The Real Heart of Civic Tech Isn’t Code

Does your civic tech lead with technical solutions or human capacity? Does it glorify the developer or the collective strengths of a city?


Civic tech is a hot field. There’s lots of attention in government and media circles and a series of new investments. With this week’s Code for America Summit, which wraps in Oakland today, the field has never been brighter.

Smart Chicago is deep in traditional civic tech

Smart Chicago is deeply tied to the work of Code for America. Earlier this week I wrote on the Smart Chicago blog about all of the connections we have to many of the people who presented at the Summit.

This includes some of the brightest developers, like Ian Dees, who is deeply involved in OpenStreetMap leadership; one of the strongest members of the Code for America Brigade, Christopher Whitaker; a leading thinker in the digital divide, Denise Linn; a Code for America fellowship year that lead to the largest implementation of Open 311 anywhere.

This robust set of people and projects makes Smart Chicago one of the largest and most sophisticated civic tech outfits in the country. We maintain an immense amount of pure technology, and we were right at home in Oakland this week.

The hidden workers

But we work directly with hundreds of other people every week who weren’t at the summit, who have never heard of Code for America, and have never even heard the phrase “civic tech.”

These are our people, too. In our construct of the field, they are civic tech, too.

This includes the 18 people who worked in our Youth-Led Tech program this summer. One of them is Akya Gossit, who told her story of growing up “in some of the most destructive and volatile parts of the city.” This is how we found her:

My last semester of community college I interned at a nonprofit organization called Youth Guidance. During my internship I received an email blast from a colleague who wanted us to let our children know about the youth-led tech program and that they were looking for instructors as well. I applied for the position as instructor, interviewed, and here I am.

Since the end of the summer, Akya has joined us as a full-time Health Navigator.

It includes regular people from our Documenters program, which was recently covered on the Knight Foundation website. We do callouts for regular residents to get paid for attending public meetings & conferences and documenting through writing, photography, and other means. One of them is Angel Rodriguez.

Aaron Brown, Angel Rodriguez, Michael Gore, and Lucia Gonzalez of the Roseland Youth-Led Tech | Summer 2015 Team of the Smart Chicago Collaborative (Daniel X. O'Neil)

Aaron Brown, Angel Rodriguez, Michael Gore, and Lucia Gonzalez of the Roseland Youth-Led Tech | Summer 2015 Team of the Smart Chicago Collaborative (Daniel X. O’Neil)

Angel found out about the employment opportunity on his community Facebook page and first thought he would be part of the program as a student. “A woman said if there were any young adults interested in technology. And I clicked the link and it took me to two links—one was for students (eh oh I was not eligible to sign up) and the other one was for an assistant instructor. I signed up!” Angel has now taken over all documentation of sessions for our Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup), which is a community of residents who get paid to test civic websites and apps.

It includes the dozens of people we’ve worked with over the years in our Smart Health Centers program, teaching computer skills in low-income health centers. One of them is Farhad Ghamsari. He came to us from our partner Chicago Health Corps, where we had posted the position. He specifically requested in his application to interview with us because he was already a technically-inclined person, and he wanted to work in that kind of environment.

While on assignment at Cook County Hospital, he was given special back-end login to hospital systems to pull numbers for our reports. This is a different kind of “techie” narrative that doesn’t include making greenfield apps—just taking existing systems and making them work harder for all. Farhad served with us for a year and then was accepted to Northwestern Medical School. He still works part-time with us as a Health Navigator.

Deliberate paths

We encounter these hidden workers of civic tech through deliberate, structured activities. We promote on social media, spread through social services networks, and contract directly with partners who are deep into fields other than civic tech.

We don’t share our framing with them—“you’re all now in civic tech, which is cool!” Instead, we seek to discover how they approach the world, how they see their skills, their work, and their colleagues, and try to share it.

And we document exactly what we’ve learned in finding our civic tech co-workers, with the hope that we can spark these relationships everywhere. Most of the sharing in the civic tech field is focused on code. We publish reams of that. But what we love the most is sharing specific methods for working with real people. We’ve got two books on the subject:

Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech: Meeting People Where They Are. This book, published yesterday, is by Laurenellen McCann. Her work promoting “build with, not for” is well-known in the field, and the research and thinking in this book delivers specific modes for direct engagement with real residents. She answers the question, “What’s the difference between sentiment and action?”

In our Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup), which is run by Sonja Marziano, we publish all of our methods for recruiting testers and developers, and we’ve compiled it into a book as well.

They’re hiding in your city—find them.

Civic tech that doesn’t include people like Akya, Angel, and Farhad leads to a distorted vision of the field. A vision that leads with technical solutions rather than human capacity. A vision that glorifies the power of the developer rather than the collective strengths of a city.

So as the 1,200 Summit attendees get on planes, go back to their jobs, and log in to Github, I urge you to find the Akya, Angel, and Farhad in your communities. Build them into your lives and your work. The field of civic tech won’t thrive without them.

  • Lucas_Cioffi

    I’m surprised there weren’t more comments on this yet. Thanks for posing this example in such depth.