In fact, technology — in particular, smartphone technology — is now an integral part of our societal fabric, facilitating an increasing number of political and economic exchanges. Twitter obviously played a huge role in the most recent presidential election. And today, the preferred method of settling up a dinner tab between friends is the mobile app, Venmo. From the exponential growth of mobile shopping to interacting with politicians on social media, smartphone technology has opened a new world of communication and commerce, and helped pave the way to the idea of “civic tech.”
The idea of civic tech is deceptively simple: It’s any type of technology, including applications, platforms, software, or other information technology that enhances civic engagement. Civic tech gives the average citizen tools to engage more effectively in society, by opening up lines of communication and creating more opportunities for participation, all with the goal of creating a more effective infrastructure and improving the public good.
One of the most successful examples of civic tech has been in the area of transportation. From apps that allow citizens to report traffic jams and potholes such as Waze, to those that provide users with detailed information about all of their transportation options for a specific trip — down to the number of calories you might burn if you walk or bike to the destination — the idea of helping people get from point A to point B has proven to be an ideal starting point for civic tech, and increasing civic engagement.
And as the idea of civic tech apps becomes more popular, while you might think that you are just letting your city know about a giant pothole that’s damaging cars on Main Street, you might actually be having a greater influence on society as a whole.
Where We Are With Transportation AppsYou’re driving to work, and suddenly you hit a traffic jam. You have an important meeting in 45 minutes, so you check your Waze app to see what the delay is. Turns out that there is an accident a few miles ahead — and other Waze users are reporting that the authorities are closing the road. So you ask for an alternate route, follow some back roads and arrive at the office with time to spare.
The Waze app is often held up as an example of civic tech, and how to make apps actually “civic.” Launched in 2013, the app takes traditional GPS navigation to the next level, by combining map information with data and information gathered from users.
Like GPS, Waze adjusts to your individual driving speed to determine your arrival time and identify traffic slowdowns, but what makes it truly civic is the fact that users can report accidents, traffic, speed traps and other traffic enforcement, and other hazards, as well as update landmarks and street names, and report fuel prices. Users can also connect with each other via a messaging feature and upload real-time photos to help keep other drivers informed.
While all of these features help keep the roads safe and traffic moving, what makes Waze a true civic app is that several cities, including New York, are using anonymized data aggregated from the app to monitor traffic patterns, road hazards, and even provide emergency updates to users. That data is then used to make changes to transportation infrastructure and inform planning decisions to improve roads and public transportation.
Waze isn’t the only example of civic tech in transportation, though. SeeClickFix is another app that allows citizens to engage with their local leaders and is responsible for more than 2.6 million non-emergency issues being reported and addressed.
The idea is simple: Using your smartphone, you can snap a photo of an issue, such as a pothole, burned out streetlight, or downed tree, add GPS coordinates, and send the report to the appropriate agency.
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________________________________________________________________SeeClickFix is unique in terms of civic tech apps though, in the sense that it allows users to actually see the response to their reports. If local leaders do not respond to their concerns, it’s possible to reopen a complaint — and other users can see the complaint and respond as well. This greater transparency allows users to band together to make a greater difference in their communities — and hold leaders accountable.
More Transparency, More AccountabilityThe increase in transparency and accountability from transportation applications are likely to have some important consequences for politicians and local governments. Apps like SeeClickFix can help serve as an important barometer of elected officials’ responsiveness to citizen concerns, and that journalists and citizens alike may be able to access data to evaluate an official’s performance — and that can influence citizens in the voting booth.
The world of civic tech is a relatively new one, and it remains to be seen how increased engagement will affect government and society as a whole. But given how apps are affecting transportation, it’s safe to say that the future looks bright for civic tech.
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