Civic Tech in 2017: Predictions and Questions

Nothing seems more ill-advised in early 2017 than trying to predict what the rest of this year will bring for civic technology (or for technology in general, or for the public sector, or for America, or for the world). But in the spirit of the brilliant Lucy Bernholz, I feel compelled to revisit the predictions I made a year ago and reassess them. So in the spirit of the equally brilliant Billy Eichner, away we go:

In 2016, I predicted the Death of the Hackathon.

What happened? Fine, the hackathon is still alive…ish. The Bay Area has seen several successful one-day hackathons in 2016, including the new civic-focused Spartan Hacks at San José State University and multiple local iterations of National Day of Civic Hacking.

What now? My concerns about the efficacy of hackathons still stand: they’re a decent mechanism for kickstarting civic projects, but they rarely result in polished, finished, sustainable solutions. And, for my money, sustainability is the hardest problem the civic tech field faces in 2017. Civic tech’s dependence on volunteer labor and its continuing struggles to replicate or scale civic technologies remain thorny problems. Layer on the necessity of building anything – tools, solutions, an ecosystem – that can survive the coming political and economic uncertainty, and the path forward gets even trickier.

What’s next? I’m very interested in the outcomes of two San José-based ‘challenges’ – civic competitions that span months, not hours. Mayor Sam Liccardo’s office launched Unleash Your Geek in May 2016, seeking creative solutions to highway and railway graffiti. Four finalists from the dozens of entries will be incubated at Prospect Silicon Valley this winter and spring, and a winner won’t be announced until a full year after the contest was launched. San José State University’s Paseo Public Prototyping Challenge kicked off last fall, and will culminate in a public festival in April showcasing prototypes designed by students to improve life in the city. Ideally, those months of working together will foster deeper, lasting partnerships between civic minded people. Will extra time, money, and resources result in better and more sustainable civic tech solutions? We’ll find out this spring.

In 2016, I pointed toward the complicated nature of data as a commodity.

What happened? Well, that was an easy one. Data was and remains a complicated and easily compromised asset. Examples abound.

What now? Anyone in the civic space at all concerned with data privacy, ethical data sharing, or responsible data storage has every reason to increase that concern in 2017. The laws, technology, and social norms that structure how we produce, manage, and produce data continue to shift, and 2016 proved that a few bad actors can make an outsized impact through data-related crimes.

What’s next? Even the great data geniuses among us (cough Nate Silver cough) acknowledge the inherent complexity and imperfection of data science. Regardless of how complex the reality is, the civic tech community needs to find ways to talk about data and data analysis that make sense to a broad range of people – the ED of a small nonprofit, a first-time campaign volunteer, or the head of a Parks and Rec department in a small city. Data literacy is no longer optional. Should the onus be on the experts to find ways to teach data literacy? If the goal is a functional civil society, the answer may have to be yes.

In 2016, I predicted that individual career moves will accelerate civic innovation via productive and unexpected collaboration across sectors.

What happened? At first, this was a happy story – so happy that the Bay Area offers many delightful examples of productive sector-jumping. See our profiles of Joshua RussellNathan Donato-Weinstein, and Gordon Feller for more.

What now? As 2017 kicks off, individual career moves in the civic sector continue with new urgency and uncertainty. The bold and brave public servants of USDS and 18F face new political, financial, and possibly moral quandaries. Will the tech talent that President Obama attracted to Washington stay? Will the new presidential administration support the institutions fighting to modernize government?  Will cities continue to fund civic innovation positions if their budgets are squeezed by unforeseen events? What will DJ Patil be doing two years from now?

What’s next? Bottom line: there will be some amazing civic tech talent moving around in the coming months and years. Cities and states (and nonprofits and companies) that haven’t yet begun serious civic innovation programs could take advantage of the situation – it’s already happening in Santa Clara County, where the former CIO of the Environmental Protection Agency will now fill the same role at the 16th largest county in America.  Bridging the gaps between public policy, corporate practice, individual rights, and social issues is inherently cross-sector work, and people who have experience in multiple sectors will be best positioned to succeed.

In 2016, I urged you to “vote carefully” and demand a basic level of digital literacy from your political candidates.

What happened? I guess I should have specified that the ability to use Twitter is not sufficient.

What now? Great question.

What’s next? This may be a problem that solves itself over time. As millennials begin to run for office and serve in the nonprofit and public sectors, the amount of technical knowledge in those fields will naturally rise. In the near term, it will be crucial for the civic tech sector to find, make, and strengthen modes of civic engagement, including civic volunteerism, that make public service a viable and attractive career option.