Civic Tech in Hostile Environments – how can we thrive in challenging contexts?
mySociety convened a TICTeC Action Lab (aka working group) of five people to commission work to address some of the challenges identified by the global civic tech community to help the Civic Tech sector improve and unlock impact.
As part of the TICTeC Labs programme, on 17th October, 2022 we convened a Civic Tech Surgery that brought together a group of civic tech practitioners and communications professionals from across the world. During the Surgery, attendees discussed common the challenges of running civic tech initiatives in conflict settings and other difficult contexts. The panellists brought their experiences to the questions of how best to support the civic tech community in hostile environments; and what is – and isn’t – helpful when we are doing so.
We then convened an Action Lab to commission a practical solution that will help organisations running civic tech projects to be able to thrive within hostile environments. There was a TICTeC Labs grant of $3760 USD available to make this solution a reality.
The Action Lab’s mandate
The purpose of this Action Lab was to use the information gathered at the above Surgery to discuss and decide on a piece of work that would be most useful to produce in order to help the global civic tech community meet the challenges of creating civic tech within hostile environments and how a small grant might best be deployed to help those working for good despite tough external factors.
Common challenges identified at the Civic Tech Surgery were:
Security: Both people and information must be kept secure when working in hostile environments.
Practical and logisitcal problems: Stable internet connections and electricity supplies can’t be relied on; roads may be poor and organisations may need to work across large or difficult-to-reach areas; there may be language barriers.
Time: Issues with time expectations manifest themselves in a variety of ways; for example –
The documentation of atrocities may take longer than the period in which funders expect to see results;
Organisations may need to react more quickly to fast-changing events than tech developers are used to.
Organisations have to work in hostile online environments which also foster mis- and disinformation; hate speech, algorithmic profile targeting and polarisation.
In the real world, they may be battling electoral fraud and a non-independent media that is under political pressure.
Lack of political will: Trying to run a service that is helpful to citizens, such as an Alaveteli-based FOI service, is difficult without government co-operation — and this leads to a lack of open data for civic technologists to work with.
The below possible solutions to the above challenges were identified at the Surgery. These, and others, will be discussed by Action Lab members to decide which should be taken forward:
Create networks of grassroots organisations working in the same or similar areas, online if that is safer.
Make longlasting and authentic relationships with the organisations working on the ground; not just partnerships for the duration that the funding is available.
Base your services or software on the actual needs of the people you’re making it for. Listen to them before you begin. They might not even need software: it might be that they need connections, or training, instead. The objectives come first, before the tech.
Ensure that the safety of people and security of information are prioritised.
Build software so that it works offline — for example by storing data locally on a device and allowing the user to upload it when they come back to somewhere with wifi.
Often the way forward is to use or repurpose existing software in new contexts. You don’t necessarily have to see yourself as a creator of ‘peacetech’ to be providing a technology that fosters peace.
Don’t forget that people in hostile environments need psychological support as well as technological tools. A sense of humour is also important.
Consider giving money to people other than ‘the usual suspects’, directly and without strings. Take more risks.
Some ideas for using the grant were:
Consult the organisations over what they really need.
A handbook listing ways to work and what not to do in hostile environments.
The organisations that need the most help are not always fluent in English. Consider providing a contact that can help them through the grant process.
Consider not requiring any proposals or reports, as that uses up the valuable resource of the organisations bidding for the money, and takes up some of the money you’re granting in terms of their time.
The Action Lab agreed to commission work which repurposes existing software in a way which benefits civic tech organisations working in hostile environments. The subgrant was awarded to PolicyLab Africa for a project repurposing the Independent Electoral Commission of Nigeria’s polling unit location data to track and map locations of electoral violence in Nigeria – read about the Election Violence Tracker.