The school of Civic Tech

Calyn Pillay reflects on her year spent in the civic tech space, and the five most critical lessons she learnt during that time

Recently as a Researcher for OpenUp, I attended The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTec) held in Paris, which brings together researchers and practitioners to examine what works, what doesn’t, and how best to measure it. After the conference I began reflecting on my last year in the civic tech space, these are the five most critical lessons I’ve learnt during that time:

  • Lesson 1: Due to the ubiquitous presence of technology in our lives, we don’t pause to ask what impact is it having?
  • Lesson 2: Technology alone is not going to solve our problems!
  • Lesson 3: Technology needs to be embedded within an ecosystem and might need to work in conjunction with offline tools to be more impactful.
  • Lesson 4: Take time to know who you are trying to help.
  • Lesson 5: Be patient with all that is unsolved in the field.

Lesson 1: Due to the ubiquitous nature of technology in our lives, we don’t pause to ask what impact is it having?

Earning a postgraduate degree at the University of Cape Town, in Transitional Justice (TJ), includes hundreds (read: several) of weekly readings. During my coursework in 2018, I began to notice a trend — the use of technology to ‘solve’ (as it seemed to me then) issues in the TJ field. Take for example, that in 2017 the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued its first arrest warrant based largely on evidence collected from social media. This involved a number of other tech-related processes — verifying the meta-tagging on the images and videos, running simulations of the events to pinpoint the time and date of the events. The ICC prosecution employed a host of new technologies to understand and to demonstrate the crimes that had been committed.

Suddenly, my initial observations had transformed me from an honours student, intrigued by the innovative and pervasive nature of these tech approaches, to being enamoured by the potential of technology to solve social issues. I tried to explore this within my degree, however, I found that the TJ field had not yet grappled with this topic sufficiently. This led me to my first lesson, often due to the ubiquitous nature of technology in our lives, we don’t pause to ask what impact is it having? Is this good? What might be the potential drawbacks? Facebook in 2016 is an example of this, with over 1.5 billion users (Statisa) the platform for social connection proved it could cause harm, division and impact politics in unprecedented ways.

Lesson 2: Technology alone is not going to solve our problems!

I was lucky enough, in the same year to get an internship at OpenUp. When I started my internship I thought — I’ll finally understand how technology was solving these messy social problems, that I had spent so much time discussing during my TJ degree. OpenUp would teach me the exact opposite. This is the second lesson I’ve learnt over the last year — technology alone is not going to solve our problems! We can’t wait around for the perfect algorithm or artificial intelligence to figure it out. Rather, technology and data help us get there.

The clearest example of this is the Accountability Stack -Evictions project I worked on as an intern. There are groups of people in South Africa that live one emergency away from homelessness — typically those who experienced the dispossession and structural violence of the previous undemocratic regimes — black, poor, rural and informal-urban communities- as well as newer marginalized groups, including internal and cross-border migrants, and legal and undocumented refugees. The Evictions Project tries to intervene in their eviction process before they end up homeless, by informing them of their rights and empowering them to seek help.

Technology can help us collect their data, interpret the information, and can be part of the solution. However, humans are needed to design the systems, look at the information, and choose a way forward. This meant that throughout the process there were ways we could get it wrong, opportunities to do better and work to be done.

Lesson 3: Technology needs to be embedded within an ecosystem* and might need to work in conjunction with offline tools to be more impactful.

The ‘lets throw an app at the problem’ approach might have been to develop an app that educates the evictees in the Evictions Project on their constitutional rights and about the PIE act. Instead by working with Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU), an activist organisation and law centre that works to advance urban land justice in Cape Town, OpenUp positioned its solution — an eviction guide and website combination — alongside the current efforts of the civil society organisation which allowed it to leverage the insights, processes, and citizens already active in the space. We did not have to spend additional resources trying to cultivate this community around our tools. Here in lies the third lesson I’ve learnt — technology needs to be embedded within an ecosystem and needs to work in conjunction with offline tools and individuals working in those systems to be more impactful.

Ecosystem*: a complex network or interconnected system (thanks google).

Lesson 4: Take the time to know who you are trying to help.

While working on the Eviction Project, I learnt the fourth lesson — take time to know who you are trying to help. There was a time early on in the project when I honestly did not understand why I found myself at an Advice Assembly in Woodstock at 7 pm or in Cape Town Magistrates Court at 9 am.

These experiences presented me with numerous challenges — legal processes I didn’t know, spaces I had not participated in, and individuals whom I would not have interacted with in my regular student life. However, when the Evictions team began discussing the potential solutions — these were the experiences I drew most heavily from. Having been to court I could understand and recall better what might be the procedural difficulties evictees felt — heck, I had felt some of these myself.

Having gone to the Advice Assembly I got listen to, begin to understand, and interact with the people whom our evictions project was trying to help. This helped me shed my “enamoured attitude” — technology could only solve these problems as well as we could leverage it to help these evictees. If we never took time to understand the people, how they use technology, and the environment the technology would operate in, we may have created a high tech solution that none of the low-income evictees would have enough data to use.

Even though I had learnt these four lessons and had gotten to see the reality of designing and implementing tech for social good, there was still a part of me that held onto the hope of a ‘simple solution’. Going to the TICTec conference I thought I’d come back with better insights and learnings that would help me find that simple solution. Instead, I found myself being reassured by the questions left open ended and by the ongoing introspection and reinventing by experts and novices in the field. It felt as if my own journey with civic tech had been a microcosm for what the broader community had experienced. Together we had gone from believing apps could save the world, to realising the value of embedding our tools in ecosystems and coupling them with offline tools and human support.

Lesson 5: Be patient with all that is unsolved in the field.

We are now embarking on this new journey — the Third Age of Civic Tech — together. We have learnt that some of our assumptions were wrong, and that we need to reevaluate other assumptions. To do this, I drew on the fifth lesson I’m currently practising — to be patient with all that is unsolved in the field, to appreciate the questions, and to be willing to contribute to the discussions that can help us discover and understand more. I feel a new kind of excitement, different from my earlier enamoured excitement. A year later- I feel a resilient kind of excitement- there is much we don’t know but we are beginning to ask better questions.

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