Do we need to establish Public Good Technology as a field?

This is a topic we’ve been trying to sort out one project at a time, in our own practice and in what we’ve seen of others. It shows up in different places, in different ways: Through conversations in which we find ourselves describing public good technology. And in list-making when we put some projects on and keep others off. Our conclusion: We could benefit from defining a Public Good Technology field and establishing a place for the practitioners to come together.

What are the benefits of establishing a field?

1. Finding fellow practitioners. A named field can allow practitioners to identify themselves. This vital first step to field building allows people to find mentors, follow their work, and to share their own practices and projects so they can get feedback.

2. Describe current projects. Practitioners can share their work, begin to develop a common vocabulary, and understand the criteria for work being included in any one field.

3. Share practices. As the lists of current projects become more robust, it becomes possible to understand and describe current practices. And to identify the most promising of those practices. With any field, current and emerging practitioners benefit from learning from others and establishing the best practices together.

4. Develop and articulate methodologies. And the associated tools to implement those methodologies, train others, and reflect and refine. This isn’t about choosing a single methodology. Rather, it’s about understanding which methodologies lead to which types of outputs and outcomes.

5. Describe collective impact and value. We implement public good technology projects because we want to make a tangible change in the lives of individuals and impact big issues. To understand this, to target our projects well, we need some way of understand the impact of our fellow practitioners, as well as ourselves.

Are existing fields, such as nonprofit technology and civic technology, enough?

After all, Caravan Studios is a division of TechSoup, a leader in nonprofit and civil sector technology. Our team has been a part of the conversations that launched NTEN and NTC. We participated in the initial online discussions that led to using #nptech as a way to identify ourselves and share information. The identity and community is still going strong.

Nonprofit and civil sector technology, by definition, has to include those technologies that allow the sector to function. This technology includes key infrastructure, like financial systems, and donation and donor management. It also includes databases specific to individual organizations, like volunteer or case management systems, as well as more general technologies that may have special use cases in civil society organizations, such as system security and backup, document storage, project management tools, and office productivity suites.

The unique environment of nonprofits includes financial constraints, dependence of in-kind donations, a need to protect the personal information of the most vulnerable members of our society, and the persistent crutch of being understaffed. And the constant need to operate a three-sided marketplace: The people paying for services are frequently not the same people receiving services.

Similarly, civic technology is very focused on the engagement of residents, often citizens, in the life of their community. For example, things that help government function, public commenting periods, and quality of life issues within communities. They also must include things that allow us to interact with necessary government systems, from getting and maintaining a license to drive a car to permitting for building construction to getting a new stoplight at an intersection.

In both cases, we believe these fields include key aspects that are not a part of Public Good Technology and do not include specific goals about the impact of that technology.

In sort, these two fields are focused on the primary type of institution that owns, supplies, or otherwise powers the technology.

So what is Public Good Technology?

We don’t have a definition, but we do have a series of characteristics. They include:

1. Public Ownership. We believe public good technologies must be designed to help answer questions and resolve issues as they are expressed by the impacted community — particularly as this community will ultimately use the developed technology. In our methodology, we rely heavily on in-person events to generate opportunities for technology intervention. Designs are developed with the community, not by techies for the community. We also require that the results are owned by the public. The results include: any generated data (in raw and report formats), technology code and innovations, and access to all parts of the system that are appropriate given security, safety, and privacy concerns.

2. Issue-facing. There are many good and needed technologies to manage back office functions — things like fundraising, contract procurement, even volunteer management. These necessary tools are not, in our minds, public good technology. Rather, public good technologies give people an opportunity to directly impact, interact with, and understand the issues. Tools like Litterati, Refuge Restrooms, and Malalai are examples of issue-facing technologies.

3. Impact-creating. We have been using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to help us think about impact. We believe that the tools must move us toward the outcomes outlined in those global goals. Yelp, for example, helps a wide range of people find food. It is clearly related to hunger. Yelp is not, however, moving us toward Zero Hunger. This agreement on impact creation allows us describe collective impact, an important component of a field

What is next?

Bringing the practitioners together. We are doing just that at the Public Good App House: Festival of the Americas this November. We are excited about the people coming together to share their stories. We want this to be the beginning of a dialogue that brings us together as a field. We hope you will join us.

This post is by Marnie Webb, CEO of Caravan Studios. Caravan Studios builds technology to increase the public good. They are a division of TechSoup, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, CA.