What is Civic Tech?
Ella Alcock
June 1, 2021
“So, what do you do?” is a question that has become a frequent conversation starter in this period of my life. I take a quick glance around the room to check that no one I have had this conversation with before is within earshot. If the coast is clear I race through a phrase that I have memorised, “I work for a civic tech non-profit, we work with data to make a more people-centered, decision-making democracy”. I focus back in on this unsuspecting party and I’m met with a blank stare. A split-second passes as they decide whether to say “oh that’s cool” and make a run for it or instead show some interest and ask “so what do you actually do?”. The situation gets flipped back to me, “what actually is a civic tech non-profit?” I empathize as this was a place I was in not so long ago.

After graduating with a degree in economics and law, I avoided getting a ‘real job’ by traveling South America for some time. I inevitably found myself back home and living with my parents, after the COVID-19 pandemic struck. This was not an issue of course, well maybe for my parents, as I was then politely encouraged to get a job. It was at this uncertain time in my life that I was fortunate enough to happen upon Open Cities Lab where I started as an intern and I now work full time. Consequently, I was introduced to the fascinating world of open data and the concept of civic technology.

We have all experienced the long lines whilst waiting to apply for a driver’s licence, maybe you have no idea where to even begin when reporting a burst pipe in your neighbourhood, or perhaps you would love to get involved in the decision of how an empty plot of government land near your home is going to be utilised. What if I told you that there is a sector that exists to make these processes simpler and easier to navigate, helping you on your quest to become an engaged and informed citizen.

There is no universally accepted definition for civic tech, this is because it includes such a broad range of services and products. Simply put, it is the use of technology to better public services. Civic tech enhances the relationship between the government and its people by using software for communication, service delivery, decision making and political process. The civic tech community consists of for-profit and non-profit organisations, with Open Cities Lab falling into the latter.

Open Cities Lab works to build inclusion and participation in democracy within cities and urban spaces through empowering citizens, building trust and accountability in civic space, and capacitating government. Now to someone far removed from the civic tech industry these might sound like a string of buzzwords, so let me give you some practical examples of what an organization like OCL does.

Civic tech organisations build solutions to many issues like the ones mentioned above. Creating a digital platform for the public to access government services like applying online for a driver’s license, building an app to report faults such as burst water pipes, potholes and broken street lamps or creating an online platform so that communities can get involved in making decisions about their area by the click of a button on their smartphone are just some examples. What is critical to ensure is that these technological solutions are built with a robust knowledge of the space that the product is being designed for. All problems and opportunities must be considered, and this can be achieved through research and engagement with the government, product users and any other stakeholders affected by the project. It is also crucial to ensure that the technology that is developed is responsible and not exploitative of those it is trying to benefit.

OCL is ‘big civic’ and ‘small tech’, meaning we are more focused on the impact of our projects on the people that they affect rather than the sophisticated, technological solution. We prioritise transparency and accountability in government which is why open data (data that is freely available to everyone) is so important to us. It allows for decision-makers in government to be targeted and policy influenced to affect positive change. Governments don’t always have the resources they require to meet the needs of the people that they serve and so when data is freely available, it allows non-profits like OCL and other CSOs, communities, businesses and citizens to know what gaps need to be filled.

It is an exciting time for civic tech in Africa as the government and its people are starting to realise the potential that civic tech and open data have to strengthen a democracy. The pandemic has caused the world’s economies to diverge, governments are getting poorer, populations are still increasing and climate change is getting worse. I am learning that technology cannot solve these problems alone, but it can help the government in becoming more resilient, efficient and cost minimising. Digital solutions can assist with scaling government services and citizen’s input on how to prioritise spending which can lead to effective collaboration. A rise in interest and investment could be transformative for civic tech as it will help citizens access their rights and spark economic and creative activity in a time that is so uncertain.

Yes, the spectrum of this industry is so broad that it can be difficult to explain exactly what we do. However, I have realised that the beauty of civic tech is that there is space for so many different types of people, whether you are a data champion, software developer, designer, academic, researcher, scientist, artist, engineer, economist or just a concerned citizen, honestly the list is endless and therefore so are the growth opportunities. If you want to impact an outcome, you need to participate and so I believe it is critical that we fight apathy together. We need to take responsibility for the problems facing our country with the intention to be a part of the solution. So, what are you waiting for? Go check out what is happening online in your community, get involved and hold your government accountable.

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