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Have We Reached the Peak of Civic Tech?

The answer to this intentionally provocative question depends on whom you ask, how you define “civic tech,” and how you interpret “peak.”

At Forum One, we’re passionate about initiatives that involve open data and improvements in government. We’ve assisted with the roll out of the California Open Data Portal, the design of the New York State of Health insurance exchange, and most recently the development of a knowledge management program for a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative called What Works Cities that includes managing and sharing data and resources. We’re always eager to learn more about other exciting civic technology work from experts in the space.

To that end, two weeks ago at the Do Good Data conference in Chicago, I moderated a panel discussion on the status of civic technology in the United States. The three panelists were civic tech experts who represented different constituencies at the heart of the civic tech world:

  • Christopher “Civic” Whitaker, a Brigade Manager at Code for America, has deep experience with the nonprofit “hacker” community
  • Candace Faber, the first-ever Civic Technology Advocate for the City of Seattle, spoke from a municipal government perspective
  • Cam Caldwell, Director for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Partnerships at Socrata, shared a view from the private sector

We started the discussion with definitions. In his blog, Civic Whitaker defined civic technology as, “Technology projects involving intentional collaboration between technologists, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and nonprofit employees to engage the public or solve civic problems”—or more broadly—”Any technology that intersects public life.”

With respect to whether civic tech has reached a “peak,” Christopher suggested that it has rather become “boring but practical.” Civic tech first emerged as a buzzworthy concept on the heels of the great recession, and evangelists and hackers generated a lot of excitement about improvements to government transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness. But since the establishment of organizations at the national and local levels as well as government roles dedicated to improving social services through open data initiatives, civic tech has shifted from start-up phase to standard operating procedure. And, to Christopher’s point, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In Chicago, for example, government is using dynamic data to predict which restaurants are going to fail their food inspections first and stepping in before people get sick. The public largely doesn’t see this good work because it is happening in the background—boring but practical.

While in some cities—like Chicago—civic tech has become a common model for social services, others are still grappling with how best to wrangle open data for good. While Seattle has inspired many people from its substantial tech community to embrace civic tech, it wrestles with challenges such as how to solve problems for those most in need. Candace Faber looks for opportunities to bring hackers, government, and underserved populations together to find the sweet spot in the Venn diagram of civic tech. From her perspective, effective civic tech solutions need to be driven by user demand—as opposed to purely by government agendas or hacker passions. They also need to be sustainable. A useful civic tech application needs to be maintained and improved over time, and—absent some never-ending source of volunteer altruism—that costs money. Civic tech projects need a viable business model, or at least need to be appropriated by a company with the resources to sustain them (i.e. Google).

Cam Caldwell shared some examples of civic tech companies that have grown to maturity or “behemoth” status. In addition to Socrata, whose open data platform powers many civic tech initiatives, Cam pointed to everything from waste-focused app provider ReCollect to sharing economy transportation giant Uber as companies who have figured out how to use and/or sell civic data sustainably and—depending on your perspective—for good. One promising business model championed by the venture capital Govtech Fund is to intentionally build better technology tools to sell to government. Whether through bootstrapped, venture backed, volunteer, or grant-based models, there are options for keeping civic tech companies afloat and prospering.

So while we may have reached an initial peak of excitement about civic tech, it may ultimately prove to be a mere foothill on the path to the higher summits of sustainability and positive impact.