The first Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (#TICTeC)

TICTeC-logos_general-with-year-150x150On March 25 the wonderful people at organized one of the best conferences I have attended in a while: The Impacts of Civic Technology, or TICTeC for short. The one-day conference brought together different kinds of people working in the field of civic tech who appear to not be talking with each other as often as they perhaps should: Funding organisaions, civic tech developers, and (academic) researchers to name but a few. It turned out to be a great mix of people who all were very open to share their experiences regarding civic technologies. And not just success stories either. Participants were explicitly invited to also share the road to success which most of them did very eloquently.

What are civic technologies?
Sociologist dr. Shelley Boulianne from MacEwan University (Canada) started the day by presenting her recent meta study. Taking twenty years of academic research into account dr. Boulianne tried to answer the question whether or not the Internet (with its diverse applications) has an effect on citizens’ engagement in civic and political life. The results demonstrate that online (civic) tools indeed have a positive role to play in civic and political life by:

  1. Providing information
  2. Building connections
  3. Providing new opportunities for input and engagement

A very insightful and accessible account of the complete study can be found here at the Journalist’s Resource website.

In discussing what role civic tech might have to contribute to these developments it quickly became clear that civic technology should empower citizens to become civic actors themselves rather than to (only) use them to persuade others to become active for them.

Impact takes time. Measuring the different forms this impact can have then also should be done over time (Picture by Alice Casey of
Impact takes time. Measuring the different forms this impact can have then also should be done over time (Picture by Alice Casey)
How to measure impact?
One issue that seems to bring together these different parties is how to measure the impact of different project and tools. Many talks touched upon this issue as well. For example, Alice Casey of Nesta, talked about the Neighbourhood Challenge – A project aimed to inspire, support and learn about community-led innovation. In particular, the aim was to show that communities have enormous creative potential to become active sources of innovation rather than passive beneficiaries. The project is running for little over a year now and it already is clear that:
  1. Community organizations can work in a way that isn’t just about incremental, small improvements, but that can fundamentally change and challenge the way people think about and interact with their own community, and
  2. The role of funders as enablers is important; funders should be aware about how they can create the right conditions for communities themselves to innovate; supporting them to create their own solutions to their own priorities, but this takes time and patience.

Read the full report here.

Loren Treisman of Indigo Trust – a UK based grant making foundation that funds technology-driven projects to bring about social change, largely in African countries – captured the debate regarding impact nicely in her summary of the main take aways of the conference:

Measuring impact in this space is really difficult and it’s hard to attribute impact to any one intervention.  How can we use proxy indicators to monitor progress?  Remember to think beyond data.  In this field, qualitative insights can be more powerful.

The way forward: Harnessing the power of mistrust
Ethan Zuckerman (Director Center for Civic Media, MIT Media Lab) gave an inspiring closing keynote about mistrust. He argued that levels of mistrust can be seen rising over the last decades regarding formal institutions such as the government and law and courts. According to him we should acknowledge this mistrust of institutions otherwise civic tech will keep disappointing: mistrust is here to stay.

Continuing this line of reasoning Zuckerman reminds the audience that the decentralized internet now has its own (hyper-centralized) institutions (e.g. Facebook, Google) which we now see is also subject to the same mistrust. An architecture is needed that inherently resist this kind of centralization, and civic technologies might have a huge role to play in that.

An example of such a civic tool that harnesses the power of mistrust is Promise Tracker:

a web-based tool and complementary set of practices that provides citizens with the capacity to monitor and hold elected officials accountable to the promises they make. Promise Tracker explores the role of citizens in gathering data and promoting accountability between election cycles.

This tool helps citizens hold elected leaders accountable for promises they made during the campaign season. It was developed based on the assumption that informed communities, equipped with data, are the best positioned to assess the performance of their representatives and advocate for change on a local level. Currently the tool is being used and tested in São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Concluding remarks
Civic technology should empower citizens to become civic actors themselves rather than to (only) use them to persuade others to become active for them. To determine what and if so how civic technology impacts society time is needed. All involved parties should acknowledge this and adjust their design and research cycles accordingly. Like Rebecca Rumbul – Head of Research at – also argued proper and systematic research is needed, experiments and not essays.

And while I agree there is merit to the idea of using the increasing levels of mistrust as an empowering opportunity rather than a threat to democracy the same problems arguably still remain: People still have to be willing to do something about or with this mistrust. You have to engage yourself with it, acknowledge it and be willing to do something about it. Like always there are different dispositions towards issues such as mistrust (that also exist with for example political interest):

  • mistrusting institutions and there is nothing I can do about it
  • mistrusting institutions and I really do not care
  • mistrusting institutions and I want to change something

Admittedly, it might turn out to be easier to mobilize people from a notion of mistrust than interest. Civic technology might help with that. However, it might also be that depending on the issue, time and place people can be mobilized to engage and participate from either one of these stances. Mistrust then just offers one more inspiring perspective to empowering people.

All in all it was a very inspiring day. Thanks again Gemma Humphrys for inviting me to participate! Most of what happened at the conference is (or will be shortly) available at MySociety here (including videos of the keynotes, interviews, and pictures).

Serious games at the radio

At Radio Swammerdam, the weekly science show, with Andre Klukhuhn reading his column on the Maagenhuisbezetting at the University of Amsterdam
At Radio Swammerdam, the weekly science show at AmsterdamFM

Last week on Sunday 22 March I had a great conversation about serious games at Radio Swammerdam. Together with hosts Lieven Heeremans and Tiago Abas and game researcher David Nieborg we first talked about the political economy of mobile games. David very elegantly explained how game companies as well as the platforms (e.g. Facebook) where these “free” mobile games such as Candy Crash are hosted make their money. We then talked about how games are valuable in different ways as well, for example how they can facilitate social and civic engagement and can contribute to scientific research.

As the Impacts of Civic Technology Conference was around the corner, it made me wonder whether we should start to conceptualize (certain) games (or game practices) as instances of civic tech as well. What do you think?

Listen to the show here (in Dutch).


Interview series: ‘Wat wil jij met Europa?’ [What do you want with Europe?] An interview with Sander Schaap from the PvdA (Dutch Labor Party)

From the 22nd to the 25th of May 2014, elections to the European Parliament were held in the European Union (EU) marked by much debate both pre- and post- elections. Asking EU citizens for their views is considered a way to address demands for discussions concerning the direction of the European Union. Similarly, the Dutch political party ‘Partij van de Arbeid’ [PvdA] created an online platform called ‘Wat wil jij met Europa?’ [What do you want with Europe?] to collect ideas from Dutch citizens concerning Europe. New ideas could be sent in and existing ones could be voted on. The best ideas were ultimately featured in PvdA’s program for the European Parliament 2014 election. Additionally, the PvdA organized debates with citizens throughout different cities in the Netherlands under the ‘Wat wil jij met Europa?’ theme. On the 8th of June 2014, during the Europe Festival organized by the PvdA, the initiative was brought to closure with the presentation of top ideas to Hannes Swoboda (Chairman of the social democrat faction in the European Parliament) and Diederik Samsom (Chairman of the program commission for the European Parliament elections in May 2014). We interviewed Mr. Sander Schaap, Policy Advisor of the PvdA, about this initiative.

The reasons for creating such a platform, says Mr. Schaap, lie mostly in the value of speaking with citizens and asking their opinion. The party had previous experience with the collection of ideas from citizens. In 2011, the PvdA incorporated 90 ideas by participants in a manifesto. Through the introduction of an online platform where people can post their ideas about Europe, the PvdA fights the preconceived notion that only ‘old grey guys’ participate in politics. Many good ideas come from the people, emphasized Mr. Schaap during the interview.

To this we asked whether only individuals interested in politics, and specifically those that wanted to be involved, would participate in submitting their ideas to the ‘Wat wil jij in Europa’ platform. Mr. Schaap answered that indeed this is a legitimate concern, people not wishing to be in touch with politics will not be interested in such tools. Yet it is not a reason not to develop and offer such platforms, as more needs to be done in order to create connections between the people and political parties. It is necessary to try to bring them back on board, and to show, that as a party, one is open to opinions and is willing to listen to these voiced opinions, he added. Hence one of the goals of the initiative was to communicate clearly the outcome of the ideas. This was a lesson learned from previous experiences for in prior projects, participants were curious and inquired about the outcome of their ideas.

The ‘Wat wil jij met Europa’ initiative could be seen as an example of an enterprise that facilitated the articulation of citizen’s voices and valued these ideas by implementing the ideas most voted on in the party program. As stated by Mr. Schaap, citizens wish to know that their voiced opinions matter. It motivates people to participate once again if they see the result of their participation, he said.

What do you think? Are these tools helpful or useful? Or have you participated in a similar initiative? Leave us a comment!