On Sustainable Civic Technology

Sustaining civic technology will mean that both government’s IT infrastructure and the civic technology sector that builds on it will need to change.

A pair of recent blog posts caught my eye and highlighted this theme in my head, and motivated me to capture a few thoughts on this topic.

The first post was by Dan O’Neil, Executive Director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative. Dan’s post on the the things that need to happen to drive the “…maturation of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry” are worth the read. It’s a great post that helps highlight the connection between legacy IT system in government and open data, which is used to build civic technology.

“[without] existing legacy gov IT systems, there would be no civic tech. The data we use for our civic tech projects doesn’t get collected, managed, and exported by itself.”

The second post is from the Bay Area design firm Stamen, and highlights the need for data visualizations (and other bits of civic technology that rely on open data) to be maintained over time. The post uses the analogy of gardening to underscore the need to constantly update and maintain the things we build with data.

“If you plant a flower in a garden and then never give it water or light, it will in fact die. Unless, of course, it happens to placed in just the perfect spot, in which case it will need to be pruned. Either way, some kind of tending is always required.

We don’t always think of digital works in the same way, perhaps because their metaphor of creation more closely resembles that of a built object, like a bookcase or building. But even buildings need maintenance, and after so many years, the shelves on the bookcase may falter and need new ones. We need to be more conscious about this aspect of dynamic data visualization, at the outset.”

These two posts call out the need for both the government technology systems that lie at the foundation of open data, and the civic technology that uses this data to get better. To mature. To advance to the next level.

For me, the takeaways from these two posts are pretty clear.

Technology and civic apps are like gardening – except when they’re not.

I like the analogy of gardening applied to investment in technology solutions. It underscores the need to continually invest in the maintenance and upkeep of the solutions that are used to consume government data. However, I think there is some danger in using this analogy in that it obscures the the fundamental nature of change in the technology world.

I can tend my garden today in pretty much the same way as someone did 100 years ago – soil, water and sunshine. Boom. However, when building a technology solution (particularly web-based solutions) its not feasible to use the same approach or components that might have been acceptable as recently as 10 years ago. Budgeting for maintenance and enhancements for technology projects isn’t a nice to have – its absolutely essential to their success. The pace of change in the world of technology is just too fast for anything less.

We have to fix the budget process as it relates to investment in technology.

I’ve harped on this before, but we most definitely need to get better at helping non-technology people in government (particularly budget officials) understand the need for continuous support and maintenance of IT projects. Correction – we need to help them understand technology better in general. Not since the first season of The Bachelor has there been a worse match than the current public budgeting process and the pace of change in the world of technology.

To understand how acute this problem is, ask some you know that works in state or local government if they (or someone they work with) interacts as part of their job with a technology system that is 10 years old or older. I think the responses would be surprising to many people, and rather alarming to most professional technologists.

Government needs to embrace its role as a data steward

Governments need to understand their role in the civic technology production chain. The current public budgeting and procurement processes make us lousy at investing in the kinds of technology that chance rapidly – like those that power web-based solutions.

When I read the post by Stamen about their Crimespotting project with the City of Oakland, I see a city that hasn’t accepted its role as a mature data steward:

“…over the years, the project started wavering. Oakland’s API has sputtered to the point of being nonfunctional, rendering Oakland Crimespotting totally spotless.”

If governments are serious about open data, they need to invest in systems that will make their data easy to consume and readily available – without this, the civic technology sector won’t go far.

I think part of this is accepting the role of data steward, and engineering our IT infrastructure accordingly. I don’t know if Stamen’s was the only project consuming the Oakland crime data API, but building a robust community of users around open data can help public officials see the importance of investing to keep these systems stable and available.

Don’t underestimate the power of open source

When it comes to helping ensure that civic technology solutions continue to thrive after launch, there is almost nothing better than leveraging the power of open source. There’s nothing wrong with closed source solutions built on top of open data, but if governments are paying for custom solutions from vendors to display open data we should insist that the underlying code be open sourced. This can go a long way toward helping ensure that it continues to evolve over time, as civic technologists contribute fixes and enhances and (potentially) as other governments fork these solutions for their own use.

It’s really cool to see the conversation around civic technology and open data focused on how we can take the great work that has been done to the next level. I think it means we’re ready for the next steps.

One comment

  1. Max · March 12, 2014

    I’d add to this the recent announcement by ScraperWiki that they are no longer supporting ‘classic scrapers’ (although they point to nice migration solutions) meaning any civic projects keying on those regular scraping APIs will need to move and be re-configured. Here’s the link: https://blog.scraperwiki.com/2014/03/scraperwiki-classic-retirement-guide/

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