At the start of any significant movement there’s always that urge to define it. We attempt to crystallize the core dogmas, spotlight the guiding voices, measure influence and predict potential. With the emergence of civic tech, it is no different. This space — associated with government apps, open data, transparency and civic engagement — is in a state of flux as practitioners wrestle to define its character and vision.
Against these existential challenges, the Omidyar Network, one of the civic tech sector’s most prominent nonprofit and for-profit investors, has attempted to accelerate the space with the release of a new report analyzing civic tech within the framework of a social movement. The group partnered with digital research firm Purpose to chart civic tech’s investment growth, its activity, media reach and the strategic steps needed to propel civic tech forward.
Looking at investment, growth is strong. The report noted that civic tech funding totaled $870 million from 2013 to 2015, showing a rise of 119 percent. Similarly, in a tally of advertised events on Meetup, grass-roots activity more than doubled at 609 events in 2013 and 1,645 events in 2015. The top three cities hosting these events were San Francisco, Miami and New York with lesser-known tech hubs like Salt Lake City, Virginia Beach, Va., and Kansas City, Mo., rounding out the top 10 — see sidebar below for a complete list.
"I think when you look at the map [of civic tech events] and you see the difference between 2013 and 2015 I think it's a pretty big difference," said Purpose CTO Josh Hendler. "We're really seeing that there are more and more people in parts of America that aren't just big cities like San Francisco and New York, or Washington, D.C., and Chicago that are truly embracing civic tech."
Omidyar Investment Partner Stacy Donohue, who leads Omidyar Network's Governance and Citizen Engagement Initiative in the U.S., agreed that what they found was as encouraging as it was revealing.
"The big takeaway is that civic tech is promising, but lacks scale," she said, "and to get to that scale, we really need to create a shared vision and identity in the same way other movements have a shared vision and identity. "
Top 10 Civic Tech Cities
The Omidyar Network and Internet research firm Purpose compiled a list of the top 10 cities that hosted civic tech events between 2013 and 2015 using data from popular event site Meetup. The researchers compiled the listing using a number of search terms related to civic tech like "open data," "govtech," "civic innovation" and others.
Results showed that in 2015, civic tech events were held in 46 states, up from 28 in 2013. Based on RSVPs, the cities with the most attendees were San Francisco, followed by New York and Washington, D.C.
2// Miami held 265 events and had 1,899 RSVPs
3// New York City held 180 events and had 9,566 RSVPs
4// Philadelphia held 161 events and had 5,411 RSVPs
5// Oakland, Calif., held 154 events and had 2,059 RSVPs
6// Washington, D.C., held 129 events and had 8,350 RSVPs
7// Denver held 103 events and had 1,190 RSVPs
8// Salt Lake City held 102 events and had 567 RSVPs
9// Kansas City, Mo., held 99 events and had 877 RSVPs
10// Virginia Beach, Va., held 99 events and had 797 RSVPs
In comparison to progressive movements like Black Lives Matter or the campaign for marriage equality, the report — that analyzed a diverse array of online data — observed civic tech’s objectives are far more abstract and far less unified.
Some, like Micah Sifry, founder of the New York civic tech organization Civic Hall, describe civic tech loosely as “the use of technology for the public good.” Others, like Ron Bouganim, founder of the Govtech Fund, which invests exclusively in government service startups, define it as tech that directly interfaces with citizens. While still others — like those at Government Technology’s e.Republic Labs — say the space is more of a sub-component within government technology.
The report said these disparate definitions are problematic as they blur civic tech’s impact and identity in the mainstream media.
Hendler suggested identity branding as a critical next step if advocates hope to distinguish civic tech’s apps and contributions as something greater than one-off city projects or as standalone ventures — like the popular petition-signing platform Change.org or the fix of HealthCare.gov.
“One of our conclusions is that terminology matters and that people should be conscious of this," Hendler said.
For startups this means identifying themselves as civic tech startups, for cities this means embracing the term for public outreach, and for thought leaders and organizers this means reaching outside of their tech circles for participation and agreeing on a universal definition — even if they do retain their own internal definitions.
As it stands now, Purpose ultimately concluded that until civic tech generates more momentum, it will remain more of an aspirational movement than a movement in itself. Hendler said civic tech excelled in the social movement measurements of sustained engagement, grass-roots activity and collective action, but fell short of benchmarks in the categories of shared vision, scale/growth and shared identity — since many active participants still don’t identify themselves with the term.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.