How a civic tech scene has risen from the Open Knowledge Foundation community in Germany
An interview with Eileen Wagner, about The Open Knowledge Foundation and its Code for Germany project that binds together a whole civic tech network all across the country.
Can you present yourself and tell us how you got involved in civic tech?
Eileen Wagner: I have a non-standard background, but then again, I rarely meet people working in this field that do have a standard background. I studied philosophy and logic. Two years ago I moved back home to Berlin and felt like doing something that involved both technology and politics, which led me to the Open Knowledge Foundation in Berlin. It is a non-profit that, at the time, mainly worked on open data, but over the last couple of years also focused on civic tech and open source etc. I started writing stories about people from “Code for Germany”, which is the German part of the international civic tech network “Code for All,” and it was amazing. The people were really inspiring and for the first time I felt like the work I was doing had a measurable impact. Now I am a content manager at the Open Knowledge Foundation. So I write articles and handle communication, not just for Code for Germany, but also for a new project that we are working on called the Prototype Fund.
Can you tell us more about Code for Germany and the Open Knowledge Foundation?
E.W.: The Open Knowledge Foundation is a registered non-profit and Code for Germany is one project among many others that are part of it. When you look at Code for America, they have these local teams called “brigades”. We follow a similar pattern in Germany, where we have the OK Labs (Open Knowledge Labs) that are spread all over the country. This network is what we call Code for Germany, it is the community of the Open Knowledge Foundation. Regarding the Code for Germany project now, we tend to push a different focus each year. This year we are focusing on elections and we are organising hackathons in two cities (Cologne and Berlin). These are called “Wahlsalons” (election salons). These are all about developing tools devoted to polling, political programs and data analysis or vizualisation etc. We launched it a few weeks ago and we are really thrilled about that!
What made people in Germany take an interest in civic tech, when did it start?
E.W.: We have a long tradition of hacking here in Germany. For instance there is the CCC (Chaos Computer Club), which is an association of hackers that was created in 1981 and counts overs 5,000 members now. So I would say that civic tech found a fertile ground in this culture. While the idea of using technology for something meaningful is firmly rooted within the German tech culture, “civic tech” as a concept is still very new, in the sense that it means more than just hacking for social good but also hacking for civic issues, issues that could benefit citizens directly. That is what we tried to organize in 2014 starting with eight different cities, launching Code for Germany and trying to shape the future of citizen engagement and cities from a technological point of view.
How popular is civic tech in Germany?
E.W.: It seems to me that there are two issues. First of all we very much have a white male/upper middle class programmer syndrome in civic tech. That is an issue in the sense that the problems you try to tackle are very niche “first-world” problems that don’t necessarily apply to many people. Moreover, the solutions you develop are often catered to your own needs, and not the needs of the actual users. It too often results in tools that had the best intentions but will never be used. The second issue I see is an “access” issue. Just the fact that only tech-savvy people have access to our tools and use them. People who at most use Facebook and Google do not really engage with the technical and political platforms that we created. Obviously having a diverse community is the first step to helping that, but also human-centered design cannot be stressed enough. The strategy we have adopted is to avoid working in a bubble. So we have reached out to other non-profits that had been working on specific social issues for decades and asked them what their technological needs were. This approach was at least slightly more successful than just doing hackathons about some topic and hoping that somebody will somehow randomly come across the tool that we have built.
Are there private companies doing civic tech in Germany? What is the difference between their work and yours?
E.W.: First of all, unlike in France, civic tech is not that much of a concept here, so there are not that many companies involved in that. Some do what we call gov tech, meaning that they provide the government with particular services. They usually are very big companies with a long history of working with the government. Basically, we don’t find a lot of companies in our sector. There are of course opportunities to launch startups from our own community, and in some cases we have tried that, but so far people from the network are not really interested in it. Maybe that is for the best since we really identify as part of civil society, which should be independent from both the public and the private sector.
What do you think about open source civic tech movements that have emerged abroad, like g0v in Taiwan or Podemos in Spain?
E.W.: We need more interaction! Code for Germany is part of Code for All which has thirteen different partners, so this structure allows us to interact more. But it could be improved if all the movements around the world tried to collaborate through such a structure. When it comes to Code for All, well Spain isn’t part of it, France isn’t either and I feel like it would be so easy to work together. The issues we work on are similar, the tools we build are often redeployable. This is the whole point of open source development! It’s really a shame that we haven’t done much work with France, despite being neighbours.
Does civic tech need a crisis to arise?
E.W.: That is partly true. Last year, when refugees became a topic in the German media, the tech community got increasingly involved in organizing hackathons and raising awareness regarding migration, integration, and emergency response. But as I have said earlier, I feel like in Germany, civic tech emerged from the tradition of hacktivism which started in the eighties.
What do you think the future holds for civic tech and for politics in general?
E.W.: For me, a bright future for civic tech would mean that it becomes less of a movement. That it actually becomes a very natural part of governments to reflect on how technology can improve interaction with citizens. If this happens though, I hope there will still be an independant community that is not affiliated with the government nor the private sector. I think it is important for a healthy democracy to have a large group of people that works on these issues and keeps the government in check. But this needn’t be a tech movement at all.
What part of your background drove you to this field?
E.W.: My ending up here is a bit of a coincidence because my background has very little to do with politics: I first studied analytical philosophy where I reflected on questions like “What sorts of things are there in this world?” or “On what ground can we say that the sun will rise tomorrow?” I then studied mathematical logic which is kind of an extension of that, just with cooler symbols. So I guess I always really liked abstract technical things. But when you pair that with a firm belief in democracy and openness, you very quickly end up in this area, I think. Plus, there is still so much work to do! So it is a really motivating place to be right now.