Why More Journalists Should Adopt A Civic Tech Approach to Their Work

“Is civic tech dying in 2017?” — a graphic by civictechno.fr, a French website dedicated to civic tech.

Last week, Jeanne Brooks, an “ecosystem architect” who’s worked on various journalism and civic tech projects, talked to my CUNY J-School social journalism class about her work at Civic Hall, DataKind and Hacks/Hackers. It was interesting to learn more about the intersection of journalism and civic tech. While journalism x tech has been discussed for a long time, it seems the word “civic” in the equation is one that hasn’t been as publicized as it should be.

To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to civic technology before last week. I know —ironic, given my /preachy/ headline, but bear with me.

Civic tech, I’ve learned, is defined differently by different people. To some, civic tech is, simply, the use of technology for public good. A few years ago, civic tech researcher Emily Shaw defined it as “the conceptual space where a tech-enabled government and its people meet.” To others, another somewhat vague definition would be: technology that engages and empowers communities for the public good. But, if that’s the term’s most accurate definition, civic tech has seemingly been neglecting the “engagement” part of the equation, mistaking the process of designing a product for a group of people with designing it with that group of people.

In my opinion, Laurenellen McCann!!, a leader in the field of civic tech, put it best:

“To be used for social good (the product of a life’s work, not a campaign cycle or product deadline), technology needs to be directed, and for its greatest, most transformative impact, it needs to be directed by those who will benefit the most from the creation of the social good. In other words: Transformative civic technology needs to be built “with, not for” a community.”

So where does journalism factor into civic tech? Civic tech isn’t just for government. It’s important that journalists harness the basic tenants of civic tech to put to use in their own work, to serve communities and address the public’s specific needs.

A big part of the social journalism program at CUNY J-School is about using technology for public good, to serve specific community needs, beyond the informational. Students have learned to build tools, through the use of technology, to help those living in NY public housing reach out to government officials about mold problems. They’ve developed a crowdsourcing tool called the Hate Index to track acts of intolerance after the election. This is journalism. This is civic technology.

In an interview with Josh Stearns, Spaceship Media’s jeremy hay said that civic tech, when looked at within the framework of journalism, could be thought of as:

First an approach that can be used to effectively develop the framework and landscape of a journalistic endeavor — by using tech methods and tools to engage usefully with a community.
Second, civic tech can be the framework for a news outlet to engage with and remain usefully entwined with a community, both as an operating system and a beacon that helps maintain its purpose (just as truth and fairness and verification are). Basically, if a media organization consistently engages with the community, works with it to the extent that the community helps define the news and information needs it has that it needs the media organization to meet, that creates a value. That value is one that the media organization holds onto, that it strives to uphold, and then you’ve got a infrastructure of and for civic engagement that is built on an equal footing. That leads to the next:
Third, it is a result, one in which a journalistic entity becomes self-consciously a part of the technological infrastructure serving a community.”

I agree with Hay’s ideas — the use of civic tech can be seen throughout the process of a journalistic endeavor, from conceptualization to the product itself.

Those observing the flaws of the journalism industry have described the need for increased engagement and service ad nauseum, but in today’s world, technology is all the more crucial. It has to be harnessed by journalists and public servants alike because it has the power to help communities and individuals. Journalists should be using the tenants of civic tech to advance their work, to involve communities in solving their own problems and to fulfill their responsibility as servants to communities.