#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 Change.org 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.

CivicMakers.org – Thoughts On A Successful CityCampSF

CityCampSF 2015

CivicMakers hosted a very successful CityCampSF recently. Here’s an excerpt from the event recap post over on CivicMakers.org.

On Saturday, January 10th, more than 200 bright, shiny citizens showed up at the Code for America headquarters to share, listen and take action for a better San Francisco. In this alone, CityCampSF 2015 produced by CivicMakers was an unqualified success. But more so, as one of the event organizers, I was struck by the beauty of what emerges when a group of passionate people come together to talk about what is most important to them.

Building Community for Better Cities at CityCampSF


(Cross posted from the CivicMakers blog.)

What happens when you gather local officials, city staff, entrepreneurs, designers, developers, journalists and citizens in a room for one day, and ask for their best ideas to improve their communities? You get CityCamp – a lot of excitement, a little chaos, plenty of solutions, and a whole lot of action.

CityCamp is a national movement that brings people together to build stronger communities where they live. Core to the CityCamp model is the belief that local governments and community organizations have the most direct influence to make cities more open and “user friendly.” CityCamp provides a space for that to happen through locally organized “unconferences.” At an unconference, the agenda is created by attendees and reflects the interests and expertise of those in the room.

The first CityCamp was held in Chicago in January 2010, inspired by other unconferences like Transparency Camp and Gov 2.0 Camp. Each CityCamp has four main goals:

  1. Bring together local government officials, municipal employees, experts, programmers, designers, citizens and journalists to share perspectives and insights about the cities where they live
  2. Create or maintain patterns for local government transparency and effective local governance using the Web as a platform
  3. Foster communities of practice and advocacy on the role of information and open data in cities
  4. Create outcomes that participants will act upon after the event is over

To celebrate 5 years of community building for better cities, CityCamp is being re-booted and re-energized in 2015. On January 10th, four cities – Chattanooga, Oakland, Sacramento and San Francisco – will host concurrent CityCamps in city halls, public libraries, and local civic hacking organizations.

CivicMakers is honored to produce CityCampSF 2015 as part of our mission to co-create a living democracy on planet earth. We’ll be at Code for America HQ, a beautiful office space in the SoMA neighborhod of San Francisco. close to Civic Center BART. A host of local officials will start the day by answering questions about the “State of SF.” Confirmed speakers include:

And, of course, the bulk of the day will be reserved for an unconference organized by attendees, along with plenty of food and drink for breakfast, lunch, snacks and a CityCampSF closing party.

If you’re in the Bay Area, I hope you can join us at CityCampSF on Saturday, January 10th, for a day of community engagement and action for a better San Francisco! Or attend one of the other 2015 CityCamps in Chattanooga, Oakland or Sacramento to join the conversation on building communities for better cities.

Govtech.com Blog: CivicMakers Movement Spreading from Coast to Coast

This post originally appeared October, 16 2014 as an Industry Perspective post on Govtech.com.

What’s your latest gripe about government? Maybe you can’t figure out how to make a quick online payment for that parking ticket from last weekend? Or you missed the public comment period on the massive construction project next door because it was scheduled for 2 p.m. at City Hall? Could be that you’re just tired of the endless bickering between two political parties that don’t really seem to represent the views of any real Americans.

Considering the inefficiency of our government services, it’s no wonder that the hallmark of this political age is overwhelming civic cynicism. And recognizing just how broken our representative democracy is, it’s no surprise that disparities in wealth and justice in the U.S. have never been so acute. It can be depressing and overwhelming, but there is another, more hopeful trend emerging in cities across the nation.

While talking heads battle out their political agendas in daily opinion pieces and Sunday talk shows, regular citizens are rolling up our sleeves and getting to work in our local governments and communities. Despite national cynicism, evidence of a new grassroots interest in rebuilding democracy abounds, from the maturing open government movement, to a proliferation of new civic engagement and empowerment platforms.

Consider some examples. Countable makes it easier for citizens to track legislation and share their input directly with elected officials. One Degree aggregates social services and community resources into a one-stop platform for low-income families to find the help they need. And in New York City, visionary leaders like Councilmember Ben Kallos are championing citizen-centered solutions like participatory budgeting.

This newfound optimism is why I co-founded CivicMakers, a new community of citizens building a better democracy every day. We believe that democracy is more than just a political system, it’s a way of life. It can inform how we treat each other and how we govern ourselves, no matter what the context, be it the technology we build, the structure of our communities and workplaces, or the process of our political institutions.

CivicMakers is more than your average meetup group. We’re not just talking, we’re actively experimenting with new forms of collective, collaborative governance to achieve our emerging vision of a truly inclusive, direct democracy. This month in San Francisco we’re kicking off an online-offline community engagement process with web-based communication platform Neighborland to guide the future development of a long-dormant building on the mid-Market Corridor.

Of course, the civic tech sector is sprouting up in dozens of urban centers. The New York City tech community has been pushing the boundaries of open data, participatory politics, and civic hacking, so we can’t think of a better place to host our first East Coast event in partnership with Accela. On Thursday, October 23, join NYC’s civic tech luminaries for a night of tasty food, delicious drinks, and thought-provoking discussion at startup incubator AlleyNYC. Featured speakers will include Ben Kallos (NYC Councilmember), Heidi Sieck (COO, Personal Democracy Media Civic Technology Center; Founding COO, Democracy.com), Mark Headd (Technical Evangelist, Accela; Former CDO, Philadelphia), and Seth Flaxman (Co-founder & ED, Democracy Works / Turbovote).

If you love democracy, RSVP for our 10/23 event and share with your networks. Remember, CivicMakers is just like democracy, your participation is required!

Lawrence Grodeska co-founded the democracy and technology community CivicMakers and is a product manager at Accela. He formerly was affiliated with Change.org and the San Francisco government. He can be reached at @grodeska.

A new, civic chapter

Last Friday marked my third anniversary at Change.org. In that time, Change.org has grown from 6 million users to well over 75 million, and I’ve held on tight to many different hats–managing global social media on the comms team; growth hacking on the product team; and, for the last two years, building the B2B marketing program on the business development team.

Yes, it’s been a rocketship ride unlike any other, but now the time has come to try something completely different, yet oddly familiar.

Next week, I’ll be joining the govtech company Accela as Senior Product Manager to build and launch a new civic engagement mobile app. We’ll be using open data provided by local agencies to provide an easier way for citizens to interact with their communities and local governments. This is a perfect opportunity for me to get back to local government, jump tracks from marketing to product, and build something that could have a tremendous impact. Overall, I think it’s going to be a LOT of fun 🙂

One of the reason I’m so excited about this move is that, over the past year or so, I’ve become increasingly passionate about the potential for technology to transform our beleaguered democracy. I’ve also found myself re-engaging with civictech and govtech issues that I thought about for 7 years at StopWaste.org and SF Department of the Environment. But this time around, I’m also thinking about the process of our democracy.

So much of the civic tech space aims to deliver government services more efficiently, or deepen citizen engagement, either with our political institutions or each other. However, I’ve begun to feel that we are simply recreating the same broken system. Can we do no better? Considering how ineffective our representative democracy has become, I’m convinced that rebuilding our democracy is the most important task at hand. There are so many issues that good people are organizing around–social justice, the environment, international development–but each is hampered to a similar degree by a system weighted against them by wealth, privilege, and complexity. To make progress on any of these issues, we need a more direct, inclusive, participatory democracy, and we need it soon.

This realization and resolution has led me to co-found a new community called CivicMakers for people building a better democracy everyday. My vision is to grow a corps of citizens experimenting with better process for collective governance, and to find ways to use technology to make the mechanics of our governance process as direct and inclusive as possible. We’ve hosted 3 events so far with really wonderful turnout that also garnered some nice press coverage. And it was through CivicMakers that I met the good folks at Accela who loved the vision, and saw lot of overlap with their brand of civic good.

Not only is this new role at Accela closely aligned with my passion for revitalizing our democracy, as Senior Product Manager I also have an incredible opportunity to jump career tracks from marketing into product. There will be a learning curve, but with my web development experience and the product work I’ve done at SF Environment and Change.org, I’m confident that the product manager role will suit me well.

Ultimately, I’m ready to build something new–a more just and equitable way for us to to live, work and play together as a society. I know we can do this. In fact, we’re the only ones who can.

RIP, Aaron Swartz

It’s Sunday, and I’m still thinking of the incredible burst of talent and passion and purpose that was the life of Aaron Swartz. On Friday in NYC, under the pressure of an intense lawsuit against him at the hands of the U.S. Attorney’s office that bordered on harassment, Aaron took his own life. He was many things: boy genius, freedom fighter, waker of the sleeping Internet giant. If you knew him–I can’t say I did, but I did shake his hand when he dropped by the Change.org office in San Francisco early in 2011–you probably admired him and his work. And if you didn’t know him, you still probably admired his work. Aaron was one of the chief architects of the Internet uprising against SOPA/PIPA that reminded netizens everywhere that they still had the power to dictate their own terms for electronic communications.

Here’s a speech Aaron gave about the history of the SOPA/PIPA fight which nearly made me cry this morning. And Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig both have shared moving tributes to Aaron that are worth your time. Most of all, keep on fighting the good fight for digital freedom. I can’t think of a better way to remember Aaron Swartz.

Filed under: Technology
from RIP, Aaron Swartz

Can BetterMeans Mean Better Government?

[This post originally appeared on the OpenSF blog.]

Working in the public sector can be challenging, especially during those times when the strict hierarchy of government dictates priorities, timelines and tasks. Unfortunately, without rejiggering the machinations of government, this top down approach will not change anytime soon. Of course, that hasn’t stopped all of us in the Government 2.0 movement from hoping and dreaming that we can begin to change the lumbering institutions at the local level all the way up to the federal. As this blog can attest, that change has begun, but incrementally. So maybe we do need to think beyond web technologies and open data to question the social structures which make change in government so difficult.

Look no further than BetterMeans, a radical open enterprise governance model masquerading as a slick new project management tool.

Now that’s change we can believe in.

The software itself is a neat mix of project management and social capital platform that opens up the doors to the decision-making process for a given project or set of projects. Users contribute ideas to the projects which hold their interest in an open and transparent way. Users themselves are ranked by others that have worked with them on previous projects so that everyone is kept accountable. This collaborative approach then helps the group rank options for how to proceed based on the experience and insight of the entire group instead of relying solely on direction from management. Definitely check out the video above, you’ll see how well thought out this platform really is.

So, getting back to government. What is our tolerance for really incorporating the ideas of every member of a team? What would happen if our departments were more democratic in sourcing ideas and setting priorities? Or what if our elected officials were required to balance their agendas alongside those of rank and file public employees, or the general public at large? It might be pie in the sky, but I’m guessing that we’d garner more than a few great ideas, while engaging and inspiring a whole swath of disinterested civil servants. Just a thought.

“Freezer Cash” Congressman Gets 13 Years

jefferson_sentenced, originally uploaded by noveltimes.

Another one bites the dust, or the pie crust, as the case may be. This time, though, it’s a Democrat. From the BBC:

A former US congressman famously caught with $90,000 (£54,000) in cash in his freezer, has been sentenced to 13 years for bribery and money laundering.

William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat who served for nearly 20 years, was convicted in August of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.

The best part of the story? Dude hid the money in his freezer:

In August that year [2005], FBI agents found the money in his freezer, wrapped in foil and hidden in boxes of pie crust.

And so, this story clearly illustrates that both corruption AND stupidity extend both ways across the aisle. Stupid Republicrats.

Hope, and Responsibility

The blogosphere is buzzing, I’m sure. The 44th President of the United States was just sworn in. I haven’t blogged since he was elected nearly two months ago, so this seems like a fine time to post again, amidst the buzz.

I watched the inauguration ceremony from a treadmill, sound muted, eschewing the celebration at Civic Center. As my friend suggested, I guess I’m over it. But I watched and nearly shed a tear and here’s what I think. Obama used the phrase “new age” at least twice. Of course, this can be interpreted in myriad ways depending on the frame of the listener. Two interpretations occurred to me. First is a new age of energy. I suppose that all of the plans on the table can be considered part of a new age, but a “green grid” seems like the most revolutionary idea brought to the table so far. Second, a new age of personal responsibility. This was stressed heavily in Obama’s speech. I’ve felt this way for years. The idea of some outside hand cleaning up our mess, providing for us, coddling us, this idea has gotten us into quite a mess, in my opinion. I recognize the necessary function of government for certain services — market regulation, critical infrastructure, etc. — but we all have to participate. For, if not, can we really call our country a democracy?

And so ends the build up and such begins the hard work. I, for one, am still not sold that President Obama and crew are thinking big and bold enough. But I would be remiss not to feel just a little more secure with O at the helm. Chart a course and all ahead, full steam. Now or never, it seems.


A few thoughts the day after.  In particular, a few other important ways to interpret the “new age” Obama referred to in his speesh yesterday.  Most obvious, and one I did not touch upon, was the new age of race relations we are entering.  Despite an inordinate amount of bias that remains, having a president who is an African American will forever change how blacks and whites see each other, and for the better.  Another very important aspect of this new age is the long overdue exit of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush(42) axis that has been calling the shots in Washington’s inner circles for nearly 5 decades.  It is unlikely that any of these evil geezers will take another place of such prominence in a Whitehouse Administration and this is a VERY good thing.  Good riddance.

Finally, a subtle but monumental choice of words by President Obama:

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.

The emphasis is mine.  In his delivery, that phrase almost seems an afterthought, but it may well be one of the most radical aspects of Obama’s inaugural address.  With those three words, Obama recognized one of the largest “religious” group in the United States: Atheists and Agnostics.  And it seems only fitting since those pesky forefathers kept rattling on about the separation of Church and State or something.  If religion has to be dragged into political pomp, then at least we non-believers deserve a shout-out with the rest of ’em.  Hallelujah.