Methodical Snark critical reflections on how we measure and assess civic tech

A belated summer dump (w 28-36)


So I’ve been away for a whopping 8 weeks, bouncing between holidays,  summer schools, consultancies and moving the fam to DC. Somehow the internet refused to stop while I was gone. So as I get back into the swing of things, here is an abbreviated summary of the summer’s findings in civic tech research, plus a couple of choice weeds and reflections.

The power of negative thinking
Satire you disagree with is more likely to provoke civic engagement than satire you agree with. #anger. Similarly, research on a Spanish deliberative platform found that comments negatively aligned with proposals are more likely to generate engagement, and US panel data suggests that online political disagreement leads to political info sharing online and political engagement offline. Another study suggests that Facebook escapism can trigger “accidental political engagement.”

On evidence in policy-making:
Skills and institutional culture keep civil servants in developing countries from using evidence in policy-making, according to research conducted in India and Pakistan. News media, on the other hand, can have a dramatic impact on shaping policy, though this is significantly limited by national politics, according to empirical study comparing four southeast Asian countries. Meanwhile, a study of Danish policy-making (n=954) finds that more evidence actually strengthens bias and worsens policy decisions. Sigh.


On government tech and accountability:
There seems to be a correlation between the ICT investment in a public agency and its digital maturity, while 18 yrs of panel data from 175 countries suggests  that ICT diffusion lowers levels of corruption (though economic development is involved here too–it’s messy). Corruption data analyzed in a synthetic research project found “significant reductions” in bribery across countries, though they note that it might be an “illusion created by poor data.” Time series data suggests that government tax transparency will increase tax revenue, but governments’ OGP commitments to fight corruption do not incorporate civil society participation in doing so, and voluntary transparency reports by internet companies (re requests for information) are not influencing government behavior.

In the US local governments are using digital media to involve citizens, but most don’t follow up, and citizens aren’t commenting on the open data policies of US cities, just government staff and private companies, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation.

Elsewhere, long-incumbent male mayors and high unemployment correlate with less transparency according to a survey of Portuguese municipal websites, while  Greek judges feel that using ICT makes them more efficient, Dutch open financial data isn’t very accountable in a World Bank kind of way.  Serbian municipal governments are “are relatively transparent, but responsiveness and interactivity are far below expectations.” Most of Indonesia’s open data isn’t machine readable or non-proprietary.

On tech and getting ppl engaged:
An experiment on US university students (n=93) determined that “the presence of customizability technology indirectly increased political polarization through its effect on clicks on pro-attitudinal articles, and indirectly increased political polarization through its effect on time spent reading pro-attitudinal articles” (read:, digital echo chambers are demonstrably destroying our ability to agree).

On the other hand, young people who use the internet and are part of a storytelling network are more likely to be politically engaged online, social networking improves civic participation among US teenagers. Elsewhere, a cross-national study of 20 Countries suggests that the more internet you give people, the more internet freedom they want, a Latin American survey data suggests that consuming digital information leads to greater political efficacy, especially in more democratic countries, there’s evidence that  fast internet leads to economic growth in Africa. Unfortunately, however, Zero-Rated Internet Access is not connecting people in developing countries, despite evidence suggesting that .

On tech and communities:
Telecenters are contributing to the psychological empowerment of underserved communities in South Africa, and network analysis suggests that online organization of volunteer networks have concrete impacts on offline networks, and especially trust across offline divides. Women create fewer online petitions than men, but they’re more successful, and content analysis of the  #Ferguson Twitterstorm argues that online activism was driven more by race and partisanship than local arrest rates and economic inequality. Fortunately, their read is slightly more nuanced than that.

On voting:
A study of 12 national elections suggests that yes, apps are getting people to vote (though a separate comparative study found no correlation between voter turnout/preference and the provision of information more generally). Meanwhile, an Estonian study suggests that e-voting is habit forming.

From the duh desk:
The founders of American open gov intermediary companies are progressive and idealistic. Good design, infrastructure, security and regular updates all improve citizen satisfaction with Pakistani e-government websites, and this post hoc project evaluation concludes that smart design is also important for civic tech that targets race and gender inequality. Ok then.


Literature reviews:

  • There’s a ton of research on transparency in Brazil, and it’s better at conceptualizing outcomes than transparency research from other countries, but needs to improve its empirical methods.
  • Social media forecasting is prone to data biases, but still gets it right a surprising amount of the time.
  • Communications scholars are still writing just as much about newspapers and television as they are about the internet
  • A review of 7 years of literature suggests that crowdsourcing initiatives should be well designed. Hmmm.
  • The concept of governance has driven a wave of government reforms in Africa, but “effects of these reforms have not been adequately researched by accounting scholars.”


Reflections, models and lessons:


In the weeds:

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Methodical Snark critical reflections on how we measure and assess civic tech