ON THE AGENDA | JANUARY 19TH, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

Tending the Garden of Civic Tech

How can civic tech can be part of an overhaul of our whole civic infrastructure so that our democracies are more participatory, energetic, efficient and equitable?


NPS Photo by Jasmine Horn.

Over the last twenty years, technology has offered many new ways for people to engage with their governments, with organizations and institutions, and with each other. Known collectively as "civic technology," these online tools can help us map public problems, help citizens generate solutions, gather input for government, coordinate volunteer efforts or help neighbors remain connected.

It has been a period of heady innovation, as a thousand flowers bloomed through the efforts of countless people. Now we have reached a key phase in this work, as we begin to transition from simply sowing seeds haphazardly to carefully designing and tending the gardens of civic tech.

The list of civic tech innovations offers plenty of gardening possibilities. These include apps, platforms, SMS-based processes and other tools that allow people to:

  • Rank ideas for solving a problem or improving a community.
  • Provide discrete pieces of data that help identify community issues, improve public services or add to public knowledge.
  • Donate money to a cause or a campaign.
  • Create or sign petitions supporting an idea, a cause or a policy proposal.
  • Create or add to interactive maps that assemble information on community assets and problems.
  • Coordinate volunteer efforts to solve a common problem.
  • Play games that contribute to citizen education, gather public input or contribute in some other way to decision-making and problem-solving.

These tools have been summarized in a number of places, including this list by Caitlyn Davison, this report from the Knight Foundation, and in my book, Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy. The table at the bottom of this blog post also includes links for a number of examples.

Some of the most powerful innovations are relatively simple technologically. These are "hyperlocal" online forums that connect residents who live in the same neighborhood, or parents whose children attend the same school. These forums have spread dramatically, starting with simple listservs, then Facebook groups, then slightly more sophisticated platforms promoted by nonprofit groups (such as e-democracy.org, localocracy and Front Porch Forum) and an increasing array of for-profit enterprises. They combine the power of the boundless Internet with the power of local face-to-face relationships.

At some point, you have to do more than disrupt systems you have to renovate them, add to them or design new ones.

One key to the growth of these platforms is that they allow people to meet their social needs, not just engage in political discussions. Members of these online forums may talk about what the school board did, or what the mayor said, but they also ask questions like "Who has a plumber they can recommend?" "Has anyone seen my lost cat?" Or, "when is the neighborhood barbecue?"

People stay involved in these virtual spaces for many reasons: they are convenient, they allow for interaction, they deepen and complement face-to-face relationships, they are adaptable by the participants and they give people a powerful sense of membership.

Despite the rapid growth of these forums and tools, they are not reaching their full civic potential. One reason is that they are almost always disconnected from one another, and from other civic engagement opportunities. Most of them have been organized as "stand-alone" forums, processes or apps. Even when they are wildly successful, they tend to be isolated, or temporary, or both.

Public officials and other decision-makers are increasingly aware of civic tech innovations, but unsure how to tap into them. While they can be used to shore up some of the worst aspects of our tired political processes, the conventional systems for public decision making are still mostly intact. Maria Hadden of the Participatory Budgeting Project calls them "civic hacks."

Furthermore, even though many civic tech innovations are being developed in order to expand political opportunity for all, there are ways in which the advance of civic tech may exacerbate political and social inequalities. Obviously, not everyone has access to computers, smartphones and the Internet so as civic tech opens up new avenues for exerting power and influence, it may further marginalize those who are already powerless.

These challenges have arisen partly because the thinking that has prevailed in the civic tech community among funders, investors and practitioners emphasizes the commercial rather than the civic. They have embraced the image of solitary entrepreneurs who work to "acquire customers" and "bring their products to market." They have romanticized the notion of "disruptive technologies" that combat the inefficiencies and inequities of the systems that govern us.

At some point, you have to do more than disrupt systems you have to renovate them, add to them or design new ones. Abhi Nemani, a prominent civic technologist who was the first Chief Data Officer for the City of Los Angeles, has called for more coherent thinking about systems. He offers the image of Lego blocks that can be assembled to create a civic infrastructure of "small (city) pieces, loosely joined." One aspect of this system would be that each civic opportunity people take invites them to another for example, filling out a survey triggers an invite to an upcoming public meeting. Nemani calls this a "civic upsell."

To make our democracies more participatory, energetic, efficient and equitable, we should take stock of how civic tech can be part of an overhaul of our whole civic infrastructure. How can online tools help revitalize face-to-face meetings? How can online forums help sustain social and political connections among large numbers of people? How can we give more people especially those who face barriers related to education, language and economic stability the skills and support they need to participate effectively, online or off?

We are now at a stage when we can survey the results of this democratic research and development and begin to apply the lessons and practices more broadly. A thousand flowers have bloomed now we need to redesign our public gardens.


A Civic Tech Inventory

The table below includes links for a number of different civic apps, platforms and websites. Are there others not on the list? Share the ones you use in the comments.

Crowdsourcing and IdeationmySidewalk; IdeaScale; OpenTownHall; SpigitEngage; Granicus; Codigital

Data Gathering and Feedback on Public Problems and Services SeeClickFix; FixMyStreet; PublicStuff; Waze; NoiseTube

Crowdfunding Citizinvestor; Neighbor.ly; Kickstarter
PetitionsChange.org; WethePeople

DeliberationCommon Ground for Action; MetroQuest

GamesCommunity PlanIt; City Creator; Super City

Mapping and Wikis LocalWiki; MapIt; Mapumental; OpenStreetMap

Coordinating volunteer problem-solvingCivNet; SnowCrew




Comments

Tending the Garden of Civic Tech

Submitted by: John Stephens on Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Matt - great framing and interim assessment. Three quick thoughts:
a. Would love to aim for a March webinar/discussion of these ideas with folks from various networks, especially LISC, NUSA, and others working with less-tech savvy groups, RE: your access and fairness points.
b. Would you be open to a distance presentation for the NC PIO group; their conference is April 13-15?
c. Will critique you later about "overhaul of our whole civic infrastructure." Can't be divorced from (apparent) fracturing of state and national level political systems - rancor, money, and connection vs. suppression (which, oddly, just about every major advocate feels suppressed/disempowered by the other side).


Tending the Garden of Civic Tech

Submitted by: John Stephens on Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Matt - great framing and interim assessment. Three quick thoughts:
a. Would love to aim for a March webinar/discussion of these ideas with folks from various networks, especially LISC, NUSA, and others working with less-tech savvy groups, RE: your access and fairness points.
b. Would you be open to a distance presentation for the NC PIO group; their conference is April 13-15?
c. Will critique you later about "overhaul of our whole civic infrastructure." Can't be divorced from (apparent) fracturing of state and national level political systems - rancor, money, and connection vs. suppression (which, oddly, just about every major advocate feels suppressed/disempowered by the other side).


Crowdsourcing and Ideation

Submitted by: Daniel McRitchie on Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

Hi Matt, great article. I would also like to add PlaceSpeak to your Civic Tech inventory. We fall into crowd sourcing and Ideation/Deliberation categories.

Our mission is to build legitimacy in online democratic practices by authenticating digital identity to place, protecting individual privacy, and closing the feedback loop between public consultation and accountability.

you can read more here https://www.placespeak.com


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