Civic Tech is an exciting space to work in as the work we do and the technology we build have real-world applications that grapple with a number of social challenges.
Civic Tech: an exciting place for research
One of our ‘less guarded’ secrets and an essential reason for the success of many of our projects is the hybrid application of experimental research and product design methodologies we use to understand problems brought to us by our partners. Using data-driven technology in conjunction with human-focused research techniques, we can ensure that we design products best suited to the needs of our partners.
"Using data-driven technology in conjunction with human-focused research techniques, we can ensure that we design products best suited to the needs of our partners."
In my role as a researcher in the Civic Technology space, I have learnt how invaluable it is to work with multidisciplinary project teams when developing technology that deals with social challenges. Each team member's role is important to understanding the problem, brainstorming solutions, and applying the necessary skills to deliver project outputs that respond to a particular problem we are trying to solve.
A project's inception begins with the Product Owners’ (PO) understanding, vision, and creativity. From there, it is the role of the Project Managers (PM) - our PMs are part scrum master - to assemble the correct team with the necessary skills and provide them with the guidance, support, and attention to the vital project deliverables. Once project capacities are filled, the design and development teams working on projects are able to apply their technical abilities, industry knowledge, and personal skills to develop the intended project outputs.
So, where do researchers fit in?
The more I learn, the more I realise researchers are not problem solvers, instead, they are problem and solution explorers. In the product development space, one of the researcher’s roles is to help the project team apply the ‘best fit’ methodologies to collect valuable project information from stakeholders and intended users of the product.
"In the product development space, one of the researcher’s roles is to help the project team apply the ‘best fit’ methodologies to collect valuable project information from stakeholders and intended users of the product."
By collecting this valuable information and reporting back, the team is better equipped to explore complex issues together, as they now have the necessary information and resources to test their assumptions accurately. Well, they have more/better information than they had before.
Dealing with social problems that are not easily solved requires in-depth thought, planning, and iterative development: this is what makes research such a vital part of the Civic Tech process. Research can be used to establish a baseline from which the success or failure of a project can be measured.
You can have the best developers and the most creative design team, but if you don't know exactly what the user wants, or rather needs, what the problem you want to solve is, or the user journey that must be taken to get there — then designing a system ‘best fit’ to address these problems can be challenging. This is one example of many showing why incorporating multidisciplinary skills is important when working within different social contexts.
For me, our unique approach to extracting data and making it more accessible positions us to strongly work to unpack and challenge complex social issues. This approach to problem-solving has changed the way that I now look at social issues. I can no longer see social problems without realising the frequently accompanying data challenges.
A different type of data
Although working as a researcher in Civic Tech may have seemed worlds apart from my previous profession as a counsellor, I have come to realise the two fields share a lot of similarities, but with vastly distinct types of data.
There are many soft skills that also overlap in research and counselling, such as the ability to listen, adapt, and pivot when needed. A number of the skills I previously used to help clients explore and understand their stories I still apply in my work when researching the needs of partners, stakeholders, and users.
"A number of the skills I previously used to help clients explore and understand their stories I still apply in my work when researching the needs of partners, stakeholders, and users."
Some of the other similarities also noted between counselling and being a researcher are:
- In counselling, clients would be aware of what the problem that needed solving was, but were unsure of the solution, or how to find it. This experience is similar to working in Civic Tech, where the users may have a key understanding of the problem but are not sure how technology can be used to address the problem. Our role in both situations is to help make those connections.
- Another similarity is the client's ability to root out where the cause of these issues stem from, without enough information from the outside. The same goes for Civic Tech; although there is a ground-level understanding of the problem, often more data needs to be collected to back up the understanding of the problem. Often Civic Tech organisations specialise in making data available to both government and residents. In both cases an “opening up” and exploration of information is crucial to success.
2.1. In both fields it is of the utmost importance that practitioners do not impose their own beliefs/solutions on clients, but rather, hear the challenges from the client's perspective and use that as a starting point.
- Collaborative problem solving is a big part of the work that both researchers and counsellors do. As I explained, you can have the best developers and the best design team, but if you do not know exactly what the user wants (or what the problem you want to solve is) developing the best fit solution is challenging. The same goes with counsellors, as they are only able to provide support based on the information that is given to them by their clients — and therefore must work collaboratively with their clients to problem explore and solve.
But whose data is it anyway?
The goal of a Civic Tech project is to enhance the relationship between residents and their government through the incorporation of research, tools and technology developed to improve communications, decision-making, service delivery, and political process. Often, we see examples, or hear stories of how personal data is used to influence human action through persuasive marketing or voting — but I have learnt that these same digital data systems can also be used to develop and improve society, so why not use them for good?
Working on projects I have learnt that the best way to do this is by understanding the data and in cases where no data exists, developing a system to capture it. Working in Civic Tech I have experienced first-hand the numerous improvements that have been made in areas with the addition of technology focused on data. For example, one of our tools, Municipal Money, is a web-based tool designed to inform citizens on their local authority’s financial performance and allows comparisons between municipalities. Through the addition of this digital tool our goal is to make this data widely available in order to increase transparency, strengthen civic oversight and promote accountability.
"Something that I find exciting about using technology when working with societal challenges is its ability to scale up almost seamlessly — this scalability allows for products and programs to grow without having to expand implementation capacities at the same rate."
Something that I find exciting about using technology when working with societal challenges is its ability to scale up almost seamlessly — this scalability allows for products and programs to grow without having to expand implementation capacities at the same rate. For example, where counsellors only have the ability to work with one person or small groups and their stories, digital tools can be used as a wider net to help collect and make sense of the data of millions. This widely cast net cast improves accessibility (as digital tools are more accessible) which allows for impact to be created at a far larger scale.
By creating versatile feedback loops, project teams can easily collect valuable data from the tools used. This project research is important for a number of reasons:
- Developing the best-suited approach/methodology to the research to address complex societal challenges.
- Have a better sense of interconnectedness between the project teams, stakeholders, and users.
- Team members, stakeholders and users are all able to give their opinion and can agree or disagree on certain product ideas and features based on the relevant project data.
- Testing experimental product design and implementation can be conducted as the product development team can accurately test their assumptions.
This shows how through the incorporation of technology, the scalability of data that is collected from projects has the ability to expand at an exponential rate — as it loses the bounds of physical limitations (e.g. people needed to collect physical feedback).
"By scaling technology projects that are designed with specific societal challenges in mind we are able to provide a level of service delivery that is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without technology."
By scaling technology projects that are designed with specific societal challenges in mind we are able to provide a level of service delivery that is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without technology. Imagine trying to keep track of all the COVID passports without digital databases built to capture and store this data. This is one example of how digitising systems helps ensure that the appropriate data is being collected which can then inform further development of the tool.
OpenUp is committed to keeping our organisational processes and methodologies as transparent as possible. With this in mind, if you are interested to find out more about some of our projects. Please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.