SXSW panel explores how civic tech can help strengthen communities

  Photo by Jessica Bolaños.

The SXSW panel “Real Talk on Civic Tech” could be summarized in a quote shared by Andrew Rasiej and attributed to Nick Grossman during the session: “We don’t need more civic apps; we need apps to be more civic.” 

The Saturday panel, comprised of Knight Foundation VP of Media Innovation John Bracken; Catherine Bracy, director of community organizing at Code for America; Garlin Gilchrist II, deputy technology director for civic community engagement in Detroit; and Daniel X. O’Neil, executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, highlighted the need to put people at the center of innovation in civic tech.

The panel first looked at Detroit as a case study of the challenges faced by local governments. Sometimes, working for the greater good means using the resources you have available to first work through infrastructure obstacles. Bracken opened the panel by asking, “How can we move past the ‘promise’ of civic tech?”

Especially in a city such as Detroit, “it can be a tough challenge to restore citizens’ faith in government post-bankruptcy,” said Gilchrist. He explained some of Detroit’s “technology realities” such as challenges with antiquated internal email systems and intermittent Internet connectivity and asked, “How can you work with existing systems to present data and information from them?”

Bracy agreed, but added that “the emphasis [in civic tech] should be on communities. . . and on combining human-driven solutions with smart, efficient technology to build tools and platforms that work for everyone.”

Another hindrance to civic tech within municipal governments is the procurement process. Gilchrist cited the presence of an “information asymmetry” when dealing with local governments. He described how some individuals and organizations who know how to navigate the public sector tend to have the upper hand when it comes to pushing their ideas through the system.

To build real connections between people, leverage existing infrastructures and tap new talent, “local governments must make it easier for small businesses to work with them,” he said. Common themes that emerged during the discussion included the importance of community building efforts—both on- and offline—and approaching civic tech with a long-term mindset, geared toward building lasting, replicable models.

“The more I work in this space, the more I realize it is a community organization problem: How much information is out there? How easily can people access it?” asked Bracy. “We can’t build this open data movement in a sustainable way if everyone isn’t on board. We need to think more long term when it comes to our level of disruption in the public sector.”

Jessica Hodder is the digital communications associate at Knight Foundation.