A week after the November 2008 elections, my civic software company, Front Seat (www.frontseat.org), launched ObamaCTO.org to collect ideas on priorities for one of Obama’s campaign promises—appointing the country’s first Chief Technology Officer. The site took about an hour to build using a service called UserVoice. Shortly after sending out 200 emails, we were getting dozens and dozens of votes per hour until 18 hours into it, when tens of thousands of votes per hour poured in. Hundreds of new ideas were suggested and the pros and cons of tech policy issues debated for all the world to see. We later learned that Obama’s understaffed technology transition team used the site, a gold mine of tech policy issues aggregated in one place. Ten days later, Whitehouse.gov was updated with a similar open suggestion system for other policy areas. Total cost? About $150. Not a bad day in the trenches of civic software.
Civic software refers to online tools that enable ordinary citizens to coordinate their activities, information, relationships, or skills to advance a common civic purpose, with or without government involvement. In the case of ObamaCTO, the transition team was open to listening and the assembled information helped shape the administration’s policy priorities. In other cases, citizens can produce change even when authorities can’t or don’t want to listen.
In The Bottom Billion, Charles Collier tells the story of Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, Uganda’s finance minister in the mid-1990s, and his attempts to deal with corruption in the distribution of foreign aid to primary schools. To assess the scale of the problem, he collected data from individual schools on their prior receipt of aid. The depressing result: Only 20 percent of the funds were making it into the classrooms. Tumusiime-Mutebile crafted a new plan focused on transparency—with each release of money, the ministry would inform the local media of how much each school should be getting. Three years later they reran the study, and fully 90 percent of the funds were getting through.
Such transparency is a major focus of civic software, as another African example demonstrates. Two days of frantic coding following the 2007 Kenyan elections was enough to launch Ushahidi.com, which allowed ordinary Kenyans to report post-election violence via text messaging. The reports were verified and quickly added to online maps, producing powerful visualizations and harrowing first-person narratives of government forces cracking down on the opposition. This spurred international pressure that brought an end to the government’s violence and helped create a political solution instead.
Selvam Velmurugan, a former Amazon.com coder and high-tech social entrepreneur, found new ways to apply Ushahidi’s work to good government and transparency. Starting just weeks before the Indian elections in April 2009, Velmurugan repurposed Ushahidi to create VoteReport.in, a site that aggregated and visualized reports of voting irregularities in the world’s largest-ever democratic elections. Later projects covered Lebanon, Afghanistan, Panama, and Sudan. Using the lessons learned from these projects, his nonprofit eMoksha has built Kiirti.org so anyone can easily setup their own Ushahidi system in minutes instead of the hours or days it took technical volunteers in the past. This should lead to thousands of clever, citizen-driven solutions to transparency problems around the world in the coming years.
Like transparency, usability is a powerful driver of civic action. Most people want to do the right thing, but sometimes it’s just too hard or inconvenient to be a good citizen. The designers of 9-1-1, the emergency telephone system, understood this and created a national standard so that today anyone can initiate an emergency response even if he or she is not ready to be the first responder. In the U.K., mySociety built FixMyStreet.com to let citizens easily report potholes or graffiti to local authorities. Early on, they used skilled developers to write code that would pass reports from FixMyStreet into government websites, email accounts, or fax machines. Newer implementations, like FixOurCity.org in Chennai, India, or SeeClickFix in the U.S., can plug directly into an electronic interface that local governments provide. After getting over the initial embarrassment that transparency can bring, many cities embrace this model as a direct and efficient way to prioritize and dispatch constituent services.
While ease of use and transparency can motivate government action, they can also inform individuals and enable them to make decisions that support broader goals of civil society. WalkScore.com supports smart growth by helping people find walkable places to live. One Bus Away on your iPhone makes it easy to use public transit. CatalogChoice.org takes you off catalog mailing lists with a few clicks. The Extraordinaries lets people volunteer small bits of free time. PositiveEnergy.org motivates you to cut your energy bills, while Freecycle helps you give stuff away instead of sending it to the landfill. These innovative solutions work by making it dramatically easier to take civic-minded actions, millions of times each day.
So why don’t more solutions like these exist? In the modern world it can seem as if our ability to create vast problems has eclipsed our ability to create vast solutions. Technology can seem intimidating or too expensive or both. Yet exciting changes in the world of software offer powerful hope for a better world. The unique economics of software play a big role: high fixed costs, but near-zero variable costs. This means that if you come up with software that helps 100 people, it’s dirt cheap to help 100,000 or 1,000,000. In the past, the high fixed costs have discouraged people from even trying software projects for social problems.
Fortunately, we are in the midst of rapid and dramatic reductions in the fixed costs of software development—a software version of Moore’s Law, the famous maxim that says the processing power of chips doubles every two years. From open source to outsourcing, from Web frameworks and cloud computing to Web APIs and software as a service, costs are plummeting. A decade ago, an innovative site might have required 10 employees and a $1 million budget. Now we see the initial version of Walk Score appear in two weeks, Ushahidi in two days, and ObamaCTO in two hours. To be sure, it took plenty more work (and money) to grow Walk Score and Ushahidi to their current scale, but later efforts were much less risky and were able to attract foundation support because their viability was already proven. As costs continue to drop, new opportunities for software-based solutions are opening up that were simply not conceivable even a few short years ago. And it just takes people working together, which technology enables, even across great distances.
When the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 12, 2010, cell phone networks, the Internet, electricity, water systems, and roads out of the airport all became unusable. Situational awareness on the ground was almost nil, and relief agencies found it difficult to coordinate their work for simple lack of maps. While we take for granted detailed online maps with street-level or fly-by perspective, the online maps of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country—with no business model to support them—displayed only three highways and a few dozen roads in this capital city of 2 million people. And because the earthquake produced significant damage, the maps were even less useful for aid workers trying to truck supplies to areas in need.
Almost immediately, an international group of civic software volunteers sprang into action, self-organizing via Twitter, blogs, and email. A group called CrisisCommons created a wiki that anyone could update with information on cities holding spontaneous CrisisCamps to allow volunteers to meet and attack technical projects. Ushahidi quickly created a page focused on Haiti with an SMS short code to collect emergency reports from throughout the city. At OpenStreetMaps.org volunteers sliced and diced newly produced high-resolution satellite images (donated by two commercial vendors) and traced them into the mapping system, which made them immediately available to anyone in the world. Ushahidi swapped in the updated maps to its application, and the developer of Gaia GPS, an offline mapping system for the iPhone, quickly produced a specialized version of the app with new Haiti maps in it. Apple approved the app in two hours (a process that normally takes weeks or months), and its creator offered it for free to any aid workers heading to Haiti; they could use it in offline mode even while the cell phone network was damaged.
Compared to previous crisis efforts, techies used a wide variety of new platforms to actually do something useful about the disaster in Haiti without having to be on location—from updating Open Street Maps, to creating tools to aggregate listings from more than 40 different sources into a single master Person Finder, to translating words from Creole to English, to more than a dozen other Web applications coordinated by CrisisCommons.org. A new era of civic software has emerged in which transparency, usability, and self-organization ride the coattails of cheap software to create solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems.
In Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn report on a study in India that found that 12 percent of all schools were closed at any one time because of teacher absenteeism. What if a single parent in each teacher’s class could use a mobile phone to report on that teacher’s absences and the results were published in the local papers? The authors also write about forced prostitution and modern slavery in brothels in Asia. What if volunteers with smartphones snapped photos of women who wanted their freedom and posted them, along with GPS coordinates, on a central website? For software developers, the message is clear: Why spend your spare time building lame iPhone apps when you could be saving lives instead? Your tech skills are urgently needed.