To look forward to a vibrant, equitable digital future, we need to look behind.

In 2013,

I gave a talk about open data and cities that had a lotta the same problems every talk about open data and cities has.

There was…

  • the savior complex (I said that open data’s “transformational power” was in its “restoration of civic capability”);
  • the faux-populism (a few examples of brilliant, lone-gun developers opening data sets does not (necessarily) a social movement make);
  • the identification of impact through circular logic (despite what I said on stage, the mere existence and continued growth of open data can’t be used as stand-alone evidence of its value);
  • and last, but certainly not least, the call for relevance — not that open data should be relevant, mind (and I do maintain rather complex thoughts on this subject that I’ll unpack at another time), but that we the people, in our varying roles, need to figure out our relevance to open data.

I’m being harsh here, and I’m skipping a lot of nuance (both from my talk and in terms of my actual thoughts on the matter). But the point of this rib-poking, quick’n’dirty overview isn’t to parse the particulars (we’ll do that later) — nor is it to pick on open data (which, I should note, I’ve built my career advocating for).

The point is to hold up a mirror.

The flaws in this silly, well-meaning, 5-minute talk are common ones — common for open data, in particular, and for civic innovation and civic technology, more generally. They’re earnest flaws, the expression of a field too young to cite mounds of research (empirical or otherwise), too “cutting edge” to have quite comprehended its place in history (past, present, future), and so far, too successful (by some metrics) to take stock of the big picture ways in which we can improve—to see clearly and maturely the ways in which we need to grow.

These are not, I will note, flaws of the civic tech movement, but they are flaws in the way many of us tell our story.

Flaws, but also: opportunities.

After the 2014 Code for America Summit,

Dan’l Lewin of Microsoft wrote:

Civic tech is booming. Just a few years ago — before cities began creating roles such as “chief innovation officer” and municipalities started hosting hackathons — civic tech was virtually nonexistent.

In some ways, Lewin’s right. “Civic technology” as it’s commonly referred to today didn’t exist before the last few years, at least not in terms of the sorts of engagement platforms and enterprise IT solutions he cites in his definition of “civic tech”.

But does that mean that prior to The Age of the App, there was no civic technology? No tools or processes deployed by governments, journalists, the private sector, communities themselves, and other civil society actors towards civic ends? By extension, can we claim that, before civic hacking, the U.S. was devoid of advocates for tech for good?

It depends on what we mean when we say “civic tech”. It depends on the story we want to our work to tell and the impact we hope to have.

And it depends on just how adaptable and dynamic we want our box of civic tools to be.

A vintage postcard of Glasgow, Kentucky. Image by Jasperdo, sourced from Flickr.

In 1989,

the city of Glasgow, Kentucky became the first in the country to install its own municipal broadband network to lower the costs of Internet, telephone, and TV access for residents. Twenty years before that, advocates in other pockets of the U.S. joined with government allies to successfully create the first wave of public-access TV networks so that communities, working with and outside of their governments, could be their own media.

Open data in the United States was built on the backs of the decades-long advocacy that won state public records laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act, but rarely do we turn to this legacy when we tell our story, let alone do we consider it a source of strategic or tactical insight. A source of power.

Is our work today so different from these and other predecessors?

Are open data advocates from computer science and tech policy backgrounds so unique in our aims that we have nothing to learn from our peers in journalism and our peers in town and city and county clerks offices around the country? When it comes down to brass tacks, are the chief technology officers of today really so divorced from the municipal IT managers of yesterday that the latter can’t be counted as part of the legacy of civic tech’s advancement? If our story is one of access, is there not room to understand (if not learn from) the history of, say, the private sector and public sector collaboration that—roughly 100 years ago now (!)—lead to the creation of public school buses? (Talk about (literal) access to information…!)

When we measure time

in terms of B.H. and A.H. (Before Hackathons, After Hackathons) and when we measure success as Lewin did (and as I used to), by the proliferation of our presence — the number of data portals created, open data policies passed, innovation officer positions established, lines of code committed, etc—of course the examples above sound irrelevant at best and crazy at worst. (“School buses!?”) Of course, in comparison to the pre-Internet world, the civic technologies and innovations of today look unique and present unprecedented opportunities to interact with our governments and shape our society.

But if we can step back from our measure of the immediate present, it’s not so clear that the “transformational power” of this current class of civic technologies” is unique — nor that their power is inherent.

Tools are just that: tools. No engagement platform in and of itself can solve the gap between civic participation and community stagnation. No enterprise data portal can guarantee, on its own, that a community’s freedom of information will be realized and kept sacred. That doesn’t mean these tools are useless or incapable of serving civic ends. Rather, it means that our approach to public sector problem-solving requires a healthy dose of perspective and intentionality.

Every time we go to build tools that expressly serve, support, and/or create public goods (in other words, “every time we go to build civic tech”), we need to take an ecosystem approach, accounting first and foremost for the need(s) we’re trying to address and the real people and real communities we’re trying to serve. To do that and do that well,

we need a civic toolbox that draws on more than just cutting edge technology.

We need a diverse set of tools, an array that enables us to make innovative decisions that are truly designed for and crafted in response to their intended context.

Still think school buses and other vehicles are too simple or too outside the box to fit into the story of civic technology? Then chew on how this community in Southern California is experimenting with buses as a way to distribute internet access in underserved communities. Or how the city of Boston, Massachusetts is using a municipal service foodtruck to literally meet residents where they are. Or how the NannyVan (yes, a literal van/mobile design lab and sound studio) provides space for domestic workers so that these typically isolated professionals can convene, support one another, and collaborate.

Technically, trucks *are* technology, but before Boston started delivering municipal services the way foodtrucks serve up lunch, how many municipalities (or civic tech experts) would have recommended this tactic as part of an overarching strategy for advancing public service delivery through technology? (Image: City of Boston)

When we free ourselves to think civics-first and tech-second, when we base our approach to public-sector problem-solving on human behavior, the diversity of individual and communal experiences, and the greater perspectives given to us by historical review, we better position ourselves to remove the bias of our particular expertise and focus on the most effective solutions for what we’re trying to achieve.

Imagine a story of civic technology that didn’t start in 2010—or even 2006.

A narrative that enables us to measure success not by the proliferation of the tools we’re excited about today, but by the role we play in and the contributions we make to sociopolitical evolution. That kind of civic technology is transformative, not just powerful; populist, not just privileged. Its heroes, best practices, even the tools considered “mainstream” look different than what we think of today because we see “technology” more broadly and “civics” more broadly, too.

To the extent that our field is young, to the extent that self-identified work in “civic technology” really is only a few years old, that we are still learning to describe our purpose and evaluate our impact, we gain a lot by taking time now to reflect. With just the smallest shifts in perspective, the tiniest bit of narrative and technical experimentation, we have the opportunity to not just tell a new story of our work, but to tell an epic.

That’s the biggest critique I have about the story I told two years ago. I wasn’t wrong to call open data transformative, to indicate that, in a greater context, free access to information can be used as part of civic problem-solving to reinvigorate public will and accountability.

But I was wrong to suggest that it’s open data alone that carries this power. I missed the chance, beyond the throwaway reference I made, to underscore that the reason that open data’s transformative power is so strong is not because it’s open data but because open data is the inheritance of a long-standing (and ongoing!) struggle for public records access in the United States. Its proliferation, its success, is not just the hard work of today’s civic hackers, but also of the information freedom fighters who came before us—the activists, journalists, government officials, lawyers, and so on who have deliberated and negotiated and fought our right to information over lifetimes. These are not two stories, but one (with chapters).

When we tell a narrative of civic technology this way, one rich with context and history, we not only change what success means and why our work matters, we change what our goals are. Suddenly, the story is not just about the magic of open data (or ____ technology); it’s about the strategic decisions necessary to advance information access in communities. It’s about a vision for our work that is bigger than the present, a perspective that, going forward, will allow us to better direct what we reach for when the time comes to pull out our civic toolbox.

Photo remix by Josh Stearns

By now, this probably seems like a thought exercise—nice, but impractical—but over the next year, I hope to change that. Working with both the Open Technology Institute at New America and the Smart Chicago Collaborative, and in coordination with civic tech peers, practitioners, academics, and kindred spirits from intersecting fields, we will explore expanded, informative narratives of big-picture civic technology with an eye towards the practical lessons, case studies, strategies and tactics that can give us new perspective for the work we have before us.

Although I began that 2013 talk by claiming that the future of local governments in the US lies with open data, I ended it by refocusing on human agency—on our power to shape the road in front of us.

Cheesy, but you know what? I still agree.

Here’s to an enlightening 2015.