When Making the World a Better Place Isn’t a Punchline

While technology is certainly not the answer to our governmental problems, the civic tech sector is built on the ideal that new tools can help us fashion new solutions, particularly as the old ones grind to a halt.

To kick off our coverage here at Civicist, we asked our contributing editors to share their thoughts on “What is civic tech?” We’ll publish their answers as they trickle in, and look forward to continuing the conversation in the weeks and months to come.

There’s a running joke in the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, in which every new tech company is trying to “make the world a better place.” The punchline works every time because the typical Silicon Valley fare—compression-based algorithms or location-based searches—is such a far cry from what we normally think of as improving the common good.

Civic tech is what we find at the intersection of digital technology and actual public challenges. Civic technology describes the field of technologists, activists, and public intellectuals who are genuinely trying to develop tools that help us make the world a better place. It’s what you get when you treat improving the public sphere as something more than a buzzword.

Civic technology describes (at least) three distinct types of technology projects:

  1. Government directly engaging with citizens. This can be as simple as “e-government” efforts that upgrade citizen-facing websites and make government services easily accessible. It has been extended further to include SeeClickFix and AskThem.io—services which encourage citizens to directly engage with public officials and make their voices heard, but not through .gov websites or portals. Social petition sites like Change.org and the White House’s “We The People” petition platform also belong in this vein of civic technology.
  2. Government transparency efforts. A previous generation of civic reformers focused on opening up government data through laws and regulations like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). They rallied behind Louis Brandeis’s famous observation, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But most of the “transparent” data from years past is hidden in filing cabinets, accessible only to the most intrepid investigators. A major trend in civic technology is to render government actions practically open and meaningfully accessible.
  3. Citizens engaging with each other. This third branch of civic technology can also be called activist technology. When citizens collaborate to develop a shared understanding of the challenges their communities face, they are well on their way to becoming members of that slim slice of the public that actually engages with politics and civic life outside of elections. The challenge for this third branch is that activist technology often becomes partisan technology, and faces particular partisan challenges (movement-building, funding, government regulation) as a result.

Civic technology initiatives don’t always work. They can have unintended consequences. They can be overly idealistic. They can be based upon overly-rosy assumptions about how governments, partisans, and mass publics will behave. Many well-intentioned civic tech projects fall prey to what I have termed the “Field of Dreams Fallacy.”

But it is hard not to feel genuine hope when looking at the civic technology sector. These projects are formed out of a shared sense that contemporary American government has largely ceased to function. And while technology is certainly not the answer to our governmental problems, the civic tech sector is built on the ideal that new tools can help us fashion new solutions, particularly as the old ones grind to a halt.

  • Jake Brewer

    There is much to instill hope, indeed.

    I think the moment we’re in right now is especially hopeful as we think about civic tech’s trajectory through the lens of its still-very-short history. We can understand much about the state of civic tech today by looking at where it’s come from in “only” the last fifteen years or so — the line it creates is steep in its acceleration toward really helping to solve civic and social problems and imbuing a lasting culture change in government and society.

    We’ve failed a whole lot (some of us more than others). So many of our hypotheses were completely off (e.g. “surely citizens will hold government accountable if we simply make data open and discoverable!”), but we’ve tested them, and that is a wonderful thing.

    We still have lots of problems – more of them than ever – but they’re “better problems,” and better problems are born of success.

    The years of tilling soil and planting seeds is actually starting to bear fruit that’s not just acceptable as “civic tech,” but as simply “great tech.” And, to me, the reason it’s starting to really be “great” is because it’s not actually about technology. We much better understand now, as a field, that incremental improvement to a civic process is usually unacceptable, and instead, see the requirement to both build something better AND rethink the process. And, as Laurenellen McCann would say, do those things “with, not for” The People.

    We understand now that civic tech can’t just be a subReddit kiddie table of technology, but that it has to compete at the quality and scale of “big” tech — we have to capture imagination and attention at the level of society, and not the level of our own theories of “how things should be.” And the understanding has come when we stopped making it about the tech.

    As a co-obsessor of these things, it really feels like we’re comin’ round the backside of the full circle, and our work is really just about civics again… about democracy… which, at its heart, is just about people — how “I”s become “we”s — and how we solve problems together. Tech may be our facilitator and accelerator, but it’s not the actual point.

    We’ve spent the last decade figuring out who we are as civic technologists — discovering that there even was an “us” — and figuring out which way is up as new ideas and tools have changed how we see what’s possible. Now here we are: brimming with hope, new energy and the requisite realism and experience to actually turn a vision into reality.

    It’s the pattern of almost all successful movements.

    And a helluva ride ;)

    Thank you for the piece, Dave!

  • davekarpf

    Thanks for the comment, Jake. I love the imagery of “a subReddit kiddie table of technology,” btw. Fantastic.

    One thing that your comment points me to, and that I’d like to follow up on once I have the time: what does the unvarnished history of civic tech look like? What were the major flashpoints, successes, failures, and challenges? What has changed and what stays the same? I don’t *think* I’ve seen a comprehensive history of this area, and I think that sort of history would be immensely valuable…