May 2014

Civic Engagement?  Civic Tech?

OpenGovHackNight

Our Technology & Civic Engagement team is a nascent one for Microsoft.  We plan on learning a great deal by experimenting a great deal. Large urban areas make for great places to experiment with ways to bring government and citizens together.  To quote my colleague and friend Dr. Elizabeth Grossman, “Cities are the places where, as a society, we are trying to figure out how to use leading edge technology on very large scale problems.”

This team is focused specifically around civic engagement and its implementation through civic technology.  These are terms that are being used very broadly today.  There is actually little agreement on what, specifically, they mean.  One thing that most folks can agree upon is that democracy works best when: a) you have a government who has a way to listen to and understand the needs, wants, and orientation of its citizenry to create and execute policy; and b) you have citizens who are engaged and working with the government (and each other) to solve societal challenges.

In other words, citizen involvement and engagement with their elected leaders is a crucial element to a highly functioning democracy. While you can visualize this at the broadest of government levels, it is easier to get your head around it when you view it through the lens of a large, complex city like Chicago.  After all, cities are where a large part of civic tech is happening.

So you have these two elements: government and citizens.  What do you need to turn those two things into “civic engagement” that actually solves city challenges?   One thing you need is a committed government leadership who believes in open data. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, during his campaign, held an event at the Microsoft Technology Center Chicago where he spelled out his vision for open city government and a transparent Chicago.  Then in 2012 as Mayor, he signed into law the Chicago Open Data Executive Order.  This calls for the “timely publication of public data” with the explicit goal of empowering Chicago’s citizens to “participate in government in a meaningful manner, to assist in identifying possible solutions to pressing governmental problems, and to promote innovative strategies for social progress and economic growth.”

The second thing you need, then, is a citizen base that is interested in engaging in solutions to city challenges. In Chicago, we have an ample supply.  You have citizen led groups focusing on economic development such as: World Business Chicago, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and 1871, to name a few. You also have organizations interested in STEM education and research like, Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and many others. All citizen led.

Then there is the civic tech piece, which is a type of civic engagement.   The Knight Foundation puts it this way: “Civic tech is technology that spurs citizen engagement, improves communities, and makes governments more effective.” And it is also defined as:

  • An emerging field that connects people with their elected officials and government agencies to solve problems;
  • A way of accelerating public/private/individual partnerships to solve problems through technology;
  • Using technology to facilitate conversations and collaborations (not just putting data or information online).

Technology not only provides the platforms for citizens to articulate their interests and have input on policy, it allows them to actually create solutions to the problems shared by their communities—and from the standpoint of the government itself, civic tech helps the city to anticipate the needs of Chicago citizens.

Everywhere I turn in the city, there is major buzz and activity around delivering on the promise of civic tech.  Just do a search on meetup.org on “Chicago” or “Chicago Tech” and you will understand the breadth of activity going on in all parts of the city. You will see app challenges, hackathons, and user groups built around the idea that citizens can create solutions to societal challenges. I have personally seen this kind of civic ideation at the Center For Neighborhood Technology, the Chicago City Data Users Group, and OpenGovHack Night, just to name a few. In fact, Open Gov Hack Night, organized by Open City was the first civic hack night in the country. It is a model that CfA has since copied from Chicago for their brigades.
 

I believe that Chicago is just on the cusp of a full transition to civic engagement, and fully leveraging civic technology.  It is equal parts being in a new era of transformational technologies, and a coalescing of the civic groups that infectiously co-opt their fellow Chicagoans. It’s great to be here.