Civic Tech Germany World

What’s Going On in German Civic Tech?

What’s Going On in German Civic Tech?


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.


It is no great secret that Germany has been closely associated with the groundswell of discontent since the Snowden revelations. But I wasn’t prepared for just how big and central it is to how all technology was viewed, or how widely the suspicion of digital technologies has spread.

The best yardstick of how big the security and privacy tech community is in Germany is to consider the attendance of the year’s biggest community shindig, the Chaos Computer Conference (CCC), held in Hamburg. There were an astonishing 12,000 people present this year, and demand for tickets still substantially outstripped supply. Nearly as many people go to CCC as go to Defcon in America, but in a country that’s about four times smaller. And the number rises rapidly every year.

The concerns are much more widespread than the NSA reading German email, too. After a few days I realized that several people I talked to were using the word ‘algorithm’ (referring to automated technologies like Facebook’s wall) with a kind of distasteful wince. It was similar to the way that a lawyer might reluctantly use swear words when quoting a defendant in front of a judge. This is because the very idea of algorithmic sorting of content in social media has become a kind of dirty word in the tech community—yet another way that big institutions could exploit the rest of us. Poor Al-Khwārizmī, who gave his name to the mathematical concept, must be rolling in his grave.

Several people I talked to remarked that Berlin has become a kind of sanctuary to people who work for both well-known and obscure privacy enhancing technology projects. Living there meant not only more like-minded people to hang out with, it meant less hassle at airports, less likelihood of being followed around or interviewed, less of a feeling of being a bad or wanted person generally. You can buy more stuff with cash. Everyone speaks English, and many people the language of cryptography too. People were not naive about the fact that Germany has it’s own well-staffed security apparatus, but clearly it to this community it feels like a much more acceptable home than most other alternatives.

There wasn’t any consensus about what led to Berlin becoming the hub of this community. More than one person strongly contested the almost-standard idea that the history of the Stasi and of the the Nazis has made the average German more worried about surveillance than the average Brit. I was told that Google and Facebook usage was sky-high in Germany, and that these behaviors at an aggregate just didn’t fit the theory of national suspiciousness. Ultimately, I had no objective way of assessing why there is such a large security and privacy community in Berlin, but if it isn’t due to the sad, violent history of this place then there’s clearly some other very interesting explanation lurking. Theories on an encrypted post-card, please.

My final observation on the privacy and security scene is that the energy surrounding privacy tech and privacy laws has created opportunity costs for the wider civic and social impact tech scene. There were actually, overall, fewer big mainstream civic tech or social impact tech projects than I would have expected to find in a country with wealth, tech chops and political consciousness that Germany has. I suspect it’s because more than a few ideas die in the cradle, smothered by concerns about how user data might be abused. At least one person told me they’d seen this happen.


I talked to a lot of people during my stay. The following list, which is in no particular order, simply attempts to give a taste of the interesting projects and people I met, rather than a verbatim record. If I spoke to you and you’re not here, please don’t feel slighted!

Civic Tech Design



I am frequently asked what key factors have made SeeClickFix a successful platform for engaging residents and officials where others have failed. These ten key principles that have been translated into product and design decisions have led to a rapidly growing platform that constructively solves problems while making government officials look good in the process. We believe these principles can be applied to other civic tech efforts and leveraged for more inclusive, representative governance.

The following is a list of biases and opinions that have been baked into the SeeClickFix platform over the past 8 years. It is not meant to be exhaustive and it is evolving as we learn more about the community we serve.

1) Transparency

SeeClickFix was launched because we were concerned that the opaque 1–1 protocols (phone calls and email) for managing citizen communication was crippling participation and strengthening distrust in government. Where legally possible communication with government and communication with residents should be immediately available to the public. This is different than an open data or FOIA policy which makes records available after the government has processed them. Real-time transparency maximizes overall efficiency by deceasing the duplication of public communications and internal government work. Feedback Loops have a stronger impact when they are published to everyone.

2) Feedback loops at every step

When you report an issue on SeeClickFix you are immediately sent an email that your issue has been created. In that email you are told who from the government has received the email as well as how many neighbors were sent a message. When you check out your issue you can see how many times it has been viewed and all of the public responses and the number of people who are following along. When the status changes on the issue (Open>Acknowledged>Closed) or a comment is made you receive an update. With feedback loops nothing is lost in a black box. With transparent and immediate feedback loops everyone can see the responsiveness of government and word of mouth spreads to others who are encouraged to show-up and communicate constructively. Twitter, Medium, Facebook and every other successful communication platform leverage stats (likes, follows, reads, shares) to encourage more engagement. This is no different and your government product needs to be thinking about creating feedback loops at every step.

3) Resident experience must rival experience with popular consumer applications

There’s no reason why digital engagement with your government can’t feel like digital engagement with your friends and family. The experience needs to be well designed, meaning that a product person is listening and responding to the needs of the market. The experience should also be beautiful. Interacting with government should not feel like a lesser form of digital interaction designed by a time traveler from the late 90s. People fall in love with products that feel like they are designed for their needs and speak to their aesthetics. People can fall in love with their government for the same reasons.

4) Official experience must be as good as resident experience

If you are in local government and you want to engage residents, you need to do it in a way that benefits your co-workers, managers, and direct reports as well. Admittedly, this is not where SeeClickFix started but it’s where we live today. Incorporating gratitude into the platform for those that are creating the feedback loop can be done in a number of ways. SeeClickFix has a “thank you” button that residents use to praise local officials when a request is finished. As external communication increases, the product needs to make communication simple, easy and convenient. More residents engaging can translate to more work produced but it does not have to translate to more work done.

5) Understand that residents and officials are users of a bigger ecosystem than one government

Residents and officials live and work in multiple communities served by multiple public agencies. Software needs to acknowledge this and provide officials and residents opportunities to talk to each other beyond the traditional boundaries created by one-off systems. SeeClickFix users can report an issue in their county, their city, a neighboring town and to even smaller entities within towns like universities and housing authorities. Preaching regionalism feels like preaching to the choir these days. Still, many overlook software design and procurement as an opportunity to realize a regional vision.

6) Anonymity

Wherever possible residents and public employees should have the opportunity to participate in two way civic conversation anonymously. Studies have shown that communities that are previously disengaged are more likely to participate if they can do so anonymously. Put good community flagging features in place and terms of service that favor respectful communication and the concerns for trolling will be behind you. SeeClickFix is one of the largest digital platforms engaging people in government but trolling and disrespectful communication is minute, isolated and easily controlled. Anonymity is a baby quickly thrown out with the bath water on the web. In civic tech it’s a must.

7) Meet users on equal ground

A citizen needs to have equal say in the tools they use to communicate with government if communication is going to be a truly empowering to residents. This means the software that you are using for internal communication needs standardized API’s for other software applications to connect. It’s also important that residents are treated as equals. If a request is not resolved, the resident should be given the same opportunity to reopen the issue that a government has to close it out. I think this can apply in others areas of civic tech but maybe this is esoteric to request management and open 311. This is how trust is built in both directions.

8) Features should empower citizens to be more helpful than they previously thought was possible

At SeeClickFix we have enabled anyone to receive alerts, claim responsibility, and help out even when they are not ultimately responsible. As a result neighbors have helped out other neighbors in snow storms, cleaned up parks, helped to spread important civic information and offer suggestions for improving traffic safety and general quality of life. If your engagement strategy is working well residents will feel like they are helping and officials will feel like they are being helped.

9) Be portable

City Hall does it’s best engagement when it shows up at community meetings outside of the doors of City Hall. Your digital product should take the same approach. SeeClickFix achieved early growth in the community through it’s widget which can be embedded on a local news site, a community group blog as well as the City’s website.

10) Iterate

At SeeClickFix we persistently take advantage of the ability to push updates to our government partners and resident users continuously. We built dynamic mobile apps where service requests, buttons and other local customizations are dynamic and can be updated remotely without resubmitting to app stores. The days of legacy software installed on premise are gone. Your government software like your government has the ability to respond iteratively to the needs of its community.

In the spirit of #10 I will continue to iterate on this list as we learn more. These values are what make SeeClickFix so powerful. Without them the platform would be a shell of itself, not have created meaningful change and likely failed. As one of our spiritual leaders Micah Sifry once said, “Civic tech can’t be neutral.”

Ben Berkowitz is the CEO and founder of SeeClickFix. This piece was originally published on Medium.

Civic Tech Participatory Budgeting Participatory Democracy



Last week the Ash Institute For Democratic Governance and Innovation published Civicist contributor Hollie Russon Gilman’s first book, Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America. What follows is a short Q&A with Gilman about her new book and what the future may hold for participatory budgeting and other civic technology trends.

Civicist: First of all, participatory budgeting is relatively new to the U.S. Although it started in Brazil in 1989, it wasn’t practiced in the U.S. until 2009, and is still quite rare. How is participatory budgeting different in the United States than in other countries?

Hollie Russon Gilman: That’s a great question. Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the United States has so far been working through existing political structures. In some places PB becomes its own structure alongside traditional bureaucracy. The U.S. process has often been implemented on the district level with elected leaders who have capital funds—things that can fund bricks and mortar. In other places, PB funds sometimes come from a centralized pot and are not always limited to capital funds. The amount of money being put into the process in some places is much higher. For example Paris is putting 426 million euros into the process over a six-year period.

Is there a canonical definition of participatory budgeting?

While there are numerous exact definitions of PB, some that are more or less binding, for the tenets of the book I define PB as: (1) a replicable decision-making process whereby citizens, (2) deliberate publicly over the distribution of, (3) limited public resources, arriving at decisions which are then implemented.

The New York Times has called participatory budgeting “revolutionary civics.” How “revolutionary” is it, really?

I think its revolutionary in so far as it is simply about empowering citizens to make governance decisions. In theory, this is not revolutionary at all! But our politics have become so partisan and contested; the very concept of bringing diverse people together has started to seem revolutionary. Perhaps, the most revolutionary aspect is that PB is simply returning politics to a more localized ideal.

The book includes several in-depth case studies; which did you find to be the most interesting or surprising?

Time and time again I saw people who became involved from initial curiosity, or even skepticism, become deeply engaged and staying involved over the course of several months. People stayed because they found the process to be fulfilling and they often forged new connections with neighbors, elected officials, and their community. These relationships were profound and often transformative.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing participatory budgeting and other efforts to increase civic engagement?

A process like participatory budgeting requires resources and time to effectively engage people, including from elected officials, civil society leaders, and people. Further, the funds to run process itself can be difficult to fund raise around. The process is very well structured which takes hard work. In New York City, the Participatory Budgeting Project has worked closely with Community Voices Heard, a local membership based organization that focuses on women of color and low-income families, to support and expand the process.

What are some of the key policy recommendations you make to encourage these kinds of participatory practices?

I have worked with some government officials who are excited to engage citizens in decision making but are also concerned about how to manage the floodgates of citizen input. There is a general concern that in an environment where people are already overworked and understaffed that engaging people without adequate staffing capacity will lead to deleterious results. One potential recommendation is to work closely with allies and strategic partners, including foundations, civil society, and universities, who can lend additional capacity. Another recommendation is to create processes that are fully transparent from the onset. This can help manage participants’ expectations throughout. People understand that some public sector employees have limited capacity; explaining a process to people, including its limitations, can go a long way.

What should we be looking for in the next few years? What’s the next big participatory thing, do you think? What, if anything, should we be wary of?

We will continue to see experiments combining online and offline tools. I think this can offer many exciting opportunities for reducing barriers to entry and engaging previously marginalized residents. As we often talk about with technology, it can be used to strengthen and support participation but we also need to ensure that it supplements, not entirely replaces, face-to-face participation. As further digital tools are integrated into participatory mechanisms, questions surrounding access, equity, privacy, and digital literacy will be front and center.

Can you elaborate on how PB is incorporating online tools?

In 2015 New York’s PB used electronic ballot counting and a partnership with Textizen, which started as a Code for America project. The City Council has created a web-based mapping tool for gathering crowdsourced public input for project submissions. The geo-targeted maps enable people to drop a pin on a map and provide ideas, suggestions, and comments. The maps are powered by OpenPlans open source technology. As covered by Jessica McKenzie on Civicist, in the 2015 PB vote, New York City employed a digital ballot experiment with both iPads for mobile kiosks and computers for in-person voting. They partnered with Stanford University’s Crowdsourced Democracy Team and Democracy 2.1 to test alternative ways of voting with the goal to make voting “as easy an ATM.” For 2016, New York’s PB is slated to conduct the first-ever remote online voting with an integrated online/offline ballot.

This reflects the push throughout global deployments of PB to use more digital interfaces and explore the opportunity for SMS to reach non-traditional participants. The first use of SMS was in 2004 in Ipatinga, Brazil. A World Bank pilot in the city of Jarabacoa, in the Dominican Republic, used SMS to encourage face-to-face participation, using a message targeted specifically at women. As Rafael Cardoso Sampaio and Tiago Peixoto note in Hope for Democracy: 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting Worldwide, “online voting can be seen as the gateway for politically inactive or less active citizens. The fact that online participation is generally more affordable can certainly be an extra attraction.”

I am optimistic for the opportunity to leverage civic tech combined a place-based local approach to engage citizens.

Civic Hacking Civic Tech Criminal justice



  • Technology is creating new opportunities for improvement and reform of the criminal justice system.

    In Arizona, a county court created a web and video accessible kiosk where individuals can “appear” in court 70 miles away. Around the country, the ACLU released apps to crowdsource police oversight. And in Chicago, there is a new visualization showing the financial impact of mass incarceration.

    These are just three of the more than 50 projects surveyed in a new report—released today—which I wrote for the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College. The report, Emerging Justice Technologies and the Need for Evaluation, accomplishes three things. First, it introduces justice stakeholders, such as police, corrections, reform advocates, and court officials, to the larger trends of government and civic technology that are behind these new projects. Second, it surveys new criminal justice projects and platforms that aim to improve system efficacy, crowdsource information, and collect and visualize data. Last, it makes five recommendations to better nurture the understanding, creation, and implementation of emerging justice technologies.

    The surveyed projects are exciting, innovative, and many hold promise to increase fairness, efficacy, and comprehension of the criminal justice system. However, unlike building a tool to find a cab or a restaurant, technology affecting criminal justice requires more stringent assessment. The criminal justice system is the greatest point of control the government can have over an individual, so the need to “get it right” is paramount. Therefore, the technologies that compliment or supplant aspects of this system raise unique questions that require a high level of scrutiny and validation.

    Currently, however, critical questions about these new technologies go unanswered. For example, do platforms collecting detailed information about those on community release increase re-arrest rates? Can new technologies compound already present racial bias? Regarding user experience, are projects accounting for those with developmental disabilities, a significant cohort in the criminal justice system?

    For a number of reasons, technological advancement outpaces the capacity to answer questions like these. First, research for this report revealed that while individual projects exist, there is no centralized organization or university initiative focused on researching these new technologies. Second, the organizations creating many of the tools in this report are not in the business of research or validation. Third, this area of criminal justice is still new, which means limited attention and funding. Together, these hurdles mean that we run the risk of iterating projects without first understanding efficacy and potential negative, unintended consequences.

    With this in mind, the Research and Evaluation Center is moving forward with the report’s five recommendations to support civic technology and criminal justice organizations to verify and improve the impact of their work.

    First, the Research and Evaluation Center will build an initiative that brings together leaders from the criminal justice and technology fields. This will be a venue to convene experts and foster open dialogue about how technology can alleviate the myriad of issues confronting criminal justice. Creating this community will allow criminal justice and technology professionals to learn from each other while promoting new ideas and projects.

    Second, once this initiative is created it can begin to identify emerging and best practices through research and evaluation. This research can create a path towards validating practices that will be shared openly among government leaders, technologists, and reformers to improve creation and implementation of projects.

    Third, as a result of this work, a cadre of professionals will be created to span the worlds of criminal justice and tech. These individuals will be valuable for their capacity to understand complex criminal justice systems and technology and their ability to translate for those on either side of the criminal justice-technology spectrum.

    Fourth, this initiative will be inclusive and incorporate previously incarcerated persons and communities that are acutely impacted by the criminal justice system. Those affected by the criminal justice system possess invaluable lived experience that will improve user experience, project development, and user adoption. Last, this work will be used to educate the public on technology’s role in criminal justice and reform.

    Collectively, justice stakeholders, reformers, and those affected by the justice system will benefit from a unified home for emerging justice technologies. However, the bar for success cannot merely be the deployment of a new technology; it must be data driven and informed by the best research. To do otherwise will impede technology’s increasing role in a fairer and more just criminal justice system.

    Jason Tashea is a legal and criminal justice technology consultant at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is also the founder of Justice Codes,  a nonprofit focused on the use of technology to improve access to justice.

Civic Tech Education



We could introduce an entire generation of students to civic tech by introducing the material in popular courses like computer science and statistics.

In 2005, as a political science student at the University of Maryland, I was asked us to go off-campus and into two nearby communities. One was home to golf courses, the other to recent immigrant populations. The assignment was to collect data and observations on the local grocery shopping experience. We were asked to record the price of staples like milk and orange juice, and also to pay attention to the general experience of shopping, from the state of the parking lot to the presence of security staff to the hue of the lighting. This assignment did more to underscore the inequality between Langley Park and Bethesda, Maryland—only a few stops apart on the D.C. Beltway—than any number of damning statistics presented in the same class.


A core theme that’s emerged across our Microsoft Technology & Civic Engagement team’s work is making it easier for more and more people to enter the field of civic technology. As many others have noted, the field needs a talent pipeline to succeed at scale. It’s why we built the Civic Graph and launched the Tech Jobs Academy with the City University of New York. It’s clear from the number of open positions and the amount of work to be done to modernize democracy that we need to attract more talent, and more diverse talent, to this sector.


Through conversations with students attending colleges across New York City, we realized that many classes cover subject matter that could, in their projects and assignments, introduce an entire generation of students to civic tech.


There are a growing number of college- and graduate-level courses focused specifically on civic and social innovation. They’re taught by civically-minded academics like Susan CrawfordDan Nguyen, and Sasha Costanza-Chock, and in programs like MIT’s DUSP. These courses are great for students with an existing interest in applying their skills to shared challenges, especially when they encourage students to get building.


But there are many more courses teaching even more students statistics, policy, computer science, and many other topics. Students’ efforts throughout a semester represent a huge and unrealized amount of latent value, in the work they produce in the short-term as well as the career paths they take in the long-term. The faculty instructing these mainstream courses could compound their educational impact over decades by embedding examples where the existing subject-matter gets applied in civic tech. This wouldn’t require changes to the curriculum, simply a link between the topics they’re teaching and the professionals applying those same topics to improve society in the real world.


For example, students learning statistics work with a fair amount of sample data. Rather than work with hypothetical or random data, the students could be instructed to download raw data from their city’s open data portal. They would end up learning not just the statistics lesson itself, but also that open government data exists, and how to download and do something with it. Students learning Javascript could build a sample application that calculates the speed of a bus sitting in traffic.



To make it easier for faculty to introduce their students to applied case studies from civic tech, we’re designing a civic tech case finder. It’s a lightweight aggregator—most of the cases themselves will continue living where they were originally published by their authors. Our task is to make it easier for instructors to easily identify relevant cases to bring into their curriculum in a short amount of time.

Instructors can select the subject and approximate grade level they teach, or just browse all cases.

We’re prototyping the application now and collecting feedback from civic-minded academic faculty across a wide range of fields. We’ve started with the civically-focused faculty we’ve come across in our work, but would love to spread the word and get this in front of professors without current connections to the field.


Long-term, we need to collect more cases and find an appropriate home for the project. Get in touch if you’d like to try it out and provide feedback in a user interview, or better yet, share it with the professors in your life.


Props to John Paul Farmer, who came up with the civic tech case finder, and Saron Yitbarek, who has led the technical development of the case finder as well as the user interviews.

Civic Engagement Civic Tech future of work



“I sensed that we needed to hear from people who were formerly incarcerated and that they might be less likely to have internet access.”

Always ahead of the curve, the city of Austin, Texas, launched an online community engagement portal in 2008. Called SpeakUpAustin, the platform is the cradle of the city’s bike share program and played a part in shaping a plastic bag ordinance. It allows anyone with internet access to publicly share their opinion on upcoming policy decisions without having to attend a public meeting. Although this was a leap forward in terms of accessibility and convenience, participation was still limited by one major constraint: internet access. This summer, however, the city took steps to change that by using a text-based tool called HeartGov in tandem with SpeakUpAustin to poll city residents about a Ban the Box initiative.

The Ban the Box campaign to delete the part of job applications that asks about previous convictions has been around since 2004. The campaign began seeing some success (in Minnesota, for example) in 2009. Since then, cities like Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, and others have removed the question.

“The Austin city council decided to follow the lead of several other cities and jurisdictions in looking at what people are calling a fair chance hiring policy,” says Larry Schooler, the manager of Austin’s Community Engagement Division. “The idea behind it is really to try to help those with criminal records, with histories of being incarcerated have a fair chance at getting hired.”

“The policy could mean that employers would need to delay criminal background investigations until a conditional offer was made to an applicant, even a person with a conviction,” Schooler clarifies.

Schooler’s position was created in 2009, when Austin’s communications director decided to invest more resources in engaging the public in innovative ways. “I’ve sort of gone from being a person to come in and facilitate meetings here and there to someone who is really trying to design a new system of public engagement,” Schooler tells Civicist. “I’m spending a lot more time now creating tools and programs and doing trainings than I did at the beginning.”

HeartGov first came to Schooler’s attention after he saw a short piece I wrote last year for techPresident, about testing the tool in Brooklyn. He reached out to Asher Novek, who developed the tool as part of his master’s thesis at NYU’s Gallatin School, and they began discussing ways to use HeartGov in Austin. (Full disclosure: Asher Novek is a Civic Hall member and has done some contract work for Civic Hall assisting with marketing.)

Schooler decided that the public polling period for the fair hiring policy, which ended at the end of August, was the perfect opportunity. “One of the reasons I wanted to use HeartGov on this one in particular is because I sensed that we needed to hear from people who were formerly incarcerated and that they might be less likely to have internet access,” Schooler explains to Civicist.

Working closely with Novek, Schooler came up with three questions, one that asked what kind of companies should be subjected to a fair hiring policy, how the policy should be enforced, and how the city should implement the policy. City residents interested in providing feedback could text a local number and would get the questions one after the other in response.

The city solicited input on the hiring policy via email, text message (HeartGov), and an online discussion board (SpeakUpAustin), although Schooler notes that, because this was a relatively abridged public input period (less than a month), there was limited publicity. All told, the city received 150 online discussion posts, 175 texts (from 60 or so respondents), and a handful of emails.

“Some of [the texters] were obviously people who had been formerly incarcerated and had been dealing with this on a first hand basis,” says Schooler. “I’m not taking sides in the debate over the policy—but it was really gratifying to see people so directly affected by a policy be participating like that.”

A preliminary report Schooler shares with Civicist shows that the majority of text responses were in favor of the fair hiring policy, whereas the online responses were more mixed, even skewing against the policy.

“There were a couple people who posted online who did seem to have some history [of convictions or incarceration],” says Schooler, “but not nearly to the extent that the texters did.” More of the texters were employees, whereas there were greater numbers of employers responding online.

Without HeartGov, the city might have gotten a very different picture of local opinion on the fair hiring policy.

Schooler dreams of one day better integrating the text and online responses, so that participants online can see what people are texting and vice versa. He also has yet to figure out how to handle two-way communication with people using HeartGov. “I didn’t do any personal responses this time. There just wasn’t the bandwidth for me to do that, or the time,” Schooler says. “In an ideal world I would in some way respond—we did respond at the end, when we closed things out, to say thanks.”

The two-way conversation has always been what Asher Novek envisioned for his tool. For example, HeartGov continues to be used in some local officials offices in New York and he says he feels it is his responsibility to “nag” offices to respond to constituents reaching out through the tool, until it becomes a habit.

As for what’s next in Austin? HeartGov has already been pulled back into service, as part of a community forum on building equitable economic development in East Austin.

Civic Tech elections First Post



Is it really a “social media election”? How #BlackLiveMatters is engaging Hillary Clinton; and the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program grows up.

  • Tech and the Presidentials: Welcome to the social media election,” writes David McCabe for The Hill. Really? Does anyone have any evidence that shows that the presidential campaigns putting a lot of effort into their candidate’s social media postings are doing better than their less-savvy peers? McCabe’s examples include both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are doing better than expected in the polls, and Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker, who are all doing as predicted or worse, despite their social media prowess.

  • Here’s the video of Hillary Clinton’s August 11 meeting with five #BlackLivesMatter activists in New Hampshire last week, posted by GOOD Magazine’s Gabriel Reilich. The activists press Clinton on her support for the massive increase in “tough on crime” measures in the 1990s, championed by her husband while he was President. Interestingly, Clinton appears to admit that she is a “sinner” in the context of the rise of mass incarceration of black people. As MSNBC’s Ari Melber tweeted, “Candor & tension in Clinton-‪#BlackLivesMatter‬ mtg shows why citizen Qs for pols are powerful.”

  • Spending on online political ads is projected to top the $1 billion mark in the 2016 cycle, Jon Lafayette of Broadcasting & Cable reports. That would be a first, but at the same time most political dollars, $8.5 billion, will go to broadcast TV ads.

  • Opening Government: A new executive order from President Obama has made the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows Program, which pulls technologists from the private sector into government for one-year stints, a permanent federal government program, as this post on Medium explains.

  • The winner of the Federal Trade Commission’s “Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back” civic hacking competition is a mobile app appropriately called RoboKiller, which uses audio-fingerprint technology to identify and block likely robocalls. As they explain on their Kickstarter page, “Before a user’s phone rings, we trick robocallers to start playing their recorded messages so that we can start our analysis. Live callers hear traditional ringing during this process. If RAE [their “rob analytics engine”] determines that a call is from a robot, it never rings through; we send it straight to the user’s SpamBox in the RoboKiller app. Humans, on the other hand, ring through to the user as soon as their legitimacy is confirmed.” (h/t Consumerist)

  • This is civic tech: Google engineer Carl Elkin used his 20% time to build Project Sunroof, which uses Google Earth mapping to help people figure out their home’s solar energy potential. It’s available in the San Francisco, Fresno and Boston areas now. As Elkin explains, the tool “first figures out how much sunlight hits your rooftop throughout the year, taking into account factors like roof orientation, shade from trees and nearby buildings, and local weather patterns. You can also enter your typical electric bill amount to customize the results. The tool then combines all this information to estimate the amount you could potentially save with solar panels, and it can help connect you with local solar providers.”

  • New on Civicist: Contributing editor Mark Headd notes the increasingly cozy relationship between civic hackers and government, and argues that “a little subversion is still necessary.”

Civic Tech elections First Post future of work



Is Amazon’s grueling workplace the future? Can Lawrence Lessig fire up the Internet? How tech can help Asian language speakers navigate the voting process.

  • The Future of Work? In case you missed it, Amazon is a pretty hyper-competitive place to work, according to Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld’s long investigative piece for Sunday’s New York Times. Perhaps the creepiest revelation in their story is the “Anytime Feedback Tool,” an internal communications widget that “allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management” which “many workers” call “a river of intrigue and scheming.”

  • Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu offers his rebuttal on LinkedIn. I found his faith in the company kind of charming. As he writes, “We’ve got our hands full with reinventing the world.”

  • And company CEO Jeff Bezos says, in an email to his employees first reported by John Cook of GeekWire, “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

  • Tech and the Presidentials: BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray reports on how Republican front-runner Donald Trump is renting conservative email lists to fundraise for his campaign. She notes that Trump has said he doesn’t need to fundraise, but it’s just as likely that the billionnaire’s rental of lists from PJ Media, Newsmax and the Daily Caller may also be a way for him to buy favor with their owner’s.

  • Brigade is hosting a forum this Thursday in San Francisco with Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley and several civic tech leaders, focusing on “how public and private sector stakeholders can adapt digital tools to improve the impact of government, elevate marginalized communities, and tackle our country’s most pressing shared challenges.”

  • Jimmy Wales, the cofounder of Wikipedia, explains on Medium why he is chairing Lawrence Lessig’s exploratory presidential campaign committee.

  • In my humble opinion, Lessig’s plan for getting elected president and serving only long enough to pass fundamental pro-democracy reform through Congress (a laudable goal) reminds me a lot of the South Park gnomes episode–Step 1: Collect underpants. Step 2: ???? Step 3: PROFIT.

  • This is civic tech: Code for Africa has just received a grant of $4.7 million for the next three years from the Gates Foundation to extend its work supporting data journalism, focusing on three hub nations: Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, the organization’s chief strategist Justin Arenstein writes on Medium.

  • Asian-American e-activist group 18 Million Rising is raising money on Indiegogo for VoterVOX, an app that will connect multilingual Asian Americans with voters needing language assistance to navigate the voting process. According to a 2012 exit poll from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, nearly 1 in 4 Asian Americans prefer to vote with help from an interpreter or translated materials.

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.

Civic Tech Mapping Social Media



  • “When crowds fill a public space they can change history,” observed Marc Smith, director of the Social Media Research Foundation, at Personal Democracy Forum this year. “And yet where are the pictures of the cyber crowd?”

    We worry about our social networks—who’s following us, who are we following, how many likes am I getting, how many retweets did that get—but are we asking the right questions?

    The Social Media Research Foundation’s project NodeXL displays maps of connections on Twitter in a unique way. By taking a topic or phrase and mapping out the connections in a network approach, we can see more than just who is talking to whom; we can see the communities that are being formed around particular issues. When we take a step back and see not just who the community is, but how it’s formed and what shape it takes, we can begin to ask deeper questions: Am I reaching who I want to reach? How can I reach that cluster of people over there? Do I want to reach that cluster of isolated people? The focus becomes less about numbers and more about the quality of the connections being made.

    In the context of branding or marketing, there is obvious value to this: Am I growing my brand in the direction that it needs to? Am I getting my brand to the right communities, and which online leaders do I need to engage in order to do so? However, in the context of a social movement, the value is arguably more crucial. Social movements live and breathe online, but who analyzes the movement? Without the broad view of how a movement is shaped, it is left to grow or falter passively on its own.

    NodeXL provides a tool for organizers and activists to see a movement, see who participated, and then see what kind of community has formed. Once you know what kind of community you have, you can look at ways to expand it, shape it, grow it, while mapping trends of the community over time. Collective action is difficult to cultivate and sustain; NodeXL provides a space to support action by asking questions like: Who are our main hubs? Which communities are talking about our issues, but not connected to the movement? How can we reach them? Do we have an active community or just a passive audience?

    When answering these questions, we can streamline engagement processes and focus on the movement, not just the numbers.

    Here is an example of a NodeXL network map, comparing the community around “civictech” in May to the community in June. “As people reply and mention one another, they form links or ties that form communities,” Smith explained. “The civic tech network is predominantly a ‘hub-and-spoke’ pattern, with a hub that gets repeated (or retweeted) by many others. A large volume of completely disconnected people are a major portion of the population. These ‘isolates’ are mostly missing from these networks, but still contribute to the conversation. Some areas of the networks are ‘dense,’ which represents a community of connected people, without a central ‘hub,’ and many topic leaders.”

    Overall, in May we see many hub-and-spoke clusters, such as the groups in G2, G5, and G6. This signifies audiences of people tweeting and retweeting from central groups of broadcasters, or mayors. But when we look at June, the clusters become denser. This signifies the audiences connecting to each other, rather than through central mayors, building a more dynamic community. We can also see clearer green lines (showing a direct connection) in May, and in June we see a more spread out series of lines, showing that more connections across communities were formed.

    This change can largely be attributed to the Personal Democracy Forum being held, and is a good example of what a big, centralized event can do for a dispersed community, in terms of building relationships. Using NodeXL, we could see who became more connected to the community because of the conference, trace anyone who went from an isolate to a part of the community and vice versa. We can also see which new isolates entered the conversation, and over time with more comparative graphs, could see their growth in the community as well. This gives us the ability to know who to communicate with, and which “mayors” bring in more members of the community.

    Having followers and retweets is important, but it’s only the surface level step. Numbers only get you so far, in order to understand how, why, and where you need to grow requires a network outlook. NodeXL, and the work Marc and the rest of the SMRF are doing, provides the tool to obtain and analyze that network.

    Asher Novek is a freelance producer, storyteller, and community activist. He is the founder of HeartGov, an SMS based platform designed to connect local government and communities. HeartGov is currently running in Brooklyn, working with local elected officials and community based organizations to connect to citizens. Follow him @ashernovek.