First Post



Sanders streaming into a house party near you; there were no privacy advocates in House subcommittee meeting on the Internet of Things; and more.

  • Cryptowars, continued: A coalition of privacy, civil liberties, and internet freedom groups have generated more than 6.1 million faxes to Members of Congress from internet users opposed to the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), Fight for the Future announced yesterday. (The faxes are being sent electronically, so no trees are being harmed in the process, FFTF says.)

  • On Medium, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) explains why CISA won’t protect anyone from hackers.

  • Kate Kaye of AdAge reports on a House subcommittee hearing earlier this week on the Internet of Things that “consisted entirely of representatives from industry groups,” without even one privacy advocate. “it comes as no surprise,” she writes, “that the general consensus among witnesses was that innovators should be free to innovate without the threat of overreaching privacy legislation getting in the way.”

  • Tech and the presidentials: Classified emails on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private server had information from five U.S. intelligence agencies, Marisa Taylor, Greg Gordon, and Anita Kumar report for McClatchy DC.

  • The Clinton campaign is pretty upset at the New York Times for how it bungled its coverage of the non-“criminal referral” story last week, as this letter from its communications director Jennifer Palmieri to Times executive editor Dean Baquet shows.

  • Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign says more than 100,000 supporters attended more than 3,500 house parties Wednesday night, all listening to the candidate via a video live-stream, Nick Corasaniti reports for the New York Times. “Attendees at the house parties were asked to text a number to opt in and show interest,” he notes.

  • Money talks: Former President Jimmy Carter tells talk radio host Thom Hartman that thanks to unlimited money in politics, America is “just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congressmembers.”

  • GenderAvengers: Ainsley O’Connell reports for Fast Company on Quibb founder Sandi MacPherson’s 50-50 pledge effort to get conference organizers to commit to equalize their numbers of male and female speakers.

  • Government opening: Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced his city’s new “Open and Protected Data Policy,” opening more city data to the public including parking meter usage info, firearm recovery data, wifi usage data, recycling info and library user counts.

  • This is civic tech: Happy Birthday to Crisis Text Line, which turns two tomorrow. It now processes more than 20,000 messages per day.

  • The city of Palo Alto, California, is starting to use a new digital commenting tool built by Peak Democracy to further engage residents in helping update its comprehensive plan, Susan Schena reports for Patch.

First Post



Uber’s promise to maintain social order; easier targeting of voters on Facebook; and more.

  • Cryptowars, continued: Implicitly rebuking their current colleagues, three former top American national security officials, Mike McConnell, Michael Chertoff and William Lynn, write in the Washington Post in support of “ubiquitous encryption at the device, server and enterprise level without building in means for government monitoring,” saying this most serves “the greater public good.”

  • Annals of disruptive tech: In the Washington Post, the Fletcher School’s Bhaskar Chakravorti explains how Uber is navigating the challenge of winning the Chinese market. This paragraph is key: “no prescription for success in the Chinese market can be complete without a plan for managing the true source of political power: the Chinese government. As protests by taxi drivers erupted in multiple cities across China, Uber recently acknowledged its commitment to ‘maintain social order’ by using its GPS data to track drivers and their locations near protests and canceling their Uber contracts if they were near such protests—a strong signal to the government that its cache of data could be used for the ‘social order maintaining’ objectives of the state.”

  • Alex Rosenblat of the Data & Society Institute has a fascinating piece up on Motherboard detailing some of oddities of Uber’s ecosystem, including phantom cars that a user often sees when they open the app (to entice them to think drivers are close by?), and the strategies drivers and passengers alike use to take advantage of (or avoid) surge pricing.

  • Baby you can drive my car: Andy Greenberg of Wired has another scoop on a security researcher who has figured out how to perform a “man in the middle” attack on GM’s OnStar RemoteLink system, enabling him to track a target car, unlock it, trigger the horn and alarm and even start its engine. GM confirmed to Greenberg that it is working on a fix.

  • Tech and the presidentials: Ashley Parker reports for the New York Times on how Facebook “has been working to expand its digital domination in the political realm.” One critical innovation sure to be useful in 2016 “allows a campaign to upload its voter file—a list of those they hope will turn out to vote or can be persuaded to do so—directly to Facebook, where it can target those users.”

  • Government opening: The Library of Congress has added several useful new features to, including a tool that reads a bill summary out loud to a user and the ability to search within member profile and committee pages, librarian Robert Brammer blogs.

  • Open government groups in South Africa are challenging their country’s role in the international Open Government Partnership. In October, South Africa will become chair of the OGP, but civil society groups are facing “increasing surveillance, intimidation and censorship of activists and the media,” several leading organizations argue in an open letter.

  • Activistas: GenderAvenger is out with a new video (and mobile app) aimed at combating the all too frequent excuses conference and panel organizers give for failing to include meaningful numbers of women in their events. Here’s a recent example of GenderAvenger engaging Launch Festival founder Jason Calacanis for only have 24 percent women at his March event. And here’s a more promising interchange with John Koetsier of MobileBeat, who tells GenderAvenger “Thanks for the eyes on it. We’re trying, and yes, we still suck.”

First Post



“They don’t give a damn about governing”; civic tech applications of the blockchain; and more.

  • Petition 2.0: On first taking his job earlier this year, White House chief digital officer Jason Goldman said he would look into the backlog of unanswered WeThePeople e-petitions, and yesterday he produced results, Alex Howard reports for Huffington Post, announcing that from this point forward qualified petitions would get official answers within 60 days, and sharing responses for 20 long-unanswered petitions, including one from two years ago (!) calling for Edward Snowden’s pardon (which was unsurprisingly rejected).

  • Here’s Goldman’s post on Medium (his former employer), explaining the updates to WeThePeople.

  • Writing for Civicist, Dave Karpf argues that the most important news here isn’t the promise of a response within 60 days, it’s’s decision to partner with WeThePeople on petitions aimed at the administration. As he notes, “most people sign one WeThePeople petition and never come back. Only two or three petitions are started per day on WeThePeople. receives hundreds per day.” Not only does the partnership mean that Change and WeThePeople are no longer competing for users’ attention, Karpf adds, “The more that WeThePeople integration is baked into the functionality of other large petition sites, the harder it will be for the next President to shutter WeThePeople’s doors.”

  • Writing for Politico, Sarah Wheaton puts the WeThePeople news in context of the White House’s longer up-and-down history of experimenting with and using digital tools. And she quotes some guy named Sifry who suggests that if Goldman and team really want to score some digital engagement points, they should try some more free-wheeling ideas, “like a Wiki for suggestions about how Obama should spend his post-presidency, or a crowdsourcing site for pointing out government waste.”

  • Tech and the presidentials: Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign is struggling with “deep fundraising and organizational problems,” Alex Isenstadt reports for Politico. Among Paul’s problems: he hasn’t succeeded at cultivating a “sugar daddy.” Peter Thiel, the libertarian Silicon Valley VC, helped his father’s 2012 run, but Isenstadt says he is “now unlikely to be a major contributor” to the younger Paul. The senator also canceled a planned appearance at Auren Hoffman’s Dialog Retreat, another opportunity to tap tech libertarian types.

  • Paul’s digital director, Vincent Harris, went to Google’s VidCon conference last week and came back convinced that his party is doing online video “wrong.” He writes on Medium, “Republican campaigns, institutions, and advocacy groups are doing a great job of ‘tv-ing the internet’, while missing the key differences in the style, substance, and type of content that needs to be created for younger audiences.”

  • In a new paper, “They Don’t Give a Damn About Governing,” published by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, journalist Jackie Calmes reports on how conservative media exerts enormous influence on the Republican party. For anyone wondering why Donald Trump is doing so well at the moment, Calmes’ paper is must-reading. Here’s a taste of what she found:

    “It’s not just talk radio, but the blogosphere, the internet—they’re all intertwined now. You’ve got this constant chorus of skepticism about anything the quote-unquote establishment does,” said a longtime former top aide to House Republican leaders, Dave Schnittger. And, he said, the chorus is loudest in opposition to those actions that are fundamental to governing: meeting basic fiscal deadlines for funding the government and allowing it to borrow. “Those are the things that leaders have to get done as part of governing,” the Republican said, “as much as conservative media may hate it.”

  • And this:

    Tom Latham, a longtime House Republican who retired in January, said, “All the social media, Facebook, all this stuff has had a huge impact, in that there’s a group of people out there for whom everything is immediate. It isn’t necessarily verified as being true; there’s a lot of opinion stated as fact. And they [conservative media] can arouse a lot of people just instantaneously.” When Latham came to Congress with the big Republican class elected in 1994, “We didn’t have internet, didn’t have that type of instantaneous communication,” he said. Twenty years later, constituent contacts to his office “went from maybe 7,000 a year up to, when I left, to 35,000 to 40,000 contacts a year, just because of the ease of communication and people popping off the emails every day. A lot of that is generated by the conservative talk show people and media people.”

  • Calmes also made smart use of Media Cloud’s news search tool, finding a dramatic difference between conservative and liberal media in coverage of the “Common Core” education curriculum.

  • Annals of open government: Waldo Jaquith of U.S. Open Data explains how they created a simple, free, open source software product that will help states publish verifiable legal data, and thus are heading off a rising tendency to lock it up in the hard-to-access .pdf format in order to comply with the Uniform Electronic Legal Materials Act.

  • Future present: Frank Pasquale and Siva Vaidhyanathan, two of academia’s sharpest tech critics, write for The Guardian that when “disruptive” companies like Airbnb and Uber posture as righteous champions of freedom while they flout standing employment and anti-discrimination laws, they are actually invoking a different history: the choice by reactionary Southerners to “nullify” federal laws they didn’t like. In doing so, they argue, these companies “undermine local needs and effective governance.”

  • Nick Grossman of Union Square Ventures, always a little ahead of the curve, says he sees the emergence of a whole swath of new networked services that “will fill the gaps left by the unbundling of the job” giving independent workers a variety of supports from help with job discovery and equipment to administrative help and insurance benefits.

  • Blockchain technology could be useful in protecting user-generated video of official misbehavior, distributing welfare payments, and providing people with official IDs, reports Emily Spaven of CoinDesk.

  • This is civic tech: Eilis O’Neil reports for us on Civicist about the efforts of Black Girls Code, where girls learn not only how to code, but how not to “feel like a weirdo” for wanting to.

Civic Engagement Open Government petitions



In light of today’s announcement, I think it’s fair to say that WeThePeople is no longer a virtual ghost town.

Last year I argued that the White House’s epetition site WeThePeople had become a virtual ghost town, but today the administration’s Chief Digital Officer, Jason Goldman announced some important changes that promise to breathe new life into what had become a stagnant site.

The White House has cleared out the backlog of 20 truant petitions that had exceeded the 100,000 signature threshold but never received an official response, including several originally submitted in 2011 and 2012, along with the two-year-old petition to pardon Edward Snowden. It also has announced a new policy that all petitions that clear the threshold will receive a response within 60 days “wherever possible.” It has created a new team of people responsible for answering citizen petitions. It has posted more open code to and GitHub as an extension of its Write API, inviting third-party websites to integrate their petition-gathering with the White House site. And has announced that it will be the first major site to take advantage of the Write API, and will begin partnering with WeThePeople on petitions aimed at the administration.

The new 60-day policy is a welcome correction. It restores the promise of the site and makes a meaningful commitment that, if citizens collectively come together and petition their government, the government will listen and offer a timely response. The timeliness of response is crucial, specifically because the administration isn’t promising to agree with the petitioners.

A petition is just a single political tactic. If you want to change government policy, a petition alone usually won’t be enough. When the government negatively responds to your petition, that creates a focusing event. It’s an opportunity for additional media scrutiny and political organizing.  

Take a look at how the Huffington Post has covered the “Pardon Edward Snowden” petition. Snowden’s supporters rallied over 100,000 people to sign that WeThePeople petition in June 2013. Then 25 months passed. During that time (as John Oliver pointed out in April), public attention has mostly drifted away from Snowden’s revelations. The White House response will put this issue back on the public agenda, at least for a little while. It’s like oxygen to the activist fire—even when the government disagrees, the act of public disagreement is far preferable to suffocating silence.

That being said, the 60-day response policy is far from the most important part of Goldman’s announcement. The partnership is much more significant in the long term. The partnership is crucial because it lessens the tension between being the venue for and the target of political petitions. It means that WeThePeople is no longer competing with,, Credo Mobilize, Care2, or  These organizations are optimized to promote long-term, large-scale citizen engagement.  The White House petition site isn’t (and probably shouldn’t be). Rather than choosing between creating a WeThePeople petition or creating a petition, motivated citizens can reap advantages from both.

It also means that we can rightly start to measure WeThePeople by different metrics than the other sites. And that’s important, because it’s when you evaluate WeThePeople according to the same metrics as MoveOn petitions or that the “ghost town” imagery emerges.

Consider: 19.5 million individuals have signed a WeThePeople petition. There have been a total of 27.7 million signatures. Depending on how you measure it, that’s either a very large number or a surprisingly small number. If the White House petition site were an advocacy group, it would be almost 2.5 times larger than But the ratio of users to signatures means that, on average, people have signed only 1.42 petitions apiece.  Or, put another way, most people sign one WeThePeople petition and never come back. Only 2 or 3 petitions are started per day on WeThePeople. receives hundreds per day. Those are “ghost town” metrics: People visit once, see little, and never return.

By comparison, has developed a measure called MeRA (members returning for action) to determine its effectiveness. If people take one action with SumOfUs, then never come back again, SumOfUs calls this a weakness, not a strength. Sites like and devote tremendous resources towards optimizing their sites to promote active petition-creation, petition-sharing, and repeat petition-signing. Their MeRA scores are much higher than WeThePeople’s.

If you are a social movement organization that wants to build power for social reforms, repeat member engagement is very important to you. It’s a key building block in developing the type of deep engagement that can eventually drive social change. Up until now, the White House site was effectively competing with these movement organizations for our civic attention. Integrating with means this competitive relationship becomes a collaborative relationship. If groups like MoveOn and Care2 follow suit, it will represent an important evolution within the digital petition world.  

The partnership also improves the likely longevity of the site. When the next President takes office in January 2017, he or she will have to decide whether open petitions and digital government is going to remain a priority. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels during his time in office. Ronald Reagan tore them off. I doubt a President Trump would place as high a priority on digital civic engagement as President Obama has. The more that WeThePeople integration is baked into the functionality of other large petition sites, the harder it will be for the next President to shutter WeThePeople’s doors.

Moving forward, I’ll be watching for two things to determine just how successful this revitalized WeThePeople turns out to be:

  1. Does the White House keep its 60-day commitment when a wave of big, controversial petitions arrives? Jason Goldman has made a promise here. I’m hopeful that he’ll stand behind it. It will be a few months before we know for sure.
  2. Do other third-party platforms like MoveOn Petitions, Care2, and Credo Mobilize follow’s lead and integrate with WeThePeople? It’s no surprise that took the lead here—open government advocate Jake Brewer recently left for a job at the White House, and is the 800 pound gorilla of petition sites. If the other civil society petition sites all follow’s lead, that will clearly establish WeThePeople’s niche.  

In light of today’s announcement, I think it’s fair to say that WeThePeople is no longer a virtual ghost town. It’s becoming more like a virtual resort destination—lots of visitors, who get a lot out of their experience, but very few locals who actually call the place home.

And that’s probably how it should be.

First Post



Clinton promises data-driven campaign going forward; Politwoops is back; and more.

  • Here are “five common-sense, bipartisan principles for building a smart, digital government,” offered by Republican Matt Lira and Democrat Nick Sinai writing for Politico. As they note, “The 2016 presidential candidates like to talk about innovation, and they’re currently debating the tech-fueled ‘gig economy.’ Those are important issues, but when it comes to how government meets the digital world, there’s a crucial component they’re not talking about.” More like this, please.

  • Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’ ombudswoman, retraces how the paper got the Hillary Clinton email “criminal referral” story wrong, blaming the rush to get a scoop and unreliable, anonymous sources.

  • Commenting on Sullivan’s story, Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo zeroes in on Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet’s mea culpa. Baquet told Sullivan: “You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral. I’m not sure what [the Times reporters and editors] could have done differently on that.” Marshall responds, “This is a telling statement. The ‘government’ didn’t tell the Times anything. Anonymous people in the government told them something. Big, big difference.”

  • An unsigned “editors’ note” in today’s Times effectively apologizes for not correcting the original Clinton “criminal referral” email story sooner.

  • Bernie Sanders’ campaign is planning to live-stream into several thousand house parties nationwide Wednesday night, and as Aaron Davis observes for the Washington Post, “Whether Sanders can use the internet to build an effective campaign remains to be seen.” Sanders told him he believes the event “will be the largest digital organizing event in the history of this country,” which may be true for a presidential campaign this early in the cycle. This map produced by the Sanders campaign shows 3,146 organizing meetings with 82,465 RSVPs. Looks to me like a pretty effective internet-driven campaign so far.

  • Tech billionaire loudmouth Mark Cuban (owner of the Dallas Mavericks, star of Shark Tank) takes a stand for his class, according to Fox & Friends, saying “I have to honestly (say) he is probably the best thing to happen in a long long time. I don’t care what his actual positions are. I don’t care if he says the wrong thing. He says what’s on his mind. He gives honest answers rather than prepared answers. This is more important than anything any candidate has done in years.”

  • Here’s a corollary to the “Barbara Streisand Effect,” which is what happens when you try to suppress something online: If, in the course of trying to intimidate a reporter from writing a damaging story about a past, reported event, such as Donald Trump’s “violation” of his then-spouse Ivana Trump, your lawyer says, “I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting,” then your lawyer actually has invoked the Streisand Effect.

  • Dave Pell’s “Next Draft of the Future,” written for Vice’s Motherboard, is wickedly good on current events, despite being written from the future.

  • Elizabeth Gillis reports for the Berkman Center blog on its Internet Monitor project, which is developing a new dashboard for understanding how people all over the world access and use the net.

  • Related: Vindu Goel reports for the New York Times on Facebook’s efforts to sell its project, describing it as “an ambitious effort to connect the world’s poorest people to the internet,” without mentioning that in fact it doesn’t connect them to anything like the actual internet.

  • Writing for The Verge, Ariha Setalvad also describes’s expansion as “making it easier for any mobile operator to sign up to offer free internet access to basic online services,” again failing to note that does not provide users a connection to the open internet.

  • Julie Scelfo reports for the New York Times on how recent college suicides, often happening in clusters, may be in part a response to accentuated social pressure fed by social media. Describing one student’s descent, Scelfo writes, “Friends’ lives, as told through selfies, showed them having more fun, making more friends and going to better parties. Even the meals they posted to Instagram looked more delicious.”

  • The NSA will destroy the phone metadata it has been collecting on Americans since 2001, the AP’s Ken Delanian reports.

  • A group of leading artificial intelligence and robotics researchers, plus non-experts like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and Noam Chomsky, have signed onto an open letter calling for a ban on offensive autonomous weapons.

  • Josh Tauberer of GovTrack has launched a Kickstarter to hire a full-time researcher to add more information about the daily activities of Congress.

  • GovDelivery announced this morning that it has acquired Textizen, a product of Code for America’s inaugural incubator program that enables government agencies to communicate via mobile messaging with the public.

  • A new ranking of start-up ecosystems looking at “the broad infrastructure of talent, knowledge, entrepreneurs, venture capital, and companies that make up a startup community” has San Francisco first, New York City second, Los Angeles third, Boston fourth and Tel Aviv fifth, Richard Florida reports for CityLab. The global study did not include cities in China, Taiwan, Japan or South Korea due to language barriers.

  • Don’t miss incoming Civic Hall Fellow Andrew Slack on “why we need a civic imagination” and what he’s going to be working on while at Civic Hall.

Civic Engagement Civic Hall Media

Why We Need a Civic Imagination

Why We Need a Civic Imagination

The crisis in civics is a crisis in agency. The solution is more efforts to revive and expand our civic imagination.

  • “We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need inside of us already. We have the power to imagine better.” —J.K. Rowling

    If the definition of technology is any tool or process we use to organize ourselves to achieve some goal, then the most important technology we have, as humans, is our culture. Culture is the knowledge we collect and pass on to our children, the rituals we use to organize society and give meaning to life, and the expectations we have of how people are supposed to behave. And any discussion of the potential of civic tech to change the world for the better has to confront the challenge that culture presents.

    The hardest thing to change, when it comes to getting an organization or institution to embrace a new technology or way of doing things, isn’t the technical capacity of that organization’s staff. It’s something more amorphous: its “culture.” Otherwise, as management expert Peter Drucker says, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

    Today, our civic culture is at a crossroads. Many Americans appear to be withdrawing from public engagement, frustrated by the seeming ineffectiveness of traditional political processes. Meanwhile, there’s new energy around the idea of doing-it-ourselves, using the disruptive potential of the open internet, open data, and social networks, to make things work better.

    So it feels like a great moment to come to Civic Hall to explore how we might hack the civic culture, and look for ways to turn some of the energy that our culture now channels into entertainment and distraction and outdated rituals into more substantial kinds of public engagement.

    As I approach this work, I’m drawing on the insights of several great teachers, starting with Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor at USC Annenberg. Jenkins defines the civic imagination as the capacity to imagine creative alternatives to current social, political, or economic institutions or problems. When we address the civic imagination, we are addressing the heart of our malleable societal norms.

    It was Jenkins who helped me understand the work I’ve done for the last ten years with the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA). The HPA uses parallels from Harry Potter to engage fans across the world to improve upon the story of our world. Together, HPA members have built libraries in Rwanda, Detroit, the Mississippi Delta, and Brooklyn; sent five cargo planes to Haiti; funded the protection of thousands of civilians in Darfur and East Burma; continue to give to their local communities in our 270 chapters in over 30 countries. After more than four years of advocacy, we got Warner Bros to make all Harry Potter chocolate Fair Trade or Utz- certified.

    After extensive research on the HPA, Jenkins writes:

    These kids weren’t political when they first joined HPA: They don’t come from the kinds of backgrounds where politically active youth traditionally come from. Research has shown that most kids who go on to be politically and civically engaged first learn to talk about politics around the dinner table; they have a civics teacher who brings in real-world examples, and connects their history book to their lives; they’re involved in certain extracurricular activities like student government. After the age of 16 or 17, their lifelong political engagement tends to be fairly predetermined. The HPA’s work is breaking that mold.

    In all of our efforts, we’ve been inspired by JK Rowling’s statement about our power to “imagine better.”

    Unfortunately, instead of imagining better, the civic culture conjured by our national leaders and elected representatives seems barren of such optimism and does little to speak to us as anything more than consumers of government, or just as plain old consumers. What an impoverished civic imagination that implies! Mainstream education debates are focused on test scores without prioritizing the complex inner lives of our students, our political experience is dominated by big money, etc. If what we appreciate, appreciates, we are building a society of human beings with little respect for anything human or imaginative. Even some of our best government innovators are pushing to improve public services not because they add to human dignity but because they want government to treat its “customers” at least as well as Amazon or Google.

    Worry about how many Americans are turning off from civic engagement has led to some well-intentioned efforts that misunderstand the problem. While Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has done terrific work on iCivics, an online platform that uses video games to help students learn more about how government works, she is mistaken in thinking the central problem is a nosedive in how we as citizens understand our political institutions.

    Ethan Zuckerman of MIT’s Center for Civic Media has not only pointed out that the data does not reflect the existence of such a collapse in civic knowledge, he has joined Jenkins in arguing for a broader definition of civics that is far more accurate to the experience of all citizens, particularly to young people. Whether we know it or not, we are engaged in the makings of a civic experience every time we are on social media. Think of how hashtags have become cultural statements, even the names of political movements. The challenge is not, as O’Connor hopes, to get people to expand their knowledge of how government works. The crisis in civics is, in actuality, a crisis in agency. The solution is more efforts to revive and expand our civic imagination.

    The crisis in civic agency is causing exponential damage. While most people believe that issues like human rights atrocities, widespread inequality, and ecological devastation are serious and deserve immediate attention, the average person does not believe they can do anything about them. We’ve lost incalculable energy, talent, and resources on solving complex problems because of the frustration, fatigue, and complacency that come from feeling overwhelmed and helpless.

    Through my experience in co-founding and directing the HPA, I have seen first-hand how building a robust civic imagination can lead to a vibrant community discovering its agency through campaigns that effect social change and helps other changemakers replicate those victories on a wider scale. The accomplishments of the HPA stand in the way of “grown ups” who tell kids to get their heads out of fantasy and into the so-called “real world”; in fact, fantasy is not simply an escape from our world but an invitation to go deeper into it. We dream at night, but our culture dreams through books and movies and stories. Working with those stories is cultural dream work. Working with stories that we put energy into is cultural acupuncture. And that is where I hope to focus my work as Civic Hall’s first Civic Imagination Fellow.

    In cultural acupuncture, we find where the psychological energy is in the culture, and move that energy towards creating a healthier body for our world. In cultural acupuncture, stories are the proverbial needles; stories are what resonate. Stories are what can expand our civic imagination and allow us a transformed sense of agency.

    My plans as a Civic Imagination Fellow are ambitious. One area of focus is the invention and re-appropriation of holidays. In recent years, we’ve seen a huge trend in this direction. Seattle recently changed “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day.” Some have equally serious goals, like Mandela Day, when people are called to take action to change the world; or Giving Tuesday, when online advocacy groups push post-Thanksgiving shoppers to donate to good causes. And others have a more light-hearted emphasis, like April Fool’s Day online, or Talk Like a Pirate Day.

    On August 3, to get things going, I’ll be hosting a meetup at Civic Hall around Esther Day. Named after my dear friend, the late Esther Earl (who inspired John Green to write the bestselling book and blockbuster film, the Fault In Our Stars) and led by the foundation in her name, Esther Day is the world’s first baggage-free holiday about love.

    Beyond exploring how we reboot our national holidays, I will also be developing several culture hacking campaigns, including one that draws on the attention around the Hunger Games movie to expand the discussion around economic inequality, and an even more ambitious effort to tap the excitement around the upcoming Star Wars film to help focus more attention on the problem of big money in politics.

    There’s so much more to come and I look forward to a dialogue here and in person as we collaboratively explore an ambitious agenda to fire up the civic imagination.

First Post



Homeland Security surveilled the Washington, D.C. Funk Parade; Georgia sues an open government advocate; and more.

  • With Donald Trump leading in polls of registered Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire, GOP digital strategist Patrick Ruffini makes an important data point: the people surveyed by those polls bear little resemblance to the people most likely to show up to vote in those early states.

  • The New York Times has issued a correction for referring to a “criminal referral” regarding the use of Hillary Clinton’s personal email account while she was Secretary of State; now it says it was a “security referral” pertaining to the possible mishandling of classified information.

  • Former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald takes to Newsweek to tear apart the Times’ first report on what he calls “email-bogus-gate.” He says the security issue isn’t with Clinton’s handling of her email account, but with what FOIA officials reviewing what to release from that account have been doing.

  • Asked about the issue while campaigning in Iowa, Clinton said, “I did not send nor receive anything that was classified at the time,” Alana Wise of Reuters reports.

  • In the wake of Netroots Nation, Democracy for Action—the million-member online organization founded by Howard Dean and run by his brother Jim—has decided to start asking all the candidates who want their support “how they will stand with the Movement for Black Lives and what they will do to confront structural racism and our culture of white supremacy,” their executive director Charles Chamberlain announced Friday.

  • Newly obtained documents show that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Operations Coordination “frequently collects information, including location data, on Black Lives Matter activities from public social media accounts, including on Facebook, Twitter, and Vine, even for events expected to be peaceful,” reports George Joseph for The Intercept. One email shows planned surveillance of innocuous events, including Washington DC’s annual Funk Parade.

  • Chris Smith of New York magazine sums up the Uber-NYC brouhaha of the last few weeks with some very smart observations of how the conflict allowed the company to “dispel its aura of Bloomberg-era elitism” and gave it the opportunity to exploit “its appeal to a youthful, techie, multiracial liberalism.” Don’t miss the smart quote from Civic Hall co-founder Andrew Rasiej.

  • The state of Georgia is actually suing open government advocate Carl Malamud for “unauthorized copying and distribution” of the Georgia legal code (copies of which the state charges the public an arm and a leg), Mike Masnick reports for TechDirt.

  • With President Obama visiting Nairobi, Kenyans have been tweeting up a storm about it, with many using the hashtag #KenyansMessageToObama, reports Aggi Ashagre for NPR.

  • Writing for NextCity, Nancy Scola reports on Airbnb’s “Cuban Invasion.” Bookmark this one for your own trip.

  • The city of Seattle has released an interactive map of all of the booming city’s construction projects, Vicky Gan reports for CityLab.

  • If you’re in London, check out CitizenBeta’s monthly meetup: the next one is this Wednesday.

  • Pressed by its co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff, Salesforce is taking some substantial steps to address gender inequality in its workforce, David Gelles reports for the New York Times, including pay equity.

  • Now airing: Public Radio International’s Innovation Hub show did an interview with me based on my book “The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet).” You can listen here or read Marc Solinger’s post about it.

Civic Tech Democracy GovTech

Setting More Realistic Expectations for Civic Tech

Setting More Realistic Expectations for Civic Tech

  • There is much discussion about the precise opportunities for integrating digital tools or information communication technologies (ICTs) into the political sphere. After an initial wave of tech utopianism, some are searching for more tempered and realistic implementations of technology to strengthen democratic governance. This includes leveraging these tools to hold government accountable to its citizens.

    With support from the Open Society Foundation, I was part of a small research team in 2010 led by Archon Fung to conduct original field research in Brazil, Chile, India, Kenya, and the Slovak Republic. In India, for example, I witnessed the power of digital tools to reduce barriers to entry, empowering students to crowdsource information on elected officials running for office.  In an environment of “paid news,” where advertisements can be concealed as news, crowdsourced information was able to serve as a credible source.

    Based on this research, we found three particularly salient models for how technology might improve democratic transparency and legitimacy. These included: 1) truth-based advocacy, 2) political mobilization, and 3) social monitoring. In all these examples, the underlying premise is that there are lessons from the realm of commerce and social life that can be integrated into the political realm. However, it is not as simple as a one-to-one analogy. Rather, in the realm of civic and social life, politics and local context are much more critical than in the commercial or social spheres.

    We conclude:

    A third political party in the United States, or more likely Brazil, could embrace an ICT that made party leadership much more transparently responsive to constituent interests, became massively popular, and as a result displace one of the existing parties—a political analogy to Netflix or Amazon displacing brick-and-mortar video rental shops. / Such technology has not yet emerged. We hope that it will. But today’s governance ICTs operate in a more incremental, less revolutionary, way.

    Our complete findings were collected in a recent World Bank publication, Deliberation and Development: Rethinking the Role of Voice and Collective Action in Unequal Societies, which you can find here.

First Post



Why the Secret Service is on Twitter; Jeb Bush on #BlackLivesMatter; and more.

  • Yesterday at a campaign event in New Hampshire, Republican Presidential candidate Jeb Bush “rolled his eyes” at the mention of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley’s having apologized for saying “white lives matter.” Bush then commented, according to David Weigel reporting for the Washington Post, “We’re so uptight and so politically correct now that we apologize for saying ‘lives matter’?” The video of Bush’s comments was captured by trackers from American Bridge and quickly posted online. If you listen closely, Bush appears to accuse the #BlackLivesMatter movement of not believing that white lives matter.

  • Two inspectors general have recommended that the Justice Department open a criminal investigation into whether sensitive government information was mishandled by Hillary Clinton’s private email account while she was secretary of state, Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo report for the New York Times.

  • In case you think this is a meaningful metric, A.J. Feather reports for Bloomberg News that Hillary Clinton is winning the “Facebook primary” in terms of how many “unique people” are talking about her compared to the other presidential candidates.

  • Josephine Wolff reports for The Atlantic on how the Secret Service monitors online threats to President Obama. She notes, “Pulling up every tweet which uses the words ‘Obama’ and ‘assassinate’ takes mere seconds, and the Secret Service has tried to make it easier for people to draw threats to its attention by setting up its own Twitter handle, @secretservice, for users to report threatening messages to.”

  • Here’s a chapter and verse breakdown of how Uber steamrolled New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, from Dana Rubinstein and Laura Nahmias in Capital New York. Uber’s use of its app platform may have gotten the most media attention, but clearly its lobbying army and full-court press on the city council did the trick.

  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has taken over a private website,, which had been operated by a private company charging prospective students for help filling out their financial aid applications, something that directly contradicted the intent of FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid), reports Alex Howard for Huffington Post. The site is being transferred to the Department of Education, he reports, as part of legal action against the private company, Student Financial Aid Services. This act of what Howard calls “digital eminent domain” may indeed be a first (pun intended, Alex?). Now, if only the Department of Education cared as much about helping indebted students with useful tech as it does about helping them get indebted, and didn’t leave that job to volunteers. [CORRECTION: Howard has posted an update to his story: while Student Financial Aid Services does face legal action regarding overcharging and other issues, it voluntarily transferred the domain. So, in essence, this wasn’t an act of “digital eminent domain,” as intriguing a prospect as that may be.]

  • An app developer figured out how to use genome-mapping company 23andMe’s DNA database and API to create a screening mechanism that could be used by websites to block a potential visitor by their race, sex or ancestry, Stephanie Lee reports for BuzzFeed. The developer’s access to 23andMe’s API was swiftly blocked.

  • Craig Newmark’s has relaunched, and in the words of its progenitor, it’s “better, nerdier.” Also, birdier. (Full disclosure: craigconnects is a supporter of Civic Hall’s veterans’ scholarship program.)

First Post



Turning predictive analytics on police officers; an Uber détente; and more.

  • White House Presidential Innovation Fellow Denice Ross blogs on Medium about an amazing moment she witnessed during a three-day coding event where the New Orleans Police Department and the city’s office of information technology and innovation released a preview of four city databases for a group of teenage coders and their mentors to build apps with. The event was part of the administration’s Police Data Initiative which is working with 24 jurisdictions around the country to encourage better use of data to build community trust and reduce police violence.

  • As part of that initiative, data scientists are looking at how police departments can better use predictive analytics to figure out which of their officers may be more likely to overreact violently during stressful situations, Larry Greenemeier reports for Scientific American.

  • Reviewing data scientist Cathy O’Neil’s provocative talk at Personal Democracy Forum this past June on “Weapons of Math Destruction,” political scientist and Civicist contributing editor Dave Karpf gently pushes back against her fear that political micro-targeting is bad for democracy. The tl/dr version: he’s not very worried about it because campaigns have always targeted voters, now they’re getting a bit more efficient at it, and most potential abuses are likely to be caught before they do serious harm.

  • Wesley Lowery and David Weigel of the Washington Post report on “Why Hillary Clinton and her rivals are struggling to grasp Black Lives Matter.” They write: “The strained interactions demonstrate the extent to which a vibrant new force on the left has disrupted traditional presidential politics, creating challenges for Democratic candidates who are facing intense pressure to put police brutality and other race-related issues on the front burner ahead of the 2016 election.”

  • Today’s must-read: David Callahan of, who asks: “Is too much funding going to social entrepreneurs–and too little to social movements?”

  • Yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo added his voice to the Uber-NYC debate, calling for a delay in the city council vote on capping the growth of car-for-hire services. “Uber is one of these great inventions, startups, of this new economy and it’s taking off like fire to dry grass and it’s giving people jobs,” Cuomo said in a radio interview. “I don’t think the government should be in the business of restricting job growth.”

  • Later in the day, the two sides came to an agreement: the de Blasio administration is abandoning its push for the Uber cap, and in exchange the company is giving the city a “trove” of internal data that it had been seeking for its congestion study, Matt Flegenheimer reports for the New York Times. Both sides are also stopping their war of words.

  • Related: Matt Stempeck has been tracking how corporations and tech companies in particular with big online platforms have used that leverage in political fights, and in this new piece for Civicist he reports on how “Uber Pushes Corporative Activism in the Digital Age to the Next Level,” raising important questions like “In which instances do we applaud corporate intervention by user interface, and in which do we decry it? How aggressive a campaign should a publicly traded company present to its users? Are there legal limits to corporate-driven free speech?”

  • Now this would be a Smart City: As hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers struggle to obtain or keep food stamp benefits, baffled by complex filing requirements, City Councilman Ben Kallos (and PDM friend) has introduced legislation that would require city agencies to send people pre-filled applications for the benefits that they are entitled to, Winnie Hu reports for the New York Times. He is also pressing for changes that would “eventually allow city residents to receive food stamps automatically based on tax filings.”

  • Avaaz, the international e-organizing behemoth, is facing a technology crisis. According to an email sent by its director, Ricken Patel, its tech backbone “is buckling” under the strain of communicating with 42 million members, leading to “5 site-wide outages in 4 months.” And so they are raising money to hire a new tech team to rebuild its systems from scratch.

  • MySociety shares a map of all the countries around the world where their open-source code is being used.

  • The AFL-CIO is looking to hire a digital campaigns and strategy manager.