The work being done by the national Civic Tech and Data Collaborative is, at its core, tied to a simple objective: to discover new ways, using technology, to improve the lives of residents and their relationship with their government. I could talk at length about the ways that technology has made our lives easier – from the wheel to the forging of iron to Eli Whitney’s cotton gin to Edison’s light bulb to the iPhone – but such claims have been made so often in the media and personal conversation that there really is no point in writing a note telling everyone how great technology is.
What we aim to do is be innovative and solve problems.
Right now in the St. Louis region, we are facing a rather difficult puzzle that mirrors the situations in many metropolitan areas around the country: people facing jail time, heavy fines, and having their livelihoods virtually destroyed over relatively minor infractions. People who have never been “let off with a warning” or able to talk their way out of a ticket have found themselves in a position where they could very easily lose their jobs, children, homes as a result of unresolved tickets, lack of community service, and lack of access to legal advice. In doing so, we have cultivated a society where it has become essentially easy to stumble slightly and fall down a flight of steps. The median income for the St. Louis metro area is around $70,000 per year, and it is easy to lose sight of the fact that for many in the region, an infraction is simply not an easy thing to pay and get rid of.
Our role in looking at this puzzle is to see what can be done while building on the blocks of previous advances in technology to avoid a slight stumble from becoming something much more severe. That is why we are working with funding from Living Cities, The John D and Catherine T MacArthur foundation, Code for America and numerous other partners to look at this from a focused perspective of providing people with tools they need to navigate court systems better.
Even if we are able to provide this asset to the St. Louis area, this is just a piece of the larger puzzle of a fair and just court system. A website, app, or new piece of hardware cannot and will not magically fix the problems we are facing. They require change. They require activism. They require collaboration, legislation, rulings and institutional changes within institutions that are resistant to change.
The work others are doing – work on policy, work within the court system, the work of activists and volunteers, the work in Jefferson City, the work being done by organizations representing those who need help navigating the system are so crucial for this process to succeed. At the end of the day, we all have the same goals of a just St. Louis, but we each have our own ways to solve part of the problem.
Tech isn’t the end-all, be-all of problem-solving, but it can be a part. That’s the part we’ve tackled and we are leaving the other big pieces of this puzzle to those who are far better equipped. We are happy to collaborate with others and see what can be done to advance the collective goals we share as a community. Nobody can do this alone, and the power to enact change comes from within ourselves, our strengths, and our abilities to move forward together. We are hopeful and optimistic that, through our partnerships, we can help solve a piece of this puzzle.
John is the Vice President and Treasurer of the St. Louis Civic Tech and Data Collaborative.