A brief introduction to Detroit's civic tech ecosystem

Believe it or not, a civic tech ecosystem is emerging in Detroit.

The city stepped into the 21st century when Mayor Duggan appointed Beth Niblock the city’s first ever Chief Information Officer in February. Trust us, this was a huge deal. Her office is leading the charge to update the city's (admittedly outdated) technology infrastructure, as well as opening up city government data. Niblock recently hired a deputy director of technological community engagement, and now the city is set to embark on an exciting expansion of government and community partnerships that utilize technology in service of Detroit residents.

Dynamics within Detroit’s tech ecosystem will determine how the scene scales, what it creates, and who it serves. Scientifically speaking, a healthy ecosystem embraces diversity and avoids monocultures, allowing it to evolve.

Here are our thoughts on how Detroit’s emerging tech ecosystem can produce more and better civic- and community- minded projects that change to serve the needs and dreams of residents:

Open Data

Open data are datasets that are relevant and available to real people. Open data initiatives promote government and institutional transparency, which helps to build trust with residents. When made available in relevant formats, open data can provide fodder for civic-minded startups and nonprofits that want to develop new apps and websites. When governments open up their datasets to the public, it also allows them to spend less time (and money!) fulfilling information requests. Sharing datasets automates a feedback loop where cities can learn more about how residents, organizations, and companies use government data and the government in general.

Community led open data initiatives are just as important as publicly available administrative datasets. When communities gather and release their own datasets, they help track information that otherwise wouldn't be. Data is becoming a new language for implementation and decision making, so when communities develop their own data literacy and gather their own data, they can join the conversation.

Examples of local open data initiatives: Data Driven Detroit’s open data portal, Loveland Technologies, Detroit Data, The Detroit Ledger, Detroit Charter Data, Detroit Data Collaborative.

Why Don't We Own This by Loveland Technologies

Tech Trainings

Though the city’s tech scene is growing, there is still a dearth of technologists in Detroit. Many tech jobs go unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants. In the last few years, however, several organizations have stepped up to offer web development classes in order to fill one of the largest and overt skill gaps in this region. Others offer media production classes including design and video, and others still offer business development and branding to support an emerging startup culture.

Finding ways to further subsidize and increase available options will make classes accessible to even more Detroit residents. Data, visualization, and analytics are emerging as new skill gaps that would benefit from training opportunities, as well. Training individuals from different backgrounds will help ensure that the tech scene remains diverse, dynamic, and relevant.

Examples of tech training focused organizations and programs:  Detroit Digital Stewards, Girl Develop It, Grand Circus, Detroit Training Center, Co.Open, Math Corps, Connect Your Community, Detroit Future Media.

Maker Culture & STEAM education

Makerspaces are community-based workspaces where members (the makers) can access tools and collaborate on projects. Makers celebrate being amateurs and hackers and creatively embrace the act of learning. There is often a technology component to most makerspaces, but participants often come from diverse disciplines, skill levels, and interests, which contributes to a culture of creative problem solving and exploration.

Makerspaces are essentially extensions of STEAM education approaches to include adults. Currently, educators are highly focused on getting students excited about STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) classes. STEAM injects the Arts into STEM classes in order to make the curriculum more fun and accessible, especially to students who may learn better through hands-on work.

The arts can also offer an engaging or real-world context for STEM subject areas, which can often feel abstract, complicated, and irrelevant to school-age children. Connecting education initiatives in Detroit to maker culture, as well as the other components of the tech ecosystem, is one way to make STEM more interesting and relevant for low-income students of color.

Examples of makerspaces: OmniCorp, Mt. Elliott Makerspace, Ribbon Farm, Tech Shop, Hype Makerspace, Incite Focus, List of additional makerspaces in Michigan, Detroit Future Schools (STEAM related education).

Grand Circus

Human-Centered Design

Human-centered design is an important concept that is often overlooked or undervalued. While there are several other names for it, human-centered design is well researched and executed design that focuses on the needs of the intended end user or audience, whether for a website, a pamphlet, a curriculum, an event, or a building. In the realm of human-centeredness, design becomes a process rather than just an end product. At its most basic, it is used to ensure that new technology will actually be used by its intended audience.

When designing and developing for those whose background, knowledge-base, social networks, or experiences differ from your own, human-centered design helps build empathy and understanding. These resulting humane and human characteristics can then be applied in the service of useful, engaging, and beautiful things.

Scaled to an organizational level, designers and technologists should be added to project teams during the initial ideation and development stages rather than simply bringing them in at the end.

Examples of design firms that utilize human-centered design: The Work Department, Dandelion.

MeetUp Culture
Technologists have adopted MeetUp as their social hub of choice for organizing events, forums, workshops, and work sessions. Many MeetUps gather users of specific coding languages and web development frameworks, while others focus on more overtly civic-minded workshops and events.

The number of civic tech MeetUps in Detroit is on the rise. Its an easy way to learn to new skills, socialize and have an impact.

Examples of civic tech MeetUps: Code for Detroit, Girl Develop It, Hackers and Hacks. Examples of other active tech meet ups.

Startup Culture & Co-working    

Startups and other small businesses can offer competitive and sustainable approaches to civic problems. While open data is often what many tech startups crave, mentorship is also important. Many organizations have stepped up to offer training and funding to local startups that focus on business plans and branding.

Co-working spaces -- affordable office space that is shared with others -- is another essential aspect of our tech ecosystem. Many new businesses share space to save on business costs and network with other companies. While somewhat amorphous, these spaces provide opportunities for creative partnerships and project work.

Examples of local resources for startups and small businesses: Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), Blackstone Launchpad, Bizdom, Detroit Creative Corridor Center, Detroit Startup Drinks, D:hive’s Build Institute & Open City, Practice Space, Tech Town.

Examples of local co-working spaces: An Office in Detroit, Bamboo, Department of Alternatives, Grand Circus, Green Garage, Ponyride, Tech Town’s Junction 440.

Coordinated & Creative Partnerships

The Detroit tech ecosystem largely functions in a low-resource setting. Capital and loans can be hard for startups to access. Technology classes are often unaffordable for many residents. Funder networks and grants can be hard for emerging organizations to navigate. Additionally, users may not have the digital literacy or resources to access and appreciate new technology developed in the city.

In this landscape, leveraging creative partnerships will help keep the ecosystem churning. Coordinated, collective impact approaches among interdisciplinary teams will help good ideas get funded in sustainable and democratic ways.

Examples of local coordinated and creative partnerships: Allied Media Project’s Sponsored Projects, Motorcity Mapping, Grand Circus #40Forward Scholarship, Detroit Revitalization Fellows.


Kat Hartman is a Detroit-based freelance writer, data analyst, and information designer. Follow her on Twitter @kat_a_hartman and check out her website, kathartman.com.
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