Photo: Code for Romania

The Heroes of Tech and the Lessons They Learned

There was a time when technology and design were used only at your workplace. There was a time when words like “open-source”, “open-government” and “civic innovation” were just in business books.

Then they came. A handful of professionals decided to bridge the gap between the private and public sectors. They were told they couldn’t. They were told they shouldn’t. And, yet, they did it! They started building apps for the problems around them. Their united forces put tech in society.

Sometimes it was tough, sometimes it was rewarding — but every time they learned.

So, what did the unsung heroes of tech found out along the way? Hop on a journey around the globe to find out!

The first stop is with g0v in Taiwan, where Aiya Hsu and her colleagues have been organising civic hackathons since 2012. And in 2014 and 2016 they even hosted 2 international summits. How did they do it? By keeping everything as decentralised as it can be. Nearly thousands of proposals and projects were put together. This couldn’t have been possible without a focus on community management and project development. Aiya says that’s what takes a project from an idea to results.

Photo: g0v

Going next to Code for Japan, Hal Seki is telling us that civic tech is not only for those who can code. Civic tech is more about the community: getting involved and getting others involved. This is how the 80 “Code for” local brigades started. Someone invited someone to solve the problems together and now they are running data-usage workshops for government officials.

But not everything was easy-peasy. In the beginning, there were projects they couldn’t implement in real life. And people with lots of ideas. “So we started involving stakeholders to think about issues together”, says Hal.

But how do these things everything start? Alvaro Maz from Code for Australia thinks you just have to do it! When government and technology are brought together, lives change.

He used to think that only with the proper ingredients (like tech-expertise and knowing the right people) you can make it in civic tech. He shattered his own beliefs when Code for Australia was established. “I didn’t think about the government networks I didn’t have or the lack of experience working within the technology sector; in seeing other Code for country programs succeed, I knew that leaders in government wanted to create and contribute to change, and developers, designers and citizens wanted to make a difference. We just needed to find a way to bring them at the same table”, says Alvaro.

“Software is not a Trojan horse for society”, says Johan Groenen from Code for NL. In fact, how people see change through tech is very different from 10 years ago. Civic tech is not only about technology. Olivia Vereha from Code4Romania thinks that “In a civic tech project you don’t need just development. You need research, communications experts, designers, so all sorts of skills. Everybody can contribute.” Everyone can be a part of the change!

Okay, by now everything seems really fun: you have an idea, you start implementing it with the devs and the designers, then the communication people make an announcement, it works, everybody drinks champagne and jumps on the next project. Yeah, right…

Truth be told, civic tech is hard. Rewarding, but hard. ”While leading a team of volunteers, the hardest thing to do is to keep everyone motivated, while educating people about tech-for-good at the same time,” reckons Ebtihaj Khan from Code for Pakistan. Putting long hours after work, trying to synchronize both your schedule and the deadlines from the project you’re in and all the external hurdles like government officials, legislation, money, can make you seriously burned out.

What else is there? What can make us go on? Alvaro says just three things do the trick: optimism, empathy and patience. So you must believe in what you do and try to understand everyone involved because a project might take forever. Okay, not forever. But be prepared for months and even years.

Sorry to burst your bubble here. Behind all those useful breakthrough apps and awards are sleepless nights, self-doubts and work work work work work. Olivia lets it out in the open: “We have many bad moments. When we reach burnout. When we fail to deliver in due time. When we have to pull the plug on an idea that sounded exciting at first because after going through incubation and research we discover we cannot implement it as legislation or other factors get in the way. Giving up on a project is the hardest thing to do, but sometimes it is the only option.”

They say hardships are useless if you don’t learn from them. Courage and like-minded people can get you in civic tech. A successful project might need more than that. Bear with me as I put together four major lessons learned by all the civic tech programs out there.

  1. Don’t allow enthusiasm to trump research! Nothing is more dangerous than dragging volunteers and donors and other partners in a long-term project that is not based on a valid problem. Because at the end of the day you will be left with a non-solution, no users and a very tired and frustrated team.
  2. Don’t work alone! You need partners, you need a network, you need people and organisations to learn from and, after you benefit from all of the above, pass it forward. Don’t keep all the information and knowledge for yourself. You cannot have success, if everything around you doesn’t. Civic tech is about working together and making the world better for all. You can only create impact when you share. This is not a competition, it is a collaboration. Open up!
  3. Communication! Good work should be accompanied by good storytelling to increase outreach and create awareness. If done right, storytelling might be the key to exponentially grow the organisation you’re in.
  4. Build a relationship with the public sector! You might not know any key officials when you start out, but you might be surprised at how receptive can be the government when you come prepared with a solution. Government buy-in in the early stage of a project can really ensure its success. The solution will reach people in need faster and the alignment with the public sector will open many doors for other impactful projects. The private and the public sector should be on the same team, right?

Thank you everyone for sharing with me what you have learned through civic tech!

We might not be the cool X-Men or the Avengers. We want to fight climate change, but we don’t personally know Captain Planet. And us, girls, don’t have cute outfits like Sailor Moon.

But we all have a civic superpower: the willingness to do good!

Everyone can Upgrade the World. One App at a Time.