One night a week, I volunteer at a non-profit after school writing program as a “Mad scientist technology wizard”, at least according to my entry in the coordinator’s phonebook. I’d say that I do tech support. I make sure the donated computers running three different versions of windows keep booting and remain virus free. I fix printers and block spammy games sites that trick kids into installing malware. It’s the kind of IT work I’d find tedious in a job, but find deeply satisfying in my volunteer role, because of the work they do.
The program primarily serves the Hispanic population of South Philly, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants. I took on the role because of the organization’s focus on serving a vulnerable community, particularly in the current political climate. While they are a writing program, I’ve realized that the students get help with more than just the English language. Projects students work on sometimes involve writing letters to the local Philly council member, talking about the importance of Philly remaining a Sanctuary City or asking them to provide funds for the local park. The program promotes civic engagement while teaching students writing skills.
Recently I began to reflect on how this weekly work is just as much “Civic Tech” as the apps that might get created at a weekend hack event or weekly meetup. It may not require querying millions of data-points in Spark or creating react-native apps for reporting dirty streets, but it requires tech skills and helps some of our youngest citizens engage with their local government in ways that are meaningful to them.
The writing program already has years of experience supporting this community and helping them engage with government. They don’t need an app or a data visualization or anything else that would add a line to a software developers resumé. They just need someone to make the existing tech work so the students and teachers and mentors can focus on working with the kids. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other organizations in Philly that already promote civic engagement around concrete issues based on work with communities. I’m certain that a lot of them could use the same kind of help.
If “Civic Tech” remains narrowly defined as being about innovation and shiny new apps, then opportunities to support existing and well grounded efforts at civic engagement will be missed. Which is not to say there is not value innovation-focused efforts, but they are not the only path that civic-minded tech folks should consider.