1. Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #4: Storytelling and reach

    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.

    Problems

    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.

    Possible solutions

    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.

    Action lab

    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.

  2. Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #3: Accessing quality information for civic tech success

    How can we overcome barriers to accessing good data and documentation?

    Last week, a global audience came together online for the third 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 of 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.

    In our third Surgery, the discussants explained the barriers they’ve experienced in accessing good-quality data and information, and then some of the ways they’ve found to meet these challenges, and ideas for what might be missing.

    It was fascinating to learn how similar the issues are, as well as where they diverge, in the several countries represented by our speakers and by the audience.

    This time around, our expert panel comprised Nehemiah Attigah of Odekro in Ghana; Laura Zommer from Chequeado in Argentina; Khairil Yusof representing the Sinar project in Malaysia; Sym Roe of Democracy Club, in the UK; and Nati Carfi of Open Data Charter, in Argentina.

    Notes from the meeting can be seen here, as well as the full recording of the session here and a transcript here, but we’ll summarise the main points in this blog post.

    Problems

    Data is often not in the right format to use digitally or is not machine-readable – documents have to be scanned and then digitised through OCR.

    Officialdom/authorities can be problematic in a number of ways:

    • They might demand unwarranted fees for information;
    • They might be ignorant of legislation such as FOI that requires them to provide information on demand;
    • Laws might be contradictory, for example one law might penalise officials who give out information, while another gives citizens the right to request it;
    • There might a low level of understanding as to how the data could be used;
    • There can be concerns that the data would uncover the authorities’ own corruption;
    • They might stop publishing data or change the format it is in, due to political circumstances;
    • They might work to different deadlines or timescales than is useful for organisations’ needs.

    Even if the data is available, it can be too complex for a non-expert to understand.

    Good open source code that exists might not be suitable for every country’s circumstances.

    Possible solutions

    • When authorities can see the data in use, it’s much easier for them to understand why it’s needed – so resources showing examples of where civic tech is working elsewhere (for example in other countries) or making prototype tools that show what could be done might be a solution.
    • Groups could publish stories in the media about what happens when data stops being published or changes in a way that damages the tools people rely on.
    • Could data sources be archived to provide a permanent home in case the official sources stop publishing them?
    • Educating the public to make them understand data better – through blog posts, podcasts, ‘data translators’ or whatever means.
    • Publishing case studies that explain solutions that haven’t worked, as well as those that have.
    • Training for NGOs and organisations on how to engage with authorities.
    • Training for the public on how to use data.
    • Translating existing guidance on open data standards into languages other than English.
    • Producing resources that explain the value of open data standards rather than just advocating for open data standards in of themselves.
    • Research how access to information laws apply to datasets and how those laws work in practice.

    Action lab

    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 further develop solutions together, for the benefit of the wider civic tech community.

    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.

     

  3. Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #2: Ensuring civic tech is accessible: how can we lead and popularise best practice?

    Last week we convened for the second 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.

    In our second Surgery, the discussants examined how to make civic tech more accessible to all: what are the barriers to accessing the tools and services we make, and despite the best of intentions, have these barriers been somehow baked in to our ‘tech for good’ practice?

    Bringing their experience and a diversity of international perspectives to the conversation were Mark Renja of Code for Africa; Laura Nelson-Hamilton from Public Digital; Oluseun Onigbinde CEO of BudgIT Nigeria, and Bonnita Nyamwire of Pollicy.

    Notes from the meeting can be seen here, as well as the full recording of the session here and a transcript here, but we’ll summarise the main points here.

    Problems

    A summary of the issues identified during the chat and by the audience.

    A lack of user-centred design practices Civic tech is often built before there is a full understanding of users’ needs. Users aren’t involved in the planning or during the build, still less do we engage with people who might have extra accessibility needs.

    Inhouse culture There’s often no structure within civic tech organisations that ensures that accessibility is built in from the beginning of every project – it’s often seen as something to bolt on at the end. And there’s nothing to ensure that the small changes to our working methods that have a large impact on those trying to access our services are adhered to over the years, through staff turnover or organisational growth.

    A lack of expertise Civic tech teams are often small and may not have accessibility knowledge inhouse. It can be tricky, for example, for non-experts to approach a visual interface like maps and make them equally accessible for those with visual impairments.

    A lack of funding Funding sources don’t always recognise the necessity for adding time and resource to ensure that a project is accessible. Funders prefer to fund new projects than to give additional funding to an existing one which might allow more work that would make it accessible. 

    Differing needs Audiences may have access to (or no access to) a diversity of platforms, or speak a variety of languages. We generally assume a level of literacy that a large percentage of the population doesn’t have. And those who need our services most might not even be online.

    A lack of understanding our users Engagement by those who are struggling to use the service can be misinterpreted as misuse or abuse. If users with accessibility needs aren’t already accessing our tools — because they can’t — it can be hard to identify them and therefore understand which needs we need to meet.

    Possible solutions

    Don’t assume, ask Ensure that solutions come directly from the experiences of people who will use your tech. Involve these people in every step of the build. How can we normalise this?

    Online materials Guidance like the Universal Access Guide by Code For All provides a free and open source for developers to learn from. Make your accessibility guidance friendly and approachable, like accessguide.io. Could we find ways to ensure these resources are more widely known about and adopted?

    Get buy-in — and start at the top Get the decision-makers on board with the move to total accessibility. Often this is best achieved by showing them the real-world results of making projects accessible, so this could take the form of meetings with users or really compelling case studies.

    A companywide change in culture Embrace the idea of designing and building for everyone as one of your organisation’s guiding principles. Make a guiding document for the entire organisation that informs how everyone thinks about and approaches accessibility. One way to encourage this might be to provide a template.

    Utilise pictures Like IKEA instruction manuals, don’t use text where you can use visuals. Employ illustrators to make attractive and easy to understand interfaces. Could one solution be to collaborate with an existing database of illustrators?

    Begin with your own colleagues Run an anonymous survey to find out how many staff are disabled and have issues with online tools: this is a powerful way of showing where you already have gaps internally, which can really bring home what a lack of accessibility means. Might we spin this out to a sector-wide survey?

    Share figures Try to educate your peers on disability stats so they can grasp the scale of the problem.

    Coding that instills change So much of accessibility is optional. That shouldn’t be the case. Build it in. For example, if you’re coding up a website, make it so that people can’t add an image without filling the ALT field in. 

    Seek to educate funders about accessibility and when applying for new funding, ensure that accessibility is part of the scope. Encourage funders to insist on accessibility being a consideration in every application. Could we identify which funders already consider this a priority and share that with the community?

    Consider translation and audio Even automated translation can help widen the accessibility of your materials. Can we experiment with audio based access to information?

    Building connections If we can’t do it all, can we provide a means of connecting civic tech companies with organisations that can help?

    An accessibility developer corps: a list of software developers with experience in making sites and tools accessible, available for hire and volunteering.

    See what’s already been done Identify best practice in other civic tech projects which are accessible and broadly used, whether that’s inherent or accidental. 

    Start by making events (online and IRL) accessible Include captioning, sign language, transcripts provided afterwards. Make sure videos (both prerecorded and live) have subtitles. 

    Action lab

    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 6 people who are keen to further develop solutions together, for the benefit of the wider civic tech community.

    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.