Change the system: civic tech lessons from Amsterdam, and a wrap-up from across Europe

I think Amsterdam might be (whisper it) more beautiful than Paris. It’s the canals. And the architecture, particularly the social housing — which has been cutting-edge since about 1910.

Apart from wandering around thinking “I’d really like to live here”, I also met up with two democracy-focused organisations. One that I would call classic civic tech, and one that takes a wider democratic engagement role, but that has helped deliver some interesting digital products. With a general election approaching in March 2017, it’s an exciting time for Dutch civic tech.

Amsterdam was also, alas, the last stop on EuroCivicTechTour2016 — so I round off this post with some reflections of the State of Europe’s Civic Tech. 

OpenState.eu

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I met the infectiously enthusiastic Arjan el-Fassad, of OpenState.eu, in their offices in the old Dutch admiralty. OpenState is a team of around eight people, some of whom gradually filled the office as we chatted on a gloriously sunny morning. Arjan, its director, brings something unique to civic tech in that he was previously an MP in the Dutch parliament — with all the knowledge of internal systems and culture that brings. (The only other person I can think of like this is the ex-lobbyist founder of Democratie Ouverte in Paris.)

Legally, OpenState.eu has existed since 2012, though its origins are in student voter-advice-applications and Hack the Government, a team of well-meaning coders trying to do digital stuff, which go back as far as 2006.

The organisation’s goal is to create open data for digital transparency. Their projects split into four categories: politics & governance, education, culture and journalism. To highlight just a few projects:

  • Open Health Costs is a combination of open data and crowdsourcing which could result in savings of €millions for the Netherlands. Because medical insurers and providers won’t openly publish what they charge, the Dutch Consumers Association, working with OpenState, is asking patients to upload their receipts for medical work, building an open database of costs that can then be compared with the national average. Eventually, this should force medical costs down.
  • Subsidy Tracker does what it says on the tin — again, OpenState have worked there way through government departments and local authorities to track who’s getting subsidies, and from whom. OpenSpending is similar, but covers all government spending. The work on the local elements of this — the Netherlands has a similar number of local authorities to the UK, with about a quarter of the population — has been funded by Dutch central government.
  • Open Culture Data is a huge effort to open data on cultural artefacts in the Netherlands, and OpenState built the search engine and API.
  • OpenState’s efforts on opening education data is more evidence for their willingness to do the leg work to make good things happen — building an API that brings together varied sources and standards of education data into one conclusive data set. This now powers a range of popular tools, such as this and this school finder.
  • 1848.nl — named after the key year in Dutch constitutional history — is a political news and document search tool that isn’t actually an OpenState project, but obviously sits in a similar realm — and OpenState have bought shares in it. Arjan was convinced it’ll succeed — it’s so much better than any official version — that the increasing value of their stake will help fund more open projects. A civic tech endowment!

So rather like Democracy Club, in order to do the fun stuff, OpenState is focused on doing the perhaps less exciting — or less lucrative — infrastructure work: datasets and APIs. When we met they were building the PDF scraper to try to build a candidates database for March 2017. They are also working on a delightful register problem: unique IDs for govt departments, ministries and agencies. Not atypically, several bits of government have compiled their own partial lists, but there is all kinds of duplication and error going on. To track and open government spending properly, for example, OpenState needs a canonical register of those spenders. Such a register would be extremely helpful for other parts of government, and it so it looks like OpenState might just have to deliver it on behalf of the state.

Arjan had some good tips on getting stuff done. Their work delivering better information services for local governments is paid for by local and central government. By getting the big city governments on board first, they signalled their legitimacy to smaller local govts to join in. Moreover, the willingness of local government to support OpenState services partly came about because councillors were dissatisfied with the existing providers and so were happy to listen to external advice. Interestingly, the key decision makers were the council clerks, not the elected members or civil servants.

Another tip, which is useful given that my assumption is that we need civic tech tools to be embedded by big media companies if we’re to reach millions, is that OpenState has had success by going to public interest organisations, who have more time, budget and longer term priorities than the media. Such organisations include a Dutch home-owners organisation and the Dutch consumers’ association, which reminds me to try to talk to Which? in the UK.

Netwerk Democratie

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On the very last day of my European travels, I met Josien Pieterse, director of Netwerk Democratie, in the canteen of the old Shell headquarters — a modernist treat with views south across the water to the city centre. We met on the morning after Netwerk Democratie’s penultimate event in its New Democracy series of lectures, which had seen Professor Saskia Sassen, Columbia University’s superstar sociologist, speak on redesigning democratic institutions. The videos from the entire New Democracy series are online — many are in English.

Netwerk Democratie can be thought of as a civic tech project — its mission statement is “to strengthen democracy by using technology to connect and engage all citizens” — but its principal strength appears to be in organising and educating people on new ideas of democracy in the 21st century, such as partnering with the University of Amsterdam on the lecture series mentioned. Josien was perhaps the most ‘systems-thinker’ type I met across the whole tour. Whereas civic tech often seems to be about taking a specific problem and prototyping and building digital solutions, Josien wanted to emphasise that all NetDem’s work is about challenging our current way of doing democracy. In particular, bringing the cultural and technological shift that we’ve seen in media to change politics and democracy. Josien used the example of the problem that Dutch politicians are still appealing to people via TV debates, which young people don’t watch. So young people don’t learn, don’t pay attention, vote or engage — and policy is captured to the benefit of older folks. There’s much to do to make democracy work for everyone.

While NetDem run events programmes and try to help people think differently about politics and democracy, they also help broker classic stand-alone civic tech projects:

  1. Transparent Netherlands aggregates, cleans and publishes APIs on public data on officials, companies and relationships between them — doing the grunt work to make it easier for journalists to find and connect stories on the exercise of power.
  2. For Your Neighbourhood is a hyperlocal crowdfunding platform, which has been supported by the Dutch government. (Curiously, the political support for the project is partly a result of the Dutch enthusiasm for the concept of ‘Big Society’, which was imported after it had largely been forgotten in the UK.)
  3. Publeaks is a website that allows anonymous leaking directly to a small group of ‘reliable’ (presumably publicly trusted) Dutch media houses, including, for example, the Dutch Journal of Medicine, which will happily receive health information leaks. It seems like a more responsible Wikileaks.

It’s hard to think of a UK equivalent of Netwerk Democratie — but some of the events work done by the Democratic Society might come close. Either way, I think we should be emulating more of their approach.

Lastly, two other Dutch treats. Visiting Amsterdam for just a couple of days meant that I missed out on meeting them, but both Bits of Freedom (a digital rights org) and Argu (a debate platform) were highlighted by Arjan and Josien as worth a look.

The tour wrap-up

Alas, Amsterdam was my final stop in EuroCivicTechTour2016. But it was so much fun I might just do it again next year — I could head to southern Europe and see what’s happening in Spain, Italy and Greece…or perhaps head east and check out the feats of Estonia and its neighbours.

If I were to try to come up with some overarching insights into the state of civic tech in the relatively few places I managed to visit — catch up on Paris, Brussels and Berlin here — they might be something like this:

  • Location, location, location. There’s definitely value in a physical space in which to bring civic tech folks together — whether for co-working or events. Open Knowledge Germany’s delightful office seemed to epitomise this, with a range of different individuals and teams all sparking off each other. OpenState’s office was similar too. In London, we have Newspeak House, which is uniquely brilliant as a kind of members club and a significant events/hackathon space. But I suspect there’s a good case for civic tech co-working spaces in London, Brussels and Paris. Paris might get a Civic Hall at some point. And for London, perhaps it’s this?
  • Patience. Building successful, sustainable organisations takes time — on average it seemed that the most robust organisations have been running for nearly a decade — and even those that were five or six years old were perhaps only now safely on their feet.
  • We all the same but different. People regularly tell Democracy Club that ‘we can just export [x] around the world’ — well, no. Everyone has specific local problems as well as local political and governance domain knowledge that clearly instructs their work, even if it does so subconsciously. And the difference runs to successes too: each successful organisation I met with was succeeding for a different reason. Sorry Tolstoy.
  • A pan-European funding pot would be an exciting thing that might help bring about quicker cohesion, sharing and cooperation across the civic tech space. And could be a useful boost for the Brussels civic tech scene. But then see ‘We are all the same but different’.
  • Let’s catch up! Saying we are different is not to say that we don’t have a lot to learn from each other. And it’s hugely fun — and good for solidarity — to get together and compare frustrations and successes. I can’t help thinking we need a CivicTech Europe conference that’ll bring us together to share notes, funding ideas and strengthen the unity and perception of civic tech as a thing to be taken seriously. mySociety’s ‘The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference‘ is probably the closest thing Europe has to this right now, but I’m thinking of something going beyond a focus on research and evaluation. I’ve heard rumour of a GovCampEurope. Get in touch if you’re keen :)

🇪🇺  Et voila. 🇪🇺

Back to building UK democratic infrastructure.

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Actually a thing. At Brussels Eurostart checkin.
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One thought on “Change the system: civic tech lessons from Amsterdam, and a wrap-up from across Europe”

  1. Great blog; i wondered about real or possible links to London? GLA do plenty of european link up events but wonder how much the culture change translate across

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