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3 Questions to Guide the Future of Civic Technology

Gov 2.0 is a long-term vision, and we’re just getting started. As technology develops and expands, we must constantly be asking ourselves, “What’s next?”

by Abhi Nemani, Innovator-in-Residence, GovDelivery / August 20, 2014
A woman uses Textizen at Salt Lake City, Utah's market Flickr/Code for America

Five years into the Gov 2.0 movement, terms like “open data,” “open government” and “civic innovation” are quickly becoming day-to-day realities, both inside the public sector and out. Hundreds of jurisdictions at all levels of government have open data portals; dozens have Chief Innovation or Data Officers, or other innovation shops; and an ecosystem of for-profit vendors has emerged as living, breathing (and growing) examples of how technology can radically change the way our governments work. 

So what does that mean for those of us in the field -- either from the start or new entrants? Does that mean we can pack up and head home? Are those rightfully celebrated victories sufficient to prove that we now have governments 2.0? I think not; nor do I think most people in the space would. The reality is that Gov 2.0 is a long-term vision, and we’re just getting started. As technology develops and expands, we must be constantly be asking ourselves, “What’s next?” 

Looking at what's ahead, the reality I see is exciting, with more energy than ever. But it also comes with a certain responsibility: How do we ensure that our civic innovations are having the impact they should? Now with more time, resources and attention invested in this space, it’s critical for us to answer these questions:

How do we get successful innovations to scale?

Whether it be at weekend hackathons or weekly meetups, dozens of civic apps are created every week. These tools are as diverse as the challenges we face in the public sector: Some focus on a specific issue such as disaster readiness app ATX Floods, or the blight monitoring system Civic Insight, and others span the gamut, such as Textizen, the broadly reusable citizen input platform.

These tools matter, each in their own way. All of these tools, however, face a common challenge: getting them in the hands of the people who want and need them. User adoption -- to use a consumer industry phrase -- remains a challenge for many in the civic technology ecosystem, a challenge that strikes at the vitally important issue of impact. The question we must ask is, "Can these tools, no matter how well intentioned or designed, have an impact if they aren’t being used?"

Fortunately, creative approaches are helping solve this problem. App builders are beginning to invest in traditional marketing tactics, such as advertising or on-the-ground outreach. MindMixer and Crisis Text Line have tested physical ads that go to where citizens are, leading to significant user traction. Since cities control vast swaths of public advertising like bus stops and billboards, opportunities abound for greater usage of these largely untapped assets.

A less common tactic, but potentially even more powerful, is the conversion of consumer apps into civic tools. Take Waze, for example, the consumer traffic app acquired by Google. While possibly apocryphal, it was reported that Waze has received more pothole submissions than all the 311 apps combined. The advantage these consumer platforms have is that they are already installed on millions of devices across the country; if we can push them to play a broader civic role, we open up the doors to an unprecedented scale for impact.

Finally, imagine a combination of both of these tactics: integrations between the larger platform players in the civic space -- MindMixer with its 700+ clients, GovDelivery with its 70 million users, etc, -- and the emerging new apps that help them get to scale. 

How can we create networks within and across governments?

I recently spent a few days with the folks from New Urban Mechanics from Boston and Philadelphia. The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) was a Boston city government department founded about six years ago to drive a culture of experimentation within the city. Led by Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood, MONUM served as an “urban incubator,” supporting innovative projects across the city, running them as pilots, and learning what works and what doesn’t. In and of itself, their work was laudable, changing the way the schools interact with parents, city hall with citizens, and how potholes are reported. But more interesting was the growth of their model itself. It wasn’t just their apps that spread, but their department. They shared policies, not just code. 

After learning about Boston’s success, the city of Philadelphia launched its own Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in 2012, and just recently Utah Valley University spun up its own instance. How were they able to do it? By working together. I asked the Philadelphia MONUM team how they worked with Boston, and it was simple enough: At the start, they shared documents and lessons to build support, and moved to sharing technologies and successes for quick-wins. Since then, they’ve set up recurring conference calls to stay connected on ongoing projects. Now they share back and forth. For example, Textizen, an app built in Philadelphia, has now been deployed in Boston, and both are collaborating on procurement reform. 

This model of networked governance holds promise for the future. The necessary technology here is simple enough: time for city officials to connect, platforms to share documents and best practices, and the occasional conference call. And the upside is staggering: innovations being spread more quickly to every city.

How can we create better 'Machines for Learning'?

What these evolutions have in common is a need to partner and work together. For scale, shared resources and reach is key. For reuse, governmental collaboration is essential. What this means is that we must begin to erect better systems for collaboration in the civic technology community. What makes this community special -- and unlike other industries, such as traditional enterprise or consumer apps -- is that we all share a common, additional bottom line: civic impact. That means that we’re all taking the same hill. When it comes to technology, cities do not compete. This isn’t zero sum. Even in competitive arenas, like civic startups, there’s little reason to spurn partnerships or cooperative dialogue since more successful companies mean a stronger field and ultimately more attention from the media, investors and governments. 

To do this well, however, the field needs to commit to developing better systems for collaboration. Too often, these critical conversations happen as one-offs at conferences, not in any structured or systematized fashion. This, I think, undermines collective impact. In his famed book The Lean Startup, Eric Reis talks about the notion of building a startup as a “machine for learning.” What he means by this is continually developing hypotheses your company seeks to test, and instrumenting the technology in a way that ensures the results from those tests are always pushed back into the system. That’s a machine that learns and grows smarter and stronger over time. 

The question for us is how to architect similar systems for the civic technology ecosystem, our own machines for learning how to make innovation spread and scale. Why? In part because it’s in our own self-interest to make each of our initiatives smarter and stronger. But more importantly because in our democracy it’s our mandate to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, to always remember: out of many, one.

Abhi Nemani is Innovator-in-Residence at GovDelivery, leading government communications technology company, and on Sept. 2, he will become Los Angeles' first chief data officer. Previously, he helped launch, build and run Code for America, where he led product strategy and growth. Prior to CfA, he worked for the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, Google and the Center for American Progress, and currently he is helping a number of civic technology organizations grow, including the OpenGov Foundation and Significance Labs. Abhi's work has been featured in the New York Times, Fast Company, and at conferences around the world.

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