How I Became a Civic Tech Enthusiast

I entered my Master of Science in Information program excited to pursue a career as an academic librarian. I was all jazzed about helping students and faculty discover and use resources and materials to enhance the scholarly conversation around women’s history. Somewhere toward the end of my first year in the program, though, I found out about the field of civic technology and my career ambitions took a dramatic turn.

Don’t get me wrong, I love libraries. They are amazing spaces to learn and grow with expert guidance. But I started to think: what about those people who don’t make it to the elite institutions where academic librarians work? I wanted to translate the skills I was gaining as a University Library Associate (a fellowship at the University of Michigan Library) to help affect change with a broader audience.

It was about this time that I heard about a new course in my program called Mastery Interaction Design: Civic Technology, where students would partner with city staff and residents in Ferndale, Michigan to work on challenges related to civic life. As soon as I started researching more about the field, I knew I had stumbled upon something magical.

Lo and behold! Here’s an opportunity to work on information and technology projects that directly affect the lives of all residents, not just those who could make it to a college or university.

Me presenting Rat Chat to various stakeholders

I enrolled in the course and worked on a team of four to create Rat Chat, an SMS bot to address the issue of rats in Ferndale. We worked with the communications director, a city inspector and many residents of the city. We learned that city staff were often getting complaints about rats through several different channels — phone calls, emails, etc. — and didn’t know how to respond in a quick and equal way to all of them. Citizens, on the other hand, often didn’t know the best way to contact the city and ask for help.

Everyone seemed frustrated.

So, we contracted an engineer and used Twilio to build Rat Chat. A resident can text Rat Chat saying something like “holy moly, there’s a rat in my backyard and it’s gross!” and the bot will start a conversation to elicit more information about the context and place. All of that information gets fed into a dashboard that the inspector will check daily.

Example Rat Chat Conversation

Now, the inspector has an easy way to follow up with residents through a single channel.

In the middle of working on this project, I received a grant to attend the Code for America Summit in Oakland, CA. And…

Oh. Wow.

I met and heard from amazing folks like Jazmyn Latimer and Jenny Lay-Flurrie, who shared different perspectives on the world of “civic tech.”

Civic tech can be defined in any number of ways. Check out this post to get one summary of the field, including the following definition, which I like:

Technology projects involving intentional collaboration between technologists, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and nonprofit employees to engage the public or solve civic problems.

I love work where I get to intentionally engage the public in creation of tools that will serve them. Instead of working on projects for people, I could work on projects with people. Instead of connecting a select group of people with resources, I could work with a coalition of community members to effect change on a large scale.

Working with city staff and residents in Ferndale was one opportunity for me to flex my “civic tech” muscles, and I’m happy to say that I’ve continued that work in a project with Data Driven Detroit this winter (check them out!).

As I inch toward graduation this spring, I look forward to channeling my energy toward work in improving the lives of those in need through thoughtful use of technology and information systems (or so goes the dream!).