Democracy as pothole repair: Civic applications and cyber-empowerment in Russia

Ksenia Ermoshina
Center for Sociology of Innovation, Mines Paris Tech, Paris, France


The article examines the phenomenon of so-called civic apps, applications for smartphones and web largely used by Russian social movements in their fight against corruption, roads in poor condition, street faults and other public problems. Developed by independent programmers and anti-Putin activists, these applications become a means of collective action and empowerment, redefining traditional repertoires of contention. They help citizens participate in public life by mapping, documenting and photographing different urban problems and hence enable citizen expertise and facilitate citizen control. The aim of this article is thus to understand how such small-scaled actions as pothole reporting or mapping street faults can become a means of empowerment and counter-democracy tools. The article is based on two years of field research and focuses on four cases of civic applications. Analyzing technical aspects, the genesis and design of these apps, the author provides an account of new repertoires of contention and new forms of citizenship created with the help of these tools.

Keywords: empowerment; ICT; contention; civic applications; Russia


Since 2010 an interesting phenomenon has been developing in Russia: several projects appeared that used web and mobile technologies to help citizens solve different problems they encounter in the city, from leaking roofs and road potholes, to malfunctioning elevators and broken street lamps. These cyber projects were called civic applications (grazhdanskie prilojeniya), a term that refers to the USA, where the civic apps movement has existed since 2008 and has been supported by the Obama administration. While American civic apps serve as new information and communication technology (ICT) tools of collaboration between citizens and their administrations (Eyler-Werve & Carlson, 2012), in Russia these applications, paradoxically, become tools of collective action and protest.

The aim of this article is thus to understand how such small-scale actions as pothole reporting become a means of empowerment and counter-democracy tools. How do these grassroots open-source applications create new networks and renew traditional repertoires of contention? What is this black box that transforms pothole repair into a struggle for democracy?

Theory and Methods

This article is based on the fieldwork I have been conducting since 2011 for my PhD thesis on civic applications in the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. My work is situated at the intersection of actor-network theory (ANT), science and technology studies (STS) and sociology of social movements, I have been combining traditional qualitative methods (such as participant and non-participant observations, in-depth interviews) with an analysis of civic applications as technical objects, as well as with web-ethnography.

Since civic applications are “hybrid objects” (Latour, 1993), they must be understood both as political and technical actors. I argue that civic apps can be better understood if analyzed as instruments of counter-democracy, as described by Rosanvallon (2008). In the context of an especially acute crisis of political representation in contemporary Russia, citizens – individual programmers or social movements - develop these new tools using the technical opportunities of ICTs and mobile communications in order to facilitate surveillance, judgement and control over city administrations, developing counter-expertise, building databases of civic evidence and acting on a legal level. Analyzing Rosanvallon's theory of counter-democracy, scholars speak of a judicialization of contentious politics in the “age of distrust” (Randeria, 2007). This judicialization becomes, as we shall see further, one of the key features of this new form of participation produced by civic apps, manifested through a close collaboration between NGOs, hackers and legal teams during the phase of designing applications: the legal code must be, as we will see, incorporated into a programming code and into a certain code of action that guides users and empowers them by giving them working tools for making the problems and their resolution public.

Taking into account the long history of the term empowerment in social movements theory, I therefore focus here on the particular field of digital or cyber-empowerment, i.e. empowerment that becomes possible thanks to new ICTs and internet technologies. These technologies are seen by many scholars as bringing important political changes by their very architecture, as they change the forces within the field of communication: instead of one-to-many, centralized communication they introduce many-to-many communication that distributes data production and gives power to the multitudes of users (Castells, 2007). This shift is particularly important for civic movements within non-democratic regimes. Thus, in his book on technological empowerment in China, Yongnian Zheng (2008) states that the many-to-many foundation of new media facilitates the growth of civil society and democracy within this authoritarian country by helping to create new public spaces where users have greater access to more information.

But what interests me in this paper is not only access to information but the possibility of citizens’ themselves producing such information: civic apps users become producers and consumers of data at the same time, and this double role forms the basis of crowdsourcing technologies. Dan Gillmor, author of We, the Media calls this process distributive journalism based on “the parallel activity by large numbers of people, in service of something that would be difficult if not impossible for any one or a small group of them to do alone, at least in a timely way”1. The civic apps that I am studying address large-scale public problems – such as corrupt public services and administration, poorly maintained roads, street faults etc. – by breaking them into small-scale actions that can be executed by many users at the same time with the help of civic apps specifically designed for these actions. The empowerment effect is thus achieved by the multitude acting simultaneously in different places, using ubiquitous, mobile and geolocated media (Farman, 2012; Greenfield, 2006).

As a technical object, a civic application, through its interface and menu, proposes (or even imposes) a certain algorithm of actions. It shapes a user's behavior and incorporates new modes of civic participation, renewing existing repertoires of contention (Tilly, 1986, 2004) As Charles Tilly defines it, a repertoire of contention is “the whole set of means [a group] has for making claims of different kinds on different individuals or groups” (Tilly, 1986, p. 4). These sets of tools change in the course of history, taking advantage of the evolution of media and communication. Participation via civic apps can thus be described as one of the recent inventions within the so-called electronic repertoire of contention studied by scholars since 2003 which has already developed its own traditions and routinized practices (Costanza-Chock, 2003; Rolfe, 2005). Indeed, as McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly (2001) show, the so-called new forms of action are never completely new, rather they should be understood as “creative modifications or extensions of familiar routines” (McAdam et al., 2001, p. 49). In this context, the civic apps that I analyze here are reusing and modifying a form of action quite appropriate for Russian society, namely that of whistleblowing.

I argue that as complex and innovative technical tools, civic applications must be understood not only within social movements theory – as a new tool for an old form of contention – but should be analyzed in their specificity as technical objects, in order to understand in which way they do transform civic participation. An approach in terms of ANT, STS and internet studies is needed, to describe properly the design and technical specificity of these tools.

In order to explore new forms of citizenship produced by civic applications, I began my fieldwork with following the actors, observing several teams of developers, activists and lawyers as they were working on the design of applications. This approach to technical objects is understood in STS as a design-oriented method (Badouard, 2014) that consists of analyzing how the design of technologies reflects, rectifies and transforms certain political visions and choices. As Simondon puts it, technical objects “translate a number of notions and principles into matter” (1958, p. 46). In order to de-script these notions embedded into civic apps as technical objects, I combined the analysis of the applications as technical objects and interviews with different members of teams working on the apps with an analysis of internal technical communication (logs) between developers.

However, even if digital architectures and code, once developed, seem to be more or less stable, there is still some flexibility within them, giving users margins for experiments, bricolage and even detournement of the devices (Akrich, 1998; Oudshoorn & Pinch, 2005). As we will see later in the article, different applications provide their users with varying degrees of freedom, depending on particular technical solutions. That is why I found it crucial to observe and interview not only developers and designers, but also testers and users of the civic applications. In my fieldwork during the winter and spring of 2014 I followed groups of users testing a newly developed civic mobile application Krasiviy Peterburg (Beautiful Petersburg). I myself was a beta-tester of this application for Android OS and was asked to give feedback and communicate with the team of developers.

I argue that the choice of design and interface of a civic application is a result of a translation of a certain political project forged by a hybrid community of programmers, lawyers, activists and users. Combining science and technology studies with a pragmatist approach I aim to show – through the analysis of the genesis of the applications – their development, technical choices, how certain important public problems are being redefined and new means of solving them are being proposed to Russian citizens.

In this article I focus on four case studies. They deal with problems of urban development and decay of public infrastructure and utilities and present citizens with new algorithms of action in relation to public service providers and administrators. A brief presentation of these cases will serve to illustrate the argumentation presented in the next part of the article.

The Case Studies

The first case involves the application RosYama (Pothole; developed in 2010 by Alexei Navalny’s2 Foundation Against Corruption. The RosYama application addresses the problem of road potholes as well as four other problems linked to the quality of roads: broken rails, snow, open manholes and persistent puddles. It allows users to geolocate a problem on the road, take a picture of it, choose a category of problem and place it on a map. Following this, the application generates the text of a complaint and sends it to the local Road Inspectorate. The application has a crowdsourced map of Russia, where every user can, as explained on the website, claim responsibility for a particular district and become the local coordinator of the RosYama movement. A rating system exists that automatically counts the number of holes declared by a user and creates a list of top users. A user can also adopt problems identified (and abandoned) by others and get them repaired. The app also contains a photo archive with user-generated photos of potholes from all over Russia.

The mobile app, with almost the same functions, is available both for Android and iPhone. The mobile version foregrounds the speed of geolocation and works with an easy menu, helping a user fill in the forms here and now. Some functions, however, such as maps, archives, rating system, are not accessible on a mobile. The web and mobile versions must be seen as complimentary, adapted to different contexts and usages: while the mobile app is an instrument of data gathering, the web app is a centralizing server that treats and publicly represents problems from all over Russia, making the problem visible and facilitating communication within the user community. Between May 2011 and May 2014, 56,919 potholes were reported using the application and of those 15,966 were repaired.

The second case is also a product of the Foundation Against Corruption. It is a web application called RosZKH (ZKH stands for housing infrastructure services;, an app that helps individuals write petitions to the Housing Inspection Committees responsible for oversight of their particular block of flats. The idea and the first working prototype of this app was initially developed by a young lawyer, Dmitri Levenets, with his two colleagues in late 2011.

The application covers a large number of problems, divided into three main categories: apartment, staircase and house, with 11, 14 and 8 sub-categories respectively. Once a problem is chosen and identified by a user, a text is automatically generated by the app. The user cannot change the text but can add any information concerning his problem in 320 characters. The interface of the app is straightforward and simple, as it focuses on giving instructions and guiding the user step by step. RosZKH can be seen as an instrument of legal empowerment for its users as I show later. It counts 147,565 complaints and 49,140 problems solved. The site has never had a mobile version. Developers explain this by the character of the problem: as it concerns a user's flat or yard, mobile support is not necessary.

The third case is a web application Zalivaet.spb (Flooded.spb, where .spb stands for Saint Petersburg) developed by Fedor Gorozhanko, a 22-year-old student of the Faculty of Sociology, St. Petersburg State University, who faced problems in his apartment. Situated on the top floor, his flat was flooded by melting snow in spring 2010. He tried to make local housing services come and repair his apartment, sent letters to higher instances and deputies in the City Hall, but none of the existing legal means worked. That was when he decided to create a web application, using a very simple blogging platform, and posted his story online. His web application became increasingly popular. In spring 2011 he already had 3,000 cases on his map, and the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg invited him to participate in the Public Council for Urban Problems. He also started working as an assistant of an opposition deputy who helped him address complaints from users of his web app by transforming users’ individual letters into official letters, stamped and signed by the deputy. Thus, by experimenting with online tools and offline mechanisms of institutional pressure, Fedor transformed his web application into an efficient problem-solving instrument. The application does not have a mobile version, but its web interface has been evolving since 2010 and is currently a hybrid of a blog (with users publicly sharing their stories, materials, photos and scans), a crowdsourced map, a complaint-sending machine (where everyone can complain about a leaking roof by filling out a simple form) and a handbook with advice on legal matters. Since spring 2010 there have been 3,794 complaints.

The fourth case is the already mentioned application Krasiviy Peterburg (Beautiful Petersburg). This application appeared in 2012, first in the form of a website, and was the brainchild of the St. Petersburg Observers movement (Nabludateli Peterburga), which coordinated the activity of electoral observers during elections to the legislative assembly and presidential elections. Several of the activists among St. Petersburg Observers decided to focus on city infrastructure defects and acted within a local group by organizing the first photowalk in spring 2012 during which they took photos of all deficient urban equipment and decayed public space – from potholes to illegal publicity, broken street lamps and illegal waste deposits. At the beginning they tried to contact members of municipal councils, but without success. The first positive results came after sending their complaints directly to the Mayor's office, with 50 cases resolved out of the 150 submitted. Initially, they were working without a website or a mobile application, merely using a group in the Russian social network Vkontakte. But after having sent more than 2,000 complaints manually, they found a volunteer who made a website for them, incorporating their algorithm of action. This web application first helps the user define his problem (within twelve categories). Then a text is automatically generated by the app, using a predefined, legally appropriate formula for every type of problem. Afterwards, the interface gives the user a possibility to customize the text of the complaint. Finally, the complaint is sent to the Mayor's official electronic platform, and the user has the option to track his complaint by e-mail or by post.

Since June 2012, the app has registered 32,763 complaints sent by 21,600 users and more than 10,500 problems were solved. In 2013, the project won the Civic Innovation Prize and was awarded 5,000 euros to finance the development of a mobile application. In April 2014, the mobile app was introduced to the public. Since the code of both the web and mobile apps is open-source, it was quickly adapted for another 22 Russian cities. The name of the application was changed to Krasiviy Mir (Beautiful World), extending the problem-solving algorithm from St. Petersburg to the whole country, and, metaphorically, to the whole world.


In the analysis of the four cases I aim to disclose important similarities among them: the four apps are crowdsourced and aim to provide an algorithm applicable to the majority of individual cases, translating individual negative experiences into a public problem by standardizing the experience within a certain legal and programming code. Analysing the genesis of these apps leads us to a better understanding of the establishment and institutionalization of this new form of civic participation and also of the innovative effects of these apps.

From Experience to Code: Developing Problem Solving Algorithms

Civic applications operate as complex algorithms combining both legal and programming code. However, these algorithms must not be taken for granted. As my interviews have shown, they result from personal experience of a problem and experimentation with various human and non-human agents. Lawyers, activists and developers worked together, tinkering with laws, mashing them up, experimenting offline with paper letters and petitions, trying to find out which combination of actions would produce the desired result (i.e. fixing the problem) before actually incorporating them into an interface of an app, transforming their “life hacks” into a repertoire of actions.

Analyzing the narratives that developers provide on the genesis of these apps in my interviews, I detect a similar dynamic: starting with a personal problem and translating this immediate experience into a potentially universal strategy that can be digitalized and transformed into an application. The problem has its own career and trajectory, transforming together with the problem owner (Chateauraynaud, 2008).

Dmitri Levenets, the creator of RosZKH says the following about the origins of the application:

I was graduating from the faculty of law, Moscow State University, and I had a problem in my yard. Several neighbors had installed barriers on the parking space which was normally free and public. They “reserved” spots for themselves. I wanted to do something about this. First of all, I went to see the person responsible for ZKH in my district, but he sent me back home, as happens to all citizens in this country in all ZKH offices. I was tired of public services doing nothing, and I wanted, using any legal means, to understand what they are supposed to do and how to make them do it. So I found the specific institution responsible for my problem, the Inspectorate. I wrote to them and it worked. I shared my experience with friends and relatives and then created the project, where I have put the texts of typical letters to be sent to the Inspectorate, with a list of addresses.

In this quote, several issues are worth noticing: first of all, Dmitri's initial addressee was the local service ZKH, immediately responsible for his problem. In fact, it is the officials and workers from this service that must intervene in order to remove the illegal reserved parking slots. But the initial contact with ZKH was entirely unsuccessful and Dmitri changed the addressee of his complaint: instead of communicating his problem directly to the local services, he decided to outdo them and act via a higher supervisory authority, the Housing Inspectorate. The goal of this trigger algorithm was to “make ZKH do what they are supposed to do”. By the way, we find the same principle is expressed in the slogan “we make officials do their work” on the websites of RosYama, RosZKH and Zalivaet. In this context, solving a particular problem – illegal parking slots, a leaking roof, a pothole – is just part of the mission. The app's other function is to put pressure on officials and improve the accountability of public services.

For the founder of Zalivaet, the initial idea of an application is also linked to a problem that he experienced, indeed a problem more immediate than parking. It is clear from my interview with Fedor, the app's creator, that he analyzed his own experience step-by-step and improved his application before arriving at an algorithm that could work.

It all started with a leak in my room. So I was writing these complaints. First, I approached the chair of the housing committee (…) I invited her to see my room. She looked, she did not do anything, she said wait till they remove the snow [from the roof], everything will be all right (…) I found the official internet platform of “Smolniy” (city administration), I wrote there and to the Housing Inspection Committee, and then to the President of Russia. I became really angry when my flat was completely flooded. It was in January. Then, for a moment, it stopped leaking, and they started answering me, saying “everything is all right with your roof”. But no one actually came. In March, the snow started melting, I searched through the internet, there was no website, no web service to help people like me. So I decided to make my web application. I used a very simple blog driver, life-street, you can register and write, and comment. I posted my story online, and in several days there were already 200 stories.

As in the case of Dmitri, Fedor first went through official channels - with no success. He developed his application as a means of attracting media attention that helped motivate other citizens to join his initiative. It is thanks to the crowdsourcing activity on his platform that he could, with more than 3,000 cases in one year, find help from Maxim Reznik an opposition deputy of the St. Petersburg city council. Fedor's final algorithm transformed users’ complaints sent through his application into official letters from the deputy. He even wrote a programming script that performed the process automatically, it can conjugate the full name of a user, add some introductory phrases and generate an official deputy letter that is sent “up” to the Vice-Mayor asking him to look into the complaint and repair the leak.

As for Krasiviy Peterburg, the application’s author, Krasimir Vranski, also traces the origins of the application back to his first experiments in individual problem-solving:

Finally after five or six visits [to the municipal council] I decided against going there and found the website of the central city administration on the internet. I started sending them my appeals directly. Actually it turned out to be efficient because when you send letters “up there,” they trickle down to local officials, and they are so willing to get a good reputation and are so afraid of their superiors that they start working and remedy your problems. This became the basis of the mechanism that we now use in Krasiviy Peterburg. We are sending everything to the very top – to the Mayor of the city – and then they send it to the local administration.

Sending appeals to the top level of public administration rather than to those immediately responsible for a particular kind of problem has become the basic algorithm in all the four cases I have studied. In fact, there was neither a technical nor a political avenue for a direct transmission of requests from users to public services. The technical reason for this is the absence of an application programming interface (API) that could link together mobile clients, the web application and the administration's back office and the lack of fully automated appeal-sending machines. API is not only a technical, but also a political tool. The moderator of RosZKH complains about this:

All governmental organizations and public services have electronic waiting rooms (elektronnye priemnye). But the problem is that not all of them have APIs, and we cannot plug our app to them. That would be much easier with an API, sending directly to these waiting rooms, for many reasons, for example, the official platform assigns every complaint a tracking number. But for now it is impossible. I worked in administrative structures and I understand their logic. They do think that an API is a useless thing. (Interview with Dmitri Taralov)

In the absence of API, the chain of actions is prolonged: a user makes an application act, the application produces a text that makes supervisory institutions pressurize lower levels of administration that, finally, act upon the problem. This algorithm uses the hierarchy of Russian administrations against them: within the context of distrust towards traditional means of communication, civic applications become, as Pierre Rosanvallon would say, instruments of counter-democracy, tools of surveillance, controlling authorities with their own institutional means (Rosanvallon, 2008).

Historically this mode of action comes from the practice of whistleblowing and denunciation developed in the USSR (Bogdanova, 2013 ; Dewey & Kleimola, 1970 ; Lambert, 1985). Though, I argue, civic applications, as ICT tools, deeply transform this practice and the very experience of public problems. In the next section I will show how coding a digital interface for complaint submission produces specific ways of recording and communicating the problematic experience.

Coding Ordinary Experience: New Languages of Complaint

Civic applications are both technical and legal instruments. Their efficiency arises from translating the legal code – a combination of laws, technical norms and official standards (GOST3) – into a programming code and, finally, into a code of actions, or into an algorithm that a user must follow in order to correctly prepare and transfer his complaint. Lawrence Lessig’s famous proclamation that code is law (2000) acquires a new meaning in this context: it is the law that becomes encoded, encrypted in the application’s interface. The law structures the choices of app interfaces and algorithms.

The legal code empowers the programming code and is at the same time empowered by it. Civic applications make use of existing legal mechanisms and standards to legitimize and strengthen an individual complaint. Dmitri Levenets, the creator of RosZKH app, explains in the interview: “We use, if you like, a bunch of different legal texts to be sure that there is no legal shortcoming, no pretext for them (Housing Inspectorate) to avoid answering”. When incorporated into an interface, it becomes easier to multiply and repeat the effect of these legal algorithms, automatically extending their action to many similar cases.

How does the legal code structure and define developers’ work? First of all, we can observe this during work on the menu of the application with different categories of problems. In fact, in order to define what is a fault or a problem, developers collaborated with lawyers to bring the app into accordance with technical documents and standards such as “Highway code”, “The housing code”, “Norms and rules for technical uses of the housing fund”, “Norms on the provision of public services and utilities”, “GOST” and other texts.

For example, the developers of RosZKH relied on the text of “Norms and rules for technical uses of the housing fund”:

Actually, a fault is everything that deviates from the ideal state of things, and this ideal state is very well described in the “Norms and rules…” For example, they specify that all metal door accessories, like door handles or door hinges, must be polished and shiny. So, anything that is not in these norms is a fault and we have the right to report it because we pay for it every month. (interview with Dmitri Levenets)

The Krasiviy Petersburg application uses categories of public services in their menu and in the texts generated by the app. “We have to speak the same language as the administration, otherwise they do not understand what is really going on. So we used legal texts to identify expressions for the app. For example, we must say green spaces (zelenye nasajdeniya) and not grass or flowers,” Steve Kuddins, one of the creators of the Krasiviy Petersburg app, explained. Actors thus see the translation of ordinary experience into official terms as a necessary operation that leads to a successful dialogue between app users and civil servants.

However, none of the civic apps is technically capable of automatically detecting a problem, and it is up to human agents to decide whether this or that event must be reported with an app. This leads to debates among users and teams of developers on how to distinguish a fault from the norm. Thus, during my observations of the already mentioned photowalks, on several occasions I saw users debating a specific case and deciding whether the case at hand is a real fault (e.g. measuring a hole with against a shoe etc.).

Real problems that actors often perceive as complex juxtapositions and a mix of several faults, have to be simplified and tagged with only one category from the app’s menu. I remember observing testers of the Krasiviy Peterburg mobile app standing at an unfenced decaying lawn with a big Jeep parked on it. They were deciding how to classify this fault – as a problem with green space, or missing fencing, or illegal parking. The testers finally agreed on missing fencing, justifying it as “more important because it is a long-term problem, and the Jeep will go away before the police comes, and if we put up a fence, he will not be able to park here again.” 3

Transcoding a personal experience consists of standardizing and impersonalizing the particular case, otherwise it is impossible for the app to offer an automated solution to the problem and a text could not be generated. The emotional aspect of complaints is also something that the apps tend to control, either by recommendations to users or by technical means. For example, when filling in the form on the Zalivaet app, a user is instructed on how to describe his case: “Set your emotions aside, give us a very brief description of your problem”. The RosZKH app tries to control emotions by technical means, it allows only 350 characters to describe a problem. Dmitri Taralov, the app’s moderator and administrator, explains why such a limitation is necessary:

In our experience it is enough. Some problems can be described in 140 characters [Twitter standard], 350 is a lot. Secondly, we want to protect ourselves and the administration from people who like writing a lot while saying nothing. You know, there are these people called professional complainers, who enjoy describing their problem on several pages when it is possible to express it all in five to seven phrases.

This limitation by design challenges the practice of handling grievances and complaint writing that has a long tradition in Russia.4

The Russian sociologist Elena Bogdanova analyzes petitions to the Russian president Vladimir Putin in terms of justification (as understood by Boltansky & Thevenot, 1991) and demonstrates that the “textual space of a complaint contains the language of both sides (the author and the addressee)”. (Bogdanova, 2013, p.13) In the case of civic apps, the author’s language tends to be replaced by that of the machine. The justification within categories of personal experience is replaced by legitimation in terms of legal and technical norms. This translation is technically justified: it is necessary in order to enable complaining via web and mobile applications (within closed interfaces and menus), and consequently making this practice universal and replicable.

In this section I have demonstrated that civic applications can be considered instruments of citizens’ legal empowerment. The apps are developed as translating tools, adapting the language of citizens, their emotions and affects to a language comprehensible for the city’s civil servants. As Françis Chateauraynaud and Didier Torny argue in their book on whistleblowers, citizens’ vigilance begins with basic acts of direct perception of what is going wrong – seeing, smelling, touching “the anomaly” (2013). But, the authors argue, it is only the first step towards the actual act of whistleblowing: citizens must now translate their perceptions into a narrative or into a code. They must construct an event to make their experience tangible and communicable to others. The apps also construct users’ sensing activity and vigilance, by providing an interface for solving problems, they attract users' attention to a range of problems that have earlier been in the background. They are also changing users' perception of the city space, as demonstrated by researchers on mobile technologies and mapping (Farman, 2012).

In this sense, civic apps are tools of re-presentation of individual acts of sensing the anomaly. An anomaly that is at first a bodily experience is passed through the techno-juridical filter of a civic app, and turns into a transcoded alert, formatted, translated and expressed in a code used by the actors of the institution whom it addresses. And for the civil servants, “it is the code itself that constructs the event” (Chateauraynaud & Torny, 2013, p.38).

However, civic applications cannot be reduced to simple complaint machines. I argue that their real impact on Russian administrations does not consist in generating legally appropriate texts and standardizing descriptions of experience but rather in empowering citizens. In the next section I analyze how different technical features of civic apps transform and strengthen individual cases.

From Complaining to Empowerment: Multiplication and Reiteration as Basic Mechanisms of “Apptivism”

Every problem declared via a civic application has two destinations. The first one is an invisible one – higher administrative units (Inspectorate, City Hall etc). The second destination is a public one – the application’s server – where the problem becomes visible to other users. This second destination somehow reinforces the first one, and shows an individual complaint as part of a public problem.

Image 1: Illustration of the triple algorithm of action of Zalivaet app.
Complaint sent to the City Hall, publicized via mapping
on the app's collaborative map and in mass-media.

Several technical tools are developed for this purpose, such as collaborative maps (crowdmaps), photo galleries, archives, statistics, personal accounts, ratings. To demonstrate how these tools empower users and strengthen their cases, I will analyze some of them in greater detail.


Photographing problems is a function embedded in almost all urban civic applications. The camera of a mobile phone or a tablet becomes an instrument for witnessing and evidence gathering as it captures the fault immediately, here and now. Geotagging (ascribing GPS coordinates to a photo taken with a mobile device) enables new technical possibilities such as the immediate mapping of faults as well as the linking of the visual representation of a fault to its geographical position (Farman, 2012).

The RosYama and Krasiviy Peterburg mobile apps are photo-centred: the first thing a user does is take a picture of a fault, otherwise it is impossible to continue using the app. Photos are used to demonstrate the effectiveness of an application. Thus, on the website of Krasiviy Peterburg one can see random photos of a problem before and after. The RosYama website is also structured around photos: the main page of the website is a gallery of photographs of potholes from all over Russia with dates and addresses, renewed in real time.

Image 2: Photo gallery on the main page of the RosYama website.

However, the legal status of these photos is unclear. Alexander Fezeev, former moderator of RosYama notes: “These photos motivate users… You can see that this problem exists everywhere. But from a legal standpoint, we don’t really need them in the complaint. Public services won’t come faster if you attach a photo.” Not being legal evidence, photographs are there for users as they demonstrate the significance of a problem, its scale. The problem becomes tangible through visualisation and multiplication of photos of similar cases.

Archives and Statistics

Apart from photographs, other tools are used to visualize and enhance the importance of a problem. For Zalivaet, it is the archive of personal stories that acts as evidence and illustration. This app is based on a blogging platform and is narration-centered. It is structured around an archive of stories about struggles with leaking roofs. All the new entries appear on the main page, often illustrated either by photographs of leaking ceilings, or by scanned responses from civil servants. As of 14 September 2014 the app features 2,464 stories and about five times as many user comments. A search engine incorporated in the app helps users search through the entries and find answers to their questions. Over time, users develop their own formats of storytelling and justification strategies, accumulating experience and citizen expertise on the leaking roof problem.

RosYama and Krasiviy Peterburg also offer access to archives. With RosYama, users have their own personal accounts with statistics on their potholes (the number of potholes identified, sent to the Road Inspectorate and repaired). Being publicly accessible, the page creates visibility among users and implies concurrence. The app's moderator Alexander Fezeev comments on this choice of architecture: “We could have built a closed system: you open the app, take a picture of a pothole, send it and get a notification. But this would never have the same effect, the user would just feel lonely. So we integrated this function to see what others do, to see statistics, the archive, to know that the project really works and that these are real people who are doing it”. Archives and open personal accounts work as community-building tools, creating a community of users brought together by a similar problem and using the same technical instrument. In this context, civic apps create issue-oriented movements that produce new solidarities on the basis of common problems and not a common ideology.


Collaborative mapping is an essential technology of crowdsourcing applications based on geolocated user-generated data especially for applications that deal with natural catastrophes, ecological crises, fires or other emergencies requiring a rapid and precise reaction (Asmolov, 2014). In our cases maps play several functions. First of all, they are visualizing tools that show the scale of a problem on a large territory. Mapping is also an analytical tool: the app automatically treats problems by categories and tags them with different colors, so that users have access to infographics and statistics on problems located on a map.

Image 3: Map of problems, Krasiviy Peterburg app. Solved problems in green, reported problems in blue,
dismissed cases in red.

The RosYama and Krasiviy Peterburg applications use maps as coordination tools. On RosYama, with the help of an API of Yandex maps, users can choose and ring fence a territory and claim it, giving their names to particular districts and effectively becoming local RosYama coordinators, representing their districts on the platform. This local coordination principle is used also in Krasiviy Peterburg, with every city district having its coordinator responsible for organizing offline events or promoting the application on the local level.

Zalivaet is also using maps, however, these are used in a special way – they confront the user-generated vision of the problem (as seen and reported by users) with official data (so-called address programs constituted by city administrators which list houses that need repairing).

When I gathered more than 3,000 complaints, I started analyzing the address program of the city… they got 500 million rubles for this program… and I realized that 41% of new complaints come from the houses that were part of the program and were just repaired. It was great! Normally you need to do a lot to prove there’s corruption, and here it was obvious. If money has been spent, and the roofs go on leaking… that is when my work became sort of an investigation of corruption. (interview with Fedor)

Maps serve as illustrations and evidence of a persistent problem, the problem that goes beyond roof or road repair. Mapping leaking roofs also becomes mapping corruption. And every little problem added on a map becomes part of a bigger job, an investigation of corruption, as Fedor puts it. He argues that maps have an impact on officials, working as evidence of a lack of their accountability: “Since 2012 I've been adding everything to the map: to visualize the problem, for mass-media and also for a kind of psychological pressure. Because when an official sees that he has a problem in his district, he knows that his superior can also see it, and so he tries to repair it as soon as possible”.

While RosYama, RosZKH and Krasiviy Peterburg have maps, photographs and archives, RosZKH is a more closed system, as the interface of the app does not make it possible to see what other users do. Surprisingly, this technical framing produced an overflow: users of RosZKH created a group on that counts more than 10,000 users, actively exchanging their experiences, success stories, photographs of their problems, scans of answers from the Housing Inspectorate. Developers of RosZKH see it as a positive dynamic or a proof of a certain pedagogical function of their application: “The group is strong not because of the number of people, there are only 10,000 users, but because these users are now able to answer other users’ questions, they share their solutions to problems and the texts they used in the court. They discuss, help each other. And I think, this group, and the community it has created, is a real victory”.

Indeed, users of civic applications are prone to act beyond the algorithms and interfaces of applications. They “hack” the applications, choosing different strategies of problem solving. This creativity has an impact on civic applications: it enriches their history and reinforces their impact. Users’ activity offline as well as on social networks (every civic app has its own page on Vkontakte and Twitter) extends networks beyond the digital sphere. The bigger the network they create around the app, the more avenues for exerting pressure on the public administration they create. Thus, by reiteration, civic applications get stronger through their users: the more users use the app, the stronger it becomes.

Civic applications become instruments of empowerment through a double dynamics. On the one hand, they empower individual users and make their problems significant. On the other hand, users act back and empower applications: the more a civic app is used, the more of an empowering effect it has.


The main goal of this article was to demonstrate how, with the use of new ICTs, a small-scale action, like reporting potholes, can become part of a bigger movement against corruption. On the example of civic applications I wanted to demonstrate how very accessible and simple software can become a means of civic empowerment. Analyzing digital empowerment, or e-empowerment, Yair Amichai-Hamburger et al. argue that ICTs empower citizens on three levels: political participation, accessibility and the ability to supervise and influence government decisions (2008). The three levels are present in my analysis of civic applications: they enhance participation, serving as an entrance gate to activism, they provide better accessibility to data and legal texts on important public issues and enable users to control and put pressure on city halls.

First of all, I showed that underlying the algorithms of civic applications is an implicit criticism of Russian administration and bureaucracy. Analyzing the genesis of four civic applications, I showed how personal experiences of a problem can be translated into an algorithm for collective action. I described civic applications as triggers that use official supervisory institutions to exercise control over local officials. I have also shown the main effect of this trigger on the problem's career: an individual case that passes through a civic application gains importance as the whole bureaucratic machine is mobilized to solve the problem.

Secondly, I analyzed the process of developing application interfaces and demonstrated how these digital tools translate ordinary experiences into standardized, encoded categories. The categorized “anomaly” was the result of a “co-production” between a negative experience and a tool that enabled the putting-into-words of this experience, and in our particular case this putting-into-words was compatible with the language of Russian administrations.

Comparing civic applications with whistleblowing practices, I showed how ICTs transform traditional complaint-submitting procedures. I also demonstrated that civic applications served the function of “activism handbooks”, as they propose problem-solving algorithms and offer legal guidance available first hand, here and now. I argued that civic applications were not merely problem-solving or complaint-generating tools, but that they had an empowering potential.

In the last section I analyzed the technical tools civic applications use to operate. I have shown that maps, archives, photo galleries and other tools empower individual complaints, creating the effect of multiplication. I then showed that users, in turn, also act upon civic apps, developing new networks, both offline and online, experimenting and inventing new forms of action. I call this feedback effect a reiteration, as it enriches the civic apps movement and creates new instruments for collective action within a context of distrust towards traditional political institutions.


1. Dan Gillmor's blog, post “Distributed Journalism's Future”, see:

2. Alexei Navalny is the famous Russian blogger, opposition politician and lawyer, whose NGO Foundation Against Corruption is built around several digital civic projects focused on fighting corruption with the help of ITCs.

3. GOST or Gosudarstvennyi Standart is an officially recognized set of technical standards that dates back to the USSR but continues to be applied in Russia and other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. All sorts of regulated standards are included, for example, the exact dimensions of a hole on a road.

3. Field notes from an observation of a photowalk in the Admiralteiskiy district of St. Petersburg, April 2014.

4. See, for example, the proceedings of the conference Cultures of Grievance, especially Varga Harris’ “I complain, therefore I am ‘Soviet’: Petitioning as a Ritual of Belonging in Soviet Society”.


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Ksenia Ermoshina
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Email: ksenia.ermoshina(at)