Article / Technology, Urban Development
Published: 28.07.2022

Good technology, built with good intentions, yet unwelcome everywhere

Civic engagement tech tools and technology for transparency, Uganda 

In Uganda, civic technology is also used to promote participatory citizenship and fill the holes of the bureaucratic system. For example, “Yogera” (speak out) is a digital platform for the citizens to engage in anti-corruption activism. To promote open data, the government also establishes “,” a digital portal that visualises all the information about governmental projects for the public to monitor. However, it is noteworthy that the existence of civic technology alone does not necessarily guarantee long-term success. Pollicy, a feminist collective for civic technology, points out that Ugandan citizens do not feel compelled to make use of available technology. Furthermore, the digital infrastructure in Uganda has yet to be fully developed, hence the limited numbers of tech users.

Another aspect that deserves attention is the sustainability of such platforms, as most civic tech projects emerge and collapse almost immediately, like popped bubbles. Pollicy explains this issue as a lack of long-term strategies: when the streams of funds stop flowing, most projects have to cease operation.

Luke Jordan, founder of “Grassroot” and affiliate of MIT GOV/LAB also addresses the unsustainable model of civic tech organisations in his handbook called “Don’t Build It: A Guide for Practitioners in Civic Tech.”  From his experience in developing digital platforms, Jordan finds that most technologists and technocrats think of themselves as the answer to all solutions, treating structural problems as simple, technical issues that could be fixed with applications. This hubris that wraps around their ideas of public policy effectively prevent them from asking the following questions:

  • What are the previous efforts in dealing with the issues you want to solve?
  • What kind of changes will technology bring? Why would people want to fix their problems with technology?
  • Are they truly technological issues or concerns of other social dimensions? 

This situation has a name, and it is called “tech solutionism,” or the circumstances in which technology is considered a one-size-fits-all way out to everything. Such belief also translates into the prioritisation of STEM knowledge (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) over other disciplines. Alondra Nelson, sociologist of race and technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, urges policymakers to interrogate the impact of science and technology on the society, and the ways in which societal norms and ideologies in turn shape technology, or “dangerous social architecture that lies beneath the scientific progress we pursue.” Nelson fears that technology will not yield meaningful benefits to society “if we do not develop policy that prioritizes equity, civil rights, and justice upstream.”

Jordan also points out another elephant in the room: vanity metrics, or data that exhibits a large volume of meaningless numbers, not reflecting genuine growth. This kind of data will kill the developers’ vigour to learn and fix remaining issues. In Jordan’s words, “if you can avoid building it, don’t build it; if you have to build it, hire a chief technology officer (CTO), ship early, and mature long; and if you can’t do that (or even if you can), draw on a trusted crew, build lean and fast, and get close to and build with your users as fast as possible.”

Smart City project by SideWalk Labs, Canada

“A smart city of the sort that Sidewalk Labs proposes turns this surveillance-and-inference system into a pervasive straitjacket that wraps around everyone who sets foot on the public street.” 

Back in 2018, Sidewalk Labs, an “urban innovation” company and a subsidiary of Google, won a bid to develop Quayside into a technologically smart utopia. The company promised that it would improve the given sight in every aspect possible, from safer transport, city repair, to advanced power grid.  

To make the urban infrastructure more responsive to the residents’ needs, Sidewalk Labs based its design philosophy on “community programming” or technology that enabled ordinary citizens to “co-design” the city. For example, Sidewalk Labs developed an application for volunteers to record activities in public space, so that the local administrators could use that information to improve those areas. Another application digitised a city-wide map that sent repair alert messages to city workers. 

Fast forward to 2020, Sidewalk Labs suddenly withdrew from their Quayside project.

“Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever,” wrote Karrie Jacobs, an expert on technology and society. As Sidewalk Labs developed their Master Innovation and Development Plan, citizens of Toronto rallied against their Smart City proposals. Their major concerns were that cutting-edge tech tools offered by Sidewalk Labs extensively tracked people’s activities. Despite the implementation of the de facto surveillance system, Sidewalk Labs failed to inform the citizens on the scope of data collection and usage, data storage, or the possibility (or lack thereof) of selling citizen-aggregated data to the public sector. The company also did not specify whether personal data of citizens — a highly sensitive and valuable “product” that Google generally sells for profits — would be completely unidentified.

With Sidewalk Lab’s wishy-wishy stance on ethical data collection, citizens of Toronto considered smart technology to be nothing but data vampires that violated their privacy rights and escalated surveillance in the city. Instead of embracing advanced tech tools, the citizens pushed all the proposals away, claiming that hubristic tech innovation companies went over their heads to experiment with their city. Resisting Google’s attempt to turn the people into their lab rats, Canadian Civil Liberties Association decided to sue Sidewalk Labs for installing surveillance technology, citing infringement of privacy as the legal basis for lawsuit.

Sidewalk Labs’s work was also criticised by Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel for overlapping with the local government’s and the community’s initiatives, which already promoted public participation. 

The two case studies reveal that good intentions are not enough when it comes to applying technology to real life. It is vital to ground our work on humility, self-evaluation, and ethical practices. If we cannot stand in solidarity with the community whose lives come into being before our innovation, all that means well will bear harmful consequences to everyone involved.


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