Grow Civic Tech — But Respect Today’s Systems
By Dan’l Lewin
From the aqueducts that supplied water for public use in ancient Rome to the pneumatic tubes that moved trading information from point to point in Victorian England, people have always relied on technology to make civil society more efficient and accessible. Today, more than ever, technology is playing a vital role in our lives as politically engaged citizens.
The rapid evolution of the Internet and the standards-based protocols that have made the World Wide Web a part of our daily lives are already enriching our experience in a variety of civic activities, such as voting.
My favorite example of civic tech in action is a simple system we at Microsoft developed to support the 2016 Iowa Caucuses. We worked with the Republican Party of Iowa and the Iowa Democratic Party to address a problem that surfaced during the 2012 election cycle. That year, their reporting system (a telephone-based Interactive Voice Response system) caused errors that contributed to delays in the reporting of accurate results. In 2016, we proposed to marry the 100+ year-old, people-centric, community-focused caucus system with the latest in technology — a simple reporting application on mobile devices, with the data stored and managed in a cloud-based repository. Under the new system, each Iowa political party had its own reporting and validation applications which resulted in a streamlined process and enabled timely delivery and accurate results, essentially in real time. This technology represented the first-of-its-kind, modern reporting technology for the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. We also developed a descriptive video showing exactly how we worked in Iowa.
Recently, entrepreneurs and major corporations alike have begun to rally around the movement to empower citizens through technology. I applaud their enthusiasm and the work done thus far to inspire community action through new means, including crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, ultimately making government more transparent and accountable. The notion of ‘civic tech’ is powerful and we should work to take full advantage of this moment.
As we consider the challenges associated with growing civic tech, we should ask this: How will we resolve the creative tensions inherent in our ever-connected world to help grow the civic tech movement?
First and foremost, we should recognize the importance of existing infrastructure, services, laws, and societal norms in any given community. It is impossible to revamp existing infrastructure, laws or norms as fast as it is possible to create new civic systems. The balance between pushing the envelope and aligning with existing systems will be the central challenge in a world of mobile devices, sensors, and nearly infinite computing power.
Second, we should embrace the fact that a massive source of change will be the rise of the machines — small sensors and the data they generate coupled with large computer and storage clusters. These ‘new’ machines and data, with the analysis that follows, will push us in new directions and challenge the boundaries of civil society. They will create critical pressure and further motivate the civic tech moment. These new data sets bring all sorts of issues and opportunities to the surface. Researchers like Kate Crawford and danah boyd make important points in these areas we all must consider.
In the end, the case must be made for a studied path forward, with respect for the existing structures and traditions that are so fundamental to the notion of ‘civic engagement’ and to people staying connected with their community. Respect for technology and its promise must be at the core of our efforts. Consideration for the laws and regulatory frameworks that are the basis of civil society is also essential. And at the crossroads of new technology and traditional norms must be an acknowledgement of how public opinion can both embrace and reject change.
With the ever increasing pace of technological innovation and experimentation, the civic tech movement challenges all of us to creatively address a plethora of new problems associated with our lives as citizens. The benefits of technology are realized most effectively when we marry innovation to the established societal structures to create something better for the community — like our Iowa Caucuses reporting system. Isn’t that what we all really want from technology? We should take a moment to understand the tensions and opportunities inherent in our connected modern world as we push the civic tech movement forward.
Dan’l Lewin is a Corporate Vice President at Microsoft.