Erhardt Graeff Dissertation Defense

MIT Media Lab

April 30, 2018
2:00pm — 4:00pm ET

Evaluating Civic Technology Design for Citizen Empowerment

Ethan Zuckerman
Associate Professor of the Practice in Media Arts and Sciences,  Director of the Center for Civic Media
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Peter Levine
Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life
Tufts University

Evan Lieberman
Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Winter Mason
Data Scientist


Civic technology should empower us as citizens. Unfortunately, civic technology often takes its lead from Silicon Valley companies that espouse design goals potentially hazardous to participatory democracy. Facebook, for example, has been used to help organize social movements, such as the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, but it has also allowed actors like Russian trolls to organize and promote fake organizations that inflame partisanship and hate in the United States. In this dissertation, I explore the question: How might we design civic technologies for citizen empowerment and evaluate their impact on this goal?

With their increasingly important role as architects of the spaces for democracy, it is insufficient for civic technology designers to evaluate their designs in terms of ease of use and increased engagement with their platform. Research from political and developmental psychology shows the importance to lifelong civic engagement of learning experiences that cultivate a citizen's sense of empowerment, including their perception that they can make change (political efficacy) and their belief in having certain civic roles and responsibilities to the public good (civic identity). To achieve these positive feedback loops, we need a framework for civic technology design that goes beyond efficiency and engagement.

This dissertation proposes two solutions: 1) a set of design principles for civic technology aimed at empowering citizens, and 2) a prototype toolkit for evaluating the impact of civic technology on political efficacy. Because empowerment is contextual, the proposals here focus on tools and platforms built to support "monitorial citizenship," an increasingly popular form of civic engagement aimed at holding institutions accountable. To see these solutions in action, I report on a case study of SeeClickFix, a small but successful civic technology company that builds tools for monitoring local infrastructure and reporting problems to local governments. Two surveys of political efficacy and a randomized experiment with active users of SeeClickFix, followed by interviews with SeeClickFix staff, indicate the validity and utility of evaluating political efficacy as a measure of empowerment and the limitations of testing for incremental improvements in empowerment.

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