High-tech Civic Tech – Civic Tech Field Guide
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High-tech Civic Tech

High-tech Civic Tech

It’s no secret that new technologies can disrupt traditional power dynamics. There is a key window of time in the application of tech for the public good: too early, and we might be wasting precious resources on tech that never proves itself. Too late, and the technology is too widespread to offer an asymmetric advantage. Here, we track emerging technologies and efforts to apply them toward the public interest.

Sensors


Sensors can quantify the physical environment, such as traffic, or environmental factors like air quality. While the traditional “smart city” vision is often based on the premise of blanketing public places with sensors, numerous civic tech projects have questioned this tech-first assumption by arming under-resourced groups with sensors, or training them to evade and disrupt antisocial sensor usage.

 

Virtual and augmented reality


We include Virtual and Augmented Reality projects that are focused on pro-social goals, like increasing comprehension of public policies, promoting empathy, or understanding the effects of climate change.

 

Blockchain


Although it immediately brings to mind over-hyped virtual currency markets, there are many sober-minded civic and government experiments to use blockchain technology’s distributed ledger to improve how we track land purchases, credential educational achievements, and administer elections.

 

Hardware


Physical technology, such as consumer electronics, built for civic tech applications. Although many of these technologies have been around for years now, creating new hardware remains hard.

  • Cameras aren’t a new technology, but the computational photography behind the lens is. Civic tech projects include sousveillance, or using the widespread availability of cameras to document antisocial behavior like police brutality and human rights violations.
  • Drones, or UAVs, aren’t just for conducting war. They’ve been used to monitor crop growth to adjust pesticide usage, map neighborhoods, and deliver supplies in crisis situations.
  • Satellites can be used for a range of public good tech solutions, from providing imagery to humanitarian responses to monitoring environmental degradation.
  • Connectivity: If people cannot easily connect to digital tools in an equitable manner, civic tech will fail to address existing power imbalances in society.
  • ICT4D projects apply Information & Communications Technology to assist and accelerate developing countries, sometimes through hardware projects.

Artificial Intelligence


Technologies that train models to autonomously support or function independently of direct human effort. Including (quoted definitions are provided by Google.org’s report, Accelerating social good with artificial intelligence (PDF)):

  • Bots are autonomous or semi-autonomous chat agents that interact with people for the purpose of achieving a civic goal, like registering a vote or capturing citizen feedback.
  • Rules-based solutions: A core artificial intelligence method using explicitly stated rules to make decisions
  • Machine learning: “Learn without explicit programming, using examples, to develop a model that can make decisions.”
    • Deep learning: “Using multiple layers of artificial neurons to create a network that can make a decision based on raw input. Applications of deep learning include computer vision and speech recognition.”
  • Audio processing: “Hear, recognize, and process sound files and other auditory inputs.”

    • Speech recognition: training computers to understand human speech, or at least convert it to text.
    • Machine vision: “See, recognize, and process images, videos, and other visual inputs.”
  • Machine learning analytics: “Process and understand large volumes of data to identify patterns and make predictions.”
  • Natural Language Processing: “Process, decipher, understand, and generate human language” (including sentiment analysis)
  • Government AI strategies “[A] set of coordinated government policies that have a clear objective of maximizing the potential benefits and minimizing the potential costs of AI for the economy and society” – Building an AI World, by CIFAR (PDF)
  • Algorithmic transparency projects open “black box” algorithms up to expert and/or public audit by sharing inputs, rules, and other components of how the system makes its decisions.