Fall 2017—Workshop #5: Civic Tech

(Soren Spicknall, Civic Tech Fellow, Microsoft Chicago)

In recent years, phrases like big data and the internet of things have been popping up in discussions about urban planning and urban design, but how can cities actually use these things for social good? With so much data, who can make sense of it all and how? During our last meeting, Soren Spicknall, a Civic Tech Fellow at Microsoft Chicago, introduced us to the world of civic tech, the technology that empowers the public to use data for socially responsible actions. Soren’s expertise covers the use of data science for social good, creating virtual and augmented reality environments to create empathic experiences, and promoting verifiable, transparent data with blockchain technology.

We discussed a handful of different definitions, but civic tech is generally considered to be any technology that enables engagement or participation of the public in civic actions such as advocacy, policy-making, or improving government infrastructure. In many cases, civic tech is an app or a website that interprets or guides a conversation around publicly available data. It can leverage data for journalism, activism, planning, and for further research in data science. A live updated crime map is a common example of a civic technology (see below.)

Thanks to a healthy amount of progressive thinking, the City of Chicago has become a leader in implementing civic tech. Some Chicago-based initiatives include:

  • Clear Water Project

  • Helps to ensure beach water quality by presenting E. Coli data from Chicago’s beaches.

  • Uses an analytical model that was crowdsourced to improve the accuracy of its predictions.

  • Initiated by Tom Schenck, the Chief Data Officer for Chicago.

  • Chicago's Million Dollar Blocks

  • A map of Chicago showing the blocks where more than a million dollars has been spent on the incarceration of its residents.

  • Illustrates which communities are disproportionately affected by crime and supports the argument for more progressive solutions to crime such as workforce development and addiction treatment.

  • MRelief

  • Simplifies and consolidates the process of applying for government benefits. What used to take stacks of paperwork and weeks of waiting can now be done in minutes.

  • Started as a group at Chi Hack Night, now a non-profit.

  • Utilizes the APIs of the various agencies providing benefits.

Civic tech has also been used to directly inform the design of the built environment by studying variables such as traffic, air quality, and stormwater catch basins. A study of students’ most popular paths between buildings at IIT drove starchitect Rem Koolhaas’ design of the McCormick Tribune Campus Center, as is plainly evident in the floorplan of the building.

(A diagram of McCormick Tribune Campus Center created by Rem Koolhaas' firm, OMA)

As cities densify and the stakes of development and regulation grow higher, we need stronger arguments to support and inform socially responsible decision-making. By making civic data publicly available, cities can essentially outsource the interpretation, utilization, and verification of its data sets. This helps to ensure that the public can collectively argue for decisions that benefit public, rather than private, interests. Therefore, as citizens create new civic technologies, they enable increasingly informed democratic change. The most valuable aspect of civic tech is its decentralization and public participation. As such, our civic tech expert Soren Spicknall emphasizes the value of the mantra, “build with, not for.”

Civic tech is not, however, a simple cure-all for all the problems of a city. First of all, there is the question regarding our right to privacy. Which parts of our lives are acceptable to collect data on and which parts should be off-limits? We also have to consider that civic tech asks us to perform a lot of work for free which could undermine the value of professional tech developers. How do we decide when it’s appropriate to crowdsource these projects to the public or hire privately? Lastly, data without verification, thorough analysis, and a holistic consideration of its implications could be used to mislead or misinform. It is the responsible use of data that creates positive change, not just the data itself. In other words, civic tech is not a final solution, but a framework.

I don’t mean to scare anyone away from civic tech by mentioning its limitations. It is undoubtedly a powerful tool for positive change and we should encourage its growth. In order to expand the reach and efficacy of civic tech, we can focus on a few key issues. Many city governments are simply under-aware of the capabilities of civic tech and are ill-equipped to collect and analyze large amounts of data effectively. As we increase awareness of civic tech, we can expect increased adoption of it. Civic tech also costs money, but makes little to no revenue directly. As a result, it can be hard to attract educated, professional talent to its development, especially when other areas of data science can be much more profitable. One possible solution could be to find private benefactors of civic tech. Of course, the answers to these problems are far from simple and they will most likely be discovered by the incredible power of the of the public.

If you’re interested in getting more involved with civic tech, you can attend Chi Hack Night, a weekly event to build, share & learn about civic tech. You might also be interested in sifting through data in Chicago’s Data Portal.

And remember; build with, not for.

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Workshop agenda + notes here.

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