Analyst at L'Atelier
BNP Paribas North America
Technology gives citizens greater power, helps them get a hearing for their ideas…
“CivicTech basically means all the technologies that impact citizens. I focus solely on those technologies that help engagement and improve the democratic process,” says Ramy Ghorayeb, an analyst at L'Atelier BNP Paribas who authored a study published in December which reports on the innovations designed to improve citizens’ relationships with the local authorities. He points out: “Technology gives citizens greater power, helps them get a hearing for their ideas; and on the other side it enables the authorities to understand citizens better and so respond more effectively to their needs and expectations.” So who are these CivicTech companies that are giving power back to ordinary citizens? How do they work? Ramy Ghorayeb answers these questions and gives us the keys to understanding the impact of this movement, which is particularly active in the United States. “The US has the most advanced startups because it’s here that the main foundations of Open Data and transparency were laid. Barack Obama launched the Open Government Initiative and encouraged governments of other countries to embrace technology and CivicTech approaches.” Nor is France lagging behind in this field, especially as regards providing citizens with information.
CivicTech technologies help citizens to stay informed
the capitol, home of the US congress
Citizens looking for clear information on political and civic life, especially if they need it in order to engage are increasingly turning to CivicTech. For instance, in the United States, Ghorayeb tells us: “the FiscalNote platform tracks all law-making processes and also keeps a database with the names of people working at the Congress. In addition, its algorithm uses Big Data to predict the way people will vote on a given topic. It can then use the information to help up-and-coming organisations to contact the right people and get their views across.”
CivicTech gives citizens a voice
sELF-CENSOR WHEN THEY PUBLISH ON FACEBOOK
After all, power consists not only in having information, but about being heard. Traditionally, if citizens wanted to be heard they had to go to the polls or come out on to the street. CivicTech tools have expanded the number of channels available and made them more efficient. Ramy Ghorayeb underlines that “the new media channels enable everyone to share their opinion; this could really take off and become a movement. #BlackLivesMatter [an international activist movement, originating in the African-American community, which campaigns against violence – especially by the police – against black people] is a good example.” However, people do not always use the tools they have to hand. “Facebook figures show that 70% of users self-censor at the last minute before publishing a message, because they cannot bear the thought of other people looking at what they are saying on a social network which was after all not originally intended to express political or social positions. That’s why Sean Parker, one of the driving forces behind Facebook, launched Causes, a platform specifically designed for political discussion, with an approval/disapproval system that enables people to express their opinions and takes the debate forward”.
Online petitions are one of the easiest and most effective ways of taking a stance and getting involved. Ramy Ghorayeb cites the example of Cherry Groce, a woman who became paralysed from the chest down as a result of being shot by police in 1985. This event sparked the second Brixton riots in London and her family tried to obtain compensation for her injuries. “For thirty years Cherry Groce’s family held protests and demanded that the government pay compensation, without any success. They then posted a petition on change.org, gathering 130,000 signatures, which finally forced the government to agree to their demands.” The Internet has enabled this kind of mass engagement. Petitions have increased in number in recent years, with over 213 million signatures collected on the change.org site. However, the L'Atelier BNP Paribas analyst wonders how the signatories’ data is used. “Could it be sold without the consent of the people concerned?”
This should – in principle – not happen with the White House website. The Obama administration took note of the sea-change taking place and enabled US citizens to create petitions directly on the ‘We the People’ website. The White House promises to reply if a cause manages to garner 100,000 signatures or more on the platform within 30 days. Among the currently trending petitions is one that calls on President Trump to publish his tax declarations. It has been signed by 1,111,000 people – roughly the equivalent of the total population of Cyprus. Meanwhile a petition asking the government to reconsider its position on ending net neutrality gathered 249,722 signatures. Ramy Ghorayeb explains that petitions have the power to “scale up civic engagement,” but wonders: “Do petition signatories still get involved outside the realm of the Internet? Or has clicktivism now taken over? It’s really important that this engagement channel should not stop people from engaging in other ways – by taking part in street demonstrations, for example.”
the white house, washington
Citizens and government can work hand-in-hand
Citizens are no longer content just to hold their government to account; they want to help it to do better
When citizens are connected and informed, they have a number of solutions to help them move into action. Citizen can make use of tools developed by community-driven SeeClickFix (available in 300 municipalities in the United States) and PaloAlto311 (a similar system working in the city of that name), to get involved in the life of the local neighbourhood by reporting any nuisances such as a broken streetlight or shards of glass in the road. All these sites do is alert the local authority to the problem. However, other tools exist that provide citizens with a means of becoming more actively engaged.
Ramy Ghorayeb stresses the collaborative aspect. “Government project crowdfunding and civic engagement platform Citizinvestor and public project investment site Neighborly help people to get involved in new infrastructure projects. Citizens who make donations to help finance these ventures can offset them against their tax. Citizens are no longer content just to hold their government to account; they want to help it to do better.” The L’Atelier BNP Paribas analyst explains that this is the kind of effort that many cities are now trying to support, especially in the United States. “Cities are using open data platforms to open up their accounts to public scrutiny; this leads some citizens to, for instance, suggest new ways of optimising expenditure.”
Meanwhile a number of organisations have been set up specifically for the purpose of helping citizens and governments to find solutions. Code for America is one of them. Says Ghorayeb: “Every week there are ‘Civic Hack Nights’, at which entrepreneurs, designers and other volunteers get together and use open data to create new public services. After all, who is better placed to create services than their potential users?” He cites GetCalFresh as an example. The goal of this ‘made in Code for America’ service is to make it easier to distribute food to needy people. “In the past you had to fill in several dozen pages of forms to qualify; today you use a mobile app and it takes around ten minutes to register.”
“States also have a role to play to ensure that CivicTech technologies are deployed optimally. This means digitalising existing data.”
So what will be the next step to boost collaboration? “States also have a role to play to ensure that CivicTech technologies are deployed optimally. This means digitalising existing data.” In the meantime, the use of CivicTech methods is also raising some ethical questions which governments need to think about. “Why not move to online voting? Would young people who are today less inclined to vote do so more willingly if they could vote from the comfort of their sofa? Is there a risk that online voting might encourage one section of the population to vote but discourage another?” asks Ramy Ghorayeb. He also questions the role of data in an election. “These days data gathered on voters has an impact on electoral campaigns. The more high-quality data a candidate has on the members of his/her constituency, the greater the impact s/he can have. Just as in France today there are limits on permissible campaign funding so as to avoid unbalancing an electoral campaign, will we in future see limits placed on the use of data?” The impact of CivicTech on the democratic process might turn out to be greater than we had thought.