Civic technology – what’s all that about, then?
On this side of the Atlantic, “civic technology” is a tough concept to define. Maybe for us in Britain, it’s that poor, abused word “civic”. Think of grey, dull “civic centres” or boozy freebies justified as being part of “civic life”.
But across the ocean, the same five-letter word conjures up the best in American public service – fine-spirited men and women giving up their time to make the lives of others easier.
I’ve been lucky enough to have spent four months at Nesta talking to people who commission civic technology, people who create it, and people who simply make space so other people can create it.
When you’re making life easier for your fellow citizens, everyone has a role to play.
And if I sounded cynical in my depiction of British local government just now, well, it’s been an eye-opener. I’ve spoken to people with great ideas, empowered by enlightened leaders, all with a passion to make life better for people in their community.
Bringing people together
It’s an awkward field to define. But frankly, if you’re a reasonably active internet user, you’ve probably used civic technology without even thinking of it.
While local officials bombarded with campaign site emails might wince at the sight of them, there’s no denying that the likes of 38 Degrees and Change.org have built communities and helped campaigns get a leg up (I should know, having been involved in a few myself).
Creating communities is also the aim of sharing site Streetbank, which allows people to lend items or give time to neighbours. It’s now getting backing from local councils in London.
Ever glanced at your smartphone to see when the next bus is? It’s opening up public data that enables the likes of NextBuses and Citymapper to save countless wasted hours waiting at stops and platforms. (It’s also enabled this map showing the next bus to pass Nesta’s London office.)
Others are creating new data, such as England's Mappa Mercia cartographers, who are making new maps of the Midlands for anyone to use; or Ireland’s Save-A-Selfie scheme, enlisting an army of teenagers to snap photos of life-saving defibrillators.
And all this is before we get to tools that boost traditional local authority functions such as keeping streets clean, planning and social care.
So if a tool or app is aimed at building or helping a community, or it interacts with publicly-owned data, then it’s probably civic technology.
Using voices and hands
This broad and fuzzy definition means we must be inclusive when talking about civic technology. After all, who knows where the next big thing will come from?
In the US, Code for America – dubbed a “peace corps for geeks” - has built up an enviable track record over four years, thanks to 4,500 volunteers in 125 cities, along with a network of sponsored fellows and local government staff who have bought into the civic technology dream.
It’s resulted in a range of apps and tools, many of which can be reused around the world.
Yet Code for America didn’t take off just by appealing to programmers. Indeed, by talking of “using voices and hands”, it downplays their role slightly – emphasising that storytellers and people who are just willing to get out into the community have a part to play.
It’s an approach that’s echoed in some new UK schemes, such as London’s Made in Lambeth, Aberdeen’s Code the City and Bath:Hacked, which invite people from across the community to take part. You can also see it elsewhere in Europe, in programmes such as Code for Germany and Code for Poland.
If civic technology is to be truly successful in the UK and across Europe – with software shared and reused across borough boundaries and national borders - it has to replicate the Code for America approach.
Selling civic technology
Too often, those involved in the field talk about the means rather than the end. In Europe, we hear a lot from coders talking about code – but not enough from the heroes of the piece, the service providers who benefit from this code.
If this continues, then those who make the decisions will keep on glazing over at talk of "lean UX" or discussions about the mechanics of various schemes. And they’ll keep on throwing away money on commissioning people to duplicate work that’s already been done elsewhere, and missing the value of opening up their data for all to use.
One thing I found while working on Civic Exchange was how frustrated some in local government are at being tied to expensive deals with software companies when there’s a cheaper way of working.
A quick example – my own local council (which likes to think of itself as a “smart city”) still struggles to accept reports of fly-tipping via the likes of FixMyStreet, because the people receiving the reports can’t see the photos that come with them. Yet who’s banging the drum to tell councils there’s a better way of working?
So people involved in civic technology need to be better at selling themselves. Learn lessons from the likes of FutureGov and mySociety, who communicate their aims simply and passionately. And take a look at Code For America’s Civic Quarterly – full of reminders that these aren’t stories about coding, but about people doing amazing work.
I hope we’ve redressed the balance a little with Civic Exchange. The standalone site’s coming to an end, but we’re keeping the Civic Exchange profiles on the main Nesta site, and we’ll continue to champion civic innovation in the years to come.
Defining exactly what civic technology is tough. But it's less pressing than thinking about what society gets out of sharing public service tools and apps, and opening up public data for all to benefit from.
If shareable, open civic technology is to flourish in Europe, we need to keep on talking about it to the widest possible audience – after all, they’ll be the ones who’ll be using it.