Nocode for civic tech

Published on Oct 18, 2020

What’s this “nocode” thing about?

They say in crisis there’s also opportunity. In our case, our crisis was COVID-19 and our opportunity was using tech for good. It’s fascinating to observe how, at the peak of COVID when Circuit Breaker started, a lot of the COVID-19 ground-up initiatives used nocode tools – too-many-to-count public Google Sheets that list out important resources for businesses and citizens, Facebook groups that became marketplaces for hawkers, and of course, including a few of us at Better.sg who made Google Sheets-based directory websites. Which makes perfect sense because nocode tech allows non-technical folks to create websites and web apps using graphic user interfaces. Basically, no coding skills required, and all you need to do is to click, type, drag and drop. The speed to market, low technical bar and ease of use of nocode really democratizes and widens the access to the creation of apps and technology. By implication, nocode makes almost anyone a web developer.

Imagine if technical competence was no matter – what could you accomplish then?

And I’m not making this up. “Nocode” is a thing now, globally. Forrester Research estimates that the nocode/low code market is set to grow from $3.8b in 2017 to $21.1b in 2022 (Forbes). That’s a fivefold growth within five years! Search for “no code” on Google doubled in the last 5 years. And even the tech giants are waking up to the potential of nocode – Amazon, Microsoft, Google all recently launched nocode platforms.

But but...nocode is still code isn’t it?

Nocode vs code

Some people who can code get miffed when they hear things like "nocode is the future" or “developers will be out of a job”. Understandably, nocode folks are giddy with excitement, because they can now make apps and products when they previously could not, all without needing to learn how to code. But nocode tools are still made with code, by developers. Ultimately, it’s another (big) layer of abstraction, not quite unlike using frameworks and libraries. If anything, we need more people who can code to create these tools for everyone else. And coders can also benefit from nocode tools, evident from how Webflow—a nocode tool—is now used in class to teach to-be professional developers about front-end development. I also personally observed many developers use nocode tools so that their marketing or business colleagues can self-manage. So really, there's room for nocoders and coders alike.

Nocode is for toy apps, not business apps

There's a school of thought that nocode is great for building scrappy, basic websites and apps, but when you get serious you should get a developer to code it properly. Kind of like insinuating nocode is for making toys, and if it proves worthy, get an adult to make it professionally. Maybe that was the case when nocode started. I certainly felt that way just 2 years ago. But nocode had come a long way since, and the list of what can't be done with nocode is rapidly decreasing by the day. A good analogy is how the smartphone camera had caught up with the DSLR. Sure, if you're a pro photographer, DSLRs will still be the tool of choice. But many content creators and influencers have nothing but a smartphone, and that's enough to build a major following and a profitable business. Will nocode tools follow the path of the smartphone camera? Not tomorrow...yet, but in the foreseeable future, I believe so. In time, one will be able to use nocode to build fully featured apps and SaaS. So look out for that first billion-dollar nocode unicorn coming up!

Nocode sameness vs customizability

Similar to the previous point about MVPs. The perception that nocoode looks very uniform and template-y is often true, because you often need scaffolding like templates to help nocoders build stuff easily. But all that is changing too. With Webflow, yes you can use templates, but you can also customise the look and feel with ease once you're more familiar with the interface (developers can export the HTML code even). Zapier, Integromat and IFTTT are allowing for behind-the-scenes custom software integrations and automations that would take teams of developers to work on for months.

It’s a false dichotomy...

Thing is, it's a false dichotomy to have to choose between nocode and programming. They are useful in different contexts. Nocode is great for non-technical folks to create products without the steep learning curve. It's fast to market, and can be done cheaply. But customising it later might be hard when you hit the limits of the nocode platform you used. Programming from scratch might be slow to start, but the language is flexible and can adapt to the different features you might not even know you want to build in the future. The sky's the limit. Whereas with nocode, there might be an upper limit. Fast launch, limited flexibility. Full flexibility, slow(er) launch. Trade-offs, but with gaps closing fast.

OK fine, tell me more about nocode

The WAMZstack

A popular nocode 'tech stack' now is the WAMZstack - Webflow, Airtable, Memberstack, Zapier.

In developer speak, there's various technology stacks like LAMPstack, MEANstack, MERNstack, JAMstack, and for nocode there's now WAMZstack. That just means your technology stack comprises of Webflow for front-end, Airtable for back-end, Memberstack for authentication and access, and Zapier for integrations and automation. All four products are popular nocode tools right now because they cover almost all the basics of what a product needs, but certainly not the dominant ones by the tech industry's standards (ala Google's monopolistic dominance in search). WAMZstack is not a real thing yet actually, not quite a market standard in nocode, but has a punchy ring to it though, like “wham!”. I'm still holding my breath for market consolidation where a few tools become so ubiquitous that it becomes industry-defining. Fascinating to watch it unfurl.

With this starter stack, you can create the 4 common features that any SaaS needs:

Webflow for frontend: use a template, drag and drop, export html code. This tool is s good that even some programming schools are using Webflow to teach would-be professional developers about front-end development using Webflow.

Airtable as backend: not just a spreadsheet. Lots of “blocks” features that you can add to it, like macros/scripts. Can also integrate with Zapier for automation/automated workflows (like sign up, auto save to Airtable, then auto email to welcome user).

Memberstack for authentication, roles/permissions and gated access to premium content. Add free or paid membership accounts without code. Sign up/in, auth, restricted access to content, accounts, passwords, etc.

Zapier for workflow automation: Move data between different supported web apps, connect automated workflows, the ‘glue’ for different nocode tools to work auto-seamlessly (also see IFTTT, Integromat).

So, what can we build using nocode for civic tech?

Here’s some common civic tech tools and apps that people often build for their beneficiaries, community or social cause, and the nocode tools that can get it built:

Information/resource sites to get information out quickly in times of a crisis, or a donation landing page to raise funds quickly for a social cause

Carrd - The simplest, most intuitive landing page builder ever. It's great for simple and single-page websites, and comes with well-designed templates so that you don't even have to worry about the design. Just add your text and images and go. On paid plans, you can even add payment buttons to receive payment or donations.

Team info, project management, CRM or knowledge base sites

Fruition, Notion2site - these services convert your Notion pages into a website with a custom domain, and add a design layer on your Notion pages. Many are already using Notion for team/project management, knowledge base management, so this just extends Notion into a full fledged website or web app.

Airtable is well-used as a CRM, and it's free plan is generous so that your volunteer or non-profit group can save on those funds. You can even build apps off Airtable platform right now - very exciting developments.

Listings/directories, job boards, community request boards to consolidate links and resources required for citizens or volunteers

Sheet2site - quickly build a website using a Google Sheet. Your spreadsheet is converted into beautiful lists, with dynamic filters and search. Other similar tools that convert spreadsheets to websites: Pory.io, Table2site (build sites using Airtable), Glideapps (build mobile apps using Google Sheets).

Optimisation of back-office ops, volunteer management, onboarding or engagement of beneficiary or donors

Zapier takes the cake for nocode automation. They can integrate between so different apps to automate your workflows, so that your volunteer initiative has more hands on the causes that matter, not the back-office admin. For example, someone fills out a contact form on your site, that triggers Google Sheet to add a new row with the contact form information, and then that triggers Gmail sends out a welcome message to the sender. Integromat is a similar product. IFTTT can integrate with hardware, like sensors and Internet of Things.

Automate your outreach and engagement of your beneficiaries/volunteers

Develop a chat bot without having to touch code, using Chatfuel, Manychat, Flow XO, to name a few, and they allow one to make chat bots on different messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger, Telegram, etc. For example, I recently made a chat bot using Chafuel so that people can discover social impact grants that they didn’t know about available out there.

A future where everyone can make their own apps

Indeed this is already happening. A Twitter acquaintance just made his first mobile app using Glideapps, for his road trip with his friends, complete with itinerary, accommodation details, important contact details, and even ways for them to save notes and images. Just for a road trip. And he’s not a developer.

I believe nocode tech is like the ‘gateway drug’ to charities and ground-up volunteer organisations to grow in their interest and confidence to digitise their organisations, and to use more technology in their day to day operations. Right now, IT projects are major commitments in terms of budget and manpower. Nocode can help lower the barrier to entry, towards a future where everyone can make their own apps, and every organisation don’t have to worry about donor dollars to experiment in tech.

In fact, that future might already be here. Just not evenly distributed.

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