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Towards More Effective Civic Innovation with Anthea Watson Strong

BY Sam Roudman | Monday, June 9 2014

Anthea Watson Strong at PDF. Credit: PDF Flickr

In a talk entitled “The Calculus of Civic Innovation,” Anthea Watson Strong discussed how tools for civic engagement might be made more effective (you can read her talk with slides on her site.) The former community organizer and current member of Google’s Civic Innovation Team laid out an argument grounded in how people actually relate (or don't) to civic tech tools, and appealed to an equation used to assess the conditions required to motivate someone to vote (PB + D > C.) The point: people are more likely to act if they think their actions will matter. And those making tools need a better understanding of the people who use them.

In a chat with techPresident after her talk, she discussed the origins of her talk and some of the conditions holding back civic engagement tools from taking off. What follows is a partial, and lightly edited transcript:

techPresident: What was the main point you were trying to get across, and how did you develop it?

Anthea Watson Strong: I’ve been at PDF forever and ever. My very first entré into civic technology was here…I won a google fellowship, which is ironic now, to come to this conference in 2008 and just was blown away. I had no idea that the internet was impacting my world which was community organizing. Then from 2008 through now we’ve seen all of these tools come and go that were supposed to be the next great thing in civic engagement. And really if you look at the number of users that those kinds of tools have versus the number of users that products that help people shop or hail a cab…we’re not seeing the same kind of disruption in our vertical that we’ve seen elsewhere. And it feels like vertical after vertical have fallen. Those of us who come to this conference have a sense of, “When is it going to be our turn?”

For me as a product manager I believe that we’re going to get there. There’s no way that the internet isn’t going to totally transform governance. But we really need to figure out how. From a user’s perspective, what do they need? Too often I’ve seen these tools being presented that are really designed for the way that we wish people would behave rather then the way they are actually behaving. So this equation is what I use to hold myself accountable, when I’m trying to invent or think up the next functionality of the new tool. I want to really call myself back to, is this something that really, real people would use, or is this something that I wish existed? Because I’m a civic geek who cares a lot about this stuff.

techPresident: One thing that struck me, was that the things you were saying –know who your users are and how they operate– they seem really obvious. How have these things not been incorporated into the development of these tools?

Strong: I don’t actually really know, I’d have to think about it a lot before I’d have a great answer to that. But I have a sense. We saw it in Marci [Harris’] talk; the investment that goes into our space versus what goes into others. Product managers are flying blind because they don’t have the money to conduct this kind of research. When you’re primarily foundation based, you have an incentive to tell good stories about what you’re doing, and not necessarily be honest with yourself about the mistakes you’re making.

It’s not helpful as a product manager to not have this research and this understanding of really how people are interacting. And when you’ve got a budget of $75,000 and you’re trying to get a prototype together, that’s nothing. You don’t have the resources to hire anyone –a UX expert, a researcher, an analyst, quants, qualitative research around users– none of us are doing it, because none of us have the money. I think there is a lot of money for academics, and there are a lot of people out there who have the bandwidth for that kind of research, but that’s not the topics they’re choosing to research. They tend to look historically back on times when something went well, and explain why it was that happened, rather than looking forward and [doing] more product based research. What do we need in the future?

techPresident: Can a lot of what’s missing in civic tech be compensated for with a change in focus?

Strong: At the end [of my talk] I tried to make the call to action really specific…One: when we’re funding civic prototypes we need to be funding ones that are designed well, and we need to feel confident that they’re reflecting the best understanding we have as an ecosystem of what the next step is. Number two: in order to know which products we should be investing in, we’re going to need better research. To some extent funders need to be investing in this. I don't understand why it’s not a requirement if you get a grant from any of the foundations in this space, that you install analytics and optimizely, and all those sorts of things, and constantly be publishing the lessons you learn. We need a fail forward kind of approach.