Don’t join the dark side: AcaNoHayLuz is now open source

Why we decided to open source AcaNoHayLuz, a web app that shows where blackouts are happening in real time.

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Last week we uploaded AcaNoHayLuz to Github. This collaborative map, created in 2013 by Aerolab and Celeste Acosta, allows citizens to report power blackouts in Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities. Our goal is for everyone to be able to access the code, edit it, remix it and experiment with the platform.

It was almost Christmas 2013 when a heat wave struck the city of Buenos Aires. Temperatures rose every day to almost 37º C/100º F. Air conditioners all over the city just couldn’t keep up. This heat wave made even more obvious an energy crisis that Argentina had been going through for some years. The government was blaming the energy companies, accusing them of not investing enough on infrastructure, and the energy companies were, in turn, blaming the government for forcibly freezing the bills, which was allegedly impeding them from making the profit required for the needed investments.

As this almost nonsensical public blaming between the government and the energy companies was going on, blackouts started spreading, seemingly randomly, across the city. Blocks were starting to shut down, and soon whole neighborhoods were blacking out.

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“The uncertainty and lack of information were almost as depressing as the blackouts,” said Celeste Acosta in January 2014. A 24-year-old freelance creative at the time, Celeste came to Aerolab with a simple but powerful idea: what if enough ordinary citizens could enter their “power status” on a website? This data could then be used to generate a real-time visualization of the extent, severity and duration of blackouts across the neighborhoods.

To make the idea happen, Celeste teamed up with Agustín Linenberg and Roberto González, our CEO and CTO, and Lucas Del Río, a former Aerolab designer. Together, they created AcaNoHayLuz.com.ar (literally, “There’s No Power Here”). At Aerolab we believe that “done is better than perfect”. And that, when there’s an impending situation, acting quickly brings us closer to having a working prototype we can improve upon.

In Agustín’s words: “we started on December 20th, worked fast and launched on Christmas Eve, by then, some people had been without power for a week, and street protests were cropping up everywhere. We hit Facebook and Twitter hard, and within a couple of days had logged 100,000 unique visitors.” The public response was breathtaking: as soon as the site went up, people adopted the tool and started using it for public awareness, to put light on –pun very much intended– a situation that up to that point was unclear. Even if companies and the government had the same data as AcaNoHayLuz, it wasn’t made public. Regular citizens were left to their own devices in a situation of urgency and despair.

You can read more about the story in this really good article by Matt Chesterton on ZDnet.

María Eugenia Vidal on Twitter

Nos reunimos en el comité de crisis con nuestro gabinete y Carlos Zoloaga del Gobierno Nacional #CortesDeLuz

“We are gathered in the crisis committee with our Cabinet and Carlos Zoloaga from the National Government” – María Eugenia Vidal, former Deputy Mayor
of Buenos Aires.

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Civic innovation and open source

In the past few years, there has been quite a number of examples of civic apps and other instances where normal citizens take into their hands issues that, in some cases, are matters of public policy or are simply issues that governments are not willing (or are unable) to tackle. In 2012 the New York Times published an interesting piece on the rise of such apps in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.

Argentina is no stranger to such initiatives, having projects like Tabula, a data-scraping app, Tomalo y usalo, an app for finding distribution spots of free contraceptives, or Democracy.OS, an initiative on liquid democracy, all of them made by restless citizens like the ones behind AcaNoHayLuz. But civic technology only has a truly durable impact when it’s open source. As we’ve seen time and time again, when a project opens its source code for prying eyes to understand, criticize and –most importantly– improve, that’s when the unstoppable memetic nature of software can unfold into unexpected uses and applications.

That’s what we’re humbly trying to achieve by releasing AcaNoHayLuz as an open source project on Github. This wasn’t an easy decision to make: after long discussions we realized that sitting on some unmaintained code that resulted from only a handful of hours of hard-work and design deliberations didn’t make any sense. And that even though the code didn’t represent our quality guidelines on regular projects, it truly embodies what we believe in: that technology can empower citizens when it comes to tackling everyday problems.

We truly hope that from this small act a thousand AcaNoHayLuz’ can bloom, perhaps in the form of forks of the project. Maybe the platform won’t be remixed into a power outage visualization app but a way of visualizing any of the infinite possible ideas that can come out from people when they are given something to tinker with 😉

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AcaNoHayLuz is released under an MIT License. You can read more about the 2014 energy crisis on [1] and [2]. Quotes were taken from this article.