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The impact of civic technology - thoughts from TICTeC

Attendees at TICTeC Conference
Image by MySociety using Creative Commons License 2.0

Sara and Matthieu of the data and search team went to TICTeC in Lisbon. It’s a conference on the impact of civic technology run by the mySociety research team. When they're not at TICTeC, they're building an open linked data platform for UK Parliament.

This year, 160 participants from 29 countries gathered at the event to try to understand the what, why, and how of civic technology. This conference for researchers, funders, and practitioners was rich in content so here's a summary from Matthieu.

To conduct meaningful civic tech impact research

The "replication crisis" in scientific research highlights the difficulty of establishing methodology, shortcomings of the community, and the necessity to ask questions.

Citizen engagement?

In civic tech circles, evidence is usually produced from a small, motivated sample. This is an over-amplification of the Pareto principle (80/20 rule).

In her talk on crowdsourced data bias, Réka Solymosi gave the example of Wikipedia users. 99.8% read articles, 0.2% occasionally edit them, and 0.0003% contribute most of the content. She observed that wide analysis deriving from unrepresentative data samples can lead to wrong assumptions.

A wrong dichotomy?

Qualitative and quantitative research face the same issues.

The fast evolution and complexity of society makes civic tech research challenging. And reproducibility of impact studies is unlikely. Whether qualitative or quantitative, research relies on the same principle of objectivity. Being honest and reporting a sensible measure of uncertainty is really important. Judging by the meaningful civic tech research 101 roundtable run by Alex Parsons and Rebecca Rumbul, this point is not very controversial.

Missing a protocol?

Data is sparse, context-dependent, and non-standard.

Discussing impact measurement problems, Matt Stempeck set out the need for a community of practice to empower independent researchers. The societal impact we're trying to measure is complex, long-winded, and not strictly defined. It's positive, then, that the civic tech community is supportive and united around a set of core values, so at least we have a fertile ground for healthy debates, collaboration, and adoption of standards.

The challenges of communication

The problems addressed by modern information technology are not recent. As the Wikipedia article frames it:

Humans have been storing, retrieving, manipulating, and communicating information since the Sumerians in Mesopotamia developed writing in about 3000 BC

Tech has its limits

Know your market and think about the socio-emotional aspects of communication.

Civic tech tools can bring very efficient ways of communication. But using those tools to an advantage requires adequate infrastructure and user engagement. Design principles vary in different countries and cultures, as Martin Wright reminded us. For example, Free Basics style of internet access might be all your target audience uses. Rebecca Rumbul and Gemma Moulder talked about the prevalence of WTF data bundles.

But beyond accessibility, the challenges of communication remains prevalent in developing countries like Nigeria, Sierra Leone or Uganda and European countries alike. And to build a positive sense of community dynamics in online participation, we should recognise its socio-emotional aspects, as highlighted by Ann O’Brien.

Be civic on all levels

Create trust and foster collaboration between civil society and political institutions.

João Vasconcelos (OECD) discussed open governance with Ana Neves (Social Now), Paula Forteza (French National Assembly), and Alvaro Herrero (Buenos Aires City government) in light of their experience.

Ana Neves said that treating government and civil society as separate entities, using opaque processes for democratic feedback, and publishing open data on a multitude of websites, are the main factors of mistrust. She sees opportunity in empowering civil society to work on transparency and open governance with better institutional frameworks and support.

The regular public dialog in Buenos Aires described by Alvaro Herrero and the open office Friday that Paula Forteza put in place both demonstrate the possibility of developing long term relationships and collaboration between politics and civil society.

Think problem solving first

Identify the main attributes of technologies and use adequate tools.

In 2017/18, the excitement growing around new technologies might be best represented by the blockchain hype. Discussing whether it can deliver, Stefaan Verhulst and Andrew Young framed a certain level of distributed resilience and immutability as the key attribute of the technology while transparency, for example, is only optional.

Marco Konopacki and Anders Pedersen corroborated their views in the context of identity and land registry management.

Meanwhile, Luisa Izuzquiza described her crowdsourced freedom of information (FOI) campaigning tactics where a spreadsheet, a whiteboard, manual checking, and a bit of automation adequately supported the effort to open EU commissioners travel spending data. Her organisation is now introducing a new website called AsktheEU which runs on Alaveteli, an FOI website engine. Using technology is an iterative process that requires a problem solving approach.

Peering into the future, learning from the past

Considering the spread of big data and digital media, we might now be stuck in what has been coined a "post-privacy" world. Although it's daunting, that realisation might help us move the debate from privacy to information asymmetry and develop new and more collaborative ways of governance in society.

Shifting words

Use sensible checks and balances for empty words and commitments.

In Jonathan Fox's words, "keywords are contested, it is not simply an academic discussion." His talk dived into the deep and difficult fight over meaning. Challenging disinformation and taking into account connotations to create a virtuous cycle of facts and opinions is maybe the most urgent problem for society to tackle in our information age.

Apparent transparency can still be used to deceive and only a healthier ecosystem of strong and genuine pro-accountability actors will stop promoters of disinformation from appropriating terms like "fake news" for their own purpose.

Fixing the platform

Fail, learn, improve. As Thomas Edison said:

I haven't failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.

This quote introduced the knowledge from failure presentation by Micah Sifry. He extracted some patterns of failure from the Civic Tech Field Guide: lack of users, better strategic allocation of resources, and talent acquisition. Sharing knowledge and building experience collectively is an important component for the civic tech community's future success.

Streamlined processes, clear incentives (like ranking), and accessible output seem to be clear paths of improvement both in bridging the academic research gap and towards a more fruitful effort in open governance programmes.

Christopher Wilson explored the example of Open Government Partnership (OGP) implementation in the Nordic countries. Presumed to be role models in open governance, it's hard for OGP implementers there to see the clear implementation value given the current framing.

Embracing the community

Increase data literacy in a context of the worldwide convergence of open data policies.

Beyond the digital divide issue, we're all still in a phase of discovery when it comes to the internet and reckoning of its potential and implications on society and our lives.

Making responsible technology the new normal, as Martha Lane Fox framed it, will have a huge impact. It is often a matter of values and will require awareness and data literacy.

A sustained advocacy effort, as Eshban Kwesiga showed presenting the work of Parliament Watch Uganda in bridging the gap between parliament and the people, could bear fruit.

During the assessing civic tech: issues and ecosystems panel discussion, Micah Sifry summed up the issue in this way:

There is no inherent reason why online platforms have to make people angrier, sadder, more polarized, or more misinformed. It goes to values and choices in the structure of the platform. And we are having a healthy dialog about it now

He went further adding that it's not going to be solved by tech, machine learning, or data science but rather by more people acting as full citizens asking questions:

How is my data gonna be used? Why do I have to sign up here? What if I don't wanna opt-in? And that has to become a much bigger demand that we can only get from the user side

An inspiring conference overall

Being at TICTeC was a rich experience. We met with the community of people using technology for civic good and it was inspiring. We learned about the research and evidence in the field and it was both useful and eye-opening. Finally, we saw a lot of hard work in open linked data and it's exciting to think about collaborating with the international community of civic technology.

There's a TICTeC 2018 playlist on mySociety’s YouTube channel and the full schedule of talks is also available on TICTeC’s website. 

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