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.

First Post



Deray Mckesson to run for mayor of Baltimore; how cops use HunchLab; and more.

  • This is civic tech: Conteneo’s CEO Luke Hohmann previews this month’s participatory budgeting project for the city of San Jose, where the company has worked with local officials since 2013. “The target is 1,000 people in in-person sessions and 50,000 people participating online with our Decision Engine to prioritize how San Jose should invest the portion of its budget devoted to programs and services that affect San José’s neighborhoods,” he tells Kathleen Goolsby of “This is a ‘zero-based’ budgeting opportunity in which the budget allocation from the prior fiscal year will stay the same, but the set of programs and services will change based on resident feedback.”

  • As part of the Obama Administration’s Connect Home broadband initiative, which says that “every child” should have access to high-speed affordable Internet, Google Fiber has announced that it is giving a few hundred residents of public housing projects in Kansas City free gigabit internet service, promising to do so for residents “in all public housing properties that we connect to” in that city and boasting that it will eventually reach “more than 1,300 families” in nine properties. The company says it will bring similar free service “to select affordable housing” in other Fiber cities. Yahoo! At this rate, free gigabit service from Google will reach the 45 million Americans who can’t afford high-speed broadband sometime in 11016 A.D. (Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is one of the world’s top two most valuable companies at the moment, worth around $550 billion.)

  • The Marshall Project’s Maurice Chammah reports on how cops in East St. Louis are using HunchLab, a predictive policing tool made by Philadelphia’s Azavea (a B Corporation), to help them decide which so-called “hot-spots” in the city’s neighborhoods are in need of more attention. As Chammah notes, unlike other companies in the predictive policing marketplace, Azavea’s “rhetoric is civic-minded; the company’s other projects include tools to analyze legislative districts, as well as an app that helps city residents map the locations of trees in order to study their environmental impact.” Chammah’s article is worth a close read—unlike many pieces on predictive policing, it doesn’t overstate the value of the technology and it is careful to give voice to critics like the Massachusetts ACLU’s Kade Crawford, director of its Technology for Liberty program, who see the whole field as only “adding a veneer of technological authority” to practices that still disproportionately target young black men.

  • Tech and politics: DeRay Mckesson, a leading independent activist in the Movement for Black Lives who rose to prominence by his adroit use of Twitter, has announced that he is running for mayor of Baltimore, joining an already crowded field, as John Eligon reports for the New York Times. The Democratic primary there is April 26.

  • Google is starting a pilot program with NGOs using the company’s Adwords grant program to enable them to run ads “against terrorism-related search queries of their choosing,” in an attempt to boost “counter-radicalization” efforts by those groups, Ben Quinn reports for The Guardian. (Early reports on this project incorrectly stated that Google would be redirecting search results to anti-radicalization sites.)

  • Building on a network analysis of 120,000 individuals from the LittleSis database of politically connected Americans and the timing of their campaign contributions to Barack Obama or John McCain in the 2012 election, a Dutch political scientist named Vincent Traag has found that the likelihood of someone donating increases not only when someone in their personal network gives to a candidate (hello, bundlers!), but also when they see people from other networks that they are weakly linked also giving. “Our findings suggest that appealing to constituencies of diverse backgrounds may actually aid in diffusing support through networks,” Traag tells MIT’s Technology Review.

  • Crypto-wars, continued: A United Nations panel , the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, has ruled that Julian Assange’s confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy in London amounts to his being “arbitrarily confined,” the BBC’s Caroline Hawley reports. The WikiLeaks founder has said that if the panel’s ruling went the other way, he would leave the embassy and accept arrest. The panel’s ruling is not legally binding, but as Hawley notes, “Previous rulings by the panel have gone against countries with some of the world’s worst human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Egypt.”

  • A group of political activists and leaders of internet rights groups including La Quadrature du Net and Access Now are criticizing Twitter for alerting them when their accounts are attacked by “state-sponsored actors” but then releasing no information indicating which country is probing their personal information, Bethany Horne reports for The Guardian.

  • Your moment of zenGoodbye, Rand Paul, who has announced he is dropping out of the presidential sweepstakes. But was he really a Jedi?