This week mySociety held TICTeC 2017 in Italy, a conference to present and debate the impact of civic technology. The programme was well curated, convening high-quality talks from theory and practice, while striking a balance between discussing fundamental questions and looking at practical solutions. All session notes are stored on a hackfoldr that was kindly prepared by g0v and the conference attendees. We sent Danny Lämmerhirt, our research lead, to attend and report how the conference topics connect to the Open Knowledge network.
I have to be honest, my fear was that fake news or elections would overshadow the conference. I am glad to report that it didn’t happen. However seeing Google and Facebook showcasing their civic applications to address these issues raised the questions of whether and how Silicon Valley will alter the landscape of civic technology (which is a topic for another post).
TICTeC 2017 demonstrated how civic technology has matured. We have success stories and failures to share. Now we need to better connect our knowledge better and systematically develop strategies that are more realistic in addressing what we feasibly can do and how. Here are my four takeaways from TICTeC 2017:
1) We need to be realistic and honest about the (adverse) effects of civic technology
Tiago Peixoto’s opening keynote showed that current aspirations of civic technology are not new. From the French Morse tower (semaphore) to the Internet – communication technology is heralded to bring about an Athenian Agora and more egalitarian modes of participation. Later Peixoto showed with the examples of prominent participation platforms like Change.org and FixMyStreet, that participatory tools may reproduce social inequalities, create their social dynamics, and allow for very specific participatory modes. Civic technology is a socio-technical system and may amplify social dynamics. Will it help the design of civic technology to be more attentive to these?
— Fabrizio Scrollini (@Fscrollini) April 25, 2017
2) “Citizens”, “civil society”, “empowerment”, “public good” – we need to avoid clichés and name our actions precisely
Language matters, but jargon is frequently used to describe whom platforms are designed for (“citizens”, “civil society”) or for what cause (“improving people’s lives”, “holding the government to account”, etc.). These slogans do not help the cause of civic technology.
One session asked whom we exclude when designing apps for “citizens”? What about those who are no official citizens in a country? In traditional terms, citizenship is a relation between citizen and state. We may say that this binary is too narrow because many actors (including private sector) are nowadays part of the problem and the solution. Also treating our audiences under catch-all phrases like “civil society” overlooks the different interests and functions of members of civil society. Who gathers around similar matters of concern? What can we learn from these for our understanding of civil society?
A more thoughtful use of language may help to be more inclusive (to non-citizens), to more precisely naming the relationship between stakeholders, and also to expose existing real power relations (who holds power over what) more clearly. This is important not only for our own projects, but for the purpose of civic technology more broadly. Vague terms are easy to appropriate and colonise, and may lead to a loss of credibility and false expectations (as the history of the word empowerment shows).
3) Good strategy design requires more well-grounded theory, and less black/white thinking
One session was a great example of the binaries in which we tend to think. It discussed the four levels of interaction between civic technology and government as convergence, collaboration, confrontation and conflict. This model is well known from political theory. However, it loses much of its usefulness if we don’t pay attention to the question of whom should interact with whom to gain which benefit.
The government is not one monolith but contains many different interests across hierarchical levels and departments. Sometimes one agency may be supportive of an application, while another one is not. Our own partisanship should not blind us from these nuances. We need to document the mutual benefits across our stakeholders more precisely. For whom is what technology useful and why? These questions could help design more meaningful and actionable technologies.
4) The need to better share and connect our learnings
TICTeC is an excellent venue for practitioners and theorists to come together and exchange ideas. It is satisfying and sobering at the same time, that we hit similar obstacles, and have the same success stories to share. But there is a need to better connect our learnings, not only in venues like TICTeC, but also as routine part of our work.
Some participants mentioned that local tech communities might shy away from consulting longer established organisations. I’m not sure how much of a problem this is in reality. But it shows that our scene might be cluttered. We should find a way how newcomers and smaller groups can tap into existing open source solutions and profit from the learnings of others. A well-grounded and shared evidence base is urgently needed, as Christopher Wilson tweets:
#TICTEC TAKEAWAY 1: we still don’t talk about what kind of evidence/research/learning people designing projects might actually use
— Christopher Wilson (@cosgrovedent) April 27, 2017
Overall, whilst TICTeC did not answer the big questions, it clearly laid out important next steps that civic technology needs to take. These might not directly change the world into the open Agora we dream of. Nevertheless, they would allow to manage expectations, inform more strategic thinking, enable to reflect the effects of our projects, and facilitate a replication of our success stories.