One of the best guides on civic tech (and when not to build it) is finally out

As the saying goes: “if you think technology is the solution, you don’t understand the problem”. The same goes for technologies for civic or public service purposes. In fact, many argue that a common trait of good professionals working in the digital space is their capacity to, whenever necessary, politely convince their counterparts that their new “app” idea sucks. 

Over time, practitioners will develop their own intuition and tricks of the trade to assess what should be built or not, and if so, how. That knowledge is mostly shared within networks of practitioners, sometimes through a few humorous tips, such as: “If building a dashboard is the first thing a government official asks you, run for your life!”

But this kind of tacit knowledge remains mostly contained and fragmented across small groups, and it is rarely translated for the benefit of others in an accessible manner. And these others are often the ones who come up either with the ideas, the money to fund the ideas, or both. 

This is why I’m particularly happy to see that Luke Jordan’s most recent work is finally out: Don’t Build It: A Guide For Practitioners In Civic Tech / Tech For Development. Currently at the MIT GOV/LAB, Luke is a seasoned technologist, also known for being very straight-to-the point when the issue is technology. Luke’s knowledge and communication style is nicely reflected through the content of the guide: dense, direct and sometimes amusing, as in the excerpt below:  

Construct a monstrous building in the middle of nowhere and movies might be made about you; build a pointless app that no one uses and you will just need to cite a misleading metric in a donor report and no one will care. Conversely, construct a good building in a sensible place and no one will think it worthy of notice; build a not-terrible app that people use for longer than the launch press release circulates, and you will immediately be nominated to half a dozen “X under X” lists.

So, by far the best method is to adopt a simple principle: Don’t build it.

When someone says, “We should build some tech for that”, just say no. When an investor or donor says, “Why don’t you build some technology”, just say no. When you read another article or see another TEDx talk about someone pretending their app achieved something, while citing numbers that are both unverified and meaningless, and a voice inside says, “why don’t we also build technology”, just say no.

Does that mean that the rest of this guide is pointless? Hopefully so. But in reality, at some point some idea may gather such momentum or such force of conviction that the “do not build it” ethos will start to falter. At that point, ask these questions…

I will stop here. In short, this guide is a must-read for anybody designing, implementing, funding or just coming up with “disruptive” ideas on technologies for civic engagement and public service delivery.


Ps.: The teaser for the guide, is itself priceless: