Toronto ‘hackers’ aim to blend high tech with citizen activism


THE REVOLUTION WILL BE DIGITIZED. Anowa Quarcoo aims to see to it.

Quarcoo is a Toronto “hacktivist” who leads a passionate group that uses technology to promote civic activism in an effort to make Toronto a better—and fairer—place for all.

Civic hacktivism

Quarcoo works in strategy and planning at Loblaws. She spends most of her free time working as a “civic hacktavist”—working with others to find ways to use technology to improve civic engagement in Toronto.

Quarcoo, founded Civic Tech Toronto six years ago with a few likeminded individuals. Since then, she has hosted more than 300 “Hacknights,” otherwise known as meetings.

There is nothing dark or sinister about the kind of computer hacking Civic Tech members do. Quarcoo explains, civic hacking is about “using technology and human-centred design to solve problems.”

No computer experience required

One of Civic Tech’s first big projects was Budgetpedia. It aimed to make the municipal budget accessible and meaningfully searchable, so citizens could participate in informed debate and advocate for change.

Civic Tech Toronto meets every Tuesday night. “We are a mix of technologists, public policy [makers], comms, activists—people from all sorts technology spaces, all with different perspectives,” Quarcoo says. “We aren’t a monolithic group.”

Quarcoo recalls one Hacknight participant in her 70s who was passionate about creating an equitable city. “And she was a treasure trove of information,” Quarcoo says.

“So even though she didn’t understand how to build the technology, she understood the issues and the players in a way that the developers might not.” One of the conversations centred on city-owned residential buildings. “What she brought was a good understanding of senior issues, including barriers that affected them” says Quarcoo.

Ideas galore

A typical Hacknight includes a guest speaker and a time for pitching proposals. Projects have included COVID-infection modelling homeless-shelter-capacity data-sharing and suburban-cycling advocacy.

One standout project for Quarcoo is Women and Color. Civic Tech Toronto helped the organization build their new website so it could work to address the lack of women and people of colour speaking at tech conferences.

Women and Color makes it easy for people planning conferences to find subject matter experts and address the lack of gender and racial representation. “Straight, cis, white men are not the only people working in technology,” says Quarcoo.

What’s next for Civic Tech?  “We are exploring ways to try our hybrid event offerings, as everyone has a bit of Zoom fatigue,” Quarcoo says.

A city that works well

“We are also thinking through how Civic Tech Toronto can include and interact with more communities beyond the physical postal-code borders of Toronto — especially since people from all around the world have been able to join our virtual events.”

“People are passionate about civic issues,” says Quarcoo. “They’re passionate about living in a city that works well for others, that is equitable. At people’s core, regardless of what your vocation is, you want to live in a city that works well.”

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