Last week saw the first TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, a new format for us and a hands-on approach to fixing some of the pervasive problems in civic tech.
The TICTeC Labs programme goes like this: we gather experts together to lead a discussion on the challenges, potential solutions and ideas within one topic area affecting the civic tech community. If interested, participants can apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant to support their work.
Our first Surgery saw four experts tackling the problems that occur when NGOs and non-profits take on work within governments and public authorities, something mySociety is well acquainted with thanks to our activity — now all under the banner of SocietyWorks — selling Software as a Service.
Adding their ideas and experience to the conversation were Aline Muylaert of CitizenLab; Amanda Clarke, Associate Professor at Carleton University; Gabriella Razzano of OpenUp in South Africa and Ebtihaj Khan from Code for Pakistan.
Procurement in government It can be hard for small organisations to compete against the big players, especially because bidding for a piece of work often involves jumping through many bureaucratic hoops.
The structure of governments Set ways of doing things can often be incompatible with the Agile approach that is most favoured by civic technologists. Also, if you are affecting how one department of government works, ideally the benefits would ripple out across all other departments, but the siloed nature of government departments often prevents this.
The short-term nature of governments When building anything, of course you want it to have a lasting effect; but elections and changes in political control often mean that a project is thrown out when a new regime takes over.
The world view of governments An added task comes in educating governments about the motivations of civic technologists, and the value of putting citizens at the centre of work. They also need to know about the benefits of keeping projects running longterm.
The knowledge within governments As government staff often don’t have detailed technical skills themselves, the door is open for big players to demand high dollar contracts that lock clients into a single vendor.
Shaking up procurement One solution that can be effective is in ‘micro contracting’ – breaking a large requirement into several smaller pieces of work, thus allowing smaller organisations to bid for them. Mandates that procurement should be for open source development would also be beneficial.
Clever contracts Civic tech providers can add clauses to their contracts which mean that time is dedicated for user-centred research, for example, or make clear that Agile methods will be used. Adding goals around impact is one way to try to ensure that the real reason for the development isn’t forgotten. Once contracts have been drawn up, the templates could be shared for other governments or civic technologists to use.
Nurturing government staff If they are around long enough for relationships to be built, staff can be inducted into healthy civic tech approaches; for example they can be included in bootcamp sessions.
Writing case studies It’s really useful to be able to share concrete examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements, and government clients can find these very motivating and exciting. At the same time we could look to write some case studies with examples of where the problems we’ve identified were solved, eg by introducing Agile methods into the work, as a persuader.
Research We can learn a lot of research conducted 40-50 years ago, when many of the issues with public/private contracting, a new idea back then, were the same as they are now. We also need new qualitative data from the people working on data projects: if we can uncover corruption (which we know is an issue in places across the world) it will cause an uproar.
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.
Our third and final TICTeC Seminar for this year was on civic tech and the climate emergency.
Speakers Rachel Coxcoon of the Centre for Sustainable Energy (and also a District Councillor & Cabinet Member for Climate Change & Forward Planning), Tom Sasse of the Institute of Government, Natalia Carfi from Open Data Charter and Louise Crow, mySociety’s own Head of Development, engaged in a productive hour-long discussion.
Meanwhile there was an equally useful conversation scrolling by as attendees shared links and insights in the chat window! We’ve summarised this at the foot of this post.
Local councils may have declared a Climate Emergency, but now we get into the nitty gritty: where will money be spent, and how can it be used most effectively?
“The biggest political issue is politics”, said Rachel, pointing out that our current, slow decision-making processes may not be fit for purpose in the face of a global emergency.
She bemoaned the duplication of effort, almost inevitable thanks to our local government structures, when so much could be achieved across the country as a whole with a bit of co-ordination.
Natalia was keen to point out the value of open data in all of this – and yet, as she says, the topic was hardly on the agenda at the last COP. The key is to get the governments in the same room as the people who need the data, so that the use case can suddenly become crystal clear to those engaged in gathering and sharing it.
Tom reminded us that two thirds of people have never even heard of the term ‘net zero’, let alone thought about what it means, so there is a long way to go. He agreed that it’s no good each council working in isolation within their own carbon budgets: somehow we need to step back and get the wider picture.
That’s where there may be a role for smaller data organisations, said Louise: taking big countrywide datasets and using them to inform the general public about the actions they can most usefully take.
You can watch the whole event again via this video, or read the collaborative notes here.
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Thoughts and links from the Seminar chat
We’ve removed names for the sake of privacy, but if there’s a comment or opportunity you’d like to respond to, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can put you in touch with the relevant person.
- The Climate Action Open Up Guide: “the Chilean implementation report in Spanish and English”
- mySociety’s Climate Action Plan explorer
- The UK Climate Assembly website
- “What ClimateView are doing with this open data project around defining a set of indicators for reducing carbon is also a useful tool when focusing on carbon and changes to make.”
- “I’m working on Open Carbon UK – aiming to define data standards for carbon emission disclosure by all sizes of organisation. We’ve got some initial map-based visualisations from existing BEIS and public data here. Would love to talk to potential data or tech collaborators.”
- “For learning how to effectively and constructively engage with decision makers, I can recommend Hope For The Future and for climate literacy training (including for local councils) I can recommend Carbon Literacy.”
- “Here’s a playbook for Civic Voice during COVID — incorporating the new digital rules in the US Congress.”
- “Builders build for profit and most are not installing the technologies needed until forced to do so, eg solar panels or heat pumps. Any thoughts how to overcome this barrier?”
- “With regard to retrofit and how we find local trades etc, a good example is the Futureproof project. It’s vital that supply and demand are stimulated at the same time. Badly timed grant schemes that are too short are causing huge problems. Citizens want to act, and then find that the supply chain simply doesn’t exist in their area, and they lose heart.”
- “Here’s an Open Environmental Data Project where we’re building this overlap between communities.”
- “This is one of the projects where citizens are helping leverage data via sensors – and another one.”
- “This is the Climate Outreach resource Rachel is mentioning just now.
- “Local initiatives based on the specific situation on the ground is the way to do this. The pandemic response has illustrated this starkly this year.”
- “More councils using similar or the same frameworks for tracking and taking climate action would also help sharing and reuse of good practice.”
- “In the UK charging points are holding back the transition to electric cars, particularly the reliability of the charging points. I wonder if anything can be done to help?”
- “In the UK planning system we have a low level called Neighbourhood Plans which need to cover minimisation and impacts of Climate change. The Government intends to computerise these.”
- “We’ve tried to do the best for our Neighbourhood plan by our own research but it should have been better connected to the data. Hopefully future NPs can be better connected. … Perhaps there could be boilerplate material available for Climate change data input to Neighbourhood plans. It’s taken us 4 years to curate relevant material :-(”
- “There are so many NDP groups trying hard on this and MHCLG has let them down by not centralising a lot of data and making this available to them. But this is because MHCLG does not prioritise climate. ”
- “Last May Congress changed its rules to allow for electronic document submission—does anyone have a legislature template or schema so that this kind of participatory climate data can be archived and discovered for example, during research on legislative history? For lawmakers?”
- “The west coast fires in the USA has created a massive opening up of general awareness of vulnerability …we need to figure out how to channel the momentum now…”
Many thanks, too, to our panelists, who spoke so knowledgeably and engagingly about the experiences of parliaments around the world that have been forced to make a quick switch to digital technologies during the COVID months.
Julia Keutgen of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Avinash Bikha of the Centre for Innovation in Parliament and Lord Purvis of Tweed from the UK’s House of Lords were led in conversation by mySociety’s Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul.
We heard about parliaments in Morocco, Brazil, Chile, the Maldives, and of course the UK, with a rounded view of the benefits of quick digitisation against the challenges and inconveniences. Naturally, parliaments and their members come in all shapes and sizes around the world, and their readiness or suitability for transferring to online methods vary accordingly.
On the negative side, some representatives have struggled to adapt, especially if older; and all may be missing the nuances of face to face conversations with their colleagues.
But there are positives too, with MPs able to spend more time in their constituencies helping constituents, and (close to mySociety’s heart, this one) a quicker turnaround of digital data on voting results.
Watch the video to hear plenty more detail on this engrossing topic.
The third and final TICTeC Seminar in our autumn 2020 series will focus on civic tech’s role in the climate crisis and will take place next month — date TBC. Sign up for TICTeC updates and we’ll send you an alert once timings are confirmed.
Finally, if you work on, use, fund or research civic technology, we would be really grateful if you could spare some time to help us shape the future of TICTeC by filling in this survey.
Image: Joakim Honkasalo.
Open Data: an essential, not just ‘nice to have’
Would societies around the world be better able to respond to the pandemic, if more or better open data were freely available?
That was the question put to our expert panel on Tuesday, in the first in our series of online TICTeC Seminars.
Karabo Rajuili of Open Ownership, Olivier Thereaux from Open Data Institute and Fabrizio Scrollini of the Open Data Latin American Initiative (ILDA) were led in a discussion by our own Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul.
We heard of the need for — and simultaneously the impossibility of — a rapidly-constructed open data standard; the benefits and dangers of releasing data about COVID to a potentially uninformed public; and the need for good ownership data to be freely available in a fast-moving procurement environment in which there may not be the tools to investigate where money is being spent.
After the speakers had laid out their positions, the floor was opened for questions, each of which ignited still more informed debate. Finally, attendees were invited to a quick (and optional!) networking session in which they could speak to other attendees more directly.
There are still two more TICTeC Seminars in this series to go, so do join us to take part in the conversation.
On 20 October, panelists will discuss why it’s taken a pandemic for more parliaments to digitise; while in November (date TBC) the topic will be the climate crisis. Find full details for both sessions here, and don’t forget you can sign up for TICTeC updates.
Also: if you work on, use, fund or research civic technology, we would be really grateful if you could spare some time to help us shape the future of TICTeC by filling in this survey.