Building Civic Tech for Toronto

Photo: Sarah McNeil/Civic Tech Toronto

Belinda Alzner

Sitting in a chair positioned in a semi-circle around Civic Tech Toronto cofounder Alex Lougheed, I prepare myself for Civic Tech 101. It’s my first outing to the weekly Civic Tech Toronto meetup and all newbies are encouraged to spend the breakout portion of the evening learning the basics of civic tech, its ideals, and looking through examples of civic tech projects carried out across North America and how they can and have had application here at home.

“The city uses a lot of technology and it can use technology a lot better,” Civic Tech Toronto cofounder Gabe Sawhney said in an interview prior to the meetup, noting that the group wants to use its projects to improve that.

“We’re a community of people that get together regularly to talk about ideas and work on projects that aim to make Toronto more equitable, accessible, sustainable and prosperous,” says Civic Tech Toronto communications lead for the steering committee Sarah McNeil.

To help facilitate its goals, the group brings technologists and urbanists together to work on projects focused on using technology to improve Toronto. Toronto has a really awesome community of technologists that do great work … and Toronto has an awesome community of urbanists who understand really profoundly how the city works and how the systems that make up the city work,” Sawhney says. “We felt a real need to bring those two groups together more often and do that in a kind of creative and generative way.”

Each week there’s a talk given around a topic intersecting civic tech, followed by a hack hour where groups work on a number of ongoing projects. “It’s wonderfully chaotic, but that’s kind of how innovation works, right?” Sawhney says.

Diversity of builders

The meetup is unique not only in how its time is structured, but also for the types of people it brings together. “I think that we’ve created an environment that is ideal for people who are looking to collaborate and create with people who are different from them,” Sawhney says. “Most events are organized around helping you meet other people like you.”

“What we try to emphasize is that every kind of skill set is needed for the whole lifecycle of a project and beyond,” McNeil adds, as we discuss the different types of projects being worked on each week.

It’s not just that projects need designers as well as developers, but that they need the perspective from people working in different sectors day-to-day as well. We discuss mental health access in Toronto as an example. “When you bring a mental health expert together with an experienced designer, what they start talking about is well discoverability. how do people find mental health services when they’re in crisis,” Sawhney says, noting that this design process has illuminated the how poor this experience is when people are facing mental health issues and crises.

Making the city more accessible through tech

There are a number of ongoing projects that have found a home at Civic Tech Toronto, where members meet to work on them each week.

There’s Councilmatic, which Sawhney describes as “OpenParliament, but for City Council,” where citizens will be able to track all things related to City Hall—from legislation, to committees to the councillors themselves.

Bringing an easy-to-use interface to this is huge, Sawhney says. “As a Torontonian trying to follow something [right now], you literally have to check the website every week with your search terms to see if anything’s coming up.”

Other projects include Budgetpedia, which is working to make the Toronto City budget easier to understand to provide more informed debate, and Toronto Meshnet—a self-contained and self-reliant network that’s accessible to internet capable devices within range.

Working with the City

In order to be as effective as possible, Civic Tech Toronto has been developing its relationship with the City of Toronto. “It’s good. It’s not easy, but it’s good,” Sawhney says of this relationship.
We’ve really started to get to know [the councillors who] are super interested in this issue,” he continues. Civic Tech Toronto has had contact with the Mayor’s office, with different divisions within the City and have been part of events together, both from a sponsorship standpoint and a speaker standpoint.
Amanda Galbraith, a spokesperson for John Tory, told Torontoist in the winter that City divisions are already looking to the civic tech community to help tackle problems. “At the Mayor’s Working Group on Innovation [in February] we asked for ideas for how best to harness civic tech community and make sure their ideas and results turn into long term solutions for Toronto,” she told Torontoist via email.

Pushing for open data

The Toronto civic tech community has taken an active approach to its role in developing civic tech, having issued a report around the state of open data in February.

“Things on open data front have slowed down in the last few years,” Sawhney says.We were worried that this trend was going to continue,” he says.

The report contains 15 clear recommendations for the City to make its open data program stronger, including simple things like including the name and contact information for the maintainer of a dataset or adopting standardized formats for the data, to more complex things like passing an open data bylaw or replacing existing IT systems with ones that can output open data.

“Civic Tech is the thing that makes open data useful to people,” Sawhney says.

The City’s reaction to the report has been positive, Sawhney, who spoke at Government Management Committee on the topic. The motion passed, and went before Executive Committee in May, where it also passed. “It’s working it’s way through,” Sawhney says.