Founded by Grzegorz Warzecha in 2009 and based in Warsaw, Poland, CivilHub is a free open source platform that supports collaboration within local communities. Users can add new ideas, polls, discussion, and guides for starting new projects. The Polish city of Gdańsk experimented with CivilHub. And pulled out of the project.
CivilHub focuses on giving power to common citizens. “CivilHub was created because we believe deeply that ordinary citizens know best what the world around them should look like,” say its developers. “CivilHub is a place where you can talk with people from your neighbourhood. You can create a site for your neighbourhood and collaborate with your neighbours. Everyone can vote on the ideas put forward, and the good ones that reach critical mass can be transformed into public projects.”
Suppose, for instance, that someone has an idea to install traffic lights at a particular crossroads in the city. The platform helps to get attention and support for the idea, and officials can add their comments. And so, in theory, CivilHub can improve communication between citizens and officials.
Founder Grzegorz Warzecha is very clear on why he started CivilHub: “I personally think that as ordinary citizens we should engage more in what is happening both in our local surroundings and in the country as a whole. I believe we can propose changes within our environment, and go on to implement them,” he has written (https://civilhub.org/blog/dreams-comes-true/#blog-discussion).
According to Warzecha, governments often have “no interest in a united society where citizens change things on their own. Such a society or group of people is hard to control. It is difficult to administer a country where citizens propose changes on their own, on both local and national scales.”
Even so, he believes CivilHub can be “a powerful tool to reach every one of us”. “Finally,” he says, “we can voice our opinions and communicate directly with all our neighbours at the same time. We can have easy access to the opinions and ideas of other people, and help to implement their propositions. In a modern country, the decisions should be made by the people, not by institutions. That is why we believe that with CivilHub we can change the world.”
“To be clear,” Warzecha continues, “CivilHub itself is apolitical. We are not a political party and never will be. We respect other people’s opinions, and our goal is to unite people. That is why we exclude all discussion on religious or sexual matters.”
The slogan of CivilHub says it all: “Power to the people”. “We believe that as ordinary citizens we can propose ideas and jointly implement them in practice,” Warzecha said in an interview with the Polish news site Antyweb (http://antyweb.pl/10-pytan-do-tworcow-dwoch-polskich-projektow-dla-lokalnych-spolecznosci). “That’s why we decided to create an entire platform to allow people to cooperate in local communities. We want society’s involvement in what is happening both in the local urban community and across the country.”
CivilHub is especially aimed at young people, “the new generation that does not remember the communist regime”, as Warzecha said to Antyweb. “Their attitude to local government is quite different from the attitude their parents have. (…) Young people have ideas. Often we know what bothers us, what we want to change. Only so far we have missed a place where we could gather with other people who think alike for the joint implementation of selected ideas.” Such collaboration is not available through FaceBook, LinkedIn, or the Polish business platform GoldenLine, according to Warzecha.
In April 2015, work began on a CivilHub module for cities and NGOs. The local government of Gdańsk was enthusiastic, and was the first city to use the portal officially to communicate with citizens, starting in July 2015.
This is understandable for a city known as a cradle of democratic movements (http://epf.org.pl/en/events/personal-democracy-forum-pl-and-cee-2016/). “Gdańsk seeks innovations that make people feel more responsible for their city and helps them to shape its future,” Tomasz Nadolny, the Director of the Mayor’s Office, has stated (https://www.siceurope.eu/network/cities-and-regional-development/driving-social-innovation-city-level-learning-gdansk-poland). “The most important innovations in a city are the ones that help solve issues that are important to the inhabitants; increase the level of social engagement in city affairs; build trust among people; and strengthen civil society.”
Through its “Gdańsk 2030PLUS” strategy, the city has made the effort to broaden public consultation as far as possible. This consultation includes many meetings with residents and experts, discussions in the media and on social media, and opinion surveys. At the time, CivilHub was seen as a “city Facebook” to facilitate public consultation. (http://www.slideshare.net/KrzysztofGarski/presentation-on-open-data-in-gdansk)
CivilHub gives communities the ability to create and share:
- ideas, which citizens can vote for or against, and see who has voted for what;
- news, to inform other users;
- projects: CivilHub provides a simple, dedicated project management tool designed to help implement the ideas proposed by citizens (https://civilhub.org/project-features/); and
- photos, discussions, surveys and polls.
Each of these content types can be displayed on maps.
To stimulate the development of the portal, Grzegorz Warzecha and his team of 12 have added many examples of ideas, surveys, news and discussions.
Everything created by Warzecha and his team is open source, including CivilHub itself, which is written in Python and Django. OpenStreetMap is used for the maps, map tiles are downloaded from Mapbox, and PostGIS is used to provide geographic information for a PostgreSQL database.
The content created by the users is licensed under Creative Commons.
A first working version of the planned mobile application is available.
Even today, Gdańsk has its own community within the wider CivilHub community (https://pl.civilhub.org/gdansk-pl/). This group has 278 users, including founder Grzegorz Warzecha and Tomasz Nadolny of the Mayor’s Office, who are both among the top five most frequent contributors.
Nadolny, however, is no longer an active member. 278 users is too few, he says: “The idea behind CivilHub was to facilitate and shorten contacts between the city and the residents. The platform offered some nice features, like submitting issues to discuss among residents, activists and local government. However, the organisation that allowed us to join the platform didn’t gain enough momentum, and the platform didn’t have significant numbers of users from Gdańsk.”
“It seems that other communication channels between the city and residents are more effective,” Nadolny adds. “We have a very advanced process of public consultation and the mayor is available for residents both in social media and for meetings on several occasions.”
“The mayor’s Facebook profile (https://www.facebook.com/Pawel.Adamowicz/) is no. 1 in Gdańsk when it comes to submitting ideas, issues and problems directly to the mayor. The reply time is usually very short, and we feel our residents appreciate this channel of communication.”
“The mayor may also be reached on Twitter (https://twitter.com/AdamowiczPawel). Of course, the city itself is also available on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/gdansk/) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/@gdansk). These too are very popular communication channels – the city has more than 170,000 followers on Facebook, out of a population of 460,000.”
“Traditional e-mail is also very popular among residents when it comes to contacting the mayor and the city hall.”
“We have pioneered in Poland with the participatory budget (https://medium.com/@gdansk/participatory-budget-how-do-we-do-it-in-gdansk-2fbbb5f374e2#.zi8mw0i6i) and a brand new initiative in public consultation is starting: the civic panel, which is a randomly and demographically selected group of residents of Gdansk discussing important city issues. The mayor has written about it on his blog (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pawel-adamowicz/civic-panel—how-to-engag_b_13036962.html).”
Grzegorz Warzecha and his team have spent over 10,000 hours to bring CivilHub to where it is now. No money was involved.
Warzecha has tried to raise money for his initiative. “One investor planned to put 0.5 to 1 million złoty into the project,” Warzecha says. “But when he heard that the portal is an open source project based on the GPL-3, and that all the text on the site is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA, he thought I was insane,” he says in the interview with Antyweb (http://antyweb.pl/10-pytan-do-tworcow-dwoch-polskich-projektow-dla-lokalnych-spolecznosci/).
Warzecha doubts whether he will ever get investors interested in an open source project – but this won’t stop him: “In our opinion, the project can succeed only if it gains international confidence. To achieve this we decided to go in the direction of open source, so that everyone can verify the source code of the portal, or start their own community portal using CivilHub as a base.”
To raise money, CivilHub will have to become more popular, he says: “Our main plan is to create a big buzz around the portal. To achieve this, we want to start a campaign soon on Indiegogo to raise funds to complete the mobile application and further development.” In time, if CivilHub succeeds in attracting a wide range of users, advertising might become a source of income, Warzecha hopes. Until then, he says, “We hope to attract other developers with our ideas and passion so they can help in the further construction of the project.”
The software is available at GitHub: https://github.com/CivilHub/CivilHub
CivilHub is designed to be multilingual. It has full support in English and Polish, with other languages to follow. Most of the platform is already available in German and Spanish.
It has been forked once, by the Dutch group “Code for Eindhoven”, but this fork is not operational.
Tomasz Nadolny, Director of the Gdańsk Mayor’s Office, has learned one important lesson: “Looking back and reviewing our experience with CivilHub, we see that even the best tailor-made ideas won’t replace social media, where people already are present. The conclusion is that the Pareto principle applies to the city’s social communication too. We need to be where our residents are: on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.”
“CivilHub is free. But taking up resources to maintain something citizens don’t want to use is senseless. So we pulled out of this project to prevent losing time.”