Civic technology needs community engagement in order to work

Experimental Modes Convening at The Chicago Trust on April 4. Photo by Daniel X O’Neil on Flickr.

This post is one in a series on what four community and place-based foundations are learning by funding media projects that help to meet their local information needs. All are funded through the Knight Community Information Challenge.

Perhaps a reason that civic tech has not yet found a prominent place within many community and place-based foundations is the emphasis on “technology.” Would civic tech grow faster if “civic engagement” with people were a bigger, more visible part of the process of using and developing technology services to address citizens’ civic needs?

“I’ve found that the framing of ‘civic tech’ is not immediately resonant with community foundations,” says Daniel X. O’Neil, executive director of the Chicago Community Trust’s Smart Chicago Collaborative, which is at the forefront of foundations experimenting in this field.

For that reason, O’Neil commissioned a project, initiated in late 2014, called “Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech,” and recruited to lead the project Laurenellen McCann, a national thought leader in the space. Now part of Smart Chicago’s work funded by the Knight Community Information Challenge, the project is an important one to O’Neil.

“I see this as a ‘golden spike’ project — one that makes the connections (between civic tech and community engagement) more apparent and which provides concrete modes within which community foundations can work,” he says.

McCann, who is the latest addition to Smart Chicago’s stable of outside consultants, says she has experienced as commonplace a limited definition of civic tech. “There’s not a lot of exploration of community tech, even though we talk about it a lot,” she says. If we limit ourselves to focusing too much on the technology, “we’re missing the opportunity to learn lessons from the traditions of community development” (a field with a much longer history than civic tech).

That’s the theme of a soon to be released book researched collaboratively and written by McCann, and published by Smart Chicago. Similar to The CUTgroup Book (mentioned previously in this article series), the Experimental Modes book will include research, documentation and investigation of the community-driven technology space — including McCann’s analyses of dozens of civic-tech projects, and the results of an April 3 convening in Chicago of participants in the community-driven tech landscape that were studied.

Meantime, McCann has written a series of blog posts exploring “how to build civic engagement in civic tech.”

Much of the advice that foundations will glean from the Experimental Modes book (which Smart Chicago is sharing freely) revolves around the core concept of “build with, not for,” which also is a cornerstone of much of McCann’s work. That means: be able to name who you are hoping to reach; truly listen to the people you are trying to serve; be collaborative and cooperative, resist top-down approaches; and be agile and lean. “‘Build with’ means that you have to be inclusive,” she says, which can demand a culture shift for many organizations.

A good example of this approach to civic technology is Homicide Watch Chicago, which aims to tell the story of every murder in Chicago. (The idea for Homicide Watch began in Washington, D.C.; Homicide Watch Chicago is part of a growing network of similar sites across the U.S.) The Chicago website partners with local universities, whose students report on homicides that often go unreported by local news media, supplementing the work of professional crime journalists. Further, Homicide Watch Chicago gathers information about murders from families, people connected to the victims, and those with knowledge of the crime (including tips), and anyone can add comments to a homicide page, which sometimes includes new information. That’s working “with.”

That’s just one of many examples from the Experimental Modes project of community engagement for civic-tech services, many of which include finding the right community partners to drive them and allowing those partners to offer a level of information otherwise unavailable to the community.

As McCann summarizes it, the next step in creating better-informed communities is engagement: “It’s the mechanism in which we share information,” which is then distributed to other community residents by way of civic-tech applications and websites.

Of course, community engagement applied to public-interest technology requires that members of a community participate. McCann says it’s all about inviting people to engage, and incentivizing them. The latter so far has been a problem with developing civic-tech services. “Everyone (developing civic tech) wants people to participate, but seldom do they incentivize people” to do so. Lots of digital spaces designed for public participation don’t do well because of this. The CUTGroup (mentioned earlier) offers inspiration on this front, with its $20 Visa gift cards given to user-testing participants.

For more guidance and advice on making your civic-tech projects be more “engaging,” I encourage you to dive in to the forthcoming Experimental Modes book and McCann’s writing.

Steve Outing is a writer and digital media consultant.