The Use of Technology for the Public Good

civictechven.pngA little blue birdie told me about a very worthwhile post by Matt Stempeck, Director of Civic Technology on Microsofts’ Technology and Civic Engagement Team.  The post, Towards a Taxonomy of Civic Technology attempts to define the field, categorize its functions, discuss ways participants in the field may work together, and finally looks at ways to view the true meaning of the field.  He invites thoughts, reactions and contributions, which I offer below with deep appreciation.

Civic Tech is Taking Off

“The field of civic technology is poised to take off,”  Stempeck writes.  He sees a convergence of trends bringing the field to “an inflection point.”  He and and his collaborators Micah Sifry, co-founder the long-running Personal Democracy Forum conference and Civic Hall, and  Erin Simpson, Program Director of Civic Hall Labs, organized the taxonomy to attract more participation to the field move resources in productive directions and crucially, to understand impacts.  He published the post on the day of their joint presentation at The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference.


Civic Tech Defined

The taxonomy starts with a definition: “Civic Tech is the use of technology for the public good.”  I haven’t tested it yet, but Stempeck says it works at a party and leaves room for the listener.  Anyone who has been in the field for a while knows that we need a simple definition.  I plan to try it and I’d be interested in how it works for anyone reading this post.

However, it is citizenship, not public good, that is central to Civic Tech.  (see previous post on Citizen Centrism) “The use of Technology for the public good” is a fine position to aspire to but we must understand that Civic Tech is not necessarily good.  Civic means “relating to citizenship or being a citizen.” The dictionary definition of civics is “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works.”  So Civic Tech is the use of technology for citizenship.  Technology, of course, connotes new information and communication technology.MY_DEFINITION.png

We cannot afford to confuse the positive potential uses of technology with the probabilities.  The latest campaign tech can be used to micro-target and mobilize bigots.  Many news outlets falsely covered the Arab Spring as a sunny tech story.  That movement morphed into bloody civil wars in Syria and Libya.  Looking back, artful use of film helped fuel the rise of HitlerRadio mobilized genocide in Rwanda.  Polaroid ID cards helped enable apartheid. 

Our business in Civic Tech is belief.  Belief includes perceptions of facts and of interests or values.  Belief is intuitive and emotional as well as rational.  People act on what they believe and that action can be dropping barrel bombs on hospitals or making fancy videos of beheadings in the hopes they go viral. 

arrows-w-words.pngTruly good use of Civic Tech depends on a clear understanding of information’s role in political economics.  Belief is a big factor in political-economics but outcomes are also a function of productive means and destructive or coercive, means.  Civic Tech can contribute mightily to more accurate and useful beliefs among citizens if those of us promoting Civic Tech take the factors of political-economics realistically into account.

The Functions of Civic Tech

Stempeck and his colleagues offer a detailed 26 category index of Civic Tech’s technical functions with a great list of examples, including failed products and organizations.  They avoid “domain-specific” examples designed to address particular civic problems such as education or urban planning to try to highlight core technical functions.  Stempeck freely acknowledges that their categories are neither comprehensive nor necessarily enduring.  The examples maybe as important as the categories.

The functional categories describe the perceived scope of the field now.  They are not mutually exclusive nor are the examples necessarily similar enough to weigh one category’s importance against another.  Examples include single products, brands and programs as well as entire enterprises.

I suspect that there many additional examples and technical categories to be found in the field of civic media and journalism.  From my own media background, I am particularly interested in how civic information is aggregated and disseminated so I was particularly interested in the examples of such functions as group communication tools, issue reporting tools and public forum tools.  

Social Processes Driving Civic Tech Forward

The lists provided by Stempeck classify the activities of interested parties that are driving the field forward.  The main point is that much of the effort is interpersonal.  I was struck with the similarities to early stages of other movements I have been involved is such as quality management across manufacturing, environmentalism, and energy efficiency across industry and government.  Social processes tend to isolate new issues for focus “horizontally” across disparate organizations until, with wide adoption and acceptance, the field is reabsorbed into more “vertical” interests.

What’s the Destination?

Finally Stempeck addresses the impact of Civic Tech.  He and his collaborators credit Tom Seinberg founder of MySociety with suggesting an analysis of who pays and who uses.  Elizabeth Gross of Microsoft asks, "who executes" (builds and maintains)?  To these questions I would add, “who governs?” and “who benefits?”

Stempeck considers what he refers to as the depth of technology.  He distinguishes between civic features e.g. civic utility of a search engine, stand-alone civic products for a particular use (which constitute the bulk of their examples of function), and civic externalities e.g. Twitter’s impact on the capacity of civic interests to promote their views to broader groups of citizens.

Again returning to my particular interest in civic news and information, the who pays and who governs questions are particularly important.  In both old and new media models, the primary payer is the advertiser.  The primary governor is the enterprise supplying the infotainment product in which civic information is typically packaged.  In the old model, the marketing claim is that coverage is accurate, fair, balanced, etc.  In the new model the claim is often that the content is “user controlled” and supplied by a supposedly “objective algorithm.”  

Both old media and new media enterprises are primarily governed by the desire to attract and hold an audience for advertisers at the lowest possible cost to the enterprise.  Keeping the audience satisfied is a cost, not the governing motive for either the old "suits" and the new "hoodies."

Stempeck cites Tony Roberts, a Research Fellow at United Nations University Computing and Society Institute, in considering whether applied Civic Tech in a particular instance conforms to existing power dynamics, reforms such dynamics by improving efficiency or transforms what is possible.  I would suggest substituting "political-economic dynamics" for "power dynamics" here to make explicit that we are talking about the power dynamics of belief, production, and destruction.

The Roberts analysis is important because Civic Tech in the conforming or reforming mode may not change the trend or may simply accelerate the trend of outcomes overtime.  For instance, in the area of transportation policy, commitment to a particular method of transport creates a self-reinforcing trend and the trending allocation of resources to a particular method could be unchanged or accelerated by Civic Tech e.g. an effective campaign organizing tool used by an organization favoring motorcar transport.

The transformational case is what attracts me and I think most others to the field of Civic Tech.  Stempeck assumes that such transformation would “actually shift power relationships from the few to the many” which presumably he views as good.  As explained above, transformation changes what is possible but both good and bad are possible.  Even in the case where an application of civic tech shifts the political economic dynamic in favor of “the many,” the many could be ignorant and malicious whereas the few could be wise and benevolent in which case outcomes could be bad.

What Civic Tech makes possible is actually new forms of political-economic enterprise.  Under these forms, organizations of active citizens may be governed for them and by them at such radically lower cost in time and resource as to make the new forms potentially fully competitive with commercial and traditional non-profit civic information providers, traditional political parties and advocacy organizations and other players in the political-economic dynamic. 

It now may be possible, using the many functions of Civic Tech combined in a single enterprise, to create a new kind of platform funded and otherwise supported by the citizen user, governed by the citizen user using group decision-making tools, executed by a distributed network of paid professionals and citizen users, and benefiting the citizen user,.  No one has put it all together yet.  Early movers will have tremendous advantage.  

The transformational potential makes the field exciting but what makes Civic Tech existentially exciting is the unchanged human capacity at every turn for both good and evil.  That is why it is so important to make sure Civic Tech becomes “the use of technology for the public good!


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