The Civic Tech Lab

A Home for Civic Tech Centered on Solidarity and Empowerment

The growth of civic tech — technology created in service of democracy — is an inspiration. Foundations are funding it. Universities are fostering it. Cities are using it. And civic-minded developers and designers are getting together by the thousands across the country to create it.

In fact, we believe that the civic tech world is getting big enough that it is becoming worthwhile for the civic tech community to begin identifying subcategories within itself. A rudimentary taxonomy could help us identify useful patterns, as well as ensure that corners of the civic tech world are not being ignored.

The Four Main Types of Civic Tech

1. Data tech

The first major area of civic tech deals with open data, and could be called “Data tech.” It focuses on three projects:

  • Digitizing previously-analog government data. Tim Berners-Lee and the Open Data Institute, which have been pushing institutions to transfer their data currently locked in PDFs and private excel sheets into open, linked data formats, are on the forefront of this effort.
  • Opening government data up to citizens outside of government. The City of Boston’s Data Boston page, for example, is full of useful tools for analyzing various city datasets ranging from Food Inspections to Building Permits to 311 Service requests.
  • Organizing and displaying government data in more accessible ways. Such projects might include apps that display New York subway data, maps visualizing crimes in Boston , or tools for analyzing court cases.

2. Gov tech

A second area of civic tech could be called “Gov tech.” If open data tech is about transferring government information to citizens in a useful way, government engagement tech is the other side of the two-way street: transferring citizen information (including opinions) to government in a useful way. It’s two projects are:

  • Streamlining contact with practical government agencies. For example, SeeClickFix allows citizens to easily report incidents of note to public services, like potholes and light outages. Open311, a neighboring effort, is an attempt to build an open standard for what they call “civic issue tracking.”
  • Streamlining contact with politicians and lawmakers. The Obama administration’s famous “We the People” Petition tool, for example, guarantees a response from the White House if a petition gets 100,000 signatures. Agora Town Hall, similarly, helps cities host online conversations with their citizens.

3. Election tech

A similar, but distinct, third area of civic tech is “Election tech.” This includes projects aimed at:

  • Helping campaigns run more efficiently. For example, NationBuilder has been a breakout tool for giving more citizens access to the campaign tech tools to which only well-financed campaigns previously had access.
  • Helping citizens support campaigns independently. Grassroots PB, for example, helps volunteers organize virtual phone banks independent of an official campaign phone bank,
  • Helping increase voter turnout generally. The superstar of this effort is TurboVote, which makes it easy for citizens to register for and be reminded to vote.

4. Community tech

A final area — the corner of civic tech we at the Civic Tech Lab are most interested in advancing — is what we call “community tech.” Instead of focusing on building tools for individualized citizens to better engage with government and electoral politics alone, community tech is focused on connecting citizens with each other in ways that empower them collectively. To us in the community engagement tech world, clever tools for individuals are not enough: tech must help build and fortify our real-world, face-to-face communities. This is why we respect community engagement tech that has a sense of good tech and good organizing, like Meetup, which helps people create and join real-world groups.

Re-energizing Civic Life Through Tech

We at the Civic Tech Lab are inspired by civic sage Robert Putnam, whose seminal book, Bowling Alone, re-popularized the term “social capital” (the resource provided by networks of trust) and shed light on the steep decline in local community engagement in America over the past decades. At the end of Bowling Alone, Putnam calls on Americans to develop new civic institutions to re-connect us to our neighbors and towns so that we do not lose that civic spirit that makes our democracy work.

As our first project, we aim to revitalize CommonPlace, a web platform for local community engagement that we first created in 2011. Local civic life used to be held together by local information infrastructures: town newspapers, post office bulletin boards, and well-attended community meetings. Today, these single access points for community engagement are in decline. Unfortunately, the civic tech industry has yet to build an adequate replacement, opting for a flurry of single-purpose apps (one for events, one for babysitters, one for news, etc.) that often fail to reach a critical mass. American towns still await the 21st century town bulletin.

But CommonPlace is just the beginning. Unions, fan bases, consumer groups, neighborhoods, campuses, churches, service organizations, and parents groups — all the layers of civic interaction between the individual on one side and the government on the other — need tech, too. We hope to play a part in helping more civic technologists serve them. Towards more solidarity and empowerment!