Building Technology With, Not For Communities:

An Engagement Guide for Civic Tech

An overview of research into best practices for community-led development


In the summer of 2014, I started thinking and writing about the “build with, not for” concept in civic technology. Inspired by design thinking leaders like Lucy Kimbell and co-design, relational organizing masterminds like Saul Alinsky, and heavily influenced by my experience as an organizer with the DC Funk Parade and my years at the Sunlight Foundation as the National Policy Manager, I became convinced that we need to invest more in the “civic” in civic tech — prioritizing community leadership in the creation of tech above the tools themselves.

To advance this idea, over the last several months I’ve been researching existing efforts in community-driven tech— practices from around the country and the globe that put communities in the driver’s seat when it comes to identifying civic problems and crafting civic solutions. This work is conducted with the Smart Chicago Collaborative as part of the Knight Community Information Challenge.

Below, I’ve rounded up some background on the project, as well as the 5 Modes for Civic Engagement for Civic Tech, a series of engagement strategies and common tactics for their implementation that I encountered in my research.

People First, Tech Second: Criteria

What distinguishes community-driven civic tech from “civic tech” more generally is the extent to which the real people that a tool is intended to serve guide the lifecycle of that tool. Community-driven technologies are built at the speed of inclusion — the pace necessary not just to create a tool but to do so with in-depth communal input and stewardship — and directly respond to the needs, ideas, and wants of those they’re intended to benefit.

Residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn work together to get Red Hook Wifi, a community wireless network online. Image via DigitalStewards.org.

In order to apply this principle to my research and analysis, I developed the Criteria for People First Civic Tech, 5 simple metrics that determine the degree to which a tool, project, or program prioritizes people and real world application above production. You can read more about the criteria here.

Using this criteria, I analyzed dozens of “civic technology” projects, mostly, but not exclusively within the US. I disregarded whether or not the projects or creators identified with “civic tech”, looking instead at whether or not the “tech” in question was created to serve public good.

The projects that fit the People First Criteria were diverse in terms of the technologies developed, the benefits yielded, and the communities that were (and, in some cases, still are) at the helm. But there are a great number of similarities, too — consistent, proven strategies and tactics that other practitioners of (and investors in) civic tech can learn from.

Modes of Engagement: Strategies for Letting Communities Lead

To aid other practitioners and investors in the field, I’ve translated the commonalities discovered through my research into a series of 5 “modes” for civic engagement in civic tech.

The “modes” are strategies that projects have wielded to meet the People First criteria and ensure communal control over civic tool development. Modes are almost never used in isolation. Rather, successful projects use multiple modes at different stages of ideation and production.

In a deep dive series on the Smart Chicago Collaborative blog, I explore the modes in greater detail, reviewing, in particular, case study examples from different projects and organizations. Listed along with the modes are common tactics for implementation. Though these are not the only ways that these strategies are (and can be) executed on, reviewing these tactics is helpful if you want to better understand what it looks like to apply these techniques in the real world — and to how they can be further iterated on and modeled.

5 Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech

#1 Utilize Existing Social Infrastructure

Social infrastructure refers to the ecosystem of relationships and organizations in a community. These social structures can be formal or informal, making it hard for outsiders to evaluate which supports are the most important in given social context.

To address this knowledge gap, practitioners must literally meet people where they are and work with local partners to customize the best community approach. To read more about this mode and case studies from successful projects that have wielded it, click here.

TACTICS

#2 Utilize Existing Tech Skills & Infrastructure

Technical infrastructure refers to both physical elements, like wireless network nodes, radio towers, and computers, as well as digital elements, like social media platforms, email, and blogs — the full range of technical tools a community uses to support everyday activity and public life.

“Innovations” and technologies don’t have to be brand new in order to be leveraged for civic impact. Some successful tools are the product of simply using or encouraging the use of tools that communities have ready access to or already rely on in new ways. To read more about this mode and case studies from successful projects that have wielded it, click here.

TACTICS

#3 Create Two-Way Educational Environments

Adding new technology into the infrastructure of a community is more complicated than simply teaching community members how to use the new tech. For the skills and tech-use to stick, communities have to have the opportunity to integrate the new tools and new skills into their lives on their own terms.

As people learn, they tend to express wants and needs that are particular to the tool they’re using as well as how that tool could relate to their lives. This means that, when creating new environments for teaching technology skills, teachers need to be (a) actively listening and responding to the ideas and stick-points offered by participants and (b) poised to seize opportunities where issue overlap allows for skills training to turn into tech development. To read more about this mode and case studies from successful projects that have wielded it, click here.

TACTICS

When we’re talking about designing the systems that change how communities work, the matter of “who” is invited to identify what gets built, why, and how matters. Photo by Maureen McCann.

#4 Lead From Shared Spaces

Communities are built around commons — collaboratively owned and maintained spaces that people use for sharing, learning, and hanging out. Commons are the foundation upon which all community infrastructure (social, technical, etc) is built and are often leveraged by multiple overlapping and independent communities. Tapping into a commons not only helps identify social and technical infrastructure, it provides a key opportunity to listen and learn about what matters most to a community. To read more about this mode and case studies from successful projects that have wielded it, click here.

TACTICS

#5 Distribute Power

The art of leading a collaborative process is the art of getting out of the way. You can follow best practices — building your work through public commons, rooting your projects in the existing social and technical practices of a community, and teaching new technical skills while listening — but if you can’t get out of the way, you can’t run a community-driven development process.

To read more about this mode and case studies from successful projects that have wielded it, click here.

TACTICS


Over the next month, we’ll continue to dive deeper into the tactics used for community-driven processes — and, we want your help. We know the landscape of existing community-driven work is far more expansive than we can discover on our own, so: If you’ve got a project that fits the People First Criteria or resources to help build out our budding practitioner hub, get in touch.

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