Living Cities’ Civic Tech Journey: An Open-Sourcing Social Change Case Study

Living Cities’ Civic Tech Journey: An Open-Sourcing Social Change Case Study

We set out to learn about civic technology, unsure of where our learning questions would lead us. Our open-sourced approach offered us endless opportunities to deepen our knowledge and expand our impact.

Living Cities believes that the pace of social change is too slow; the scale too small. We are impatient. We know that we must do better to fight poverty and inequity. This will mean challenging a bias in the social sector that knowledge is only worth sharing after the work is complete and “proven.” Today’s leaders can benefit from information shared during all stages of development—from an early hunch or idea to an emerging approach that requires additional testing. In this way, individuals, institutions, and communities can collaborate in unprecedented ways. We can build on each other’s solutions and accelerate the adoption of the best thinking and practices out there. We call this “open-sourcing social change.”

The good news is that the tools, technology, and networks required to work in this way already exist. We’re just not using them to their full potential.

I know what you might be thinking: Oh, great. Another abstract social-change concept. You would not be completely wrong. This is all still a big experiment. But, whether it’s the Ford Foundation’s recent #InequalityIs series, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals campaign, or the viral #BlackLivesMatter movement, we are thrilled to see more and more people and institutions researching and testing this approach.

One experiment that Living Cities conducted towards open-sourcing social change started with questions that emerged from our network of mayoral chiefs of staff in cities around the country: The Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI). In 2012, the chiefs of staff wanted to better understand how technology can increase the capacity for civic engagement, collective problem solving, and improved service delivery for residents. There was a broad acknowledgement of the significant amount of energy and technical expertise focused on identifying and solving urban problems within the technology community. And, there was a hunger to better tap into it. Living Cities’ staff also wanted to know how much of that energy was being directed towards improving the lives of low-income people in particular. Since we had more questions than answers, we set out on an open sourcing journey.

Here’s what we did:

1. Engaged Others in Ways that Allowed us to Learn from Their Work

We hosted a convening that we called a “Trends in Focus Forum.” We invited staff from our member institutions, city government leaders, and innovators in the emergent field of civic technology to take stock of what types of solutions were being advanced at the time. We also worked to better understand opportunities and challenges.

At the same time, we began to engage some of the leaders in the space on social media. We found that there was already an active conversation around hashtags like #civictech, #gov20, and #opengov. We also noted that a lot of these leaders were active bloggers and we began to consume their content towards growing our understanding of the state of the field.

Viewing our website as a platform that could be an additional hub for conversation, we invited leaders to contribute to our blog as well. Here are a few examples:

  • Dreaming Bigger in the Civic Technology Movement
  • Stuck on the Bus, or, Civic Engagement in a Networked World
  • Three Essential Rules for Building Better Civic Tech

2. Made Our Learning Open and Accessible to Others in Real-Time, and at All Stages of Development

From the Trends in Focus, and conversations with PMI participants and other leaders, we realized that there was a gap in the literature and probably, we thought, in the practice. Stemming from this realization, we began to articulate a learning question:

What will it take to harness the power of technology and social media to change the relationship between city residents and their governments, and to improve the lives of low-income people?

We explored this question in many blogs that we posted at that time. Here are two examples:

  • The Disruptive Power of Civic Tech
  • Civic Tech, Local Government and Low-Income People: Recent Learnings

And, because we already had quite a robust digital communications strategy, there was an opportunity to contribute to the dialogue on social media, and to steer it towards results for low-income people. On Twitter, with our open/transparent approach and our willingness to learn publicly, we quickly gained influential followers like Zac Townsend (co-founder of an early stage financial technology company called Standard Treasury), Nigel Jacob (Co-Founder and Chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston), Jennifer Pahlka (Founder and Executive Director of Code for America), Alex Howard (Government 2.0 Washington Correspondent for O’Reilly Media, where he writes about the intersection of government, the Internet and society), and Nick Grossman (Investor at Union Square Ventures who also leads their efforts on public policy and regulatory issues that impact open innovation and the health of the web); as well as institutional followers like Code for America and Open Plans.

We realized that what we were learning could be useful to others. So, in November of 2012 Living Cities released our Field Scan of Civic Technology. In essence, the Field Scan set out to gather opinions on the current state of practice in the field of civic technology from the perspective of twenty five local and national leaders in civic tech, in local government, and in nonprofits working to address social equity issues. Through these interviews, we asked for input on the following topics:

  • The current state of the civic technology field, including examples of civic tech making a difference in cities, and specifically around the lives of low income people;
  • The potential for civic technologies to advance more transformational change; and
  • Barriers to deeper impact and wider adoption of civic technology, and strategies to address these barriers.

The scan was intended to inform the work of Living Cities and its members, as well as others interested in harnessing technology to advance transformational change in cities and communities.

The publication caused quite a stir in the digital space, both in terms of folks who were excited to see the conversation around civic tech being focused so explicitly on improving the lives of low income people, and in terms of folks disagreeing with our findings. As we are a learning organization, we embraced both the positive responses and the constructive criticism. We did not purport to have all the answers—we wanted to share our best thinking at the time and to spark dialogue and even debate.

3. Intentionally Connected Networks of Thought-Leaders, Practitioners, and Innovators to Foster Deeper Collaboration and Co-Creation of Solutions

What role can technology play in engaging young people from disadvantaged communities in civic life, and in deepening the relationship between local governments and low-income communities more broadly?

As outlined above, we learned a great deal from our exploration of civic technology, in person and in the digital space. And, we had established ourselves as a respected voice in this conversation and built important relationships. Our next step was to test what it could look like for us to partner with cities and civic tech leaders on solutions. We started with a partnership with civic developer OpenPlans (who worked with us on the Field Scan) and the City of Louisville.

We worked with Louisville to develop a tech solution intended to improve engagement between Louisville and young adults around long-term city planning. Through this project, we were aiming to better understand: What role can technology play in engaging young people from disadvantaged communities in civic life, and in deepening the relationship between local governments and low-income communities more broadly?

Of course, we documented what we learned from this work in real time all along the way:

  • What Do Young People Have to Teach Us About Civic Tech?
  • Millennials, Civic Engagement and Civic Tech (Part I of II)
  • Millennials, Civic Engagement and Civic Tech (Part II of II)
  • Introducing #VizLou, an Experiment in Technology, Civic Engagement and Public Sector Innovation

This work, and the fact that we were sharing our progress publicly, gave us even more credibility in the eyes of people who care about this work. We were also making a case for other cities to apply civic tech in ways that would benefit low-income people. Through PMI and other platforms, we were working to actively connect cities to leaders in the civic tech space in order to cultivate the possibilities of partnerships.

So, what came out of all of that “open-sourcing?”

Two years after our learning journey began, in partnership with the MacArthur FoundationCode for America, and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), Living Cities launched the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative. This initiative supports teams of civic technologists, data practitioners and government officials in cities to develop data and technology solutions to make cities more inclusive, equitable and democratic.

And, in partnership with the Citi Foundation our second City Accelerator cohort, is focused on community engagement. This work is very much informed by our understanding that civic tech can be a powerful force in improving the ways that government engages and serves citizens.

When we set out to learn about civic tech, we had no idea where that learning would lead us. Taking an open-sourced approach offered us endless opportunities to make connections, deepen our knowledge base, identify a gap that we were well-positioned to fill, and expand our impact. This is just one example of what is possible when you work in this way. We look forward to sharing many more. And, we would love to hear from you. How are you open-sourcing social change, and what have you learned?


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