Responsible waste management in civic tech

Julia Keseru

Many of us already invest time and resources into minimizing our plastic consumption, reusing paper, or composting our food. But what about the digital waste we create in our work as nonprofits?

Human rights defenders, transparency advocates, and many others working for the greater public good repeatedly design technology-heavy projects that cost a lot of money, but don’t really make the world a better place.

We’ve learned in the past decade that technology (alone) is insufficient to effect sustained change. And yet, there are a striking number of activists who are still chasing funding for overhyped tech solutions – solutions that aren’t at all connected to their day-to-day programmatic activities or broader mission.

At The Engine Room, we receive countless requests for support in building new technologies: the “new LinkedIn” for a community of activists, a portal that contains all the data in the world about a certain topic, a visualization that doesn’t connect to any real-world advocacy, a mapping platform that will only be used by the people who designed and paid for it, and more.  

Why care?

As a result, there’s a digital cemetery – metaphorical and even fairly literal – full of failed technical innovation born out of good intentions. These abandoned projects represent the waste that with a little creativity and time, could potentially be converted into something more useful. Because in the same way we consciously manage our physical waste, we could (and should) start managing our digital waste. Doing so could mean reduced costs (both production and opportunity) and reduced harm. How so?

First, direct labour in the tech industry is very expensive. What this means for an under-resourced sector is that developing new digital products and investing in high-tech solutions takes away significant resources (both human and financial) from other, less expensive options.

Second, many well-intended technical solutions have proven downright harmful. For example, some have deepened existing inequities by increasing access to services for the privileged, while others have exposed already vulnerable people to increased risk.

What could civic tech waste management look like?

One potentially interesting concept to integrate into civil society’s approach to digital waste management is the ‘waste hierarchy’ model, a list of priorities for waste management that goes from most preferable to least preferable options. According to this model, avoiding and reducing the generation of waste is always our best bet, while disposing of the already generated waste is the least desired option.

Building on the same concept, here are three options for civic tech to manage our digital waste more responsibly. 

  1. Reduce: Dramatically decreasing both the number of new platforms, websites and technical solutions we create and the money we invest in tech innovation.
  2. Reuse: Creating structures that incentivise reuse over creation and conducting research to understand what’s required to effectively reuse existing solutions.
  3. Recycle: Investing in ways to help civil society recycle bits and pieces of already existing solutions – across contexts and communities – even when entire solutions cannot be replicated.  

Obviously, the concept of reuse is not new in civic tech – open source technologies are foundational, even to proprietary tools, and are predicated on the concept of flexible reuse and recyclability. Interestingly though, more holistic and aspirational approaches to managing digital waste are relatively sparse. Most of the content around “recycling tech” revolves around the disposal of old hardware and other technical equipment. Reuse is also a surprisingly under-researched area. As much as not reinventing the wheel has become a mantra for most of us, the true preconditions of re-using existing civic tech solutions are still poorly understood. (As a starting point, we’re carrying out some work right now to look into what those preconditions might be.)

Best practices for reducing digital waste:

  • Civil society could say no to new project ideas and funding opportunities more often, and instead, start exploring the everyday ways in which technology could be put to use smartly.
  • Funders could invest more in rigorous research on what works – when how and why – in the use of tech for social good, and support entire ecosystems instead of standalone technical solutions. (We’ve started to see this happen, but far more could be done on this front.)
  • Intermediaries – like us at The Engine Room – could proactively design ways to share learnings across sectors and understand what’s translatable between otherwise siloed communities. For example, could tech solutions designed by the OpeningParliament community to collect data on laws and regulations be used by legal empowerment activists?

Best practices for reusing digital waste: 

  • Civil society should start every new project idea involving tech solutions with basic research to understand what solutions have been designed already and which are the ones worth replicating.
  • Funders and intermediary organisations could explore the implementer-, context- and tool-specific factors that determine if existing solutions are reusable or not and, if yes, how and when. Factors could include: technical capacity, internal infrastructures, financial stability, data literacy and maturity, technical features, programming language, documentation, data availability and formats, legal environment, ecosystem and more.

Best practices for recycling digital waste:

  • Civil society could let go of the solutions that nobody uses anymore, but instead of just disposing them we could try to a) convert them into something new and useful, or b) find the right stakeholders who could reuse bits and pieces. For an under-resourced local activist group, option b) could be a bit of a stretch, but that underscores the importance of entire systems, including donors and infomediaries.
  • Infomediaries could help create more intentional approaches to how we break down projects into reusable bits and pieces, even when entire solutions cannot be deployed in other contexts.
  • Finally, funders could think about managing our digital waste as a long-term investment that needs proper infrastructure. The implications of not managing our collective digital waste are huge. Our digital ‘environmental footprint’ is growing and we’re wasting precious resources that could go to impactful projects.

What next? 

We’re exploring these issues through a couple of ongoing projects – looking into how non-profits in the UK are choosing or re-using digital tools to improve their service delivery, and a newly-started project exploring how open contracting tools are chosen and (potentially) re-used. 

Are there other frameworks or ways you have for thinking about waste management in civic tech? We’d love to hear from you if so! Reach out at julia@theengineroom.org.

Image by My Life Through a Lens via Unsplash.

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