Looking at things in many different ways

The need for diversity in the civic technology ecosystem


For nearly four years I was at Code for America, and many, many lines of code have been written — all the while, one of the operating assumptions was that we could build locally and spread nationally. That is to say, that once problems were identified within a particular city’s context, it could be spread to other cities nationally. Or even internationally. In indeed that happened, many, many times.

But then why so much code? So much.

Aren’t cities all in all common animals with common problems and shouldn’t we overtime be able to architect a kind of “civic stack”— a civic app suite that covers all core city services? Even if we we’re aren’t there, shouldn’t we have a progress bar of sorts for our collective march down that path?

I think not.

From what I’ve seen over the past few years, most exciting and important things happen when you think about the few, not just the many.

Let’s consider blight. Vacant housing. This is a problem we tend to think is something that’s just something that a city such as New Orleans has to deal with with, but ask almost any American mayor, he or she is thinking about it; it’s a reality of modern urban life. It’s a challenge. As a point of fact three or four different CfA apps took on this core urban problem: each with a slightly different take. BlightStatus visualized existing city data, tracking the progress; LocalData collected citizen-generated updates; and CityVoice created a VOIP system for logging complaints. Beyond that, you’re now seeing companies like Trulia and Accela take data from all three and others into other interfaces. A thousand flowers and all…

To say one tool is better than the other is folly: each serves a distinct, but real purpose. They match a particular experience a citizen has when interacting with their government in their own context. And each of those experiences and context merits a distinct tool. The beauty of modern technology is that the cost of delivering each of these tools is dramatically lowered by open access to the data, and the prevalence of frameworks, opensource tools, developer tools, hosting platforms, etc. Roll-you-own experience.

The modern web has shown us that individuals needn’t be beholden to “suites” or packages of bloated software. Indeed, one size doesn’t fit all — nor should it in a democracy.