Civic Source is a newsletter about the way local governments use data and technology to make decisions that shape communities beneath the surface. It’s space for us to learn together about what innovation means for our local futures.
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Why start Civic Source?
We are no longer in a place where we can, as a society, say no to data. But there is still a chance for us to collectively participate in the design of data and technology systems that affect daily life in our communities.
Local governments increasingly run on data and digital systems.
These systems decide how public resources are distributed and track how well public programs are running. People submit forms for benefits through tech systems that store individual-level data. Governments create internal forms to purchase goods, like food or pencils, that tell us where public money is going.
While federal governments can advance tech policy agendas that create better infrastructure nationwide, local governments use data and technology in ways that directly affect peoples’ lives by providing essential services.
Most local governments are still in the early days of building out their use of data and technology.
Data systems in local governments are deployed by public servants with support and influence from private contractors, tech companies, and civil society. As public processes shift toward primarily using digital systems to operate, they should be easier than ever to see and evaluate. But a majority of local administration still happens behind closed doors.
The next era of public data and technology systems must be designed by and for the people in our communities.
Community members, activists, social service providers, and researchers first need to know how local governments are using data and technology to then build better systems for the future. Data and technology affect every one of the most pressing policy issues in cities, towns, and rural communities, like food security, housing affordability, public health, or human services. To imagine new futures together, public servants and residents have to find new ways to relate through a shared understanding of data and technology.
Letter from the author
Since the start of my career, I’ve worked across dozens of cities and towns in the US helping governments to launch open data programs and make stronger connections with community organizations to share and apply public data.
In that time, I’ve learned just how many decisions public servants make about how to count data (and what data counts) that never see the light of day. These decisions determine important things like who gets benefits, where parks are built, and how policies will change in the future.
In that time, I’ve also learned about the motivation, the fear, the anxiety, the disappointment, and the excitement that public servants feel when making the decisions that will shape how governments work. Public servants, just like the rest of us, are learning how to use data and technology to shape our collective futures.
While public servants work within government institutions to design new systems, organizers, nonprofit workers, and community leaders work outside of them to try to change these systems for the better. They are some of the first and best representatives I seek out when I’m working with governments to better understand what communities need from data and technology innovation.
Governments, because of their legacies, tend to exclude the voices of people who are experts about what happens on the ground in their own communities. Even when they do seek out these voices, they can still build products, policies, or systems that hard-code bias or injustice into the way civic projects are carried out.
My plan is to use this newsletter to share what I know about how governments make decisions about data and technology that affect specific local issues. If anything, this newsletter is an effort to make myself obsolete. I hope that by opening the door for others to learn from my experiences, we can generate new theories about how data and technology might work for our collective futures.
Civic Source was created by me, Katya Abazajian, with flash grant support from the Shuttleworth Foundation. Please feel free to share and circulate information from this newsletter with attribution. Special thanks to my friend Raquel Breternitz for designing the logo.