10 Takeaways from TICTeC 2017

This was my first time coming to The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC). While I’ve worked around open data and civic technology for several years now in New York City, I only heard about it right before last years conference and didn’t know what to expect.

What I experienced was a community that is not only passionate about the possibilities in leveraging technology to meet the needs of civil society, they are also clear about the limits of technology. The two days I’ve spent here have been some of the most inspiring and intellectually engaging days I’ve spent thinking of these issues that I work with from the perspective of government employees. To be honest, I came feeling a bit discouraged by the work that is happening in this space, wondering where I fit in the movement, and the impact I could have.

I’m leaving feeling a new sense of inspiration about the impact people are having around the world, inspired by the work of Audrey Tang in Taiwan and wanting to learn more about what’s going on around the world. Below are just a summary of the many interesting conversations, talks, and thoughts I had during the conference, things that will stick with me well after I’ve left the beautiful city of Florence.

Why We Do This

  1. The value of civic technology is to empower citizens by leveraging technology to meet their unmet civic needs. These needs go unmet by government often because the relevant agencies, departments, or officials are unwilling, unable, or unaware of the need. Groups like Code for Pakistan and Code for Germany, as well as the many other Code For groups are showing this all the time, learning from each other how to refine the model and empower people to use technology as a social good.
  2. There is a strong connection between open source and civic technology. Anyone who’s been around civic technology knows that open source forms the backbone of the products we produce for many reasons, not the least of which is the very low cost, but also the flexibility and ease of use that commonly comes from having an open development process. What was interesting is how much civic technology gives back to open source technology, in the form of commits that help improve the open source technology for everyone else’s benefit.

Important Lessons

  1. Open source skepticism isn’t apostasy. Open source isn’t always the answer and while there are many mature open source technologies available, some aren’t in the place to be effectively used for mission critical operations inside government, NGOs, or other situations. Messaging came up as a particularly hard nut to crack for NGOs concerned about the data storage and sharing policies of many free to use applications.
  2. No one country or group has it all figured out and inspiration can come from anywhere. Each use case for technology in the public interest is specific to the culture, values, norms, history, and expectations of the people using it, but there is an incredible amount of similarity in the needs around the world and the lessons that can be drawn from the experience of seeing civic technology serve the needs of women in the Horn of Africa trying to find clean drinking water amidst a drought. There’s also a humility for those of us in the (over-)developed world seeing the very important and life-critical problems technology is solving in many other parts of the world.
  3. The responsibility of large companies to be intentional in how they engage customers/users as citizens. Facebook and Google, by virtue of their size and dominance of so many aspects of our lives have a moral imperative to address the very real impact they have on civil society. We saw examples of how they’re trying to help the democratic process with different approaches to sharing election information. These are good and important features, but like many in attendance, I wanted to talk fake news and the engagement in the democratic process outside of elections. They may not see these conversations as critical to their bottom line, but a company can’t sit on virtually the entire store of human knowledge and information and claim it doesn’t have a responsibility to ensure true and valid information rises to the top of the social consciousness, while intentional lies that pollute the body politic are identified and removed. An application that is the digital commons of our age has a responsibility to ensure it doesn’t become an echo chamber of our worst impulses just to ensure we remain captive to their platform and increase their engagement count for investors.
  4. Response != responsiveness. Goading a government into responding through an act of shaming doesn’t mean the government is responsive. Also, simple metrics about how many potholes are filled and how many people respond to a consultation with government are insufficient to tell the story of how well the technology-enabled democratic process is working. People want feedback on the issues they raise with government, particularly when engagement no longer happens in face-to-face encounters but through mobile phones and computer screens. They want the response to be relevant and sincere. They want to see something change and understand the change as meaningful rather than as something to make them go away and let government carry on business as usual.

How We Make This Sustainable

  1. Increasing diversity and engagement. The word “hackathon” can be scary to the uninitiated. It suggests a high barrier to entry, requiring anyone coming in to have a solid foundation in computer programming and software development in order to be accepted. While those of us in the community know this isn’t true, we need to lower those barriers to bring in people with the passion and need for solutions. Losing the word doesn’t mean we lose the intent to leverage technology as a tool to realize social, political, and economic change.
  2. Seeding technology and data in the civil society. One of my favorite pictures was of a march in Aceh Province of Indonesia where the protestors had signs with charts on them. This came from an effort to develop the data literacy in civil society groups to better advocate for change based on data. In my mind, this is seeding the elements of data-driven decision making into the culture beyond just the political institutions of government into the very way citizens and civil society groups engage one another and the government. We shouldn’t be arguing over the correctness of the numbers, or ideally even the story they tell, but about the solutions to the problem the data reveals.
  3. There is no knight in shining civic technology armor coming to save the day. While political leadership is important, the open data and civic technology champion can’t be relied on as the sole force for growing and sustaining the civic technology and open data movements. Where political will is lacking, they need to be compelled by an active and aware citizenry. Politicians and the government they lead must often be pushed into working in the public’s best interest and that is something we have to be willing to do, no matter which party is in power. We have to plan for change and assume that the allies we have today in government will be gone tomorrow.
  4. Allies, particularly in business, are important in open data. The survival and propagation in open data isn’t best ensured through moral or ethical arguments, but building the business case for open data such that no political administration can rollback the work others have done opening data to the public. While open data shouldn’t be solely seen as a commodity, it’s commercial value is a way to ensure we have allies for the mission of opening data and keeping it open.

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