When civic meets tech: How do they get along with each other?
Author: Iva Nenadic
Technological innovation unveiled numerous opportunities for civic activism. Social software foster collaboration, mobilization, and information exchange. A whole series of open source tools are made available to facilitate activities, communication, and organisational operations. Technology holds great opportunity in helping develop tools to increase transparency, to hold governments accountable and to support community engagement. And while almost everyone acknowledges its potentials, there is still significant amount of restraint and resistance to embrace new tools and practices into a daily routine.
About 70 years ago the prominent social psychologist Kurt Lewin introduced the idea that every change meets resistance and that, in order to understand the dynamics of group life, one should get an insight into the desire for and resistance to, specific change. “Change and constancy are relative concepts; group life is never without change, merely differences in the amount and type of change exist”, noted Lewin in 1947, not knowing that his words will gain even greater significance half of a century later. Change is a constant – this has probably never been as obvious as it is today. Rapid technological development affects all areas of human life and humanity as such. It redefines how we see ourselves, how we interact with others, how we learn, work, relax… and how we hold our governments to account.
Civic activism has somewhat always been related to the available technology – from writing protest letters to elected officials, to using social media to help plan and execute protests. Not only that established activists strive to use innovative technology solutions to increase their impact, but the rapid technological development has also created a new current of activism with a tech-prefix. Increasingly, coders are willing to employ their skills for a public good, but they often lack the understanding of basic social issues. On the other side, civic activists are very well aware of the social and political problems, but they lack the knowledge to fully understand and embrace new software-based solutions. Civil society organisations actively use many new technologies, but much more needs to be done to develop and strengthen skills in the sector. If the impact is to be significant, civic activists and coders need to cooperate, which is not always easy, for a number of reasons. This article explores what are the challenges in interaction and communication between civic activists, coders and civic coders, and what could be done to overcome them.
The answers were collected through semi-structured in-depth interviews with eight activists, both civic and tech, from seven organisations from the same number of countries. All are members of the TransparenCEE community and were selected to represent different types of organisations by size, relation to technology as well as the political and social system they act in. Accordingly, the final sample consisted of: Transparency International Russia, Centre for Peace Studies Croatia, K-Monitor Hungary, Center for Investigative Reporting Bosnia and Herzegovina, ePanstwo Poland, Access to Information Programme Bulgaria and KohoVolit Czech Republic and Slovakia. Despite different perspectives, experiences and level of technical skills, interviewees faced similar problems and discussed the ways to solve them. Here are listed the most common challenges and potential solutions, five of each.
Challenge 1: Resistance to change
As Lewin said, every change meets resistance. People are reluctant to use something they don’t fully understand or what they consider to be beyond their skills. And often they lack incentives, capacities and time to invest in skills development. Gordan Bosanac from the Centre for Peace Studies Croatia (CMS) explained it this way: “To me, it is all very charming and appealing. However, along my main duties and daily routine I don’t find time to deal more with all emerging technologies. It would be good to have someone who could guide us and recommend the best tools so we wouldn’t bother with an average software. So, theoretically yes, but practically it is very difficult to fully embrace technology into what we already do”.
According to our interviewees and other studies, journalists are especially resistant to change. A new analysis conducted by the International Center for Journalists found that many newsrooms and journalists are lagging behind in embracing the latest technologies, despite the rapid and profound change of information ecosystem. This is probably due to a high routinization of a journalistic work. “Journalists have been doing things certain way for a long time. We gather people with different experiences and approaches, and most of them are aware of opportunities and time-saving utensils. They know that technology can be useful, but often don’t know how exactly… They appreciate new possibilities, but some of them tend to lean on other colleagues who are skilled to work with Excel, rather than learning how to do it by themselves. It is a mistake because a person skilled to work with an Excel might not spot the story in a way journalist would. However, all of that is part of the process of digital transformation of journalism. Twenty years ago writing was the most important skill for a reporter, today we expect from journalist to know how to make pictures, create basic infographics, take videos…”, said Kenan Efendić, Digital media manager at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Challenge 2: Lack of (mutual) understanding
All interviewees pointed out that there is a lack of understanding between civic activists and coders. It is sometimes hard to understand what are the potential areas of cooperation, and even when they find a common ground a misunderstanding occurs during the implementation. On the civic side there is a lack of understanding of the technology and its application, while the coders are often not aware of the scope and complexities of social and political issues. This is probably due to the fact that the tech activism is in its early stage of development in most countries of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe and the people who could mediate between two sides are very rare.
“Civil society needs to know what kind of data they need and how they could use it for the purposes of their activities. Most civic activists don’t really understand what open data is, what data could be open and how could they use it to achieve their goals. On the other side, IT people willing to engage for social good should invest a bit more in social education”, emphasized Diana Bancheva, a Communications Coordinator at the Access to Information Programme (AIP).
From the Transparency International Russia comes an example of how lack of understanding can delay a cooperation. This big international NGO strives to connect people from blockchain community in Russia and to understand this technology better. Potentials seem to be great and the coders are willing to cooperate but activists from the Transparency still need to understand how this cooperation can be built and for which purpose. Unless something structural changes within the non-tech NGOs this issue will likely occur with every new technology. And it is even a bigger problem for smaller NGOs and NGOs with insufficient resources to afford a person with technical expertise.
Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) in Bosnia and Herzegovina often engages with coders to scrap the public data, which is still hard to obtain because the government publishes it in a form that is not easy to read or some information is missing. For this, CIN mainly relies on the international help, namely on the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a platform formed by 40 research centres, media and journalistic non-profits around the globe who promote technology-based approaches to investigative reporting. “We could engage local coders but they don’t have journalistic skills nor they understand all complexities of our investigations. For that reason, we have to rely on experts from countries that are more advanced in this regard. In Bosnia and Herzegovina there are still no experts who combine journalistic and coding skills”, said Kenan from the CIN, adding that: “journalists often expect from coders to fully understand the content of a certain dataset, or from designers they expect to comprehend the entire background of the story that needs to be visualized. Coders and designers, on the other side, often don’t see the stories and news in the same way as journalists. We often whiteness high noise in communication between these two sides”.
Looking from the side of IT specialists, such as Krzysztof Madejski from the ePanstwo in Poland and Michal Škop from the KohoVolit in Czech Republic, better understanding of technology by civic activists is needed. “Everyone is crazy about mobile apps, not understanding that it is not something they need and that it costs a lot to maintain a good one. It is our role then to bringing them down to reality”, said Madejski. It is somewhat a fashion to have a mobile application but, depending on the end goal, in many cases a responsive website is simpler, more efficient and cheaper solution. Furthermore, mobile apps and responsive websites read differently from traditional publications designed for print – the text has to be short and to the point. Škop noted that this is not always clear to civic activists: “Sometimes is difficult to explain to people that the amount of content they provide has to fit the size of the monitor screen. Traditional civic activists often do not think this way and are not aware of constraints. But it doesn’t surprise as this is all very much new to them”.
Challenge 3: Unrealistic expectations
Lack of understanding is related to unrealistic expectations: sometimes too low, often too high. Diana Bancheva from Bulgarian AIP said: “IT specialists believe that they can solve any problem by technical means which is not true and not the case for Bulgaria”. Kenan Efendic from the CIN observed that: “Some journalists still live in the world of paper, written requests and long sentences. They are not very interested in learning how coders scrap huge amounts of data that would otherwise be hard to obtain, and how they organize them in an easy-to-explore way, for example in excel. They take it for granted that this is an easy process and should always be done very quickly”.
Just because a good technology makes many things easier does not mean that it is easy to create a good technology. Civic activists should be involved in every step of the development of tools they are going to use. It is clear that they understand social issues they aim to tackle, but to apply supportive software they should also understand the scope and limits of the available technology. Coders, on the other side, should understand better the capacities and limits of a civic organisation they engage with. “When it comes to new digital technologies, civic activists have ideas but don’t have them broken to operational level. People from IT, on the other side, want to do something but mainly focusing just on technology without thinking about end goal or without considering the nature and operation flows within a specific organization. Capacities, budget, resources have to be taken into account, instead of just imposing some tools”, explained Krzysztof Madejski from ePanstwo.
Challenge 4: Motivation and resources
Another challenge to the engagement of IT specialists in the area of civic activism is motivation. It is very clear that this cannot be money but rather an internal incentive to change things for better. It has to be a challenge for coders and other tech specialists to engage with journalists and civic activists on initiatives for public good, as it is hard to expect that an NGO can offer hiring conditions similar to those in a commercial IT sector. “We cannot offer the amounts they [IT specialists] can get from private companies. We have to find another way to motivate them to engage for our cause”, said Gordan Bosanac from the CMS Croatia. Or, as Madejski said, limited resources will always be a problem of this sector.
Krzysztof Madejski, himself an IT specialist, decided to switch from a commercial to a non-profit sector: “My motivation was to engage and to be able to change things for better. I used to work for private software companies and, yes, salaries are definitely lower than in commercial sector but it is more motivating to work and for me is more interesting to use my skills for a social good. In general, I think that the money is not the biggest problem of the non-profit sector – it is a project oriented, short-term hiring. For this reason, NGOs also pay to external companies rather than having someone in-house”.
And even when public good is the source of motivation, some tech activists might get discouraged when their high hopes and expectations (mentioned above) get hit by the reality. “In our experience many tech activists are young students and recent graduates who often studied abroad. They are very eager to improve things and the way institutions work. They come with a high enthusiasm but a low social knowledge. They have technical skills and a desire to cooperate but the problems that need to be solved are deeply political and social issues related with a deficiency in legislation, regulation, and its implementation. Our experience shows that these guys very quickly get discouraged because they think they can solve social issues by technical means, by developing apps or with other software things. When they see that there are many details and circumstances they have to take into account they get discouraged”, highlighted Diana Bancheva.
Challenge 5: Open government that is not really open
It is not just challenges that occur on the level of communication, understanding and cooperation between coders and civic activists. Obstacles sometimes also lay between civic activists and coders on the one side and public administration on the other. Examples of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria show how some countries in the region are still lag behind in making the government open, transparent and willing to engage its citizens in the decision-making process. In principle, they adopt open data policy but in practice many data sets are either incomplete or unavailable in a format that allows it to be retrieved and easily processed. “Sometimes we have to type data in excel manually as the public entities who create or collect information do not deliver it in a machine-readable format. I believe that this is very often done intentionally to sabotage independent investigations and monitoring”, said Kenan Efendic from CIN.
“It is somehow a fashion to talk about open data and utilizing open data for all kinds of purposes, but very often people don’t have access to ordinary information”, emphasized further Diana Bancheva from API, an organization that monitors the exercise of the right to information in Bulgaria. “We are confused with this trend of trying to open some data occasionally, chaotically without even thinking what people can do with it. Moreover, our assessment of the institutional websites shows that basic information about legislation, budget, and things relevant for everyday life is missing. Despite the law being in place since 2000, some public information is not being made available in Bulgaria. People are eager to engage, to be innovative and to cooperate but are being prevented by not disclosure of information”, explained Bancheva.
This shows that there is not only an issue of lack of understanding between civic activists and coders. Many people working for the state or in the public sector understand even less how technology works, what is needed to make it work, what issues it can solve, and how to address it. This often creates an obstacle for tech activism endeavours. Therefore, if the greater impact is to be achieved public officials should not be omitted from the solutions. To make open government really open requires not only a political will but also capacity building of administration and officials who are directly involved in the exchange and cooperation with civil sector.
There are no easy solutions for the above listed challenges. However, as our interviewees emphasized, some small steps could be done on different sides to improve the level of understanding, the cooperation and, finally, the impact. Below we list some potential solutions that do not relate directly to specific challenges but rather help to overcome most of them.
Solution 1: Themed encounters
As our interlocutors from the Transparency International Russia emphasized: “Even though most of the work today is done online, we need more events where you can meet people face to face. Direct communication fosters cooperation. It is much easier to reach relationship and establish trust when you meet someone in person. We need more interaction with each other”.
Hackathons are becoming more and more popular form of getting together coders, designers, activist and all others interested in using technology for a social good. At the same time there is also a significant concern over the usefulness and sustainability of these events as they aim to solve complex problems in a few days. Our interviewees have more realistic expectations. They do not expect from these events to transform some ideas into reality in such a short time – as it is hardly possible – but they see them as a good form of bringing people of different background together to meet, exchange, experiment and potentially set a ground for a future cooperation.
Gordan Bosanac from the CMS calls for more encounters between civic activists and IT community in the form of hackathon, just thematically focused. On the same line is Krzysztof Madejski from the ePanstwo: “More spaces for communication should be provided, such as workshops where nonprofits and tech could meet. Spaces where people can safely discuss and explore tech opportunities, talk about their needs and how tech can support that. Or hackathons with dedicated space and time to discuss specific issues”.
Solution 2: Code for All
Coders and designers around the world are teaming up on a voluntary basis to push the cause of civic technology. Along their regular jobs they invest their time and skills in creating open source digital tools that help solve societal problems. They have made themselves available to the civic activists either for cooperation or just for an advice. Code for Romania and Code for Poland are among the most active in Europe with an extensive list of collaborators and variety of completed and developing projects. “Code for Romania has a waiting list of volunteers because there are not enough projects for them to work on”, said Krzysztof Madejski from the ePanstwo, who himself is coordinating the Code for Poland.
The Code for movement has been emphasized by many as the best practice example – the best way to build supportive communities where one can ask questions and get a support in stepping in the arena of civic technology, software and applications that help solve a community problem. “My big idea is to see Code for Czechia happening. I’ve already talked with people from Poland and Romania. We would like to see it starting here as, at the moment, I don’t see many civic coders in Czech Republic. It’s not like nothing is happening. I am sure that there are people who would like to engage but they don’t know how or where to start. That is why Code for All could be a good platform for everyone”, said Michal Škop from KohoVolit. Albeit Code for still does not exist in all countries, the existing ones are available for cooperation with organizations beyond their national borders.
Solution 3: Digital midfielder
It often seems that civic activists and coders speak two different languages and they need a translator to help them understand each other. A person who understands the scope of societal issues and has advanced technical skills could serve as a mediator between two sides. With an official role of the digital media manager, Kenan Efendic serves as a digital midfielder at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia and Herzegovina. His role is to mediate between editors and journalists, on one side, and two years ago established digital department composed of a programmer, and a graphic designer, on the other. Kenan’s background is in online journalism while he is also an advanced user of digital resources. A person of his capacities could be of a good asset to many civil society organizations. “It would be great to have a person who understands technology and its application for our needs. This person could assist us by following, testing, and suggesting new useful tools. We are all very enthusiastic after every tech-oriented training but then our enthusiasm dies down because our daily routine does not allow us to play further”, said Bosanac from the CMS.
Solution 4: Learn to code! It’s easy.
Michal Škop was very serious when he suggested that everyone should learn to code and that it is indeed very easy to do. “You don’t have to be an expert. Just to be comfortable with technology. It is not that difficult to achieve”, he said. Even a basic understanding of programming languages and their principles can be helpful for civic activists to foresee the opportunities of integrating new technologies or just to be more confident and productive while cooperating with coders. And what is the easiest way to learn to code? Škop advices: “Probably the best thing is to attend some online courses. If you just search ‘code for dummies’ you’ll find a lot of learning sources”. On the other side, he said, it is not that easy for coders to learn how to start to be an active citizen. There is no tutorial for this.
Solution 5: Never stop improving
The Transparency International Russia has a budget for the education of its personnel – a fixed amount anyone can use to upgrade her skills. Not every organisation has this type of funding as the lack of resources is a major challenge for NGOs. However, there are organisations and initiatives like TransparenCEE that provide this type of training for free in the framework of their educational projects. Moreover, despite their limitations, ever growing number of free tutorials and open learning platforms could serve as a starting point for better understanding of technology and its application.
Learning by doing is probably the most efficient method. “Through our work with Hungarian NGO that applies sophisticated technology to detect corruption in public procurement we also learned a lot on data mining. For me this is the best way – learning by doing”, said Bosanac from the CMS. The same applies for the other side. The more coders engage in developing tools for public good, the better they will understand different dimensions of democracy and civic engagement.
As this simple research showed, there are number of obstacles that both civic activists and coders face when trying to apply innovative, tech-supported initiatives, and when trying to cooperate. Most challenges derive from the lack of understanding of how technology can be employed in a cost-efficient and a sustainable way. This further leads to the lack of understanding between civic activists and coders as well as to unrealistic expectations on both sides. There is also a question of motivation for coders to engage in an NGO sector that often struggles with financial and other constraints, and not least are the general structural issues, such as the lack of capacities or determination to make public administration and government really open.
There is no direct link between above listed challenges and proposed solutions. As the issues themselves are complex, interconnected and sometimes overlapping, so is the case with solutions.Thematically focused encounters should strive at bringing coders, activists and public administration together to improve individual and mutual understanding of the potentials for cooperation. Wider promotion and application of the Code for All movement might motivate broader community of coders to engage for a social cause. Digital midfielder is a more structural solution for NGOs to transition into the tech activism. What is clear is that there is not much alternative for civic activists than to embrace the change. It is time consuming to learn and to develop new skills but it is also inevitable to get along with technology in order to successfully embrace opportunities brought in by the digital age.
BACKGROUND – ORGANISATIONS THAT TOOK PART IN THE RESEARCH:
Access to Information Programme (Bulgaria) – is a Foundation that assists the exercise of the right to information and actively participates in international networks and initiatives related to the right to information.
Center for Investigative Reporting (Bosnia and Herzegovina) – is a unique investigative reporting organisation in Balkans that combines journalism and technology to investigate public records and to report on corruption or misconduct.
Centre for Peace Studies (Croatia) – is a non-governmental and non-profit organisation promoting non-violence and social change through education, research, and activism.
ePanstwo (Poland) – is a Foundation that uses the power of Internet and new technologies to open public data and to make it available to citizens.
K-Monitor (Hungary) – is an anti-corruption grass root NGO that promotes transparency of public spending in the country.
KohoVolit (Czech Republic and Slovakia) – is an IT-watchdog NGO that produces applications to increase public political awareness.
Transparency International Russia – is a branch office of the global coalition against corruption.
Theoretically yes, but practically it is very difficult to fully embrace technology into what we already do – G. Bosanac, CMS Croatia
Everyone is crazy about mobile apps, not understanding that it is not something they need and that it costs a lot to maintain a good one – K. Madejski, ePanstwo Poland.
IT specialists believe that they can solve any problem by technical means which is not true – D. Bancheva, AIP Bulgaria.
Limited resources will always be a problem of the NGO sector – K. Madejski, ePanstwo Poland.
It is somehow a fashion to talk about open data and utilizing open data for all kinds of purposes, but very often people don’t have access to ordinary information – D. Bancheva, AIP Bulgaria.
Even though most of the work today is done online, we need more events where you can meet people face to face. Direct communication fosters cooperation – TI Russia.
We need more hackathons with dedicated space and time to discuss specific issues – K. Madejski, ePanstwo Poland.
It would be great to have a person who understands technology and its application for our needs – G. Bosanac, CMS Croatia.
I am sure that there are people who would like to engage but they don’t know how or where to start. That is why ´Code for All´ could be a good platform for everyone – M. Škop, KohoVolit Czech Republic.
Learn to code! It’s easy. You don’t have to be an expert. Just to be comfortable with technology. It is not that difficult to achieve – M. Škop, KohoVolit Czech Republic.
Illustrations: Patrycja Adamowicz