#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.

Bruce Sterling’s SXSW Interactive 2015 Closing Remarks

I didn’t make it to SXSW this year, but I would never miss Bruce Sterling’s time-honored closing remarks from the Interactive festival because Bruce Sterling is paying attention. This year’s riff is the Internet of Things and the future of maker culture. Along the way, Bruce talks about urban masses fearfully watching the sky, the continuing Balkanization of the Internet, and the “block being the new like.”

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.


Through A Google+, Darkly

It’s Saturday morning. I’m sitting in a coffeeshop in San Francisco waiting for clean laundry, including a new-to-me jacket I bought yesterday. A jacket to dispel the summer cold that has once again descended upon San Francisco. While I wait, I’m finally starting to play around with Google+, with high hopes that it will likewise dispel a similar cold that has fallen across the internet of late…the cold, bleak specter that is Facebook. I will spare you my usual rant here, except to say I am more than concerned that our social fabric is being re-woven by a gaggle of white, privileged, twenty-somethings more preoccupied with profit than the privacy (or security) of their user base. Frankly, this is a political issue that must be addressed, and soon–an argument that Carne Ross so eloquently makes in her recent post on Alternet.org. (Also, please consult Danah Boyd’s required reading on privacy in the age of social media straightaway.)

Of course, as Ross points out, putting all of my hopes in Google is quite naive…believe me, I’m aware of the irony. But still, I can’t escape all of the benefit that Google has delivered in it’s quest to index the world’s information. A noble goal if there ever were one. “Don’t be evil,” remember? For me, Google+ shines as a glimmer of hope for the regained control of online identities we have so diligently created and readily handed off to corporate caretakers. And today, I hold that glimmer of hope in my lap, staring at it intensely, waiting for it to illuminate a new, just path for online identity and the social web.

Alas, I look through a Google+, darkly. As a Google Apps user–I have managed noveltimes.com through Google Apps since 2007–I am a second class Google+ user. You see, Google Profiles are not available to Apps Users, and Google+ is keyed to Profiles. The lack of Profiles support for Apps is an issue well documented in the Google support forums. And Google tells us that Profiles for Apps is coming soon, but “soon” can be an eternity in the era of social media.

Despite this hurdle, I have found my way on to Google+ through the Gmail account associated with my Google Profile. However, since much of the power of Google+ results from building a social experience on top of the wide assortment of Google services employed by the average user (think Gmail, Gcal, Picasa, Blogger, Maps, +1, etc., etc., etc.), this new social network will indeed seem dark. For the time being, I’ll play along at home, gingerly, so as not to invest too much time, effort and content in what may turn out to be a temporary Google+ profile. Here’s my profile if you want to say hello, but don’t get too attached, I may not be around very long. And I guess that’s the whole point. With the present state of social media, you can never guarantee control over your online identity. Let’s hope that Google+ comes a step closer.

Google’s Got the Geo-Location Goods, Part I: Basics and Brand New Tools

[This post originally appeared on the OpenSF blog.]

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a two-day training entitled “Mapping Environmental Scenarios & Solutions with Google Technology” hosted by the Google Earth Outreach team. “Pleasure” might be something of an understatement–not only was the training very well executed by the capable and knowledgeable Earth Outreach crew, but the sheer volume of free tools and web services that they dropped on us was mindboggling. In the hopes of sharing the wealth, especially for those of us in the public sector who need all the free resources we can marshall, I’m writing this post to tell you about what I learned, in two parts. In this first post, I’ll cover the basics of the Google Maps & Earth services, as well as introduce you to some brand new tools: Fusion Tables, for managing and visualizing data, and Open Data Kit (ODK), for collecting and aggregating data. In Part II, I’ll show all the power users out there why they can do with the Maps and Earth APIs, and finish up with some amazing odds and ends tucked away on the Google shelves.

Maps & Earth

At this point, in April of 2011, I’m assuming most of you reading this are very aware of Google Maps and Google Earth. I won’t spend much time explaining them other than to say that both have revolutionized the geospatial world, in both two and three dimensions.

I, for one, would hard-pressed to imagine life without Google Maps. Yes, there are other mapping services available, but Google Maps has always seemed to me the cleanest and tightest. Or, to borrow a phrase from Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell of SNL, Google Maps is the best, true that, Double True! But what really makes Maps stand out from the crowd is the ease with which new maps can be created and shared. At SF Environment, we use an increasing number of Google Maps to share information with a geo-location component, such as this, this, and this.

LATE BREAKING UPDATE: Google has just launched Map Maker that lets users directly edit places in Google Maps, from buildings to businesses.

The general internet public is probably less familiar with Google Earth. With Earth, Google has created their own 3-D model of the globe, complete with rendered satellite imagery and even line models of parcels and buildings. The result is a truly immersive and very powerful tool for storytelling. I still remember being awed by Rebecca Moore’s 2006 ‘Logging Flyover of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ that single-handedly changed public opinion about a dispute over logging rights at the time. Creating custom tours or ‘fly-overs’ with text, links, embedded video and even audio narration does take some time but is remarkably simple. Check out a few great examples here and here.

Fusion Tables & ODK

One of the most exciting tools we covered at the training was Google’s new Fusion Tables which just may herald the dawn of web-based GIS. Born in Google Labs as an experiment in cloud data management, Fusion Tables is an attempt to combine data management and collaboration to enable ‘merging multiple data sources, discussion of the data, querying, visualization, and Web publishing. Pretty cool stuff, and sorely needed.

At first glance, Fusion Tables looks like a beta version of Google Spreadsheets. The service is very new and still a little rough around the edges, but I don’t doubt that it will soon shine as do more mature Google offerings. Data can be entered directly or imported via a text file, but that’s where the similarity with Spreadsheets ends. Once your data is in, simply hit a button and you’ve got a map. Publishing to Maps is super easy, as is collaboration–all you or you collaborators need is a Google account and you are good to go. If you have multiple data sources that reference the same entities, you can easily ‘fuse’ those sources through creating ‘joins’ without knowing how to write out SQL queries. Have a question for your collaborators about some of that fused data? Fusion Tables has built-in discussion tools.

Clearly Google is getting into the GIS game. If Fusion Tables wasn’t enough of an indicator, Google has even begun to post Fusion Tables of public data sets upon which you can build your own mapping project. My favorite? State and County boundary tables obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau and imported by the Fusion Tables team. Sweet! Google is offering an incredible service with Fusion Tables, and it looks like people are already adopting, as evidenced by some State of California data sets being stored as Fusion Tables.

What if the data you want to visualize needs to be first be collected? Open Data Kit promises to integrate these geo-location tools directly into the fieldwork so often necessary to generate data. Open Data Kit is actually a project of the University of Washington’s Change Group that is supported by Google and hosted on Google Code. This set of free and open source tools allows developers to build data collection forms for Android mobile devices. You can take the term ‘developer’ lightly here–in one of the breakout sessions during the Earth Outreach training, we built a data collection form in a matter of minutes. Once published, users can download the ODK Collect app, call up your form, and start logging data that is immediately aggregated on a server with ODK Aggregate, ready for extraction.

Pulling all of these tools together, one possible work flow for data collection and presentation could look like this:

collect with ODK Collect >> aggregate with ODK Aggregate >> extract to Fusion Tables >> publish to Google Maps/Earth

We ran a simple exercise cataloging and mapping plants using Android phones and, while there were a few bumps, it was clear that this is an amazing way to empower your team with a full set of geo-location tools, from data collection all the way through to visualization. After the workshop, my mind was reeling with the possibilities for deploying this suite of tools. Now, if I could only find the time.

Which brings us to the end of Part I of this Google love fest. Check back soon for a deeper dive into the possibilities of Google APIs, along with a few other exciting odds and ends.

EcoFinder & Regional Recycling Database Project

The EcoFinder web service provides local recycling, reuse and disposal information for residents and businesses. Data is available via a web form, and iPhone app and an XML data feed. 

EcoFinder home page: www.sfenvironment.org/EcoFinder

EcoFinder XML Feed Documentation

EcoFinder iPhone app

Additionally, I have assembled a group of local agencies to collaboratively develop the next generation of recycling information software, currently known as the Regional Recycling Database.

Civic Commons blog post about Regional Recycling Database project