What's Civic Tech?
Civic technology is often mistaken as a category of apps. That's not at all what it is. Civic tech is a discipline. It's an ethos in action. It's an acknowledgement that democracy must evolve alongside the society it serves.
This means modernizing the way government creates technology by simplifying business processes and designing for people. It means enabling people to practice their citizenship in meaningful ways. And, crucially, it requires us stand against efforts to use data about people to coerce them, control them, and undermine their freedoms, especially when the abuser is government itself.
This is big work. It's up against some big obstacles. And it has a handful of heroes who are working actively to re-humanize inhumane processes and manifest a more democratic digital world. Here are a few of my favorites.
Clear My Record
"Justice is getting the implementation right." Jazmyn Latimer is one of my personal civic tech heroes. Her talk at the 2016 Code for America Summit, "What if we actually gave people a second chance?" shows exactly why civic technology is essential: It's how we make rights truly accessibly to people in the digital age.
RideAlong started as a partnership between Code for America Fellows and the Seattle Police Department. They spent 9 months together to develop an application that digitized a Seattle PD best practice – the creation of crisis response plans for people who enter the system frequently – and make it more usable for officers on the front lines. The project has grown up into a company headed by two of the original creators, Katherine Nammacher and Meredith Hitchcock, that aims to facilitate safer interactions between police and people in crisis all over the country.
Hey Duwamish is a map-based open-source tool for monitoring the EPA-mandated cleanup of Seattle's only river, the Duwamish, and building a community to support its ongoing health – including by making sure it's in the public imagination. Its founders, Jacob Caggiano and Luke Swart, are effective advocates for both the environment and open-source technology, proving that civic software can be built collaboratively, sustainably, and beautifully all at the same time.
Boundless is addressing one of the most consequential information asymmetry problems in immigrants' lives: How to know whether you're doing your petition right. The Seattle startup aims to simplify the immigration process as much as possible, reducing the public burden. As a former diplomat who saw firsthand how the failures of our immigration system created opportunities for dishonest immigration lawyers to profit from people's fears, their mission is near and dear to my heart.
One of the things civic technology does best is connect people to each other in times of crisis. In the heat of Trump's immigration ban, a Seattle-based lawyer worked with an NYC tech firm to create Airport Lawyer, which connects immigrants and refugees to volunteer lawyers at 20 U.S. ports of entry. It demonstrated the kind of creativity and rapid response that technology does best, connected to a real and pressing civic need.
(Seattle + NYC)
Civic Hall (NYC)
We need honest discussions about technology and the future of democracy – and they are happening thanks to Civic Hall and its blog, Civicist. Few people in this space have had the courage to acknowledge that civic technology is difficult, inherently political, and highly disruptive to the systems that oppress us, but co-founders Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry never hesitate to challenge the civic technology community to think critically.