Nov. 26, 2018 11:48 am

3 ethical considerations of civic tech

Some local gov staffers and technologists see potential in tech's role as a tool for civic engagement. Some, a booster of efficiency. What trends should Philadelphians watch out for?

Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski announcing the new site.

(Photo by Roberto Torres)

Last week, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation announced some big news: It’s undergoing a restructuring, and beloved Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski will be leaving at the end of the year.

Luckily for us, Generocity and caught the civic tech realLIST honoree before he heads across the pond to London: He joined us alongside a handful of other local gov staffers and technologists to talk civic tech and open data via a Slack AMA on Nov. 16.

The conversation ranged from on-ramps to the world of open data to favorite data sets to what the heck we even mean by “civic tech.” Some definitions from the pros:

Civic tech is B2B and B2C, but for government.

“Over the past few years I’ve seen specialization in 2 directions: gov-to-citizen interactions (focused on improving the citizen experience), and gov-to-gov interactions (focused on improving behind-the-scenes operations, within and between agencies),” wrote local technologist, former Code for America fellow and fellow realLIST honoree Michelle Lee.

Gov-to-citizen might mean improving the user experience, while gov-to-gov might mean upgrading the back-office IT systems fueling operations.

Civic tech is a unifier.

“One definition I’ve used is roughly that it’s applying the skills and approaches you see at modern design and tech companies to government and community building,” Wisniewski wrote. “So much of what goes in to civic tech is bringing people together who may not otherwise interact.”

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Civic tech is like the Peace Corps.

“It’s a volunteer-level commitment to use your skills and insights drawn from technical fields to solve a civic problem or help out an organization or the gov meet a specific need or set of needs,” said Chief Innovation Officer Mark Wheeler.

Civic tech is A LOT.

“I think part of the problem is there’s SO MUCH that fits under the ‘civic tech’ umbrella now that has branched out in ways [Lee] mentioned that it can get confusing,” said Code for Philly co-director Toni McIntyre. “At Code for Philly I just like to say that civic tech is simply the application of technology to answer a civic need or solve a civic problem.”


Once we got the basics out of the way, the digital conversation covered many bases, including some ethical considerations of this work. Here are three discussed by our AMA participants.

1. The sector will use artificial intelligence more and more …

Participant Melody asked: “What new opportunities in civic tech do you see with emerging technologies (especially AI) as it becomes more accessible to everyone?”

Lee noted that artificial intelligence “can be used to synthesize information or scale routine tasks. One example is case management. Research shows that small, frequent, bite-sized interactions can have a huge impact. AI could automate some of those interactions.”

Local technologist Jess Mason shouted out his own Cypher Philly, an open-source web application that can connect the dots between data sets meant for transparency and higher government efficiency.

Mason said the meetup group that inspired the app, Philly GraphDB, “is becoming ever more integrated with new technology advancements that we can share with the public. Some of these open source advancements give the public access to tools like Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Predictive Analytics, Deep learning[,] recommendation engines, Prescriptive Analytics, etc.”

And participant Jacqueline Harris also noted: “Legal Tech trends are all about AI organizing volumes of case data.”

2. … which means this community must continue to grapple with the risks of predictive algorithms.

Robert Cheetham, known as the founder of GIS and mapping company Azavea as well as Philly’s modern civic-tech community (per our realLIST profile of him), discussed the opportunities and potential pitfalls of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.

Applications for this tech could include drone and satellite mapping, analysis of the crime reduction efforts’ efficiency and crime report predictions, he said. However, “I think AI is going to present some significant civil rights concerns in policing, justice, and human services, in particular,” including the “‘heat lists’ of potential ‘criminals’ that were used in Chicago.” Philly has reported on the topic extensively:

Cheetham said that to mitigate the associated risks, cities “are going to need to require greater transparency and scrutiny from vendors that sell this type of technology (or even tech they develop themselves). A model to watch in the next year will be New York City’s experiment with [a] city ordinance addressing transparency in civic technology that affects individuals.”

3. This work can be a tool for increasing civic engagement.

Wisniewski emphasized that civic tech solutions often come from those aforementioned volunteers who aren’t paid to think about them.

“The great thing about civic tech is that people inside government don’t have to come up with the ideas!” he said.

At a recent Code for Philly hack night, for instance, attendees were invited to “use open source tools to end gerrymandering” in partnership with the Draw the Lines PA Mapathon initiative, and 2017’s monthlong Civic Engagement Launchpad invited technologists on a “project-launching sprint focused on improving democratic systems and creating tools for greater civic engagement.”

Read more AMA participants’ suggestions for getting for non-technologists involved in civic tech in Philly’s recap.


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