Civic tech gets a seat on Vancouver’s city council

A Q&A with Vancouver councillor and civic tech entrepreneur Colleen Hardwick

Colleen Hardwick is the Founder and CEO of PlaceSpeak, an online location-based platform for citizen engagement. In October 2018, she was elected to Vancouver City Council.

Colleen Hardwick, a civic tech entrepreneur turned city councillor in Vancouver, speaks at the Code for Canada Showcase in August 2018. (Photo courtesy Liz Beddall)

How did you end up in civic tech and municipal politics?

I literally grew up at City Hall. I was 10 years old when my father was first elected as an Alderman in the City of Vancouver, where he served for three terms up until I graduated from high school. He taught Urban Geography at UBC and I followed in his footsteps in geography, political science and urban planning. I took a major detour into film and television, and then digital technology, but always kept a foot in civic affairs.

I had been part of a visioning process on a dormant rail line where we needed to consult with residents in nine neighbourhoods along the corridor. We had consulted using traditional methods but that proved insufficient to build a defensible case. So, the question became — how do we consult with residents online within specific boundaries in a provable, private and ultimately legitimate manner? When I couldn’t find an existing solution, I set out to create one — and PlaceSpeak was born.

“Civic tech is necessary for hearing from a more diverse public and including their perspectives in the decision-making process.”

My experience in civic tech showed me what was wrong with the status quo and how it can be fixed. Applying this understanding, I am pioneering a new approach based on online proof of residency to engage authentically with residents of the City of Vancouver. After all, we consult to obtain feedback data which informs deliberation, and ultimately, affects decision-making and public policy development. Civic tech is, ultimately, about applying innovation to solve local problems with the boundaries of cities, neighbourhoods and communities.

Do you think of yourself as Canada’s first civic tech politician?

I hadn’t thought of it before, but it may be that I am the first civic tech entrepreneur to successfully run for public office. Knowing what I know and seeing the city through the lens of civic tech puts me in a unique position to affect informed change and I felt compelled to try and affect change from within local government.

How does your civic tech background inform your approach to local issues?

For me, civic tech is about building technology solutions that make it easier for people to get involved and influence the decisions which affect their lives and their communities. We know that traditional forms of engagement, such as town hall meetings or public hearings, are not representative and can be inaccessible to many. Civic tech is necessary for hearing from a more diverse public and including their perspectives in the decision-making process, empowering them to have a meaningful impact on civic issues.

I am also a great believer in evidence-based decision-making and public policy development. Civic tech gives me the tools to obtain the necessary evidence, and by that I mean data that is defensible and actionable. For example, as I approach local issues such as land use, transportation planning and more, I know the right questions to ask to obtain reliable data. I can be confident that the feedback gathered is coming from more than the ‘same 10 people’ who show up at public hearings.

How do you think civic tech and government can work closer together?

I spoke about this subject at the Code for Canada Showcase earlier this year. It is not the job of governments to compete with the private sector. There are companies at all scales who innovate and develop new technologies, which is why organizations like the National Research Council of Canada exist to support them. As I often say, government is strong on the ‘build side’ but not on the ‘buy side’ of the relationship. Governments at all levels need to rethink their procurement processes to anticipate and embrace innovation, particularly with civic tech.

How do you think governments should be approaching the use and procurement of technology?

The use of technology is no longer optional. Arguments around the digital divide are largely history, and as a result, widespread use can change the relationship between the public and the public sector, across levels of government. Regardless of the technologies used, privacy and security are non-negotiable — the collection of personal data must be limited and anonymized, encryption measures should be undertaken, and principles such as Privacy by Design should be applied by default and as the norm, rather than the exception.

“Governments at all levels need to rethink their procurement processes to anticipate and embrace innovation, particularly with civic tech.”

In terms of procurement, government programs can be used to support startups and help introduce innovative new technologies.

Are there any potential civic tech initiatives you would like the City of Vancouver to pursue?

Vancouver’s newly elected Council just voted to undertake a new City-wide plan. This presents a perfect opportunity to involve Vancouver residents in planning for the future of their neighbourhoods, and the city as a whole. Civic tech provides the online tools to enable a co-creation process that can be managed at a hyperlocal level. Vancouverites want a real voice and civic tech can be used to build trust in the public process.