Teams of generous volunteers — first rate engineers and product managers with day jobs at tech giants like Google and Twitter — build impressive softgware to improve city life. They’ll offer it to city staff, residents, and visitors. Their products work, and they’re free. What could go wrong?
Two things, says Dr. Mouwafac Sidaoui, whose work takes him deep into such civic tech for cities. He’s the department chair and professor of business analytics and information systems at University of San Francisco. He and his team help cities make use of their data, such as across the bay in Oakland.
The failures Sidaoui sees:
• Generous volunteers sometimes built software on a faulty premise: they presume to grasp real needs within a city or region but actually don’t.
• City staff often isn’t equipped to support the new software.
Even with a CTO or CIO in place, he tells me, staff may not know what to do with the software offered to them. City staffs may not be equipped to use data at all, and many are reluctant to share data. They may also be confused about which app — there are so many available — is best for their needs, let alone what city residents need. If, for example, you install wifi hotspots in a park, how will it be used? Mainly by joggers for low-bandwidth phone calls, or mainly by teenagers downloading high-bandwidth videos?
First, Sidaoui said, civic tech makers needs to learn what [cities] need,” he said. Then educate them on using data, and then by helping the community to use it, such as in civic-tech developed apps.
One solution he proposes is to team civic tech groups with university faculty with civic-tech experience, who have intimate, up to date knowledge of the city needs and capabilities. That sounds to me like it would be mutually beneficial for everyone involved.