A few months ago, I joined Sunlight Foundation as their Senior Technology Adviser. Kat Duffy, who was then the Sunlight Labs director, brought me on to help bolster their programming efforts and lend support across the organization. However, only a couple of weeks later we learned that Sunlight Labs was being shut down entirely. (more…)
Posts Categorized: Civic Tech
1. This article contains broad generalizations, and is intended to get some new conversations started. There exists much anecdotal evidence contrary to many of the points below. I’ve also attempted to use “we” below frequently, as I have fallen into many of these same pitfalls as anyone else! Many of the ideas and suggestions below are not new, and are definitely not my own. I’m hoping this leads to more long-form pieces on many of these topics.
2. I am currently an advisor at The Sunlight Foundation, previously was Lead Developer at The OpenGov Foundation working on Madison, and for years have been a core contributor to The State Decoded. My opinions are my own, as are my biases from this experience.
The world of civic tech has changed radically in the last few years. Many of the old bastions of transparency and civic innovation have started to crumble, shrinking dramatically in both size and scope. It’s clear that the future of civic tech will appear radically different – moving out from under the umbrellas of sprawling nonprofit organizations and back into smaller, focused efforts. Below, I discuss what we’re currently seeing today, and what will need to be done in the future for us to continue our work effectively.
For my purposes here, “civic tech” (as well as “us” or “we”) broadly includes the many organizations working on transparency, open data, and/or services that impact government, in the intersection between policy and technology development. Many of these are nonprofits, as we discuss below, but there are for-profits that are being impacted by the changes discussed here. This term also includes the many independent projects, people, and groups working on these problems to improve government. Groups within government working on these efforts could be included, but they have largely been sheltered from the effects I’m talking about below. I’m also largely talking about the United States, though many of these topics apply to international groups.
Josh Tauberer provides us a good definition of the first and second “acts” of civic tech, which I am reusing here.
(If you don’t want the history lesson, just jump down to What You Can Do at the bottom of this article.)
The End of the Second Act
On September 20th, Sunlight Foundation announced that it is officially closing down Sunlight Labs, downsizing, and considering how best to further its mission through potentially merging with another organization, leaving the future of dozens of technology projects uncertain. This follows on the heels of OpenGov Foundation discontinuing most of its work on America Decoded, its open-law project   , and Code for America ceasing direct funding of its Brigades after previously having shut down its technology incubator program.
The major funders of many of these and other organizations in the space have also been changing how they’ve been funding. Frustration with projects that are not completed on time and within grant budgets have created an apparent wariness in funding opportunities from many. Some others simply no longer wish to fund transparency efforts, especially at the federal level, believing that transparency is no longer an achievable – or even good – goal.   Government, at all levels from city to federal, has also stepped up significantly in recent years, hiring more and more technologists in-house to solve problems from the inside, seemingly bypassing the need for civic tech entirely; of course, many of these hires came from the civic tech world outside of government.
The days of million-dollar checks for “new” or “cool” ideas are effectively over. In some cases, the criteria these funders have chosen for evaluation of projects’ success – such as the number of “likes” an organization has on Facebook or Twitter – seem woefully out-of-touch with the work of advocacy organizations. Moreover, the funding cycles of these organizations are relatively short – a year or two at most – while it may take five or ten years at least to have the long-lasting impact many nonprofits aim for. This all has contributed to a lack of a clear path for relevant goals and sustainability for many organizations – and even small projects.
But the mere merit of having a project labeled “civic tech” simply isn’t enough to justify piles of cash and free reign to use it. If anything, the failure of much of the civic tech movement can be attributed to a strong lack of experience, oversight, and planning. The larger nonprofit world, especially on the service and advocacy side of things, has been using logic models for program evaluation for decades – but this work has gone largely ignored in the civic tech community. Even within the few for-profits that have emerged, impact analysis frequently takes a back seat to promotion.
Instead, most projects are started without clear goals, realistic evaluation criteria, or even a firm concept of real impact. “Let’s put some things online” is, in many cases, as sophisticated a model as many projects ever reach; the actual people being served are an afterthought at best most of the time. Publishing tools and data for their own sake is a fine goal, especially those that support journalistic, educational, and research pursuits – all of which are critical to transparency efforts. But we should also stop to consider if our tools will help those who need them most, or if they merely will help the privileged, educated, and well-off – especially for those that are intended to impact equity and access.
Is more transparency having the impact on people’s lives that we want it to? Are we really engaging with the people and improving policy or are we merely talking to our friends? How do we know we’re making things better for everyone, working towards equity and not just paying lip service? Simply put, we cannot know if we don’t talk to the people directly, and if we don’t have a way to study our impact.
There are some fantastic organizations following through, meeting people where they are – in churches, schools, libraries – but these are few and far between. A few more enthusiastic people with backgrounds in social work and degrees in nonprofit management would be hugely beneficial in our space. At the very least, more time spent on outreach would improve just about every project.
Similarly, the technical limitations of many project teams hamper their long term success. The “anybody can do this!” attitude which pervades the civic tech community, while extremely democratic and empowering and wonderful for making the tent bigger, often results in many projects that are under-designed and lack foresight into technical sustainability. Meanwhile, just as many of our projects are the products of more experienced developers wanting to try out new, trending technologies – leading to us over-engineering solutions for niche problems written with ephemeral technologies. In both cases, any likelihood of reusability or sustainability is dramatically reduced by poor planning and decision-making.
Many problems being solved today by custom applications could just as easily be solved with a git repository, or WordPress site, or even just a spreadsheet on Google Drive. There are many fine projects that do not fall into these categories, but they’re few and far between. And there is an insanely huge amount of reinventing the wheel in our space, despite efforts to the contrary. As developers, we must escape our own hubris to find the most simple solutions whenever possible, if our projects are to thrive. Engineering is hard; we don’t need to make it harder.
We have largely forgotten that the purpose of all of this technology is not technology itself, but rather culture change. Culture changes much slower than fashion, which is (sadly) our most common unit of time-measurement these days. It takes years to build the relationships necessary to change culture. But this is the work  . It’s very attractive to work in silos, programming without doing the hard part of talking to people, but this isn’t a good way to change the world.
This is not to say that there is not a value in a proof-of-concept. For many of the changes that the civic tech world would like to see in government or society, simply proving that it can be done is a very powerful tool. But tools should generally solve an immediate need for real people, not imagined “users”. And at the very least they should be used to start conversations, not to spin off new product companies. (There are certainly other very good and valid reasons to hack as well.) After you’ve done the work though, definitely consider finding ways to be paid for it – without money, nothing is sustainable. And though civic tech will always rely on volunteerism, it should not simply become a form of government spec work.
But not everything needs to last forever. In many, if not most, cases, all projects should have a firm timeline, with waypoints for evaluation, and a date to cease operation. Having ways to measure real success and failure in terms of impact, with a real schedule, is absolutely critical for projects. Trying to make something last forever that was only designed to last a few months – or simply not working – is a fool’s errand. Meanwhile, finding funding for a short-term project is vastly easier than one that will run indefinitely without clear goals.
It is important to note that there have been some incredible successes during the first and second acts of civic tech. The passing of the DATA Act though a bipartisan effort and countless hours of work from The Sunlight Foundation and other groups was a huge milestone towards openness and transparency. Carl Malamud’s tireless work has led to the opening of the SEC EDGAR database, the IRS’ Form 990 data, and much more. And most recently, the hundreds of civic technologists from Sunlight, the brigades, and elsewhere that have gone to work for government agencies have brought their passion to new innovation inside of government.  
Setting the Stage for The Third Act
The future of civic tech, given all of this, is very uncertain. Local brigades and volunteer groups have become in many ways the core of the movement. These groups have increasingly been working with government directly to introduce new tools and policies to increase transparency and equity. These spaces will continue to foster new ideas for their communities, and provide a ready source of civic-knowledgeable technologists for government and nonprofits – this is critical for supporting the infrastructure of transparency. And rather than being fueled by grant funding, this work is largely due to the passion of thousands of volunteers all over the country (and world!)
However it’s also, in part, due to contributions from the private sector. In the same way that for-profit companies have sustained the open source movement for decades, so too are they stepping up to support the civic tech movement. Some companies provide direct financial support to brigades and community groups – paying for food and event spaces. Moreover, companies like Esri and GovDelivery are using open data, open source, civic tech as central parts of their platforms. This will only continue to grow as other funding sources become increasingly scarce and the interest in open data and transparency expands.
Government is also changing to become more [civic] tech-savvy. The work of government units such as 18F in the General Services Administration and the U.S. Digital Services in the White House have impacted the Federal government in substantial ways   . But moreover, this has created new enthusiasm in cities and states – causing an unprecedented rise in new CTO and CDO positions all over the country, and policies reflecting the changing landscape of data needs. (As an aside, it’s noteworthy that many of these positions are being filled by former GIS data team members, a field where open data and civic tech has particularly long and deep roots!) Tools and data are more and more often being produced in-house rather than outsourced.
Another place I would love to see civic tech find a home outside of government is within libraries. I must say that this is idealistic, at best. In many places, libraries have become – and really, have always been – a bastion of innovation and civic focus   . It’s a very natural fit for both parties, and – most importantly – the people being served are physically present! There’s no way to avoid doing the work of meeting people where they are if you start where they are. Increasing investment in civic technology from libraries would be a huge boon.
What You Can Do
Civic Organizations, Project Owners, and Dreamers
For any new projects just starting out, or years along their path, I would strongly recommend answering a few key questions before spending another minute on your work. You may have done many of these already, but writing them down and posting them publicly is to everyone’s benefit. They also provide a solid starting point to have an honest conversation with funders.
Identify your outcomes – what do you really want to change as a result of your project.
Evaluate your impact – what measurements will you use to judge that your work is causing the outcomes you intend?
Who is the audience? Where are they? How can you meet them where they are? Be specific, think about who is in need.
Talk to your audience – what do they think they need, and how well does your idea match up?
How long will the project run? What are the milestone for evaluation along the way? Set dates to evaluate your actions.
What is the real level of effort and cost for your project? Be realistic, think about the hours needed, not just to write code, but go to meetings, do user testing, and everything else.
How can you use the work of others to help you with your work? What tools, data, and research already exists in your problem space? Who else is already actively trying to solve this problem, and how can you work with them?
How can you make your work reproducible? What can you put online and publish for other people to be able to make an impact using what you’ve learned? How will you license your work so others can use it?   
Just to reiterate that last item – civic tech works best when we collaborate. Collaboration works best if we embrace radical transparency, to share all of our research, methodology, and findings with the world. Even our failures can become victories if it helps someone else to do things better the next time. And this is true in the for-profit world as well! A single vendor in a space will struggle, but fostering an ecosystem will drive more interest, demand, and need. Open data and open source help make more open data and open source!
Board Members, Founders, and Executive Directors
Listen to your team. They’re there because they believe in what you’re doing! For an organization to grow and thrive, it must continue to change and evolve – while still staying true to its principles. Stop and look at the shape your organization is taking, you may find that it has outgrown your old vision and become something radical and new – and that’s ok! Don’t get stuck on one idea, be flexible.
Listen to your team. You can’t do everything, find people that you trust and let them do what they’re good at. When they give you advice, take it. If most of your advisors are telling you one thing and you believe another, it’s probably time to step out of the way and let them do their jobs.
Government Officials at All Levels
If you’re a government official, you’re probably already aware of what you must do. First, make sure you understand the open data and policy push that’s happening today. And then, get excited about it – find a local civic tech group or brigade and chat with them about your job, and hear how passionate they are! If you put a problem in front of a technologist, no matter how big or small, we will immediately start coming up with ways of solving it – that’s where our passion comes from. Get excited with us. Some of the most passionate people I know in the civic tech movement started in government, not as technologists!
Second, start viewing your job through a lens of transparency. Ask yourself, in everything that you do, how can I expose this work? How can I share with the community the problems and solutions I encounter? What data can I share with the world – whether I personally find it interesting or not? How can I work with other departments to improve communication and share knowledge outside of my silo? Try to find an issue, something that you can push on and make more transparent, and follow through with it from start to finish. And make sure to tell the community about it! No matter how mundane, we love this stuff.
Funders and Charitable Givers
If you happen to be a funder of nonprofit projects and organizations, first and foremost I ask you to renew your faith in the transparency and civic technology movement. We still have a lot of work left to do! And government can’t do it alone, small non-profits can’t do it alone. Innovation must be fostered from a variety of sources. And please keep in mind that this process takes a very long time! One- and two- year cycles are only long enough for a proof of concept, not nearly enough to effect real change. Organizations desperately need funding for general support in addition to individual projects – the day-to-day stuff like meetings, promotion, calls, and outreach are all just as important to running an organization as the fancy new releases.
However, I encourage you to hold projects accountable to the criteria for organizations and projects listed above! There are real-world metrics of impact that can effectively track the progress of our projects, make sure you know what these are and so that we can better judge efficacy of programs. Hint: it’s not likes on social media – find real, meaningful ways of evaluating the work. If you’re a board member, your task above and beyond everything else is to understand real impact, and not just numbers.
And – in many ways the most important ask I have of you – be aware of your own, personal blindspots and work to expand them. There are thousands of good ideas that could improve the world today and just need someone to take a chance on them. Just don’t get too distracted by every new and shiny thing – again, older projects still need long-term investment and growth.
It is only by working together that we can make the world a better place than we found it.
After a little over three years of working on The State Decoded (and a bit less than that on Madison), I’ve learned quite a few things about the law. The process of translating legal code into machine-readable data is not an easy one, but after thousands of hours working on this problem we’ve made some solid progress in automating it.
What follows are a few lessons about the law that I wish I’d known before starting, which may help other developers to make good decisions in open law and legislation projects. (more…)
City and state governments across America are adopting Open Data policies at a fantastic clip. Technology hotbed San Francisco has one, but places far from Silicon Valley – like Pittsburgh, PA – are also joining the municipal open data movement. The increasing availability of free tools and enthusiastic volunteer software developers has opened the door for a vast amount of new government data to be made publicly available in digital form. But merely putting this data out there on the Internet is only the first step.
A Brief Summary
After a hackathon a few months back, we were joking about creating an easy way to take the data we’d painstakingly parsed from PDFs, word documents, and XML files, and “translate” it back into a format that government agencies are used to. Many of us have been shell-shocked in dealing with PDFs from government agencies, which are often scanned documents, off kilter and photocopied many times over. Fundamentally, they’re very difficult to pry information out of. For the OpenGov Foundation’s April Fools’ prank, we created Govify.org, a tool to convert plain text into truly ugly PDFs.