Civic technology is the use of technology for the public good. Think: an app that pairs with local counties to provide quick, easy access to food stamps; a new program that makes signing up for public benefits online easier than ever; an app that allows you to clear your prison record.
In this session, Elle Gover gives a brief introduction to what civic technology is, why it matters to Detroit Labs, and showcase some other local and nationwide organizations doing this work. Participants will walk away empowered with the interest and tools needed to have a real impact in their local communities.
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My name is Elle. I’m a developer at Detroit Labs and now I feel like a standup comedian a little bit with this. So I went through the iOS apprenticeship last year, graduated from it and started at Detroit Labs in the winter. And at some point, I made the transition to web development, which is semi-relevant to this.
But, yeah so I know you have no other talks to be at, but thanks for being at this one. It’s also my first talk ever and I haven’t done any like lightening talks or anything. Thanks, thank you. And I didn’t practice this in front of people so here we are.
So as the byline reads here, this is an exploratory introduction to the field of civic technology and community tech. So I thought I’d approach this kind of like a show and tell for civic technology. Yeah and without further ado we’ll get into it. I was going to do kind of like a Tobi thing and show my Twitter and stuff, but I don’t really want anyone following me so. Unless you’re David who found my Twitter the other day. (Laughter)
All right, so first the agenda, so we have intros which is where we are right now. Next we’re going to get into why I care about this topic and why I’m talking about it. Definitions of what civic tech is and what it isn’t. How the field of civic tech came to be. The ecosystem, so things like community action tech and open government. And then what all of this means to you and to us.
First, oops, first I wanted to run through some constraints and disclaimers. So this talk focuses largely on US based projects and most of them that I will talk about are mostly Detroit local projects. This is an overview. I’m passionate about civic technology, but I do not claim to be an expert and I am learning too.
So now why do I care about this? So I’m going to start with a poem actually. This is by Elizabeth Alexander, “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe”. Poetry I tell my students is idiosyncratic. Poetry is where we are ourselves. Though Sterling Brown said, “Every eye is a dramatic eye. Digging in the clam flats for the shell that snaps. Emptying the proverbial pocketbook. Poetry is what you find in the dirt in the corner. Over here on the bus, God in the details, the only way to get from here to there. Poetry, and now my voice is rising, is not all love, love, love and I’m sorry the dog died. Poetry, here I hear myself loudest, is the human voice and are we not of interest to each other?
So this is a talk about civic technology, not about poetry necessarily. But recently when I read that talk, or when I read that poem, I heard it speaking more to why we choose to build the things we do, why we choose to work on the projects we work on, the work we partake in, the things we choose to spend our time on. How do they connect us to each other?
When thinking of the ever-changing I as Alexander writes or the elusive user, what do they mean to us? So I come back to this truth, we are all human beings in community with each other. So how do we want to know each other? Will this inform what we build? How will this inform what we build? So I want you all to keep this question in mind as we move through this talk, so as promised a definition of civic technology. It depends.
But if you Google the words civic and technology together you’ll likely get a definition like this, technology that enables engagement, participation or enhances the relationship between the people and government by enhancing citizen communication and public decision, improving government delivery of service and infrastructure. This is a bit wordy and I feel somewhat dissatisfied with that definition. So I wanted to focus on these parts. The relationship between people and government, mostly, usually an important part of civic technology, communication, the public, all of us and the delivery of services. Run through those again.
These I think are the most important parts of this definition and what we need to carry with us. But like all things it’s nuanced and it’s changing. So I’m going to work with this definition and we’ll start here and use this throughout this talk. Civic technology is technology designed and created for citizens, to improve delivery of public services.
So some quick examples of this. A better city transportation app is one example of civic technology. So is an SMS based system for locating food banks in your area. So is Improve Detroit, I think that’s what it’s called. It’s see, click, fix. Reporting pot holes and illegal dumping and infrastructure damage directly to your city. And as you can see all of these are examples that vary widely in how they’re executed.
A lot of them are through your phone, but they don’t have to be. They all share some commonly held values. So I spoke with a senior developer at Code for America, which is a civic technology 501c3 company based in the bay area. They’re probably one of the better known civic tech companies out there. And this person-outlined some commonly held values that they see as integral to civic tech projects and how they operate. So it starts with user-centered design. Building to do, not to be. So this is something like we’re building to make applying for public benefits easier rather than we’re building a public benefits builder. Building with, not for. So this keeps an emphasis on community members and influences citizens who are at the forefront of decision making.
And it’s also important to note this is an accessibility and inclusion practice as well. You’re fully designing for every experience meaning you’re alongside the person who will be using it. Open-source software and transparency, so everything needed to make the program run is free and available to whoever might want to look at it. And modern lean and iterative software development practices.
So I’ll come back to these throughout the talk when I highlight some local projects in a little bit. So this is a quote from Genevieve Gaudet, a researcher at Nava, which is a civic tech public benefit corporation out of DC. They’re famous for rebuilding healthcare.gov, but the one that works, not the one that didn’t work. And I think this is true, our civic life in many ways and our government has been built on flawed and broken tenets.
And it’s my opinion that things in our society have never fully been operating perfectly or well oiled, what have you, but rather it was just a matter of time until things needed some major tune-ups. And I think technology alone won’t fix this and design alone won’t fix this. But we’re at a time where ethical technological solutions can’t be an afterthought or a second priority, as I think they’ve been placed in our society at least. But first some history. So government systems existed, government tech infrastructure existed like finding out how to renew your passport, applying for citizenship, these infrastructures were slow to adapt which resulted in a laborious and often like fully inaccessible system.
You couldn’t easily access services digitally. But first here are some websites that existed before our federal government had a website. So the White House got their first website up there into the web in 1994. The Simpson’s Archive, do you remember? I think you can still go to it, 1993. MegaDeth, we got some fans out there I think. They had their first website in 1993 which was like this Arizona tourism postcard experience which you can still go there as well. And then MTV in 1993, which a company employee built and like managed in his own time. So the White House was a little bit behind the digital revolution.
But why this lag? So public systems such as the government aren’t able to freely take risks as private sector companies can. The government has stewards, they are the stewards of taxpayer money. They have constituents who, we pay them taxes and we want some say in what they use it on. So that means less risk-taking and trying out new technologies. And then they have a lot of legislative mandates and regulatory requirements that make it difficult to really commit to one technology and then as it’s changing so fast it can take many years to decide on what technology. So in summary, there are a lot of constraints, a lot of requirements without a lot of support for engaging these constraints creatively.
So we like to have a healthy relationship between those two, between knowing your requirements and then being able to decide how you engage with them. But in government that game is quite uneven. So civic technology is one way that technologists, designers are attempting to fix this process, by partnering with the government rather than integrating fully or being the government themselves. So the civic tech ecosystem. This is again is like one definition. I think the Kresge Center actually coined these terms, but community action, open gov and open data are the large arms of the civic tech ecosystem.
So community action could be defined as solutions that actively work to solve an issue that is affecting citizens’ quality of life. It can be privatized and it might be an example of, it could be a neighborhood message board like Next Door. Who’s on Next Door? I see some hands, me too, cool. So Next Door is super helpful for talking with your neighbor in all caps and things like that. I learn a lot, I sell things. Truly a really great community message board. It’s important that it exists. And then something like visualizations or a mapping app that shows you bus routes.
Open government could be defined as a solution to improve citizens’ access to public services or benefits. So this is usually driven by government partnership and some bureaucratic decision making process. This is things like something that would take place on whitehouse.gov or through an organization like 18F. This might be like a civic user testing group for a new city of Detroit app or a charming accessible online drivers renewal system. Never heard of it.
Open data, free accessible data available to the public. So this is like any open data portal. The city of Detroit has a great one where in theory you are able to access data that is being used to make policy decisions in your city. So I’m mostly going to be focusing on the community action arm.
Okay, this is my favorite part, local profiles. So I’m going to highlight some organizations that I think are doing really cool, important work in the civic tech world. And many of these organizations are local to Detroit, but the first however is a project-based out of the bay area in California. It’s called Clear My Record. So Clear My Record was born from a Code for America Brigade project. A brigade is something that Code for America coined, basically, it’s a volunteer group and there are I think 87 around the United States. So it’s people who join together and volunteer around building something. One group built this, it started out as an opt in service for people seeking record clearance for misdemeanors, felonies and convictions. I believe it was, so it started in 2016. This coincided with the legalization of recreational marijuana in California, so Prop 64. This meant that there were a lot of convictions and misdemeanors and felonies that were then not aligned with the current legislation. So this quickly iterated into Clear My Record Automatic. And why this happened was basically the Clear My Record team recognized pretty quickly that while they made this technology that could look through criminal records and expunge these records, there simply weren’t the people in government offices to carry out this work, to do the paperwork. So the government and technology were operating at different paces. So they built the automatic system. So this core technology reads a criminal record then maps data to determine eligibility for relief under the applicable statute and then completes the paperwork to be filed with the court all without the need for a long, often laborious process. So in 2019, there was a pilot study of three to five counties that used this automatic software. This is the opt-in website that you can go to and that still works. So the results of the 2019 pilot study were pretty stunning. This is a quote from the District Attorney’s office in San Francisco. It reads, “The San Francisco DA’s office “recommends that all marijuana-related misdemeanors “and felony convictions be dismissed and sealed, “removing barriers to employment and other opportunities “for thousands of people in San Francisco.” So this means in its simplest form that there are thousands of people who now have no felonies on their records. 8,132 convictions dismissed and sealed. 2,476 misdemeanors dismissed and sealed and 5,594 felonies dismissed and sealed. So the numbers are 1,336 people now have no felonies on their records and are able to vote, apply for jobs, apply for housing and be considered for those things.
So Clear My Record is a very good example of a successful civic tech project. It’s user-centric and operated on user informed design from the very beginning. It’s automatic and it’s open source. So if you’re interested you can check it out there.
Next is Civilla. Civilla is a studio here in Detroit. I believe their office is in Tech Town. They’re a non-profit design studio dedicating to changing the way our public-serving institutions work. Their big project the last five years or so has been Project Re:Form. So this is the first human-centered benefits application in the United States. What this means is there’s an application, a form, called the DH 1171 that is needed to apply for public benefits, food, housing, and is used by around 2.5 million people in Michigan every year. So this form previously was over 40 pages long. If you taped it together it would stretch fully across this room and it was only able to be filled out in paper in person, which was a huge hurdle for many of those 2.5 million people. You’d have to miss work to travel to fill it out. Many people wouldn’t fill it out at all because it was too laborious. So the new form is shorter by over 80% and it takes half the time for state staff to process. That was another big hurdle is that state staff would take many months to process someone’s form so they wouldn’t be getting the benefits that they actually applied for. It looks like this. So another big part of that project was digitizing this process. There was somewhat of a process before. It looked like this. It was loaded, it was difficult to understand and many people did not use it. You can see social security express there. I recently used that, would not recommend it.
So it was, people just simply didn’t use it. So they digitized this process so now that form, DH 1171 can be filled out online or on your phone. Documents submitted has tripled since last year and Code for America called it “one of the strongest “benefit applications in the country.” And Civilla did all this by partnering with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. So they had a direct relationship with them. They worked with them probably every day, don’t know for sure, but they worked with them to interview users, to interview state staff and design a solution from the very beginning that would make sense for people who use it. So this is what it looks like now. So far it’s been used by over one million residents and as I mentioned the enrollment has tripled year over year. So Civilla, in my opinion, has also succeeded as a civic tech project through some of those commonly held values I mentioned earlier. So ongoing user research to ensure the product was rooted in a deep understanding of the client’s needs and actually served those needs. And fast iterative cycles to test the portal with clients and improve its design based on feedback. You can check them out there.
Okay so I’ve just described several projects that would fall under the category of civic technology. Which is mostly what this talk is about, but now I’d like to focus on some projects, or one project, that would be categorized as community technology. So not everyone believes that civic technology is the answer to our society’s flaws and the way our systems serve us in a sense. There can be a lot of issues with civic tech initiatives as well. Some can be shortsighted or harmful to the communities they’re trying to serve and there’s a high chance in my opinion that a lot of these organizations coming in from other towns and other cities are actually doing more harm than help to the residents that they’re trying to serve. There are similarities between civic tech and community technology, but I think the differences are more interesting.
So how are community tech and civic tech different? So civic tech tends to be more heavily invested in large initiatives. So, for example, Microsoft has a civic tech wing, Microsoft Civic Tech Engagement Group, which has placed civic technology fellows in cities around the country including Detroit. Civic tech companies can be privatized or public benefit. They’re often partnering with government and integrated with the government in some way. So community tech is usually non-profit funded which means oftentimes less money. Community tech can sometimes work with local government but tends to work autonomously with neighborhood communities. And in my experience, their goals revolve around creating a system that can eventually be handed off to the residents and the community members themselves.
So community tech is worldwide but has a strong movement here in Detroit. So a lot of this language is from the teaching community technology handbook, which the Detroit Community Technology Project put together a few years ago. So how do they define community tech? So they say, “Community tech is a method of teaching “and learning about technology “with the goal of restoring relationships “and healing neighborhoods.”
What I really like here is that the two first methods of doing community technology are teaching and learning, not necessarily producing something yet. And how do they define a community technologist? It is someone who has the desire to build, design and facilitate a healthy integration of technology into peoples’ lives and communities allowing them the fundamental human right to communicate.
So there are similarities here to civic tech projects, communication, design, but I really want to focus on this healthy integration and fundamental human rights. So these are values that community tech has that are rooted in justice and equity surrounding technology.
So the Equitable Internet Initiative, this is a group born from the Detroit Community Technology Project who started as a response to the digital disparity in the city of Detroit. So the issue that they identified a few years ago was that as of 2016 40% of Detroiters did not have access to broadband internet. So that’s almost half of the city’s residents, didn’t have any way to get online, really have to drive that point home. That’s huge and yeah I initially they initially, well okay, they had an immediate solution which was to give people internet. They created a broadband internet service in neighborhoods using a community space and resource center that already exists. So their idea here is what already is here and how can we use that to solve a huge problem. So for example establishing a computer lab in a church which is already the center of community. So I spoke with Katie Hern who leads EII and they outlined some working principles that EII operates on everyday.
So they say, “We are working towards a future “where neighbors are authentically connected “with relationships of mutual aid “that sustain the social, economic “and environmental health of neighborhoods. “And we are working towards a future “where Detroiters who have been marginalized “from political and economic power “have the ability to leverage internet technologies “to shape the future of their neighborhoods and city.” So again the key here is what’s already there and using that.
So New Center EII. EII has worked with Reverend Joan Ross who is a prolific community organizer in the north end, which is roughly the neighborhood we’re sitting in right now, the Jam Handy. She manages an internet connection out of Prayer Temple of Love Church which is around the bend here. She so far has operated this computer center which provides broadband internet to the local area and has also expanded to two more neighborhoods since starting in the last couple of years, Avalon Village and Parker Village. She also has big plans for solar internet hookups at each of these community tech centers. So the Prayer Temple of Love Church already has a solar hookup outside which basically means that anyone in the area can come by and connect to it with a USB cord and have access to internet. These have a three-day backup battery as well in case of any power outage. This is Reverend Joan Ross. She also leads the North End Woodward Collective and the local community radio station WNYC which you can listen to online. And this is their website which you can follow.
They also lead these things called disco techs which are like skill sharing and learning sessions in the communities where these tech centers are. So they have different topics but they can focus on anything like digital identity and like protecting your identity online and cybersecurity and things that are crucial for everyone to know. So open government, this is the other arm I wanted to focus on.
So examples of this could be the city of Detroit Open Data Portal. In theory, this means transparency, it means having access to the data that your city has access to, that politicians have access to. You can find it right there. There’s also a project that I think is real cool called the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. This is not in Detroit, this is at Harvard, but this is a partnership between librarians, the Harvard Law School and technologists. Basically this group, Library Innovation Lab, joined together to create the Case Law Access Project with the goal of opening up Harvard’s Law School library to everyone free online.
So if you go to case law you have access to every case in the United States since I think pre-2018. They’re still working on a way to automate this. But what this means is that all US court decisions are freely to the public online in a consistent format digitized from the Harvard Law Library. I think that’s really empowering. So why are community tech and civic tech so important? As designers and technologists, organizers, project leaders, we have a lot of power. We have power in the skills we have, in the platforms we have access to and we have likely all seen ways that that power has been abused or simply not recognized as power. And quite frankly there’s a lot of people who do recognize that power and choose to use it not for betterment.
So you, really got lazy with this slide, but with like any open source project you can contribute to many of these and I think that’s really cool. Any open get hub or open source project you have a chance to contribute to and steer. One example of this is the Free Law Project which is different than the Case Law Access Project but is a totally contributor based project that also opens up legal advice and legal information to people who are running their own cases. There also happens to be the National Day of Civic Hacking tomorrow, yeah so good timing. So this is put on by Code for America and specifically the brigades around the United States.
There are several events going on in Detroit and Pontiac that coincide with the National Expungement Week. But really this is a day that was started a few years ago to unify developers, designers, civic leaders on some common goal and then use this day to start working toward it and start building that thing. So my hope is that when I leave the stage you’ll have some idea of what public benefit technology is at the very least, and I think a really great motion here is just being aware of that. But here are more questions perhaps informing ways to think about this in the future. So you could engage with the tools your community or city releases.
There’s something in Detroit called the Civic User Testing Group, CUT Detroit which is basically when the city is making a new app or website they reach out to you and ask if you can test it and log your feedback. You can participate in hack days such as this National Day of Civic Hacking if you’re able to. And here’s why this is relevant, our civic life and the way it functions affect each one of us and is relevant to all of us in some way. It’s in the small choices we make and can start with things like listening to each other, respecting each other and asking questions.
And it’s my opinion that there’s no better way to prepare for the future than by working to address some of society’s biggest and most urgent questions, which start online. Here we are with the question I posed in the beginning, how do we want to know each other and how will this inform what we build? So we have a chance to steer, influence and participate in the ways our communities engage with technology and the way we choose to know each other. That’s it. Thank you.