3 Principles to Guide Every Civic Technology Project

We’ve all been there. Staring a broken system in the face wondering how others have tried to fix it. You may have even tried to think of a solution to the problem, and in doing so, you might have become a novice civic technologist. Civic technology, or civtech, is the application of technology to improve or influence governance, politics, or — in GlobalHack’s case — societal issues.

Alex Torpey (left) and Matt Menietti, GlobalHack’s executive director (right), discussing civtech issues in St. Louis.

In December, GlobalHack hosted its first ever Evening with an Expert event to discuss where civtech in St. Louis is headed. We invited Alex Torpey, visiting professor of governance and technology at Seton Hall, to discuss his experiences working with civic tech. In 2011, Torpey was sworn into a four-year term as the 48th Village President of South Orange, New Jersey. As the youngest sitting mayor in New Jersey at the time, he was also the youngest in South Orange’s history. He has been a public servant and entrepreneur the majority of his life, having launched multiple nonpartisan endeavors, including Veracity Media — a social-impact digital strategies consulting firm that helps nonprofits, political candidates and governments use digital media tools and grow their ability for impact — and Rethink Leadership — an initiative aimed at inspiring and supporting young and nontraditional political candidates to run for office as a way to positively benefit their community.

Though much was discussed in the area of civech that evening, one of our favorite take-a-ways from Torpey’s presentation were the three goals every civic tech project should take to heart.

3 Principles of a Civic Tech Project

1 — Inform decisions with data to reduce corruption and bias

Yes, this, unfortunately, refers to blatant under-the-table money deals that make the news. On a much larger scale, though, real corruption occurs without most people even realizing it. Because many decisions in organizations are judgment based, if people don’t have a strong understanding of the issue at hand, they can’t effectively know what’s best. It’s at this point that biases and relationships end up influencing decisions in a way that people may consciously recognize.

Providing real data to individuals in the decision-making process gives them systems-level, objective criteria on which to base their decision. The data doesn’t just guide individual decisions toward more informed outcomes, it helps to set a broader standard for how decision making should occur, ultimately influencing the culture of the organization.

Image from the 2013 Knight Foundation report “The Emergence of Civic Tech”

2 — Lessen the level of decision fatigue for leadership

Decision fatigue is defined as the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. This can happen at any level of an organization — to individuals, different groups or departments or the organization as a whole.

Torpey’s example of this relates to local governments spending incredible amounts of time on minor issues. Consider the effort that could go into simply filling potholes — priority may be influenced by physical observations, constituent reports, and maintenance history. Now imagine a data system that tracks that data and assigns priority accordingly. A plan is laid out almost immediately, and once legislators have agreed on how to weight the various components that influence the data system, the decision-making process is complete.

3 — Address a problem that’s facing your community

Though everyone loves a quick fix, successful organizations go far beyond that. They focus on solving the big, challenging problems that no one prior to them has been able to solve. The solutions are often harder to see, harder to work on and harder to successfully measure. When tackling these issues, it’s important to bring the community into the process and create a partnership with them to work through the problem and solution together. That doesn’t mean putting together a plan and asking for feedback. That means engaging the community from day one, even in helping identify the problems that are most damaging, and leveraging the community’s strengths to create real, lasting impact.

Whether it’s designing a banner image to direct more attention to your city’s road closures or coming up with technology solutions to enhance the quality of life for communities of foreign-born individuals (shout-out to GlobalHack VII!), these three principles will help your idea succeed and truly better the community. Because hey, isn’t that what civtech is all about?

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