Civic Tech Fundamentals

If you want to learn more about how design thinking is changing the way that digital public services are being built, you’d be wise to check out the latest issue of Civic Quarterly. It’s full of great insights from some of the best thinkers on this topic.

The idea of building civic technology “with, not for” was a prominent and consistent theme at last year’s Code for America Summit. I think this is a natural evolution in the way we build civic applications and how we can make them more effective. As groundbreaking and revelatory as the first generation of civic apps was, we now have insight into how we can build better, more inclusive civic tech solutions. This is exciting to see.

But as our thinking on civic technology evolves and as we develop new ways to collaborate with governments to build civic tech solutions, it is more important than ever that we pay attention to the fundamentals.

At the 2014 Code for America Summit, I gave a talk about the relatively slow uptake of open data in small to mid-sized governments in the U.S. In my talk, I highlighted the results of a survey looking at cities with populations from between 100,000 – 500,000 that had adopted open data in some form. At the time, I noted that the vast majority of these cities have not yet started down the road to open data.

This reality hasn’t changed much since I gave my talk last year. Open data is still not the norm in a large number of state, county and city governments in this country. If civic tech has any hope of being sustained in the long term, we need to change that.

Even in big cities that have well established open data programs, there are large chunks of important open data missing. For example, the City of Philadelphia does not yet share comprehensive property data forcing activists outside the city to scrape this data off city websites. In New York City, there have been calls from the civic tech community for the release of information on city snow plows – data that has been used in other cities to highlight questions of basic fairness and efficiency.

Open data is the bedrock foundation on top of which civic technology is built – not just because it is one of the most important raw materials used to build civic apps, but because it represents a willingness on the part of government to collaborate. Governments that embrace open data send a strong signal to the community that they are interested in new ideas and open to establishing partnerships with new allies.

When governments release open data they tell the community not only that they want to collaborate, but how they want to collaborate. Part of our job as members of the civic technology community – maybe the most important part – is to ensure that governments are living up to their rhetoric on open data. It’s our job to ensure that governments that do not yet have an open data policy adopt one, and that those that have one conform to its lofty ideals.

The civic tech community is forging new collaborative approaches to working with governments around the open data they release. Building “with, not for” promises to create new kinds of partnerships between governments and the civic tech community. As we build these partnerships, we must not forget that there are sometimes large institutional barriers to releasing open data – often, this data is potentially the most valuable to the civic tech community.

The fight to ensure that governments release open data is not over – it will never really be over. In many places in this country, it hasn’t even stated yet. As we create new ways to collaborate with governments and work on the co-creation of public services, we need to ensure that the foundation of civic technology remains solid.

We need a continued focus on the fundamentals.

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