Coding for civic service: a global movement?
I was recently invited to join a workshop, run by The Knight Foundation’s International Center for Journalists, which set out to connect initiatives from around the world to code for civic service. It was organised in partnership with the Code for Africa movement, led by Knight International Journalism Fellow Justin Arenstein, which embeds civic technologists – ‘Code Fellows’ - for several months in news media and NGOs using a similar model that Code for America and Code for Europe have been using to embed Fellows in city government. In all cases, there’s an emphasis upon demand-driven data applications to engage citizens, and on changing internal systems and skills to continue data projects after the Fellows have gone.
Similar initiatives have grown around the world, in the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia. The main difference in approach is whether government is a partner in transforming civic service, or whether work-arounds are needed to stimulate citizen-focused innovations from open data. In much of the Global South the initiative is driven and co-funded by grassroots citizen organizations and the mass media and is focused primarily on building civic technology capacity within civil society and the watchdog media. In Europe, as with the US, we have worked in direct partnership with city service leads keen to adapt their offer and approach.
It was a privilege to be part of this first meeting of parallel global movements and it apparent that there is much sense in finding more opportunity and structure to connect efforts around the world.
There’s a lot we can learn in Europe from the citizen-led approach of Code for Africa. They have addressed head-on the challenge of engaging end users in the consumption of data and creation of genuinely useful tools. I have blogged before about some of the transformational applications that have come from this citizen-centred approach and apps such as GoToVote in Kenya that have emerged.
It was apparent that we all benefit from sharing insight about the process of change that each of our movements is aiming to influence. Code for America has been smart in supporting momentum in cities at different levels, not only through its Fellowship programme, but also through locally-run volunteer ‘Brigades’ and through its successful programme to support civic startups. In Europe we have seen cultures shift within city halls that now have teams and strategies for use of open data and are keen to tackle pressing challenges such as dementia and teenage health. In Latin America, there have been ambitious gatherings of the media and civic hacker community through initiatives such as Hacks and Hackers Buenos Aires that have pushed the release of useful data targeted at meaningful services and information way up the city’s agenda.
As well as high-level insight about the process of change, there’s much sense in coming together to share the tools we are all using to make this happen. We talk a lot about how to encourage more reuse across city halls of software and applications; we ought to be sharing our own tools for making change happen – whether HackDash for organizing hackathons, OpenCivic for sharing apps, School of Data to support people to get up to speed with the opportunities in data.
So what next? Code for America is picking up the conversation in Berlin in July when they will host a gathering of international coding initiatives and will bring together their own Code for All partners from around the world. We’ll aim to set an agenda for the global civic tech movement and understand how the network of global efforts might connect better and might be governed. We are keen to be able to leverage city-wide or country-wide efforts by collaborating, as well as building linkages to other stakeholders from the government, media, technology and civil society.
There are some useful models already emerging to connect social innovators around the world. Social Innovation Exchange uses a very effective Network Nodes governance model. The value of the ‘nodes’ – smaller geographic areas - is that they enable people to network and collaborate with people closer to home on challenges that are relevant in their region, but by being part of something global they keep a wider perspective. The Open Data Institute collaborated with partners around the world to co-design a network of ODI Nodes, each of which agrees to adopt the ODI Charter and to embody principles of open data business, publishing, communication and collaboration.
What is vital is that this any federation offers sufficient flexibility for locally-driven priorities, and that partners of any size or resource base have an equal place at the table. I am very excited to see what emerges.