I’m Tim Leisman and I organize with Code for Greensboro, a chapter of the national nonprofit Code for America. I’m passionate about civic tech, a phrase that describes a movement beyond just “technology for civic purposes” which is what the phrase implies at first. Civic hackers – those who engage in civic tech work – aim to pick apart and improve the processes of public service delivery, civic engagement, and other parts of our democratic institutions.
The tools I’ve honed as a program evaluator are the same ones that help me lead effectively in civic tech. And I’m not talking about using R, although programming languages are certainly important in this space. Rather, I’m talking about the general ability to help groups of people reach a new understanding of complex issues through asking difficult questions and aligning the tools to answer them. Evaluators learn how to do this quite effectively using a range of tools and can often be found using them to understand how to improve society in some way. Evaluation can be a civic practice when these tools are employed at the intersection of democratic institutions and emerging technologies.
Earlier this year, I helped co-facilitate the volunteer-powered data team of a local political advocacy organization here in Guilford County, NC. Our aim was engage the community in creating a political platform together that would mobilize residents across the political spectrum. We designed an online and paper survey tool supplemented by interviews to gather broad input across the county. To facilitate emergent coding by a small group of volunteers with various levels of academic backgrounds, not to mention meeting only online, we needed a highly accessible process. Using a codebook and Zoom, we shaped emergent themes together and came out with an understanding that helped shape a platform that was later adopted through a consensus process open to all who gave input. Through asking the right questions and reaching the right people, we reached a new understanding of what our neighbors, especially those whose voices are usually excluded from policy research processes, need from local political institutions.
To me, evaluation as a civic practice means weaving together that expression of community voices with transparent outcome monitoring. In order to move closer to a shared understanding of how a locality is doing, many cities are embracing the use of “community indicators” — data points that show how the needle is moving in a particular area of civic life, such as economic vibrancy or health outcomes. Some of those cities are openly embracing the movement towards more transparency by making data available in real time to anyone who can access it. Open data platforms, such as the one that the City of Greensboro actively maintains, provide a real-time source of insight into whether the needs of community groups are being met. Evaluators and programmers have the tools and understanding to access, analyze, and visualize these data sources. However, it’s only through interfacing with groups in our communities that we can understand which data sources are most relevant and which questions people need to answer!
Groups like Code for Greensboro aim to partner with other local organizations to figure out what those questions are and work together to answer them. We also aim to play a role in promoting data literacy among our neighbors, helping more people acquire the tools to answer questions about their communities for themselves! Interested in playing a part? Consider joining up with Code for America to find other folks nearby who share the same interest!
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