Civicist

CIVIC TECH NEWS & ANALYSIS
Categories
Civic Tech Germany World

What’s Going On in German Civic Tech?

What’s Going On in German Civic Tech?

WHY GERMANY?

A couple of years ago I was idly scanning through Google Zeitgeist, the search giant’s annual data release of each year’s top search trends. Somehow I found my way onto the international results, and picking almost at random I chose to look at the search terms for Germany.

There, sitting at the top of the pile, was something I could barely believe. The term in poll position was ‘Wahl-o-mat.’ Despite not being a German speaker, I recognized it: it was the brand name of a German website that helps people work out who to vote for.

Not a recently deceased TV star, or a major movie, or a massively viral YouTube video, but an old-fashioned, 36 question online quiz that ultimately spat out a suggested political party. Further searching revealed that it had been used, through to completion, over 13 million times in the 2013 national elections. Even more astonishing is the quiz is run by an arms-length public body—effectively a ‘who to vote for’ service delivered by part of the state.

Since then, I’ve been acutely aware that Germany has a social-impact technology scene that is somewhat unlike that of many other rich countries. So in January this year I set out on a trip to Berlin to find out about tech initiatives that might be a bit different from what you find elsewhere.

CONTEXT: THE SECURITY AND PRIVACY SCENE

It is no great secret that Germany has been closely associated with the groundswell of discontent since the Snowden revelations. But I wasn’t prepared for just how big and central it is to how all technology was viewed, or how widely the suspicion of digital technologies has spread.

The best yardstick of how big the security and privacy tech community is in Germany is to consider the attendance of the year’s biggest community shindig, the Chaos Computer Conference (CCC), held in Hamburg. There were an astonishing 12,000 people present this year, and demand for tickets still substantially outstripped supply. Nearly as many people go to CCC as go to Defcon in America, but in a country that’s about four times smaller. And the number rises rapidly every year.

The concerns are much more widespread than the NSA reading German email, too. After a few days I realized that several people I talked to were using the word ‘algorithm’ (referring to automated technologies like Facebook’s wall) with a kind of distasteful wince. It was similar to the way that a lawyer might reluctantly use swear words when quoting a defendant in front of a judge. This is because the very idea of algorithmic sorting of content in social media has become a kind of dirty word in the tech community—yet another way that big institutions could exploit the rest of us. Poor Al-Khwārizmī, who gave his name to the mathematical concept, must be rolling in his grave.

Several people I talked to remarked that Berlin has become a kind of sanctuary to people who work for both well-known and obscure privacy enhancing technology projects. Living there meant not only more like-minded people to hang out with, it meant less hassle at airports, less likelihood of being followed around or interviewed, less of a feeling of being a bad or wanted person generally. You can buy more stuff with cash. Everyone speaks English, and many people the language of cryptography too. People were not naive about the fact that Germany has it’s own well-staffed security apparatus, but clearly it to this community it feels like a much more acceptable home than most other alternatives.

There wasn’t any consensus about what led to Berlin becoming the hub of this community. More than one person strongly contested the almost-standard idea that the history of the Stasi and of the the Nazis has made the average German more worried about surveillance than the average Brit. I was told that Google and Facebook usage was sky-high in Germany, and that these behaviors at an aggregate just didn’t fit the theory of national suspiciousness. Ultimately, I had no objective way of assessing why there is such a large security and privacy community in Berlin, but if it isn’t due to the sad, violent history of this place then there’s clearly some other very interesting explanation lurking. Theories on an encrypted post-card, please.

My final observation on the privacy and security scene is that the energy surrounding privacy tech and privacy laws has created opportunity costs for the wider civic and social impact tech scene. There were actually, overall, fewer big mainstream civic tech or social impact tech projects than I would have expected to find in a country with wealth, tech chops and political consciousness that Germany has. I suspect it’s because more than a few ideas die in the cradle, smothered by concerns about how user data might be abused. At least one person told me they’d seen this happen.

IMPRESSIVE CIVIC & SOCIAL IMPACT ORGANIZATIONS I DISCOVERED ON MY ADVENTURE

I talked to a lot of people during my stay. The following list, which is in no particular order, simply attempts to give a taste of the interesting projects and people I met, rather than a verbatim record. If I spoke to you and you’re not here, please don’t feel slighted!

Categories
Civic Tech Design

HOW TO SUCCEED IN CIVIC TECH

HOW TO SUCCEED IN CIVIC TECH

I am frequently asked what key factors have made SeeClickFix a successful platform for engaging residents and officials where others have failed. These ten key principles that have been translated into product and design decisions have led to a rapidly growing platform that constructively solves problems while making government officials look good in the process. We believe these principles can be applied to other civic tech efforts and leveraged for more inclusive, representative governance.

The following is a list of biases and opinions that have been baked into the SeeClickFix platform over the past 8 years. It is not meant to be exhaustive and it is evolving as we learn more about the community we serve.

1) Transparency

SeeClickFix was launched because we were concerned that the opaque 1–1 protocols (phone calls and email) for managing citizen communication was crippling participation and strengthening distrust in government. Where legally possible communication with government and communication with residents should be immediately available to the public. This is different than an open data or FOIA policy which makes records available after the government has processed them. Real-time transparency maximizes overall efficiency by deceasing the duplication of public communications and internal government work. Feedback Loops have a stronger impact when they are published to everyone.

2) Feedback loops at every step

When you report an issue on SeeClickFix you are immediately sent an email that your issue has been created. In that email you are told who from the government has received the email as well as how many neighbors were sent a message. When you check out your issue you can see how many times it has been viewed and all of the public responses and the number of people who are following along. When the status changes on the issue (Open>Acknowledged>Closed) or a comment is made you receive an update. With feedback loops nothing is lost in a black box. With transparent and immediate feedback loops everyone can see the responsiveness of government and word of mouth spreads to others who are encouraged to show-up and communicate constructively. Twitter, Medium, Facebook and every other successful communication platform leverage stats (likes, follows, reads, shares) to encourage more engagement. This is no different and your government product needs to be thinking about creating feedback loops at every step.

3) Resident experience must rival experience with popular consumer applications

There’s no reason why digital engagement with your government can’t feel like digital engagement with your friends and family. The experience needs to be well designed, meaning that a product person is listening and responding to the needs of the market. The experience should also be beautiful. Interacting with government should not feel like a lesser form of digital interaction designed by a time traveler from the late 90s. People fall in love with products that feel like they are designed for their needs and speak to their aesthetics. People can fall in love with their government for the same reasons.

4) Official experience must be as good as resident experience

If you are in local government and you want to engage residents, you need to do it in a way that benefits your co-workers, managers, and direct reports as well. Admittedly, this is not where SeeClickFix started but it’s where we live today. Incorporating gratitude into the platform for those that are creating the feedback loop can be done in a number of ways. SeeClickFix has a “thank you” button that residents use to praise local officials when a request is finished. As external communication increases, the product needs to make communication simple, easy and convenient. More residents engaging can translate to more work produced but it does not have to translate to more work done.

5) Understand that residents and officials are users of a bigger ecosystem than one government

Residents and officials live and work in multiple communities served by multiple public agencies. Software needs to acknowledge this and provide officials and residents opportunities to talk to each other beyond the traditional boundaries created by one-off systems. SeeClickFix users can report an issue in their county, their city, a neighboring town and to even smaller entities within towns like universities and housing authorities. Preaching regionalism feels like preaching to the choir these days. Still, many overlook software design and procurement as an opportunity to realize a regional vision.

6) Anonymity

Wherever possible residents and public employees should have the opportunity to participate in two way civic conversation anonymously. Studies have shown that communities that are previously disengaged are more likely to participate if they can do so anonymously. Put good community flagging features in place and terms of service that favor respectful communication and the concerns for trolling will be behind you. SeeClickFix is one of the largest digital platforms engaging people in government but trolling and disrespectful communication is minute, isolated and easily controlled. Anonymity is a baby quickly thrown out with the bath water on the web. In civic tech it’s a must.

7) Meet users on equal ground

A citizen needs to have equal say in the tools they use to communicate with government if communication is going to be a truly empowering to residents. This means the software that you are using for internal communication needs standardized API’s for other software applications to connect. It’s also important that residents are treated as equals. If a request is not resolved, the resident should be given the same opportunity to reopen the issue that a government has to close it out. I think this can apply in others areas of civic tech but maybe this is esoteric to request management and open 311. This is how trust is built in both directions.

8) Features should empower citizens to be more helpful than they previously thought was possible

At SeeClickFix we have enabled anyone to receive alerts, claim responsibility, and help out even when they are not ultimately responsible. As a result neighbors have helped out other neighbors in snow storms, cleaned up parks, helped to spread important civic information and offer suggestions for improving traffic safety and general quality of life. If your engagement strategy is working well residents will feel like they are helping and officials will feel like they are being helped.

9) Be portable

City Hall does it’s best engagement when it shows up at community meetings outside of the doors of City Hall. Your digital product should take the same approach. SeeClickFix achieved early growth in the community through it’s widget which can be embedded on a local news site, a community group blog as well as the City’s website.

10) Iterate

At SeeClickFix we persistently take advantage of the ability to push updates to our government partners and resident users continuously. We built dynamic mobile apps where service requests, buttons and other local customizations are dynamic and can be updated remotely without resubmitting to app stores. The days of legacy software installed on premise are gone. Your government software like your government has the ability to respond iteratively to the needs of its community.

In the spirit of #10 I will continue to iterate on this list as we learn more. These values are what make SeeClickFix so powerful. Without them the platform would be a shell of itself, not have created meaningful change and likely failed. As one of our spiritual leaders Micah Sifry once said, “Civic tech can’t be neutral.”

Ben Berkowitz is the CEO and founder of SeeClickFix. This piece was originally published on Medium.

Categories
Civic Tech elections First Post

FIRST POST: SUBVERSIONS

FIRST POST: SUBVERSIONS

Is it really a “social media election”? How #BlackLiveMatters is engaging Hillary Clinton; and the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program grows up.

  • Tech and the Presidentials: Welcome to the social media election,” writes David McCabe for The Hill. Really? Does anyone have any evidence that shows that the presidential campaigns putting a lot of effort into their candidate’s social media postings are doing better than their less-savvy peers? McCabe’s examples include both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are doing better than expected in the polls, and Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker, who are all doing as predicted or worse, despite their social media prowess.

  • Here’s the video of Hillary Clinton’s August 11 meeting with five #BlackLivesMatter activists in New Hampshire last week, posted by GOOD Magazine’s Gabriel Reilich. The activists press Clinton on her support for the massive increase in “tough on crime” measures in the 1990s, championed by her husband while he was President. Interestingly, Clinton appears to admit that she is a “sinner” in the context of the rise of mass incarceration of black people. As MSNBC’s Ari Melber tweeted, “Candor & tension in Clinton-‪#BlackLivesMatter‬ mtg shows why citizen Qs for pols are powerful.”

  • Spending on online political ads is projected to top the $1 billion mark in the 2016 cycle, Jon Lafayette of Broadcasting & Cable reports. That would be a first, but at the same time most political dollars, $8.5 billion, will go to broadcast TV ads.

  • Opening Government: A new executive order from President Obama has made the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows Program, which pulls technologists from the private sector into government for one-year stints, a permanent federal government program, as this post on Medium explains.

  • The winner of the Federal Trade Commission’s “Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back” civic hacking competition is a mobile app appropriately called RoboKiller, which uses audio-fingerprint technology to identify and block likely robocalls. As they explain on their Kickstarter page, “Before a user’s phone rings, we trick robocallers to start playing their recorded messages so that we can start our analysis. Live callers hear traditional ringing during this process. If RAE [their “rob analytics engine”] determines that a call is from a robot, it never rings through; we send it straight to the user’s SpamBox in the RoboKiller app. Humans, on the other hand, ring through to the user as soon as their legitimacy is confirmed.” (h/t Consumerist)

  • This is civic tech: Google engineer Carl Elkin used his 20% time to build Project Sunroof, which uses Google Earth mapping to help people figure out their home’s solar energy potential. It’s available in the San Francisco, Fresno and Boston areas now. As Elkin explains, the tool “first figures out how much sunlight hits your rooftop throughout the year, taking into account factors like roof orientation, shade from trees and nearby buildings, and local weather patterns. You can also enter your typical electric bill amount to customize the results. The tool then combines all this information to estimate the amount you could potentially save with solar panels, and it can help connect you with local solar providers.”

  • New on Civicist: Contributing editor Mark Headd notes the increasingly cozy relationship between civic hackers and government, and argues that “a little subversion is still necessary.”

Categories
Civic Tech elections First Post

FIRST POST: FEEDBACK

FIRST POST: FEEDBACK

Is Amazon’s grueling workplace the future? Can Lawrence Lessig fire up the Internet? How tech can help Asian language speakers navigate the voting process.

  • The Future of Work? In case you missed it, Amazon is a pretty hyper-competitive place to work, according to Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld’s long investigative piece for Sunday’s New York Times. Perhaps the creepiest revelation in their story is the “Anytime Feedback Tool,” an internal communications widget that “allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management” which “many workers” call “a river of intrigue and scheming.”

  • Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu offers his rebuttal on LinkedIn. I found his faith in the company kind of charming. As he writes, “We’ve got our hands full with reinventing the world.”

  • And company CEO Jeff Bezos says, in an email to his employees first reported by John Cook of GeekWire, “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

  • Tech and the Presidentials: BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray reports on how Republican front-runner Donald Trump is renting conservative email lists to fundraise for his campaign. She notes that Trump has said he doesn’t need to fundraise, but it’s just as likely that the billionnaire’s rental of lists from PJ Media, Newsmax and the Daily Caller may also be a way for him to buy favor with their owner’s.

  • Brigade is hosting a forum this Thursday in San Francisco with Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley and several civic tech leaders, focusing on “how public and private sector stakeholders can adapt digital tools to improve the impact of government, elevate marginalized communities, and tackle our country’s most pressing shared challenges.”

  • Jimmy Wales, the cofounder of Wikipedia, explains on Medium why he is chairing Lawrence Lessig’s exploratory presidential campaign committee.

  • In my humble opinion, Lessig’s plan for getting elected president and serving only long enough to pass fundamental pro-democracy reform through Congress (a laudable goal) reminds me a lot of the South Park gnomes episode–Step 1: Collect underpants. Step 2: ???? Step 3: PROFIT.

  • This is civic tech: Code for Africa has just received a grant of $4.7 million for the next three years from the Gates Foundation to extend its work supporting data journalism, focusing on three hub nations: Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, the organization’s chief strategist Justin Arenstein writes on Medium.

  • Asian-American e-activist group 18 Million Rising is raising money on Indiegogo for VoterVOX, an app that will connect multilingual Asian Americans with voters needing language assistance to navigate the voting process. According to a 2012 exit poll from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, nearly 1 in 4 Asian Americans prefer to vote with help from an interpreter or translated materials.