The place where many beautiful things happen: Goldings Free Dive, Wellington. Credit: aimee whitcroft

Flaxroots — civic tech in New Zealand

On 24 July 2016, a wonderful group of people gathered together in Wellington to talk about civic tech in New Zealand.

“Civic” NZ

New Zealand’s an interesting place. We’re isolated, small geographically and even smaller population-wise. We’re quite spread out. There’s also, unsurprisingly, a big difference between those of us who live in major towns and cities, and those of who live in rural areas. And we’re far from an homogenous population, either.

Much as we’re intensely proud of being New Zealanders, the word “civic” doesn’t get used much here.

People aren’t really taught about how government — local and central — works. Taking part in democratic processes like elections doesn’t seem to be seen as an important responsibility by many people (the reasons for this are numerous). And while a large number of people volunteer their time and skills, you might be hard-pressed to find someone who’d describe such work as part of their civic contribution to the communities and places they love.

“Civic tech” NZ

There is much, and growing, interest in civic tech here. Viewing New Zealand’s strong (and active!) open data, open government and open source communities as a Venn diagram of 3 interlocking circles, I see civic tech as as the centre part: the space where everything has the opportunity to interact.

And there are some brilliant civic tech initiatives out there already, like Wellington’s Hack Miramar group.

But given our context, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the civic tech movement here is relatively small and disparate. The people working in and around the space don’t necessarily know who else is working in and around the space. They don’t necessarily know what other projects and organisations are being started, running or winding down. There isn’t, essentially, a strong support and knowledge network.

It’s also possible that, perhaps because people have been using a range of terms for civic tech-related work (as well as everything I’ve mentioned above), we haven’t always realised that what we’re creating and doing could be defined as civic tech.

Read about why I keep going on about civic tech, how I’m defining it for these purposes, and why I think the term has value

Getting the ball rolling

There comes a time to take action. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter so much that one gets the first step right, as that one makes it.

So that’s what I did. I reached out personally and also put a notice on the local Open Government Ninjas mailing list proposing a venue and time, and asking anyone who was interested in this and/or future meetings to let me know.

Given how busy Wellingtonians tend to be, and the difficulty of arranging anything at short notice, I was thrilled at how many people made time to come to the meeting, and the enormously high calibre of every single person there.

The beginnings of something beautiful

It was great to hear what everyone thought — their hopes, and their concerns. From a personal perspective, hearing these awesome people echo what I’d been thinking was strong validation that there’s something with huge potential here.

It’s worth noting at this point that, while we were meeting in Wellington, we were talking about New Zealand in general. We all identify strongly with the idea of helping to foster, in any way we can, a more connected country. While civic tech itself generally works best at the hyperlocal level, many of the challenges involved in growing the space and networks involved require that we think more widely, too.

Our conversation was wide-ranging, but the main points included:

  • can we be for civic tech what Internet NZ is for the internet here? Can we become a place of strong knowledge, a place of help and a place of support for people working in and around the space?
  • we don’t want to and absolutely shouldn’t focus on the “tech” element of civic tech. Our focus should be on fostering civic engagement, using tech as one of the tools for doing this.
  • how can we help people understand how government works, how to get involved and why it’s a great thing to do (even if it’s frustrating as hell sometimes)?
  • how can we help government — central and local — understand how to be more accessible, and why it’s important? For example, how can we help improve existing consultation and submission processes, so people feel it’s worthwhile to engage?
  • how can we help people find the support they need? [Stay tuned for my next post, where I explain the concept of a civic switchboard and my work to build one.]

As you can see, engagement, connection and education are core concepts.

Prototyping is another.

We can learn great lessons from what people are doing and have done here and internationally; we don’t want to reinvent wheels, and we certainly aren’t interested in the “not invented here” fallacy.

But there’s no panacea — we need to figure out what works in which situations and contexts, and why (or why not). And given New Zealand’s context, we’re in a very interesting position to do so — a city’s worth of people, spread out over a country roughly the size of the UK.

We think we can help in terms of connecting people, generating and sharing an overview of the ecology, supporting existing initiatives and, of course, working to plug major gaps.

And if that all sounds a bit fluffy? That’s because it is. We’re going to be thinking about and working on some core objectives, and exactly what we need to do to make them happen.

The only way to find out, of course, is to start :)

What next?

The website

I’m in the process of building a simple web presence, hopefully up by the end of this week. Its aim? To begin mapping out and connecting who’s doing what here in NZ, and providing a place for people to thoughts and resources. And it’ll be a place to share stories: of success and, perhaps most importantly, of challenges faced, failure and lessons learned.

It’ll also begin drawing together which organisations, people, projects and events are involved with civic tech and civic tech-related work in NZ. This might include open data, open government, open source, engagement, and…well, we’ll find out!

It’s a first step. It’ll change, improve and may become something entirely different. It may fall over, and something new might rise in its place. The only way to find out is to take that step and see what happens next :)

UPDATE: it’s live at openciv.nz!

The meetings

We’ll be meeting in person monthly, too. If you’re in Wellington and would like to come along, you’re always most welcome. More ideas, experiences and lenses are A Good Thing.

At our next meeting (later in August), we’ll be focussing on the outcomes we might want the group to aim for in the long run, and what impacts/intermediate outcomes might support those in the medium term. “What do we want, and how do we get it”, basically.

UPDATE: we’ve decided to change this a bit – we’ll be opening the discussion up to a wider group to discuss civic tech in New Zealand. Upcoming meetings will start to get into the more focused nitty-gritty of what we want to achieve and how we get there.

If you’re in Auckland, the awesome Caleb Tutty and Nick Williamson (my collaborator on this blog) will be starting something up in the near future.

If you’re elsewhere in NZ? Feel free to comment below, get in touch directly, and/or get involved when the website goes live. We’re all about connecting and supporting.

Related events

Finally — keep an eye (or even come to!) events like Open Source Open Society and GovHack NZ*. We’ll be there and yep, we’ll be posting everything related on the website, too!

It’s an exciting time and we can make real, positive change in our society. We’d love you to join us

— — —

Linky goodness:

* Disclaimer: I’m a national organiser for GovHack NZ, and I know Hack Miramar and OS//OS organisers. I’m doing some fun meta-analysis of the over 400 projects submitted at this year’s GovHack, and will be releasing that soon.

** Thanks to Tim McNamara for the awesome term “Flaxroots”.

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