How Civic Technology Can Help Stop a Pandemic


Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl at Foreign Affairs: “The spread of the novel coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 pandemic have provided a powerful test of social and governance systems. Neither of the world’s two leading powers, China and the United States, has been particularly distinguished in responding. In China, an initial bout of political denial allowed the virus to spread for weeks, first domestically and then globally, before a set of forceful measures proved reasonably effective. (The Chinese government also should have been better prepared, given that viruses have jumped from animal hosts to humans within its territory on multiple occasions in the past.) The United States underwent its own bout of political denial before adopting social-distancing policies; even now, its lack of investment in public health leaves it ill-equipped for this sort of emergency.

The response of the bureaucratic and often technophobic European Union may prove even worse: Italy, although far from the epicenter of the outbreak, has four times the per capita rate of cases as China does, and even famously orderly Germany is already at half China’s rate. Nations in other parts of the world, such as information-manipulating Iran, provide worse examples yet.

Focusing on the countries that have done worst, however, may be less useful at this point than considering which country has so far done best: Taiwan. Despite being treated by the World Health Organization as part of China, and despite having done far broader testing than the United States (meaning the true rate of infection is far less hidden), Taiwan has only one-fifth the rate of known cases in the United States and less than one-tenth the rate in widely praised Singapore. Infections could yet spike again, especially with the global spread making visitors from around the world vectors of the virus. Yet the story of Taiwan’s initial success is worth sharing not just because of its lessons for containing the present pandemic but also because of its broader lessons about navigating pressing challenges around technology and democracy.

Taiwan’s success has rested on a fusion of technology, activism, and civic participation. A small but technologically cutting-edge democracy, living in the shadow of the superpower across the strait, Taiwan has in recent years developed one of the world’s most vibrant political cultures by making technology work to democracy’s advantage rather than detriment. This culture of civic technology has proved to be the country’s strongest immune response to the new coronavirus….(More)”.

Meaningful Inefficiencies: Civic Design in an Age of Digital Expediency


Book by Eric Gordon and Gabriel Mugar: “Public trust in the institutions that mediate civic life-from governing bodies to newsrooms-is low. In facing this challenge, many organizations assume that ensuring greater efficiency will build trust. As a result, these organizations are quick to adopt new technologies to enhance what they do, whether it’s a new app or dashboard. However, efficiency, or charting a path to a goal with the least amount of friction, is not itself always built on a foundation of trust.

Meaningful Inefficiencies is about the practices undertaken by civic designers that challenge the normative applications of “smart technologies” in order to build or repair trust with publics. Based on over sixty interviews with change makers in public serving organizations throughout the United States, as well as detailed case studies, this book provides a practical and deeply philosophical picture of civic life in transition. The designers in this book are not professional designers, but practitioners embedded within organizations who have adopted an approach to public engagement Eric Gordon and Gabriel Mugar call “meaningful inefficiencies,” or the deliberate design of less efficient over more efficient means of achieving some ends. This book illustrates how civic designers are creating meaningful inefficiencies within public serving organizations. It also encourages a rethinking of how innovation within these organizations is understood, applied, and sought after. Different than market innovation, civic innovation is not just about invention and novelty; it is concerned with building communities around novelty, and cultivating deep and persistent trust.

At its core, Meaningful Inefficiencies underlines that good civic innovation will never just involve one single public good, but must instead negotiate a plurality of publics. In doing so, it creates the conditions for those publics to play, resulting in people truly caring for the world. Meaningful Inefficiencies thus presents an emergent and vitally needed approach to creating civic life at a moment when smart and efficient are the dominant forces in social and organizational change….(More)”.

Civic tech, Data and Demos: exploring the interaction between democracy and technology


IAPP: “The French data protection authority, the CNIL, has published a report that explores emerging issues of data protection and freedoms in democracy, technology and citizen participation. The report discusses the emergence of civic technologies and data protection issues associated. The CNIL also uses the report to propose its recommendations for creating “an environment of trust” with civic tech “that allows everyone to exercise their citizenship while respecting their rights and freedoms.” Those recommendations include more implementation of EU General Data Protection Regulation principles and considerations for improved digital communication and participation….(More)”.

The Downside of Tech Hype


Jeffrey Funk at Scientific American: “Science and technology have been the largest drivers of economic growth for more than 100 years. But this contribution seems to be declining. Growth in labor productivity has slowed, corporate revenue growth per research dollar has fallen, the value of Nobel Prize–winning research has declined, and the number of researchers needed to develop new molecular entities (e.g., drugs) and same percentage improvements in crop yields and numbers of transistors on a microprocessor chip (commonly known as Moore’s Law) has risen. More recently, the percentage of profitable start-ups at the time of their initial public stock offering has dropped to record lows, not seen since the dot-com bubble and start-ups such as Uber, Lyft and WeWork have accumulated losses much larger than ever seen by start-ups, including Amazon.

Although the reasons for these changes are complex and unclear, one thing is certain: excessive hype about new technologies makes it harder for scientists, engineers and policy makers to objectively analyze and understand these changes, or to make good decisions about new technologies.

One driver of hype is the professional incentives of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, consultants and universities. Venture capitalists have convinced decision makers that venture capitalist funding and start-ups are the new measures of their success. Professional and business service consultants hype technology for both incumbents and start-ups to make potential clients believe that new technologies make existing strategies, business models and worker skills obsolete every few years.

Universities are themselves a major source of hype. Their public relations offices often exaggerate the results of research papers, commonly implying that commercialization is close at hand, even though the researchers know it will take many years if not decades. Science and engineering courses often imply an easy path to commercialization, while misleading and inaccurate forecasts from Technology Review and Scientific American make it easier for business schools and entrepreneurship programs to claim that opportunities are everywhere and that incumbent firms are regularly being disrupted. With a growth in entrepreneurship programs from about 16 in 1970 to more than 2,000 in 2014, many young people now believe that being an entrepreneur is the cool thing to be, regardless of whether they have a good idea.

Hype from these types of experts is exacerbated by the growth of social media, the falling cost of website creation, blogging, posting of slides and videos and the growing number of technology news, investor and consulting websites….(More)”.

Beyond the Valley


Book by Ramesh Srinivasan: “How to repair the disconnect between designers and users, producers and consumers, and tech elites and the rest of us: toward a more democratic internet.

In this provocative book, Ramesh Srinivasan describes the internet as both an enabler of frictionless efficiency and a dirty tangle of politics, economics, and other inefficient, inharmonious human activities. We may love the immediacy of Google search results, the convenience of buying from Amazon, and the elegance and power of our Apple devices, but it’s a one-way, top-down process. We’re not asked for our input, or our opinions—only for our data. The internet is brought to us by wealthy technologists in Silicon Valley and China. It’s time, Srinivasan argues, that we think in terms beyond the Valley.

Srinivasan focuses on the disconnection he sees between designers and users, producers and consumers, and tech elites and the rest of us. The recent Cambridge Analytica and Russian misinformation scandals exemplify the imbalance of a digital world that puts profits before inclusivity and democracy. In search of a more democratic internet, Srinivasan takes us to the mountains of Oaxaca, East and West Africa, China, Scandinavia, North America, and elsewhere, visiting the “design labs” of rural, low-income, and indigenous people around the world. He talks to a range of high-profile public figures—including Elizabeth Warren, David Axelrod, Eric Holder, Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Lessig, and the founders of Reddit, as well as community organizers, labor leaders, and human rights activists. To make a better internet, Srinivasan says, we need a new ethic of diversity, openness, and inclusivity, empowering those now excluded from decisions about how technologies are designed, who profits from them, and who are surveilled and exploited by them….(More)”

GovTech: a new driver of citizen participation?


Digital Future Society: “At a time when public trust in institutions is low, governments worldwide are seeking new ways to involve citizens in policymaking. But does technology help or hinder when it comes to participation?

GovTech refers to an emerging public innovation ecosystem in which startups and SMEs provide tech-based products and services to public sector clients.

In this third Digital Future Society report, discover the challenges and opportunities of applying GovTech to transform government-citizen relationships.

The report features 4 in-depth case studies of tech-based participation tools that show how a thriving GovTech ecosystem can facilitate collective problem solving and drive citizen participation at all levels of government….(More)”.

Timing Technology


Blog by Gwern Branwen: “Technological forecasts are often surprisingly prescient in terms of predicting that something was possible & desirable and what they predict eventually happens; but they are far less successful at predicting the timing, and almost always fail, with the success (and riches) going to another.

Why is their knowledge so useless? The right moment cannot be known exactly in advance, so attempts to forecast will typically be off by years or worse. For many claims, there is no way to invest in an idea except by going all in and launching a company, resulting in extreme variance in outcomes, even when the idea is good and the forecasts correct about the (eventual) outcome.

Progress can happen and can be foreseen long before, but the details and exact timing due to bottlenecks are too difficult to get right. Launching too early means failure, but being conservative & launching later is just as bad because regardless of forecasting, a good idea will draw overly-optimistic researchers or entrepreneurs to it like moths to a flame: all get immolated but the one with the dumb luck to kiss the flame at the perfect instant, who then wins everything, at which point everyone can see that the optimal time is past. All major success stories overshadow their long list of predecessors who did the same thing, but got unlucky. So, ideas can be divided into the overly-optimistic & likely doomed, or the fait accompli. On an individual level, ideas are worthless because so many others have them too—‘multiple invention’ is the rule, and not the exception.

This overall problem falls under the reinforcement learning paradigm, and successful approaches are analogous to Thompson sampling/posterior sampling: even an informed strategy can’t reliably beat random exploration which gradually shifts towards successful areas while continuing to take occasional long shots. Since people tend to systematically over-exploit, how is this implemented? Apparently by individuals acting suboptimally on the personal level, but optimally on societal level by serving as random exploration.

A major benefit of R&D, then, is in laying fallow until the ‘ripe time’ when they can be immediately exploited in previously-unpredictable ways; applied R&D or VC strategies should focus on maintaining diversity of investments, while continuing to flexibly revisit previous failures which forecasts indicate may have reached ‘ripe time’. This balances overall exploitation & exploration to progress as fast as possible, showing the usefulness of technological forecasting on a global level despite its uselessness to individuals….(More)”.

The promise and peril of a digital ecosystem for the planet


Blog post by Jillian Campbell and David E Jensen: “A range of frontier and digital technologies have dramatically boosted the ways in which we can monitor the health of our planet. And sustain our future on it (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A range of frontier an digital technologies can be combined to monitor our planet and the sustainable use of natural resources (1)

If we can leverage this technology effectively, we will be able to assess and predict risks, increase transparency and accountability in the management of natural resources and inform markets as well as consumer choice. These actions are all required if we are to stand a better chance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, for this vision to become a reality, public and private sector actors must take deliberate action and collaborate to build a global digital ecosystem for the planet — one consisting of data, infrastructure, rapid analytics, and real-time insights. We are now at a pivotal moment in the history of our stewardship of this planet. A “tipping point” of sorts. And in order to guide the political action which is required to counter the speed, scope and severity of the environmental and climate crises, we must acquire and deploy these data sets and frontier technologies. Doing so can fundamentally change our economic trajectory and underpin a sustainable future.

This article shows how such a global digital ecosystem for the planet can be achieved — as well as what we risk if we do not take decisive action within the next 12 months….(More)”.

The Practice of Civic Tech: Tensions in the Adoption and Use of New Technologies in Community Based Organizations


Eric Gordon and Rogelio Alejandro Lopez in Media and Communication: “This article reports on a qualitative study of community based organizations’ (CBOs) adoption of information communication technologies (ICT). As ICTs in the civic sector, otherwise known as civic tech, get adopted with greater regularity in large and small organizations, there is need to understand how these technologies shape and challenge the nature of civic work. Based on a nine-month ethnographic study of one organization in Boston and additional interviews with fourteen other organizations throughout the United States, the study addresses a guiding research question: how do CBOs reconcile the changing (increasingly mediated) nature of civic work as ICTs, and their effective adoption and use for civic purposes, increasingly represent forward-thinking, progress, and innovation in the civic sector?—of civic tech as a measure of “keeping up with the times.”

From a sense of top-down pressures to innovate in a fast-moving civic sector, to changing bottom-up media practices among community constituents, our findings identify four tensions in the daily practice of civic tech, including: 1) function vs. representation, 2) amplification vs. transformation, 3) grassroots vs. grasstops, and 4) youth vs. adults. These four tensions, derived from a grounded theory approach, provide a conceptual picture of a civic tech landscape that is much more complicated than a suite of tools to help organizations become more efficient. The article concludes with recommendations for practitioners and researchers….(More)”.

From City to Nation: Digital government in Argentina, 2015–2018


Paper by Tanya Filer, Antonio Weiss and Juan Cacace: “In 2015, voters in Argentina elected Mauricio Macri of the centre-right Propuesta Republicana (PRO) as their new President, following a tightly contested race. Macri inherited an office wrought with tensions: an unstable economy; a highly polarised population; and an increasing weariness towards the institutions of governance overall. In this context, his administration hoped to harness the possibilities of digital transformation to make citizens’ interactions with the State more efficient, more accountable, and ‘friendlier’.

Following a successful tenure in the City of Buenos Aires, where Macri had been Mayor, Minister Andrés Ibarra and a digital government team were charged with the project of national digital transformation, taking on projects from a single ‘whole-of-government’ portal to a mobile phone application designed to reduce the incidence of gender-based violence against women. Scaling up digitisation from the city to the national level was, by all accounts, a challenge. By 2018, Argentina had won global acclaim for its progress on key aspects of digital government, but also increasingly recognised the difficulties of digitisation at the national scale. It identified the need, as observed by the OECD, for an overarching strategic plan to manage the scale, diversity and politics of federal-level digital transformation. Based on interviews with key stakeholders, this case discusses the country’s digital modernisation agenda from 2015 to 2018, with a primary focus on service provision projects. It examines the challenges faced in terms of politics and technology, and the lessons that Argentina’s experience offers….(More)”