Civic tech and digital response

We are preparing for the Humanitarian Technology Festival on June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass. This participatory event is for field practitioners, media makers and storytellers, technology developers, information security practitioners, members of affected populations, researchers, and everyone in between. We are hoping for a strong contingent of civic tech and civic media folk as well, for reasons we hope this post will make clear.

Humanitarian and disaster response deals with exceptional situations. But whether through historical happenstance or through poor design, response also tends to be short-sighted and deeply siloed. As crises are by definition beyond the capacity of "the norm" (existing infrastructure like governments), responders are often military or nongovernment organizations (NGOs). We deploy into places we do not fully understand the histories of, where we are not well connected with pre-existing efforts, and when we leave we often take our data and gained understanding with us. We too often make poor choices which deeply affect the future lives of a frontline community because "it is better than doing nothing." I generally find the whole thing paternalistic and incremental when we should instead be focusing on systemic interventions to long-term issues of inequity by working with local populations to increase their capacity. A combination of coping with exceptional circumstances in a way which actively works with, depends on, and returns to pre-existing efforts is what I see in the overlap of civics and response.

Where one ends and the other begins

Civic tech is technology which enables engagement or participation of the public for stronger development, enhancing citizen communications, improving government infrastructure, and generally improving the public good. Civic media is any form of communication that strengthens the social bonds within a community or creates a strong sense of civic engagement among its residents. Then civic media and tech are deeply linked with digital disaster and humanitarian response. All are about how people work with each other and with institutions, each is about more intentional infrastructure, and each is about having an empowered public supported by institutions and a global public. The excellent book Building Resilience gives a precise overview of the strength of social capital and community ties as the leading indicator to a region's ability to cope with shocks and stressors, regardless of access to other resources. We anticipate the scenario we will be playing through at the event will get at these social ties as well as laying a baseline of understanding for those new to response.

From that background theory, the practice looks like responders working with already established civic infrastructure in order to bolster those networks of trust, to benefit from that knowledge, and to have a place to return created data and delivered resources into for post-response sustainability. But where do humanitarian aid/development, civic engagement, and disaster response transition into one another?

Civics and humanitarian aid

Digital humanitarian response could be seen as civics in places where there is not yet established technical, physical, or possibly even political infrastructure to bolster or route around. In this case, considering how the civic tools you are building apply to other locations is a useful theoretical framework. Perhaps more importantly — how could tools built elsewhere apply here? (Spoiler alert: Kenya and Tanzania have had mobile money for a looooong time, and we are only just starting to get it in the States — we have plenty to learn from other places.) Improving infrastructure is more and more grounded on baseline data, which can be collected for development purposes or as a means of civic engagement. When the creation of baseline data is happening for civic reasons, it indicates those social ties are being formed around local political empowerment, versus (the still worthwhile) baseline creation by intervening groups like UN OCHA for the sole purpose of response. Our goal in response is to only be around for as long as we are needed, but civics is about investing in a longer-term view.

Civics and disaster response

While humanitarian aid is (in part) about the creation or improvement of long-term infrastructure, disaster response is about existing infrastructure being disrupted, and not even in the questionable type of disruption from Silicon Valley, but in the sense of "nothing is working the way we planned because the power and internet we have come to rely on are down and I can't find my child." In these circumstances, building tools which allow for (or even encourage!) off-the-grid communication or storage-until-able-to-update matter. As in, tools which would also work in low connectivity areas like humanitarian deployments are often better suited for crisis response than other everyday-use tools. We will be thinking about how to perform such coordination at HumTechFest, too.

An aside here seems necessary, to point out that the chaos of response is in this disconnection from the infrastructures on which we depend. The chaos is not in the form of people. People are amazing, often even more so in a crisis. While most of the field of Disaster Sociology points this out, a shorter (and easy) read is A Paradise Built in Hell.

The square you start from matters

While we can talk all day about the technology we use in our everyday lives and in times of crisis, the purpose of that technology is to help us connect with one another, to help us have safer and happier (and I would argue more dignified and coequal) lives. Social connections bolstered by mediating technology is how communities help themselves. Take Civic Hall's Noel Hidalgo, and his Coworking Map during Sandy response. It is from those spaces so many of the preexisting civic tech was reapplied to the new crisis circumstance, and that people found each other in order to address their unique concerns. The strong civic ties allowed for a more robust response. The same is true of the success of Occupy Sandy, grown from the ties created during Occupy Wall Street, and for the listening centers in West Africa which became essential for information distribution during the Ebola outbreak. Caring about sharing data in advance means you can more readily ask for external help... and then hold those responding accountable because there is a baseline.

Deepening the connection

We would love to explore this overlap further, and be more intentional in things like data hand-off and collaboration between existing community-based groups like Public Labs and Open Referral and NYC Prepared, official response organizations like FEMA and local Offices of Emergency Mangement, emergent response groups like Occupy Sandy and Boulder Relief, and back to those long-term civic groups. We would love to think about how those communication patterns might look, and what resources we can create to expedite the process. We have a lot to learn from groups like Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and Kathmandu Living Labs. As Heather Leson said in this blog post on Civicus,

How can maps and citizen-generated data empower civil society organisations to bring about change in their local community? In some parts of the world, existing physical layer maps are inaccurate and outdated. Imagine walking around your neighbourhood – do you know the names of all the streets, or where the nearest school or hospital is? With this kind of data, people are in a better position to plan futures for their communities. OSM enables each of these data items to be downloaded freely, making it a valuable civil society resource.

Projects like Promise Tracker, Taarifa, and the Riffle provide that strong baseline data which can also be useful in times of crisis, as well as the surrounding communities of practice. How excellent would it be to have all the capacity needed to respond already in any given location?! So rad. Because then it is not a crisis. When we frame response on strong civic engagement rather than a traditional perspective of short-term interventions, we are acting in a more efficacious and coequal way. We are acting in solidarity.

Join us in building this new world

We hope you will join us to be a part of this responsible lifecycle on June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass at the Humanitarian Technology Festival. If you want to carpool up from NYC, we are happy to help with gas. If you are on the West Coast, we would love to see you at the June 16th Digital Responder Meet Up in San Francisco. And if you are remote to both those places, we have an ongoing mailing list and semi-regular call-ins you can join.

Deep thanks to the Aspiration team, Heather Leson, Matt Stempeck, and Ethan Zuckerman for helping make this piece exist.