Civic Tech: Why We Need to Focus on Problems That Really Matter

06/08/2015 12:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2016

After spending two days absorbing a wide array of perspectives and ideas presented at the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) hosted by Civic Hall in New York City, I am more convinced that ever that it is vital for companies like mine which are focused on civic tech to continually push the boundaries of the status quo and find ways to use emerging technologies to disrupt the way we interact with our cities and each other to solve problems that really matter. Sometimes we get so immersed in our own particular flavor of tech and perspective that we fail to notice what else is happening in this rapidly expanding industry, so I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about other innovations and experiences which might provide better insight for our own team.

From the stage at PDF, we learned from Jess Kutch, Cofounder and Co-Director of, how one individual's decision to speak up about her employer's dress code policy led not only to an international movement supporting her efforts but to a groundswell of others who followed in her path in calling out violations and unfair policies of other corporations across globe. Andrés Monroy-Hernández, a researcher at Microsoft Research, how one young South American woman who initially created an account on Twitter so that she could follow pop culture celebrities like Justin Bieber has grown into one of the most influential voices on social media reporting in real time the atrocities and violence of drug cartels. And Emily Jacobi, the Founder and Executive Director of Digital Democracy, demonstrated what happens when we "build with" and not for those in need by sharing how a small community of individuals in Guyana built their own drone to help build visual documentation and mapping as they work to protect their way of life.


Those are just three of the inspiring stories told about individuals using technology to effect change and drive social change forward. For those of us immersed in civic tech, we can become so focused on the "tech" of civic tech that we lose sight of the civic part of our mission - to innovate technologies which empower others to change for the better their own lives, communities, cities and countries.

I am returning from this year's PDF with a more focused vision of our own mission to empower others to envision and deploy mobile apps which solve real problems and improve the experience of people in their community. And having heard some of the inspiring work of others has left me even more excited about some of the projects we're currently bringing to the public that have the potential through the integration of mobile apps, beacons and wearables to not only positively impact the lives of others but disrupt more expensive, prohibitive models used today. We will soon deliver several civic Apple Watch apps supporting civic apps in education, transit, and other civic agencies. But one project we are currently working on has the potential to disrupt how civic agencies address ADA support, not only within mobile but in general.

When Jay Hart, the Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, reached out to our team, it was at the suggestion of a colleague who had heard of some of the innovative work we were doing with cities. Hart was facing a cost-prohibitive roadblock on a unique project in his city. We are all quite aware of the prohibitive processes - some with good reason - that must be addressed for any civic project. But imagine the additional challenges you might face when tasked with developing a public park built to include everyone - but specifically designed to provide an interactive, supportive, inclusive experience for individuals with disabilities. It's not just the layers of red tape, laws and mandates that have to be navigated which create difficulties, but developing such a park requires extensive funding beyond the ordinary civic project in order to meet the long list of accommodations needed. Carving out necessary funds from today's limited civic budgets is already difficult, but finding sponsors and contributors to build a park with the necessary ADA-enhanced equipment is almost impossible.

But the core team who have worked for several years alongside Hart, including a nonprofit formed specifically to raise funds to defray costs, have managed to pull off the impossible. Agencies, foundations and individuals within the state and nationally have contributed funds, expertise, and equipment to help make their vision a reality - and while the need to raise additional funds to support the park is ongoing, the current funding couldn't cover the significant cost of needed braille signs (an incredible $50K each) to support the visually impaired within the park.

imageWhen Hart reached out to our team, it was with the hope that we might have an affordable solution. After gaining a better understanding of the needs within the park, our design team proposed an unconventional solution providing the needed ADA support at a fraction of the cost.

By deploying all-weather beacons throughout the park and integrating the beacons with a unique smart phone app as well as an Apple Watch app, our mobile platform will make it possible for the park to deliver interactive, auditory and haptic alerts and instructions to park visitors. Beyond cost savings, this innovation in tech will also change the way individuals with visual impairments interact with their environment. Instead of standing and reading braille on an immobile sign, a moving person will be able to receive a warning when entering a high activity area of the park as well as instructions for navigating the area safely. Other in-app features include infographics and videos for properly using the park's specialized equipment, in-app reservations for parties, schedules for special events, and general park information. Most exciting of all, once developed, our platform will make it possible to easily duplicate this fully developed solution for similar needs elsewhere.

While there is still a significant need to push forward initiatives to provide reliable internet and cellular access to citizens everywhere, a new report indicates that 2014 saw 4.9 Billion smart phone subscribers, and it is projected that globally, 90% of those 5 years of age and older will own a smart phone by 2020. It is reasonable to expect that wearables will follow a similar path of adoption. So, while some may see the new Apple Watch as a bit frivolous, I don't agree at all. When compared to the prohibitive costs of many current solutions for ADA requirements and enhancements, the adoption of smart phones and wearables as civic tech greatly reduces current costs while improving independence and individualized access to civic services. Civic tech is just getting started, and it's exciting to imagine where we might be by the time next year's Personal Democracy Forum rolls around.