Dec. 7, 2017 1:41 pm

What does ‘civic tech’ really mean? Philly technologists weigh in

Who's in the tent, according to Azavea's Robert Cheetham, Fixlist's Stacey Mosley and Mjumbe Poe, and Protocol Labs' Michelle Lee in honor of Code for Philly's fifth anniversary.

Code for Philly's 2016 City as a Service Hackathon.

(Photo by Katie Wisniewski)

Generocity is serving as a media partner for the Code for Philly Bash presented by AT&T.
In 2015, Forbes called civic tech “the next big thing” in venture capital.

But by that time, a civic-tech community had been bubbling in Philadelphia for years — not for its profit potential, but for its community of urbanists and data geeks who shared a love for the city and the potential for serving the greater good.

At its simplest,”civic tech” is the intersection of local government and technology, including the people working in both groups.

  • It’s city departments like the Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT), Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation (ODDT) and the now-defunct Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM).
  • It’s open data, the practice of city employees releasing city data sets to the public for the sake of transparency (and so they can be put to good use).
  • It’s projects like SmartCityPHL, led by OIT staffer Ellen Hwang, which seeks to leverage technology and the Internet of Things for more inclusive city services.
  • It’s Code for Philly, the volunteer civic hacking group that hosts project-based hackathons and regular meetups to improve city services, among other things.

Civic tech “is often experimental, in a sense of not being squeamish about trying things that hadn’t been tried,” said FixList CTO Mjumbe Poe, who started his career as a social sciences researcher before joining the inaugural Code for America fellowship class in 2011.

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“It’s aware that the way that things are done currently is not necessarily the best way that they could be, and in pursuit of doing things a better way, it has to experiment,” said Poe. “It has to try something new, or at least take something that works in other places and apply it to something new.”

This winter is Code for Philly’s five-year anniversary, and over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a short series on the community that has formed in that time — plus, what was percolating beforehand to get it there, and what’s next.

First, though, who’s in the tent?

At a Code for Philly hackathon earlier this year.

At a Code for Philly hackathon earlier this year. (Photo by Chris Kendig)

FixList’s Poe said the civic-tech community has widened in the past few years to include technologists beyond those employed by the City of Philadelphia.

“Not long ago I might have thought it was just the people [working] in ODDT,” he said. Now, though, “I think civic tech is as much an approach to technology as it is a particular set of tools.” Above all, civic technologists should be “user-focused.”

Robert Cheetham, founder and president of GIS mapping firm Azavea, said he thinks of it as he does any community: a “group of people working toward a common interest — in this case the application of tech for positive civic impact.”

Those included may sometimes be in competition or otherwise adversarial, but they always share an interest in improving civic life in a given community, said the “godfather of open data.”

Stacey Mosley, founder and CEO of FixList, who worked for the City of Philadelphia’s open data team and L&I for five years before founding the real estate tech company, said a shoutout needs to go to technologists who aren’t necessarily a part of the open data scene.

“I think really important change will happen with technologists working for city government” — but, she said, too, “profound work can be done outside city government.” She sees citizen technologists as a separate group whose work can supplement that of those working inside.

Michelle Lee, also a Code for America alum who went on to found civic tech platform Textizen and now works for data company Protocol Labs remotely, said civic tech in Philly “has undergone a couple incarnations.”

Early on, she said, it was led by MONUM, a “unicorn” of city government. As folks like Chief Data Officer Mark Headd — who said during his 2014 farewell that “Philly is to civic technology what Nashville is to country music” — and current Director of Civic Technology Tim Wisniewski were hired and the city’s open data office was expanded, civic tech became more of a priority within City Hall.

Nowadays, projects like GovLabPHL and the PHL Participatory Design Lab are breaking down barriers between government and its citizens; incoming city controller Rebecca Rhynhart, too, can be considered a “champion of new tech,” Lee said.

As sister site Philly explored last year, the future of civic tech is in flux. Look out for our own examination of those changes next week.


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