Is civic technology the killer app for democracy?

Smartphone apps have improved convenience for public transportation in many urban centers. In Washington, DC, riders can download apps to help them figure out where to go, when to show up and how long to wait for a bus or train. However, the problem with public transport in DC is not the lack of modern, helpful and timely information. The problem is that the Metro subway system is on fire. 

Critical infrastructure refers to the vital systems that connect us. Like the water catastrophe in Flint, Michigan and our crumbling roads, bridges and airports, the Metro system in DC is experiencing a systems failure. The Metro’s problems arise from typical public challenges like  poor management and deferred maintenance.

Upgrades of physical infrastructure are not easy and nimble like a software patch or an agile design process. They are slow, expensive and subject to deliberation and scrutiny. In other words, they are the fundamental substance of democratic decision-making: big decisions with long-term implications that require thoughtful strategy, significant investment, political leadership and public buy-in.

A killer app is an application you love so much you buy into a whole new way of doing things. Email and social media are good examples of killer apps. The killer app for Metro would have to get political leaders to look beyond their narrow, short-term interests and be willing to invest in modern public transportation for our national capital region.

The same is true for fixing our critical infrastructure throughout the nation. The killer apps for the systems on which we rely daily won’t be technical, they will be human. It will be Americans working together to a build a technology-enabled resilient democracy — one that is inclusive, responsive and successful in the Information Age.

In 2007, the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi river. During his presidential bid, Senator John McCain used this event as an example of the failure of our leaders to make trade-offs for common national purpose. Case in point, an extravagantly expensive congressionally funded Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” that served just a handful of people on an island. But how many apps to nowhere are we building?

Let’s look at government as a subscription service for the provision and preservation of common goods. Sean McDonald

Identifying and scrutinizing apps to nowhere is an awkward challenge because it requires that we, as a democratic society, interrupt the cork-popping IPO parties and continually ask the bigger questions about long-term consequences, trade-offs and who exactly information technology is helping. There are many apps to nowhere, like that platform to match donors with needy classrooms that fails to address the underlying issue of why taxes aren’t paying for science books. Or that fitness app on your wrist that tells you how many calories you just consumed, but not whether the food is safe or if the locations in its supply chain respect human rights.

In DC, commuters who can afford alternatives will leave Metro. They’ll walk, drive, order a car service or locate a bikeshare. The people who suffer from the public service risk and imbalance of the current Metro system are those who have no choice.

So here’s the challenge: Modern technology needs to create an inclusive society. Our current technical approach too often means that we’re prioritizing progress or profit for the few over the many. This pattern defeats the purpose of both the technology revolution and American democracy. Government and infrastructure are supposed to serve everyone, but technology thus far has made it so that public failures affect some Americans more than others. 

DC public transportation is an emblem of today’s American town square, where rights and responsibilities are out of balance. We all want safe and clean communities with well-functioning critical infrastructure, but we don’t feel obligated to pay for them, especially when they benefit people who live elsewhere. Data and technology can help close this perception gap.

If far-flung citizens understood their mutual interests and the cost and efficiency advantages of coordinated efforts in the formative stages of policy decision-making, they would likely be more supportive of critical infrastructure projects. Done right, data will give us a chance to figure out a modern version of federalism — shared responsibilities among states and DC. Fortunately, a Nobel-prize-winning model for this kind of governance already exists.

In the near future, data science and new visualization techniques will make it easy for elected leaders to view and analyze both the parts and the whole of a complex system (of the Metro, of land useof disease, of climate change). Dynamic modeling will show context and trends and help forecast possible consequences — all within the workflow of lawmaking — so policy makers and interested citizens can better understand the impact of making, or failing to make, important policy decisions. Such course-correction tools for interrogating data or for assuring ethical statistical methods are already on display in journalism and civil society.

Is civic technology the killer app for democracy?

Because our systems generally run well, Americans have the luxury of taking them for granted. As a result, we woefully underestimate how connected we are. From fire hydrants to school teachers, our way of life is built on intricate dependence on one another. American success has always required long-term investment in public goods like health and parks, roads and electrical grids, science and education. We expect this mutual support so much that it is invisible to most of us. To civic technology, however, it must be visible and clearly understood, because the technology itself is built upon our civic interconnectedness.

Civic technology is the use of technology for the public good — reporting a broken street light, for example, or allocating a public budget — and it might give Americans the chance to renew public life by making democracy more visible and intentional. Hybrid platforms blend the convenience of open data with a strong commitment to the larger society. Civic technology inherently asks the tough questions about who is helped, who is harmed, how inclusive a system is and whether the app is ultimately good for democracy.

The civic disconnect between information convenience and failing public systems is a considerable challenge. Big data might be a huge boost to our economy, but will it help us build a better nation? Hackathons are terrific community-building events, but we can’t code ourselves out of our failing infrastructure. To build the killer civic app, we need to find an ethical framework that connects technology to political leadership, to power.

This is not about Left versus Right or public versus private. To address our critical needs as a nation we must transcend those tired divisions and move quickly. In the words of civic tech entrepreneur Sean McDonald, “Let’s look at government as a subscription service for the provision and preservation of common goods.” We are taxpayers, after all. It follows, then, that our collective goal should be a technology-enabled system that provides and preserves the common good.

For democracy to succeed in the Information Age, we’ll need some new rules of engagement with technology. The White House recently released its third report on data and its implications for society. The 2016 report pays special attention to the ethics of machine automation and algorithms. The authors stress the importance of ethical analytics and propose the principle of “equal opportunity by design.” It’s an excellent point of departure as we recalibrate old systems and build new bridges to a more resilient, inclusive and prosperous nation.