(thx to @nickgrossman for the pithy headline)
We’ve come a long way with this civic tech thing, building great tools for great cities. But word still travels way, way too slowly. Most of the impact we imagine is still only… imagined.
And we’re imagining something big: tech in cities has the potential to profoundly change how citizens experience government and life. Big, powerful changes that create new economic opportunities and new lives for many people. Done right, dramatic changes to benefit and driven by people who have been marginalized and powerless.
How big? Think change at the scale of the interstate system + mass auto ownership + suburbanization (but much more beneficial). That’s about the right order of magnitude, maybe underestimating a little.
So why, given where we want to be, are our voices so quiet, our visions so weak, and our messages so puny? Changing tech in cities can’t be done with jargon about standards, tame lists of tools, and nerdy guidance on open data. We’re failing everyone this way, failing to put tech to work fixing urgent challenges now.
But hold on, what’s the problem? Isn’t there great stuff coming from _____________ (insert your favorite CfA fellows, incubatees, open data leaders, Brigades, etc)?
Yes, there are amazing new tools, necessary data work, smart people, and new businesses. Good stuff all over. Necessary but not sufficient. The civic tech diaspora is still too inwardly focused (exhibit A: this blog post). We’re doing a bad job of communicating beyond the lightning talk/blog frenzy echo-sphere. Consider:
- Despite big efforts around cataloging (Civic Commons * ) and local guidance (e.g. Sunlight’s nascent local work), there still aren’t good resources available for municipalities to get started. Where resources exist, our crowd tends towards completeness over clarity, enormity over editorial. And that makes it hard for new people to get up to speed.
- Standards are wonderful but we can’t lead with them. Lead with need (or need + standards in parallel, but that doesn’t rhyme).
- Focused work like the incredible Smarter Chicago by definition has to keep that focus in their backyard. Same with Reinvent Albany, the NYC Transparency Working Group, others. Too busy to be the Appleseeds of civic tech.
- New startups are going to sustain this revolution eventually, but they need some help now. Capacity building and awareness raising will prepare cities to be ready (in all aspects — mindset, $$, process, legal).
- And finally, although Code fellows and the peer network are great, they’re tiny compared to the challenges ahead.
No silver bullet, but here’s a missing component that is within reach: high-quality, informed guidance for cities. Stories about previous successes, briefing notes about areas of opportunity, best practices to follow, local peers to learn from. Not cherry picking highlights that may be hard to replicate, but solid, reliable expertise. Not marketing disguised as guidance. Talking in a language cities also speak. Sounds a little dull, but we have such a story to tell, it’ll be anything but.
This is a fixable problem. Funders could support this story telling very easily in a new or existing organization. It would be cheap (no software developers). This could be a regional or national effort.
It should be easy to measure impact. And it will have quite the impact: sharing stories and building capacity empowers and activates existing civic and good gov groups, planners, etc, for them to pick up the song and add their voices. Perhaps there’s a bus that goes from town to town, a rolling roadshow of the future… And crucially, this is short term, going out of business within a few years, having catalyzed new energy and thinking in city halls and gov offices all over. A bright light that starts many fires.
It’s easy to throw stones. Demos not memos **, always. But I am disappointed that this emerging sector still has so far to go before it really emerges and makes an impact. Otherwise, what are we doing with our short lives?
* lots more could be said about Civic Commons. Benefitting from hindsight, I see the primary failure as not serving a clear user need — it would have been better to build up guidance based on the need cities have. Nobody really needs a catalog.
** “demos not memos” is the perfect tech-minded civic activist tattoo. With “be good or be good at it” on the other bicep.
(Here’s a use case for this new effort: I chatted last week with a town, thinking about their options for 311 - service request tools, etc. Open311 sounded interesting but was completely confusing. This town wants to get it right. So we chatted about the various aspects of standards, tools, open data vs internal management, etc. I suggested some vendors (SeeClickFix, Public Stuff). Afterwards, I went looking for more to send. And it turns out, we lack well written, accessible guidance in digestible forms. And for 311, you can substitute almost all others of city government work)