Civic technology |ˈsivik tekˈnäləjē | noun 

: Technology projects involving intentional collaboration between technologists, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and nonprofit employees to engage the public or solve civic problems. 

: Any technology that intersects public life*  

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Civic technology is a new phrase that’s gained recent popularity in the growing – but still nascent – sector of people who work in technology and focus their efforts towards solving challenges facing the public sector.

The problem with new phrases is nobody has a standard definition.  The above definition is mine (which may not be exactly the same as Smart Chicago’s or Code for America’s.) It’s not “government IT” because the work involves and a lot of time is led by non-profits. It’s certainly not the standard way of doing things that involves hiring one of those companies that advertise at airports and costs governments tons of money. Civic technology is not exactly the same thing as civic hacking even though they’re closely related.

It’s also not really the same thing as civic hacking. We get asked about civic hacking more often and it’s probably a more confusing term than civic technology. (Which is why a lot of us stopped using the phrase civic hacking.)  This is partly because hacking is such a loaded term depending on who you’re asking.

The thing about hacking

To most people, hacking either means hitting something with a sharp object over and over again or it means breaking into your computer and stealing your stuff. As somebody who isn’t a native coder – the best way I’ve been able to describe hacking in our space has been “trying different things repeatedly in order to get a desired outcome; sometimes producing a result that was not intended by the original designers.”

If you’ve ever watched a developer at work, you can see this pattern. We need to get the app to do A, but X isn’t working. Let’s try Y. No go? Alright, let’s look on Stack Overflow (or to non-tech people, google it) to see if anyone else has tried to do this. Ok, that worked for her – let’s try Z. Hey, Z worked!

This type of activity isn’t good or bad. I can use a 13 inch knife to do a lot of things, but most of the time I’m using it to cut veggies. Of course, nobody writes a news story about somebody cutting vegetables – using a knife only makes the news when something bad happens. Same principal applies here.

So, yeah… not the best phrase when trying to convince people that they should be taking a radically different approach to how governments and nonprofits use technology. Even though the phrase is perfectly neutral inside the tech world, to outsiders it always seemed a bit…unauthorized – despite a lot of what we do is working with people.

There are a lot of people who spend time working on apps that aren’t authorized by any government or non-profit. However, that’s mostly because a lot of what people are doing is volunteer work. They’re taking government data (a lot of times released by the government hoping that people do stuff with it) and using it in a way that solves a problem. They’ll often try a bunch of different things with the data or to get a result they want that solves (or at least educates about) a civic problem.

In other words, they’re doing civic hacking.

Civic technology differs from this because a lot of the time when people are talking about being civic technologists they’re talking about their profession. There are a great many number of people who work full time in civic technology, but their numbers are growing thanks to civic organizations who understand that the way they were doing technology before just isn’t working and that they need make the investment to hire smart people. (See 18F, USDS, Code for America, City of Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology, Smart Chicago, and so on.)

Polymaths, Collaboration, and the knowledge transfer

Another key difference is that civic technology projects are collaborative and intentional right from the very beginning. Civic technologists have to be a little bit of a polymath having to know about two distinct fields. It doesn’t help that both of these fields love their jargon and work in ways that don’t seem obvious to outsiders.

Example: Some developers like to work super late at night so they can focus without being interrupted. Front line government employees have to have prodigious customer service skills because the claimants can sometimes get very hostile and you can’t turn them away.) If you’re one of those fields – you’ve been there.

However, the whole polymath thing only goes so far. Civic technology crosses so many different subjects  – health, web development, social services, UX design, transportation, DevOps, safety and justice –  that people have to spend years learning about it so they can do their jobs effectively. It is incredibly difficult to be an expert on both ends. It requires deep collaboration – build with, not for  and the like – to build something that’s solves a real problem effectively. 

A lot of the activity around civic technology involves the difficult work of building coalitions and partnerships that can result in impactful projects. Largelots.org, an app that helps the city sell vacant lots, doesn’t work because it was well coded. (Even though it was) It works because community organizers got everyone together, worked out a game plan, got everyone to agree on the plan, and then got the funding to hire a civic app shop that he knew could do it. And it. was. awesome.

And this work doesn’t just require consulting with the experts – you have to talk to the problem owners themselves. Not the experts! The people who are waiting on hold for 30 minutes because they’re trying to buy groceries at the store and the card that has the SNAP benefits isn’t going through. They’re the people who have to move out of neighborhoods they’ve lived in for years because of gentrification. Civic technology deals with problem sets that are both difficult to solve and mostly problems that the general public will never experience.  Do you know why everyone picks on the DMV? It’s because everyone has to go to the DMV –  so you know about it. There’s a whole realm of personal knowledge that is vital to understanding how to build things that actually work.

So while you can’t be a total expert in everything, there is a certain level of knowledge you have to have to do civic technology work. That’s why another big component of the work is the knowledge transfer – writing everything down so that other people can learn what we’re doing and how to do it. The problems civic technologists are trying to solve are massive in scope. Healthcare.gov may have been the most prolific government tech failure, but it’s certainly not the only one. People just noticed it more. The only way to make a dent in the problem is to activate more professional civic technologists. (That’s people working full time at this – and not just volunteering.) When we get people interested in our space, we have to ensure they get trained up. The movement has been around more than a few years now and there’s definitely some lessons we’ve learned. Without providing training, it becomes harder for people to enter the space. Eventually, this might be done by universities but the process of adjusting curriculum is a slow process. We need people in the civic part of the technology sector immediately.

That’s also a large part about what makes weekly hack nights so valuable. You’re putting people in rooms that wouldn’t normally interact. What happens when you get a social worker and a UX designer together? Or data scientists and somebody from legal aid? Or a community organizer and an app developer? The civic people get more tech savvy and the tech people become more civic savvy. That’s a positive outcome in-and-of-itself, but also empower people to be able to work on a civic technology project when the opportunities arrive.

Going pro and designing things to work from the very start

The fantastic advantage about having people working on this full time working either in or right next to civic organizations is that they can then start from scratch and be super intentional about their work.

Take the City of Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT).

  1. Hire Chief Data Officer
  2. Establish open data policy
  3. Develop software to seamlessly feed data from business systems to portal
  4. Hire more people
  5. Build thing with data feeds to help city make sense of what it knows about a location
  6. Hire more people
  7. Open source data dictionary (thing that helps city manage its data)
  8. Hire more people
  9. Open source OpenETL toolkit (thing that feeds data into portal)
  10. Hire more people
  11. Open source thing that turns data feeds into predictions about critical food violations
  12. ???

When it’s laid out like this, you can see the pattern. The city’s been investing (read; hired smart people) and are working towards building a platform that makes the city smarter. Open sourcing their software helps them grow their team, interact with other people in the space, and helps them to respond to the public needs.  Because the releases are years apart, this may be mistaken for the City building different things. However, it’s all coordinated. (Nor is it a secret as a lot of this is in the city’s tech plan.)

18F and USDS, the federal government’s civic technology teams, are also getting the advantage of being very deliberate with their projects. While they still have to deal with decades old legacy systems, they’re clearly in the driver’s seat. And that’s important because while this is feels like new branch of the technology center – it’s not.

About that asterisk

Get ten civic technologists in a room and hand them a list of companies and ask them if they’re civic technology companies.

  • Accela
  • Uber
  • Textizen
  • Accenture
  • DataMade

You’re going to get ten different answers. For me, any technology project that intersects with the civic sector is civic technology. This is my definition – not everyone agrees with me on this point. The original healthcare.gov was civic technology. It deals with the delivery of health insurance and attempts to support efforts to ensure everybody has health insurance.

It was a terrible piece of civic technology. It was expensive and it didn’t work.

Still counts.

Uber is a company that tries to solve transportation problems in cities despite their bullcrap about not being a transportation company. It’s the Justin Beiber of the tech world. It’s extremely popular, but kind of an asshole.  With the do-good focus of the civic technology space, having Uber in the mix is like pouring oil in water.

Still counts.

Not only does Uber count, but it’s had a large impact on policy. Uber, AirBnB, and other ‘sharing economy’ type companies had forced cities to pass additional regulations to deal with the impact of the sharing economy. Right now there’s a huge fight about if Uber drivers are employees – something to keep in mind when you see those #fightfor15 tweets.

A lot of the policy discussion that you see from the civic technologists regards government procurement. Government procurement is part of the reason that government IT failures like healthcare.gov are allowed to happen. (For more on why this is, listen to what Clay Johnson has said on the topic.)

The short version is that the government procurement process often makes it extremely difficult for government agencies to get great software. With the aftermath of the recession, government agencies at all levels realized that this was a huge problem and that they could no longer afford to be doing things the same way that they were. This has opened the door for a lot of activity regarding trying to get the process fixed so that the small company with great ideas has a fair shot against the multinational company with an army of corporate lawyers at its command. It may not always be in the brochure, but this fight is one of the big underpinnings of the movement.

Because CGI Federal is a civic technology company even though a lot of us really don’t like them. Companies like them don’t refer to themselves as civic technologists either – they’re management consultant companies.

There’s no such thing as magic

Technology can have this infectious wonder associated with it. I can pull a small glass brick from my pocket and access the whole of human knowledge and then comment on it through a medium that can be accessed worldwide instantaneously. Through this glass brick I can ask for a ride, have somebody do my laundry, all while binge watching my favorite show.  There are times when this can seem like magic.

It’s not of course – but it there is significant power in technology. One of the overarching themes for those who identify as civic technology movement is that all this power should be leveraged to benefit the public. That if I can summon ramen to my door, then the people trying to feed the poor should have software that actually helps them accomplish that.  That if I can summon somebody to do my laundry for me, then the people trying to protect children from abuse shouldn’t be stuck using a software system that constantly fails them.

The movement’s gaining momentum, but we still need people in the game and we still need the things we make to become popular.

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