If we knew how fast this coronavirus was spreading, we could have saved lives. CivicTech has the power to really help or really hurt this cause.
TLDR: Every expert will agree that the reported rate of infection by the coronavirus COVID-19 is by far too low. We can get a more precise number if CivicTech triangulated data from self-reporting on smartphones and analytics on searches or social networks. Yet, while doing so we may awake an authoritarian state and suffer totalitarian abuse.
We gathered over 290 CivicTech initiatives with an average valuation of $6 Million per company. This number puts it ahead of LegalTech in terms of value and behind RiskTech. Based on current events surrounding the contagion, let us have a fresh look at the CivicTech landscape.
CivicTech is the technology in support of government action or to combat their inaction. We usually see it when apps crowdsource valuable information like Covid-19 tracking or government spending. And we feel it when communities crowdfund for good causes. The main goal is the safety and sustainability of our society by addressing a social change. CivicTech also can act as a warning system for abuse of powers or an attack on justice. In the same manner, it can also act as a conduit to abuse powers and attack justice.
One reason CivicTech is so effective is that it is immune to red tape. There are numerous reasons that governments aren’t able to act decisively. Most obstacles are rooted in regulations that aim to protect citizens but have the opposite effect due to unforeseen circumstances. Example: In The Netherlands and France, according to the letter of the law it is illegal to cover your nose and mouth in public. This law is commonly known as the Burqa ban. Let’s ignore the constitutional irony but focus on the medical facts: now it’s a deadly sin if we don’t cover our face in public.
The data that CivicTech is able to gather will help everyone make informed decisions. This includes government and political decisions we can all judge on the same facts. That’s why we treat CivicTech as the most valuable technology of all markets. It is the only segment within the legal family with the immediate capacity to save lives at scale.
The gathering of data to inform opinions can also be deployed to control crowds. Forbes reported a couple of governments deploying corona trackers as spy apps. They stated that Israel will unleash cyber tech “usually used for counter-terror” to enforce quarantines and to check the movements of people testing positive for the virus. The country will actively track citizens by geolocating their cellphones. Similarly, one of the most effective corona tracking efforts was a collaboration between Chinese officials and Tencent. The New York Times called it a: “..template for new forms of automated social control that could persist long after the epidemic subsides,..”
These draconian measures during times of crisis aren’t nefarious by nature. However, their impact over time does have the tendency to become diabolical. The US approach to swiftly lockdown borders has been widely applauded. Meanwhile, the UK slower tactic was equally admired. Their protracted reaction, scientists argue, will accelerate the immunization of the masses. Nevertheless, like in France, the decisions to lockdown or slowdown seem to depend on whenever a nation is in the middle of an election or not.
Make no mistake, these events provide a blueprint for stripping liberties at scale. The laws enacted after the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago, allow the installation of mass surveillance technology which is still operational today. Therefore we must stay vigilant towards how fast our freedom will return. We’ve seen videos where authorities threaten citizens for disobeying the emergency precautions. We heard officials gently encourage to watch each other in these trying times. As someone who has survived a dictatorship, I also recognize these subtle signals. I’ve seen what happens once rulers get a grip on absolute power, it’s hard to let go.
So when does CivicTech work best? When we deploy it with honest intent and safeguards against abuse. We should treat CivicTech as a double agent that can provide us with both the powers to heal or to damage our trust. Especially the trust we have in institutions that need to guide us in times of crisis. Democracy only works when information is correct and transparent for all. If a society operates on lies, it literally suffers and dies.
If more people knew the exact velocity of Covid-19 infections and the stress on a nation’s healthcare system, collectively we would have been able to ‘flatten the curve’ sooner. Instead, we witnessed institutions haplessly misjudge and misinform us on a simple metric. A metric I’m still hoping we can obtain with CivicTech. Now we have to enter an undetermined period of unfamiliar powerlessness. And since we lack the compass of correct data, we have no clue how long it will last.