How Civics is Permeating Tech

caption for the image 2


Images: Code For America


IF YOU’VE EVER HAD TO PULL A BUILDING PERMIT, apply for unemployment, or even just renew your driver’s license, you’ve probably been frustrated by your interaction with the government. These seemingly mundane transactions frame the majority of our experience with government services. But what if these experiences were actually enjoyable, or at least, far simpler than they currently are? Would changing the way we interact with government raise our appreciation or participation with the systems we live in?The growth and reach of private sector technology is speedily providing us with new ways of communicating and completing business transactions.Internet access can be easier and more accessible on phones than on computers and we can shop, bank and collaborate all through applications.For the most part government services don’t operate like that - at least, not until recently. Many programmers and digital designers are beginning to lift the hood on civic services and operations, and they have much to offer in helping governments catch up to residents’ expectations. The movement, dubbed “civic tech,” has grown rapidly over the past few years and accomplished much in a short time.


Imagine that you’re a city transportation planner. You are tasked with establishing all of the bus routes for your transit agency, and city. Although the process varies, most transit planners will agree that sketching out new bus routes isn’t easy and involves many tools. Here’s what the process might look like.

• If a digital map does not exist, map out the city with a geographic information system (GIS) program or Google Maps.
• Compile your research (traffic analysis zones, vehicle and passenger counts, density mapping, economic studies, etc.).
• Begin sketching routs, most likely by hand on trace paper.
• Input those sketches into Google Earth to calculate distance.
• Copy the numbers into a spreadsheet and calculate cost estimates.
• Open up ArcGIS and convert to a shapefile (a GIS format) for additional data analysis.
• Engage the community by convening community meeting and drawing more maps.
• If approved (which may take years), manage the operations of your city’s bus routes through a massive excel spreadsheet.

2012 Code for America Fellows.

This overview of the transit creation process was made possible by an inquisitive group of technologists who were frustrated with unreliable travel times on their local route to work. The investigation began, and they started building.

One of the most prominent questions in technology is: What is the user need? During a 2014 Code for America Fellowship in San Francisco, these technologists occasionally arrived late to work due to the often delayed buses; they targeted transit planners as those they could help and began conducting interviews across the globe. After identifying the process, they built a basic tool and tested it with those they interviewed. They continued to improve the product, first called Transitmix, and released a beta version in June 2014. The company recently renamed Remix, is both a public-facing and back-of-house transit planning tool that automatically calculates route times and costs in real time as any user drags their cursor across the screen drawing new transit routes. Its simple design invites the public to redesign bus routes and allows people to get under the hood and really understand the fiscal and social consequences of even simple route alterations.

Four months after it was launched, 30,000 remix maps were created in over 3,600 cities around the world. They were drawn by people with an interest in their cities’ transportation systems, and planners that have been waiting for a an efficient, effective, and easy-to-use interface for this otherwise arduous process. The remix team designed the tool so people could enjoy their participation with this government service, while also making it more efficient for internal operations. It is important to note that remix is only made possible because the city collects and makes public its real time data from buses and trains. Thanks to the general transit feed specification (GTFS) for publishing this data, nearly every city’s data looks the same and thus can be input easily into the remix platform. The rapid spread of remix is possible because transit agencies around the world have been adopting the GTFS format for the past decade.

“Helping governments catch up to residents’ expectations”

Code for America Founder Jeh Pahlka at the 2014 Summit.
2014 Code for America Fellows Summit.

"Government should act as a producer of data for the public to build upon"


The design of remix is based on a simple idea, one with a potentially massive impact on the way municipalities operate: Government should act as a producer of data for the public to build upon, thereby improving society faster and better than government could on its own. The founder of the open-source publication company O’Reilly Media, a strong advocate for open government, and a convener of government innovators, Tim O’Reilly has been a leader in this realm and can be seen as helping to establish the origins of the civic tech movement.

2013 Code for America Fellows in the San Francisco Headquarters.

A 30k foot view of the civic tech movement as well as the heartfelt motives behind the delivery of technology at a human scale are important to distinguish for a rounded comprehension of activities.

High Level: In his book Open Government, O’Reilly states that “information produced by and on behalf of citizens is the lifeblood of the economy and the nation; government has a responsibility to treat that information as a national asset.”

O’Reilly continues by asking some basic questions about what he calls Government 2.0:

• How does government become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate?
• How do you design a system in which all of the outcomes aren’t specified beforehand, but instead evolve through interactions between government and its citizens, as a service provider enabling its user community?

A successful example of a platform is the Apple App Store. Instead of designing all of the applications for its hardware and operating system, Apple created a marketplace (the platform) for anyone to build programs for the greater community, thereby fostering the explosive app industry.

Human Scale: In his post “People, Not Data,” civic technologist Jacob Solomon elaborates on a basic question: How can we build empathetic government services? “It’s not about innovation, big data, government-asa- platform, transparency, crowdfunding, open data, or civic tech,” Solomon writes. “It’s about people. Learning to prioritize people and their needs will be a long slog. It’s the kind of change that happens slowly, one person at a time.But we should start.”

In an example of practicing what you preach, Solomon along with Andy Hull, Rebecca Ackerman and Marc Hebert designed and helped implement a simple text-messaging service for the Human Services Agency of San Francisco while they were fellows at Code for America.Many in the civic tech movement strive to work directly with leadership at the city, county and state levels while simultaneously energizing the community to approach these issues from the grassroots. Governments are continually asked to do more with less, and the pressure to deliver only mounts. Many are stepping up to meet the challenge, and entrepreneurial civic employees, volunteers, and private companies are adopting similar missions, aiming to make government more efficient, effective, easy to use and beautiful.

Civic technologists have the privilege of seeing government services at a high level, across various departments and silos. This enables them to first articulate what an entire process looks like. Once the service is defined clearly, technologists, in partnership with civil servants, can begin identifying the gaps, and redundancies. Through many tests, iterations, and learning by putting products in front of real people, the ideal process can be developed, so the end user - the resident - can get what they need, when they need it

Many organizations around the globe are contributing to this movement. MySociety in the UK, the Sunlight Foundation, the Bloomberg Foundation and one non-profit called Code for America (full disclosure, the author is a staff member at Code for America) here in the US are all developing different approaches to making government more effective. Some of the notable official offices that have been devoted to improving government technology include The Office for New Urban Mechanics, offices of data and business analytics and newer appointees of Chief Innovation and Chief Data Officers in many municipalities. At the federal level there are the recently launched Government Digital Services, 18F and other operations in the General Services Administration (GSA).

“Government can work for the people, by the people, in the 21st century”

2012 Code for America Fellow Michelle Lee flyering for their engagement tool - Textizen.


For the past five years, the nonprofit Code for America has been a mainstay of the civic tech movement. Although it can’t trace its roots back to a garage in Palo Alto, Calif., Code for America was first conceived at a backyard barbecue. Founder Jen Pahlka was chatting with the chief of staff for Tucson, Ariz.’s mayor in the summer of 2010, when a discussion about resident and staff frustration over the cumbersome pothole-repair
process spiraled into a brainstorming session that landed on a solid idea:What if cities could hire programmers and others for a tour of duty to see if technology could improve civic engagement and service delivery? In January 2011, Code for America launched with its Fellowship program in three cities: Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle. These three cities took the leap experimenting with an emergent outcome-based approach using technology. Each of those cities received a cohort of back-end developers, digital designers, and user researchers to dive into the depths of civic services. Much appreciated applications were developed, showing that good technology could be created for cheaper and quicker than with the traditional legacy vendor process.

The underlying vision of Code for America is that government can work for the people, by the people, in the 21st century. Making our government work involves empowering citizens to participate in the design and development of basic services and operations. This is why the organization has expanded since that first class of fellows, and now includes many other outlets to engage with, design with, criticize, build for, and befriend local government. Code for America only works with 5 - 10 cities a year in its fellowship program, to grow the scale of impact the organization also coordinates a grassroots volunteer network for other civic technologists to engage their local municipalities. Called the Brigade — after Benjamin Franklin’s volunteer firefighting outfits — these local volunteer groups have forged strong bonds with their local municipalities by creating a safe space for residents, local technologists, and civil servants to gather and address local challenges. After five years, more than 100 fellows, thousands of volunteers, 30 municipal partners, and many dozens of applications developed, Code for America is forming a set of digital practices for 21st century governments.The organization acknowledges that these principals are organic and will evolve, but they have also become a benchmark. With these practices as the cornerstone of its efforts, Code for America helps guide governments, communities and companies toward a shared idea of what it means to have a government that “works” in the 21st century.

All 7 digital Practices – found here

Characteristics of design, data-based decision-making, and empathy for the end user are at the core of the civic tech movement — methodologies that are present in the impact design, human-centered design, and community design realms. When looking at the civic tech movement and its focus on improving governance and civic services, it becomes more apparent that much of the work we have been largely doing in the developing world is equally applicable in our own backyard. Redefining the way government can function is a momentous task. We are all affected by this change, we are also participants in it - and there is infinite room to grow.

- Tiffany Chu. “Planning Beyond Paper” in Civic Quaterly, Fall 2014.
- Jacob Solomon. “People, Not Data,”
- Tim O’Reilly. “Open Government”