Shifting from Civic Technology as an Outcome to Civic Technology as a Process with Matt Stempeck (Civic Tech Field Guide)

Photo by Leon on Unsplash

This blog post is part of our ‘Data, Privacy, and the Future of Trust in Public Institutions’ series, which is penned by Garrett Morrow, who was MetroLab’s Experiential Research Fellow during Fall 2020. To learn more about this series and to access other posts in this series, check out our first post here.

Matt Stempeck of the Civic Tech Field Guide and I spoke on December 7, 2020 about the emerging field of civic technology. Matt’s interest in civic technology began while he was at the University of Maryland where he wrote an honor’s thesis on political blogs and how they may (at the time) be changing journalism by injecting elements of participatory media, participatory politics, and small donor dynamics into campaigns. Based on this academic work, Matt then got involved in Democratic party politics, working with the professional community that did Howard Dean and Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. After working in digital campaigning, Matt worked for a non-profit involved in campaign finance reform, but the Citizens United v. FEC decision was a blow to the movement, and Matt decided he did not want to work in an area for decades without seeing any kind of win.

After a brief stint in campaign finance reform work, Matt moved on to the New Organizing Institute, a think tank-like pipeline for moving talent into data-driven campaigning. The institute ran bootcamps, simulations, and would help staff the digital teams of Senate campaigns. Matt’s experience with organizing combined with digital tools helped him get a foot in the door at the MIT’s Center for Civic Media. The MIT Center at the time was trying to quantify media attention to world events and how technologies like machine learning techniques can be used to read and classify international news and hopefully expose Americans to world events. Additionally, Matt was involved with a project that identified misinformation using browser extensions combined with fact checked media coverage from Snopes or PolitiFact that would identify misinformation for users.

Matt’s thesis work at the MIT Media Lab was on how people use the internet during disasters which was timely as the Boston marathon bombing happened while he was working on his thesis. Specifically, Matt looked at volunteer tech communities and how they can emerge out of disaster events, and this research formed the genesis of what would become the crowdsourced Civic Tech Field Guide. After finishing graduate school, Matt went on to work for Microsoft in their civic tech team where he worked on developing relationships with cities in a team apart from the product or sales divisions. Matt also worked on digital voter outreach during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign while on leave from Microsoft before returning to the technology company for another year. Matt is currently living in Berlin and working on civic technology project collaboration in Europe while working on the Civic Tech Field Guide.

The Field Guide curates thousands of civic technology projects around the world gathered through crowdsourcing. The Guide serves as a repository of projects to help drive innovation globally and help people figure out what is already done so civic innovators are not forced to reinvent the wheel every time they want to develop and implement a new policy. Users of the Field Guide also includes activists who want to monitor the use of civic technologies. Municipal innovators can also see what types of projects have failed in the “graveyard” of civic technologies.

One question about the projects hosted in the field guide is how to define civic technology or how wide the net should be cast? Matt and the Field Guide define civic technology widely, but fundamentally the projects included should be about promoting the public good. So, the civic technology would not include smart city-type projects hosted by a technology company designed to deliver a service and extract municipal data. In other words, what separates civic technology is the shared interest versus a private interest. That is not to say there is no overlap. For example, there could be data sharing that could potentially benefit civic technology projects, but those are not the focus of the Field Guide. The emphasis of civic technology is on the political, democratically focused elements, not the engineering components. Matt equated civic technology to a process, not any specific outcome. Employing technologies to better facilitate the processes of democracy itself. One example is the democratic function of better facilitating voter registration or participation through technology.

At the city level, Matt commented that while many civic technology projects are about better service delivery, there are differences in capacity that shape processes and outcomes. For example, larger, wealthier cities like New York or Seattle can hire their own technologists, while smaller cities must rely on local activists and volunteers. At the hyper local level, like a specific community of Seattle or borough of New York, no one really has any technological capacity for development or implementation, and this is where resources like the Field Guide can help. Outside of the United States, relationships can vary even more. For example, in Europe, some governments do not volunteer data and people must ask for the data. Matt thinks the European example is emblematic of many civic technology projects where outsiders are doing a lot of the work and unfortunately many times there is little payoff.

Civic technologies and resources like the Civic Tech Field Guide can also help cities work together and share expertise or best practices. An example is cities partnering together to collectively gain power and push back against technology companies like Uber or Bird that are active in the municipal space but are apart from the government and are bypassing municipal regulations. However, cities must be careful with pushing back because residents are also customers of these companies, and actions against them could be politically unpopular. Indeed, some private technology companies draw upon political campaigning tactics to recruit residents to lobby their city government on behalf of the corporations.

Another application of civic technologies is the push for open-source code, data, and implementations. For example, the civic technology organization the Foundation for Public Code is a Netherlands-based group working with European cities to develop open code bases. The open code is also based on principals of public engagement. In addition to pushing back against aggressive private technology companies, city partnerships can help establish shared norms of data and code transparency and accountability.

One resource the Civic Tech Field Guide provides is helping educators and students engage with civic technology both as a project and as a career. For example, the Field Guide collates various conference, fellowship, and grant opportunities for civic researchers to draw upon. Matt commented that he wished such a resource existed when he was a student, and he hopes that universities can be more involved in the development of civic technology. Some universities are doing better at engaging in municipal research than others, but a problem with scaling up research is the question of research scarcity.

Our discussion then turned to the role of transparency and accountability in civic technology projects. Matt looks at these issues in a more holistic manner. For example, he is skeptical of groups that measure open government indicators or small measurements of how transparent a government program is. After all, a politician could be implementing transparent government initiatives with one hand and harming democracy with the other hand. Another problem with the focus on accountability and transparency is framing the issue where when a program fails, it becomes another data point in government failure or a “gotcha” moment that plays into the narrative that government is the problem. However, that is not to say that government accountability and transparency are not important, but we should think about them differently.

Finally, our talk concluded with the question of how COVID-19 will affect civic technology in the short- and long- term. In the short term, Matt brought up the issues of inequities where knowledge workers can work remotely and comfortable from home, while many city workers or cities that depend on tourism are struggling just to make ends meet. In these inequities, Matt sees similar mutual aid potential like the volunteer tech communities he wrote about in his thesis. In the long term, Matt thinks that budgetary shortfalls will be the main pain point for cities where private technology companies will be able to swoop in with unregulated solutions.

The main takeaway from conversation with Matt was shifting the thinking of civic technology from an outcome to a process. Technology is just the medium for pushing forward with public initiatives that are in the public good and help facilitate democracy. In other words, the emphasis should be on the civic rather than the technology, but that fact can be lost in the fast-moving progression of technologies in our everyday life. The underlining of the process of civic technology emphasizes the fact that politics are central to any kind of civic technology policy and further encourages me to continue my political science research into the politics of how municipalities are thinking about, developing, and implementing data and algorithmic decision-making policies into our lives.

Garrett Morrow is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Northeastern University. His dissertation looks at the politics and public trust of smart city policies, data, and algorithms. During Fall 2020, Garrett was also an Experiential Research Fellow with us here at MetroLab. His work was funded through the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern. Garrett can be reached at morrow.g@northeastern.edu.

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