Civic Cocktail: What Role Can Technology Play in Our Cities?

| Adam Hecktman & Cathy Wissink

Last week while in Seattle, our team had the opportunity to speak on a panel on a show that airs on the Seattle Channel called Civic Cocktail. Hosted by Joni Balter, the show features a panel of professionals to discuss diverse topics, with a set of three journalists and the audience posing questions. The topic of this segment was Civic Technology, with the perspectives from the City of Seattle (Rebecca Lovell), the civic tech space of Boston (Cathy Wissink), and Chicago (Adam Hecktman).

We covered a lot of ground in this panel, with one overarching theme emerging: while the specific applications of civic technology vary from city to city, there is consistently a desire to apply technology (and technology-related processes like agile) in metros to provide better citizen services, foster interaction between governments and citizens, and promote accountability and transparency with open government data.

Rebecca represented the city government of Seattle. She has the very cool title of Startup Advocate for the City of Seattle.  During the course of the conversation, Rebecca’s comments and examples highlighted the importance of government participation in the civic technology equation.  Rebecca also outlined the diverse roles that government plays in using technology to solve city challenges.

What roles does government play in civic tech? According to Rebecca, the city government can, first and foremost, play the role of convener. In Seattle, Rebecca has access to all the city departments. The points of view of multiple departments are needed to ensure that civic projects are useful to a range of scenarios, citizens and stakeholders.

Government can convene players outside of the city as well.  For example, Rebecca has a reach that extends into the private sector. City governments serve and partner with for-profit industry players. Given Rebecca’s role, she can bring those players, large and small, into the process to leverage their skills, experience, and resources.

One of the most important roles government can play (from the perspective of a civic technologist) is that of data stewards. In most cases, the city generates and provides the data itself. In other situations, it can encourage non-governmental organizations to contribute their data so that technologists have a more complete model of some aspect of a city.

Towards the end of the discussion, we learned that another key role of government in this space (that is often overlooked) is simply being present. When government stakeholders, especially city government, are involved in the civic technology process, they become part of the discourse that formulates the solutions to city challenges.  They help frame the thinking by working hand-in-hand with the citizens that are contributing their skills and thinking. Most crucially, by being present throughout the process, government players are in a great position to craft policy that accurately and appropriately meets the needs of the citizens they serve.

We enjoyed the chance to participate in this inspiring series that brought together such a diverse audience to discuss an important topic; we also hope to participate in future Civic Cocktail events the next time we get to Seattle!

The conversation can be seen here, and starts at 29:14.

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