CityBugs is a platform where anyone can talk about communal and related unsolved problems in different cities, and make suggestions or propose innovative ideas to improve their communities. Today Citybugs.org is a social platform providing the possibility to talk about communal issues of different cities. The users of the platform simply report on daily unsolved issues in their communities. Citybugs.org is synchronized with the Google dynamic map which ensures the interactivity of the website. The tool presents visually the exact location of the report, as well as collect and stick all existing issues and challenges in a unified place.
CityBugs.am is basically designed to streamline complaints by distributing concerns to different subdivisions of the municipality. Visitors to the site can also follow the status of how their issues are being resolved.
I recently met @Hovhannes Aghajanyan - one of the co-founders in one of the few shady spots in town in the scorching heat of Yerevan and we talked about the project for a couple of hours. Below is the outcome of the interview.
How you got started and current situation
The initiative was created in winter 2011 when 2 colleagues - Hovhannes who is a graduate of YSU IT Dpt. and Arman the Founder and CEO of X-TECH IT company learnt about a competition organised by Yerevan city hall together with Microsoft Innovation Center to spotlight IT solutions for Yerevan city from Facebook and decided to participate in it.
Everything started when we spotted a garbage problem by our office building - there was a huge pile that was growing every day and no one was collecting it. The competition made us think of a social start up to help the city with the idea to allow people to improve their community by actively suggesting and seeing how the issues get solved. CityBugs was one of the shortlisted projects and in 2012 Eurasia Partnership Foundation funded the website implementation.
We made a presentation at Barcamp in May 2012 and everyone got interested, though some said it won’t work as not enough people will be engaged and the city hall will not collaborate. Shortly after we gathered a 5 people team of freelancers and started working on the design of the website. We also started thinking about developing mobile apps - social advertisements for youtube,etc and hired a director who filmed the social ads to promote CItyBugs.
Our team initially consisted of young IT specialists interested in social bud, we didn’t invest money on the project but used our strong digital communication skills and experience. The website came to life in October 2012 and then we made a deal with the city hall - it dpt/digital communication responsible - the authorities agreed to collaborate and be responsive to the issues posted by the citizens.
Shortly after we started the social media campaign - Arman had a huge recognition in IT community, while I have always been socially active, participating in many initiatives, thus all these networks helped to present and spread the word about the project. We have participated in all the relevant community events securing the visibility of the project and using platforms like Facebook as well as community groups and events (online and offline) where we were teaching entrepreneurship and telling the story of CityBugs.
We also started working with media, having meetings with them - explaining what and why we are doing this. We established the collaboration with the City Hall in November 2012 and right now we have 5000-6000 users + 511 posted issues in total(201 solved, 24 unsolved and the rest is pending).
Once the funding finished, we applied for a second funding - but we continued working on it without waiting for the second funding and we started thinking how to sell this to other communities as a social startup to become sustainable. I think the key to success is to keep on working on a project even when there is no funds available while waiting for the next funding, as most of the projects stop as soon as the funding is over and then it is very difficult to restart again.
We have no legal status except creative commons, as CityBugs is not a NGO but a social startup and we always got the funding as individuals. Whenever we need to be represented as a company we use X_Tech as an umbrella company.
We started advertising in 3 languages, making tutorials, working on internet literature. Other communities in Armenia became interested and started the project in Gyumri, Vanadzor and Armavir - we managed to find some people in those areas to start the same thing there, organised trainings, as the umbrella project.
We also had it in Stepanakert - the project worked for a while but stopped later as the center doing the project closed.
From 2013 we started working with international companies to find partners abroad, we started participating in many international events and IT based competitions and won many awards. In 2014 we participated in European Youth Awards in Gratz, Austria and won in the category of Create Your Culture! which was the first time for a project from Armenia.
This year we participated in the WYSA Brazil winners festival and thanks WYSA now we have a global network of partners and supporters. We are also a part of the jury of the World Youth Summit Awards.
Nowadays we are working with the existing network and we already have city bugs in Sao Paolo and Toronto.
Who’s involved: Who is in the team? Roles and responsibilities? Skillsets (what are individual team members good at?) Any partnerships?
"Currently there are 3 people in the team and we all work on action groups, e-volunteering, international strategies and communication and social business development. Here’s what everyone is good at:
Arman - Product Management, Development
Hovhannes - Project management, Operations, Digital communications, Digital strategies
Tatevik - International communications, Social business and Development strategies"
Hypothesis guiding the work: “I believe that to achieve x, we need to do y, through z”
We are actively promoting CSR in Armenia - this is a social commitment from the team to use our experience and knowledge to help the community. As for the international development - it’s for business as this is more acceptable in the west.
One of our strategy levels is to try to build an e-volunteering network to register on the website.The aim is to let the e-volunteers take the initiative and to give solutions to local problems staying global. Normally users present existing local problems, e-volunteering is all about presenting Global problems - for the city all together. We want to start fundraising/crowdfunding platform to give solution to existing problems.
Our platform is based on members who write about a problem, which appears on the map, with a possibility to add a solution/photo/video. An internal structure allows the problem to be categorized into a special category - e-governance system to be forwarded to the institution that is responsible for this problem.
What your main objectives are/why you do this? The target is not simply to report issues, but also to connect with the municipality in solving them. Thanks to CityBugs ordinary citizens have the opportunity to discuss specific problems with like-minded people or group over an unresolved issue trying to find ways for its solution, but also to track the response by the municipality and document it.
Among major aims of this platform is also to raise and make evident positive changes occurring in various districts of Yerevan like constructions and renovation, condominiums and local governmental agencies etc. The idea is to improve the communication between governmental organizations and society, ensure transparency of the municipality activities, and raise awareness about existing communal and social issues in different cities. Everything is open on the website, all the problems have their status and the platform is very transparent.
What you enjoy about the work and what you enjoy less?
“I enjoy creating an impact - finding solution to problems and seeing the result of the work. Lack of time is the main problem as I also have a full time job and have to attend many events so I often multitask.”
What kinds of tasks do you do on a regular basis? Yearly, monthly, weekly, daily
Whenever we have time we are reading all reports, participating in relevant social events. I think the main key of success is not to stop when there is no more funding, we finance all our fees right now but we don’t want to stop. My opinion is that one should never kill a project when the funding is over.
What, other than money, do you think could help you in your work?
We need real partners who would be ready to share the impact of City Bugs in their communities. CityBugs could be a mapping tool for e.g. drugs with a user based content, mapping the areas where they sell drugs or all the cafes with vegan food, bicycle accidents, etc.
What help could you offer others and under which conditions (assuming no money is involved)?
We could help with digital strategy, everything to do with digital and social enterprise development, creating social impact. We are European Youth Awards ambassadors - can help with contacts and networks from WYSA.
Costs: What expenses are involved? Who benefits from the work? Who currently supports it, how and why?
We pay for the website hosting, technical support as our platform is integrated with Facebook and Google, if they change something the website won’t work properly. We also pay for the day to day programming support, Facebook ads, international events participation costs, meeting partners abroad, etc.
Existing alternatives: Who else is doing similar or relevant work/offering similar things- locally and or elsewhere?
Internationally there are lots of ideologically similar projects, e.g. open source platforms like Ushaidi project - from Nigeria, open source platform. Ours is more flexible as we have created it all by ourselves and it is local.
I showed Hovhannes Mi Lrir Initiative (an initiative of Armenian females against street harassment - the story is coming up soon) website which has a mapping tool as well and he told me they use Ushaidi as well and they will try to collaborate with the girls.
Important players affecting the work? (locally and internationally)
We are completely independent, nothing really special affecting our work. Government maybe, social media development, change of mindset of people which is the most important. The prizes we win does not affect our users, so our aim is to have a tangible impact on our users and community.
Long term perspective: any Business or sustainability plan?
Our plan is to have partners in different cities and build lots of different projects on our platform for social good. We hope to sell this platform abroad for other communities (we have already implemented it in Toronto and Sao Paolo) thus earning the money to pay our expenses.
We are also working on the e-volunteers project - community building for activists to communicate and find solution to problems in their and other communities online.
Our project is completely non-profit and is simply a citizen reporting tool - we got no ads, nothing to sell, no banners, it is our policy. We do not want to commercialize this project based on ads.
What do you believe are the most important projects locally that are relevant to the work you are doing at this moment?
I am a member of Global Shapers Yerevan Hub which is a part of World Economic Forum. There is a community of 10 people in Armenia hub all doing different projects - e.g. Orange financed building a library in Ijevan, TUMO - for orphans from regions to go to TUMO 3 times a week. I am a trustee of the Awesome Foundation, I am an expert for Kolba Lab and we are always supporting each other.
How about the concepts of Collaboration … and Mutual Support?
We always need to involve and mix people in the projects - from other projects and countries. Our advantage is that CityBugs does not need a space - it is all based on users’ development. Finally, we host lots of sessions during events in Europe and would love to contribute to other communities.