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The State of Civic Tech

Civic technology is still a nascent field. At Code for America, we often describe our work as “showing what’s possible.” We see the potential of civic technology to realize transformative change in our cities and communities — and in our first few years, much of CfA’s work has been devoted to demonstrating these possibilities. Through the Fellowship and Brigade, we create narratives of change within cities that drive awareness of what’s possible, and build support to institutionalize this new way of doing things.

Recently, Living Cities and OpenPlans — two organizations that have been at the leading edge of this movement — interviewed more than 25 experts about the current state of the civic technology landscape, culminating in a report that captures a snapshot of the current opportunities, successes, and challenges for Gov 2.0.

The findings from their field analysis? We’re making progress but there’s still a lot of work to be done:

“Civic tech is a fast-moving field with considerable but nascent potential to transform lives and cities…. The tools developed and in use in cities so far are demonstrations of the potential power of civic tech, but that these tools don’t yet go as far as they might.”

So, what’s needed to take civic technology to the next level? How can we tackle systemic issues to more fully realize civic tech’s potential — and the transformative outcomes that we envision? A few major themes emerged from Living Cities’ research:

Capture better information about successful tools and strategies

“More information about tools and successful models can encourage re-use of existing tools, reducing wasted effort and resources…. Telling stories from projects helps others get started, and sharing failures helps others avoid the problems that caused a project to fail.”

This is the underlying idea behind the CfA Commons, where we catalog nearly 700 apps available for civic use. But more work is needed to move beyond just documentation and add a layer of context — use cases, success strategies, lessons learned — that will help cities make more informed decisions and find the right tools to suit their needs.

Build better infrastructure for sharing that information amongst a community of practitioners

“Creating a supportive community of users, technologists, vendors and city staff accelerates innovation by increasing the sharing of ideas, success stories, and lessons learned.”

Not only do we need better information to discover and evaluate existing civic tech tools, we need better means for surfacing and spreading those ideas amongst city innovators. As Living Cities pointed out in a blog post introducing the report, “The networks connecting civic tech innovators within and across cities are early-stage.”

Support and empower civic tech “champions” within City Hall

“Organizations need capacity to engage with new ideas…. Within cities, champions are essential to drive civic tech forward. A point person within the city who has support from elected officials and senior staff can catalyze activity within departments and the wider community.”

Code for America’s work would not be possible without the support of our city partners, who play a critical role in advocating for change internally and in their communities. To scale civic tech’s impact, we need to identify and empower those change agents. By giving them resources, recognition, and support, we can help build this capacity for innovation within our cities.

These are three issues that we hope to tackle head-on with the launch of the Code for America Peer Network this coming year: a peer learning network for innovators in local government brought together by the shared goal of taking innovation in their city to the next level.

As we head into 2013, with year three of the Fellowship and the launch of the Peer Network on the horizon, we’re looking forward to see how the civic tech movement continues to mature and evolve.

For an excellent overview of many other challenges and approaches ahead for the civic technology movement — including user-centric design, app sustainability, and the importance of public-private partnerships — check out the full report from Living Cities and OpenPlans.


Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.