Entering the Civic Technology Space


4 min read

Entering the Civic Technology Space

Last night, I attended my first Civic Tech DC meeting. Civic Tech DC is a "non-partisan, non-political group of volunteer civic hackers working together to solve local issues and help people engage with the city". It was a great opportunity to work with other civic hackers and representatives from different nonprofits around the city, and also to learn about the different issues my city is facing and how Software Engineers and other people in tech like you and me can help them. This post serves to broadly define what Civic Technology is, relate my experience working on the DC Eviction Court Scraper project, and explain why you should care about Civic Tech.

What is Civic Technology?

My first experience with Civic Tech was actually when I was a volunteer intern for Opportunity Hack, an organization that promotes skills-based volunteering for social good and hosted an annual hackathon by the same name. During the internship, I along with a few others built MedCare, a simple Electronic Health Records System primarily for use by the Chandler CARE Center and the Neurologic Music Therapy Services of Arizona. It was my first experience building software in a team, and it also started me down the path of Software Engineering. I enjoyed working together with my teammates, figuring out new technologies, and keeping track of everyone's progress. Although I did not know it at the time, this was my first foray into the realm of Civic Tech.

Broadly defined, "Civic Tech is technology used to directly improve or influence governance, politics, or socio-political issues". While many Civic Tech projects work directly with federal, state, or local governments, others work with nonprofits and organizations looking to inspire change in their community but need help on the digital side of things. Civic Tech organizations are wide and varied, ranging from the US Digital Service and US Digital Corps for full-time work at the federal level, to large organizations providing volunteer services such as Code for America and the US Digital Response, and smaller organizations like Civic Tech DC and Opportunity Hack that work more with city governments and local nonprofits.

My Experience with Civic Tech DC

After a few months of settling into my new job, I began looking for Civic Tech organizations that I could work with. I had been interested in Civic Tech since my initial project with Opportunity Hack, and my Software Engineering job at AWS in the government cloud contracting space was a first step towards that. However, many of the larger Civic Tech organizations were full-time jobs working for the Federal Government, and I was unwilling to leave my job to join them. Instead, I looked for volunteering opportunities in Civic Tech and found the US Digital Response and Civic Tech DC as two volunteer organizations in this space. As the US Digital Response was looking for more experienced volunteers (Mid-Senior Engineers), I decided to join Civic Tech DC and work on projects at the city government and local nonprofit level.

At my first Civic Tech DC meeting last night, there were around 30-40 attendees present, and many were first-timers just like me. I introduced myself and made some small talk until the start of a presentation about the Civic Tech DC organization and an explanation of the current projects being undertaken. I chose to join the DC Eviction Court Scraper project as it seemed to be a Data Engineering project, which is a field that I am currently interested in. It used to be an active project that scraped court cases from the DC Superior Court's Web Portal, but no one ended up maintaining it. We also discovered that the web portal had changed, so the old code would not have worked anyway. The rest of the meeting was used to explore and poke around at the new portal, and we eventually discovered an open API that the portal was calling. Next steps were to fully explore the API and see what data we could collect with it, find users and use cases for the project, and design an implementation for software that could scrape the portal and API to collect data about evictions going on in DC and analyze patterns in that data. Overall, it was a very fun meeting and a great (re)introduction to the world of Civic Tech.

What about you?

Civic Tech is a great space to work or volunteer in as a Software Engineer, as the impact that Civic Technologists make for governments and nonprofits is both outsized and necessary. It is a chance to use your technology skills for social good, whatever that means to you. There is also the opportunity to learn new skills that you would otherwise not learn at work, for example, new technologies or soft skills working directly with clients (governments and nonprofits). I learned more about how DC's government and court system work, and I also will be learning Data Engineering skills while building the project. I am proud to now call myself a Civic Technologist and thankful to Civic Tech DC for organizing the event. What about you? I am excited about the impact that you can make as a Civic Technologist.