Photo by Code for Romania’s Dana Pascu

Why us, why this, and why now?

I recently had the honour of opening the Scaling Civic Tech forum in Tbilisi, setting the scene for the sessions that were to follow. Here’s a tense-appropriate version of what was said.

Grace O'Hara
Jul 18, 2018 · 8 min read

You might not have seen it but my heart was pounding, every part of me was shaking.

That morning was the third time I’d ever been on stage and the first two had been only a few months before. You see, I made the incredible mistake of telling my colleagues that I wanted to front up to my fear of public speaking this year. And well, there I was, privileged to be standing before a crowd, carrying the banner of one minority group in tech, and representing dozens who were unable to be there.

The day was dedicated to talking about scaling, measuring and acknowledging the work from the civic tech movement around the world. And the purpose of my session was to give a foundation of what’s to come; to tell the story of the civic tech movement, what it has achieved and where it’s heading.

But first I wanted to start with a smaller story, my story.

I fell into civic tech by mistake, but looking back, it seems like this was always where I was supposed to be. I grew up wanting to be a photojournalist, wanting to change the world. But, as life goes, I ended up working in the startup scene, where I got chewed up and spat out after my values bumped against the status quo.

I then met Alvaro, the co-founder of Code for Australia, who told me about this thing called civic tech. “You’ve heard of fintech, right? It’s like that. But for civic things”, he told me. Yes, I said, and did that thing when you nod and smile, even though you don’t understand at all. But I could see the heart behind his words, the spark in his eyes when he talked about technology being a force for good in the world. I didn’t know it, but an unexpected door had opened, and I had stepped through.

So what is civic tech and why is it important?

A year and a half later, and I’m still here, and there are still as many definitions of civic tech out there as there are people, like me, becoming inspired and empowered to get involved. The forum wasn’t about definitions or waxing lyrical about the philosophy behind civic tech, instead we gathered to talk about its future in real, tangible terms.

To me, the power of civic tech lies in its ability to leverage three things: government’s reach, the unstoppable progress of technology and the unspeakable thing in people that drives them to do good.

Around the world, governments are the single most important institution that affects people’s lives. And for the most part, they’re full of people that want to do good. Code for America Founder, Jennifer Pahlka, has called public servants “some of the most dedicated, brilliant, creative people, just working with incredible constraints.”

If you’re familiar with the phrase supersize, you’ll know that bigger doesn’t always mean better. These government giants, while powerful and impactful, have been unable to adapt to rate of technological change, meaning critical services are falling behind and failing their citizens. And, these digital service failures are creating a growing rift in trust between those who lead, and those who pay their taxes.

Democracy is also fallible to whims of leaders — and I don’t think I need to state the obvious example. From rampant corruption to executive orders that go against common sense and the will of the people, increasingly people are asking, who or what can we expect to keep government accountable?

Enter technology

In a world dominated by the internet of things, the answer to almost everything is technology. And it’s undeniable, too, the force it has for impact: in the past ten years alone, it’s revolutionised transport, housing, health and finance. The rapid changes in technology have forced us as societies and as individuals to ask really big, hard questions of ourselves: why do I suddenly trust getting into a strangers car, who can I trust with my personal data, does it matter if I can’t tell when I’m talking to a robot? It forces us to think about held traditions and perspectives in a new light, pushing questions of ethics and equality to the forefront.

But it’s not without its flaws either. As another supersized giant, the tech community has gathered power and impact that is largely unregulated and far from perfect. Ironically, while human-centred design and responsiveness are at the core of modern digital practices, it has a reputation for leaving large portions of the world marginalised, excluded from having a say in how and why things are made.

The current culture around technology, the fail-fast, work hard, play hard, bro mentality is creating burnt out, disempowered workers. Throw into the mix the current political climate, a newly inspired generation who want to do more with their skills than work for a paycheck, and (as they say in tech) you’ve got an area ripe for disruption.

Enter civic technology

Civic tech means building technology that works for the betterment of the public and public services. In some cases that means helping governments in the pursuit of digital transformation. In others it means stepping up to be the watchdog, holding those in power accountable for their choices and actions, and stepping up to be the provider, filling in the gap when no one else is able to, or wants to.

Civic tech means empowering diverse communities to get involved in the making and use of technology. It means showing tech companies that teams can be as diverse as you choose them to be, and that there is enormous value in people that are traditionally underestimated.

Lastly, civic tech means opening doors and creating opportunities for talented people to use their skills in a way that has impact. For establishing a new way of ‘giving back’ that is scalable, replicable and impactful. Code for All is a perfect example of this in action, a global network of people with backgrounds as diverse as photography to law, working together to create open technology that meets the needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Why is it needed?

You might be wondering, why this, why us, and why now?

From my few years on this earth, I can say that I’ve never felt a need for this work more. I feel in my bones, in the air, in the people I talk to, a sense of electricity about the way the world is and the way it ought to be.

We’re living through a time that needs leaders with strong moral compasses, that have a vision for democracy where all are included and considered. More importantly, we need leaders and communities that bridge the gap between technology’s unregulated development and government’s fundamental purpose for looking after everyone.

If you’re not someone who’s motivated by a moral need, look at it from an economical standpoint. Code for America found that making government services 10 per cent more effective would be as impactful as doubling all philanthropic spending. As medicine advances, populations are living longer, creating a growing pressure on welfare systems that may not be able to afford it. The future of service delivery doesn’t need increases of the tax variety, but efficiency. And if government’s themselves aren’t able to do this on their own, who else is there to help?

Lastly, we’ve seen for ourselves the power of civic tech in action. In the past ten years, we’ve seen citizens all over the world step up to creating better services.

  • In Australia, we’ve worked with 20 different government departments and agencies, creating paid opportunities for over 60 technologists, who represent 14 countries from around the world.
  • In the Caribbean, Slashroots is training 200 Haitian women with data skills courses to increase their chances of online employment.
  • In Africa, an initiative funded by Google and the World bank is training over a thousand new data journalists to identify fake news, fact-check presidential claims and to crowdsource information.
  • In Mexico, 25 tools were developed by volunteers in the wake of the 2017 earthquake, helping people connect with loved ones and crucial resources. Code for All is now helping these tools to be redeployed in Romania, who has a volunteer base of over 500 talented people.
  • Another tool developed by Code for Romania monitors election data has called out thousands of voting irregularities, and is being replicated into Poland and Moldova.

These stories are a drop in the ocean of civic tech — to give you an idea of the breadth and scale of the movement as it stands. I’m sure the Code for All folks would love to share more with you over on Slack.

I got 99 problems

So where do we go from here?

The past decade has seen the civic tech movement grow from infancy to a young being. Through grassroots funding and bootstrapped beginnings we’ve stumbled down the path of figuring out how to walk, talk and survive… for the most part.

As a community, we’re still struggling to tell the greater story of civic tech. Perhaps because we’ve been busy making the thing to stop, take a breath and write about it. We’re also still struggling to create consistent flows of information, consistent metrics and a common taxonomy to help us measure ourselves across the board.

Lastly, we’re struggling to find the support we need. Somewhere between philanthropy and startup, civic tech can be confusing for people to get their head around, let alone get their wallets or purses out for. And without knowing how to measure ourselves, there looms the ever present issue of focusing funding and efforts in places where we see the most impact and return.

I didn’t delve too much into these, because we had the whole afternoon for that. For the moment, I wanted to finish with an acknowledgement.

To each of the people in the room, no matter who they were there to represent, I wanted to thank them for being there, for giving their afternoon to be with us and letting us share our story with so far.

To the Omidyar Network, NDI, HIVOS, TransparenCEE, IDFI and the Code for All community — thank you (then and again, now) for your hard work and resources in making the forum happen.

Lastly, there was only a tiny fraction of the Code for All network there on the day. Most importantly, I wanted to acknowledge the entire community, and their relentless work trying to improve their communities all over the world.

Thank you for your tireless efforts in making your cities and countries better, for pursuing a vision that is often difficult and thankless, and for opening the doors so people like me, shaking but inspired, can fall into this beautiful thing.

Code for All

Code for All is the largest civic tech network in the world, amplifying the impact of good ideas through a global network of local organisations.

Grace O'Hara

Written by

Storyteller at Code for Australia, Code for All & Small Fires. Trying to figure this world out in between, sometimes with words, mostly with action.

Code for All

Code for All is the largest civic tech network in the world, amplifying the impact of good ideas through a global network of local organisations.