Civic Tech: Cities on the New Frontier

December 9, 2013

By Julie Bosland and Emily Pickren

Civic tech, an emerging field at the nexus of technology, civic innovation, government transparency and community engagement, implements a range of projects designed to promote civic outcomes and support the health and vitality of cities.

Cities, nonprofits, community groups and philanthropic organizations have been entering this field in increasing numbers in the last few years. The field has had an annual growth rate of 23 percent since 2008, and investments by private capital funders and foundations in civic tech are growing significantly, with more than $430 million going to the field between January 2011 and May 2013. 

This is according to a new report from the Knight Foundation, The Emergence of Civic Tech: Investments in a Growing Field. The report analyzes private and philanthropic investment data and includes an interactive map that allows users to explore investments across multiple areas of civic tech. The intent of this first-of-its-kind report is to use data to gain insights into trends in the civic tech field and to support practitioners by helping them make stronger connections with each other, ensuring this innovative work is not happening in a vacuum.

At NLC’s recent Congress of Cities and Exposition in Seattle, Wash., the energy and excitement about civic tech was palpable as city leaders and stakeholders engaged in discussions of cutting edge practices that utilize data and technology to engage residents in community improvements.

The discussions during a deep dive session on how to engage residents in solutions utilizing data and technology highlighted how cities are increasingly using technological innovations to crowd-source solutions, improve public services, connect with citizens and enhance productivity and efficiency in city services.

Washington, D.C. has leveraged a growing local tech sector to encourage and monitor social media feedback using performance analytics, something area restaurant and hotels have been doing for several years. The city also implemented grade.dc.gov to allow residents to grade city agencies, with the end goal of improving city services through better community engagement.

Madison, Wis. uses Ideascale to ensure the city’s budget represents the creative ideas and encompasses the values of Madison residents.  Residents can submit ideas, vote on existing ideas or add comments to the ideas others have posted to the site.

Cities of varying sizes and parts of the country -- from Tulsa, Okla. to Raleigh, N.C. to Longmont, Colo. – are utilizing open data policies not only to become more transparent, but also to engage the tech community in developing new ways of making that data useful to residents.  

Although there is not a common definition of civic tech at this juncture in its development, cities – along with nonprofits, community groups and foundations – have embraced the myriad innovations that fall under the civic tech umbrella. Cities are leading the way in creating more efficient and effective government through the increasingly wide range of technologies at their disposal.