A ‘Civic Tech’ road less travelled
You can have the best developers and the most creative design team, but if you don't know exactly what the user wants, what the problem you want to solve is, or the journey that must be taken to get there — designing a system best fit to address these problems is difficult.
Working in Civic Tech has confirmed for me the potential of having a multidisciplinary team exploring complicated social issues, as each member's skills enhance and play a significant role in a project's success. A project's inception begins with the Product Owners’ (POs) understanding, vision and creativity. From there it is the role of the Project Managers' (PMs) to assemble the team and provide them with the guidance, support and attention to important project details. With these capacities filled, the design and development teams’ working on projects are able to apply their technical abilities, knowledge and skills to execute the intended project visions. This is one example of many showing how multidisciplinary teams can work collaboratively to solve social problems.
So where do researchers fit in?
The more I learn, the more I realise researchers are not problem solvers but rather problem and solution explorers. In the product development space the researcher’s role is to apply ‘best fit’ methodologies to collect project information from a variety of different sources. By collecting valuable project information the team is better equipped to explore the nature of the issue, as they have the necessary information and resources to test their assumptions.
Dealing with social problems that are not easily solved requires in-depth thought, planning and iterative development: this is what makes research a vital part of the Civic Tech process. Working as a researcher in this space has changed the way that I look at social issues. I am no longer able to look at a social problem without realising the frequently accompanying data challenges. For me, our unique approach of extracting data, and making it more accessible, positions us to strongly work to unpack and challenge complex social issues.
A different type of data
Civic Tech Researcher is an exciting space to work in, as it allows us to grapple with social issues, through a hybrid application of data driven technology and human action focused research methodologies. This is all done within a sector where we are constantly learning in our social projects how best technology might be used to solve these societal issues.
Although coming into the Civic Tech space may seem worlds apart from my life as a counsellor, I have come to realise the two fields share a lot of similarities. In my experience as both a researcher and a counsellor, it is important to explore and understand the problem from the context of the person that you are trying to help. In both fields I have worked within a human centered modality that places clients or users as of central importance.
There are many soft skills that also overlap in research and counselling, such as the ability to listen, adapt and pivot when needed. The skills used to explore and understand clients' stories are not so different to those used to explore the needs of users. Some other similarities that I’ve experienced are:
- In counseling clients would be aware of what the problem that needed solving was, but were unsure of the solution, or how to find it. This experience is similar to working in Civic Tech, where the users may have a key understanding of the problem, but are not sure how technology can be used to address the problem. Our role in both situations is to help make those connections.
- Another similarity is the client's ability to root out what the cause of these issues stem from, without enough information from the outside. The same goes in Civic Tech; although there is a ground level understanding of the problem, often more data needs to be collected to back up the understanding of the problem. Often Civic Tech organisations specialise in making data available to both government and residents. In both cases an “opening up” and exploration of information is crucial to success.
- Collaborative problem solving is a big part of the work that both researchers and counsellors do. As I explained, you can have the best developers and the best design team, but if you do not know exactly what the user wants (or what the problem you want to solve is) developing the best fit solution is difficult. The same goes with counsellors, as they are only able to provide support with the information given to them by their client and therefore must work collaboratively with their client to problem explore and solve.
But whose data is it anyway?
A civic tech projects' purpose is to enhance the relationship of residents and their government with the incorporation of bespoke software for communications, decision-making, service delivery, and political process. Often, we see examples, or hear stories of how personal data is used to influence human action through persuasive marketing or voting - but I have learnt that these same digital data systems can also be used to develop and improve society, so why not use it for good?
The Civic Tech field has increased my understanding of how technology can be used to understand social problems. Where counsellors’ only have the ability to work with one person or small groups and their data, technology can be used as a wider net to help collect and make sense of the data of millions.
This is something that I find exciting about using technology when working with societal issues is its ability to scale up almost seamlessly — this scalability allows for products and programs to grow without having to expand implementation capacities at the same rate.
By creating dynamic feedback loops of important project data we are more informed when:
- Developing the best suited approach/methodology to the research to address complex societal issues;
- Creating a sense of interconnectedness between the project team, and the target population or key stakeholders;
- Giving our opinion or disagreeing on certain product ideas and the ability to test these assumptions and
- Testing experimental product design and implementation.
Working on projects I have learnt that the best way to do this is by understanding the data and in cases where no data exists - developing a system for creating it. Working in Civic Tech I have experienced first-hand the numerous improvements that have been made in areas with the addition of technology focused on data. I have learnt how a number of issues that people are experiencing can be assisted or solved with the incorporation of technology.