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'Civic Tech' Skips The Red Tape


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Maybe at some point, you've gotten upset about a political issue, and you decided to write your congressman or congresswoman. That used to mean you grabbed your pen, paper, an envelope, a stamp.

And then, of course, came the Internet and email. You don't have to write it on paper anymore. But as you just heard, the process of civic engagement is actually changing in a lot more ways than just how we send messages. Civic tech is an emerging field that connects people with their elected officials, government agencies, like trash collection, and each other. We're joined now by Roxann Stafford. She's been conversing on Twitter using our #NPRBlacksinTech and she's also a design strategist at Second Muse. That's an agency that's worked on a number of civic tech projects. Roxann, welcome.

ROXANN STAFFORD: Thank you for having me, Celeste.

HEADLEE: Can you help us understand a little better what exactly it means when I say, civic tech?

STAFFORD: Absolutely. So civic tech or the civic innovation space is a movement. It is a movement of people and active dialogue with their governments and each other to solve complex social and environmental problems. So one way that I like to think about it is it's public, private and people partnerships that have been accelerated through the ease of connection that we have of technology. So we have these cycles of being able to rapidly design, create and then share ideas. And that's what's really unique about this time period. And that's what civic tech is really all about.

HEADLEE: So we're not just talking about the city government putting its office hours online. You're talking about actually creating a conversation to solve problems.

STAFFORD: Absolutely. The conversation and collaboration aspect is the most important. So when you're talking about issues as complex as helping veterans find future employment or issues around making sure that kids have access to STEM education initiatives, we need everybody that's a part of this. We need everyone to be able to not only have access to data and information, but to really reflect upon what that means in terms of creating solutions based on needs in their community.


STAFFORD: So, yeah, it's more than office hours.

HEADLEE: I wonder - you listened to the conversation I just had with the middle school students, and, for example, the one kid's idea about collecting trash and having people interact with their trash collection. Is that an example of civic technology?

STAFFORD: I would say absolutely. You know, these ideas don't have to come from the top officials. They can come from throughout, and so the ability to recognize - let's say in this situation that there was a need around trash collection and more people to be aware of that, that's a part of that type of dialogue. And it can result in lots of different things. So in this instance, we heard about it coming about from a standpoint of an app or a technology that can be used. But other examples of civic tech actually can be the creation of physical spaces where people come together.

HEADLEE: Give me an example of that.

STAFFORD: Sure. So in San Francisco, through National Day of Civic Hacking, which was one of the largest hacking events that took place over the summer, there was a group - very diverse, including government officials, community members, corporations that came together in downtown San Francisco and literally took over a building. It was called free space. And in free space, it gave people the opportunity to tell stories about their neighborhood.

It gave people the opportunity to have a forum to identify some needs around making sure that we're eliminating food deserts. So literally, Celeste, they were able to take this building and use it as a conduit to have these creative conversations. And that's an example of hacking, which is a way of creating solutions that are part of the civic tech movement.

HEADLEE: I would imagine this is great, especially for younger people because they use technology. And this would encourage them to perhaps get involved in their own governments, their local governments, even state and federal governments. But the other half of that is convincing government officials and sometimes, pretty opaque bureaucracies, to accept a cutting-edge technology. That can be difficult. How do you do it?

STAFFORD: It is a challenge. But I think one of the things that we're seeing that's helping to overcome this is that we're having these groups, both young and old, talk about it from a value. What is the value being created in the community? And whether you're a government official involved in this or a part of a company, you're searching and looking for value. And with the civic tech movement, what we're doing is we are expanding that type of definition.

So when you come through the door and start speaking about it from the value that can be created, everybody wants to participate in that. And you don't have to be the most senior person in the room, as we heard earlier from our young innovators, to be able to bring about what that value can look like.

HEADLEE: And do you, however, have to be really well-versed in coding language and in working with computers and have advanced technology at your disposal?

STAFFORD: You know, although we talk a lot about civic tech from the standpoint of coding, what we really need in terms of making these ideas sustainable is an ecosystem of players. So that includes people who really understand and know a community, someone that has a marketing or design background, someone that's able to speak clearly and articulately to communities. So you don't necessarily need to have all the hardcore tech or STEM types of skills at your fingertips. But what you do need to be able to do is have a collaborative mindset to understand how to bring those skills to bear when you're trying to help your community.

HEADLEE: That's really fascinating. Roxann Stafford, design strategist at Second Muse, kind enough to join us from San Francisco talking about civic tech. Roxann, thank you so much.

STAFFORD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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