The impact technology has on society is undeniable. From smart phones to autonomous cars, our lives are increasingly influenced by technology. One of the most important uses of technology has been to increase access for the underprivileged. “Civic tech,” as it is termed, aims to bridge gaps in equality by creating technological solutions to societal problems. By creating free, open source websites and applications that target specific issues, developers allow people from every background to gain access to vital information and services. While some have argued that the digital divide could deepen the inequality between those who have access to tech and those that do not, these arguments overlook the long-term benefits of increased investment in that area. With almost two-thirds of Americans owning smart phones and the prices of these devices declining rapidly, civic tech has the potential to create real social impact.
Civic technology touches a variety of sectors and industries. It includes social causes and civic engagement projects, public access data and transparency, peer-to-peer sharing, and crowd funding, among others. In New York City for instance, the Robin Hood Foundation set up BlueRidge Labs as a program that directly incentivizes social innovators using technology to solve social issues through fellowships, grants and workshops. Their portfolio includes justfixnyc (which assists low-income New York City residents with addressing housing repair issues); Easydroid (an app that helps seniors fully utilize their Android smartphones by simplifying the user interface system and streamlining the process); Upsolve (which helps low-income clients through bankruptcy and debt processes and helps them reestablish themselves); Goodcall (which assists people who have been arrested); and neatstreak (which facilitates communication between clients and domestic cleaners, allowing for additional notes on tasks and performance evaluations). Even social media can be seen as a tool for civic tech. Access to headlines from news outlets or even presidential updates are now readily available via sites such as Twitter and Facebook. This diverse range of systems highlights not only the capabilities of technology to address social issues, but also the potential challenges that may arise.
Many of these capabilities may be stymied without the support of the relevant regulatory bodies. Regulations are crucial to address data privacy and security issues, intellectual property concerns, and in increasing consumer trust and confidence in a product. In order for these technological advancements to have the maximum impact on their target audiences, they must operate within an enabling regulatory system. That is, regulators ought to assess the potential social impact of a given technological system when determining the legal frameworks the systems should operate within. The pro-active involvement of regulators and the ensuing cost-benefit analysis to determine appropriate regulations could strengthen the potential impact of civic tech, which would otherwise be limited by legal challenges or consumer distrust.
With all of the benefits regulations could have on civic tech, there are some foreseeable practical challenges regarding implementation. First, technology evolves and is updated frequently. Therefore, regulations can become obsolete within a short period of time. To exacerbate this problem, the nature of the regulatory system means that rules and regulations are subject to an approval process that often lags behind the pace of technological advancements. Moreover, the novelty of these tech systems, when faced with old regulations, poses a challenge for regulators who have to provide guidelines for a new system that is also constantly evolving. Finally, regulation is complicated by the fact that these technological services are directed at different problems and therefore fall within a variety of industries. The relevant regulations are therefore a cross between tech (such as intellectual property, data privacy cyber security, and consumer protection rules) and more substantive constituents (examples include housing authorities or telecom regulators.)
When a pioneering piece of technology challenges the rule of law, it provides the opportunity to revolutionize an existing system. For instance, when Free World Dialup sought approval from the FCC that the product not be regulated as a traditional telecom service, the approval paved the way for Skype and the live online communication industry. The FCC’s regulatory approach towards computers in the 1970’s serves as a good example for the ways in which regulatory bodies can impact the use of technology.
Regulators should acknowledge the opportunities for civic engagement that technology creates. Just as tech has shaped many other existing systems, it can transform the lives of our least fortunate as well. Regulators and regulation approval processes should enable solutions to civic issues by creating innovative regulations that are flexible and allow the technology to develop while simultaneously protecting consumers.