What we’re learning about civic technology and low-income people

Civic technology – the use of digital technologies and social media for service provision, civic engagement, and data analysis – has the potential to transform cities. Transforming cities means making life better for everyone who lives in them: giving everyone a voice in positively shaping their neighborhood’s future, making it easier to get around, making efficient and responsive municipal services, improving access to employment — altogether, creating fairer and more sustainable places that people are proud to call home. That’s what we believe here at OpenPlans, and we’re working on projects to bring that transformation closer, in partnership with great clients, partners and open source contributors who share those beliefs.

Over the past few months, we’ve been able to step back from that work and examine how well civic tech is working to transform cities. With support from Living Cities — a consortium of 22 of the world’s largest foundations and financial services companies working to make cities places of economic opportunity for low-income people — we carried out a “field scan” of the state of civic tech. This was a team effort: Phil Ashlock (before heading to DC) worked on the interviews, Frank wrote the content with assistance from our partners at Living Cities, and Naama Lissar helped with layout and logistics for the final doc.

The Field Scan summarizes interviews we conducted with 25 people with expertise in cities, issues facing low income people, and technology. The scan attempts to capture the challenges we heard, including the complexity of building tools that reflect community needs, and the issues facing cities looking to engage in civic tech: data privacy rules, extreme budgetary pressures, and a mismatch between the skills required to do this work and the skills their staff currently have. We heard that more robust methods are needed to share what we learn from our efforts, both good and bad. Read more about the scan and the broader context over on the Living Cities blog.

The scan is not intended as an authoritative portrait of the field — there’s so much going on — so additional research and exploration are needed to understand these issues and potential solutions. We hope the scan is a useful starting point for those seeking to understand the current state of civic tech —  please check it out, and give us your feedback and criticisms.


As feedback started to come in on the field scan today, we realized it would be useful to have a version of the doc where you can add comments or brief responses directly. Here it is.

Don’t feel obliged to comment via the doc — thoughts via Twitter are still much appreciated, and blog posts are of course even better. We’ll gather all the input and make sure it’s available to read alongside the main field scan in the future.