WHO DOES CIVIC TECH HELP?
What the open data movement left out; mySociety surveys civic tech demographics; and more.
mySociety’s research director Rebecca Rumbul has released an important new study, “Who benefits from civic technology?” It’s the first fruit of mySociety’s big new thrust into user and impact research on civic tech. The report looks at variations in usage of civic tech—defined as technologies “that enable citizens to hold governments to account”—in the U.S., U.K., Kenya, and South Africa, and examines the attitudes of users towards the platforms they are using. A total of 3,705 online survey responses were collected. The sites were FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou in the U.K., GovTrack and SeeClickFix in the U.S., Mzalendo in Kenya and People’s Assembly in South Africa. (Other country sites were also in the study but did not generate enough user responses to be statistically useful.)
The report found that in the U.K. and the U.S., the vast majority of users of these sites (FixMyStreet and GovTrack, specifically) are older, with roughly half over the age of 55. The opposite is true in Kenya and South Africa. Men account for 2/3 or more of the users except in the U.S. case, where the gender breakdown was even. In the U.K. and South Africa, whites use these sites disproportionately more than their share of the population (that question was not included by the sites in the U.S. and Kenya). Across the board, these civic tech sites attract users who are not surprisingly highly political engaged and better educated than the general population.
Here’s one of Rumbul’s key normative findings: “[the] data tells us that in the U.K. and U.S., civic technology users at least in some ways resemble the existing dominant class, and that this class has recognized the potential of civic technology to facilitate and amplify effective civic interaction, whether that be in tracking political information on welfare, researching legislative progress for professional purposes or maintaining the local community environment. This has significant implications for civic technology implementers. Many groups conceive of civic technology as a tool for effective and accessible democratic action. The digital environment is thought to reduce traditional barriers to engagement and access experienced by the less engaged groups within society. If, however, digital democracy tools are predominantly being used by a homogeneous group already dominant in society, this has the potential to skew policy and practical interventions in favor of this dominant group, at the same time compounding disadvantage amongst less dominant groups in society.”
This is a very important and sobering conclusion. But we should be careful not to over-interpret this finding. mySociety’s study did not look directly at economic class, so it’s possible that these civic tech platforms are actually helping empower some people who otherwise wouldn’t be in the position to “pay to play” in the political arena the way the top one percent do. It also looked at a narrow band of civic tech platforms: the generic parliamentary transparency sites (GovTrack and TheyWorkForYou) and two community problem-solving platforms (FixMyStreet and SeeClickFix). Notably, it doesn’t provide any user data from the SeeClickFix sample (by the way, the company hit its two-millionth report yesterday and is today launching some impressive new neighbor engagement features). It would be edifying to spread the net wider to include platforms like Vermont’s Front Porch Forum and Minneapolis’ e-democracy, as well the growing array of mobile-centric civic engagement platforms. Finally, civic tech is a bigger field than just government accountability tools. Defining it that narrowly leaves out vital projects like Democracy Works, which focus on helping people register and vote; or the Smart Chicago Collaborative, which makes tools with its urban and working-class community, or whole urban ecosystems like what is happening in Detroit. As Microsoft’s CivicGraph shows, the civic tech ecosystem is much bigger than just the sites mySociety surveyed. So while the issues Rumbul raises are real, more research is needed before saying this is the whole story.
Mark Headd chews on the mySociety survey and takes heart that it shows that many users of these sites believe that they are useful, and that using them makes them more confident to engage public officials. But he also notes that if public officials aren’t more responsive as a result, the promise of accountability offered by these sites could lead to disillusionment.
Related: On Medium, Abhi Nemani, who was until recently Los Angeles’s first chief data officer and before that one of Code for America’s principals, asks whether the open data movement in the United States has taken the wrong track and should have been fighting all along for governments to modernize their digital services rather than just opening up their data.
On Civicist, Eilis O’Neill reports on civic hackers who are taking on the fracking industry as well as other environmental causes.
Jason Putorti, a co-founder of Brigade and Votizen, now at Bessemer Venture Partners, offers his idiosyncratic guide to companies working on several major challenges facing American democracy.
On FounderDating, Ron Bouganim, the founder of the GovTech Fund, explains why he thinks offering new technology services to government agencies and employees is a huge growth opportunity.
Engine is partnering with the Technology Association of Iowa and the Cedar Rapids Gazette to hold a Presidential Tech Town Hall in Cedar Rapids on December 7.
Democracy Works, the people who brought us Turbovote, is looking to hire a software developer. If you apply, you have to use this subject line: “Will code for democracy.”