Conserving resources in civic tech

Julia Keseru

A few months ago, I shared my thoughts on why I believe there is enormous potential in introducing more principled waste management techniques in the civic tech sector. It was a call for investing in the reuse of existing tech solutions that have proven efficient and responsible, instead of introducing more shiny new tech and overhyped solutions to the sector. My conclusion was that we need more systematic approaches (and funding) to be able to create structures that incentivise reuse over from-scratch creation and more robust research to understand what’s required to effectively replicate existing solutions. 

I received valuable feedback on the piece and some clarifying questions, a few of which I thought would be worth sharing and answering. 

“The analogy is interesting, but digital waste simply doesn’t work the same way physical waste does. Wouldn’t it be easier to just abandon these projects and focus our attention on other, more impactful uses of tech?”

In short: no, I’m advocating for identifying what can be reused, what can be transformed and what needs to be responsibly retired. In traditional waste management, there is a division between the different types of materials that need to be treated differently and a system behind the categorization and sorting of such materials. Organic waste can be turned into compost, recyclable waste can be converted into reusable products (albeit with some investment), and hazardous waste needs to be disposed of carefully due to the potential harm it poses to the environment. 

What I’m arguing for is a similarly distinguished approach to the digital waste we have produced, and keep producing, as the civic sector. For instance, harmful approaches like collecting information about vulnerable groups in irresponsible ways, or maintaining projects that consume energy and server space without any positive impact, should either be avoided in the first place or disposed of carefully (e.g. as hazardous waste). As Elizabeth Eagen from Open Society Foundations puts it: “We should listen to our instinctive distaste when it comes to some transactions around data”. (OSF funds some of the work that we do.)

At the same time, some of what we now may regard as unsalvageable digital waste could be converted into impactful solutions with a bit of investment. For instance, Quién compró?, a group of ambitious journalists in Mexico, spent a significant amount of their free time creating a microtasking platform in order to sort and categorize digitized expenses from their members of congress. (The platform was already based on an open source codebase, Crowdata, originally developed by Argentina’s newspaper, La Nación.) Through their work, Quién compró? wanted to show how outrageously taxpayers’ money is spent, in a country where that kind of information had not been available before. 

Eventually, the group had to abandon the platform (for various reasons including lack of sustainable funding) but the work they did has many recyclable elements: the data pipeline, interaction design, the back-end code and more. It would take significantly less time and money to take that body of work and repurpose it to meet the needs of other activist groups than it would to rewrite platforms from scratch–which is what we did in one of our replication sprints

“Reuse is about efficiencies. And while that’s obviously important, it’s not as crucial as addressing power imbalances and broader issues of data and technology governance.”

Finding ways for those with fewer resources to use what they have in a more efficient way is, essentially, about allocating power in more equitable ways. I believe that reusing tech in the nonprofit sector is itself a political act that touches on questions of equity and power, just like caring about the well-being of employees is a political act in and of itself. Many of the local frontline activists that we at The Engine Room work with are short on funding, time and resources–all at the same time–while they tackle complex problems at fast pace. These activists often pursue not-for-profit missions in competitive and innovative environments and are pushed in directions (e.g. by the frequently changing strategies of their funders) that might distract them from their core mission. 

What would happen if the very same organisations who are currently chasing donor money to develop shiny tech solutions could use the same money to hire more core staff, diversify their teams or invest in long-term programmatic evaluation? To attend conferences where they can strengthen their networks and influence the broader international agenda? To have the space to think critically about their choices of technology and data and how it strengthens their core programmatic work? I believe that that kind of space and opportunity could challenge the existing power structures and dynamics that currently shape the nonprofit space. Lower barriers to reuse could be a game-changer for many of today’s under-resourced nonprofits, in the same way that, as Nadia Eghbal notes, “free software made it easier for people of all demographics to learn to code, making technology accessible to the world”

In a way, a shift towards reuse–and, therefore, an opening of space for other impactful activities–is already happening. We see funders’ strategies moving away from supporting standalone tech projects and towards focusing more on core programmatic work or broader ecosystems. 

“Are you saying we should dramatically decrease the money we invest in civic tech and gov tech innovation, though there is so much room for experimentation and new ideas?”

Principled waste management is, in terms of introducing new approaches and ways of thinking about the tech we use, a type of innovation. Making it easier for organisations to build upon each other’s work facilitates new ideas. Rather than squandering funds on new platforms, tools or processes–just for the sake of building something new–I suggest we make sure to look at what we could adapt or build upon, in order to make those funds go further.

Working with technology and data in this way would also mean dedicating efforts (and resources) to making sure that whatever we do repurpose or build has a good chance at longevity. As Lisa Abeyta points out, the reasons for abandoning civic tech projects are still poorly understood. Sometimes abandonment is due to a personality conflict, or the project’s champion moving on midway through, or funding running out, and it actually has nothing to do with the quality of tech at all. Understanding why projects are abandoned, fail to scale or end up putting people at risk, is crucial. Without that understanding, our chances of building a resilient and robust civil society are low and thinning every day. 

Where do we go from here?

Approaching civil society’s data and technology use with waste management principles in mind means recognising the value of things that have already been created, conserving the resources that have been expended and making sure that we treat our creations—and those of others—responsibly and with care. The point is not to create less, but to create with intentionality and in collaboration with others. It’s a political act, and one that we’re always learning more about at The Engine Room–for example, through researching re-use, making our own tools open source and available for customisation and openly licensing our research outputs under Creative Commons Sharealike Licenses. If you want to talk more about what we’re learning or share what you know, you can reach us at hello[at]theengineroom.org.

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