This document outlines a sequential series of projects that a public library can complete to develop a civic technology presence in their local or regional community.  From educating patrons to working with government organizations, libraries can serve as anchors of local civic technology networks, providing a physical space, valuable resources, and the ability to bring community members together.

What is Civic Technology?

Have you ever paid a parking ticket on your city's website?  Applied for a business permit online?  Perhaps you've used a mobile app to find out when the next bus or train is arriving at your stop?  Has your library added a mobile application tied to your ILS so that patrons can browse new arrivals and be alerted to overdue materials?

These are all examples of civic technology -- the use of technology to improve how citizens, businesses, and other groups engage and conduct business with their government. 

In small towns and large cities alike, civic technology is improving the relationship between citizens and their governments.  At the federal, state, and local levels, government technologists are bringing the innovations of Silicon Valley to bear on the challenges and day-to-day matters on Main Street.  Libraries, as well-respected local government entities, have an important role to play in their local civic tech ecosystem.

A Note About Ethics

As librarians and technologists, we must operate under a strict ethical code when working on civic or community technology projects. Protecting our patrons' privacy and other legal rights needs to be of paramount concern throughout the entirety of any community technology project.  For example, you might want to release a map of your patrons to illustrate the breadth of your service area.  However, if dots on a map are easily correlatable to actual addresses, you're violating those residents' privacy.  Similarly, we need to consider how any tools could be not just used -- but misused -- once they've been introduced into the community.  We'll revisit these topics as appropriate throughout our materials.

Building Your Library’s Civic Tech Team

The most important thing to remember -- whether you’re building your internal team or inviting community members to participate in a project -- is that the emphasis of “civic tech” needs to be on the “civic” and NOT the “tech.”  That is, focus on the people, communities, and relationships involved in projects, not the technology.  Some of the projects we describe in this document require a technologist or even a skilled website developer to implement -- but most can be performed without knowing a single bit of HTML, PHP, Javascript, or any other technical skill.  

So if your library system has an in-house development team -- great!  Try to get buy-in from your IT manager or an application developer.  Having one or more team members with a  technical background can only help.  But it is not a requirement!

Are you the only die-hard civic technology enthusiast at a smaller library system?  You may be on your own!  But even a team of one can be a valuable addition to a community’s greater civic tech network.

Start Learning About Civic Tech

In the past decade, the “civic tech” space has grown to encompass thousands of companies and organizations across tens of thousands of cities, states, and regions.  Since there’s no way you’ll be able to learn about everything, just dive in and start looking at examples that you find interesting or existing civic tech projects that meet needs similar to those of people in your community.  Depending on your region, you might also try searching for local projects.

Simply searching for “civic tech + SUBJECT” or “civic tech + CITY” will usually get you started down a good path for learning more, but we’re currently working on assembling a curated list of civic technology projects that would be of interest to -- or potentially used by -- public libraries.

One of the earlier -- and incredibly popular -- examples of civic technology apps was the City of Chicago’s Snow Plow Tracker.  In a city with millions of people where travel can be paralyzed by blizzards, the ability to see snow plows in action in each neighborhood is incredibly useful. Knowing when the plows will dig out your street is helpful immediately, of course.  More interestingly, however, some citizens realized the data also indicated if poorer or less politically-connected neighborhoods were being bypassed in favor of wealthier neighborhoods. The power of open data and civic technology can help us ask and answer these questions!

Looking at more complex examples: if your community has a high rate of former criminal convictions interfering with employment or housing needs, you could check out Code for America’s “Clear My Record” tool.  The app allows those with criminal records to automatically apply for clearing their record in multiple counties where eligible.  This innovative app saves time and money for applicants as well as government employees in each county’s criminal justice system.  Code for America is also responsible for many other civic technology apps, such as the "court date reminder SMS" app, which is proven to dramatically lower court costs and missed appearances in jurisdictions where it is implemented simply by texting a reminder to defendants about their upcoming court dates.

Try to find civic tech examples in your local city or county.  If your geographical area isn’t leading in civic tech deployments, expand your search to nearby cities or counties -- and get ready to help your library take the lead!  Again, the point isn’t to become a civic tech expert… yet, anyway!  We’re just trying to get exposed to a variety of projects, topics, and approaches.

Join (or Build!) Your Local Community’s Civic Tech Network

Now it’s time to go outside the library and meet some local people working on civic technology.  You may find that your local city or region has an existing network of people interested in civic tech -- maybe there is already a mailing list or even a regular in-person meetup.  But if you can’t find an existing network, it’s time to reach out and make some connections.

  • Code for America, the largest US civic tech nonprofit organization, operates a network of local volunteers throughout the US called Brigades.  See if your community already has a Brigade, or learn how to start one on the CfA Brigade website.
  • Local or county government agencies produce data that could be useful to the public and/or provide services that are important to the public.
  • Journalists with a focus on local government often have unique needs and insight into the workings of local government and related efforts.
  • Community groups serving your community could benefit from increased insight into local data about population, demographics, economic indicators, etc., and may be excellent potential partners.
  • Local technology affinity groups, meetups, etc., can contain an army of potential civic tech volunteers with a strong technical background.
  • Civic Switchboard, an organization bridging libraries and civic technology efforts, offers a fantastic tool for identifying members of the local civic technology ecosystem.

Next Steps

Where you go from here depends on your library, your team, and your community!  We've suggested some ideas for next steps on our Civic Tech Projects page!