Last week saw us come together for the fourth online TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech.
Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion on one topic area affecting the civic tech community. Interested parties can then apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant.
This time, the discussants examined the issues around getting our work out to the wider world: with resources always stretched and often complex stories to tell, how can small civic tech groups reach a more mainstream audience?
Discussants were Daniel Carranza of DATA Uruguay, Attila Juhász from K-Monitor in Hungary, Amy Leach of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, and me, Myf Nixon on behalf of mySociety.
Notes from the meeting can be seen here, as well as the full recording of the session here and a transcript here, but if you’d prefer a higher-level view, read on.
A summary of the issues identified during the chat and by the audience.
Resource and capacity Civic tech organisations tend to be quite small and focused on the creation of their services. Communications can be seen as a luxury, or something that is spread between the team as a bit of an afterthought. Even if there’s a dedicated comms person, they often can’t focus deeply on all the tasks that need doing, and bringing in a freelancer doesn’t always work if they don’t have a full understanding of your work.
Complexity of our offerings Talking to the public about our work often means that we’re also having to explain things that are taken as a given within the civic tech world: for example, Freedom of Information; how governments work, what open source is, etc.
Temptation to speak at a technical level It’s important to use simple language, but because we’re ‘experts’ in our field we have to make an effort to not use jargon – especially if you’ve also been involved with the development side personally. Users probably don’t care about things like how it was coded or whether it’s open source: it’s more important to talk about what it can do for them.
Narratives aren’t always clear-cut People want stories with a nice narrative, but if you are making systemic change it can be iterative and messy, and take time.
We are in a polarised world Some areas that civic tech operates within, eg migration or health, are divisive issues that get boiled down to clickbait/soundbites on social media.
Projects can be longterm but enthusiasm doesn’t last As with funding, it can be easier to get attention at launch, but it’s harder to find stories and get interest once a project has been going for a while.
We can’t always find the interesting stories We can be sure that our software is being used in some really interesting ways; but we’re not always aware of them. There’s no compulsion for users or site-runners to tell us how they’re using our sites or software.
The range of potential audiences is really broad We might be trying to talk to ‘everyone’ – or if not, we’re trying to put messaging out to citizens (with varying amounts of knowledge), governments, funders and several other potential user groups.
We don’t always reach every sector of society It takes focus and effort to reach a more diverse audience in terms of race, education, deprivation etc.
It is hard to maintain a stable team Small organisations can’t pay market rates, which means that there’s a higher staff turnover, and the narrative thread can be lost as a result.
The issues we tackle are often quite abstract It’s hard to represent concepts like ‘corruption’ or ‘transparency’ in image form.
Simplify your language Assume basic knowledge in your audience: run it by a relative if you want to check how an ‘outsider’ will receive and understand it. Create a style guide so everyone in the organisation understands how to talk about your services simply.
Don’t worry about technical details If concepts like ‘open source’ and ‘open data’ are vital to your work, you can always work them in at the end of your communications – but they are very rarely the main story.
Find the story that resonates with people What will make people connect on a personal level with your software or service? Show how it solves the problems they encounter on a daily basis.
Create communities mySociety has set up mailing lists, events like TICTeC and when funds allow, runs conferences. These are all ways of discovering the stories around how people are using our software.
Be systematic about audiences Spend half a day thinking about where your work will have the most impact and who you’ll need it to reach. Once you know who you want to talk to, it is much easier to pinpoint where you will find them and what you will need to say.
Build comms into your funding applications Comms is an important part of any project launch, so make sure you include a budget line that allows for it.
Consider volunteers Can you offer jobs that will benefit people who volunteer – eg by giving them specialised experience that they can use elsewhere – and which will also give your comms a boost?
Make sure your services all promote one another A cheap and relatively quick way to spread the word is to tell users of one service about all the others you offer.
Pool efforts with your partner organisation/s They are likely to have different networks and audiences that you can really benefit from, especially if they are larger than you.
Find open source images and other sources for visuals You can often find Creative Commons images. If there is budget, illustrations and animations can be very effective for abstract concepts.
Time upgrades to coincide with new funding or partners That means that when you have something to talk about, you also have the capacity and resource to put out your comms.
Forge relationships with journalists When you send them a press release you’re helping them out and writing the story for them. Or go even further and train up journalists in using your tools so they can generate their own stories.
Look for stories around your tools How are people using them? How does this tie in with whatever is more widely in the news at the moment? Even a surge in users can be a story if it relates to the main news story that day.
How the grant could help
Media training for civic tech comms people.
Set up a journalism prize for the best news story to come from one of our services.
Or a civic tech fellowship for local journalists.
Run a conference specifically for journalists to meet civic tech people.
Or just pay for some civic tech people to attend journalism conferences and speak about the potential stories in our work.
Set up a portal where all civic tech groups can place their stories, and let journalists know it’s available as a resource for them.
Pool resources Look into bulk-buying Google ads or Facebook ads etc, across multiple organisations. It will be cheaper and we can also share expertise (or commission a contractor together).
Create an image library and advice around making good photographs with your phone. This could be used by all civic tech groups everywhere.
Or commission a generic set of visual explainers that anyone could pick up, alter and reuse.
Create a sharing community More widely, a space like Slack or Matrix could be used to share tips, advice, images and comms opportunities.
Make universal logos for some of our common themes There is no logo for ‘open data’ etc – we could commission one.
Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.
We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to six people who are keen to use this discussion to inform the group as they pin down how the grant will be spent.
To keep an eye on this progress, and to know more about the next Surgery, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.