Arrows marking the safe walking route along local roadworks in Whangarei, NZ. Artist unknown. Credit: aimee whitcroft, 2016.

Why we keep going on about CivicTech

I’ve been reading and listening to a _lot_ of civic tech-related articles, books and podcasts recently.

What is “civic tech”? Well, therein lies the rub.

My understanding of it, gleaned from all that research into the latest thinking and work in the area, is that it’s about using technology to help empower the public in its dealings with government(s), though better information-generating/sharing, decision-making and accountability.

(And yes, the open data and open government movements are woven very strongly into civic tech. Indeed, they may turn out to form its very foundations*.)

Which is why I’m all over it, at least. I can think of very little more important, in our increasingly-crumbling societies, than working to improve resilience, cohesion, democracy, diversity, inclusion and accountability. The upsides are enormous socially, economically and environmentally, not to mention all the warm fluffy heartfeels it causes :)

It’s a relatively new movement, certainly, but even given that it’s pretty small still. What’s going on, given its potentially-enormous positive impacts?

One part of the issue, at least according to some people, is that civic tech’s definition is a very fuzzy one, and far from the only definition used. Companies which define themselves as being in civic tech range from education-focussed to public-communication-with-local-government-focussed. And many don’t/won’t even use the term civic tech — because they don’t know it, for example, or think of their primary industry as something else. “EdTech startup” or “eVoting provider”, for example.

Why’s this an issue? Well — and this is an issue I see in the tech industry as a whole — lack of a clear image of what a movement/industry is about can make it exceedingly difficult to study that industry, or to represent it to people like the media, the public, government and funders.

And I agree, that’s an issue and one which needs tackling.

However, I also believe that the very wide (and growing!) range of initiatives operating in the space is healthy.

Explosions can be a good thing

About half a billion years ago, the Cambrian explosion happened. Over the very short (geologically) period of time of 20–25 million years, most of the animal phyla we see today, appeared.

Cambrian explosion diorama from the Exhibit Museum, University of Michigan. Credit: drtel, https://www.flickr.com/photos/quantumdriver/2408516179/in/photostream/.

It’s a common pattern. A new space — physically, ecologically, economically, socially — arises, and there’s a sudden rush by lots of little players to fill all the available. The strategy is simple — test out what works, and what doesn’t, and let natural selection and evolution prune and consolidate these to the best solutions.

I believe that’s what we’re seeing now. I applaud all the love and effort going into it, and send commiserating hugs to everyone who’s feeling frustrated or dispirited. These are people working, not to make the next billionaire social media baron, but to help improve the lives of the people around them, even if only by a little bit.

It’s an amazingly exciting time to get involved. But what can we do to help improve matters?

Document the hell out of it

I see a tonne of awesome work going on out there. And there are a number of brilliant resources and reports and articles which point to other brilliant articles and reports and resources.

But it’s still very fragmented, and there are major gaps (especially here in NZ).

I’d like to encourage us all to chronicle what’s being done, where, by whom, in which contexts, and how it's working. As openly and loudly as possible, and preferably in collaboration with each other :) Because while Cambrian explosion-type events are awesome, consistently reinventing the wheel is less so (especially if the wheel is square).

Nick (co-owner of this blog) and I are doing our bit by beginning to document and share not only what we’re doing in this space, but also what, and who, else is out there. As we live in New Zealand, that’s the focus of our first efforts, and we’ve begun reaching out to people as we build this picture.

If you’re curious about the more meta scene, you can check out the Flipboards** we’ve been building, too :)

Call it what it is

I’d love to see people start using civic tech as a term more widely, and certainly when referring to initiatives which fit under its still-being-defined umbrella. Together, I’m certain we can all build a definition-set which works.

And yep, we’re trying to walk our talk too. We’re banging on about it constantly both online and in person in meetings and conferences. We’re also building a number of initiatives and resources with civic tech as the underpinning philosophy.

Sounds interesting? Keen to join in?

Get in touch — wherever in the world you are — if you’d like to chat more about this! We love talking, and we love this :)

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* “What can civic tech learn from social movements?”, key finding #5, Omidyar Network. https://www.omidyar.com/spotlight/what-can-civic-tech-learn-social-movements#content

** Flipboards include:

We’re also super active on Twitter…

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