CIVIC HALL GOT ME OUT OF MY APARTMENT AND OUT OF MY PAJAMAS
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.
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.
MARCO RUBIO DISCUSSES THE ON-DEMAND ECONOMY
Marco Rubio weighs in on the on-demand economy, innovation and disruption, money in politics, and platform cooperativism.
This morning Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio dropped by Civic Hall to deliver a prepared speech on the on-demand economy, followed by a Q&A with Civic Hall founder Andrew Rasiej. In his speech, Rubio touted the advantages of the on-demand economy, including upward mobility, flexibility, and independence. He argued that all of the “best innovation is happening in the unregulated space” and said his proposed tax reform plan would make the tax code more welcoming to the on-demand economy. Many of Rubio’s prepared comments tracked with other speeches he has given on the subject, although this one was without any explicit jabs at fellow candidates.
Rubio highlighted New York-based Handy as an innovative startup facing overregulation, and said another entrepreneur he met recently asked him not to name his company publicly to avoid drawing the attention of legislators.
Rubio called for a new category of worker, pointing out that those with W2 status have more protections but fewer of the freedoms that characterize the on-demand economy, but if employees are categorized as independent contractors, employers are prevented from training them or otherwise dictating how something is done. Rubio argued that a middle ground is needed, pointing out Germany already has a third category for “dependent contractors.” He added, “Whether or not this model is the best for America is something we have to figure out.”
To cut down on innovation-stifling regulation, Rubio proposed a cap on the amount that regulations can cost the economy, saying current compliance costs approach $70 billion. Rubio singled out regulation lobbied for by incumbent interests like the taxi and hotel industries for hindering competition.
When Andrew Rasiej pushed him on the root issue that makes it possible for established interests to have their way—money in politics—Rubio first said that small government is the answer: If unlimited regulation is an option, he argued, incumbent interests will “find a public safety argument and use that to put up a roadblock.” In response to Rasiej’s follow up question, again about the influence of money in politics, Rubio said that the American people should “stop electing” people susceptible to that. But he didn’t offer any ideas for how to achieve that.
Citing the impact of Airbnb on the housing market, Rasiej asked how the government could minimize the collateral effects of the on-demand economy without regulation. Rubio responded that he’s not against all regulation—he’s glad that his drinking water isn’t poisoned and that someone is checking on the planes he flies on—but added that “structural change in the economy has always been very disruptive” and pointed out that the industrial revolution brought about a number of new issues, including child labor, that had to be resolved.
Rubio repeated himself somewhat when a member of the audience—an independent taxi driver—asked whether new companies and drivers should have the same access to the market that he has, but without paying the same fees. Rubio first replied that he doesn’t think it’s the same model, but reiterated that innovation is always disruptive, citing the impact of the car on the horse cab driver. Rubio said that it is the role of government not to prevent innovation, but to help people affected get access to the new innovative economy, whether through education or other means.
Rubio was dismissive of the potential for worker-owned cooperative platforms to compete with other startups, saying, “I don’t think you’re going to get innovation that way…people aren’t driven to do it if they don’t see the opportunity to make money.”
Finally, when asked by Rasiej whether he would continue to support the U.S. Digital Service if he were elected president, Rubio said, “If it proves that it’s something that is effective and that it can attract the brightest minds to improve how government works, then that’s something we should definitely continue.”
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.
A NEW TOOL FOR FINDING CAMPAIGN FINANCE SCOOPS
“There are thousands of potential front page of reddit stories hidden in 25 years of campaign finance data,” and Solomon Kahn wants to help unearth them.
In the hours he’s not working at Paperless Post or spending time with his wife and baby, Solomon Kahn is a crusader for campaign finance transparency. Earlier today, Kahn stopped by Civic Hall for a brown bag lunch to share the a visualization tool he built using OpenSecrets data that lets users dive into politicians’ campaign finance records, all the way down to individual-level donors, if necessary. Kahn is currently raising money on Kickstarter to help pay for hosting and to support outreach and training for journalists who can best make use of the tool.
Using his own local congressperson, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY), as an example, Kahn demonstrated how the visualization made it easy to see that Crowley went from getting 27 percent of his campaign funds from labor groups and 14 percent from finance/insurance/real estate in 2000, to getting 6 percent of funds from labor and 38 percent from finance/insurance/real estate in 2014. Digging a bit deeper, Kahn found that one of Crowley’s largest contributors is the Blackstone Group, and that in 2007, 14 people affiliated with Blackstone, who had never contributed to Crowley before, all gave $2,300 on the exact same day.
Kahn says that users will be able to submit “scoops” like this which, once vetted for accuracy, will be displayed at the top of a politician’s page so that journalists and other interested folks will see notable facts like the above right off the bat. (An audience member asks if he’s thought about annotation, to which Kahn replies: “That’s complicated,” and reiterates the limits of his time and money.)
Helping journalists make the most of the tool is one of Kahn’s priorities. “For a reporter in Sunnyside [Queens, New York] at the Tribune to get a story like this would just be impossible without this kind of tool,” Kahn tells those gathered at Civic Hall.
“There are thousands of potential front page of reddit stories hidden in 25 years of campaign finance data,” Kahn writes to potential Kickstarter backers. He wants to make sure those stories see the light of day.
Speaking of reddit, Kahn says he’ll be promoting the tool in a reddit I Am A—, Ask Me Anything session soon, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
For more information, see Kahn’s Kickstarter video here:
#PDF15 UPDATE: “A SLEW OF NEW SPEAKERS” & THE CIVIC HALL FELLOWSHIP
The Civic Hall Fellowship will cover full registration costs to the conference for ten innovators in the fields of creative, social, or political tech. Apply now!
With Personal Democracy Forum 2015 just four weeks from now, we’re excited to share some updates on the conference program, a slew of new speakers, and the launch of the Civic Hall PDF Fellowship Program, which is now taking applications.
The big theme for PDF 2015 is “Imagine All the People: The Future of Civic Tech,” and we have an amazing array of speakers addressing that subject from a variety of angles. The main hall schedule is posted here.
On day one, June 4, the morning plenary talks will focus first on how to best engage citizens and governments in meaningful ways. Then we’ll look at the relationship between tech, civic engagement, equality and empowerment, covering everything from new efforts to uplift workers to the civil rights and police reform movement to the net neutrality victory. And then, before lunch, we’ll pivot to consider how tech can help design a more civil and nurturing society. After lunch and two rounds of breakout sessions, we’ll reconvene at the end of the day for a series of provocative talks about the future, and what we should (or shouldn’t) be worried about as big data and the Internet of Things further permeate our lives.
On day two, June 5, the morning plenary will focus again on the core work of civic tech, starting with a set of talks addressing several promising efforts to make our representative democracies work better. Then, after the morning coffee break, our speakers will focus on what it means to “build with, not for” and how to best listen to and serve our communities. After that, as we head into lunch, we’ll hear from several champions of real change. Following the lunch break and two more rounds of breakouts, we’ll return to the main hall for one more round of plenary keynotes, this time focused on the future of civic tech.
We’ve confirmed more than 30 new speakers: Craig Aaron of Free Press, Kenneth Bailey of the Design Studio for Social Intervention, Liz Barry of Public Lab, Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post, Hannah Calhoon of Blue Ridge Labs, Tom Dougherty of Knowwho, Demond Drummer of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, Tiana Epps-Johnson of the Center for Technology and Civic Life, Bridgit Antoinette Evans of Fuel Change, Christopher Gates of the Sunlight Foundation, John Paul Farmer of Microsoft, Erhardt Graeff of MIT Media Lab, Ted Henderson to Capitol Bells, Kerri Kelly of CTZNWELL, Josh Koster of Chong & Koster, Seamus Kraft of the OpenGov Foundation, Luciana Lopez of Reuters, Mike Mathieu of FrontSeat, An Xiao Mina of Meedan, Andres Monroy-Hernandez of Microsoft, Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (R-WA), Trebor Scholz of the New School, Nancy Scola of Politico, David Segal of DemandProgress, Andrew Slack of Imagine Better, Anne-Marie Slaughter of New America, Jessy Tolkan of Working Families Party, Jenn Topper of the Sunlight Foundation, John Webb of Google, Rachel Weidinger of Big Here, Paul Wescott of L2, Derek Willis of the New York Times, and Deanna Zandt of Lux Digital. And more are coming—watch this space for updates, including details on the more than two dozen breakout sessions we have in the works.
Last but not least, we are pleased to announce the Civic Hall 2015 PDF Fellowship program, which will cover full registration costs to the conference for ten innovators in the fields of creative, social, or political tech. To apply, fill out this brief survey. Applications are due by midnight May 17; all applicants will be notified on May 20.