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Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | Civic tech must innovate for challenges unique to middle-income nations

Mithun, 22, a field worker for his local corporator in Mumbai, notices that in his slum dengue claims several lives every monsoon. Authorities turn a blind eye because the deaths are often not documented. Mithun, though, uses an online tool, designed to conduct surveys in low literacy areas, to gather feedback from his community.

He presents his corporator with data that states that 94% of residents in his slum are aware of the causes of dengue, yet, the disease remains widespread because of uncovered sewage lines. The corporator presents this data to the municipality and the sewage lines are promptly covered, preventing further dengue deaths.

Such apps can be used by anyone to report complaints, apply for government services, comment on policies and write petitions. Civic technology apps can be found on Google Play Store and Apple Store. Progressive web apps, or websites that deliver an app-like experience are commonplace. Some platforms even use WhatsApp to drive action among citizens. Civic tech platforms may not advertise on a large scale, but are worth seeking out. Tools like the one Mithun uses are becoming popular the world over, carving a niche for themselves known as “civic technology". Philanthropic investment firm Omidyar Network defines civic technology as “technology that is used to empower citizens or help make government more accessible, efficient and effective".

In countries, such as Taiwan, France and the US, civic-technology solutions are ubiquitous. Since 2014, the vTaiwan project, which started out as a citizen movement, has been working to build consensus among Taiwanese citizens about contentious issues.

Consensus derived through vTaiwan is utilized to draft new laws and regulations for citizens. In the US, Vote.org uses technology to register voters and increase voter turnout.

In the Indian context, civic technology can broadly be divided into two themes—tools aimed at improving civic engagement, and those directed at streamlining government services.

The seeds of civic technology in India were sown as early as 2012, when IChangeMyCity enabled citizens to share complaints about civic issues through its platform. It also provided municipalities with real-time grievance data to resolve. Building on this, organizations such as Reap Benefit, through their online platform, work with young people to create solutions for civic problems such as low-cost sanitation systems from discarded plastic.

Civic technology solutions are not restricted to urban local bodies or to citizen-driven initiatives. For instance, OnlineRTI streamlines the process of applying for and receiving information from the government under the Right to Information Act.

In India, a growing number of internet users is coupled with a young population, accustomed to demanding participation in all facets of their lives, including greater participation in governance. This combination is pushing governments to be more participatory and efficient. Exemplifying this shift is the MyGov platform, run under the aegis of the government of India.

Omidyar Network’s report, Catalysing Civic Tech in India, estimates that there are 450-475 civic technology startups in the country today. However, challenges faced by civic technology ventures globally are echoed in India. US-based non-profit Knight Foundation shares that till late 2017 civic technology ventures in the US were working at refining business models and achieving financial sustainability.

While civic technology has seen early success in India, we now have an opportunity to leapfrog over challenges faced globally. To make the 2020s the decade of civic technology in India, entrepreneurs can work to create diversified business models and build robust impact assessment frameworks for their organizations. Governments can continue to work with and encourage civic-technology platforms through startup competitions and partnerships. Investors and philanthropists have the opportunity to craft innovative funding models to fuel growth. Organizations working to support civic tech in India like D-Prize, Omidyar Network, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and Village Capital are already paving the way.

Civic technology focuses on improving the daily lives of individuals, making the society more equitable and improving the efficiency of organizations such as the government. Working to gain traction in markets as large and diverse as this country, Indian civic technology will need to innovate for challenges unique to low- and middle-income countries.

Antaraa Vasudev is the founder of Civis.Vote, a citizen engagement platform.

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