Technology for people: civic tech, data journalism & ICT4D

1 February 2015

I’ve been trying recently to think about the things I’m most interested in, and I realised that with regards to technology, there are a few terms that come to mind: civic technology, data journalism, and Information Communication Technologies for Development, or ICT4D. The more I think about the three seemingly disparate labels, the more similarities I see between them.

Put simply, I’m most interested in the use of technology to improve people’s lives.

Civic Tech, Data Journalism, and ICT4D: a quick primer

Civic technology is generally understood as citizens of a particular city/country coming up with technological solutions to help them, and those around them, understand their city/country better. Examples include Code for America or MySociety’s FixMyStreet). It’s creating a new form of political engagement, as people with technical skills can do more than just campaign or advocate for better solutions - they can actually build them. This TED talk from my colleague Julia Kloiber explains the usefulness and importance of building better digital tools for our cities.

Data journalism is a way of telling stories using data - for example, looking for stories within datasets, merging together disparate datasets to find a story, using data storytelling techniques to help the reader understand the story better, or making tools to help people tell their own stories. Whatever techniques are used, it’s engaging technology and data to help readers/viewers understand their worlds better and be better informed about what is going on around them. Not all of them lie quite in the realm of data journalism, but I made a list of some of my favourite data visualisations last year.

ICT4D is the term used for the use of technology in the international development sector. Broadly speaking, it includes any projects that use technology to helps people on the receiving end of aid get what they need, and it helps those in the international development sector be able to understand what is needed, and how best to deliver vital services as well as long term support. It can include anything from providing internet connections to previously unconnected areas, to helping locate missing people during a natural disaster, and the overall aim here is that the lives of people living in low-income countries is somehow improved through these projects.

The common thread

I had an interesting online discussion last year with Josh Stearns, who works in journalism, and Laurenellen McCann, who works in civic technology, which led to all three of us writing adapted versions of Josh’s post ‘Five kinds of Listening for Newsrooms and Communities’. As demonstrated, there seem to be a lot of overlap between things we’re learning, and how we’re implementing technology with our respective communities. So, why hadn’t we noticed before? I’ve been thinking about that a lot and I realised that one of the major obstacles in our way is, quite simply, the words we use.

People who consider themselves to work in ‘civic tech’ may well read guidelines like this Civic Software Checklist, or consult Civic Patterns, because they are clearly labelled as being relevant to what they’re talking about. Similarly, data journalists might take a look at the Data Journalism Handbook, or look at learnings from other data journalists via Source. But crossing over between these groups seems to be happening very rarely.

Why is this a problem?

It’s not, necessarily. But I can’t help but think that given that we’re all trying to use technology to improve people’s lives, we could (and should) be sharing tactics, ideas and lessons.

For example, if technology is to be leveraged to its true potential, technical literacy needs to be increased in all three of these areas (and many more). But while increasing numbers of resources are aimed at helping journalists and civil society increase their technical and data literacy - like the initiative I work on, School of Data - there seem to be very few aimed at development practitioners working on ICT4D projects.

Tools built through civic technology initiatives could, without even that much of a leap of imagination, also be (re)used in other areas where international development projects take place - take for example any of the great projects developed by Code4Africa which meet African citizens’ needs. Although I’ve personally never seen an international development project which has redeployed projects or code written by other organisations, I can’t imagine a better place to start than with Code4Africa’s open source, civic tech initiatives.

Ignore the labels (sometimes)

The labels we use are undoubtedly useful to help us gather and find our tribes, and share more nuanced learnings - but, in terms of sharing broad, technology-focused learnings, I feel like they’re stopping us from benefiting from the wider ecosystem. In the three cases above, there is a common thread: technology being used to help meet the needs of their respective communities. There are, of course, nuances within that; ICT4D is usually being implemented by the development workers for the poor; civic technology is by people living in a certain area for people living in the same area, and data journalism is driven by journalists and technologists for their readers or viewers.

But in terms of lessons learned through implementation and development of new technologies, interaction with the target audience, guidelines and advice, does it really matter who is implementing the technology for whom? Each of the implementing groups knows how to adapt learnings to suit their respective communities - and of course, careful adaptation, listening to the community in question, and learning from their needs is a key part of successful engagement - but at the heart of it, we’re all engaging in (for want of a better term) community technology. Or, if you like, tech for people, by people, regardless of where we live or what we do.

Rather than dismissing resources we might come across that don’t seem to be relevant - if they have anything to do with technology + communities, why not ignore the initial label, and see what is in there? Swing by some meetups that might have (on the surface) very little to do with your interests. Follow people on twitter who aren’t working quite in your field, but rather in related, technology-and-people focused fields.

Share your work, tips and tricks widely with people who are perhaps working tangentially to your field - who knows what we could learn?

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