Five kinds of Listening for the global development community
Zara Rahman

Five Kinds of Listening for Technologists and Communities

Listening Across Sectors:

A Quick Ode to the Virtuous Remix

Because I consider “civic” to encapsulate the entirety of civil society, I’ve always thought of journalism tech as civic tech. Journalists, as anchors in the civil sphere, play essential roles in information dissemination, public accountability, and, critically, communal storytelling and narrative setting. But don’t be fooled: Just as the civic tech universe is wrestling with the difference between the broad, bottom-up, community-driven ethos we bring to the table and the reality of our current practices, so too is planet journalism.

Josh Stearns has been writing some excellent thought pieces on stewardship and meaningful community media for a while now. His latest is Five Kinds of Listening for Newsrooms and Communities. Vibing on Stearns’ fork of my Code for America Summit talk (where he transformed a message about building tech “with” communities into a message of community-centric reporting) and identifying resonant themes in his latest Listening piece, I had originally intended to continue the virtuous remix cycle and fork this piece back for my little corner of the web — changing just enough language in the original for its journalism message to apply, without substance edits, to civic technology.

But something more beautiful happened: Zara Rahman came across Stearn’s piece and, recognizing that much of it “could apply almost directly to the global development community”, she made the next iteration — one that made the connection between the themes of Stearn’s original piece and civic technology even clearer.

Picture by Steven Shorrock, used via creative commons

These themes (on the need for greater communal understanding and of making decentralized contributions the driver of public interest work) are so resonant across sectors because the work itself crosses sectors. That we are seeing an awakening among a broad swath of public interest intermediaries (those who interface between individuals and institutions) about the need to do our work differently demonstrates not just progress in our respective fields, but an important opportunity, collectively.

So allow me to further underscore the intersection of the work that we intermediaries do — in tech, journalism, global development, and beyond— and present a remix of a remix.

(Forked with permission — words in bold are my additions to Rahman’s remix, reintegration of Stearn’s original language in brackets.)

Five Kinds of Listening for Civic Tech

[While…promising experiments and new start-ups are proving the value of deeper forms of listening, as an industry we still have a lot to learn. Listening is after all not a passive act, but rather an active skill that we can learn and employ strategically….There are many different kinds of listening with different goals and outcomes.]

Below I’ve tried to map out five models for listening at the intersection of civic tech and communities.

  • LISTENING TO THE COMMUNITIES WE’RE TRYING TO WORK WITH: One of the most fundamental parts of civic technology is listening to the people we want our work to benefit. Too often, however, we turn to the same voices; the internal government stakeholders and other intermediaries that are easiest to get to, and our peers in the tech community. Part of listening better will be listening to find new community partners, to identify marginalised voices, and looking for new perspectives. (See Crafting #CivicTech for how to start doing this.)
  • LISTENING FOR PROJECT IDEAS: Civic technologists need to participate in the communities they wish to serve and, as part of participating, should listen to these communities to discover what their needs are. from Chicago, Illinois and the Open Data Race that took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 2011 took this idea further by not just listening for project ideas but also listening to community priorities. Rather than technologists or the modern-tech-savvy deciding which project is developed, the community gets to decide.
  • LISTENING FOR FEEDBACK: Listening shouldn’t stop once a tool is built. Both volunteer and formal civic tech organisations should actively invite ongoing community feedback on projects and programmes. This goes beyond having a single feedback session, to actually creating venues for stakeholders to respond to projects in a sustained way. (See this case study on from Chicago for one way of iterating on this process.)
  • LISTENING FOR UNDERSTANDING AND CONTEXT: Sometimes in the creation of civic tech we begin our work with research or respond to pressures highlighted in (local) media or dialogues with certain key players in government, but my notion of this idea goes beyond that. Most creators of civic tech could do much more listening to the concerns, passions, challenges and hopes of local communities. Understanding the lived experiences of people in different parts of our community will help us rethink the role of our technology (and ourselves, as producers of it), meet new needs in our projects, and challenge our assumptions of what the “problems” are. This kind of listening, and an awareness to these contexts, will make other forms of listening — specifically those in points one and two above — easier and more impactful. (This is part of “literally” meeting our communities where they are; more on how to start doing this in tech here and here.)
  • LISTENING FOR RELATIONSHIPS: We often talk about community engagement, but to what end? Engagement is a means to building more meaningful relationships with our communities, relationships rooted in trust, empathy, transparency and accountability. This effort to build relationships around public life and democracy is at the heart of civic technology’s push into new participatory models. It is about doing better civic tech work and hopefully making those projects more sustainable. But, sometimes in a relationship we just need to listen because someone else needs to be heard. Listening for the sake of listening, for the sake of showing up and being present for others, is critical to building trusting relationships. Civic technology should be the means of creating and magnetizing the places people can come together and have their voices recognized and heard.

Adding a Listening Layer to the Entire Civic Tech Development Process

Picture by David Robert Bliwas, used via creative commons

Too often civic technologists approach listening as a transaction – you give me info, I’ll give you a tech project. We need to move beyond transactional listening to something more transformational that helps reshape our programming, communities and the ties that bind us. To do that, we have to make listening a part of the entire civic tech process. It can’t just be a tactic used during planning or implementing — it is fundamental to both.

And we should create better infrastructure to capture what we hear, synthesize it and measure it. But listening is a form of engagement that can’t be easily captured in analytics dashboards, so we need new ways to recognize the role listening plays across online and offline interactions with [the public and] the beneficiaries of our projects. Done right, our listening gives us new material to build stronger projects and stronger relationships.

We can’t strengthen the practice of listening if we can’t see it. We should recover listening from its largely invisible place in civic tech and put it at the core of what we do.