My Thoughts on Civic Tech and Citizen Engagement

Written by Vanessa Kisowile

I would like to begin by answering this particular question, “Is civic tech in anyway a solution?”

I think civic tech has the potential of being a solution but there are a number of factors that accelerate civic tech’s impact in the society.

Knowing that civic tech is not new at all, yet it is a trending and growing concept in governance, public development and social services areas. I am of the opinion that the civic tech concept is not a new concept because the concept came after the failure of the widespread belief that technology will solve issues in our societies, since civic tech means any technology that helps to enhance a relationship between the citizen and the government.

Technology is not only a tool; it’s now part of our cultures | Photo by Basil Malaki

Technology is not only a tool; it’s now part of our cultures. It helps shape the way we do and see things. More and more, from the rise of Ushahidi “www.ushahidi.com”, International Movement ATD Fourth World “http://www.atd-fourthworld.org/” and Idle No More “http://www.idlenomore.ca/” to open data policies, technology is used in political organizations and movements grassroot campaigns and other civic engagement efforts throughout the country — and delivering on its promise. Technology offers new and accessible ways to bring people together, building stable communities and providing solutions to community problems. This is the whole idea of civic tech.

Civic tech is not really social media as we see Facebook, Instagram and alike, it is a digital platform that improves public processes and systems, promote engagements between communities and governments and improve lives of individual citizens.

Hatua Project at Sima, Sengerema during a grassroot citizen engagement meetup | Photo by Basil Malaki

This emerging field brings together a number of different and diverse groups from different sectors including politicians, social services, technology stakeholders, NGOs, media, ordinary people (normal citizen) and more. As is with the culture of open source technology, this informal community is open to everyone who shares an interest in its development and application.

Having platforms that manage to connect citizens to citizens, citizens to government, that manage relationships between constituents whether be it is between business partners, organizations, leaders etc. for instance, National Builder “http://nationbuilder.com/”, Fixmystreet “https://www.fixmystreet.com/”, Maoni App “http://hatuaproject.org/”, Ushahidi “https://www.ushahidi.com/” and more that are already developed or already working.

In civic tech we think about three returns which are reach, engagement and influence. Social impact is the number one measure, of course social impact differs in different parts of the world, these solutions and platforms should enable people to engage in a way and have the ability to actually drive sustainable changes in the society

We have a number of assumptions concerning civic tech, we believe it is meant to be a good means to make democracy easy to access, the tools we create will be used to make better communities. These interfaces and platforms we build are meant to be easy for everyone to use, because civic tech is meant for everyone. For it to be a tool to make democracy better it has to be accessible to everyone.

So, is #CivicTech a solution for everyone? | Photo by Basil Malaki

The questions is it a solution for everyone?

Maybe, this depends on who are talking about and who is using civic tech right now. It is important to note that not everyone uses digital technology. Tanzania we only have 5.3% of people using digital technology, Kenya has 39.0% people, Australia has 83% of people using internet. Just looking at the figures we can’t just say that civic tech currently not a universal solution.

I think we need to bridge this digital divide for civic tech to actually make things better than it is already doing in some areas where it is well implemented. The good thing is , people who use civic tech really believe that it works, this is proved by the research done by mySociety in Uk, US, South Africa and Kenya. Over 90% said yes, civic tech helps them to hold their government responsible and they do feel that they are being empowered see: https://www.mysociety.org/files/2015/10/demographics-report.pdf

Generally I would say civic tech has a potential of being a solution to everyone, in every society, I think we just need to find a way to bridge the gap between those who use and those who are disengaged and be careful to keep track that we do not let it be monopolized by certain kinds of groups in our societies and make sure it reaches to the people that it can actually be of help.

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