Reading: What is Civic-Tech?

The use/application of new technologies, including information and communications technologies (ICTs) and social media, to encourage participatory democracy and foster citizen engagement has seen an increase in the last decade. They provide unprecedented opportunities to deepen democracy and transform the global political landscape, while also creating new challenges and risks.

The birth of Civic-Tech

Citizens, activists, non-governmental organizations, researchers, media, as well as public sector, recognized the potential of new technologies for advancement of public/civic life and more efficient allocation of public resources. Availability of open data (that public institutions publish in open digital format) facilitates the process of designing and creation of digital tools that help address or solve certain social/political problems/challenges, both on local and on global level. That created a space for co-creation of civil society with IT experts (programmers, developers, designers, data engineers), which led to synergy between new technologies and activism in the form of so-called Civic-Tech.

Civic-tech can be broadly defined as “technologies that are deployed to enhance the relationship between people and government, by giving people more of a voice to participate in public decision making and/or to improve the delivery of services (usually by gov’t) to people. These technologies can be developed by either non-profit organizations or for-profit companies, or even by government itself” [1].

Civic-tech aims at nurturing citizen engagement and empowering individuals to become agents for public good. Civic-tech is a catalyst for social change through this citizen empowerment in which connection between citizens and governments is facilitated, consequently stimulating dialogue and debate. Additionally, civic-tech aids governments establish the needs and wants of the community with greater accuracy [1]. Civic-tech involves highly varied projects, among others these can be:

  • participatory budget platforms
  • online petitions
  • apps to send questions to government members
  • local troubleshooting
  • cooperative maps
  • social media for residents
  • digital technologies for transparency and accountability

civic tech

 Source: Knight Foundation. 

Civic-Tech is not a recent phenomenon. Most practitioners consider 2008 Obama’s election campaign in the USA as a foundation year that launched civic-tech on global level. There have been some interventions in the years prior to 2008, but a big boom actually starts from 2013.

Civic-hall, a non-profit organisation and center for learning, collaboration, and technology for the public good based in New York, has created an informative Timeline of Civic-Tech. The following stream graph visually represents how the field of civic tech has evolved from 1994-2019. The graph utilizes the commencement dates of almost 2000 individual projects collected in the Field Guide as of March 1, 2019. These projects are classified according to over 200 categories defined by the guide. These categories are sorted alphabetically from A, at the bottom of the graph, to Z at the very top, and can be seen on the graph by running your mouse/track pad over it. The wider any color in the graph, the greater the number of projects that started in that category in the year below it. Click on the image to see the interactive part:

Source: Civic Hall.

Civic-tech and the rise of Govt-tech

One should not confuse Civic-tech with Gov-tech. As CitizenLab defines, GovTech encapsulates a broad scope of technologies provided TO governments to facilitate improvements in the efficiency of their internal processes. Governments themselves are the beneficiaries of GovTech, with the key objective being administration efficiency improvements through the digitalisation of work processes or incorporation of new tools. Civic Tech on the other hand focuses on providing information to citizens and facilitating connection between each other and ultimately nurturing engagement with their government to create cooperation for the public good. The main differences and components of both Civic-tech and Gov-tech can be summarised as follows:

Source: CitizenLab.

Be it Civic-tech or Gov-tech, what’s in it for democracy?

In their latest report The Global State of Democracy 2019, The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) summarised the ways new technologies shape democracy in the internet era [2]:

 Source: IDEA.

In their report from February 2020, PEW Research Centre surveyed tech and democracy experts who expressed concerns that democracy will be significantly damaged by digital disruption. Around 50% of experts surveyed believe that democracy will be weakened in the coming years from now until 2030 by our use of technology and the corresponding speed and scope of reality distortion, the ever-decreasing role and importance of journalism and the growth in surveillance capitalism. However, a third of those surveyed expect that democracy will be strengthened by technology as reformers discover solutions that repel the threat posed by info-warriors and chaos [3].  

Their forecasts should be taken seriously and one should understand that digital technology is only a tool, and democracy is a value that can not only be defended online, but has to be lived and defended, especially in the era of shrinking civic space.


[1] Omidyar Network in Quora: What is civic technology?

[2] IDEA. The Global State of Democracy 2019: Addressing the Ills, Reviving the Promise, International.

[3]Pew Research Centre (2020). Many Tech Experts Say Digital Disruption Will Hurt Democracy. 

Last modified: Tuesday, 14 June 2022, 1:12 PM