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Civic technology

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Civic technology is technology (mainly information technology) that enables engagement or participation of the public for stronger development, enhancing citizen communications, improving government infrastructure, and generally improving the public good.[1][2][3] It encompasses civic applications, platforms supporting government bodies, institutions and other software enabling those goals.



Civic technology has had increasing promise and importance with time, as we currently live in a digital age, a period in which digital communications are the foundation for political and economic exchanges.[4] As advanced technologies become commonplace in society and available throughout the population, many local governments and officials have begun utilizing them for public outreach and feedback. Specifically, the Internet is being used more for communication between governing officials and citizens.

Breakthrough events in Civic TechnologyEdit

The Obama-Biden administration utilized civic tech strategies in order to facilitate political participation of the average citizen.[5] And local events known as "hackathons" are often hosted by tech-savvy groups of people with experience in fields such as computer programming, graphic design, and hardware and software programming. Hackathons focus on bettering software to make it more user friendly and easier for members of the community to access.

Another huge part of modern civic technology is social media. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter allow citizens from all over the U.S. and the world to communicate and share information. News outlets, such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have their own Facebook and Twitter accounts which allow them to post news articles to the sites. This creates an environment in which individuals have nearly instant access to news. These social media outlets also have mobile apps which allow users to access information from nearly anywhere on their phones, tablets, and laptops, making the sharing of information essentially instantaneous.

According to a study conducted by the International Data Corporation (IDC), an estimated $6.4 billion will be spent on civic technology in 2015 out of approximately $25.5 billion that governments in the United States will spend on external-facing technology projects.[6][7] A Knight Foundation survey of the civic technology field found that the number of civic technology companies grew by roughly 23% annually between 2008 and 2013.[8]

Span of the civic technology spaceEdit

A 2013 report from the Knight Foundation attempts to map different focuses within the civic technology space. It broadly categorizes civic technology projects into two categories: open government and community action.[9]

Open government:

  • Data access and transparency
  • Voting
  • Visualization and mapping
  • Data utility
  • Resident feedback
  • Public decision making

Community action:

Within the Knight Foundation, they "care about ensuring that people have access to the news and information that they need to lead their lives in a democracy." [10] They seek to establish a precedent of accessibility to information and the sharing of these sources for the common benefit of the people. With this accessibility, they enable for a more transparent, open system of sharing information for the benefit of more insightful, informed users and citizens that can engage more often in political and social matters that pertain to their concerns and to their lives.

OneBusAway, a mobile app that displays real-time transit info, exemplifies the open data use of civic technology. It is maintained by volunteers and has the civic utility of helping people navigate their way through cities. It follows the idea that technology can be a tool for which government can act as a society-equalizer.[11]

Citizens are also now given access to their representatives through social media. They are able to express their concerns directly to government officials through sites like Twitter and Facebook. There have even been past cases of online voting being a polling option for local elections, which have seen vastly increased turnouts, such as in an Arizona election in 2000 which saw a turnout double that of the previous election. It is asserted though that civic technology in government provides for a good management technique but lacks in providing fair democratic representation.[12] Social media is also becoming a growing aspect of government, towards furthering the communication between the government and its citizenry and towards greater transparency within the governmental sectors.[13] This innovation is facilitating a change towards a more progressive and open government, based on civic engagement and technology for the people. With social media as a communicating platform, it enables the government to provide information to the constituents and citizens on the legislative processes and what is occurring in the Congress, for the sake of the citizens' concerns with the government procedures.

The definition of what constitutes civic technology is contested to a certain extent,[6] especially with regards to companies engaged in the sharing or access economy, such as Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb. For example, AirBnb's ability to provide New York residents with housing during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy could be considered a form of civic technology.[14] However, Nathaniel Heller, Managing Director of the Research for Development Institute's Governance Program contends that for-profit platforms definitively fall outside of the scope of civic technology: Heller has said that "while citizen-to-citizen sharing is indeed involved, the mission of these companies is focused on maximizing profit for their investors, not any sort of experiment in building social capital."[15] From a goal perspective, civic technology can be understood as “the use of technology for the public good”.[16]

Microsoft’s Technology & Civic Engagement Team have attempted to produce a precise taxonomy of civic technology through a bottom-up approach. They inventoried the existing initiatives and classified them according to:

  • their functions
  • the social processes they involved
  • their users and customers
  • the degree of change they sought
  • the depth of the technology.

Microsoft's Civic Graph is guiding the developing network of civic innovators, expanding "its visualizations of funding, data usage, collaboration and even influence" [17] It is a new tool that is opening up the access to track the world of civic technology towards improving the credibility and progress of this sector. This graph will enable more opportunities for access by governmental institutions and corporations to discover these innovators and use them for progressing society towards the future of technology and civic engagement. To create an informed and insightful community, there needs to be a sense of civic engagement in this community, where there is the sharing of information through civic technology platforms and applications.[18] "Community engagement applied to public-interest technology requires that members of a community participate." [18] With communal participation in civic tech platforms, this enables more informed residents to convene in a more engaged, unified community that seeks to share information, politically and socially, for the benefit of its citizenry and their concerns.

This work resulted in a field guide.

The Technology & Civic Engagement Team have also produced a network visualization tool for civic technology organizations, Civic Graph.

Technology that is designed to benefit the citizenry places the governments under pressure "to change and innovate the way in which their bureaucracies relate to citizens." [19] E-government initiatives have been established and supported in order to strengthen the democratic values of governmental institutions, which can include Transparency, along with improving the efficiency of the legislative processes to make the government more accountable and reactive to citizens' concerns. These will further civic engagement within the political spectrum for the sake of greater Direct representation and a more democratic political system.

Civic tech around the worldEdit

A worldwide organization for civic tech is the Open Government Partnership (OGP). It “is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”[20] Created in 2011 by eight founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States), the OGP gathers every year for a summit. Countries involved are located mainly in America (North and South), Europe and South-Asia (Indonesia, Australia, South Korea). Only a few African countries are part of the OGP, though South Africa is one of the founding countries.

Technological progress is rampant throughout the nations of the world, but there are dividing efforts and adoption techniques in how rapid certain countries are progressing compared to others.[21] How countries are able to use information pertains to how devoted nations are to integrating technology into the lives of their citizens and businesses. Local and national governments are funding tens of billions of dollars towards information technology, for the sake of improving the functions and operations of this technology to work for the people and the governments.[22] With more governments attaining a grasp on these technologies, it is paving the way towards more progressive and democratic political systems, for the concerns of future society and for those of the citizens of these nations.



The vTaiwan (v for virtual) was created collaboratively by members of the open source community and Taiwan’s government.[23] They use a conversation tool called that leverages machine learning to scale online discussion.[24]


Citizen-led initiativesEdit

A platform and proposed political party called MiVote[25] has a mobile app for citizens to learn about policy and cast their vote for the policies they support.[26] MiVote politicians elected to office would then vote in support of the majority position of the people using the app.[27]



In 2013 the online platform People’s Assembly (Rahvakogu)[28] was launched for crowdsourcing ideas and proposals to amend Estonia’s electoral laws, political party law, and other issues related to democracy.[29]


The most dynamic French city regarding civic tech is Paris, with many initiatives moving in the Sentier, a neighborhood known for being a tech hub.[30] According to Le Monde, French civic tech is “already a reality” but lacks investments to scale up.[31]

Government-led initiativesEdit

In France, public data are available on[32] by the Etalab[33] mission, located under the authority of the Prime Minister.

Government agencies are also leading large citizen consultation through the Conseil national du numérique[34] (National digital council), for example with the law about the digital republic (Projet de loi pour une république numérique).

Citizen-led initiativesEdit

The French citizen community for civic tech is gathered in the collective Démocratie ouverte[35] (Open democracy). The main purpose of this collective is to enhance democracy to increase citizen power, improve the way to decide collectively and update the political system. Démocratie ouverte gathers many projects focusing on :

  • Understand politics,
  • Renew institutions,
  • Participate to democracy,
  • Control public action.

Several open-source, non-profit web platforms have been launched nationwide to support citizen's direct involvement:[36],[37] as well as Democracy OS France (derived from the Argentinian initiative).


The Icelandic constitutional reform, 2010–13 instituted a process for reviewing and redrafting their constitution after the 2008 financial crisis, using social media to gather feedback on twelve successive drafts.[38]

Beginning in October 2011, a platform called BetriReykjavik[39] had been implemented for citizens to inform each other and vote on issues.[40]

The Pirate Party (Iceland) uses the crowdsourcing platform Píratar[41] for members to create party policies.


Citizen-led initiativesEdit

A consortium made by TOP-IX,[42] FBK[43] and RENA[44] created the Italian civic tech school.[45]

The first edition[46] was in May 2016 in Turin.

The Five Star Movement has a tool called Rousseau[47] which gives members a way to communicate with their representatives.


The Madrid City Council has a department of Citizen Participation[48] that facilitates a platform called Decide Madrid for registered users to discuss topics with others in the city, propose actions for the City Council, and submit ideas for how to spend a portion of the budget on projects voted on through participatory budgeting.[49]

Podemos (Spanish political party) uses a reddit called Plaza Podemos[50] where anybody can propose and vote on ideas.


The City of Stockholm has a make-a-suggestion page on and available as an app, allowing citizens to report any ideas for improvement in the city along with a photo and GPS. After receiving a suggestion, it is sent to the appropriate office that can place a work order. During 2016, one hundred thousand requests were recored. This e-service began in September 2013.[51]

The city government of Gothenburg has an online participatory voting system,[52] open for every citizen to propose changes and solutions. When a proposal receives more than 200 votes, it is delivered to the relevant political committee.[53]

North AmericaEdit


Citizen-led initiativesEdit

As in other countries, the Canadian civic technology movement is home to several organizations. Code for Canada is a non-profit group, following somewhat the model of Code for America.[54] Several cities or regions host civic technology groups with regular meetings (in order from West to East): Edmonton,[55] Waterloo Region,[56] Toronto,[57] and Ottawa.[58]


Government-led initiativesEdit

The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations sought initiatives to further openness of the government, through either increased use of technology in political institutions or efficient ways to further civic engagement.[59] The Obama administration pursued an Open Government Initiative based on principles of transparency and civic engagement.[60] This strategy has paved the way for increased governmental transparency within other nations to improve democratically for the citizens' benefit and allow for greater participation within politics from a citizen's perspective. During his run for president, Obama was "tied directly to the extensive use of social media by the campaign." [61]

Citizen-led initiativesEdit

Civic technology is built by a variety of companies, organizations and volunteer groups. One prominent example is Code for America, a not-for-profit based in San Francisco. Another example of a civic technology organization is the Chi Hack Night,[62] based in Chicago. The Chi Hack Night is a weekly, volunteer-run event for building, sharing and learning about civic technology. Civic Hall[63] is a coworking and event space in New York City for people who want to contribute to civic-minded projects using technology.[64]

South AmericaEdit


Partido de la Red (Net Party) is an Argentinean political party using the DemocracyOS open-source software with the goal of electing representatives who vote according to what citizens decides online.[65]


Effects of civic technology on social behaviorEdit

Because of the convenience provided by civic technology, there is growing concern about the effects it may have on social behavior.

In regards to elections and online polling, there is the potential for voters to make less informed decisions because of the ease of voting. Although many more voters will turn out, they may only be doing so because it is easy and may not be consciously making a decision based on their own synthesized opinion. It is suggested that if online voting becomes more common, so should constituent-led discussions regarding the issues or candidates being polled.[12]

The importance of face-to-face interactions has also been called to question with the increase in e-mails and social media and a decrease in traditional, in-person social interaction. Technology as a whole may be responsible for this change in social norm, but it also holds potential for turning it around with audio and video communication capabilities. More research needs to be conducted in order to determine if these are appropriate substitutes for in-person interaction, or if any substitute is even feasible.[12]

Preece & Shneiderman discuss the important social aspect of civic technology with a discussion of the "reader-to-leader framework", which follows that users inform readers, who inform communicators, who then inform collaborators, before finally reaching leaders.[66] This chain of communication allows for the interests of the masses to be communicated to the implementors.

Effects of civic technology on socioeconomicsEdit

With advanced technologies coming at higher costs and with an increased reliance on civic technologies may leave low-income families in the dark if they cannot afford the platforms for civic technology, such as computers and tablets. This causes an increase in the gap between lower and middle/high socioeconomic class families.[12]

Knowledge of how to use computers is equally important when considering factors of accessing civic technology applications online, and is also generally lower in low-income households. Public Schools have taken the lead in ensuring proper technology access and education in the classroom to better prepare children for the high-tech world, but there is still a clear difference between online contributions from those with and without experience on the internet.[12]

Future of civic technologyEdit

As the field of civic technology advances further through the coming years it seems as though apps and handheld devices will become a key focus for development as more companies and municipalities reach out to developers to help with specific issues. Apps are being used in conjunction with hand held devices to make life easier. Tasks such as communication, data tracking, and safety are just a few of the topics app developers and communities have tried to make easier. The cheapest way for citizens to get help and information is through neighbors and others around them. By linking people through apps and websites that harbor conversation and promote civil service cities have found an inexpensive way to provide services to its people.[67][68]

As civic technology is "just a piece of the $25.5 billion that government spends on external information technology (IT)," it is not difficult to see how this sector will grow from here on out towards fostering more innovation in the public and private sectors and towards furthering civic engagement within these sectors and with these platforms of technology.[69]

Civic hackingEdit

Civic hacking is a technological approach to solving civic problems, often involving the use of government data to make governments more accountable. Civic hackers can be programmers, designers, data scientists, good communicators, civic organizers, entrepreneurs and government employees.[70] Some civic hackers are employed by nonprofits, such as Code for America and projects such as mySociety work at the intersection of civic technology and hacktivism.[71][72] Some work for innovative for-profit companies, such as the geospatial software provider Azavea in Philadelphia. Others are civic hackers only by night.

Code for AmericaEdit

Code for America is a non-partisan, non-political 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2009 to address the widening gap between the public and private sectors in their effective use of technology and design. The organization believes that for the U.S. government to truly serve the people in the 21st century, it must do three things:

  1. Be good at digital. Digital skills must be embedded at all levels of government, and owned by the people responsible for delivering programs and services to the public.
  2. Ensure policy and implementation work together, and are centered around the needs of the people. Linear processes, moving from policy, to implementation to stasis, must transform into iterative cycles where policy and implementation are informed by each other and are focused on people's needs.
  3. Be a platform for civic engagement and participation. Government must learn to incorporate productive contributions from the public, so that everyone can help make government work.[73]


mySociety is an e-democracy project of the UK-based registered charity named UK Citizens Online Democracy.[2] It began as a UK-focused organisation with the aim of making online democracy tools for UK citizens.[3]

Princeton Group HackingsEdit

Princeton University Professor Andrew Appel set out to prove how easy it was to hack into a voting machine. He and a graduate student, Alex Halderman, purchased a voting machine, and Halderman picked the lock in 7 seconds. They removed the 4 ROM chips and replaced them with modified versions of their own: a version of modified firmware that could throw off the machine’s results, subtly altering the tally of votes, never to betray a hint to the voter. It took less than 7 minutes to complete the process.

Appel wrote a testimony for the Congress House Subcommittee on Information Technology hearing on “Cybersecurity: Ensuring the Integrity of the Ballot Box”, suggesting to for Congress to eliminate touchscreen voting machines after the election of 2016, and that it require all elections be subject to sensible auditing after every election to ensure that the systems are functioning properly and to prove to the American people that their votes are counted as cast.[74]

See alsoEdit


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External linksEdit