The Bomb, the Pill, and the Shot

the Shot

Image courtesy of Flickr user Joe Flintham.

A few days ago, Tom Steinberg – the founder and former director of mySociety – wrote a fascinating piece on power that was meant for people developing civic technology.

In a post on Medium, Tom clearly describes the nature of power as it relates to technology and implored civic technologists to think more directly about how shifts in power are affected by the development and adoption of new technologies. He uses the analogy of a nuclear bomb and the contraceptive pill to describe the different kinds of power shifts that can occur when technology becomes more broadly adopted.

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Thinking Small on Civic Tech

Designing simple systems is one of the great challenges of Government 2.0. It means the end of grand, feature-filled programs, and their replacement by minimal services extensible by others.

— Tim O’Reilly, Open Government

The original idea of Government as a Platform is now almost a decade old. In the world of technology, that’s a long time.

In that time, people working inside and outside of government to implement this idea have learned a lot about what works well, and what does not. In addition, we’ve seen some significant changes in the world of technology over the past decade or so, and the way the we develop solutions (both in the world of civic tech, and outside of it) have changed fairly dramatically.

The power of the original idea for Government as a Platform continues to echo in the world of civic tech and open data. I have no doubt that it will for a long time to come.

But in 2015 what does Government as a Platform actually look like, and what should it look like going forward into the future? What are its component parts? How does it manifest in terms of actual infrastructure, both inside and outside government?

And, most importantly, who controls this infrastructure and has a say in how it is shaped and used.

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Who Uses Civic Tech?

Who uses civic technology, and why should we care?

A new study from mySociety – a non-profit based in the UK that focuses on civic tech – helps us answer these questions and provides some invaluable information for the civic technology community, and for governments.

mySociety surveyed civic technology users in four countries to understand the characteristics of civic tech users and their attitudes toward the solutions they are using. This is an important study that will no doubt be discussed in great detail in the civic tech community, but I see two key takeaways that bear some immediate discussion.


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Density and Destiny

Perhaps no other process of government that has such a significant impact on people’s lives is as opaque and less understood as establishing the rules for land use.

Maybe the redistricting process. Maybe.

How land is zoned – the setting of specific requirements for how land may be used, and even how buildings and structures on land may be designed – is a complex process because discretion for setting zoning rules is generally delegated to local governments. My home state of New York provides a very comprehensive (though somewhat dated) guide for local communities that want to institute zoning rules. It’s a fascinating read.

Land use rules can fundamentally alter the character of communities, and there is an increasingly robust body of research that suggests that where you live – where you are born, grow up, access educational opportunities and job opportunities – helps determine your lot in life. There is also an abundance of information available that details how land use rules have added to the very serious problem of segregation in many communities in this country.


In a time when our collective attention is focused on higher offices at the state and federal level, it’s easy to forget about local government officials – particularly at the town and village level – and the work that they do. County legislatures, city councils, town councils and village boards all have a part to play in deciding how land gets used – and, by extension, where people get to live.

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Rethinking Residency Requirements

Residency requirements for municipal employees are a contentious topic among local government officials, city employees, and taxpayers.

The idea that city employees will be more invested in their jobs and perform at a higher level if they live in the cities for which they work underpins most of the logic behind municipal residency requirements. Critics of these policies say it limits the personal freedom of city employees and shrinks the pool of potential candidates for local government jobs.

It is interesting for me to note the role that the City of Philadelphia has played in establishing the legal foundation supporting municipal residency requirements—a well known 1976 Supreme Court Case brought by a Philadelphia firefighter upheld the constitutionality of these policies. My own experience with residency requirements also comes from the City of Philadelphia and it  has very much informed my opinion of these policies in general.

I believe that the single most effective way that city governments could improve their ability to recruit and retain talented technology employees is to eliminate residency requirements for IT staff.

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Participation and the Cult of Catalogs

“Anonymous access to the data must be allowed for public data, including access through anonymous proxies. Data should not be hidden behind ‘walled gardens.’”
8 Principles of Open Government Data

In the world of open data, there are few things that carry more weight than the original 8 principles of open data.

Drafted by a group of influential leaders on open data that came together in Sebastopol, CA in 2007, this set of guidelines is the defacto standard for evaluating the quality of data released by governments, and is used by activists regularly to prod public organizations to become more open.

With this in mind, it was intriguing to hear a well known champion of open data at the Sunlight Foundation’s recent Transparency Camp in Washington DC raise some interesting questions about one of these principles, typically considered sacrosanct in the open data community.

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Buck the system or work the system?

“Systems are broken because they exist to sustain themselves, and the people who run the system rely on the system to stay the same. Why should they change it? It works well for them.”

Chris Guillebeau

My friends at Philly ran an interesting piece yesterday about the long road to the release of an important data set on property valuations and ownership in the City of Philadelphia. It’s definitely worth a read.

The story is compelling for many reasons. It details the interactions of a small group of people (myself included) moving into and out of government and employing different strategies to win the release of property data – a resource much sought after in the journalism and civic hacking communities in Philadelphia. Throughout the story an interesting dichotomy emerges.

“Buck the system” or “work the system” – which approach works better?

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No Assembly Required

When we think about all of the work being done in the civic technology and open government communities over the last several years, it’s easy to see the impact.

Evaluated just in terms of the number of datasets that have been released by governments it is clear that the impact of those advocating for more open, responsive and agile government has been significant. But those working in these communities have far more to show for their efforts. One of the most under appreciated (at least in my opinion) is advice: solid guidance and recommendations for how to make things better.


Consider all of the work being done to provide recommendations for governments to use technology more efficiently and to become more open and transparent. There are countless examples where individuals that have developed expertise over many years of working to improve how governments use technology and data share their learnings and recommendations freely and openly. We don’t have a shortage of good ideas for governments to use to start making changes to how they use technology to build services and engage citizens.

I think the primary is that not enough governments are using these recommendations, or they’re not using them quickly or effectively enough.

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The Civic Hacker Hacked

“The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.”

— The Hacker Hacked, by Brett Scott

Ever since I read Brett Scott’s engrossing piece on what he refers to as the “gentrification of hacker culture” I’ve been thinking about how this idea might apply to the world of civic hacking. The lament about the loss of the subversive nature of hacking resonates – Scott repeatedly uses this word in describing the origins of hacking and its focus on being antiestablishment and decentralized.

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GovTech is Not Broken

When we talk about the challenges that face governments in acquiring and implementing new technology, the conversation eventually winds around to the procurement process.

That’s when things usually get ugly. “It’s broken,” they say. “It just doesn’t work.”

What most people who care about this issue fail to recognize, however, is that while the procurement process for technology may not work well for governments or prospective vendors (particularly smaller, younger companies), it is not broken.

It works exactly as it was designed to work.

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