RIP, Edgar Mitchell – Moonwalker #6 and change agent

Edward Mitchell, moonwalker and change agent

Astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, Apollo 14 lunar module pilot stands by the deployed U.S. flag on the lunar surface during the early moments of the mission’s first spacewalk. Photo: NASA, Caption: Boing Boing

RIP, Edgar Mitchell, 6th person to walk on the moon, and change agent. On the perspective granted by outer space:

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

Dreams for civic innovation in 2016, from the @civicmakers participatory planning session this past Saturday. #latergram #blog #civictech via Instagram

2015 Year-in-review

It’s time again to look back on a year in my life and marvel at all the people, places, experiences, accomplishments and insights that transpired. Here’s a quick rundown, with many shout-outs:

  • Met, fell deeply in love, and moved in with the woman, partner and support I’ve been searching for for so long.
  • Played 7 rockin’ shows with The Real Numbers, including the release of our 5-song EP, “Wonderful.”
  • Sang in my first chorale performance to celebrate the beautiful union of two dear friends.
  • Treated myself to a full 10 sessions of Rolfing.
  • Completed two 10-day aryuvedic cleanses.
  • Left my product management gig Accela to pursue CivicMakers full time, and celebrated by burning all of my old employment contracts at an Ocean Beach bonfire.
  • Hosted 11 fun CivicMakers events
  • Launched a prototype of the CivicMakers knowledge-sharing platform.
  • Also on the CivicMakers tip: incorporated, got a lawyer and a .com address (it must be real!), relaunched our website, started consulting, gave our first pitch, applied to YC, wrote a business plan, got serious about fundraising and so much more, with the indispensable support of so many.
  • Attended Code for America Summit, SXSW Eco, Personal Democracy Forum, NP Dev Summit, Greener Mind Summit and a beautiful bay area gathering of the Enspiral crew.
  • Soaked at Sierra Hot Springs, Harbin Hot Springs and Esalen.
  • Visited ATX for Austin City Limits.
  • Really felt the SoCal sun and sand for the first time during an incredible 1–day tour of L.A., San Diego and the O.C.
  • Had a chance for a quick jaunt to the Seattle area.
  • Took a super-fun east coast roadtrip from NYC  to Mass for a beautiful cape code wedding, then to NH and Portland, Maine for some rocky New England coastline.
  • Finished the year with a mid-holiday family/work visit to NJ/NYC.
  • Concert highlights included: Sturgill Simpson, Weird Al Yankovic, ACL festival (Father John Misty, Alabama Shakes), King Krimson, Zappa Plays Zappa
  • Cultivated a host of new friendships with some wonderful folks.

Yowza! All in all, a spectacular year on so many fronts, especially knowing this list only captures a small slice of 2015. I’m so grateful for all of you who made this such a special year, including those I may have forgot or not had the space to mention. As I age, I realize that relationships are everything, and I consider myself very lucky to be surrounded by so many bright, shining, beautiful human beings.

One final note: the last few months diving into self-employment and entrepreneurial risk have been quite the trip. Simultaneously the most difficult and the most fulfilling thing I have ever done, which means this is exactly what I should be doing. May all of you find the relationships, experiences and purpose you deserve in 2016. It’s out there waiting for you

Happy New Year’s from San Francisco! From Instagram:
Booyah. @civicmakers, represent! From Instagram:
BB-8 is roaming the halls at @civic_hall. From Instagram:

#CivicTech Primer: Uncharted territory

Timboon public notice board

Timboon public notice board

In my last post, I shared some thoughts about “civic tech,” a new(ish) sector focused expressly on the public good. This definition opens countless roads for exploration, and yet many are not currently taken. Radical innovation hasn’t disrupted voting, political discourse or wealth structures. Say what you will about the cult of disruption, I am optimistic that the civic tech movement will improve our public sphere. That’s what I’ll focus on in this second edition of my Civic Tech Primer series.

Before we jump down the disruption rabbit hole, a brief tour of civic tech market saturation in 2015 may be instructive. Digital advocacy and online campaigning tools like Nationbuilder and Mobile Commons have proliferated, largely through the impressive spend of the nonprofit development and political campaigning realms. Crowdfunding now stands as an important add-on funding channel for nonprofits, community groups and social enterprises alike, with companies like Neighborly and Classy leading a field expected to raise $34.4 billion globally in 2015. And we’ve seen recent explosive growth and competition in the political engagement space, where sites like Countable, Brigade and dozens more hope to transform how citizens interact with their governments.

Outside of these clusters of activity, where is the civic tech opportunity? I put this question to my network and received a plethora of interesting perspectives which I’ll share, followed by my own.

Where is the civic tech opportunity?

The most popular response centered around public input channels and polling, particularly for the benefit and evaluation of decision making by elected officials. Given our current mobile-social addiction, real-time, proactive polling on citizen opinion policy initiatives seems inevitable. San Francisco Mayoral candidate Amy Farah Weiss suggested specifically that residents need a way to “proactively assess and request [the] needs of their neighborhood in order to shape (rather than just react) to development. Ultimately, how can we provide our elected officials the data they need to make the best decisions possible, while evaluating the impact of those decisions?

Similarly, despite the abundance of data–big, open or otherwise–we still haven’t seen reporting, analysis and visualization tools that can help with decision-making, especially at the policy level. The recent $25 million investment in OpenGov by Andreessen Horowitz is an indicator that this may soon change.

Another area of interest was co-budgeting. Known as “participatory budgeting” in the public sector, this constitutes a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making in which citizens decide how to allocate part of a public budget. I’m also inspired by collaborative funding processes being seen in organizations like the Enspiral Network who allocate funding across their collective via their CoBudget tool. Talk about eating your own dog food.

I was somewhat surprised by a call for utilizing existing resources, be they public libraries or public-private partnerships. This brings up an important question…is it always best to build outside of institutions, as is often the impulse of “disruptive” entrepreneurs? Hillary Hartley, Co-founder of federal digital services agency 18F, reflected this in her plea for more sustainable business models: “Many things need to be disrupted, but it’s easier said than done if you don’t understand how government actually works or what you have to work with.

The killer app for civic tech

No, I don’t believe there will be one killer app for civic tech. There will be many attempts, many failures, and a few critical success, but we must learn from them all. Here’s what I’m most excited about that I don’t see happening just yet:

An enormous opportunity exists to transform the broken public input process for government at all levels. For some time now, I’ve had the idea for a “Public Input Directory” that would track all channels by which citizens can provide input to local agencies, from front desks to web forms, public hearings to social media profiles. Such a mapping exercise could be completed with volunteer help, then results published and a gap analysis performed to offer suggestions about how to improve the public input process and engage more citizens, more of the time. Start in one city willing to partner, then roll out to every other city around the world. I suspect that ample opportunities for innovation and business models would emerge from this exercise.

One specific public input channel yearning for change is the public meeting. These meetings may be the definition of broken, as Catherine Bracy of Code for America notes in her Personal Democracy Forum talk. Be it new formats or new tools for collecting input, the humble public meeting needs some attention.

I’m also excited by the possibility of translation and interpretation. The low hanging fruit here is language and cultural translation efforts. One of my recent favorites is 18 Million Rising’s VoterVox, a crowd-translated voting guide app for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. But translation extends further, like the efforts of Healthy Democracy, whose Citizens’ Initiative Review, brings representative groups of citizens together to fairly and thoroughly evaluate ballot questions to give voters information they can trust.

For all the talk of transparency, I hear little conversation in the civic tech space of the potential for utter, total and radical transparency by using blockchain as a system of record. Blockchain is “distributed database that maintains a continuously growing list of data records that are hardened against tampering and revision.” This technology has gained attention primarily through cryptocurrencies, but any identity system for online transactions can benefit from this public ledger approach. Right now, we can only speculate as to the social, economic and political implications, but adopting blockchain may just change the rules of the Internet game entirely.

In the end, I feel the biggest opportunity is not technology, but the process by which we make decisions together. At the highest, most formalized levels of group organization, this includes new forms of voting, like delegative or “liquid” democracy wherein one assigns their vote to a trusted proxy. But process also applies to the most humble of group decisions, whether in a meeting with colleagues or a discussion with neighbors. More often than not, we do not explicitly establish the rules by which our groups operate together. If we are not clear about how decisions will be made, how can we ever feel good about the outcomes?

I believe that improving our decision-making intelligence is critical for our 21st century society. What is the framework we are using to make decisions together? Are the necessary stakeholders at the table, and are those voices being considered? What group process feels right for the discussion at hand? Improving how we agree and disagree is hard work, but this is true innovation.

And that’s the civic tech opportunity as I see it. What am I missing? And what are you building? I’d love to know. And please stay tuned for the next post and a discussion of civic tech business models.

#CivicTech Primer: What is civic tech?

Image from the 2013 Knight Foundation report “The Emergence of Civic Tech”

Image from the 2013 Knight Foundation report “The Emergence of Civic Tech”

Here in the Second Great Internet Bubble, we’ve come to accept Marc Andreessen’s maxim that “software is eating the world.” The evidence is outstanding for sectors like retail, social, finance and entertainment. And as you read this, software is quickly devouring many more sectors and systems, from transportation to health to energy. But our civic sphere — the relationships in the public world that gather us together into communities, cities, states and nations — stubbornly resists the advances of software.

Enter civic tech, a movement that aims to revitalize and transform some of our most fundamental societal institutions. A movement which also happens to account for $6.4 billion to be spent in 2015 to connect citizens to services, and to one another.

So What is “Civic Tech”?

For all the recent attention, civic tech remains an amorphous term. TechCrunch recently offered a narrow interpretation of civic tech as that used to “empower citizens or help make government more accessible, efficient and effective.” However, the Knight Foundation painted a broader picture in their 2013 report on the rise of civic tech, going beyond government to include “residents engaging in their communities, including sharing their time, information and resources.” Yet some draw a wider circle still. Beat reporter Alex Howard thinks of civic tech “as any tool or process that people as individuals or groups may use to affect the public arena.” And Micah Sifry of Personal Democracy Media adds that civic technology “cannot be neutral,” and only technology that is “used for public good and betters the lives of the many, not just the few” can be considered civic.

A brief history lesson may offer some clarity. Civic tech has its roots in government technology, a movement jump started by Tim O’Reilly’s formative Government 2.0 call to action in 2009. Decrying the “vending machine” model for government in which citizens put in our taxes and get services in return, he argued that we instead need an interoperable, extensible platform for government upon which anyone can build services that increase transparency, efficiency and participation.

Since that clarion call, a host of organizations like Code for America, a “Peace Corps for Geeks,” have carried the conversation forward, out of government and into the tech sector. Viable business models have developed, like that of and SeamlessDocs, and funders like Omidyar Network, Tumml, and GovTech Fund are starting to add civic tech to their portfolios. Tech inroads to government are being paved with the adoption of Chief Innovation Officers and open data portals at the local level and ground-breaking outfits like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service at the Federal. This maturation and expansion has led Tom Steinberg, founder of longstanding civic technology lab mySociety, to observe that, as a brand name, “civic tech” has won out over past alternatives like “eGovernment” and “Gov 2.0.”

Civic Tech is a Big Tent for Democracy

Which leads us to the present. I view civic tech as a new “big tent” movement for democracy that encapsulates many smaller segments, such as gov tech, online campaigning, digital advocacy, and voting tech. I am also a firm believer that “civic” is the operative word, meaning “us” and “we.” That is, people and communities, along with our hopes, dreams and needs, and the decisions that we make together to realize them. With software continually devouring so much of our lives, I see civic tech as an opportunity to embed “we” at the center of our technology. In civic tech, technology is always the means to an end, not the end itself.

As you can imagine, this perspective presents a civic tech space as wonderfully varied as the communities it aims to serve. Some will continue to be caught up on definitions. Is Facebook civic tech? What about SnapChat? Certainly, these tools can be used for both positive outcomes, like organizing a rally, or negative outcomes, like bullying or illegal surveillance. The dividing line comes back to intention. Was this technology designed to improve the public good and better the lives of the many?

Let’s take a look at some of my favorite civic tech tools to illustrate this criteria in action:

  • Neighborland, a public input toolkit that “empowers civic leaders to collaborate with residents in an accessible, participatory, and enjoyable way.”
  • Loomio, a collective decision-making service that helps groups discuss topics, build proposals and make decisions together.
  • SeeClickFix, a communications platform for citizens to report and governments to manage non-emergency issues to foster “transparency, collaboration, and cooperation.
  • Handup, a charitable giving platform that facilitates direct donations to homeless neighbors in need.

These and many other inspiring projects give me hope that the civic tech movement, and the passionate community behind it, will transform our communities, our workplaces and institutions to be more equitable, resilient, and even more fun. There are obstacles, of course. Some powerful people and institutions would rather not see communities empowered to make self-directed decisions. But I believe that the civic tech movement is putting people at the center of software development so that software doesn’t eat us, too. That’s why I founded CivicMakers, to highlight the growing array of civic tech solutions helping more people make better decisions together.

This is my first of four posts introducing civic tech to those new to the sector. I hope you follow along. And if you have a tool or project you’d like to share, or just want to know more about civic tech, I’d love to hear from you.