Snapshot from Civic Hall in New York. Photo credit: Micah L. Sifry

The rise of civic tech for social good

This article was originally published in NTEN’s Change Journal in March 2015 and has been updated for online publication.

Two years ago, I visited Auschwitz, accompanied by my business partner Andrew Rasiej. We had just finished producing the first Central Europe incarnation of Personal Democracy Forum (PDF), our long-running conference on the intersection of technology and politics that we founded in 2004 in New York. Walking through the death camp was an intense and sobering experience for both of us: I’m Jewish, and many of my relatives were killed or suffered greatly during the Holocaust. Andrew’s parents, who are Polish, were exiled during the war and his grandfather was a casualty in the Katyn forest massacre.

Later, our conversation in the long taxi ride back to our hotel turned, perhaps inevitably, to our common enterprise and its future. In the previous ten years, we had watched as the Internet grew from something that many people derisively thought of as a “fad” to a huge new force reshaping everyone’s lives. PDF, which started as a one-day event mainly gathering a few hundred e-campaign activists, had blossomed into an annual two-day festival of more than a thousand people focused on using tech not only to change politics, but to reinvent government and enrich civic life. We’d connected and woven together literally thousands of change-makers worldwide.

We wondered: now what? How best to serve the growing ecosystem of people, projects, organizations, and networks focused on using technology for social good? We decided that the only way to answer that question was to ask that very community to tell us what it needed. Thus we dove into figuring out the emerging world of civic tech, talking to hundreds of people including government IT leaders, civic hackers, entrepreneurs, data mavens, journalists, and futurists. Here’s what we learned.

Civic tech is at a ripe moment, where interest from different sectors of society and government is rising, but its impact on the lives of ordinary people remains nascent. Four trends are converging to power the field. First, the spread of connection technologies into more hands is giving the people who have always been engaged by solving the problems of their communities tremendous new capacities to “do-it-ourselves.” Old-fashioned community organizers and new-style civic hackers alike are exploring all kinds of new ways to get important stuff done.

Second, governments at all levels, but especially the city level, are discovering that it makes sense to open up their warehouses of public information and enable outsiders to co-create new solutions building on those resources. Third, economic necessity is the mother of invention—and there’s a great deal of potential value to be unlocked and wasted resources to be saved in tech—and data-driven approaches to public problems. And last but not least, there’s significant interest from academia, philanthropy, journalism, and the corporate sector in exploring, and in some cases, funding tech-powered civic innovation.

All of that explains why civic tech is suddenly on a lot of people’s minds. The reality, of course, is that many civic-oriented problem-solvers have been using innovative technology as part of their work for years. But the pace of experimentation and implementation now seems much faster. A closer look, however, shows that there are some critical gaps that need to be filled before civic tech can really claim to be solving important problems at scale.

The first, we discovered as we talked to many participants in this movement, is that there is a mismatch between community needs and technological talent, and between the two main ways this field is using to match them up. Put another way, there is an oversupply of eager developers and designers who want to do something more meaningful with their skills than get more people to click on banner ads, and an undersupply of meaningful entry points into serving public needs rather than the marketplace.

One way this problem keeps surfacing is with the hackathon model of community engagement. All too often, a weekend marathon of hacking yields little beyond a prize for a few developers, a bragging press release by the sponsoring institution, and a fleeting sense of community that is quickly forgotten when everyone goes back to their day jobs. And frequently, coders develop apps without any grounded sense or input from communities who need their help the most. As a result, winning apps at hackathons rarely ever grow to a scale of usage that reaches ordinary users.

The second and related problem is that incubators and accelerators only work for people who have already quit their day jobs and decided to plunge into building start-ups. That can be great for a team in need of coaching, product refinement, and access to capital, but this model of civic tech development leaves out people who can’t or don’t want to leave their current jobs.

Somehow, people told us, there needs to be a way for people interested in innovative approaches to civic challenges to work and network together that is more lasting than a hackathon but not as structured as an incubator. And for the field to gain coherence, they added, there needs to be better curation of our common knowledge of what works, along with what approaches have failed in the past.

Our solution, which is itself a form of civic tech, is to create Civic Hall, a year-round community space for ongoing interchange and collaboration among civic-minded techies, social entrepreneurs, activists, government officials, and community organizers. In creating that space in New York City, we believe that we’re filling a local gap as well—many of the people coming to join Civic Hall tell us that they need a common place to interact with their like-minded peers, which more generally-themed co-working spaces don’t offer. And with telecommuting a common practice for many in the civic tech field, escaping the isolation of their own home workspaces is also an attraction.

There’s a rich array of similar civic tech hubs popping up in many places, including the Smart City Collaborative and CivicLab in Chicago; OpenGovHub and 1776 in Washington, DC; District Hall in Boston; the Center for Civic Innovation in Atlanta; and the network of Impact Hubs that started in the Bay Area. Code for America’s local volunteer network of Brigades is providing lots of energy to these efforts, along with similar groups like the CivicMakers meetup in San Francisco and the CivicHacks group in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s a messy, scary world out there. As our trip to Auschwitz reminded us, it’s a world where humanity’s worst impulses can combine with powerful technology to produce consequences that are difficult to even comprehend. But the growing field of civic tech offers hope that we can also harness technology’s potential to connect communities and empower them to better solve their own problems.

Micah Sifry