Global Observer

Mobile apps pick up Spanish government's slack

Mobile apps pick up Spanish government's slack

Posting in Technology | From Issue 03 December 2, 2013

MADRID -- Radiation detection, domestic violence prevention, cancer prevention -- with the government out of money, now there's an app for that.

MADRID -- Last year, the United Nations and Amnesty International, among others, criticized the Spanish government's cutbacks in healthcare, housing and other social assistance as breaking international law by "repealing the legal guarantees of social rights." Despite the accusation that these reforms are actually making things worse for society's most vulnerable, and have led to "significant deterioration of living conditions" and a "high rate of child poverty," under the weight of the European Union, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's administration has not altered its policies.

But these cuts have led to a sort of silver lining -- when crisis and cutbacks leave the country increasingly less socialist, random apps of kindness by creative technology designers are working to help those in need. An emerging trend of Made-in-Spain mobile applications is producing solutions for humanity that offer social support, develop a shared economy, and promote activism and transparency.

"Despite living in times of brutal economic crisis, we are the European country with the most smartphones," said Milena Fernandez, communications director of TheAppDate, an organization dedicated to supporting the design of world-changing apps in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world. "Now we have in our hands a new technology, and people who are interested in social work use it. We can find apps for many types of citizens, for the integration of people with disabilities, for political transparency, for political and environmental activism, for citizen solidarity, for responsible consumerism."

In a country where only an estimated ten percent of domestic violence is reported, Telefonica recently created "Libres," a free app devoted to the early detection and anonymous reporting of this abuse. To help patients in a climate of healthcare cuts, "Contigo" (with you) is an app that uses the real-life experiences of 16 breast cancer survivors to offer home and solidarity to other women.

One app that looks to reach people at a community level is La Cosa Radioactiva (LCR). Sergio Galan says his app is a kind of experiment, inspired by the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan. The "citizens of Japan wanted to have a tool to measure radioactivity on their own," he said, so he began to play with different Geiger counters and created an Android app to help read the results.

Galan thought that his app had use for the Spanish too, measuring the radioactivity in old mines and nuclear waste disposal centers. He spent the summer giving talks in a handful of Spanish villages, "instead of a gallery or a museum or conferences where other geeks are." He used an artistic, playful spin, converting the app's results into laser performances of light and sound, as a memorable way to educate residents.

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For him, like many of the next generation of Spanish developers, his app and his pueblo tour weren't about the discoveries, but about creating awareness. "If you ask people what radioactivity is, you can get a lot of wrong answers. 'Do you agree with nuclear power generation?' Some people say yes and some people say no, but they don't really know."

LCR isn't Galan's only app-based solution. He's also created Boombox St. while he was getting his masters in design in Sweden. He had witnessed both in Spain and Sweden that public space was just a transitional one between home and work, home and a bar. He wondered, "What would happen if the city instead of doing nothing would provide infrastructure to enhance the experience" in public spaces? He prototyped Boombox St, an interactive app that placed public speakers in the small Swedish town's parks and anyone with a smartphone could vote on which music to listen to.

He took that back to the south of Madrid and, working with the local Semilla Association for at-risk teens, started experimenting with the same thing in the parks of the working class barrio of Villaverde. Galan doesn't think he's doing anything special, just addressing a recently overlooked need, especially in this challenging time.

"I think we [the Spanish] should stop thinking about copying stuff and we have to in a way stop thinking about things to make money because you cannot be really creative because the best innovation comes from when you just go wild and try things. I think as a country we need to start producing more things and be more of a productive country with technology and inventions," Galan said. "We need to stop watching how other countries do things and start innovating by ourselves."

At least in in the design of mobile apps, Spain seems to be taking an innovative lead.

Spanish app developers aren't just seeking to help society, but also to help the crisis-hit individual, who is looking for ways to save money wherever possible; Fernandez calls this the emergence of a "sharing economy." Obsso responds to crisis-tightened wallets by creating a swap meet marketplace, where you can trade one of your unused items for something else you need, taking the euro out of small trade. Blablacar aims to incorporate carpooling into the Spanish culture, while other apps look at planning to share taxis from the airport and other costlier trips.

And finally, with most of the current administration, including the prime minister, accused of hiding millions of euros in taxes, Fernandez sees the next step in the app movement being in apps that create transparency within government. "People take to the streets to defend their rights and to ask that institutions be more transparent. This context promotes the use of apps such as Bambuser for the rebroadcasting of protests by citizens," she said. Although she admits that, until the Law of Transparency is strengthened, apps such as this can only do so much good. "Spain has been living for some time with the need to demand that institutions be more responsible and transparent," she said.

Only time will tell if these non-governmental tech solutions can replace those provided by the socialist government for decades.
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Jennifer Riggins

Correspondent (Barcelona)

Jennifer Riggins is the content manager and community builder for two SaaS Quote Roller and PandaDoc, as well as she teaches sales, English, and public speaking for Spanish small business. She holds a degree from William Paterson University. She is based in Spain. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure