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Citizens’ fight against racist bias: What role can Civic Tech play?

London BLM protest. Photograh: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed demonstrations in the US against the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer grow into a global call for change. Even the exceptional context of the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t stand in the way of a global show of solidarity; citizens from Mexico City to Berlin broke with social-distancing rules to demand a reckoning with the persistent inequality, discrimination and violence faced by people of colour.

The incident didn’t find this level of global resonance because it was exceptional but precisely because it wasn’t.

The killing found such global resonance precisely because it wasn't exceptional. “I can’t breathe”, a phrase used repeatedly by George Floyd in the minutes leading up to his death, already stood as a slogan associated with ‘Black Lives Matter’ before his killing. It was the same phrase Eric Garner used before he died during a violent arrest in Staten Island in 2014 and stands symbolically for the persistent, all too often deadly police violence that people of colour in the US are subjected to.

Outside the US, citizens used the protests not only to show their solidarity but to turn the focus inward and expose racial violence and inequality within their own countries as well. And amidst the toppling of statues of former slave-owners in the UK, CEOs resigning to make way for more diversity at the executive level and global leaders acknowledging their countries’ struggle with racism, the effects of this can already be felt.

For the Civic Tech sector, too, the past weeks have raised - or renewed the focus on - central questions that go to the core of its work. Standing at the interface between government and citizens, Civic Tech must engage with the demands raised by citizens across the world, critically reflect on its work and find its role within citizen’s fight against racial inequality.

Citizens’ global push against racial inequality.

The speed at which the BLM-led demonstrations in the US turned into a transnational wave of protests that captivated the attention of millions stands as the latest example of the mobilising power of social media. Images and videos of police violence were shared widely, with those using the hashtag “BlackLivesMatter” being viewed over 8 billion times, making the brutal reality of racial violence inescapable for people around the globe. Simultaneously, social media platforms were used to organise protests while symbolic acts of solidarity, such as the hashtag #blackoutuesday that was posted 20 million times, travelled across the world.

The issues raised go far beyond anything that could be condensed into, let alone be resolved by, a social media post.

What the protests call into focus, however, doesn't fit into a social media post - and it certainly cannot be sufficiently addressed by one. Central to the discourse is the demand to connect the killings of people of colour at the hands of the police to the system(s) of institutional and structural racism that enable them. Rather than treating them as an isolated case linked solely to the police officers’ personal beliefs and actions, attention is shifted to the institutions (police policies and practices that perpetuate oppression) and structures (oppressive effects across institutions and history) that perpetuate racial bias and, ultimately, violence.

BLM protest in Paris. Phortograph: Thomas de Luze / Unsplash

Despite differences in history, institutions and political set-up, systemically-embedded racism is a sad commonality shared across countries. And the grappling with systemic racism poses a monumental challenge to all societies.

In the US, for example, George Floyd’s death came just weeks after the outbreak of the Corona-virus - a virus that served as a reminder of the disproportionately poor protection black Americans receive under the US healthcare system. According to the APM Research Lab, the death rate of black Americans from COVID-19 was more than double that of any other race. 

Any debate around the systemic nature of racism is routinely met with resistance.

In France, racist police practices are increasingly in focus, also thanks to recent BLM-demonstrations. Open debate around the systemic nature of racism, however, is still largely met with scepticism or denial. For example, when a well known French singer revealed on TV that she, as a woman of colour, at times doesn’t feel safe in the presence of police, on Twitter, her remarks were dismissed by the government as ‘false’ and ‘shameful’. This makes palpable the difficulty of addressing an issue as sensitive as racism, especially within a large institution.

In neighbouring Germany, disproportionate discrimination and violence by the police against people of colour has come into focus as well, including a list of unresolved deaths in police custody. Head of the SPD-party Saskia Esken was one of the first to acknowledge systemic racism within the police in response to the protests. Her statement was immediately met by backlash across the political spectrum.

It is these wider, systemic contexts of racial inequality that citizens are calling their governments’ and fellow citizens’ attention to. Each society faces the challenge of reckoning with the systemic level of racial inequality that permeates its every layer - and that has gone largely unchallenged for much too long. But as this process begins to unfold, we’re also seeing the obstacles and resistances it encounters.

As a Civic Tech company, Civocracy stands at the interface between government, citizens and technology. We strive to empower citizens by strengthening community growth through effective collaboration. Overcoming such deep-seated divisions that obstruct collaboration is central importance for our work.

Engaging with the issues raised by the protests is necessary to work towards true inclusivity and realise Civic Tech’s potential.

A central element of our work is a commitment to fostering inclusive projects. The current discourse around racial (in)equality highlights systemic barriers to inclusivity that compromise this very mission. Engaging with the issues raised by the protests is therefore paramount, both in order to work towards true inclusivity and realise Civic Tech’s potential as an intermediary between citizens and governments as a whole.

BLM protest in Los Angeles, US. Photograph: Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash.

Civic Tech as medium for change?

By definition, Civic Tech aims to strengthen the relationship between citizens and government through innovative Tech solutions. The sector’s rapid expansion has been driven by inventive tools that have the power to fundamentally reshape the way citizens interact with their governments and thereby pave the way to a more collaborative future.

Civic Tech is not exempt from critical analysis.

But even with its focus on citizen empowerment, Civic Tech is not exempt from critical analysis. In recent years, more and more technological appliances were found to exhibit signs of discrimination. A number of social media Apps, for example have shown to exacerbate racist stereotyping. Apps like Nextdoor, Citizen and Neighbours, created to allow users to view local crime in real time and debate it with other users, overwhelmingly flag people of colour as ‘suspicious’, feeding into existing biases and racism. 

Another concern for Civic Tech is the racial bias routinely found in machine-learning algorithms. Predictive policing, which relies on algorithms fed with data collected by the police to help fight crime, often unfairly targets people of colour, for example, mirroring a general tendency in police policy. In 2016, Microsoft’s “Tay”, a Twitter bot, famously turned from an innocent conversation tool into a hatred-stirring chat tool that uses racist slurs. 

While this may not stem from racist malice per se, racial oversight at the very least pervades the sector.

AI appliances exemplify clearly how racial bias can be perpetuated by tech. Human bias is introduced into data sets and generated in the outcomes of the application of those data sets.  While this may not stem from racist malice per se, racial oversight at the very least exists as white people’s experiences are routinely used as the default focus for development. The lack of diversity in the tech sector is certainly a contributing factor. A survey by recently found that only 16 of 152 board positions in the UK's top Tech companies were filled by people of colour.

By extension, Civic Tech actors must also assume that, unless critical focus was placed on the issue of race and ethnicity at all times, biases are built into their appliances. And while these may go largely unnoticed, they nevertheless contribute to the perpetuation of a racist system.

Civic Tech certainly has the potential to play as central a role in furthering the protesters’ cause as social media does, complementing it by providing tools for more constructive and nuanced exchange than most social media platforms can. But this potential can only be realised by way of a critical self-assessment of Civic Tech’s work.

Civocracy’s Call to Action

Driven by its mission to empower citizens, Civocracy wants to use this moment of citizen-led change to reinforce and broaden its inclusive approach. It will be one of our key priorities to work towards building a platform that actively fights racial bias and enables citizens and governments to connect in a truly inclusive way. 

However, we recognise our limitations in identifying and implementing an appropriate approach without prior critical self-assessment. Like other Civic Tech organisations and those concerned with the public sector at large, we must reflect critically on our work before we can formulate a stronger, more inclusive approach towards connecting citizens and governments in the future. 

By connecting Civic Tech actors, government, public sector stakeholders and experts on overcoming racial bias , an in-depth discussion on inclusivity in and through Civic Tech will be possible.

Civocracy has decided to initiate and provide the frame for this process. We will bring together a group of experts to work together on exposing, understanding and addressing racial bias in Civic Tech. By connecting Civic Tech actors, government and public sector stakeholders, as well as experts on overcoming racial bias and discrimination, an in-depth discussion on inclusivity in and through Civic Tech, will be possible. The exchange will take place on Civocracy’s platform. Communication-management, organisation and results-analysis will be carried out by our own experts.

Ultimately, we hope to gain a clear understanding and concrete roadmap for how bias can be eliminated from Civic Tech and how Civic Tech, in turn, can facilitate the fight for racial equality. The insights gained will be crucial not only for Civic Tech organisations but the public sector at large.

We invite all organisations and individuals with ties to the public sector and/or the Civic Tech sector to join this project. 

The past weeks have opened up a long-overdue debate. Now, this must be formed into tangible action. Innovative approaches are exactly what is needed - but collaboration essential to set them up in the right way.


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