It’s 6 p.m. on Tuesday night on the 8th floor of the Chicago Merchandise Mart, an 85-year-old building on the city’s north side. Technologists, academics, data scientists, developers, researchers and just plain interested citizens begin filing in.
After a little socializing there’s a short presentation. Some recent presenters have included a couple guys from Microsoft talking about how to make sidewalks safe, representatives from the U.S. General Accounting Office and the Cook County Bureau of Technology introducing their new Web site. After the presentation, they split up into breakout groups. One group is focusing on police accountability. Another is mapping the demand for better transit, while another is approaching the problem of finding nursing homes in the city.
This is Chi Hacknight and it is one of the most active examples of civic technology. Civic tech is a grassroots, citizen-generated approach to building what I’ve been calling in these posts, the smart city. Hack nights like the one in Chicago now meet in several cities in the U.S. as well as in London and in Monterrey, Mexico.
Writing in Tech Crunch (Civic Tech Brings Power and Positivity to the People), Stacy Donohue comments: “in an era marked by political pessimism and ever-increasing frustration with government, civic tech can play an important role in empowering people to take action — as entrepreneurs, as public officials and as engaged citizens.”
Another pioneering civic tech group is Code for America in San Francisco. They describe themselves as “a network of people making government work for the people, by the people, in the 21st century. How do we get there? Government services that are simple, effective, and easy to use, working at scale to build healthy, prosperous, and safe communities.” One of Code for America’s projects is GetCalFresh. Intended to address the 2 million Californians who were eligible but not receiving this food assistance, GetCalFresh enables these folks to apply in about 10 minutes on their smartphone or tablet, get help via online chat and upload photos of documents that otherwise would have to be faxed or scanned. Another Code for America initiative, Clear My Record, is targeted at people who have committed low level crimes and who have served their time.
Some platform-based services that promote civic tech have also emerged. Neighborly describes itself as “modern public finance.” It allows users to invest in municipal bonds to support projects in their neighborhood. The bonds can be purchased in small denominations using the Neighborly platform. It recently sponsored a Neighborly Bonds Challenge. One of the winners was the city of Burlington, Vt., which hopes to use the financing for its Sustainable Action Plan.
SeeClickFix purports to “help hundreds of communities resolve millions of issues.” Through this app you can report a pothole, a broken streetlight or a vandalized playground. The app also gives government entities the ability to organize and track citizen-reported, non-emergency issues, potentially making them more efficient. Among the cities that use the app are Houston, Minneapolis and New Haven, Conn.
In discussing the future of cities and how they can use technology to become “smart,” civic tech has some significant advantages that suggests it should play a large role.
- It is democracy. The goal is to give the residents of the community the ability to bring forth ideas, participate in planning and in developing solutions. It provides the opportunity to be part of and help direct local government.
- It’s cheaper than many commercial technology solutions. For one thing, it cuts out the consultant layer of tech development, which is often enormously expensive. The consultant is replaced by people who have a stake in the community.
- It avoids the potential pitfall of turning over aspects of management of a city to large technology corporations what may well be more focused on their profits than they are on citizen welfare.
- It offers the potential for meaningful careers in technology. The citizens of a community have the opportunity to be entrepreneurs, to develop start-ups, and to create jobs that enable people to use their skills in a way that improves their environment.