When I was nine, a local mall revealed plans to replace its ice skating rink with a carousel. This was quite an unpopular proposal among my peer group, and in an effort to give us a practical lesson in civic engagement, my teacher allowed some of my classmates and me to skip school to attend the County’s Board of Commissioners hearing on the matter. The public were invited to testify, and being the brazen, over-confident adolescent that I was, I stepped up to the mic and informed the commissioners with all the conviction that I could muster that I just didn’t think a carousel ride was a very good value for money. The Commissioners were overwhelmed by my logic, and the proposal was promptly rejected. Just kidding. The rink also happened to be the practice rink of the infamous Tonya Harding, who at that time was still an Olympic hopeful, and not yet a great shame on the State of Oregon. Her tearful testimony, along with the prospect of sending all that talent to a far-away rink, no doubt convinced the Commissioners that the economic interests of the mall came second to the potential glory the county would be able to eventually claim by association.
In those pre-internet days, letting your elected leaders know your opinions on a particular issue, or mobilizing a community around a common advocacy goal required considerable effort, whether it was testifying at a public hearing, going door-to-door with a petition, making countless phone calls on a landline, or putting up fliers for a rally. Today, technology has completely upended the ways in which citizens interact with their governments and each other; some of the best examples of this could be found at CivicTechFest, held from September 11-16th in Taiwan.
Organized by the Open Culture Foundation and MySociety, CivicTechFest consisted of multiple simultaneous events, including TICTeC, WCIT 2017, the Code for All Summit, and the g0v Hackathon. It was a week filled with eye-opening creativity, killer apps, passionate advocates, and countless good ideas. At NDItech we think a lot about how we can best support emerging civic innovator groups around the world, and what it takes to go from having a good idea to making a viable product. Taking a step back to share best practices, bond over common failures, and simply brainstorm in person allowed for some deeper thinking about what we’ve already accomplished in this space, and what directions we want to go. Some takeaways:
Impact is Everything
Yay, you’ve built this great tool! And so many people have downloaded it too! And yet: what change has actually resulted from all those downloads? Do number of users actually equal meaningful change? Rebecca Rumbul of MySociety challenged us to consider the following assumptions we often make about civic technology:
- We believe civic tech has an amplifying beneficial effect
- We think that civic tech makes it simple to ask for information
- We think that our sites are user-friendly
However, we need to consider how we actually evaluate those statements. Oftentimes donors or other stakeholders are most interested in qualitative data about a tool or product - e.g. traditional metrics such as: number of unique site visitors, bounce rate, time spent on site, etc. For example, a user may have used your site to submit a complaint to their elected official about an issue in their community, but can you effectively capture whether that submission led to the issue’s resolution, or whether the online communications channel was equally or more effective than making a telephone call or writing an email? Also, by shifting from one type of communication platform to another, are we inadvertently leaving certain sectors of the population out?
Don’t Open Data Just Because it’s There
The thrill of publishing data that had previously been long hidden away in the form of a dusty handwritten ledger, or locked in a non-machine readable PDF, has resulted in a corresponding flood of data now available on just about any subject you can imagine. However, in our rush to make information more accessible, we may actually be making it harder to find what we need. Often the datasets considered most useful for civic engagement get lost among those that may not have much (if any) demand. Michael Cañares of the World Wide Web Foundation in Indonesia recommends a more targeted approach:
- Ask civil society organizations what data they want.
- Request the government to open those datasets.
- Train organizations to use the data, and then engage with them to learn how they use it in order to measure its long term impact.
We Are All Still Trying to Figure Out Bots
At NDItech, we've been exploring effective ways to integrate chatbots into our DemTools applications, but are mindful of making sure we’re not just throwing in a new technology because it is currently in fashion. An “unconference” session dedicated to use of ChatBots to improve citizen-government engagement, revealed that while it may be too soon to tell whether these bots are an effective long-term communications mechanism, there are a number of examples that demonstrate their potential impact.
- In Mexico, the Urbem bot seeks to make transactions between citizens and governments easier.
- Play with Cleverbot - an AI that has been learning through “chatting” with site visitors since 2006.
- Not a programmer? You can still build your own chatbot using tools like Tars or Chatfuel
The Future is Collaborative
Above all, CivicTechFest demonstrated that designing products or tools for increasing citizen and government engagement is typically made better through iterative adaptation, sharing resources, and collaborating with peers. Ideas and prototypes are improved upon or expanded, and we reduce the risk of replication. The CivicTechFest itself utilized collaborative notetaking for each session, a practice I’ve seen with increasing frequency at conferences, events, and workshops - and a situation where the sum is better than the individual parts. As expected, the community at CivicTechFest has a lot of suggestions for civic tech collaboration:
- Learn how to become part of the open source community
- Check out what kinds of tools other civic tech organizations have already developed
- Explore the work done by the 14 organizations that comprise Code for All - an international network of civic tech groups - each with their own set of resources and cool projects.