Can Technology ‘Transform’ Cities and the Lives of the Poor?

Eight Theses on the Civic Technology Movement

In recent years, an exciting movement has been building in cities across the U.S. and around the world. Public officials, nonprofits, activists, and companies are experimenting with new ways to use new digital technologies to improve urban life by expanding access to data, upgrading government systems, and developing new apps. These loosely coordinated efforts have been dubbed by some a “civic technology” movement.

Recently the nonprofit OpenPlans and foundation collaborative Living Cities published a “field scan” of how the use of digital technologies and social media “has the potential to transform cities and the lives of their low income residents.” The report is based on interviews with 25 people and has a self-professed goal of sparking a broader dialog about the present and future direction of this movement. This blog post is a response to the report, and is intended to be critical and constructive.

What is the ‘civic technology’ field that is surveyed? It includes several components:

  • Public officials working towards technical innovation in government, such as Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (where I worked in 2010).
  • The creation of city data portals, and associated events such as application programming competitions and third party apps they encourage.
  • The rise of nonprofits, such as Code For America, a group that pairs programmers with cities to produce useful technology.
  • The development of private initiatives that work within this “space” such as websites that re-use government data, integrate with service delivery systems, and collaborate with public agencies to create new technologies.
  • An emphasis on open technology standards, open source software, and interoperability as key values that should influence civic technology.

Assessing such a large and diverse set of activities is no small feat, and this report is a laudable effort to identify some of the key issues. The report also takes a particular interest in how these developments are (or could) impact the lives of low-income residents. My reactions below are somewhat impressionistic and presented as a list for discussion. Because of my background, I emphasize issues around government agencies, which I believe play a crucial central role in the civic technology discussion.

1. Technology Will Not Necessarily Help the Poor

While it may be true technologies could be used (and maybe are in some cases) to help the poor, technology does not exist separate from society. To the extent its design and use is shaped by dominant economic and political forces, technology won’t necessarily be transformative of existing relations. In the scholarly literature there is a debate between those who view technology as an independent force, imposing its will on society (epitomized in the title of the book “What Technology Wants“), and those who view technology as merely the servant to existing interests (much of mainstream social science). I take a moderate approach advocated by some scholars in the general field of “science and technology studies” (STS). Technology does matter because it can influence our individual choices, available knowledge, and collective action. Information systems always contain policies and values, and therefore their design is an opportunity to push in one direction or another. However, using technology for “good” requires deciding on our goals and pushing technology to pursue them, sometimes against substantial opposing forces.

2. The Poor Are Moving to Suburbia

The report largely assumes the poor live in central cities, and the report informants include participants from large cities including New York, Chicago, Boston and Newark. While historically these cities contained large poor populations, increasingly the ongoing revitalization of core cities mean that now the majority of the metropolitan poor live in suburban areas. How these areas will handle these changes is a major social and policy issue, one being tackled by one of my doctoral classmates at MIT, Christa Lee-Chuvala. This doesn’t mean inner-city poverty is obsolete, only suggests we may need to shift to regional perspectives or be attuned to different contexts. Big cities are typically more sophisticated at providing services and have more resources at their disposal than suburban or rural communities, impacting the types of technologies that might help in each place.

3. Cities Don’t Necessarily Want to Help the Poor … Or Might Not Agree on What to Do

There is also an assumption in the report that helping the poor is an unambiguous public goal. I’m not so sure. One doesn’t have to push very far to see where a consensus on this point might exist breaks down. First, even liberal cities aren’t exempt from political claims about who government should help and what constitutes a fair distribution. Even scholarly research on what interventions “work” to address poverty is remarkably varied. A great article by Teitz and Chapple that reviewed some of the scholarly theories about why inner-city poverty exists and found that while some have stronger evidence than others, the issue is sufficiently complex there may be several valid perspectives, meaning “fixing’ it is a tricky proposition. Foundations like those involved in this report are eager to push aggressively on issues of poverty and equity since they are usually only accountable to a board of directors. But cities operate in the real world of democratic accountability. While I believe professionals and leaders have a responsibility to lead, they must work within a broader civic landscape to get things done.

4. Changing Technology in Government is Hard Because it Requires Changing Government

Everybody knows there are some things money can’t buy, like love of happiness. It turns out another is often organizational change. The New York Times last week ran an article about an Air Force computer system that was cancelled after $1 billion had already been spent on it. $1 billion! For a presentation to earlier this year, I found this list of high-profile “IT project failures” costing companies billions of dollars. To be fair, the civic technology report does note to “ensure that civic tech solutions address real problems” technologists should use incremental and agile development methods. This is sensible advice but it was created in private sector contexts, where there can be tremendous impetus for organizational change and the market will impose strict discipline on firms. But governments are largely monopolies, and the larger issue isn’t lost funds (although that is important), but the ability to make changes at all, as seen in the Air Force example.

These large-scale “failures” occur establishing organizational technology doesn’t merely involve purchasing a tool, but instead requires developing a complex sociotechnical system. Implementing or changing technology therefore requires organizational changes (of roles, processes, values, etc), something that is so difficult it has sparked a mini-industry of scholars, consultants, and methods. Technologists often assume organizations with readily replace existing technology with new tools because they are clearly superior — faster, cheaper, easier to use, etc. While this is sometimes true, the inherent conservatism of organizations present an invisible barrier that must be overcome. And resistance to change may not be a bad thing, given the history of technical fads and unjustified hype. The known system that works adequately may be a better choice than the new one associated with unknown risks. As an example of this, I remember technologists advocating governments use mongoDB for open data portals several years ago, arguing it is technically superior than relational databases. Although it might be clearly superior along some dimensions (open source, more flexible, faster, etc), these are not dispositive in an organizational settings. Also important is interoperability with other systems, staff capacity and skills, and perhaps even the skills of citizens. The lesson to draw is that technology cannot be evaluated without considering the specific context in which it will be used, or implemented successfully without considering the necessary organizational changes.

5. Civic Technology is Hard Because Governments are Diverse … and Don’t Just Fill Potholes

Implementing civic tech means deciding on what goals it should help achieve. The report doesn’t dwell on the precise nature of government, and for good reason: governments are involved in a a bewildering variety of activities. When civic technology advocates do talk about governmental functions, they often focus on service delivery. Providing public services is an important and highly visible function, but governments do much more: establishing and enforcing regulations, administering grant programs, planning events, running facilities, orchestrating economic development, etc. These functions evolve in unique local contexts, and therefore what they do and their exact legal powers vary widely. (See Frug’s City Bound for a discussion of municipal legal powers). The diverse nature of governments has baffled scholars for years, and the best theory on the subject I have found is the one John Dewey’s sketched out in his classic The Public and Its Problems. In his view, government is by definition an ill-defined institution under continual change, as the democratic public deliberates about what problems exist and how they should be resolved.

More narrow views focusing on inputs and outputs, popular in some branches of public administration and popular discussion, can often lead to dead ends. For example, the high profile See Click Fix famously focuses on filling potholes and other discrete service requests. What is the broader public goal this achieves? What if the government just refilled potholes over and over, instead of determining a more durable or better pavement? Would pothole money be better spent a pavement management system that could avoid potholes, or should it be spent on other things, like public transportation? Given constrained resources, what services should government provide, exactly? It’s tempting to avoid these issues and their associated debates about the role of government. But any argument for change in the public sphere, even in the name of mere efficiency or services, is inherently political.


In light of these difficulties, what should we be doing? I will only suggest some ideas here.

6. Find Allies for New Partnerships

Amid the tremendous hype of civic technology, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they constitute just a small interest group contending for resources and power in cities. Plenty of others have equally laudable goals, and therefore this community must consider critiques seriously and seek out allies. Partnering with domain-specific allies could lend much-needed legitimacy, expert knowledge, and resources. These could include groups working in fields as diverse as vacant property, public safety, public health, or education. Although collaborations can flop, where they work the result can be greater than the sum of its parts.

7. Involve More Scholars and Community-Based Organizations in the Civic Technology Discussion

As a first step, continuing a self-reflective discussion is a constructive step. However this must involve a broader set of people, and include more scholars and representatives from community-based organizations. I couldn’t help but notice only only academic was interviewed for the report (U. of Albany’s Theresa Pardo, Judith Kurland only recently moved to a university after a long career in government). Most informants were city officials and technologists. City officials, especially elected officials and their aides, have a powerful interest in seeming innovative and effective, but are loath to tell you want they can’t achieve or what seemingly unsurmountable obstacles they face. Technology advocates also have specific perspective, and are often wedded to particular approaches or technologies and lack detailed knowledge of what cities need. I recognize there’s a supply problem as well involved in reaching out to these groups. A vanishingly small group of academics take any interest in the field, for a variety of reasons, and plenty of public officials don’t “get” new technology and so will require education and engagement. One encouraging development was the consultation of Kathy Pettit for the report, a leader of the Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP). This group of community-based practitioners has been working with data and technology in poor urban neighborhoods since the 1990s, and the network could provide rich experiences from this experience.

8. Focus on Building Long-Term Capacity and Infrastructure

Second, I think there should be a focus on building government capacity and infrastructure in the long term. This means engaging more deeply with existing IT staff, and focusing on efforts to institutionalize changes. The change strategy in many cities in this area has been to get some “quick wins” with unambiguous positive effects. However, these efforts are vulnerable to being swept away with changing administrations or shifting priorities. More lasting reforms have been the result of small groups working within government, often with limited resources, and not from “hack day” events or short-term fellowships, however important these can be as part of a larger strategy. Focusing on capacity will also require deeper engagement with the existing “government technology” ecosystem, understanding the existing tools in the marketplace and nature of the public purchasing process. Recent interest in focusing on the Request for Proposals (RFP) process is an exciting step in this direction.


Civic technology efforts represent a spirit of innovation and social hope, but one that should be combined with humility and a long-term perspective. Many fields can contribute insights to smooth the way and anticipate pitfalls. In many cases, there is no one “best” way forward. Despite Obama’s recent victory, there is no identifiable government reform movement in the United States, and existing institutional structures and bureaucracies are often viewed as hopelessly ossified. (The last visible effort in this area, Reinventing Government, was during the Clinton administration). For good or ill, today’s technology reformers are the vanguard of public sector reform in the U.S. In his prescient 1927 work The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey foresaw how modern technologies would “create means which alter the modes of associated behavior which radically change the quality, character, and place of impact of their individual consequences.” If social media has done anything, it is powerfully transformed our “associative behavior,” as Dewey predicted. Urging we avoid “short-cuts of direct action” Dewey argued the state is and should be always under debate, advising that “formation of states must be an experimental process … Only through constant watchfulness and criticism of public officials by citizens can a state be maintained in integrity and usefulness.” For these reasons, the civic technology field bears an importance beyond its important but modest achievements so far, since the field embodies the potential for a better democratic society that harnesses technological change as it is transformed by it.

Author: Rob Goodspeed