What’s Going On in German Civic Tech?
A couple of years ago I was idly scanning through Google Zeitgeist, the search giant’s annual data release of each year’s top search trends. Somehow I found my way onto the international results, and picking almost at random I chose to look at the search terms for Germany.
There, sitting at the top of the pile, was something I could barely believe. The term in poll position was ‘Wahl-o-mat.’ Despite not being a German speaker, I recognized it: it was the brand name of a German website that helps people work out who to vote for.
Not a recently deceased TV star, or a major movie, or a massively viral YouTube video, but an old-fashioned, 36 question online quiz that ultimately spat out a suggested political party. Further searching revealed that it had been used, through to completion, over 13 million times in the 2013 national elections. Even more astonishing is the quiz is run by an arms-length public body—effectively a ‘who to vote for’ service delivered by part of the state.
Since then, I’ve been acutely aware that Germany has a social-impact technology scene that is somewhat unlike that of many other rich countries. So in January this year I set out on a trip to Berlin to find out about tech initiatives that might be a bit different from what you find elsewhere.
Context: the security and privacy scene
It is no great secret that Germany has been closely associated with the groundswell of discontent since the Snowden revelations. But I wasn’t prepared for just how big and central it is to how all technology was viewed, or how widely the suspicion of digital technologies has spread.
The best yardstick of how big the security and privacy tech community is in Germany is to consider the attendance of the year’s biggest community shindig, the Chaos Computer Conference (CCC), held in Hamburg. There were an astonishing 12,000 people present this year, and demand for tickets still substantially outstripped supply. Nearly as many people go to CCC as go to Defcon in America, but in a country that’s about four times smaller. And the number rises rapidly every year.
The concerns are much more widespread than the NSA reading German email, too. After a few days I realized that several people I talked to were using the word ‘algorithm’ (referring to automated technologies like Facebook’s wall) with a kind of distasteful wince. It was similar to the way that a lawyer might reluctantly use swear words when quoting a defendant in front of a judge. This is because the very idea of algorithmic sorting of content in social media has become a kind of dirty word in the tech community—yet another way that big institutions could exploit the rest of us. Poor Al-Khwārizmī, who gave his name to the mathematical concept, must be rolling in his grave.
Several people I talked to remarked that Berlin has become a kind of sanctuary to people who work for both well-known and obscure privacy enhancing technology projects. Living there meant not only more like-minded people to hang out with, it meant less hassle at airports, less likelihood of being followed around or interviewed, less of a feeling of being a bad or wanted person generally. You can buy more stuff with cash. Everyone speaks English, and many people the language of cryptography too. People were not naive about the fact that Germany has it’s own well-staffed security apparatus, but clearly it to this community it feels like a much more acceptable home than most other alternatives.
There wasn’t any consensus about what led to Berlin becoming the hub of this community. More than one person strongly contested the almost-standard idea that the history of the Stasi and of the the Nazis has made the average German more worried about surveillance than the average Brit. I was told that Google and Facebook usage was sky-high in Germany, and that these behaviors at an aggregate just didn’t fit the theory of national suspiciousness. Ultimately, I had no objective way of assessing why there is such a large security and privacy community in Berlin, but if it isn’t due to the sad, violent history of this place then there’s clearly some other very interesting explanation lurking. Theories on an encrypted post-card, please.
My final observation on the privacy and security scene is that the energy surrounding privacy tech and privacy laws has created opportunity costs for the wider civic and social impact tech scene. There were actually, overall, fewer big mainstream civic tech or social impact tech projects than I would have expected to find in a country with wealth, tech chops and political consciousness that Germany has. I suspect it’s because more than a few ideas die in the cradle, smothered by concerns about how user data might be abused. At least one person told me they’d seen this happen.
Impressive civic & social impact organizations I discovered on my adventure
I talked to a lot of people during my stay. The following list, which is in no particular order, simply attempts to give a taste of the interesting projects and people I met, rather than a verbatim record. If I spoke to you and you’re not here, please don’t feel slighted!
Following in the tradition of ProPublica, Correctiv is effectively the research and accountability arm of a major national newspaper, just without the newspaper attached. Very skilled at digging out stories from hard to parse data they had a great reputation amongst people I talked to. For example they were much praised for their award-winning piece around the downing of flight MH17, which they released in English, German, and Russian. This multi-lingual, web-first approach, tied to a pure investigation project is something I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before. An impressive bunch.
Germany has operated a successful Freedom of Information website for a long time, FragDenStaat. More recently the team behind it set up a site that’s all about suing the government if your initial attempt to extract information is unsuccessful. It’s mainly about connecting to experts via an email list, and provides access to a database of key court decisions, and to external fundraising sites to help pay for your fight. So it’s less of a complex tech tool, and more of a web-hub bringing together pre-existing tools, people, and advice to get one particular kind of problem solved. But, despite its modest technical achievements, what I liked about it is that it was a step further along the chain than where most FOI sites have gone, digging into the legal fights where much of the important action actually happens.
A simple idea to solve and important problem often brings out the best in civic tech, and this is definitely the case with Wheelmap. This five-year-old site is a crowdsourced site of places that are fully, partially or not-at-all wheelchair accessible. It’s backed onto OpenStreetMap and so stretches internationally: I was surprised by how much data there was in San Francisco, for example. Their site claims nearly half a million crowdsourced entries since 2010, so this clearly is well beyond the ‘interesting experiment’ stage.
Most rich countries now have relatively straightforward donation websites. But Better Place seemed to be, well, better in many ways. First, unlike the market leader in the U.K., they have worked out a business model that allows them to charge a zero percent overhead on donations raised. And whilst free is a nice price, it’s no good if the business fails due to lack of funds. But they’ve constructed an impressive cross-subsidy model where they sell white label versions of their tech and consulting to organizations that want to raise their own money for good causes. Business appears to be good, and their office had a real buzz.
Most people would be happy to rest on their laurels managing this achievement along, but founder Joanna Brandenbach deploys the surplus to run a think tank that publishes on a range of tech-and-society issues in Germany. So if you want to know how to scale and pay the bills with your civic tech venture in Germany, Better Place are definitely the people to talk to.
The highly independent German chapter of the global Open Knowledge empire is perhaps most notable for running some of OK’s most significant projects. As well as FOIA site FragDenStaat (mentioned above), and youth-coding project Jugend Hackt, it runs Code for Germany. This is probably the closest thing that Germany has to a civic hacker community waiting for a chance to break into government, and it’s definitely a force to watch (see below for the problem with German government tech).
In a world of a million MOOCs, it can be hard to know what is genuinely innovative or what is genuinely working in the higher education space. One thing that stands out from the crowd is Kiron University, a fascinating mixed MOOC and real-world university program set up specifically for refugees.
What could sound impossibly modish and tech-deterministic becomes much more interesting when the model is explained. Students are put through two years of MOOC-based courses, but if they stick with the program then they can get placement at a variety of actual university campuses, in Germany and various other countries.
It’s too early to tell what sort of numbers will make it through, but I was impressed by the connection of virtual and physical. I hope their model works out.
Tactical tech is dedicated to the use of information in activism, and is headquartered in Berlin. They help campaigners in a variety of places (mostly outside Germany) to use tech tools to securely gather data and organize, and then make the most of the information they gather through campaigns both on and offline. Their most-used tool is a big set of guides to using your computing devices securely, something which is clearly going to see ever more use in the years ahead. They’ve also got some great skills when it comes to visualizing data for activism purposes. Along with the Engine Room, they’re definitely one of the places I’d go if I was asked to help a campaigning organization stay safe in hostile digital terrain.
The elephant in the room…
…is the total failure of the German government to even begin embracing digital.
Whilst Germany has a historical reputation for being one of the world’s most advanced countries when it comes both to engineering prowess, and to running a competent civil service, it looks like the government at both the national and local levels is screwing the digital pooch as badly as could be imagined.
Not only has there been no new establishment of a strong new digital center, like the USDS or the Government Digital Service, there was no word or rumors about even the tiniest of feelers being extended towards communities like CodeForGermany, which is where you’d expect the next generation of government digital leaders to come from.
Some blamed this lack of government interest on the lack of a really big tech crisis—the recent failure to register refugees fast enough did cause some controversy, but nothing remotely comparable to the Heathcare.gov debacle, which was catalytic to digital progress in the USA. Others attributed the lack of movement to the post-Snowden environment, in which ‘cool, usable digital tools’ becomes equated with ‘export all the data to the USA/NSA.’ And yet others said that it was precisely because Germany does have hugely successful but hugely old-fashioned IT giants (SAP, Siemens) that change was so slow.
Whatever the explanation, a gap is clearly opening between the digital competence of German government and some of it’s traditional rich-country peers. And in the 21st century, where digital competence increasingly is the same thing as organizational competence, this means that a previously unimaginable governance gap is starting to open up. When and if the German governing elites finally notice that the land of Max Weber and Bismarck is no longer at the cutting edge of actually running a government, there will presumably be all sorts of fireworks. But from a digital government perspective it is fascinating to note that Germany is nowhere at all.
Happily civil society is very much somewhere. I hope that this post encourages others to look at what’s going on just over the language barrier and report back to the civic tech world. If nothing else, you get to meet a lot of nice people in a very short amount of time.