What is Civic Tech and Why Do We Need It?

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.

Merchandise Mart

Merchandise Mart, Chicago

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.

    City Skyline

    (Dawn Hudson)

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12 Responses to What is Civic Tech and Why Do We Need It?

  1. Phoenicia says:

    The world is becoming more technical by the minute. Most councils (local government) offer an online system for dealing with enquiries and complaints. Gone are the days people turned up, took a ticket and waited. With far less staff, measures have been put in place to enable everyone to work smarter.

    There will always be those who do not wish to engage via technology. Eventually they will have to come on board as there will be no other way of communicating with public services and other organisations.


  2. heraldmarty says:

    Oh I like this Ken! I am a huge fan of community based initiatives. I’ve read some wonderful stories about what these groups have accomplished, and having chaired 3 county food drives I’ve been priviledged to see it firsthand. There was a great article earlier this year about how a town on the east coast completely eliminated homelessness – and not by shipping homeless people to other areas like some cities/states do. I would love to see more groups like this.


  3. I agree when you said, “It’s cheaper than many commercial technology solutions.” The more layers we can remove from the process the better it is for everyone. It will also help bring tech to the public more quickly which is important.


  4. BroadBlogs says:

    This is really interesting. I’m hopeful!


  5. susht says:

    Another Interesting post it is! We are a part more of a technical world now. Like Phoenicia mentioned even complain systems have gone online. Liked the interesting sprout of civic tech. Thanks for sharing!


  6. Very encouraging post, Ken. Technology is the key to knowledge and personal power. By making technology more accessible and user friendly, we are empowering the citizens who have been left behind with all the changes they haven’t been able to understand, embrace, or utilize.


  7. I won’t comment we live in a republic not a democracy, but the world of apps can help it become one. To be an active part of what is occurring in a city, could open up opportunities for citizens to finally get heard, but there is a problem, and that is those who would abuse the system, flooding the comments with their concerns. Making it seem like their concerns is more important that others.


  8. Emily says:

    This is a really informative post about civic technology. I really love this concept as it opens up opportunities for people to be heard in helping to build safer communities. After all, who else would know best than those who actually walk the streets every day? This post taught me a lot about civic tech. Thank you for sharing.

    Emily | http://www.emilytrinh.com

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Erica says:

    SeeClickFix sounds amazing. I wish we had something like that. I feel like they’ve completely given up in my town. There are so many potholes and i don’t think anyone is ever planning to fix them. Great to see more examples of how cities use technology to serve their people better.


  10. klagowski says:

    What a great idea, and I have to admit, this is the first I’ve heard of this concept. Technology is changing the way we live, and while many are bemoaning that it’s not good for our quality of life, concepts like this indicate otherwise!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Andy says:

    By all accounts, most politicians at the federal level are primarily interested in enriching themselves and are hopelessly out of touch with ordinary citizens. Are the local pols where you live any better, Ken? Anyway, it’s great to see those ordinary citizens band together and take on problems when their so-called leaders can’t be bothered to step up to the plate, and if technology facilitates this process, bring it on.


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