Civic Tech in 2016: Predictions and Questions

Predictions and Questions

It’s late January, which means three things are true:

  • It’s probably time to stop saying “Happy New Year” (although some kind of official ruling on the cutoff date would be helpful).
  • We can all start to feel a tiny bit of comfort that a year from now, the 2016 U.S. election cycle will be truly done (it’s going be so ugly between now and then).
  • All those dumb 2016 prediction articles and listicles are finally over.

Oh, wait, no: I’ve got a few predictions (and questions) for Civic Tech in 2016, especially in the Bay Area.  In no particular order:

1.  I’m calling it: the Death of the Hackathon. Let’s be honest with ourselves and hackadmit that very few meaningful civic projects get completed in 24 hours, no matter how much pizza you throw at the problem.  I think the future of volunteer-driven civic innovation lies in longer term partnerships, like those piloted by Valley Transportation Authority in 2015 via their Innovation Center, a physical place where partnerships between the private sector, government agencies, and individual innovators have space (and time) to really thrive. Not that hackathons don’t have a role to play; they’re a great way to kickstart partnerships and collaborations.  But they will – and should – evolve past the stand-alone one-weekend model.

2.  Data is the new Bitcoin (in that it’s a tricky, tricky commodity): as the conversation expands (not shifts) from opening data to leveraging data to the ethics of data use (see Stanford’s, a project of the Digital Civil Society Lab), a new question emerges: as data becomes a commodity, what’s the right/ethical/appropriate way to spend/hoard/protect/disseminate data? And how do those questions change when the data is ‘owned’ by a corporation, a government agency, a nonprofit, or an individual?

3.  Individual career moves will accelerate civic innovation via productive and unexpected collaboration across sectors. As the civic tech sector matures and individuals move from job to job, really interesting cross-pollinationimgres can (and will) emerge.  Over the last year in the Bay Area, for example, Ashley Meyers moved from Code for America to the San Francisco Department of Technology.  Microsoft’s own Technology and Civic Engagement fellow Katherine Nammacher became a Code for America fellow in Seattle.  Shireen Santosham left a global industry association to lead San José’s Smart City Strategy for Mayor Liccardo’s office.  All of this movement between the private, public, and nonprofits is akin to intelligent crop rotation: interesting and healthy things will grow.

4.  New problems and opportunities will emerge as the public sector staffs up in the civic innovation space: in the last 12 months, San José has hired a Director of Innovation, a Director of Strategic Partnerships, a Data Analytics team, and a Data Architect to build the city’s revamped open data portal. None of these positions existed in the city a year ago.  Think about that – it’s not that new people are filling these roles, it’s that the roles themselves are new.  What will the city be able to accomplish now?  What new needs will they uncover once the work gets going? What roles can corporate partners and volunteers fill?  How will these questions replicate – and differ – in other cities?

5.  I hope we’ll see growing pressure on candidates to embrace the power and promise of civic technology. government_tech_cartoonAny discussion of civic tech’s future has to account for the tumult the 2016 election cycle will inevitably bring.  One the one hand, there’s a certain level of uncertainty about ongoing support for civic innovation initiatives as leadership changes in cities, states, and D.C.  On the other hand, the cost savings and laudable level of service that United States Digital Services, 18F, and organizations like Code for America bring to government work appeal to both sides of the aisle (even in the currently fractured Congress).  Not every city council member needs to be a coder, but modern candidates for elected office should, at the very least, be cognizant of what technology can do to improve government services (and be able to define the phrase ‘open data’).  Without the public sector’s support, all of the efforts of the private and nonprofit proponents of civic tech won’t amount to that proverbial hill of beans.  Vote carefully!

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