On March 25 the wonderful people at MySociety.org 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:
- Providing information
- Building connections
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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 MySociety.org – 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).