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Civic Tech: Hacking Government Bureaucracy One App at a Time

A look at how tech is evolving civics and government.

December 14, 2016

The easiest way to explain civic technology? Open up the OneBusAway app on your smartphone.

OneBusAway gives users real-time transit info. So, the next time you’re at the bus stop wondering how long you need to wait, you can just tap the OneBusAway app and it will tell you the number of minutes accurately and instantaneously.  

Kari Watkins and Brian Ferris, the University of Washington grads who created OneBusAway, took open government data and built a user-friendly mobile app interface. The app is a perfect example of civic technology, as it serves as an intermediary between the public and confusing, difficult-to-access government information.

Candace Faber is the City of Seattle’s first civic technology advocate. She’s been in the role for about a year now and works with local techies to increase the use of the City’s open-data platform and generally encourages projects that increase engagement with the local government. For questions on the intersection of tech and civic impact, she’s the one to ask.

Seattle’s OneBusAway is a great example of civic tech. “Our use of tech is evolving very quickly and as it does, our needs for information in real-time are evolving very quickly as well,” says Faber. “Civic tech is something that can really ease access to information for people… The whole mission is to make sure that government works for people and we can be more responsive to the needs of people.”

Prior to becoming the first civic technology advocate, Faber was actively involved in the local civic tech scene, leading several events like Hack the Commute, Hack to End Homelessness and FullConTech.

She says there are three main categories of civic tech, all of which involve using open data, tech and/or human-centered design.

There’s an incredible alchemy when you have deep insights into a problem but can see a tech solution.

OneBusAway fits into the first category, which consists of a third-party tech company taking public, government data and making it easier to consume. Ethan Phelps-Goodman’s Seattle in Progress is another example of this.

Phelps-Goodman says Seattle in Progress is the bridge between the public and a highly technical data set. Essentially, it digitizes “notice of proposed land use” boards, so users can see any current or proposed construction in Seattle on one online map. Phelps-Goodman is hoping the platform helps grow the conversation around development in Seattle.

Candace Faber is the City of Seattle’s first civic technology advocate. “Seattle in Progress is a classic example [of civic tech], which is to take some data sets that the government has made public and put a better interface around it,” Phelps-Goodman says.

The second category of civic tech projects involves third-party companies creating equally useful tools for the public without using government data. Faber cited the Seattle Trails app as an example of this type of civic tech.

A group of volunteers created Seattle Trails, and used public data of Seattle parks to create an app that displays trail terrain, driving direction and maps more accurately than you could find on any other mapping software, according to Faber. She says the city needs it, but it isn’t paid for by the city. The project is a collaboration between the Seattle Parks and Recreation department, Seattle Trails Alliance and volunteer software developers.

The final category of civic tech projects is tech products developed specifically with the hope of helping government do a better job. These usually involve collaboration with a government entity, like  RideAlong, a new app created in collaboration with Seattle’s front-line police officers “to help law enforcement provide appropriate responses to people in crisis on our streets.”  The app is optimized for patrol cars and suggests talking points and the best places for officers to take people in crisis.

The app was created in collaboration with Code for America, a nonprofit that brings government and technology together to improve government services. Faber says their founding in 2009 kicked off the “civic tech movement” across the country. The organization has been involved in the production of a number of other successful apps like GetCalFresh, which improves how government delivers food assistance to families in need, and Clear My Record, gives people a second chance by helping them dismiss or reclassify low-level offenses.

Phelps-Goodman says Seattle in Progress is the bridge between the public and a highly technical data set. “I think there is a general consensus that... the government is quite far behind with tech and sort of the means of interacting with citizens,” Phelps-Goodman says. “It’s so much easier to interact with a private company than your local government. So how do you bring the government up to this sort of level of engagement with the public that the private sector has sort of already gotten to?”

Phelps-Goodman says the answer lies in civic tech partnerships. Faber agrees and says her role allows her to combine innovation, risk and progress for the city government.

“We [governments] really need to have some construct that allows us to take really thoughtful, small risks and innovate and experience so that we can begin to see the environment around us,” Faber says. “Civic tech allows us to try new things and validate them on a small scale — and if something really fulfills a public need than we are able to integrate that into our more traditional process and deliver a better experience,” she says.

There’s an incredible alchemy when you have deep insights into a problem but can see a tech solution,” says Faber. 


Kate Clark

Kate Clark is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. She recently graduated from the University of Washington where she studied journalism and international studies. After graduating, she traveled to Bangalore, India to work as a journalist. These days, Kate is busy navigating algorithms and bots as she searches for a full-time writing gig.

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