Civic technology (“civic tech”) describes a government’s information and communication systems built by civilians including individuals, volunteers, corporations, and non-governmental organizations. These government systems range widely from public benefits registration interfaces to voting software. Civic tech is meant to enable greater participation in government from the public while simultaneously assisting the government in developing new technology beneficial for its citizens.
- 1 Term Derivation
- 2 National Day of Civic Hacking
- 3 The Civilians of Civic Tech
- 4 Notable International Civic Tech Projects
- 5 Ethical Concerns
- 6 References
Civic tech is a form of e-government, or information and communication technologies used to provide public services. Civic tech falls under the government-to-citizen category of e-government. Projects under the government-to-citizen category include open government initiatives such as voting, data access and transparency, and mapping and community action initiatives such as peer-to-peer sharing, civic crowdfunding, and neighborhood forums.
Broadly, civic tech is a unifier that aims to bring people together who may not otherwise interact. Uniquely, civic tech applies skills and approaches seen in modern design and traditional tech companies to government and community building.
National Day of Civic Hacking
The National Day of Civic Hacking occurs every year on September 18th. Created by the Code for America Brigades, the US Small Business Administration, Secondmuse, and various other federal agencies, the nationwide day challenges people to volunteer and carry out a number of civic tech challenges.
Many companies including Code for America release projects on this day every year and have thousands of volunteers sign up. In 2021, Code for America’s project on improving 911 and emergency response services saw volunteers across 25 countries and 49 states resulting in 2,500 hours of work completed that day. The results included 384 public service answering points reviewed, 17 case studies, 16 data analysis projects, and 9 prototype projects.
The Civilians of Civic Tech
While anyone can technically participate in civic tech as projects are usually public in nature, a few key players have made significant strides in the space.
Code for America
One of the most famous players, Code for America, has built a civic tech community that organizes people into teams that tackle local government projects. Local government, often lacking funding and tech talent, has been able to utilize Code for America in projects including revamping California’s food stamp application.
After its initial launch in October 2013, HealthCare.gov, a health insurance exchange website operated under the Affordable Care Act, encountered many technical issues. Only 1% of interested people were able to enroll in the site during its first week causing major public disapproval. AdHoc, a software design and engineering agency has established itself as one of the most successful civic tech firms after rescuing the website.
CoUrbanize is an online community engagement platform connecting municipality residents with real estate developers. Given consequences of historical redlining and new trends of gentrification, new developments are often controversial among residents. Through CoUrbanize, project information becomes easy to share and comment on with features such as a blog and message board. 
Providing cloud software built for government budgeting, operational performance, and civic engagement, OpenGov aims to power more effective and accountable government. Currently, 48 states and over 2,000 public agencies have leveraged their tools to improve performance and operations.
Notable International Civic Tech Projects
Various organizations have supported international civic tech initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership (OGP) created in 2011 by eight founding governments – USA, United Kingdom, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, and the Philippines. Other countries have since joined and developed efforts to integrate processes for citizens to interact with local and national government systems through technology. Numerous countries, both part of OGP and not, have started government-led and citizen-led initiatives within civic technology to pave the way towards more progressive and democratic systems and practices around open government.
A leader in civic technology development, Taiwanese civic hackers have developed a wide range of solutions for society. Howard Wu, a Taiwanese civic hacker, created an app to track the location of city-owned garbage trucks for people to track how far away a truck is so that people would not have to stand outside and wait for the truck to arrive. The city then forked the original app to improve upon it and add even more detailed routes.
Wu and other Taiwanese civic hackers were also some of the first respondents to address the COVID-19 pandemic – even before many governments. Wu created a map of the 10,000+ convenience stores and pharmacies in Taiwan using a Google mapping interface to show app users which stores still carried masks and at what price. Early in the Pandemic, the map was especially helpful when the country was facing an extreme shortage.
Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand are few of the only countries to have an official government appointed position for civic hackers. Audrey Tang is Taiwan’s current Digital Minister and is tasked with ensuring transparency within the government. He also facilitates open source, civic tech initiatives such as those Wu created while simultaneously ensuring safety and privacy of civilian data.
Numerous civic technologies have grown in Nepal including Shuvayatra (Safe Journey) – a mobile app providing Nepali migrant workers with financial and educational resources. Given the commonness of migrant employment within the male Nepali population, the app helped connect people with reliable employment services and prevent exploitive misconduct often felt by migrant workers.
Other civic technologies aim to help broader communities within Nepal including OpenStreetMap – an app facilitating and training users to map their neighborhoods. This platform helped humanitarian and relief agencies navigate the destroyed neighborhoods from the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and help locate missing people.
Civic technologies in the UK have been developed by civic tech companies such as mySociety and individual engineers. FixMyStreet.com is one example and allows UK citizens to report issues within public infrastructure in order to report to local authority. Many countries mimicked this technology as it became a solution to an issue many people faced and complained about but didn’t know where to go to fix. This is one example of a platform that has been able to “exert influence on people in power” since it pushes local authority to act and make change.
A government-led initiative in the UK includes Care Opinion, a decentralized, open-source community to strengthen the voice of patients in the National Health Service. The platform aimed to “nudge” (apply nudge theory) British government policy, updated health services, and save money longterm. A similar Nudge unit was added to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama.
AI in Civic Tech
Artificial intelligence is becoming a more common tool to utilize within civic tech solutions. Since AI has the ability to synthesize information and scale routine tasks, solutions have been utilizing the technology to create more automated processes. However, as AI becomes more common and tools like machine learning, natural language processing, predictive analytics, deep learning, and recommendation engines further government systems, civilians that use those systems can face the same vulnerabilities that AI in other areas such as Big Tech has posed on consumers.
As usage and development have expanded, AI algorithms have raised ethical concerns. For example, in an analysis of job board recommendations, 40% of black respondents noted that they had experienced recommendations based on their identities rather than qualifications and 63% noted their academic recommendations made by the platforms were lower than their current academic achievements. In banking practices, Goldman Sachs utilized algorithms that discriminated against women when determining credit card limits. Since AI algorithms have proven to hold biases, bringing these predictive models to civilian-facing systems could cause significant concerns. Experts such as Robert Cheetham, founder of mapping company Azavea and civic-tech leader, have already expressed concern for bringing this technology into policing, justice, and human services solutions – common civic tech projects. He states concern regarding false legal accusations and unfair settlements.
In order to mitigate these potential risks, civic hackers such as Cheetham suggest requiring greater transparency and scrutiny from developers. Before increasing usage of AI into government solutions, the government and civic hackers say they must ensure the algorithms learned from a diverse set of training data and has been tested on a diverse set of users.
One ongoing initiative to ensure algorithms are equitable and transparent to even the harshest critics is previous New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Automated Decision Systems Task Force. After appointing 14 experts including researchers and professors in tech law and public policy in 2018, de Blasio was able to identify where racial biases may exist in algorithms the city government was using. After a few years of investigation, the Force was able to provide the city government with recommendations and guidelines to ensure biases are eliminated in algorithms used in government processes as best as possible.
Data Sharing & Ownership in Civic Tech
Researchers say there are both benefits and detriments to data sharing. In a study conducted at the University of Oxford by Professor Michael Parker that sought to understand the pros and cons of data sharing, Parker finds that sharing can help create better constituent resources, plan services more effectively, develop more evidence-based interventions, and ultimately lead to better government services. He also notes that if data is shared correctly, it can be used to help address inequities. Notably, he points out ethical implications of not using data: if the government and civic hackers have access to constituent data but are not creating solutions that would create positive change, then they are not effectively using the data.
Parker notes some cautions around data sharing including the difficulty in managing privacy and confidentiality. If the wrong people are hired as civic hackers, they could potentially manipulate data to identify certain people for dangerous, unlawful purposes. Additionally, concern exists around “moral distance” or whether the uses of the data by the government and civic hackers consider the people whose data they are working with and what their comfort would be knowing others are seeing and utilizing their data. Given this distance, it is hard for civilians to express their openness and give actual “consent” to the government and civic hackers. If privacy and confidentiality is infringed by evil civic hackers, it would also be difficult to reinstate public trust and deteriorate opportunity for future data access.
Given concerns around privacy and civic hackers access to personal data, organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has created a standard, “Good Practice Principles for Data Ethics in the Public Sector”, for anyone dealing with constituent data to follow. The OECD’s principles include:
- Managing data with integrity
- Being aware and observing relevant government-wide arrangements for trustworthy data access
- Incorporating data ethical considerations into governmental, organizational, and public sector decision-making
- Monitoring and retaining control over data inputs, particularly those used to inform the development and training of AI systems, and adopting a risk-based approach to the automation of decisions
- Being specific about the purpose of data use, especially when dealing with personal data
- Defining boundaries for data access, sharing, and usage
- Being clear, inclusive, and open
- Publishing open data and source code
- Broadening individuals’ and collectives’ control over their data
- Being accountable and proactive in managing risks
Scaling in Civic Tech
Many civic tech solutions have existed within a small space. Whether they were local or state solutions, few civic technologies have been able to scale nationally or internationally. However, civic hackers and governments have been making strong efforts to scale solutions. As this continues, the government will have to take on more accountability in ensuring that privacy and fairness standards are met. Throughout history, large-scale projects often put user data concerns as secondary areas of concern. For example, as Canva grew, more time was spent dedicated to growing the business platform and not encrypting the users’ personal data. As a result, Canva, and many similar companies, became the center of data breaches. When civic solutions start to scale in critical areas such as economic development, health, and education, primary goals such as expanding the platform may distract from the importance of handling and managing personal user data. However, governments and civic tech engineers must keep civilian safety a primary focus and concern.
Selling User Data in Civic Tech
Civic tech companies follow one of two business models. Some are nonprofit enterprises that rely on third-party donations or government funding to pay and support employees to complete civic projects. Others are for-profit companies that have found ways to monetize these civic projects. However, many for-profit companies find it difficult to find sustainable ways to make money which sustain their business model and allow them to create civic solutions.
Many companies have discussed the opportunities and perils of selling user data. Selling user data is common and lucrative form of revenue among many other Big Tech companies. Some forms of selling can also be positive by selling to companies or nonprofits that would like to market to or fundraise on behalf of individuals who have expressed interest in particular beliefs. However, monetizing user data poses morals hazards – especially for civic-minded organizations that are looking to make positive societal change. For many companies, selling access to a user’s civic activity or political profile conflicts with their core values. Marci Harris of PopVox, a civic solution that connects people and government said when considering her own company’s monetization strategy:
“Monetizing user data was the model suggested to us frequently by many VCs—selling user data or email addresses— but we decided against it and prioritized user privacy and user control of their own data, which is why we ended up pursuing an enterprise model."
While PopVox has moved away from selling data, other companies such as Democracy Works and CTCL have generated a considerable portion of their revenue by licensing electoral data they gather including local ballot and candidate information. This poses deep ethical concerns as this information is licensed to tech companies that feed it into their search results, campaigns trying to sway votes, or broad voting initiatives.
Funding in Civic Tech
For companies that follow nonprofit business models in civic tech, they are not reliant on monetization strategies of their solutions or selling of data; rather, they are looking to collect donations from other nonprofits, grants, or individuals. These donations help cover the ongoing costs of the enterprise to ensure delivery of impactful programs. However, often, donations can be tied with some sort of personal agenda. For example, donors may prioritize or request certain civic tech projects be undergone or completed before others – even if the civic tech company sees values or wanted to focus on a different area. This could upend the company’s primary focus. Additionally, it could prioritize personal agendas instead of what is best for public interest. Many civic tech projects, for example, center around voting. If a campaign for a specific party or politician donated to a civic tech enterprise but on the premise of creating or manipulating an election system that was to a certain individual or party’s favor, then the solution is no longer furthering a progressive and democratic opensource government that was the main goal of civic tech.
While donors in the civic tech space tend to have positive intentions and care deeply about improving government systems for society, outliers and organizations with internal motivations certainly exist. This phenomenon can be seen in many examples within charitable giving. For example, while political donations are seen as charitable gifts, donors often request politicians that certain legislative items be completed first or within standards that benefit the donor. Critics of nonprofit funding in civic tech warn of these potential outcomes.
- Wood, Colin. "What Is Civic Tech?". Govtech, 2022, https://www.govtech.com/civic/what-is-civic-tech.html.
- Stephens, John. "Civic Technology: Open Data And Citizen Volunteers As A Resource For NC Local Governments". Sog.Unc.Edu, 2022, https://www.sog.unc.edu/resources/microsites/civictech.
- "National Day Of Civic Hacking - September 18". National Today, 2022, https://nationaltoday.com/national-civic-day-hacking/.
- "Code For America". Code For America, 2022, https://codeforamerica.org.
- Ad Hoc, 2022, https://adhocteam.us.
- "Courbanize | Community Engagement For Development And Planning". Courbanize, 2022, https://www.courbanize.com.
- "Home - Opengov". Opengov, 2022, https://opengov.com.
- "Home - Open Government Partnership". Open Government Partnership, 2022, https://www.opengovpartnership.org.
- Goldstein, Jacob. "< Fork The Government". Npr.Org, 2020, https://www.npr.org/transcripts/949764249.
- The Asian Foundation. "Asia Foundation And Partners Launch “Shuvayatra,” The Safe Migration App". Asianfoundation.Org, 2016, https://asiafoundation.org/2016/05/18/asia-foundation-partners-launch-shuvayatra-safe-migration-app/.
- "Humanitarian Openstreetmap Team | Nepal". Hotosm.Org, 2022, https://www.hotosm.org/where-we-work/nepal/.
- “Peixoto, Tiago; Sifry, Micah L.. 2017. Civic Tech in the Global South : Assessing Technology for the Public Good. Washington, DC: World Bank and Personal Democracy Press. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/27947 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.”
- "'Nudge Unit' Sold Off To Charity And Employees". BBC News, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-26030205.
- Zapata, Dawn. "New Study Finds AI-Enabled Anti-Black Bias In Recruiting - Thomson Reuters Institute". Thomson Reuters Institute, 2022, https://www.thomsonreuters.com/en-us/posts/legal/ai-enabled-anti-black-bias/.
- Vigdor, Neil. "Apple Card Investigated After Gender Discrimination Complaints (Published 2019)". Nytimes.Com, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/10/business/Apple-credit-card-investigation.html.
- Zeglen, Julie. 2022, https://generocity.org/philly/2018/11/26/3-ethical-considerations-of-civic-tech-open-data-technically-slack-ama/.
- Zeglen, Julie. 2022, https://generocity.org/philly/2018/11/26/3-ethical-considerations-of-civic-tech-open-data-technically-slack-ama/.
- Thankittikasem, Jeff. "Automated Decision Systems Task Force Report". Www1.Nyc.Gov, 2019, https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/adstaskforce/downloads/pdf/ADS-Report-11192019.pdf.
- Committee on Population; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Sharing Research Data to Improve Public Health in Africa: A Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2015 Sep 18. 4, Exploring the Ethical Imperative for Data Sharing. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK321546/
- "Good Practice Principles For Data Ethics In The Public Sector - OECD". Oecd.Org, 2022, https://www.oecd.org/digital/digital-government/good-practice-principles-for-data-ethics-in-the-public-sector.htm.
- "Scaling Civic Tech: Paths To A Sustainable Future". Philanthropy News Digest (PND), 2022, https://philanthropynewsdigest.org/connections/scaling-civic-tech-paths-to-a-sustainable-future.
- "Scaling Civic Tech". How Can We Harness Technology To Promote Civic Engagement And More Responsive Government?, 2022, https://knightfoundation.org/features/civictechbiz/.