Civic Tech 2.0

Tech4Good asked me to give a presentation on Civic Tech at an event with Code for SF held at the Bloomberg Tech Hub in SF.  The Civic Tech space is pretty big, so my job was to talk about a tiny slice of the conversation I work in with SPL and as a public member on COIT.

Since I talk with others about Civic Tech a lot, especially the challenges and missed opportunities, my goal was to highlight some challenges I see repeatedly and some missed opportunities. I didn't go into too much depth, but I do have some real world examples for people that are looking to get involved in civic tech or policymakers trying to find ways to leverage the community. 

People asked to see the presentation, so I'm posting it here with some notes and call outs. You can also download the entire deck here

I love this photo! Miguel is a great example of the new leadership in govtech.
My angle on civic tech is defined by my work and passion to make government better. I am the CEO/Founder of Startup Policy Lab, a West Coast policy hack shop and think tank. Our first product is a web-application that simplifies law enforcement data requests for startups, protects user privacy, and makes transparency reports more transparent.
I work with government as a public member on COIT, which sets The City’s IT policy; for example, the Software Evaluation Policy requires city agencies to consider open source software equal to commercial software. As a side note, for those in SF, if you haven’t read the ICT plan, I highly recommend it.
One challenge we all face in this space is that Civic Tech is not clearly defined. The Knight Foundation’s 2015 Civic Tech Report provides a good anchor. My work tends to fall in the Government Data circle: open data, structuring legislative and agency policies, etc. But the point is, there are a lot of ways to engage with civic tech.
Many years ago I was associated with a loose collection of attorneys and technologists trying to structure legislative data. This was a bit of a movement at the time; the UN launched Akoma Ntoso to erect some international standards around structuring legal codes. Short story: it’s really difficult.
Here is an example of the tool we used. You can see how the markup would enable developers to build tools that pulled from the text. We also hosted a hackathon that teamed up attorneys with developers to mark up the California code. Short story Part II: it’s extremely difficult.
Some challenges it's good to be aware of: Government is driven by Politics so can’t be ignored. And government is a big entity so it works by Process; knowing how to manage that process can lead to big change, not knowing leads to frustration. And finally, misplaced enthusiasm in Practice can prohibit actual impact.
That said, it’s an awesome time to be in Civic Tech right now. Government is investing money at an increasing pace. Government is also thinking about tech from a policy perspective, not just as a cost center – which opens new opportunities to how tech is applied. And we are seeing this in new areas, e.g. MOCI’s OpenSource project.
The SF Dept. of Elections is a great example of the opportunity for civic techies to have an impact. The department has data going back decades; works with volunteers all the time; and, has real tech needs.
The DoE has built eData, which is pretty impressive, especially given their resources. The goal is to make data about the SF community transparency and accessible – which it does.
Three lessons I’ve learned painfully. 1) Technology cannot correct bad behavior, if the persons to be corrected (e.g. lobbyists) can avoid using it; 2) I’ve tried to build tools to correct for legal issues, but unless the law is changed, nothing matters; and, 3) there are a lot of great people in government doing good work that need our support.
The focus on tech means we sometimes miss opportunities for non-tech impact: Goverment loves process, so find areas where forms are required; government has a complicated relationship with collecting citizen data; so there is a need for third party intermediaries. Finally, there is a huge need for case study work to share best practices.
People often ask how they can get involved. So here are a few ideas: Committees need experts to help them manage the process. So join! Be a Resource to elected officials that have questions. Please ask Policymakers “What is your biggest problem?” Think big picture; might need to work with groups you don’t always agree with for the greater good. #BeALeader #DontBeCongress
Finally, a bit of my own pedestal here. Number 1:SF should be looking at making their platform accessible to other cities. Cities are not thinking platform; they are still too provencial. Number 2: SF owns a lot of software but keeps that software buried in digital silos – The City needs a policy to make that software open source by default and agreements with sister cities.
To wrap this up: It was great that so many people tracked me down after this presentation. So please find me!

Email: charles [] startuppolicylab [] org
Twitter: @CharlesBelle
Github: cebelle
Gitbook: startuppolicy