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: Dr. Rick Adams about The Great Brain Experiment

In light of the Brain Awareness Week – a global campaign to increase public awareness of brain research – earlier this year in March, scientists from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging launched a free mobile app as part of Wonder: Art and science on the brain. The game, called The Great Brain Experiment, enables people to participate in research experiments that previously could only be conducted in the lab.

The researchers from this London based research center study the functions of the brain. The four games that people can play explore a different facet of the brain: “How good is your memory?”, “How impulsive are you?”, “What makes you happy?” and “How much can you see?” Currently, around 150.000 people have participated and the app is still being downloaded.

Next to offering a nice and entertaining player experience, the app also reports data on the players’ performance back to the scientists who will be able to use it to learn about how brain function varies in the population and also how it changes as we age. Participants can see how they performed in the different games compared to other players.

We caught up with the principal investigator and one of the developers Dr. Rick Adams to talk about the reasons for developing the app and its success.

Dr. Adams told us the main aim was to ‘gamify’ the experience for a participant, and so making it attractive for the general public to join in. The format of an app was considered ideal since many people now have a smart phone and would probably not mind playing a game in their spare time. Additionally, the user can play the game from anywhere at their own convenience.

Concerning the challenges of translating a scientific experiment into an app, Dr. Adams explained the most important factor for them was to balance the requirements of the experiment with the game’s entertainment value. This is why the look and feel of the game as well as the gameplay were very important in the development of the app. This makes the choice for a suitable game designer even more important, Dr. Adams says. The designer has to understand the workings of the experiment and be able to translate this to a game environment in an appropriate way.

The collaboration with White Bat Games in this respect was very fruitful. During the different design stages they for example experimented with the art style trying to figure out what would work for the target audience. Additionally, they decided to keep the length of each experiment within the game to 5 minutes in order to stay within the threshold of attention and time players would be willing to invest.

Scientists who are interested in developing their own app should not be afraid to take inspiration from other successful apps and games, says Dr. Adams. Most people are more than willing to share their experiences. Another thing to keep in mind is to ensure there is sufficient funding throughout the app development process. Especially in later stages when the app might need updates. Finally, and this might seem like an open door, says Dr. Adams, finding a suitable game and app developer makes or breaks the final product. The quality of your collaboration on this end is for a large part reflected in the quality of the end product: your app. So investing in a good working relationship pays off.

The Great Brain Experiment is a great example where citizen science participates and contributes to scientific research powered by smart phones. The app enabled asking questions on a large scale and allowed for unique insights into how our brains work and compare against other people. Other projects involve geo-tagging, photographing, classifying for example. Multiple opportunities are available to bring science closer to the public demonstrating that it is not all about scientists in white lab coats.

Have you participated in citizen science projects before? Tell us your thoughts!