Civic Hall



Kristen, center, holding the pen used to sign legislation creating an independent Department of Veterans Services for New York City.

This blog post is adapted from a short address given by Kristen Rouse, one of four Civic Hall member-honorees, at our first year anniversary party February 1. Rouse is a three-term Afghanistan veteran who founded and runs the NYC Veterans Alliance. The other members honored for their accomplishments this past year are Chana Ewing of littlebigGirl + CO, Marek Banczyk of Cityglobe, and Erin Vilardi of VoteRunLead.

I joined Civic Hall last June when I heard about the Craigconnects scholarship for veterans. I had no income from any of my advocacy work, and I was overwhelmed with writing and editing the first ever in-depth report on NYC veterans policy. It was a lonely process that mostly involved me sitting by myself in pajamas in my tiny Brooklyn apartment, feeling isolated and like I might never see any of this through.

The Craigconnects veterans scholarship got me into Civic Hall, and Civic Hall got me out of my apartment and out of my pajamas, and interacting with a community that—even though most of you aren’t veterans—could definitely understand what I was going through.

A couple of years ago I was idly scanning through Google Zeitgeist, the search giant’s annual data release of each year’s top search trends. Somehow I found my way onto the international results, and picking almost at random I chose to look at the search terms for Germany.

There, sitting at the top of the pile, was something I could barely believe. The term in poll position was ‘Wahl-o-mat.’ Despite not being a German speaker, I recognized it: it was the brand name of a German website that helps people work out who to vote for.

Not a recently deceased TV star, or a major movie, or a massively viral YouTube video, but an old-fashioned, 36 question online quiz that ultimately spat out a suggested political party. Further searching revealed that it had been used, through to completion, over 13 million times in the 2013 national elections. Even more astonishing is the quiz is run by an arms-length public body—effectively a ‘who to vote for’ service delivered by part of the state.

Since then, I’ve been acutely aware that Germany has a social-impact technology scene that is somewhat unlike that of many other rich countries. So in January this year I set out on a trip to Berlin to find out about tech initiatives that might be a bit different from what you find elsewhere.

Civic Hall First Post



Fitbits go to university; a history of gov’ts hacking human rights orgs; and more.

  • Yesterday’s civic-tech must-read had one problem: the wrong link! Here it is, to Emily Shaw’s excellent take on how to understand and define the mission of civic tech.

  • Their article has a dry-as-bones title, but “Open Data and Civic Apps: First-Generation Failures, Second Generation Improvements” by Melissa Lee, Esteve Almirall, and Jonathan Wareham is an excellent and clear-eyed look at apps contests built on open government data and how civic hacktivists are evolving smarter strategies for making civic tech that matters. (h/t Wendy M. Grossman)

  • Fabian Girardin of the Near Future Laboratory unveils Humans, a new app that helps users turn the tables on their social media addictions. Count me in.

  • Brave new world: Oral Roberts University is requiring incoming student to buy and wear a Fitbit tracker, with its data fed into their online grade books, and school administrators are already crowing about the opportunity to link fitness to academic achievement, Samantha Allen reports for The Daily Beast.

  • Nearly 200 security experts, companies and organizations spanning 42 companies have signed onto an open letter organized by Access Now declaring that “encryption isn’t a security problem, it’s a security solution.”

  • Related: Morgan Marquis-Boire and Eva Halperin detail for Amnesty International “a brief history of governments hacking human rights organizations.”

  • Tech and the presidentials: The White House is joining Snapchat, TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez reports.

  • But what about Meerkat? Isn’t this the “Meerkat election“? As former-White-House communications director Dan Pfeiffer told us last spring: “By the time voters start showing up at VFW halls and high schools to caucus next year, it will be clear that yet another new technology is in the process of revolutionizing our politics.”

  • The No Republic: Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is putting The New Republic up for sale, barely a year after a staff upheaval left the venerable opinion magazine in turmoil, and Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has some choice words for “Chainsaw Chris.”

  • And where does Hughes post his memo to his New Republic staff? On Medium.

  • Saying Kaddish: On the third anniversary of his brother Aaron’s suicide, Noah Swartz writes that he’s “finally ready…to stop hiding how I feel and be seen for who I am.” He shares with great courage the burdens of losing an older brother, of surviving, of being expected to join with Aaron’s being turned “into a figurehead for American injustice” when he knows that his brother was a far more complicated and less saint-like figure, of not being allowed to forget him, and of being regularly called Aaron(!) by friends and fellow travelers.