What does “civic behaviour” look like? Voting springs to mind, as does volunteering, with perhaps starting a charity or social enterprise towards the black-belt end of being an active citizen. Debugging a page of code in the evenings is not something many of us would immediately point towards. But this particular example of civic behaviour, hidden to many of us, is going on across the country.
It’s become much more visible to those with an interest in technology through the example of pioneers like mySociety, who presciently argued for public sector data to be freely available in helpful formats to everybody at the same time as demonstrating how it could be put to social use through sites like TheyWorkForYou – created entirely by volunteers. And while the slowly-turning machinery of government chewed the idea over (now manifest in data.gov.uk), ingeniously came up with their own solutions of scraping it from the Government’s very web 1.0 sites and making it available to others.
Other enterprising groups have established their own community websites, which pull local residents around their neighbourhood, achieving in a Big Society-ish way some of what local government would like to do, while hacking events like those run by Rewired State (“Geeks meet Government”) bring people together to make useful and open applications from public data.
Rory Cellan-Jones broke the news today that many government websites could be cut, after a review from the government that highlights some of their soaring cost. This review seems in sympathy with a report the RSA published earlier this year that heard a variety of stories around the depressingly wasteful cost of public sector IT and argued for a more parsimonious approach to technology in a cold economic climate.
When the RSA was founded it aimed to “embolden enterprise, to enlarge Science, to refine Art, to improve our Manufactures, and extend our Commerce”, and offered premiums or awards “for any and every work of distinguished ingenuity”. William Shipley, a drawing master, felt deeply about the importance to Britain of the skill of drawing. One of the first premiums given is recorded in the minutes of the RSA’s very first meeting on 22nd March 1754:
“It was likewise proposed, to consider of giving Rewards for the Encouragement of Boys and Girls in the Art of Drawing; and it being the Opinion of all present that the art of Drawing is absolutely necessary in many Employments Trades & Manufactures, and that the Encouragement thereof may prove of great Utility to the public, it was resolved to bestow Premiums on a certain number of Boys or Girls under the age of sixteen…”
Drawing was a key skill in the eighteenth century, but in the twenty-first, it seems to me as though developing computer code is also important to solving some of the real problems we face. Developing code that helps people to feel attached to their neighbourhood, strengthens community, helps keep the government accountable, and reduces the burden on public money is of course a civic behaviour.