Build With, Not For: A #CivicTech Manifesto

Blog Post
July 3, 2014

Crafting high-quality civic technology — projects and tools designed withsocial impact in mind — requires thought, creativity, and intentionality — the strength to ask:

“Will this project actually have social impact? Is it being designed for the social/cultural/political context in which it will be implemented? And if not, what steps do we need to take and what people do we need to substantially involve to get there?”

Our approach to community-building in the name of civic tech should be the same.

In a recent case study, we review how open format models (like hackathons and unconferences) can be remixed and reinvented to encourage an outpouring of “non-traditional” engagement with civic tech without alienating tech veterans. Our focus: The Tech Embassy, a a pop-up, interactive science fair for local tech and art that took place on May 3, 2014 during Washington, DC’s first-ever Funk Parade(Yes, that’s right: A “Funk Parade” with a civic tech agenda.)

The final chapter of our 6-part study is a manifesto for taking an intentional to civic technology. Full text available here.


Despite some earnest research in the earliest phases of our organizing, it wasn't until after the Funk Parade that we discovered that an event model super similar to the one we ended up developing was already in use in communities around the globe (and one that the Open Technology Institute itself has had a lot of involvement with in the past): DiscoTechs (AKA Discovering Technology).

DiscoTechs are a form of knowledge-sharing space managed and operated by and within a community where "people can discover technology together, learn at their own pace, and learn from people who are accessible and understand the context of their neighborhoods and communities.”

Although there are some differences in approach between The Tech Embassy and DiscoTechs, if we had discovered the latter sooner, I’d be writing about how we took the DiscoTech structure and remixed it for our needs and our community. That’s the beauty of these open structures: They beg to be remixed and re-envisioned, customized for the context in which you’re trying to organize. (Even if “all” you’re trying to organize is a one-off event.)

In the civic tech space, we talk a lot about “open source”—code made available for anyone’s reuse and remixing, with the knowledge that opening up to the contributions of many can allow for the discovery of problems, patterns, new ideas, and opportunities that one alone might miss.

Open format events are like open source social code—rough rubrics that can be “forked” (borrowed and altered) to mobilize people around technology.

But you have to be smart about it.

Dragging and dropping a format for community-building without first evaluating the context in which you’re organizing and who you’re organizing for is a recipe for exclusion and redundancy. The reason we didn't jump into a hackathon at the Funk Parade was because we knew, after evaluating our criteria for a “good” event in that context and the people we wanted to bring together, that a hackathon wasn't the right fit—but that didn't mean that we couldn't do anything technical. It was just a design challenge, prompting us to ask in real terms (not aspirational) what structures we needed to borrow, what attributes we had to re-imagine (and, worst-comes-to-worst, create) that would allow us to bring together the most diverse group of DC-ers possible.

Diversity is about a lot more than race and gender. It’s about age, class, background, profession, sexuality, neighborhood, World Cup team…the many ways in which people identify and are identified. When we willfully ignore diversity in the design of our technology, our social spaces, and our “community meet-ups”, we trivialize a future where universal technology access is meaningful and dynamic — not just about literally having access to tools.

So here’s my plea for “building community” around civic tech, whether in the context of an event, a new project, or something else all together:

Build with, not for.

Be honest about the in-groups you’re dealing with, invest time in thinking about the impact of place (online and off) on who gets to engage and how, and borrow liberally and often from ideas you see working. (Actually working, that is.)

In creating The Tech Embassy, we had the luxury of knowing many of the alternative structures that we could borrow from. But now, you do, too.

 For more from this case study, check out these excerpts: 

Part 1: Set Goals You Can Hold Yourself Accountable To

Part 2: Let Your Audience Dictate Your Design

Part 3: Structure Horizontally, Not Vertically

Part 4: To Increase Engagement, Play With The Familiar

Part 5: Lead, But Be Leaderful

[Full Piece] So You Think You Want to Run A Hackathon? Think Again.