Like many others we were shocked to read the allegations of attempted rape, and physical and verbal abuse leveled at Clay Johnson, a former senior staff member at Sunlight Foundation – our fellow Civic Tech organisation in the USA.
Our thoughts are with the women affected and the staff of Sunlight and the other organisations involved.
It was brought to my attention that Johnson attended a mySociety meeting in 2008 and retreat in 2011; so I’ll take this opportunity now to condemn the behaviour described – it has no place in our community.
No field or sector is immune from the potential for abuse – just because we happen to be in the business of ‘tech for good’, that doesn’t mean as a sector we’re automatically any more or less likely to allow abuse to take place.
Whilst these higher profile and serious revelations are the ones that make the headlines, there can often exist a spectrum of abuse, bullying, and inexcusable behaviour that is tolerated, apologised for, or just plain accepted as part of the culture.
It’s the job of all of us in positions of responsibility in all organisations to take a zero tolerance approach to bullying or discriminatory behaviour which is the soil that allows these abuses to flourish.
We extend our support to the new team at Sunlight, and we are committed helping identify and call out — and ultimately stamp out — elements of the wider culture that allowed this to take place.
How can we counter Fake News — and should we even try? Do big corporations have a moral duty to share their data for the betterment of the world? Why do petitions created by women get more signatures than those created by men?
These are just a few of the questions posed — and answered — at TICTeC 2017.
If you weren’t able to attend (or indeed if you’d like to experience it all again), you’ll be glad to know that you can now access videos of the key presentations, as well as interviews where delegates share their insights and specialist expertise. Where available, we’ve also shared speakers’ slides.
You can see the whole lot on the TICTeC website, and as a taster, here’s an overview of the whole event… in just two minutes:
And don’t forget: you can join us for a special extra TICTeC conference in September this year. We’ll be hosting TICTeC@Taipei as part of Asia’s first Civic Tech Fest, an official side event of the World Congress on Information Technology. More details and how to register can be found at civictechfest.org.
Today, mySociety, in partnership with Microsoft, launch Civic Tech Cities, a new piece of research looking at the technologies local governments implement to serve and communicate with their citizens. You can download it here.
Civic Tech: whose job is it?
Debating and making decisions on behalf of the people; managing services, disseminating information — all of these have been the agreed tasks of local government for a very long time. But has citizen-facing technology now also become a core function of government? And if so, how are they doing?
We often say that mySociety was originally set up to show governments how they could be using digital better, and that one day we hope to have done ourselves out of a job.
But perhaps it’s wrong to foresee a time when we’ll be able to pack up and go home. Perhaps those within government will never be able to escape internal bureaucracies and budget constraints to provide the software that their citizens will really benefit from; perhaps the provocative NGO, one step ahead with citizen-to-government technologies, will always be a necessary agent.
We won’t know for sure until we start researching beyond our own sphere.
A vital new area for research
When we set up the mySociety research programme, as you’d expect, our first priority was to look at the impact of the services we, and other organisations like us, were providing.
Around the same time, the term ‘Civic Tech’ was gaining traction, and it carried with it an implicit reference to applications made outside government, by organisations like us, cheekily providing the tools the citizens wanted rather than those the government decided they needed.
If our aim was to wake governments up to the possibilities of digital, to some extent it has been successful. Governments around the world, at all levels, have seen the financial and societal benefits, and are producing, buying in, and commissioning civic software for their own online offerings.
It is, then, high time that the sphere of government-implemented civic technologies were more closely examined: how effective are they? Who is using them? What changes are they wreaking on the relationship between citizen and government? How, indeed, are governments themselves changing as a result of this new direction?
Civic Tech Cities
Thanks to generous funding from Microsoft, we were able to conduct research that seeks to answer these questions, in the context of municipal-level council digital offerings in five US cities.
Emily Shaw, in collaboration with mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul, examined standalone projects in Austin, Chicago, Oakland, Washington DC and Seattle, to produce case studies that cast a light on the state of institutional civic tech in the current age.
The technologies chosen for scrutiny were diverse in some ways, but the challenges they faced were often alike: and we can all, whether inside or outside government, recognise common pitfalls such as failing to budget for ongoing maintenance of a service that was expected to roll happily along, untended, for the foreseeable future; or building a world-changing digital service that fails to gain traction because its potential users never get to hear about it.
It’s our hope that local governments everywhere will benefit from this in-depth look at the tools US municipal governments have put in place, from LargeLots in Chicago which sold disused land in disadvantaged neighbourhoods for a nominal $1 fee, to RecordTrac in Oakland, a request and response tool for those seeking information under California’s Public Record Act.
Better tools make better policy
Interestingly, one of the key findings of this report is that developing digital tools alongside policy, rather than bolting these tools on afterwards, results not only in better tools, but better policy too.
The user-centred design principles that have been central to the Civic Tech movement had a knock-on effect beyond the software development departments of municipal government. They began to shape the ways in which policy itself was developed, resulting in services that were more accessible and appropriate to the communities they serve.
Finally, it’s not just governments who will learn from this examination of best practices, potential problems and unexpected bonuses; we, and other NGOs like us, can gain crucial insights from the sector which, after all, is pursuing the same aim that we are.
You can read the research paper here. Many thanks to Microsoft for making it possible, and to Emily Shaw for putting in the time and effort to make it a reality.
Image: Jindong H
Audrey is Taiwan’s Minister for Digital, and is part of a massive shake-up that has seen that country embrace unprecedented levels of transparency, accountability and citizen participation. Her keynote will describe some of the ground-breaking methods they’ve introduced.
One of these is Audrey’s famous accessibility. Using a public platform, she is happy to answer questions from anyone, and endeavours to do so within 48 hours. We posed ours there, but we’re replicating them below for our readers to follow.
Such is her schedule that Audrey will be delivering her keynote virtually, but there will be an opportunity for delegates to put questions to her live. Accordingly, we’ve gone a little more in-depth with this conversation.
Why haven’t we in the West heard more about the transformations that have been happening in Taiwan? They really are so ground-breaking — do you have any idea why they might not have received more global coverage?
There is reasonable regional coverage in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. However, global awareness is limited by Taiwan’s restricted participation in multilateral organisations, as well as the relative lack of English material (somewhat ameliorated by recent advances in machine translation).
How would we go about encouraging our own governments to follow in your footsteps? You visited the UK Parliament recently: what was your perception of how they are doing on the Open Government front?
While rules, playbooks and tools are reusable, each government’s political context is unique, so I would encourage everyone to pave their own path instead.
I didn’t stay long enough to learn about UK’s progress — looking forward to learn more from mySociety folks in the future, perhaps when TICTeC comes to Asia. 🙂
TICTeC is all about measuring the impact of civic technologies. Do you have systems in place that help you assess the effectiveness of the measures you put in place?
Yes, there are quantitative engagement metrics and surveys, though they are mostly in Chinese — for example for the petition platform [opens as document; in Chinese].
Clearly, it’s early days yet, but have your implementations been an unqualified success?
For the past 100 days, our main contributions are proceeding well — providing an internal collaboration platform (sandstorm.io) for participation officers from every ministry; requiring all regulations and trade-related laws to be open for public discussion (join.gov.tw); as well as help codifying an open multi-stakeholder mechanism into the draft of Digital Communications Act.
What feedback have you had from citizens and the national press?
In Taiwan’s post-2014 political climate, mainstream press and citizens would never call for “less transparency”, so people mostly respond favourably — of course, there are calls for more accountability and more informed participation, for meaningful conversations to form around divisive issues.
What proportion of the population has taken part in your crowd-sourcing projects? Do you worry about the elderly or less connected not being sufficiently represented in decision-making?
As a proponent of assistive civic tech, it is important that we seek diversity of opinion (not zero-sum voting) and each engagement venue opens up access for previously unavailable folks (not taking existing venues away) — see this write-up by LÜ Chia-Hua.
Of course, even in a democracy of feelings, there will still be some people who lose out, or see a decision that doesn’t go the way they wanted. Are you sensing more understanding from these people, since they’ve gone through the online debates process?
Yes. Generally we come up with rough consensus that people can live with — as long as the procedure are transparent and accountable, we are seeing people who did not get what they initially demanded nevertheless help defending the result.
How stressful is it for a human being to hold themself up to constant public scrutiny? Transparency is of course a laudable aim, but might it sometimes be at the cost of a person’s own downtime or privacy?
Private meetings and on-the-record transcripts are fully compatible; note that we allow each participant to make corrections for ten days after the meeting: here are our guidelines.
A large proportion of Taiwanese politicians are Independents. Do you think party politics is now an outdated system?
In the cabinet there are more independents than members of any party, but in the parliament every party has more MPs than independents.
How can digital technologies bridge the gap between citizen and state without simply reverting to irrelevant soundbite politics or Twitter trolling?
We need to partner with (and become) media to make relevant facts as easy — and eventually easier — to spread.
What is the importance of TICTeC? Why assess the impact of civic technologies?
Informed discussions need to be rooted in evidence. If we are to build a global democratic network of feelings, we need to make sure that these feelings are reflective — this is only possible when they are built upon facts.
Finally: what are your next steps? Are there any more big innovations you plan to introduce during your time in cabinet?
For scalable listening to work, we need to engage people who prefer interactive & tangible understanding, including children. This post outlines the initial steps; and this one outlines the main vision.
Book your place at TICTeC
If you enjoyed reading this interview, it’s time to book your ticket for TICTeC, where every conversation will directly examine the impacts of civic technologies.
And for those who would like to present their own insights, better hurry: the call for papers runs until February 10.
Videos from TICTeC — our Impacts of Civic Technologies Conference — are now available for viewing.
So, whether you were there and you want to experience it all over again, or you just want to see what you missed out on, settle down and enjoy accounts from some of the most interesting civic tech projects around the world right now.
What is TICTeC?
Here’s mySociety CEO Mark Cridge explaining what TICTeC is, and why we run it:
And if that’s left you hungry for more, make sure you visit our YouTube channel to watch the other TICTeC videos.
You might also enjoy the slides, photos and other media that have all been collected together on the TICTeC 2016 page.
How do researchers accumulate knowledge about civic technology? So far, many of our most active discussions still happen at conferences and in the informal writing of blog posts. Individual organizations (like mySociety) are investing more heavily in the production of academic-quality research, so we can all see more clearly what happens when we try to use technology to bring people and governments together. But is this work yet diffusing into academic use?
I wrote about this question while researching the context of mySociety’s current work on US city-led civic tech. Although the term “e-government” seems to have been largely bypassed in current civic technology practice, it’s useful to see that “e-government” is still a very important concept. For those of us trying to see how governments approach the use of technology in connecting to citizens, research on e-government provides a useful perspective. At the same time, however, the perspectives of e-government and civic technology also diverge — and that too is important to note.
Why Civic Technologists Should Still Care About E-Gov
As a recovering academic, I spend more time than I should going down rabbit holes: reading articles which cite interesting studies, which I then go find and read, and then they cite interesting papers, and pretty soon way too much time has gone by. I’m currently researching the role of civic technology projects enacted by U.S cities for mySociety, so I’ve been actively looking for those civic tech rabbit holes.
There’s just one hitch: civic technology barely exists in the academic context. E-government, on the other hand, continues to have an active research program.
Searching “e-government” in Google Scholar returns 169,000 cited works—10,600 published since 2015 alone. Searching “civic technology,” meanwhile, nets a total of 185. (And one of the top results references technology in the Honda Civic.)
Read more at Civicist.
I’m Emily, a newer addition to the team here at mySociety. My current project is researching the effects of civic technology on US cities. mySociety is driven by a mission to develop useful tools for increasing people’s power, but we’re also increasingly seeking to understand what elements or conditions make these tools useful and effective — and our project in the US is an example of this work.
This particular project, supported by Microsoft, will focus on the impact of government-led civic tech projects in cities. By studying five of these implementations in cities across the US, we’ll be able to provide some answers to the questions: What kinds of effects can government-led civic tech projects have? How do they affect their communities? How do they affect their own governance? The answers we get will inform our own work, and may also affect the work of other people who are asking similar questions.
This project is fairly specific in the way that it operationalizes the concept of effects from civic technology, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about the methodology in a future post. At a deeper level, and what ties this project to the overall mission of mySociety, is that it also asks the central question: What is it that makes civic technology effective?
In my own mind, there’s a question even more fundamental than that: What is the intended effect of all of this work?
This question brings us back to a very interesting conversation kicked off (on this very blog) by mySociety founder Tom Steinberg in the spring of 2013. Tom asked what we should call the sector of which mySociety is part. The ensuing posts naturally circled around the identification of like purposes across organizations–taxonomies of purpose–that would clarify the labelling of our sector. As Tom also pointed out, the label “civic tech” won. Although that was the clear winning answer to the question of “what are we?”, it did not fully satisfy the next-level question, which is “why are we?”
That question is still in active debate. This weekend, I added another log on the campfire with a piece I published on Medium called “Debugging Democracy.” I invite you to go take a look, and respond with your own take on what it is we’re all doing here.
Because just like a democracy can’t function without your participation, what’s the point of this conversation if you don’t add your two cents?
Why we do what we do. No, not the name of a wonderfully named new mySociety product, instead it’s an excuse for me to take stock of where we are and where we go next.
Inevitably over the past decade we’ve tackled lots of issues and projects from lots of different angles. What we’re currently focused on is Freedom of Information, Parliaments and Elections, and Local Issue Reporting.
What links all of our work is the creation of civic technology that enables greater access for citizens to the work of government and the democratic process:
Lack of access to elected representatives amongst disadvantaged or underrepresented groups is a key driver of exclusion and inequality, yet governments tend only to become better at serving the needs of citizens when those citizens are capable of demanding better.
Simply put, this is our cause.
Our Theory Of Change
Citizens will only demand better from governments if they have access to a mix of often scarce resources: from education, to wealth, to knowledge about government failings. At mySociety we are highly aware that we can’t give people most of these things: we can’t boost business in failing economies or bring teachers into schools that have none. These are the tasks of development funders, political leaders and well-regulated markets.
Tremendous human suffering happens when governments fail to serve the needs of their citizens, and human welfare is dramatically increased when governments serve citizens’ needs well. Some governments are excellent at meeting some citizen needs, but weak at meeting others, harming a minority, often invisibly. Others make no attempt to meet any of their citizens’ needs, robbing, starving and failing them in every possible way.
Our theory of change is based on a reading of political history, and specifically of the history of reform campaigns, such as those that drove the democratisation of nations from the 17th to the 20th century. We believe that governments tend only to get better at serving the needs of citizens when citizens are capable of demanding better, creating a virtuous circle that leads steadily to better government.
Each of our services give citizens the skills, confidence and knowledge they need in order to be capable of demanding better.
Freedom of Information
FOI is a core plank of a healthy, transparent and accountable democracy. Every citizen should have the right to query and understand the workings of government and public bodies on their own terms.
Alaveteli is our platform for FOI request websites. We currently support partners in over 20 countries, from Australia to Hungary, Nicaragua to Ukraine, as well as a pan-European site AskTheEU. Our most successful site is WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK, with almost 300,000 individual FOI requests alone – drawn from over 16,000 UK public bodies.
Over the next year we will continue to refine and develop Alaveteli to better support the expansion and proper use of FOI around the world. At the same time, we’ll be actively campaigning to preserve FOI in the UK which is currently under threat from the Government’s FOI commission.
Parliaments and Elections
The activities of Government can often be opaque and difficult to interpret. We improve access to elected representatives, providing clarity, context and understanding to the decisions they make on our behalf.
We tackle the workings of government at a variety of points throughout the electoral cycle; YourNextMP/Rep for candidate information, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem allow people to query and explain the workings of government at all levels.
Increasingly central to these efforts is EveryPolitician, our crowdsourcing effort to sustainably store and share a structured open data set of every national politician around the world. It currently holds data on more than 60,000 politicians from over 230 territories.
In the next few weeks we’ll complete work to integrate all of our existing Parliament services with EveryPolitician and continue to encourage more journalists, developers, and NGOs to create the tools they need in their own countries.
Local Issue Reporting
FixMyStreet gets right to the root of any disconnect between citizens and those who provide their local services. Literally dealing with street-level issues, FixMyStreet can help turn our everyday feelings of frustration into action.
The original and much emulated FixMyStreet.com makes it easy to report street faults like broken street lights or potholes, raising over 650,000 reports in the last 8 years.
We’ve extended the principle of issue – reporting – resolution, to create a generalised platform catering to a variety of interesting and practical new use cases; with projects as varied as empty home identification, or logging road collisions and near misses for cyclists.
Citizens feel more in control. Local councils can target their efforts more effectively. Together this can contribute to better government.
For the moment we’ll continue to consolidate our offer in these three areas.
There’s ample scope for further development, refinement of concepts and of course directly increasing the impact of currently deployed sites.
What gets really interesting is when we start to scale up the delivery of each of these in more countries, delivered to more people, ensuring we see more citizens gain greater influence over those with power.
I’ll post again later this week about some of the practical changes that we are making to better encourage the take up of our services and how we’re improving the way we work with our partners.
As this post goes live, mySociety Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul is out in Mexico, hosting a session at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit.
She’s presenting our latest paper, which seeks to provide a firm foundation for future impact research, by asking the most basic questions about who actually uses civic technology and why.
The headline findings
It’s not a difficult read, but if you’re looking for some easy takeaways, we got ’em. Try these for starters:
- Civic technology is used by a wide spectrum of individuals, but there are big differences between countries, especially when comparing developed countries to developing countries.
- Generally, more men than women use civic tech (although this isn’t the case in the USA).
- In the USA and UK, civic tech users tend to be above the age of 45 (over 70%) and well educated: to degree level or higher.
- In Kenya and South Africa, civic tech users tend to be under the age of 45, and more individuals without higher educational qualifications participate through these platforms.
- Comparative to population of each participating country, users from ethnic minorities are under-represented.
- Confidence in civic tech websites is very high. In each country surveyed, an overwhelming majority of individuals (over 85%) believed that these websites help them to hold the government to account, and believed that the government would behave differently if they were unable to see the information contained on these sites. On average 97% of users would use these sites again.
Now go and read
You can download the paper in full here: Who Benefits From Civic Technology? Demographic and public attitudes research into the users of civic technologies.
At the heart of open data is the belief that information is empowering and allows citizens to hold their governments to account. The idea that transparency promotes good governance is so widely accepted that few people dare question it. But how solid is the evidence linking open data initiatives to intended impact? Do transparency measures necessarily lead to policy change? What about the impact and effectiveness of Civic Tech in general?
mySociety has been at the forefront of talking about impact and just last March organized the first Impacts of Civic Technology Conference addressing these questions. The conference brought together practitioners, activists and scholars who discussed various ways to define and measure impact and make civic technologies more effective.
Civic Tech is a rapidly growing field and covers a wide range of initiatives from open data groups to crowdsourcing and service delivery platforms and parliamentary monitoring websites. According to a Knight Foundation report, $431 million has been invested in Civic Tech from January 2011 to May 2013 and the sector has grown at the rate of 24% per year since 2008.
As the interest and funding in Civic Tech continues to grow, it is important to start thinking about ‘impact’ in more concrete terms. The focus on Civic Tech so far has been more geared towards how to get people involved and make the technology more accessible. When impact studies have been done, they have tended to focus on the adoption, awareness or quality of the platforms rather than the actual impact of the initiatives on people and communities.
The default position seems to be that once bureaucratic or technical problems are addressed, these technologies will inevitably produce favorable results. Very often organizations and practitioners fail to see that this is not always the case. The danger when we don’t think about impact in concrete terms is it might lead us to confuse output with outcomes. For instance, poorly thought out open data initiatives might lead to transparency for transparency’s sake. Open data while hugely important is not a one-stop solution for governance problems and corruption and often it requires more than freeing data to push government and institutions to carry out transformative actions.
We have also only recently begun to think about the unintended consequences of civic technologies. One of the criticisms for Civic Tech, especially in the Global South, has been that they often end up empowering the already empowered. It is argued that social and economic inequalities are further entrenched when these technologies are made available without considering the Digital Divide in these countries. Understanding impact also means that these questions are explored in more depth and detail.
The novelty of Civic Tech as a field means that in many cases, the kind of information needed to conduct good impact assessment is not available. In developing countries, where infrastructure, access and adoption continue to be problems, impact studies simply do not top the list of an organization’s priorities. It does not help that most findings are based on self-reporting and anecdotal evidence making verification rather complex. The difficulty of measuring change, however, should not deter Civic Tech organizations from prioritizing impact. There is great value in the work that Civic Tech activists are doing around the world but it pays to know in more certain terms just how their works have been changing things if and when they are. Empirical findings are crucial but so are qualitative insights.
We have to understand the mechanisms and processes of how and in what institutional contexts Civic Tech works in order to achieve better results and avoid unintended outcomes and wasted projects. And that means among other things, establishing metrics and theories of change, finding links between activities and results and producing robust evidence. The bottom line is that Civic Tech is not an end in itself but a means to propel meaningful action and without a clear and sustained focus on results it can be very easy to forget that.
If you are a Civic Tech organization or researcher carrying out or planning to do an impact evaluation of your work, what have been your experiences been so far? What can Civic Tech organizations teach each other about defining and measuring impact? We would love to hear your perspectives.
Rubeena Mahato is working on a digital democracy project at mySociety as an Open Society Rights and Governance Grantee. The views are of the author.