First Post



Tom Steinberg calls for tools that permanently shift power; the state of predictive policing in Chicago; and more.

  • Today’s civic tech must-read: Former mySociety director Tom Steinberg calls on technologists to focus on building tools that permanently shift power. He argues that the power-shifting effects of fundraising apps and targeted political ads have been temporary (the other side catches up), whereas “mobile computing is a power shifting technology that permanently empowers the security services.”

  • Parija Kavalanz reports for CNN Money on how Hive, a NY-based start-up funded by the United Nations Refugee Agency, is using predictive data modeling to find the Americans most likely to support refugees. “We’re working with the same data team that was behind President Obama’s 2008 campaign,” Hive’s director Brian Reich says.

  • ICitizen is a Nashville, Tennessee-based civic start-up that is working to build a community platform where constituents and government officials collaborate, Jamie McGee reports for The Tennessean. Launched in 2013, it claims 150,000 users and a staff of 57 employees currently working to enhance the app. The company has raised nearly $13 million in outside capital.

  • Brave new world: The Los Angeles city council wants to “to access a database of license plates captured in certain places around the city, translate these license plates to obtain the name and address of each owner, and send to that owner a letter explaining that the vehicle was seen in, ‘an area known for prostitution.’” As Nick Selby, the CEO of StreetCred Software, writes in Medium, “there are grave issues of freedom of transportation and freedom of association here.”

  • Related: Police in Chicago have begun delivering “custom notifications” to people that its predictive policing model says are at high risk of becoming a “party to violence” in the near future, Susan Crawford reports for Medium’s Backchannel. The letter comes with a personal knock on the door, offers of social services and a warning of the “enhanced penalties” a subject may received if arrested again for a violent crime. Crawford writes that this data-driven initiative seeks to use cops as “guardians” rather than “warriors,” building public trust and legitimacy through pro-active interventions, but with the Chicago police union currently standing firm behind the cop who shot Laquan McDonald it’s hard to see why anyone should trust that these predictive models aren’t biased at their base.

  • The Indian radical writer Arundhati Roy describes what it was like for her, American actor John Cusack, and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to meet NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Moscow. Two observations from her worth pondering: the first is how both Ellsberg and Snowden were, originally, totally devoted to patriotic missions (for Ellsberg, to save his country from communism, and for Snowden, to save it from Islamic terrorism). And second, how the debate over Snowden and the NSA leaves out “other countries, other cultures, other conversations.”

  • Trump watch: Here’s the most worrisome aspect of Molly Ball’s on-the-scene report for The Atlantic of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s recent mass rally in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: “Despite all the negativity and fear, the energy in this room does not feel dark and aggressive and threatening. It doesn’t feel like a powder keg about to blow, a lynch mob about to rampage. It feels joyous.”

  • Journalist Dave Neiwert explains why “Trump is an extraordinarily dangerous right-wing populist demagogue, and not a genuine, in-the-flesh fascist.”

  • “Rob Ford in Canada was there before Trump,” writes NYU press critic Jay Rosen. Which is to say, the old assumption that blatant lies, gaffes, and misbehavior would bring down a politician, now in tatters around the Trump phenomenon, was never that solid.

  • Third party matters: The national Working Families Party has announced that it is holding an online endorsement vote of its members and affiliates to decide who it should back for president in the Democratic presidential primary. The WFP has affiliates in ten states, including NY, MD, NJ, CT, OR, PA and DC, plus four national partners (SEIU,, CWA and Center for Popular Democracy). Each state affiliate will have two votes, to be determined by their state leadership, as will each national partner. The national membership vote will count for four votes.

  • The droid you are looking for: Futurist Mark Pesce (and PDM friend) writes that what’s really exciting about the forthcoming Star Wars movie is the programmable BB-8 robot toys coming to stores near you.

First Post



A social graph of NH voters; Walmart is paying people to spy on OUR Walmart; and more.

  • Brave new world: Sasha Issenberg reports for Bloomberg Politics on the work of data-mining start-up Applecart, which has built a “social graph” of the voters of New Hampshire in an attempt to figure out not just who is connected to who socially, but who has the greatest influence on who. The company’s data comes from library visits nationwide (to cull yearbooks, church lists, sports rosters and the like) to the scraping of websites that contain things like law-firm directories. Issenberg writes:

    On Applecart’s “social graph” of New Hampshire, each voter is treated as a node in a network with each of their known contacts webbed around them. (Around a dozen voters in the state were found to be “hermits,” with no meaningful interpersonal links.) Nuclear family, extended family, friends, professional acquaintances, and non-professional acquaintances are each assigned different statistical weights, then mixed with other values such as geographical proximity to calibrate a “connection score” between the voters in question.

    The company is working on behalf of John Kasich’s presidential Super PAC. Applecart has also built a social network analysis of large donors to moderate Republican presidential candidates in the past, giving Kasich fundraisers a list of targets to woo.

  • Susan Berfield reports for Bloomberg Business on how Walmart hired an intelligence gathering service from Lockheed Martin to surreptitiously monitor the efforts of the pro-labor OUR Walmart group.

  • Thanks to a decision by Facebook to start alerting users when their accounts may be the target of state-sponsored hackers, staffers at the State Department began to realize last month that Iranian cyber-spies were breaking into their social media accounts, David Sanger and Nicole Perlroth report for the New York Times.

  • Mother Jones’ Bryan Schatz tries to get to the bottom of Anonymous’ “Operation Paris” which is supposedly attacking ISIS social media accounts, but in his telling this is a little like trying to nail jello to the wall.

  • Challenged during a Facebook chat hosted by Telemundo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton promised to stop using the words “illegal immigrants” when referring to the undocumented immigrants living in America. She was responding to a question from Jose Antonio Vargas of Define American.

  • This is civic tech: Journalist and Oscar winner Laura Poitras explains why she is supporting the Tor Project. “Edward Snowden would not have been able to contact me without Tor and other free software encryption projects. Journalists need Tor to protect their sources and to research freely. It is an essential tool, and it needs our support.”

  • Writing for TechCrunch, Accela CEO Maury Blackman argues that 2016 will be “a year of leaps forward in the civic technology industry.” Among the trends he identifies: governments will expand their efforts to update their IT services, agencies will be more entrepreneurial about engaging the public, governments will embrace the “Internet of Things” and invest heavily in embedding smart sensors in their physical infrastructure, and public agencies will start embracing sharing economy start-ups like MuniRent, which lets municipalities rent equipment to each other.

  • Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive wanted to start a credit union aimed at helping the poor and workers at nonprofits obtain loans, but as this story by Nathaniel Popper details for the New York Times, he and his colleagues have abandoned the effort because federal agency charged with regulating credit unions completely stymied their efforts.

  • Have a great Thanksgiving! See you Monday.

future of work laber Sharing Economy

Crowdfunding a Basic Income, First in Germany, Now in US

Crowdfunding a Basic Income, First in Germany, Now in US

What would you do if you had a guaranteed income of $1,250 a month?

A social-enterprise-marketer-slash-Lyft-driver recently started something called the My Basic Income project, a crowdfunding campaign to financially support one person (or more) for one year. Inspired by an existing project in Germany with the same premise, if the crowdfunding campaign is successful, the My Basic Income project will hold a raffle to determine who will receive $1,250 a month for twelve months. As part of the project, people signing up for the raffle would be asked to say what the income would allow them to do.

The project was started at the Basic Income Create-a-thon, which ran from November 13 – 15 in San Francisco. The Create-a-thon was put on by the Universal Income Project, a new nonprofit sponsored by the Roosevelt Institute. Interest in basic income has been rising worldwide, but the recent Create-a-thon and the resulting projects indicate that at least a small number of Americans are ready to stop talking and start taking things into their own hands.

This video was produced over the course of the Create-a-thon.

Cameron Ottens, the Lyft driver and small business owner who helped start My Basic Income, is fairly new to the idea of a basic income. He tells Civicist he first started reading about it six months ago. Once he was sold on the idea, however, he realized he realized we shouldn’t “hold our breath” waiting for our government to get to it.

“I thought the crowdfunding they were doing in Germany was a great idea—to just start, instead of waiting for a gatekeeper or politician to do it,” Ottens says. (The founders from the project in Germany actually attended the event.)

“The ultimate goal is to spread the idea of this from a personal angle,” Ottens says, which is why he is asking people to share what they would do if provided with a basic income. Ottens thinks that it will help dispel the belief that a guaranteed basic income would make everyone (else) lazy.

In the introduction to the crowdfunding campaign, Ottens writes:

Imagine if you could give someone $1,250 per month with no obligations, no limitations, and no strings attached for one full year. How would that change their life?

We want to find out! What would happen if everyone had an amount of money that covers their basic needs? Would people be lazy or would they use it to take on new risks? Would they waste it in one night or invest with intention in their futures? We don’t know, but what if we funded a full year of basic income for a complete stranger, to find out?

I asked if there would be some kind of report at the end, to prove the success of projects like My Basic Income. He acknowledge the inherent contradiction in requiring someone to do something in exchange for no-strings-attached cash—his hope is that recipients (if not all than some) would be moved to help spread the word.

The Basic Income Create-a-thon was attended by more than 60 people actively working on various projects, and more than a hundred came Sunday to see the final presentations (with another 350 watching a livestream). Jim Pugh, one of the organizers of the Create-a-thon, tells Civicist that organizers in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, Minnesota, have already reached out about conducting Create-a-thons in their respective cities.

Jim Pugh, the CEO of Share Progress, says that he connected with other advocates for universal basic income earlier this year, and the Create-a-thon is the result of their conversations. They originally came up with the idea of hosting a hackathon but as a group decided they didn’t feel comfortable having it be exclusively tech-focused. A Create-a-thon allows for input from artists, writers, filmmakers, and other non-techies.

“I haven’t worked specifically in the arts space before but recognize the value of those people involved if you want to make an emotional appeal for a new idea,” Pugh says. He tells Civicist that, as a Bay Area resident, he realizes that a more automated future is almost guaranteed, and the basic income is a feasible solution for when “full employment isn’t feasible or necessarily desirable.”

As for Ottens, he says that with a basic income he would spend a little less time driving, and a little more time growing his business.

First Post



The need for deep, sustained coverage of the super-rich; the seduction of always-on ambient surveillance; and more.

  • oday’s civic-tech must-read: Joshua Tauberer, a 15-year veteran of open government platform-making (he runs, has posted a well-reasoned rant explaining why people trying to fix democracy with new tech tools or platforms are almost universally going to fail. IMHO, Tauberer is a bit too harsh, but he is right to argue that most people approach this arena with little sense of how hard or expensive it is to make a dent in the problem

  • Related: Longtime press critic Michael Massing takes note of recent efforts by the New York Times to cover the “one percent,” like a front-page story focused on the 158 families that have given nearly half the money raised by presidential candidates, but argues that more such attention is needed. He writes:

    In American journalism as a whole, the coverage of the superrich is far too sporadic, fleeting, and unimaginative to make a real difference. News organizations need to develop a new methodology that can allow them to document the structure of wealth, power, and influence in America—to show how the ultrarich make their money, what they do with it, and to what effect. The coverage needs to be more sustained, ambitious, and broadly conceived. And digital technology can help.

  • Massing points to some exemplars (without hyperlinks in the original, though—what’s up with that, New York Review of Books editors?): “Muckety, along with three other eye-on-the-elite groups, LittleSisSourceWatch, and RightWeb, are all useful, but they are underfunded, overmatched, and (at times) ideologically oriented. A new site with an experienced staff of reporters, editors, and digital whizzes could burrow deep into the world of the one percent and document the remarkable impact they are having on so many areas of American life. As information on them is gathered, it could be incorporated into a database that could become the go-to site for information about the nation’s elite and their power.” Of course, such a site would cost a bit of money to create. Where might such money be found?

  • This is civic tech: Our Jessica McKenzie reports on the launch of NYC Councilmatic, an open government platform built by (Civic Hall member) David Moore of the Participatory Politics Foundation that stands on the shoulders of earlier versions built by civic hackers in Philadelphia and Chicago.

  • Making All Voices Count has announced 50 semi-finalists for its global call for innovative approaches to governance issues. “We’re seeing more local-level use of technology, from radio programmes connecting women to their members of parliament on a regular basis, to parents sending SMSs to a public dashboard that tracks whether teachers turn up at their local school,” the group notes.

  • Keep calm and carry on: Nate Silver of says it’s too early to take Donald Trump’s front-runner status seriously, because “most people aren’t paying all that much attention to the campaign right now.” According to his analysis of Google search data from 2008 and 2012, interest in the primaries doesn’t really start to peak until a week or two before Iowa’s caucuses.

  • Brave new world: ShotSpotter, an expensive technology that uses net-connected microphones to pinpoint the location of gunshots in urban environments, could help authorities know, as quickly as possible, when a possible terrorist attack is happening, Christopher Mims writes for the Wall Street Journal. The company has recently announced a deal with General Electric that would piggyback on its new “smart” LED lights that are laden with motion, sound and video sensors. Ahh, the seductions of “always-on” ambient surveillance…

  • An FAA task force studying drone policy has recommended that registration of pilots be mandatory for anyone flying a unmanned aircraft weighing more than half a pound, Joshua Goldman reports for CNET.

Civic Engagement New York Open Government



An open government platform launches in the city, with new features designed to increase civic engagement and participation in City Council meetings.

In 2011, Philadelphia was roiling over proposed changes to a retirement program for city employees that had cost the city $258 million in the decade after it was implemented in 1999. Mayor Michael Nutter wanted to cut the program all together, whereas Council members (some of whom benefited from the plan) wanted to merely scale it back. Mjumbe Poe, then a Code for America fellow, recalls that “with the way it was being covered, I wasn’t really getting what was going on.” So he started digging for primary source material, trying to get at the root of the issue. That’s where he ran into trouble.

“My options were limited,” Poe tells Civicist. “Generally pretty poor.” The city’s legislative portal, Legistar, was even less user-friendly then than it is now.

In addition to looking for background information, Poe wanted to be notified when things he was interested in came up in City Council meetings. That February, at one of the weekly hacknights he organized as a Code for America fellow, Poe led an introduction to scraping and, as an example, scraped the council minutes and agenda from Legistar. At another hacknight later that month, a team took his idea and built the first subscription service, an RSS feed that would send items with your search terms to an RSS reader. It was the earliest iteration of Councilmatic, an open government tool that was implemented in Chicago in 2013 and New York City just this year.

NYC Councilmatic, which launched earlier this fall at the Code for America Summit, is a project by the nonprofit Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF) in partnership with the civic technology company DataMade, and supported by Rita Allen Foundation. Like the original Councilmatic in Philadelphia, people can use NYC Councilmatic to find and track laws, resolutions, and other City Council activities on a more user-friendly platform than the official Legistar portal. In addition, David Moore, the executive director of PPF, is adding or boosting features meant to increase public participation, for example: highlighting legislation on the home page to draw visitors in; reaching out to local community groups to invite them to use the comment forum; and partnering with a text-messaging service to make the platform more accessible.

Improving on a city’s official legislative portal is a relatively easy task, but NYC Councilmatic aspires to a higher bar: to “demystify” the New York City Council.

“Pure legislative transparency alone isn’t going to give a site as much impact as we want it to have,” Moore tells Civicist. (Full disclosure: David Moore is a Civic Hall member.) “Open data alone isn’t enough.”

But, Moore adds, “if you provide official information in a shareable format with participation tools, you can see communities organically coming together to take action.” To illustrate his point, Moore points to a 2010 techPresident article by Civic Hall’s Micah Sifry about how the unemployed were coming together on platforms like OpenCongress—an open government platform at the federal level that PPF developed and operated until it was acquired by the Sunlight Foundation in 2013—in “de facto, organizing networks and self-help communities.” In the same piece, Sifry noted that three bills about unemployment benefits had garnered more than 130,000 comments on OpenCongress.

“It’s been proven that on sites like OpenCongress and [like OpenCongress but for states], people come together around their interests, to share information,” says Moore. “This is the model that we’ve been working to bring to city governments for the past four years and with Councilmatic it’s finally happening.”

Councilmatic started as an off-the-cuff project during a hacknight, so the blocks to make it easily replicable weren’t in place.

“I didn’t put a lot of effort into making it easy to deploy in other places,” Mjumbe Poe tells Civicist. “It was always a desire, but it was a side project from the beginning.”

“It took longer than expected,” says Derek Eder, of repurposing the platform in Chicago. Derek Eder co-founded the civic hacking group Open City, which got Chicago Councilmatic up and running, and founded DataMade, which is a partner on NYC Councilmatic.

In addition to not being familiar with the code base, Eder points out that significant differences in the way Chicago and Philadelphia’s city councils work necessitated extra features. Eder says the Chicago City Council can go through 1,000 pieces of legislation per meeting. He and Forest Gregg, a colleague at both Open City and DataMade, decided to automatically tag items as routine or non-routine, to make it easier for visitors to find their way to things of interest.

Eder and Gregg launched the platform in Chicago in June 2013, on the National Day of Civic Hacking. That month, Eder wrote a guest post for the Sunlight Foundation inviting hackers from other cities interested in doing something similar to get in touch. It was also on a list of suggested projects to tackle during a replication marathon that took place earlier this year.

It still took two years to get it up and running in New York City. This is not to slight the work that Eder, Gregg, Moore, and others have put into the NYC Councilmatic platform—and as mentioned before, it does include new features and an updated user-experience—but to draw attention to the challenge of putting out high-quality replications, even when the creators and developers along the way have the best, open-source intentions. Moore says the project would have moved faster, and that Councilmatic would have more features, if they had had more financial support.

NYC Councilmatic now runs on the Open Civic Data (OCD) standard. The Open Civic Data project, an initiative to make open data sets more consistent across organizations, didn’t even exist until late last year. Now that it does, Moore says getting Councilmatic up and running in other cities will be much easier.

“If a city started publishing in OCD tomorrow,” he tells Civicist, “we could have them up on Councilmatic…in under a month.”

Would Councilmatic be easier to replicate in other cities if it scooted a bit further into govtech territory? If, for example, Moore and co. sold the platform to governments instead of hosting it as a nonprofit organization?

“A nonprofit aura makes people participate in ways,” says Moore. “So we’re willing to host those conversations on our pages whereas on government websites, that might get too risky or controversial.”

But, Moore points out, the influence of sites like Councilmatic can be seen in government technology. For example, the bill status bar that Moore designed for OpenCongress is now a feature of Moore says they were also the first site to highlight most-viewed bills, and now does the same.

Examples of communities organically congregating around issues of shared concern are harder to find on Councilmatic than on OpenCongress, perhaps because they haven’t been marketed or presented as engagement tools. Moore points out that NYC Councilmatic is the first to spend resources on filling out a public comment program: reaching out to local groups and inviting them to comment on legislation; partnering with the text-messaging platform HeartGov to further spread the word; etc.

And if the platforms are driving civic engagement offline—increased attendance at City Council meetings, for example—it’s hard to prove.

As for what’s next, Mjumbe Poe and Derek Eder are planning on updating Philadelphia and Chicago Councilmatic respectively to include the changes in NYC Councilmatic, which Poe reiterated is a “major departure” from what came before.

Moore has ambitious goals for getting the platform into more cities around the country. He says he’s looking for funders to help fortify the public comment program in New York City and looking for national open data funders to help spread Councilmatic nationwide. Lucky for him, there’s no shortage of fields to plow: “There’s 20,000 municipalities in the U.S.,” he tells Civicist, “and right now nearly all of their legislative portals are a pain point.”

First Post



Gov’t: friend or foe?; the open data revolution, or lack thereof; and more.

  • Governing attitudes: The Pew Research Center is out with a new report on Americans’ attitudes toward government. While many of the findings are familiar—only one in five trust the government always or most of the time—some are startling.

    • 27 percent of registered voters say they think of the federal government as “an enemy” vs. 36 percent who see it as “a friend,” with 35 percent of Republicans, 34 percent of independents, and 12 percent of Democrats describing it as “an enemy.”

    • The top rated government agencies are the U.S. Postal Service, the National Park Service, and the Centers for Disease Control. (Veterans Affairs and the IRS are the lowest rated.)

    • A 55 percent majority say that ordinary Americans would do a better job of solving the country’s problems than their elected representatives. (Bring back Athenian democracy and pick our reps by lottery!)

    • Asked to name the biggest problem with elected officials in Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike put the influence of special interest money at the top of their list. Three-quarters overall say there should be limits on campaign spending.

    • One-quarter of the public has an unfavorable view of both major parties, up from 12 percent in 2008.

  • The Economist reviews the results of the “open data” revolution and asks “why more has not been achieved.” The answers it offers: “First, the data that have been made available are often useless. Second, the data engineers and entrepreneurs who might be able to turn it all into useful, profitable products find it hard to navigate. Third, too few people are capable of mining data for insights or putting the results to good use. Finally, it has been hard to overcome anxieties about privacy.”

  • Internet companies have tripled their spending on lobbying in Washington, D.C. in the last five years, and while much of that comes from giants Google and Facebook, new companies reliant on freelance workers in the “on-demand” economy are accounting for a rising chunk, reports Cecilia Kang for the New York Times.

  • Scaremongering: Keep an eye on Trump Card LLC, a “guerilla campaign” aimed at destroying Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, being launched by Liz Mair, former online communications director for the Republican National Committee (and a friend of PDM), as reported by Beth Reinhard and Janet Hook for the Wall Street Journal.

  • Asked about the initiative on ABC’s “This Week” show, Trump said that if the Republican establishment knocked him out of the race by not treating him “fairly” he would be open to running as an independent, Laura Meckler reports for the Wall Street Journal. He also declared his support for bringing back waterboarding, and doubled down on his claim that thousands of Arab-Americans living in New Jersey celebrated when the World Trade Center towers fell in 2001.

  • Keep calm and tweet a cat: When Belgian authorities asked social media users to stop sharing details of the anti-terror lockdown underway there in the wake of the Paris attacks, people responded by flooding the #Bruxelles and #BrusselsLockdown hashtags with cute cat memes aimed at relieving the stress of the moment and mocking ISIS, Alia Dastagir reports for USA Today.

  • This suggests that Ethan Zuckerman’s “cute cat” theory of digital activism needs amending. If you recall, he argues that it’s good that activists rely on popular public platforms that most people use for sharing mundane media like “cute cat” photos because their very popularity makes it harder for governments to shut those platforms down. Here the government effectively shut down a popular news channel, but since that action was widely supported, people responded by sharing more cute cat photos. Ipso facto, the more something attracts cat memes, the more popular it is. Or, perhaps more simply: the opposite of terror is a cute cat.

  • In Sunday’s New York Times, technosociologist Zeynep Tufecki offers a sober explanation why weakening encrypted communications tools like WhatsApp won’t stop terrorists.

  • This is civic tech: Seamus Kraft of the OpenGov Foundation posts an update on the work they are doing with the Chicago City Council to modernize its legislative systems. He writes: “Together, we’re overhauling the internal policy-making process to include Google Docs-style collaboration with a commitment to open data formats. Citizens will be able to stay on top of (and be heard in) city council business through a user-friendly system. We’re creating a scalable software suite to support more efficient, effective and accountable legislative operations with fewer paper-based headaches and hassles. Success is a flexible open source operating system built with the Chicago City Council that is fully adaptable to the unique realities and culture of any city, state and county legislative body.”

  • She should run: Civic Hall member organization VoteRunLead is in the middle of a big push to recruit more women to run for elected office, and having hit their current goal of 500 women nominated nationwide, they’re shooting to double that. Pitch in and nominate someone!

Civic Engagement Civic Hacking Protests



Some practical advice for conducting cultural acupuncture.

The final film in The Hunger Games franchise hits theaters today. Fans will be flocking to theaters to see the conclusion of Panem’s revolution, but the Harry Potter Alliance is already helping write the next chapter.

Odds in Our Favor is a campaign by the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) to hack the Hunger Games hype and get people talking about real life economic inequality. The practice of combining pop culture and civic engagement, which HPA co-founder (and Civic Hall fellow) Andrew Slack calls “cultural acupuncture,” helps leaders detect and redirect society’s psychological energy toward real world issues and action.

During the first iteration of the Odds in Our Favor in 2013, HPA asked fans to send in pictures of themselves holding up a three-finger salute to acknowledge that the economic inequality and oppression seen on screen were real world issues. In 2014, when Mockingjay Part 1 was released, we asked fans to share their personal Hunger Games stories around how issues like class, gender, sexuality, race, education, ability, employment impact their lives. These stories showed the reality of economic inequality in the U.S. With over 12,000 people telling their story, we were left wondering: what can we do to impact such a large and complicated issue?

This year, Odds in Our Favor is focused on sharing both stories of oppression and action. We’ve partnered with labor unions, nonprofits, artists and activists to form a “Coalition of Rebels” which provide fans with ways to take action. These partners share in-depth first person stories from the communities they work with at Each story—from Walmart workers to environmental disaster survivors to Syrian refugees—includes an action that either the storyteller has taken to create change in their community, or that the reader can take to make a difference. Fans are no longer just consuming or even telling the story; they’re participating in shaping it.

At the Harry Potter Alliance, we believe all fans can be heroes. Fans are passionate, enthusiastic, authentic and imaginative—four words usually missing when we talk about politics and civic engagement. Through cultural acupuncture we are using fandom as a force for good—and here’s how you can, too.


Cultural acupuncture means you don’t wait for people discover to your issue—you bring the issue to where they already are. The Hunger Games trilogy was one of the first major literary phenomena after Harry Potter. The energy and excitement was there, and fans were eager to engage with the story and the issues it represented. The Harry Potter Alliance chose to do something that ultimately shaped our organizing going forward: we followed the energy and did our first non-Harry Potter related campaign.

As the franchise grew to include four feature films, the energy continued to grow and to shift. Fans lamented that this story of economic inequality and revolution was being used to sell make-up and Subway sandwiches. We responded to this bizarre marketing by asking fans to tell the real stories of #MyHungerGames. This year, when the conversation shifted to anger and confusion around the Hunger Games theme park, we asked fans to share ideas for attractions that represent the real Hunger Games. Fans suggested $50,000 tickets, juggling acts where performers balance “rent,” “food,” and “medical,” and roller coasters that require three years of experience in order to ride.

By paying attention to Hunger Games fans, and to this particular cultural moment, we created a responsive campaign for engaging fans around issues of inequality.


As Odds in Our Favor has grown, we’ve worked with and learned from incredible partners. Having partner organizations on the campaign has allowed us to share stories from incarcerated young people, indigenous activists, mental health advocates, and other communities whose stories often go unheard in mainstream media. Partners also bring the campaign to new audiences: people who follow the partner organizations and use their services gain a new, creative way of engaging with issues they care about. The power of Odds in Our Favor grows, and partner organizers gain another tool for increasing engagement.

From labor unions to international NGO’s, we’ve see civic organizations use cultural acupuncture in incredible ways:

  • Project UROK created a special #MyHungerGames video series, where people shared stories about mental health and poverty.

  • OURWalmart and Fight for $15 have used the Hunger Games as a part of their protests, with workers holding up the three-finger salute and rewriting the lyrics to “The Hanging Tree.”

  • AFL-CIO have highlighted present-day labor issues in easy-to-read listicles illustrated with eye-catching gifs from the film.

  • Campaign for Youth Justice adapted their “Hands of Support” campaign to include the three-finger salute to demonstrate support for incarcerated young people.

  • HPA chapters have used the Hunger Games to organize their communities around everything from refugee support to climate change education. We’ve seen art shows, hunger (games) banquets, donation drives, teach-ins, and more.


Author John Green has long advocated that stories belong to their readers and that it is the imagination of readers that bring narratives to life—which we believe means that fans hold the power to continue the narrative long after the series ends.

Through the work of fans and partner organizations, we’ve done just that with the Odds in Our Favor campaign. We’ve shared #MyHungerGames stories from an impressive array of communities: workers, prisoners, refugees, protesters, mental health advocates, climate change survivors, and many more. Each story we share includes a call to action: sign a petition; start a discussion; join a march; tell your story.

With so many diverse partners and issue areas, these stories and calls to action could have sounded like a disjointed cacophony. Instead, weaving The Hunger Games narrative through each story and action has created the lyrics to a collective song that every civic organization should be singing: our issues are entwined, your liberation is bound up with mine, and everyone’s actions make a difference. In 2015, we’re witnessing a revolution, and cultural acupuncture is allowing us to understand what that means and imagine ourselves as heroes in the long narrative of history and change.

Katie Bowers is the Campaigns Director for The Harry Potter Alliance, which uses the power of stories to inspire social change.

First Post



White supremacists see website traffic increase; air pollution v. big data; and more.

  • Editorial comment: While the focus of Civicist and this First Post morning round-up is on civic tech—the use of technology for public good—we believe it is also important to pay attention to larger trends as well. Civic tech cannot be neutral. It is for improving the lives of the many, not just the few. It is for expanding and improving democracy, not for narrowing or reducing it. It is for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. It is for creating a more just and equitable society.

  • It is not civic to try to close state borders to innocent and desperate refugees fleeing a genocidal dictator. It is not civic to single out people of one religion for special state surveillance and control. To be sure, racist and xenophobic attitudes in America didn’t appear out of nowhere a week ago, and many good people have been battling these trends for a very long time. But since the Paris terror attacks, American politics has taken a decidedly darker and meaner turn. The civic tech community should not be silent in the face of these developments. Bad things happen when good people fail to speak up. So, please dear readers, do not click away when we talk about these issues. Join in.

  • Ill tidings: Thursday night, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said he “would certainly implement” a database system tracking American Muslims, including signing them up at mosques and giving them a special form of identification. Asked by NBC News’ Vaughn Hillyard if there was a difference between requiring Muslims to register and requiring Jews to do so in Nazi Germany, he said, “You tell me.”

  • As Philip Bump reports for the Washington Post, Trump asserted that he was opposed to a federal registry for gun owners but refused to explain “why a database of gun sales would be an invasion of privacy and subject to abuse, while those risks don’t concern him with an index of Muslim Americans and migrants.”

  • Not to be out-Trumped, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees seeking to enter the United States to “rabid dogs,” Carrie Dan reports for NBC News. He added, “We have to have in place screening mechanisms that allow us to determine who the mad dogs are, quite frankly.”

  • Also Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 289-137 to stop allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the United States until top national security officials certify that they don’t pose security risks. When CNN Politics reporter Elisa Labott tweeted that news, adding “Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish,” she was suspended for two weeks. Eight hours later, she tweeted, “Everyone, It was wrong of me to editorialize. My tweet was inappropriate and disrespectful. I sincerely apologize.”

  • Many public figures responded on Twitter to Labott’s apology, telling her that she was right to speak up and wrong to apologize, including Twitter investor Chris Sacca, Egyptian democracy activist Wael Ghonim, Daily Beast executive editor Noah Schachtman, Atlantic senior writer James Fallows, documentarian Alex Gibney and’s Andy Carvin.

  • The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a highly unusual public statement on Syrian refugees, which read in part: “Acutely aware of the consequences to Jews who were unable to flee Nazism, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum looks with concern upon the current refugee crisis. While recognizing that security concerns must be fully addressed, we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees. The Museum calls on public figures and citizens to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group. It is important to remember that many are fleeing because they have been targeted by the Assad regime and ISIS for persecution and in some cases elimination on the basis of their identity.”

  • On the “compassionate crowdfunding” site YouCaring, people are raising money to personally help resettle Syrian refugees.

  • More crypto-wars: Ex-CIA director James Woolsey says NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has “the blood” of Paris on his hands and that he should be convicted of treason and “hanged by the neck until he’s dead,” Bradford Richardson reports for The Hill.

  • GOP presidential candidate Rand Paul told a crowd of undergraduates at George Washington University that, “When they stand up on television and say, the tragedy in Paris means you have to give up your liberty, we need more phone surveillance—bullshit!” as David Weigel and Jose DelReal report for the Washington Post.

  • Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, also tells the Post, “Frankly I think the speed with which surveillance hawks leapt ahead of the facts—blaming everything from Snowden to encryption to surveillance reforms that haven’t even taken effect yet—is likely to backfire. It’s so clearly reflexive and not grounded in any kind of concrete evidence about this specific case. Playing on people’s fears to shut down debate was a pretty effective strategy for many years after 9/11, but I think we saw in the debate over the USA Freedom Act that it’s lost a lot of its effectiveness.”

  • Tech bubbles: Yesterday, on his Facebook page, tech investor and founder of Hadi Partovi asked Mark Zuckerberg “if the newsfeed algorithm can help decrease America’s political divide.” He wrote:

    My feed shows only pro-immigrant posts, boosted by Likes from my pro-immigrant friends. I’m certain there are anti-immigrants on Facebook, and in their network they may see a unanimous chorus in the opposite direction. Perhaps the algorithm amplifies a divide, and can it somehow make our world slightly more connected? With dialogue we can build bridges not walls, but not if we don’t even see posts from those whose viewpoints differ.

  • An hour later, Zuckerberg replied, arguing that Newsfeed “actually shows much *more* diverse opinions than you’d typically see on any other media,” and citing a 2012 research paper by Facebook data scientist Eytan Bakshy that argued that users in 2010 were getting “the vast majority of information..from contacts that they interact with infrequently.” It’s kind of crazy that Zuckerberg is relying on five-year-old data to argue that Newsfeed doesn’t form echo chambers—especially when you consider that Facebook has made several major changes in the Newsfeed algorithm since 2010 (adding more hard news to it, for example).

  • Pressed by another Silicon Valley VC, Sherwin Pishevar, to consider if there “might be creative ways for the feed/algorithm to present opposing views from friends, friends and friends and even strangers,” Zuckerberg admitted There’s always more to do and we always think about this in our work.” But then he dug in his heels, writing, “My point was only that the narrative that social media is dividing us based on our own viewpoints is incorrect. It turns out social media is much better for exposing us to diverse viewpoints than anything we’ve had to date.” If you say so, boss.

  • Talking with TechCrunch’s Andrew Keen, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom says American politics needs “systemic change,” of the kind that Silicon Valley specializes in. You’ll have to watch the video to truly appreciate Newsom’s facility with Valley buzzwords.

  • This is civic tech: New on Civicist: Just in time for the release of the final episode of The Hunger Games, Katie Bowers of the Harry Potter Alliance explains “how to use pop culture to increase civic engagement.”

  • Good Jobs First has launched Violation Tracker, a database of corporate misconduct that contains 100,000 cases involving government penalties of $5,000 or more issued by the EPA, OSHA, and 11 other government agencies. You can use it to find out which corporations are big violators of environmental, health and safety laws in the United States. Banking, antitrust and wage violations are to be added later.

  • Stefan Baack has updated his network map of Github’s global civic tech community, noting that it is “an inaccurate proxy” for that entire community: “Individuals or groups who are not using GitHub’s social features (such as following or starring) are underrepresented in this data. Moreover, when we talk about civic tech on a global scale we are not only talking about developers. Naturally, activist groups are not using GitHub as much so they are underrepresented as well.” Nonetheless, his visualization of the contributor network to GitHub repos is spectacular.

  • Coming up Thursday, December 3 here in NYC: “When Free Speech and Democracy Conflict: Campaign Finance in the Age of Citizens United,” a talk by Jonathan Soros, who is a Senior Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute. RSVP here.

First Post



Snapchat voters; mapping civic hackers on Github; and more.

  • Anonymous is claiming to have disabled more than 6,000 Twitter accounts tied to ISIS, Elizabeth Weise reports for USA Today. According to McGill University’s Gabriella Coleman, an expert on Anonymous Weise cites, the people participating “include French hackers, military geeks, Syrians who are being harmed by IS, some Tunisians and some Palestinian hackers who live overseas.”

  • At a cybersecurity conference in New York yesterday, FBI director James Comey and Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance reiterated their insistence that encrypted smartphones sold by Apple and other companies were hindering their ability to obtain crucial evidence in serious cases, Nicole Perlroth and David Sanger report for the New York Times.

  • Somewhat confounding that argument, it appears the terrorists suspected of being involved in last week’s attack in Paris used unencrypted smartphones, Dan Froomkin notes for The Intercept.

  • Many of the Democratic-leaning tech moguls who backed President Obama’s Priorities USA SuperPAC in 2012 are holding back from donating to it now that it’s backing Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Gabriel Debenedetti reports for Politico.

  • Two Clintons, one cup: Bill and Hillary Clinton have raised at least $3 billion for their political campaigns and foundation from roughly 336,000 individuals, corporations, unions and foreign governments over the course of their 41 years in public life, Matea Gold, Tom Hamburger and Anu Narayanswamy detail in an exhaustive report for the Washington Post.

  • A survey commissioned by Snapchat finds that two-thirds of its mostly youthful American users closely following the presidential election and are likely to vote, Shane Goldmacher reports for Politico. Snapchat is trying to convince more political campaigns to buy targeted 10-second ads and filters aimed at its users.

  • Facebook is starting to test new tools to assist nonprofits with fundraising, Naomi Gleit, its VP of product management, reports.

  • The Awl’s John Herrman has a field day dissecting some new ethnographic research from the Data & Society Institute detailing how Uber drivers are developing their own oppositional culture as they deal with the company and its algorithms of control.

  • Researcher Stefan Baack has built a social network map showing the relationships between civic hackers worldwide as they interact on Github.

  • Here’s a useful overview of the different streams of the Black Lives Matter movement, reported by John Eligon for the New York Times.

  • “Social media has changed the way protests take place on college campuses,” Tyrone Howard, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA, tells the Los Angeles Times. “A protest goes viral in no time flat. With Instagram and Twitter, you’re in an immediate news cycle. This was not how it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

First Post



A White House initiative for accelerated tech training; new Code for America partner cities; and more.

  • The White House announced a new $100 million TechHire initiative aimed at expanding accelerated tech training, with half the money specifically dedicated to supporting young Americans facing barriers to training and employment.

  • Code for America will be partnering in 2016 with the local governments of Kansas City, Missouri; Long Beach, California; New Orleans, Louisiana; New York City, New York; Salt Lake County, Utah; and Seattle, Washington; the organization announced yesterday.

  • The headline from Politico’s Mike Allen blares “Kochs use high tech to track left,” but the details of Kenneth Vogel’s new report on the right-wing billionaires’ intelligence gathering operation are more prosaic. “Culling geo-data embedded” in liberal organizers’ social media posts in order to track their movements sounds high-techy, but paying attention to such public information is hardly that big a deal.

  • Campaign finance start-up Crowdpac is launching a new platform today that will allow people to nominate themselves or others for elected positions and gather pledges of support, in order to help them gauge whether to run, Fredreka Schouten reports for USA Today. She notes that Chris Rabb, a Democratic candidate for the Pennsylvania state legislature, decided to run after someone nominated him via Crowdpac and more than a hundred of his Facebook friends pledged their support. (Rabb, an old friend of PDM, was the founder of Afro-Netizen.)

  • The media gossip site Gawker has announced that it will shift its focus to politics, with a strong emphasis on commentary and satire, Ravi Somaiya reports for the New York Times.

  • Companies are microtargeting their pitches at journalists on Facebook, Jack Marshall reports for the Wall Street Journal.

  • If you are a transportation data nerd, then this long and detailed post by Todd Schneider analyzing 1.1 billion individual taxi trips taken in New York City between January 2009 and June 2015, plus some 19 million recent Uber rides, should make you quiver with joy. There are all kinds of eye-opening findings in the data, my favorites being the morning drop-off times for cabs going to Goldman Sachs’ and Citigroup’s downtown headquarters and their primary points of origin (do bankers not live above 23rd St. anymore, Schneider astutely asks). Schneider has made all the data, software, and code that went into his analysis freely available.

  • The World Bank has released an interactive map showing where $168 billion in its development programs is spent, worldwide, Sarah Kessler reports for Mashable.

  • Edward West shares the news of the birth of the Collaborative Technology Alliance, which is focusing “on the creation of tools, strategies, and networks to build a new collaborative commons.”