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São Paulo | Omnibus Man & The New Hacktivism

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Autor: Luis Nassif
Coluna Econômica
Translation: C. Brayton

The decision by São Paulo Mayor Haddad to cancel the auction of bus concessions, establish a commission and open up the books of the public transport sector will offer for the very first time a glimpse inside the darkest black box in the system: public transport.

Background facts from G1 Globo:

São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad announced on Wednesday, during an interview with SPTV, a series of measures for the city’s public transport system, saying he would cancel the public tender for bus companies that have provided the city with bus service for the last 15 years. The contracts are worth an estimated R$ 46 billion over the life of the concession, more than the annual city budget of R$ 42 billion.

The measure is praised by commentator Luis Nassif, a well-known proponent of data-driven journalism based on freedom of information.

Yesterday, on my blog, a commentator told a bizarre tale. A child was run over by a bus. The mother sued for damages. She eventually prevailed in all of the appeals. When the company did not pay of its own free will, she tried to freeze its assets. To her surprise, the company had disappeared.
This is a common situation. Companies are set up and are awarded contracts by unorthodox means. These companies amass debt to pension funds, regulators and suppliers and then are either passed on to proxies or simply evaporate.

We are not talking here about the misconduct of minor players.

In the 90s, a São Paulo bus company accumulated a debt with a meal-ticket program. When the creditor went to claim the amount, the company was found in the hands of the owner’s newphews, who were obviously serving as front men. At the same time, the owner had set up fraudulent fuel price scheme under which his company was not required to pay the pump tax in advance. In the end, the company disappeared without paying the tax collected at the pumps.

Vast fortunes have been built on this model, remaining in the black market or evolving into the legitimate market — an example is the initial push of Gol airlines by means of a grey-area scheme to raise capital.

There is practically no political party immune from suspicious relations with the bus companies.

Haddad’s initiative could put an end to this promiscuity in the sector.

Nowadays, GPS systems and electronic turnstiles enable the live monitoring of the routes of every bus. There is a Transparency Law, which obliges the public sector to provide access to information on bus contracts. Organized social society exists and is active on the Web. Young technicians, hackers, and programmers are eager to develop software for public use. Now, a mayor has displayed the political will to open Pandora’s box.

The first challenge will be to define audit models and computer programs that facilitate public oversight.

Then the online movements and City Hall must agree to a program in which technical agencies of the government teach [hacktivists] how to carry out their civic duty efficiently.

Inspecting spreadsheets [rate tables] and monitoring of bus routes are not enough. [Hacktivists] must learn to consult the corporation registries, identify different methods of siphoning off public funds, and detect the existence of front or phantom companies. They must learn to define various ways to evaluate the quality of service, photograph and map corrupt dealings, and discuss solutions.

This is the leap forward sought by a new online society that has exploded onto the streets.

Their progress confirms that the greatest statesman in history is that mysterious entity that answers to the name of Crisis.

A crucial element of the plan is the public consultation, a hallmark of PT administrations designed to dilute the influence of corporate lobbying groups on policy.

“We cannnot sign 15-year contracts without public comment. The moment in which we find ourselves demands social participation. I am going to establish a council on public transport with representatives of bus riders — the social movement — together with business owners and the government, to make people aware of the costs involved. The Public Ministry [state’s attorney] will attend to ensure total transparency”, the mayor said.

Case in point: Haddad’s predecessor, Kassab, named his brothers to key positions at SPTrans and the Metrô authority. No one ever mentions that fact. It drew only token attention at the time.