency” trend, Moscow also decided to start its own social network, and bought a social network called “Neighbors.” Official statistics on users aren’t available for the site, but in the forum for the Kuntsevo region of Moscow, which has around 150,000 residents, there was only one entry in the month of October. It read “boring.”

“It was an extravagant decision, one that can’t be called effective,” said one city official close to the Mayor’s IT projects.

According to Aksenova, the city shouldn’t be building its own user systems. In the US, she says, many states have worked with technology companies, which create the systems for free in exchange for a percentage of the total transactions that take place on the site. So there isn’t really any good budgetary reason to not work with private companies.

The problem in Moscow, though, is that it’s not clear to businesses what the rules of the game are. There is always a risk that the city will suddenly decide to build its own app and replace the one developed by a private company — a story we already have seen written with “Diary.”

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