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Bad Technology Is Failing Good People -- But That's Changing

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 5/11/2015 Alexander Howard
ATHENA IMAGE © m-gucci via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

The software people must use to register for food stamps should be just as user-friendly as ordering a car through Uber. Today, it’s not, but there’s hope for the people trapped in bad code. That's where "civic technology" comes in.

Broadly defined as any tool or process that individuals, groups and governments use to affect the public arena, civic tech is really about using technology for public good, driven by the demonstrated needs of people. Old-school examples are public numbers like 911 emergency services and 311 municipal information. Online ballot guides and services that locate nearby polling places are newer ones.

Not every project is a home run -- plenty are poorly conceived or misdirected -- but the ones that work make life a little easier for the people who use them. And as more cities around the world embark on civic tech projects, the next big challenge will be to make sure everyone, not just the elites, have access to high-quality, solutions-based projects focused on their needs. 

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith sees great promise in such programs. "I was there at the beginning of the smart phone, the beginning of open source. I think this is like that. It's the start of something much bigger," she told me last week in Mexico City, where we attended the annual Open Government Partnership Summit.

During the conference, I moderated a panel on civic tech that explored some of the tensions and opportunities in the space. If you watch the discussion, embedded below, you'll hear perspectives on civic technology from two startup founders, a senior vice president from Microsoft, an Estonian diplomat and a software developer, along with yours truly: 

 Jump ahead in the program to 2:01:46 to listen in.

(Disclosure: As in 2012 and 2013, the Open Government Partnership Support Unit supported my travel to the summit as a member of U.S. civil society.)

But you don't need to sit through our conference panel to know that there's a range of opinions on what civic tech is or will be, and that the contexts for its application will vary among different cultures and societies. What's certain is that these kinds of programs and projects are more possible now than ever before, with a rapidly expanding number of participants.

For decades, every level of government has been trying to figure out how to use the Internet, as it became crystal clear that the "information superhighway" of the 1990s would not only endure but drive some of human history's biggest changes in how and where we live, play, work and govern. 

In 2015, the information technology revolution has dramatically changed the context for how cities deliver services, engage the public and govern. Around the world, governments are looking for more effective ways to tap into the the potential of modern technologies to meet the demands of growing populations in cities, where the majority of humanity now lives. 

Whether people are are using social media, mobile devices, data analytics or competitions, every city and state around the world is now a laboratory for experiments in governance. Some are democratic; others much less so -- think China's Great Firewall or surveillance gear that intelligence services in autocracies use to monitor and arrest activists.

Outside of government, there are foundations, media companies, nonprofits, schools, startups and venture capitalists building and investing with an eye on profit, social impact and accountability. The Huffington Post's readers may know civic startups like SeeClickFix, which makes software to report non-emergency issues in cities, or Brigade, which is trying to reboot democratic engagement in America.

Despite the U.S. government's role in creating the Internet, however, building websites, applications and web services that make the most of it hasn't always worked out well. Just ask President Barack Obama about Healthcare.gov , or the challenges with buying and building IT that his administration has tried to address in the years since.  

The best city governments design apps, websites and services to solve pressing problems. The laggards post fax numbers online.

States aren't often much better off, similarly encumbered with maintaining agencies' legacy IT systems and answering to cultures that may not attract and retain ambitious technologists, as well as operating under rules that favor incumbent contractors who are great at writing proposals but limited in their capacity to deliver on them.

These aren't unknown problems, as I've heard from dedicated public servants who have been working to address them for years, but it's important context to consider the next time you encounter a buggy app or website that doesn't play well with your mobile device. 

Over the years, I've found many of the most compelling stories are emerging at the local level, where most people encounter government daily. On a millennial scale, city governments have been building technology to serve residents as long as they have existed -- from the Acta Diurna announcing the day's news in the Roman Forum, to signposts on the roadways built in ancient China or the Mayan empire.

Today, the best city governments are designing apps, websites and services to solve pressing problems with

the people they serve, not for them. The laggards are still posting fax numbers online, failing to protect their citizens' privacy and wasting taxpayer dollars by conducting business as usual.

On that count, here's a key issue for the area: A new research report from MySociety on a selected group of civic technology platforms around the world suggests that the people currently using them are, with the exception of the United States, mostly highly educated men. If civic technologies simply empower the already empowered elites in society, cities are failing their people.

That's a huge problem. Poorly designed digital services have a disproportionate impact on city residents who have the least, who have little choice but to depend on those services and are trapped in within the systems. 

We need to do better.

In the coming months, HuffPost is going to be focusing more on finding and telling stories about what's working in cities. Whether you're building or using civic technology, we want to hear from you about what you're doing or experiencing.  My inbox is always open at alexander@huffingtonpost.com

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