S. Chowdhary, S. Daitzman, R. Eisenbud, E. Pan and E. Graeff, “Care and Liberation in Creating a Student-Led Public Interest Technology Clinic,” 2020 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS), 2020, pp. 164-175, doi: 10.1109/ISTAS50296.2020.9462188.
The emerging field of Public Interest Technology contains the seeds for an engineering practice that embodies the ethic of care and undergraduate engineering educational experiences in the mold of liberatory education. We realized these opportunities by creating an undergraduate, student-led public interest technology clinic. Using autoethnography, we reflect on our effort to create the clinic and find that we prioritized emotions and relationships, embraced slowness and deliberation, and claimed student ownership. These practices define public interest technology and redefine engineering in ways centering care and equity, which enabled us to create the inclusive and effective engineering and public interest technology educational experiences we wanted for ourselves.
In a June 2017 post, Mark Zuckerberg introduced a change in Facebook’s mission from “make the world more open and connected” to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Facebook may not be able to give people power, but the goal of empowering people and building community is language familiar to civic engagement and participatory democracy, similar to the core idea of relational organizing—building interpersonal relationships that can be mobilized for collective action. In a February 2017 post, Zuckerberg first articulated this new thinking: “In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” Companies like Facebook often claim to serve the public good through their products; however, this particular language and the depth of explanation in Zuckerberg’s posts imply a recognition of ethical responsibility and at least an intention to design for true citizen empowerment.
I believe it is fair to insist that if the creators of a technology platform seek to make claims about empowering users, they must set explicit design goals for citizen empowerment and evaluate their platform against those goals. Facebook continues to face steep challenges to providing equal access to its platform. To aim for communities that can be effective and serving the public good is an even loftier goal. How Facebook will know whether it is actually making progress on its mission remains to be seen. However, technology companies have a reputation for religiously articulating goals and measuring them empirically. In fact, one of the architects of the data science team at Facebook claims that they invented the term “data scientist” to describe this important role (Hammerbacher 2009).
Democracy that values citizen-centered governance requires citizen empowerment (sometimes called “civic agency”), and empowered citizens need certain skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits that lead to effective civic engagement (Boyte 2009; Levinson 2012; Gibson and Levine 2003). Empowering experiences and learning opportunities can promote a virtuous cycle of reinforcing citizen empowerment and strengthening democracy. Spaces like town hall meetings, protest marches, the voting booth, and the civic education classroom traditionally represent where these experiences and opportunities take place. The emergence of networked digital media have created new, pervasive civic spaces—the networked public sphere. Whereas public spaces offline have seen a decline (Zick 2009), their online replacements, largely private spaces like Facebook, have grown to astounding size and influence with limited accountability to governments and the public.
Social media platforms like Facebook, government communication tools like We the People, and smaller civic technology platforms like SeeClickFix are increasingly the spaces through which citizens seek empowerment in the form of direct response from their government on key issues. As important actors in U.S. democracy (as well as other polities), the creators of these spaces have a responsibility to design for citizen empowerment and ensure they are advancing empowering processes and outcomes for citizens by evaluating whether their platforms are actually serving this mission. These creators of digital technology used for civic engagement should be understood as stewards of democracy with an ethical obligation to serve the public good.
Monitorial forms of civic engagement are on the rise, sparked by high levels of mistrust in governments and politicians around the world and access to technology that makes recording, organizing, and sharing information easier. We need to ask what this means for how we conceive of citizenship, the design of our civic tools, and the future of civic learning. This presentation introduces a new definition for monitorial citizenship, surveys exemplar technologies and practices, and calls us to action to design new technology and pedagogy.
“Monitorial citizenship is a form of civic engagement in which people collect information about their surroundings or track issues of local or personal interest in order to improve their communities and pursue justice. Common activities of the monitorial citizen include collecting information, sharing stories and insights, coordinating with networks of other civic actors, and pursuing accountability for institutions and elite individuals and their perceived responsibilities.” (Graeff 2018). Technologies that support monitorial citizenship have been used for a range of civic and political work from activism to participatory governance to disaster response. Educators and youth organizers play an important role in encouraging young people to develop monitorial skills, use these tools, and launch new projects.
High levels of mistrust in governments and politicians around the world, connected to anti-elitist sentiments among both liberal and conservative citizens, has signaled a need for effective strategies and technologies that support monitorial citizenship.
“Monitorial citizenship is a form of civic engagement in which people independently track issues or communities of interest in order to be prepared to take action when necessary. Common activities of the monitorial citizen include collecting information, sharing stories and insights, co-ordinating with networks of other civic actors, and pursuing accountability for institutions and individuals and their perceived responsibilities” (Graeff forthcoming).
With the outcome of the 2016 American presidential election, in particular, we are seeing increased interest in monitorial practices from both citizens and technologists, who have responded by developing new digital tools.
But because many projects recreate the design features of existing tools, there is a significant and immediate need to know what does and does not work.
Prior technologies for monitorial citizenship have been documented under names like sousveillance (Mann 2002), social monitoring (Fung et al. 2013), and accountability technologies (Offenhuber & Schechtner 2013), and they have been deployed for a range of endeavours from activism to participatory governance to disaster response (Madianou, et al. 2016).
This paper is a qualitative meta-analysis of the existing literature and additional original case studies, organising monitorial citizenship tools into thematic groups by their theories of change and design features. Based on the success of prior work, Erhardt proposes a set of design principles for tools supporting civic activities such as accountability, critique and solidarity, and insurrectionism, alongside recommendations for deployment.
We should optimize the design of civic technologies for developing effective citizens; I argue we must put civic and political learning at the core of how we evaluate civic technology’s impact. This will require new definitions and measures that capture the complexity and needs of contemporary, digitally-mediated democracy.
In this talk, I will propose a research agenda for civic learning including definitions, measures, and design goals for our community to explore.
Recent work by Bennett (2007) and Cohen and Kahne (2012) has helped push scholar and practitioner communities to understand how citizens, especially younger generations, are changing in their civic goals and practices—often using social media to consume and share political information, express their voices, and organize civic and political communities. Unfortunately, we lack a definition and operationalization of how “users” grow into the citizens contemporary democracies need. Research should be attempting to tie designs holistically to gains in targeted skills, experience, and self-efficacy.
We must develop and validate measures for civic learning by combining rich qualitative understanding with trace data to evaluate users’ civic trajectories as they explore tools and platforms; and these must scale as large as Facebook and across the diverse contexts in which users are embedded world-wide.