• Opinion
  • October 3, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Civic tech: a movement in its “unruly teenage years”

Opinion: Here's eight opportunities for civic tech organisations to make immediate progress

civic tech movement

This opinion piece was written by Grace O’Hara, the head of marketing at civic tech organisation Code for Australia. 


Civic tech is a global movement of people working collaboratively with their governments to make the world a better place, and it’s well and truly in its unruly teenage years. As a community we’ve learnt how to walk, talk and for the most part, survive.

I’m incredibly proud to be a part of Code for All, a collective of civic tech organisations that have achieved incredible things since 2012.

Together, we’re developing open source toolkits for disaster relief, schooling future generations and making laws and governments more accessible to citizens around the world.

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Yet, as much as it inspires me to be around talented people, directing their passion and skills towards public good — it’s not always roses and rainbows.

We came together a few months ago (at the aptly named Scaling Civic Tech Forum) to talk openly about where we keep falling over and map out a course for us to walk ahead — public servants, governments, civil society organisations and ordinary people together.

Here’s what we found:

1. Measure long term impact
Technology and impact have two very different sets of metrics, and two different scales of time when it comes to seeing results. When you throw in a not-for-profit movement that’s funded largely on a project to project basis, you get a severe lack of long-term impact research.

2. Redefine success indicators
It’s a vicious cycle: with little long-term impact research, it’s risky and difficult for funders to invest in civic tech organisations. So instead we grasp at traditional measures of technological success: user numbers, reach, impressions and spread. What that fails to capture is the human part of our work, the sustainability of our methods and the inclusion that we embed in our practices.

3. Improve continuously
Funding heavily relies on known outputs, on putting a set amount in and getting a certain thing out. When your work relies on creating for and with people, and adapting continuously along the way, knowing your destination from the beginning is impossible. Civic tech needs more flexibility on projects to pivot.

4. Get creative with business models
It’s no secret, those who work in civic tech are generally a pretty morally and ethically sound bunch. When money comes into play, it can make us feel squeamish — few of us are well versed in sales lingo. We need to get better at finding revenue streams that support our end goal, opening ourselves up to consulting or partnerships that are still aligned with our mission and values.

5. Scale responsibly
Civic tech is more than a subset of technology, it’s a way of making technology that is respectful, aware and inclusive of the people it’s being made for. It considers their needs and their habits, and the sustainability of whatever is made. But this isn’t easy to do: replication of work without validation or research into the community it’s being made for is, unfortunately, common and tempting as a quick-win.

6. Foster civic relationships
Technology usually comes served with sides of utopianism and exclusivity. With good intentions, we can sometimes exclude the good work that civil society has been doing long before “we” arrived, and make it hard for “them” to actively work with us.

7. Grow connective tissue
Paraphrasing words from friend and collaborator, Anthony Cabraal, money makes things real. Civic tech is built on the strength of communities and the collective wisdom found in diverse people. We need to actively create opportunities that fund and reward collaboration and connectivity.

8. Advocate for responsible tech
A decade ago, you might have been forgiven for thinking the internet was the end to all our problems. Today, we’re living in very different times. With mass surveillance, coercion and concentration of power on the rise, civic tech needs to be a stronger force against tech for public bad.

These findings from the Scaling Civic Tech summit were designed to be the start of a much longer conversation than this this post could ever provide. As my colleague Alvaro loves to say, it’s going to take all of us and it’s going to take forever, but then that’s the point.

To continue working out a path together, we’ve released a commentable full report here and will be gathering in a few weeks in Bucharest to make collective plans. I’d love to meet you — no matter where you’re from, or who you’re there to represent. — Grace O’Hara

(Picture credit: Flickr/paolobarzman)

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