• I spent last Thursday and Friday in New York City at the Personal Democracy Forum and left with three big questions to ponder.

    1) How do we make apps more civic? Andrew Rasiej quoted Nick Grossman in a session saying, “We don’t need more civic apps, we need apps to be more civic.” Rather than creating a neighborhood-organizing applications, how do we get Airbnb to introduce neighbors to each other; enlist Uber to provide free rides to the polls on Election Day; or analyze Twitter to inform politicians of constituent sentiment?

    2) What happens when the public square becomes private? Millennials increasingly use social networks to communicate with friends, get their news, and build businesses. But private companies own these immense social networks.  They can restrict access at any moment—potentially eliminating David Troy’s incredible maps of online social networks or the Sunlight Foundation’s Politwoops tool, to name just two examples.

    3) Does the nonprofit model work for civic tech? Nancy Lublin told a powerful story about the challenges she faced to take the Crisis Text Line from an idea to its incredible success processing 6.7 million messages, and how her team struggled to gain funding from foundations. In contrast, Jim Gilliam, the CEO of NationBuilder spoke to an audience with lanyards hanging around their necks about the benefits of having both Andreessen Horowitz and the Omidyar Network behind the company and their for-profit model.

    Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry have created something special with the Personal Democracy Forum and it is an important convening of the civic tech community that luckily answers many more questions than it raises.

    Alex Wirth is the co-founder of Quorum, Washington’s next generation legislative strategy platform. He attended PDF15 as a Knight Foundation Fellow.




The more people photographing truth to power, the better.

  • On the first morning of Personal Democracy Forum, Micah Sifry shared a more than 100-year-old image by Jacob Riis from a series titled How the Other Half Lives. Riis, who was equal parts photographer and social reformer, created the series to call attention to the deplorable living conditions in the tenement housing system. Sifry’s interlude was followed by talks by Eric Liu, on reckoning with power and positionality, as well as Jess Kutch and Palak Shah on re-envisioning labor movements for the 21st century. All the while, Riis’ image remained in my mind’s eye, and got me thinking about all those who should be considered today’s Jacob Riis.

    Is it the Chinese activists sharing images on Weibo that contradict official history?

    Or Joao Silva, whose long journalistic career has included chronicling the end of apartheid, the War on Terror, and human rights abuses in the Balkans, to name just a few of his subjects.

    Riis surely would have approved of the efforts of the International Bar Association, which has just unveiled an Android app to help human rights activists document and store images until they are shown in court. The idea behind the application is to time-stamp and affix GPS-determined location to each uploaded image, verify the image, and protect “the safety of those brave enough to record them.”

    Maybe Riis’ latest inheritor is the 15-year-old bystander who filmed this weekend’s police violence against black teens in McKinney, Texas. Brandon Brooks’ video of a police officer holding down a bikini-clad teen and waving his rifle at two of her male peers has been shared around the world in a matter of days.

    Of course, it doesn’t really matter who fills Riis’ shoes. The more people photographing truth to power, the better.

    Another PDF speaker, Harold Feld, reminded us that the net is an undeniable public utility. Moments before that, Dante Berry pointed out that over 100 million Americans lacked reliable internet service. Merely having internet access or a camera isn’t enough. Today, just as it did in Riis’ era, what matters most is what we do after the images are captured. Will we share, question, organize and culture-hack around them, or will we let the agenda and power be set by someone else?

    Zoe Middleton is an aspiring academic (read: grad student) in New York. When she’s not thinking about media studies and sociology, you can find her searching the city for quality pastor tacos. You can find more of her ideas here. Zoe attended PDF15 as a Knight Foundation Fellow.

#PDF Civic Tech Design



This year, many of the speakers at Personal Democracy Forum challenged us to rethink the cultural design of our systems, not simply the technical.

(Andreas Pizsa, CC BY 2.0)
  • This year, many of the speakers at Personal Democracy Forum challenged us to rethink the cultural design of our systems, not simply the technical. Deanna Zandt asked us to “Imagine All The Feelz” and consider how we might create space for personal truths, even the painful ones, in our social media discourse. And in “Public Engagement is Broken: Are You Part of the Problem?” Catherine Bracy suggested that, instead of building a new social network, we redesign the public meeting from a space for contentious bickering to a space for productive dialogue.

    The truth is, the culture of a system determines its success. We need systems that are comfortable with the notion that they are not perfect. We need systems that acknowledge that we are always learning, that we improve over time. We need systems built on a culture of ongoing improvement, not fixed outcomes. We see this learning culture across many disciplines, from agile development in tech to continuous improvement in education. The core logic at the heart of all of these successful systems is that of the “growth mindset,” a philosophical stance first identified by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. 

    A “fixed mindset” assumes our qualities of character and intelligence are set at one inherent level, and there is little to be done to change them. Some of us are smart, some of us are dumb, and we play the hand we’re dealt. A growth mindset assumes that our intelligence and abilities are dynamic, and that we can improve our skill levels through practice. Our capacity is directly related to our effort. Carol Dweck finds that fixed mindset students are mainly motivated “to look smart all the time and never look dumb.” Growth mindset students are more likely to continue working hard despite setbacks, and look at challenges as opportunities for growth.

    What will happen if we adopt the growth mindset as the culture of our civic engagement systems? We can reframe our failures as opportunities to learn. We can contextualize data as a means to an end. We can embed accountability as a stepping stone to progress. We can meet people where they’re currently at and create opportunities for deeper participation over time. Our systems will incentivize participation, because participation will create improvement.

    Tristan Harris broke down what happens when we use a fixed outcomes approach to designing our systems in his PDF talk, called “Constantly Distracted? Design for Time Well Spent.” Using a fixed volume metric like time spent has lead to product features like the Facebook Timeline, which encourages passive content consumption. The Facebook Timeline has had a profound impact on how we spend our time on the internet, reducing active participation by omission. What if we measure mindful engagement, as Tristan advocates? What if, as he suggests, we use positive impact on human well-being as a measure of our success instead of time spent? Using our metrics to track what we value gives us a concrete pathway to deliver on growth mindset-based design.

    Last year I founded a social systems design lab called Thicket. From its inception, we’ve focused on creating a space for people to think and work together to solve our most entrenched systemic problems. Throughout the process of designing our community-powered research and design platform launching this summer, our team has been motivated by this question: How might we instill the growth mindset in our product design? We think we’ve done pretty well, but in the spirit of continuous improvement, we can do even better.

    Coming to PDF this year as a Civic Hall Fellow has been an invigorating reminder that there is a strong, motivated, energized community of thinkers, designers and technologists who believe that our systems can truly be better, and are putting in the effort to make them so. If we can channel that spirit of dynamic improvement into all of our systems, I believe we will have successfully created the conditions for greater civic engagement. 

    Deepthi Welaratna (@deepthiw) is founder of Thicket, a design lab and consultancy creating products and experiences that harness the power of global communities to move us forward, faster. Deepthi has spent the last 14 years influencing complex systems through public policy campaigns, creative leadership programs, and movement building around a range of social and economic issues. Deepthi attended PDF as a Civic Hall fellow this year.

#PDF laber



  • With panelists Palak Shah (Fair Care Labs), Jess Kutch (, Hannah Calhoon (Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood), and moderator Ibrahim Abdul Matin (Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet), day one of PDF15 saw an enormous sharing of learnings around using technology and new forms of worker engagement to bring about economic justice. Here are five quick takeaways from Thursday’s breakout session on labs for social and economic empowerment.

    1. “Labs” are essential

    For civic tech hackers to produce social solutions ready to enter the free market, we’re going to need “labs”—spaces where new ventures aiming for positive social change can not only test new ideas, but pass on the knowledge of their failures.

    2. We need a new form of organizing

    The decline in collective bargaining has opened space for a new form of worker organizing. This is a space where technology has the potential to create enormous value, as we’ve already seen with tools like, DemocracyOS, and more.

    3. Technology is not replacing unions

    Rather than replace unions, new technologies can complement existing labor organizations and even ease workers into the idea of organizing. A great example of this is a group of bike share workers that voted to unionize after running a successful campaign for better working conditions on In other cases, unions have used as a tool for their organizing.

    4. Profitability: the biggest hurdle for civic tech?

    As all of today’s panelists attested to, preparing civic tech teams to create market-based solutions that can survive without government funding or philanthropy is quite the challenge. The panel left us with an important question to ponder: How will civic tech applications of the future drive enough revenue to sustain their activities?

    5. Moderator Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is a “cruel but benevolent dictator”

    Our group couldn’t have covered as much ground or had half as many laughs without your guidance and willingness to cut us off. Thanks, Ibrahim!

    Lauren Mobertz is a New York-based freelance writer who specializes in digital labor and youth employment and is attending PDF as a Mozilla fellow. When she’s not writing about the career moves of gutsy millennials, Lauren is usually running in strange places or trying to dance Brazilian zouk. She’s also just quit her day job to work on her passion project, which you can follow this summer at

#PDF Digital Divide



For the last 125 years we have used the term “public utility” to describe a service so fundamental to our participation in society and our economic well being that we cannot leave them to the benevolence of corporations, the indifference of the market, or the kindness of kings.

  • Personal Democracy Forum is next week, and we’re reaching out to some of the speakers for a quick preview of their respective talks and panels. What follows are a few words from Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge. Feld will be speaking on the net as a public utility.

    So, for people who aren’t familiar with your work, how does it relate to civic tech?

    I focus on the intersection of law and policy in telecommunications and tech at the U.S. federal level. We work to ensure the availability of ubiquitous, affordable, and meaningful broadband access. By “meaningful,” I mean without either government or corporate intermediaries able to prohibit or unduly influence how others use broadband and other new technologies.

    For example, we have been very involved in the net neutrality debate and pushed for reclassification of broadband as a Title II telecommunications service as early as January 2010. We are active in the effort to limit “patent trolls” and work to reform copyright law so that it cannot be used to strangle free speech.

    You’ll be speaking at the conference on the subject of the net as a public utility. What still needs to be addressed in the wake of the net neutrality win? What isn’t getting enough attention?

    We need to recognize the importance of what we have won, and how easily we can still lose it. To say that something is a “public utility” in the United States does not have anything to do with whether it is a monopoly or a regulated rate. For the last 125 years we have used the term “public utility” to describe a service so fundamental to our participation in society and our economic well being that we cannot leave them to the benevolence of corporations, the indifference of the market, or the kindness of kings. We must safeguard the right of all people to access under a rule of law. We do this with electricity, with transportation, with water, and with a very small number of other critical services.

    The fundamental right to communicate is one of these services. We have that principle embedded in our Constitution, and it has been the cornerstone of telephone regulation for more than 100 years. As a result, 96 percent of the country have access to some kind of voice telephony service. We need to recognize that broadband falls in this same category: a service so essential that government has a responsibility to ensure that all people have affordable access.

    Put another way, it is common to think that we care about classifying broadband as a Title II “telecommunications service” because that was the only way to ensure net neutrality. But it is really the other way around. We care about net neutrality so passionately because we recognize broadband has become essential in our lives. With that realization, we now have a responsibility to ensure that everyone has legally protected rights to enjoy the benefits of this fundamental service.

    The theme of the conference this year is the future of civic tech. As briefly as you like: Where do you think civic tech is going, what do we have to look forward to, and what pitfalls should people working in this sector be aware of?

    I think the future of civic tech lies in moving from scarcity to abundance. Corporate profit depends on scarcity, but to unlock the civic potential of technology requires ubiquity. I think our greatest pitfall is trying to measure success with the wrong numbers. It’s not about creating the next hot startup. It’s not about generating videos with millions of hits. Hundreds of thousands—even millions—of people able to talk in their own voices to each other is more critically important then the creation of a new entertainment colossus. When we see how people use these technologies to organize for social change, to learn new things, to open new worlds, and to express themselves freely to the world in their own voices, then we have truly accomplished something more important than “the next Google” or “next Netflix.”

#PDF Algorithms Civic Tech



Weapons of math destruction are characterized by their opacity, their power, their widespread use, their poor definitions of success, and their engendering of pernicious feedback loops.

  • Personal Democracy Forum is next week, and we’re reaching out to some of the speakers for a quick preview of their respective talks and panels. What follows are a few words from Cathy O’Neil, who writes at the blog and is working on a book about the dark side of big data. O’Neil will deliver a talk on “Weapons of Math Destruction.”

    You’ll be speaking at the conference on the subject of weapons of math destruction. Give us a preview: what the heck are weapons of math destruction?!

    They are mathematical algorithms that are being deployed to make important life decisions for certain people at certain moments. They are characterized by their opacity, their power, their widespread use, their poor definitions of success, and their engendering of pernicious feedback loops. I will give a bunch of examples of WMD’s from education (the Value-Added Model for Teachers), the criminal justice system (evidence-based sentencing models), and politics (micro-targeting).

    The theme of the conference this year is the future of civic tech. As briefly as you like: Where do you think civic tech is going, what do we have to look forward to, and what pitfalls should people working in this sector be aware of?

    I’d say that my example with micro-targeting in politics is more or less an intersection of WMD’s with civic tech. I am, in other words, a civic tech skeptic.

    I’m focusing on the pitfalls. Civic tech has a lot of positive vibes but successful data work, which is usually done in the quest of power, money, or both, should teach us a few lessons. If we want data or technology to work for the public good, we have to make it so in a deliberate and thoughtful fashion. It’s not good enough for us to “open up the data” and wait for the tide that lifts all boats. 

#PDF Civic Tech



  • Personal Democracy Forum is in less than two weeks, and we’re reaching out to some of the speakers for a quick preview of their respective talks and panels. What follows are a few words from Nanjira Sambuli, a research manager at iHub in Nairobi, who will deliver a talk on “During and After Atrocity: How Kenyans Use The Web to Heal and Deal.”

    So, for people who aren’t familiar with your work, how does it relate to civic tech?

    I manage research around governance and technology at iHub. That basically means that I spearhead and/or oversee research projects that assess how technology is being adopted or co-opted into governance in Kenya, and increasingly in East Africa. Its relation to civic tech is through insights gleaned from, for instance, studying if/how ICTs have facilitated two-way interaction between government and citizens

    You’ll be talking at the conference about how Kenyans have used the web to “heal and deal.” What most surprises you about the use of the web after an atrocity?

    My country has faced a number of security-related tragedies in the past three years, and due to the increasing uptake of social media, Kenyans have had an opportunity to grieve together, share in their anger, and at various turns engage in collective action towards seeking accountability or raising funds for emergency relief. It has been particularly interesting to observe the various civic roles that Kenyans online have engaged in, individually and collectively. It has also been interesting to observe the life cycle. For instance, very pertinent, difficult questions are often asked, in a quest to seek accountability. Folks, for instance, will tweet various authorities and representatives with great vigor “in the heat” of an event, but that vigor seems to dissipate the moment we move on to something else in the news cycle. Observing this over time has led me to wonder if the use of social media in times like these, and how Kenyans typically engage on these platforms, can be considered civic tech, and what that means for developers, legislators, civil society organisers, activists and others keen on engaging them online, or offline towards a civic action. The Kenyan case is not necessarily unique, but a particularly interesting one off which to ask deeper questions on what constitutes civic tech: is it tools, is it the use of tools, is it both?

    The theme of the conference this year is the future of civic tech. As briefly as you like: Where do you think civic tech is going, what do we have to look forward to, and what pitfalls should people working in this sector be aware of?

    I’m intrigued by the idea behind the term and concept of civic technology. As yet, I haven’t come across an agreed upon definition, and based on practice, it seems centered around designing specific tools that can facilitate or enhance civic engagement or civic action. I am curious as to how impact is assessed. I am curious (as a researcher) whether citizens’ needs are incorporated into design and implementation. I am curious as to what has been found to be the motivation and incentives among the various target audiences to use and reuse such tools as designed. One pitfall I think should be considered is that people may not be keen to visit 10 different apps designed for 10 different civic actions…how do we ensure that the design, deployment and continued use of civic technology is considered meaningful and worthwhile in the long-term? 




Breakouts are organized in seven thematic tracks: Organizing and Activism, Digital Tools and Techniques, Civic Clinics, Ideas and Controversies, Media Praxis, Tech Futures, and We-Government.

Taking questions during a break-out session at #PDF13. (Personal Democracy Media)
  • You want panels? We got panels. Herewith, the Personal Democracy Forum 2015 guide to the 27 breakout sessions planned for the two days of the conference, this coming June 4-5. They’re organized in seven thematic tracks: Organizing and Activism, Digital Tools and Techniques, Civic Clinics, Ideas and Controversies, Media Praxis, Tech Futures, and We-Government. Most of them are structured with three or four expert speakers, with time for short presentations, panel discussion and audience participation. A few are participatory workshops (as noted). This is where you get to drill deep on topics you care about, brush up on the latest developments in your field, and find other people with interests like yours.

    As in past years, all panels are taking place after lunch, in two hour-long slots from 2:00-3:00pm and 3:30-4:30pm, with a coffee break in between. All of them are in NYU’s Kimmel Center, accessible by elevator from Skirball Center where the main hall talks take place.

    Organizing and Activism

    Thursday June 4—2:00-3:00pm: Confronting the Counterrevolution: How Civic Actors Can Hold Their Own in Global AffairsAmb. Ben Rowswell, Katherine Maher, Andrea Chalupa, and Taylor Owen (moderator). In global politics, networks of individuals are challenging existing power structures. With minimal organizational structure, these groups leverage anonymity and encryption, and are capable of the type of collective action once reserved for large hierarchical organizations. But from Russia to Venezuela—to the United States for that matter—the state is fighting back. As they grow in power, citizen movements attract more adversaries jealous of defending their own power. In the Hobbesian world of global politics, disruption has the potential to become a brutal process. This panel will look at how how digitally-enabled civic action groups can structure themselves to compete in the global political arena.

    Thursday June 4—3:30-4:30pm: How the Net (Neutrality Battle) Was WonMichael KhooAlthea EricksonEvan GreerMalkia Cyril, and Sally Kohn (moderator). This panel will focus on two key topics: How grass-roots techies, civil rights activists, and industry start-ups combined forces to win the fight for public opinion and the open internet, and what challenges lie ahead in sustaining that victory.

    Friday June 5—2:00-3:00pm: Pro-Internet and I Vote: How Can the Net Build Political Power in 2016? Malkia CyrilDavid SegalZephyr TeachoutJessy Tolkan, and Craig Aaron (moderator). Overseas, some internet activists are forming political parties, like the Pirate Party, and in some places winning a share of representation. But politics in America is structured (and some might say constrained) by the two-party system. Building on the net neutrality session above, and with the 2016 election approaching, this panel will discuss how pro-internet activism and populist energy can be translated into real and lasting political power.

    Friday June 5—3:30-4:30pm: Black Twitter, #BlackLivesMatter: Turning Pain Into Political Power. Lizz BrownLauren BrownBridget ToddKimberly Ellis (moderator). In a follow-up to her PDF 2014 main hall speech last year, Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis (aka @DrGoddess) will host a panel discussion on the role of #BlackTwitter in the “movement-with-a-hashtag” activism of #BlackLivesMatter. This panel will also explore the further application of tech innovation to civic engagement, examining how to turn the pain of poverty, police brutality, and other forms of injustice into actual political power beyond street protests.

    Digital Tools and Techniques

    Thursday June 4—2:00-3:00pm: Navigating the Political Data Provider LandscapeTom DoughertyJim GilliamTiana Epps-JohnsonPaul Westcott, and Heidi Sieck (moderator). If you want to influence politics, you need to know what buttons to push. In a digital world that means knowing where voter, candidate and election data is and how to get it. The panel of leading data providers and practitioners will get you the answers.

    Thursday June 4—3:30-4:30pm: How Digital Advertising is Reshaping EverythingAnnie LeveneJosh KosterPatrick Ruffini, and Tracy Russo (moderator). Just how far can, and should, you go in microtargeting your message? What techniques are proving most effective, cost-wise? This panel will look at emerging campaign strategies as we head into 2016, and focus on how the make the most of your digital advertising dollar.

    Friday June 5—2:00-3:00pm: Innovations in Messaging the Electorate (Sponsored by Rentrak). Scott Tanter, Christopher Frommann, Jennifer Green, Bret Leece, Edward Niles, and Carol Davidsen (moderator). This panel will build on Davidsen’s main hall keynote at the end of Thursday, and take a closer look at the origination of integrated data sets, how campaigns use them, and how privacy is handled.

    Friday June 5—3:30-4:30pm: Using Facebook for Advocacy (Sponsored by Facebook)Steve JacobsDeanna ZandtAlex Torpey, and Crystal Patterson (moderator). The world’s biggest social network has become a critical vehicle for all kinds of advocacy. This panel will zero in on how it can best be used by people in and around government to improve civic engagement and public responsiveness.

    Civic Clinics

    Thursday June 4—2:00-3:00pm: Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Participation. John WebbJon SotskySandy Heierbacher, and Allison Fine (moderator). While many Americans engage in civic life, doing everything from voting, joining causes, volunteering in their communities and voicing their concerns, tens of millions are on the sidelines. Some are locked out. And some are tuning out to processes that don’t engage them. This panel will explore new research on why so many Americans are civic bystanders, why they don’t vote in local elections, and whether different approaches to civic engagement may be more fruitful.

    Thursday June 4—3:30-4:30pm: Labs for Social and Economic Development. Palak ShahCarmen RojasHannah Calhoon, and Ibrahim Abdul Matin (moderator). In the last few years, tech innovators and movements for economic justice have started collaborating on new models for serving the needs of America’s poorest and most exploited workers. In this session, the founders of three such labs will share what they’ve learned so far.

    Friday June 5—2:00-3:00pm: Build With, Not For (Workshop I). Co-led by Josh StearnsKenneth BaileyLiz BarryAn Xiao MinaSandy Heierbacher, and Demond DrummerWe can build better civic tech, journalism, campaigns, global development projects, and more if we reorient our processes to work with communities, not for them. This two-part workshop will focus on drawing lessons from across sectors and highlighting tools to help anyone build with, not for. (Attendees can reap maximum value even if they’re only able to make one of the two sessions.) The first session is focused on cross-sector storytelling. As a group, attendees will discuss what inclusive development looks like across sectors and the challenges faced in initiating these processes in the context of our respective professional fields. The conversation will be guided by co-leads working on collaborative development in a variety of fields who will share their experience addressing and overcoming these issues. By the end, participants will have built a common language of challenge, spec-ed out some starter points for solutions/actions, identified potential collaborations beyond PDF, and hold a more intersectional perspective on what bottom-up innovation means.

    Friday June 5—3:30-4:30pm: Build With, Not For (Workshop II). Josh StearnsKenneth BaileyLiz BarryAn Xiao MinaSandy Heierbacher, and Demond DrummerIn this second session, participants will go through a design exercise for moving at the speed of inclusion. Attendees will break into small groups, each facilitated by one of the co-leads above, and go through the process of developing an engagement plan for a civic project. In addition to putting lessons from the first session into action, participants will also learn foundational skills for putting these lessons into action, such as how to map stakeholders and “intervention” (also known as engagement) opportunities. This session will have an element of play to it. At the end, participants reflect on their process together and collect the plans to be published online where anyone can “fork” them (social code working just like computer code, after all).

    Ideas and Controversies

    Thursday June 4—2:00-3:00pm: Hacking Culture for Social ChangeAndrew SlackBridgit Antoinette EvansKerri Kelly, and Tracy Van Slyke (moderator). If you change culture, you change politics. This panel will explore how a new generation of digitally savvy activism is working with major cultural tropes and happenings to try to alter America’s course.

    Friday June 5—2:00-3:00pm: Cooperative Alternatives to the Sharing EconomyTrebor Scholz, Palak ShahAndres Monroy-Hernandez, and Nancy Scola (moderator). Continuing a conversation begun in mid-March with a panel at Civic Hall, this session will delve into efforts to organize industries and write code that empowers workers and participants more than owners and investors. 

    Friday June 5—3:30-4:30pm: Connecting the Unconnected: Access, Digital Inclusion and the Open Web (Sponsored by Mozilla). Raina KumraJosh Levy, Jochai Ben Avie and Nancy Scola (moderator). Owning a mobile phone is not necessarily joining the internet. There are a quarter billion Android users who have never connected to the internet, and in some markets users spend 10 percent of their wages on data. Companies, governments, civil society, and other actors are wrestling with how to bring the next wave of users to the internet, with some pioneering new business models and approaches, notably zero-rating. This breakout session will begin with brief positioning statements examining the benefits and harms of zero-rating, and will explore alternative market solutions to connecting users to the full diversity of the open Web. Then participants will be invited into an interactive discussion around models that are already being tested and how to form an agenda that enables digital inclusion.

    Media Praxis

    Thursday June 4—2:00-3:00pm: Fixing Our Attention. Tristan HarrisRachel WeidingerAndrew Golis, and Sabrina Hersi Issa (moderator). The future is here and it’s breaking the present, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has written. As a result, our personal and collective ability to focus on stuff that matters is constantly being challenged by media and technology that tries to distract us with spectacle and addict us using behavioral science. Building on Harris’ morning keynote on this topic, this panel will discuss strategies for reversing these trends, ranging from a new ethics of tech design to apps and organizing strategies that may help us pay attention to what is truly important.

    Thursday June 4—3:30-4:30pm: Check It Before You Wreck It: Fighting Viral Misinformation Online. Claire WardleMadeline BairEllery BiddleSunita Bose, and Tom Trewinnard (moderator). Social networks have proven to be powerful platforms for spreading information during critical, breaking events. However, increasingly this takes the form of rumor, fake content and misinformation: think Hurricane Sandy, Syria and the Boston Marathon Bombings. This panel will discuss the misinformation ecosystem, introduce recent efforts to build a culture of verification, and offer tangible debunking methods for journalists, citizen journalists, and anyone who gets their news via social media.

    Friday June 5—2:00-3:00pm: How Civic Tech is Changing the Way Newsrooms Cover Elections. Jenn TopperDerek WillisJonathan CapehartLuciana Lopez, and Chris Gates (moderator). This panel will unpack how civic tech is changing the way newsrooms cover elections. In the year preceding the 2016 presidential campaign, newsrooms are already staffing up for the election. Meanwhile, technology offers newer, more impactful ways of storytelling. We’ll discuss how the landscape has changed since the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, what technology might be on the horizon in 2016, and how it might affect the concept and expectation of real-time reporting.

    Tech Futures

    Thursday June 4—2:00-3:00pm: Disruptive Opportunities in MobileBart MyersTed HendersonDamola OgundipeRachna Choudhry, and Erhardt Graeff (moderator). As users spend more time on their mobile devices and less at PCs, civic tech is shifting too. This panel will look at new and existing efforts to better connect people to their representatives and to bring civic information to people when they may be most inclined to engage with it.

    Thursday June 4—3:30-4:30pm: Building Businesses in Civic Tech (Sponsored by Omidyar Network). Jim GilliamStory BellowsDan Brillman, and Stacy Donohue (moderator). Building on ON’s conference on the business of civic tech at Civic Hall in April, this panel will explore paths to creating sustainable and successful civic-tech businesses. 

    Friday June 5—2:00-3:00pm: Financing Political and Civic Tech. Shaun AbrahamsonStacy DonohueBenoit WirzMike Mathieu, and Julie Menter (moderator). It’s tough to get funding for a new venture, even more so if it’s trying to create positive change. This panel of funders will take participants behind the curtain and share the best ways to raise capital, how investors evaluate entrepreneurs, and what a great pitch looks like. It will cover solutions for both for-profit and non-profit structures, as well as the hybrids in between.

    Friday June 5—3:30-4:30pm: The Evolution of Political AnalyticsScott TranterKass DevorseyMasahiko Aida, David Seawright, and Ethan Roeder (moderator). Campaign analytics is no longer an experiment. Now it’s a guiding light for campaigns, a standard by which the modernity of a campaign is measured and a field of practice that has attracted tens of millions of dollars of investment since 2012. This panel will look at questions including: What strategic advantage can campaigns still hope to yield from analytics? How are the newly established for-profit institutions in the space influencing the practice? In 2015, with enhanced national voter files a ubiquitous resource, the building of individual-level candidate support and turnout models has been described as “a trivial task.” If microtargeting is no longer a strategic advantage, what is? What benefits will campaigns reap from the established institutions on both the left and the right? How might these outside actors complicate or even impede the efforts of campaigns? Much has been made of the culture gap between Democratic and Republican campaigns in terms of how they use tech and collaborate over data, but is the gap really that big? 


    Thursday June 4—2:00-3:00pm: Speedbumps on the Road to Gov’t as a Platform (Sponsored by Accela). Emma MulqueenyAmen Ra MasharikiGreg Bloom, and Mark Headd (moderator). Big cities, states, and national governments in the U.S. and U.K. have embraced open data. Events like NYC Big Apps and the National Day of Civic Hacking in the U.S., Hack the Government in the U.K., and GovHack in Australia are encouraging civic hackers to build new apps and services with government data. A growing number of commercial entitiesbig and small, new and old, are looking at open data as a way to build a business, or enhance an existing one. Several years into the open data revolution, how are we doing? This panel will discuss the current state of open data, “government as a platform” and have a frank and open discussion on where we’re falling short and how we can do better.

    Thursday June 4—3:30-4:30pm: NYC 2025: A Workshop with the Mayor’s Office Digital Team. Jeff MerrittMinerva Tantoco, and Jessica Singleton. Come brainstorm about the future beyond today’s effort to close the digital divide. Believe it or not, 2025 is just ten years away! At this workshop-style session, you can share your ideas and visions with City Hall’s digital doers.

    Friday June 5—2:00-3:00pm: Reinventing the Think Tank (sponsored by New America)Tim WuAnnmarie LevinsAlec Ross, and Anne Marie Slaughter (moderator). This panel will look at how to marry policy, technology, bottom-up change, and how to connect government to citizens in the business of solving public problems in this century.

    Friday June 5—3:30-4:30pm: Designing the Digital Legislature. Emma MulqueenyBen KallosSeamus KraftDavid Moore, and Melissa Sandgren (moderator). As representative bodies from the U.K. Parliament and U.S. Congress down to city councils start to modernize their use of technology, innovators on the inside and outside alike are working to think beyond simply delivering our grandparents’ government at the click of a mouse. New forms of interaction enabled by open, collaborative tools are on the horizon. This panel will hear from several key innovators helping point the way towards a genuinely digital legislature.

#PDF Civic Tech GovTech



“I’m hoping to challenge the audience to think critically about our role as advocates for digital democracy. Are we focused on the right problems? Where are our blind spots?”

Personal Democracy Forum is in less than two weeks, and we’re reaching out to some of the speakers for a quick preview of their respective talks and panels. What follows are a few words from Catherine Bracy, Code for America’s Director of Community Organizing, who will deliver a talk entitled “Public Engagement Is Broken. Are You Part of the Problem?”

So, for people who aren’t familiar with your work, how does it relate to civic tech?

Code for America’s mission is to build government that works for the people, by the people in the 21st century. We do that by collaborating with government on improving service delivery—in the health, safety and justice, and economic development areas—through technology. We also focus on improving the public’s relationship with government by creating innovative spaces and channels (sometimes digital) where government and residents can meet.

I understand you’ll be speaking at the conference about how public engagement is broken. Is this public engagement with government or with communities or something else entirely? You will also address how someone can tell if they are part of the problem; are people in the audience going to be squirming when you get there?

I’m speaking specifically about the public’s engagement with government. I’m certainly hoping to challenge the audience to think critically about our role as advocates for digital democracy. Are we focused on the right problems? Where are our blind spots? Why haven’t we been able to significantly move the needle on the public’s sense of trust in government? But, I’m also really hopeful and plan to share some bright spots I’m seeing.

The theme of the conference this year is the future of civic tech. As briefly as you like: Where do you think civic tech is going, what do we have to look forward to, and what pitfalls should people working in this sector be aware of?

I think we’re at a point in the civic (gov) tech movement where we can move from building apps to show what’s possible to really thinking strategically about how we can implement technology to make structural change inside government. We are beginning to measure our success not just by how many users a particular app gets, but by how much impact a tool has on a social outcome, or by the kinds of process and policy changes that happen within institutions as a result of building a tool. In terms of what to watch out for, I think we’re going to need to pay a lot of attention to privacy as we help governments open more data. But generally, there are lots of pitfalls whenever you try to change the status quo. As someone, can’t remember who, said, “the first ones through the wall are always the bloodiest.” But the friction is part of the process. It’s how we know we’re getting stuff done. And we’re extremely excited about what’s next. 

#PDF Civic Tech



Personal Democracy Forum is in less than three weeks, and we’re reaching out to some of the speakers for a quick preview of their respective talks and panels. What follows are a few words from Nancy Lublin, the CEO of and Crisis Text Line.

  • Your upcoming talk is titled “Winner Texts All.” In your work at Crisis Text Line, you’ve made intensely personal connections possible over a seemingly impersonal communication method. What has that taught you about capturing the power of the text message? Where is the inspiration for your talk coming from?

    Text feels both more private and anonymous, while also allowing for deeply personal real sharing. It’s a phenomenal medium for counseling. Last week someone posted something on Imgur that said: “I suffer from depression and my anxiety prevents me from calling the suicide hotline. Found out there is a text version 741-741 “Start” and it’s been some of the best advice no therapist in 16 years has given me.” That post was shared over 600,000 times in 24 hours, then went to Tumblr, then the homepage of Reddit.

    The theme of the conference this year is the future of civic tech. As briefly as you like: Where do you think civic tech is going, what do we have to look forward to, and what pitfalls should people working in this sector be aware of?

    I’m excited about how much is happening in this space, but I am going to lay down a controversial plea: we don’t need lots of stuff, we need lots of good stuff. For example, Crisis Text Line copycats are a really dumb idea that will confuse people and fragment the data. So while I believe in an open system, I’m hoping we can all be smart and collaborate to do the best, most important work, efficiently.