DRAFT — Tech and Toronto City Budget Civic Tech Project
Origin Story and Direction — (Also known as, welcome, please join us, start here)
Every Tuesday night, since March 2022, a group of us get together at Civic Tech Toronto to talk about technology and the City budget. For now, we’re mostly talking, trying to understand how much money the City is spending on tech, and what kind of tech. We have a loose idea of what we’d like to do with this information, and an early set of goals for this project. We know it will take a few years for it to really take shape and form, but we’re not only ok with this, we’re excited to work carefully and slowly on this project over time, knowing that any impact is dependent on much broader integration with residents, advocacy groups, and others.
Despite knowing this project is in its very early days, we also know that we want to intervene and participate in events in the interim, and we’re currently looking at the 2022 municipal elections as one of those points of engagement.
This post lays out three parts of the work so far, with the intention of being a short and imperfect background document for anyone that wants to know more about the project, and maybe for someone that would consider joining us one Tuesday night at civic tech.
The three parts are: what we’re doing, current unknowns, and origin story.
The order of what is here is backwards, but that’s to start with where we are, things we’re currently thinking about (unknowns), then a bit more context/history if you’d like it. The thinking in this first bit has been informed by everyone that has taken part in our sessions over the past two months, some for one session, some for all of them. In alphabetical by first name, but really in no particular order otherwise, and acknowledging that some of us would rather not have attribution, here we are as a group: Henrik B, Peter C, Thomas L, Fanny R, Jim R, Ushnish S, John S, Neville P, Mita W, Steve, Bianca W, Anonymous
What We’re Doing
Through conversations at our hack nights, here is a basic summary of what this project is about and a sense of its guiding principles/values and intent.
This project is grounded in an abolitionist framework which means we are always thinking about the work in two ways at once, stop and steer. We’ve noted that oftentimes it’s difficult to move the discourse past the “what we don’t want” to the “what we do want”, so we are going to order our work as follows: the tech we want to see in the City, and to take part in, and the tech we want to stop and divest from. These are two streams of work that will always be concurrent in our thinking and doing. Steering and stopping.
Some Examples of Steering and Stopping
To explore this in practice, we have started this project with four examples of City tech. They are:
SafeTTC (TTC being Toronto Transit Commission), Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s online housing waitlist, Toronto Parks Forestry and Recreation online sign-up system, and the Toronto Police Services next-generation 911 technology.
In these four examples, three of them are currently being looked at for steering opportunities, and one of them for stoppage.
Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s online waitlist, the Parks and Rec online program sign-up system, and the Toronto Police Service’s next generation 911 systems are three examples of technology that we, as a group, have an interest in seeing work well and be informed by community input.
In these cases, we are starting by trying to understand the history of these projects, the funding behind them, the procurement processes to date and possible additional procurements in future, and ways to involve the community in their future design and testing.
SafeTTC is an example of a technology investment that we’d like to see stopped. In this case, we are looking at its history, its cost, and how we might intervene in making a case for the City to stop paying its license fees.
What this Means for the project’s Values and Politics
From a values perspective, we borrow from this passage in Astra Taylor’s The Insecurity Machine: “As tech critic Ben Tarnoff has argued, technology employed for social control or to enforce austerity must be abolished, not democratized or socialized.” Some of the technologies that perform these tasks are highly and explicitly surveillant, some are much less so — including Excel spreadsheets. As such, we seek to always look at what the tech is doing in terms of our living conditions and the City, to help us understand if and how we want to intervene. One lesson we have learned together, just through conversation, is that categorization — trying to organize the technology into types that do or don’t cause harm — is not a productive or thorough enough method.
From a values perspective, we look to Toronto Mesh, Civic Tech Toronto, the Detroit Community Technology Project, The Foundation for Public Code, as several — of many — sources of knowledge and inspiration. (NOTE: please add more, this is just a start).
From a values perspective, we also deeply appreciate Ruha Benjamin’s fundamental questioning of one of the cornerstones of the technology we have today: the value of and need for data. We believe we have more than enough data about the most important issues in our cities and in our worlds, and that the data distraction, the need for ever more collection and use, demands interrogation and challenge at every instance.
From a values perspective, we borrow from Stephanie Kelton’s assertion that “a budget is a moral document”. We look to the budget not only in terms of technology, but in terms of the budget as a whole. What it means for the City we live in and the ways our budget decisions shape the lives of our communities, again, both in terms of technology but also as a City as a whole. When we think about steering and stopping, we think about what it means to move money from technology projects to service investments.
How This Project Started and How It’s Changed Over Time
On March 9, 2022, I attended an event held by Social Planning Toronto called Budget Post-Mortem. It was a look not only at the City’s 2022 budget, but the organizing work related to it, and the outcomes. It was a time for various advocacy groups to come together to talk about what went well, what needed to be improved, and to think a bit together about what to do next time.
The conversation went in a range of helpful directions, including discussions about broadening civic participation in the budget process, alternative budget processes, and considering how to engage differently with City Staff on this work. As part of the event, Beth Wilson shared a helpful summary of the very few places where City spending had increased rather than remained flat or been reduced. It surprised me to see that one of these rare places was technology — specifically, security, or, as the City calls it, cybersecurity.
In a year where there were so many visible conversations about homelessness, the pandemic, public spaces and access, the need to invest in social services by moving funding from police to alternative community investments, this priority of technology investments surprised me. It made me think about how some of the City’s investments, in police say, were visible and highly scrutinized, while our tech investments seem to trudge along, largely unknown and inaccessible. I started to wonder how much we were investing in technology.
We don’t know what shape this project will take, in terms of an output or a technology. As of now, we are highly focused on processes and engagement before building, but we imagine building to be part of our future.
We don’t know if and how we are going to address procurement as a potentially separate track of work. We know we will look at it in our individual projects, but are unclear as to how to deal with it generally. We do know we want to think about the mechanics of moving public influence into the buy and build decisions that the City makes, rather than only trying to mitigate approved purchases.
We don’t know how to intervene in the labour elements of this conversation. To see the approach to technology we as a group want, there must be ongoing investment and development of City tech capacity. This approach is not in line with the current political administration.
We don’t know the pattern and mode we’ll follow to work in community with other advocacy efforts. We know that we seek to do organizing work, to bring curiosity to this topic, and to see if and how we can engage a range of people to participate in shaping and engaging with the politics of City technology.
We don’t know the name of our project yet. We started with “tech audit” but learned quickly that audit has a range of meaning.
Next round of edits to the draft will include thinking on accessibility in terms of participating in the project, treaty obligations and related relationships, adding more details on the four sample projects we’ve started with (SafeTTC, TCHC Waiting List, Parks and Rec Sign-up and Next Generation 911) + more things that come up in the next few weeks.
This is still a draft, is unfinished, and attendees are welcome to suggest edits, clarifications, additions, etc.