From left, Kate Krontiris, Matt Stempeck, and Marci Harris
Ford's Ken Washington (left) and Barton Gellman of The Century Foundation
From left, Kate Krontiris, Matt Stempeck, Marci Harris, Jerry Paffendorf, and Kathryn Peters
Chief Executive Officer, POPVOX
Chief Executive Officer, LOVELAND Technologies
Co-founder and COO, Democracy Works
Director of Civic Technology, Microsoft New York City
Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Krontiris: The title of this, as you can see is “How good can technology make our communities and our governments” and I think we’re going to have a fascinating conversation about civic life in America and beyond, and what role technology is playing to help spur some of that renewal that I think we’re so eager for. My name is Kate Krontiris, and I’m a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Immediately to my left is Matt Stempeck, the director of civic tech for Microsoft New York. He has a background in online advocacy and has been working with Microsoft most recently to think about how it can support the burgeoning civic tech ecosystem, particularly in New York City, and he’s going to talk a little bit about what that means.
Marci Harris, from POPVOX, the co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, which does a number of interesting, different things, but it’s basically sort of an online civic engagement platform that combines legislative information with the stories of actual people and provides that to Congress in a meaningful way.
To her left is Jerry Paffendorf, who is the co-founder and CEO of LOVELAND Technologies. LOVELAND is doing a lot of interesting things based locally in Detroit, and particularly working in a kind of mapping capacity to help people in Detroit see and visualize the land parcels in the area, both related to land use, taxes—a whole variety of different, local level, civic and public space issues.
And then rounding us up on the end there is Katie Peters. She’s the co-founder and operating officer of Democracy Works, which is an organization that launched about three or four years ago, four and a half years ago, to support everyday people to be more involved in voting processes. So, they’re doing two things—on the voter side, they’re trying to make it as easy as possible for people to register to vote and stay registered in the United States, and then working with election officials to make the tools and processes that they are implementing as voter-centric as possible.
I actually want to start with Katie. So, the most recent civic event that we can recall is the midterm elections, I think, in the United States—they just happened recently. So, my question for you is, when we’re thinking about elections as a core component of the civic life in the United States, what does it take in order to basically power this service of voter registration and voter engagement? So tell us a little bit about what it takes on the back end to be able to help people get involved in these sorts of formal processes, and what have we learned from this past election?
Peters: I’ll start with the second part first—I think that everyone is maybe seeing that this midterm had some of the lowest participation that we’ve seen in decades, and I think that the lesson is that if you as government want to engage your citizens, you have to go to them. You have to invite them, you have to build processes around them, and the way we run elections right now isn’t designed in that way, actually. It’s a set of rules and regulations carried out in a particular way to accommodate whoever happens to want to show up. So, the process of reorienting that so that it’s designed around the voter, and designed to pull voters in, and to be inviting is a thing that we’re doing on three different levels. In the biggest good news out of election day, for example—we work for the few charitable trusts and for Google and their voting information project to standardize, collect, and generally ensure the quality of polling place and ballot data across the country. That data sent from the Facebook voting buttons alone saw 6.1 million people look up their polling place last Tuesday. You make sure that people have the information they need.
Kate mentioned that one of the other things that we’ve been building over these years has been called TurboVote. It’s a website where you can sign up, and we will help you get registered to vote, we’ll help you stay registered to vote, update your information as you need to, request absentee ballots if you’re going to need to vote from somewhere other than home or if you need to vote on a day other than election day. This cycle we hit 225 colleges and universities implementing this with their students, encouraging them to vote. And we managed to serve a quarter of a million voters through that, which is a much more intensive process, because polling place data is distributed across 8,000 jurisdictions, and simply knowing what precinct maps are, and which addresses go to which local elementary school to cast ballots—you can imagine how much more complicated that data set is once you say, “What is the ID that you need to cast it? What is the deadline for being registered? When does one need to request that absentee ballot? What are the requirements for being eligible to do so?” And the answer is that it’s a really simple user interface problem, it’s a really simple user outreach problem. Turns out we know how to talk to voters, but giving them all that information and keeping it standardized, organized, and current is a real core of the problem, in a lot of ways. So we end up coming in and helping try to bring those things together across the 8,000 or so election jurisdictions across the country so that you, whoever you might be, and wherever you might be located, have the same basic access to the system as any other American, regardless of what kind of local election administration you live under, and who’s in charge of it.
Krontiris: What’s interesting to me about that is that you’re essentially a kind of very powerful and important back end to a lot of the information that people need to be able to even know how and where to vote, and so it sounds like you’re working with entities that have that data, and doing the work of bringing all of that data together, to kind of power a front end that’s easy to use, fun—what’s the dog on your website called?
Peters: The dog is Turbo.
Krontiris: Turbo. He’s the mascot.
Peters: But, for example, that national data set of polling place information with VAP involves an engineering team from Google. It involves three full-time staff and six temps who came there for the last two months before Election Day in my organization. It’s a team of five at the Pew Charitable Trusts. It’s a minor army of people, just making sure that polling place information alone, as a tiny piece of the election administration puzzle, gets out there and is standardized and ready for election in every cycle.
Audience: Do you see yourself getting into the space of offering more information about both sides of certain propositions in different states, because I vote in California. I live in San Francisco. It took me six hours to research every proposition. I literally took the day off work to figure out how to vote, because I had put it off. And, you know, we had 45, 46, 47, 48—you know, it was insane. I mean, that I went to probably eight, nine, ten websites to find out my position on the ones that I didn’t know a lot about—I knew half, going in, where I was going to stand on them, but I think that’s an interesting new space to be in. Maybe not for you guys, but maybe for Pew, or—
Peters: It’s interesting, and it’s really hard, and that’s one that varies even more than anything I’ve talked about by state, for example. In New York, we only had three, and they were pretty straight forward. California is very special. Part of the lines in Florida problem in 2012 was that they had seven pages’ worth of them that people were stopping and reading for the first time in the election booth, but no, that’s—I’m going to punt a little on that one. It turns out that doing that in a reliable, nonpartisan, purely informational way is spectacularly difficult.
Krontiris: I want to ask Matt, you’re working within the context of a very large institution, in this case a corporation, and thinking about civic tech. So, what are you seeing—I think, in general, in New York City, in terms of the landscape of civic tech, and what kind of ideas do you have about mainstreaming some of the best ideas of local innovators into institutions that can really make at-scale kind of change?
Stempeck: Similar to how TurboVote works across a number of different types of entities to get voting data in a clean, usable format where people see it, our group at Microsoft is fairly unique in that we work across multiple sectors. We work with city governments, in select U.S. cities, New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, with folks in D.C. and Seattle. We work across to support their strategic initiatives, and then we work with communities themselves, so that we’re co-designing solutions, not just thinking up ideas and trying to implement them, and then we’re working with universities to study the effects of civic engagement of that technology, and so I think what’s great about civic tech is that we’re taking on these really pernicious challenges that the start-up and the market haven’t solved yet, like, “How do we get Americans to vote, and how do we help low-income Americans with all the hurdles in their lives?” And what’s great about what we’re doing is actually trying to take that on from a number of different sectors together so that it’s not just a tech company, it’s not just a city government on their own, or a mayor’s office on their own. It’s multi-sector solutions to multi-sector problems, and so we’re a unique situation in that sense, and we’re also unique in that we’re going deep in these cities and building long-term strategic relationships in each of the cities that we operate in to get that work done.
Krontiris: And why are you focusing on those places?
Stempeck: We see a willingness from the city governments in those places to innovate and experiment. It’s a shame Nigel can’t be here, because Boston, under Mayor Menino especially, is a great place for new urban mechanics, and for city governments to be willing to innovate and experiment, and then again, partner with tech companies to get that done, and partner with universities to see what effect those experiments have. And they work with community groups to, you know, design the experiments from day one, so the communities are involved and excited about the innovations that they’re testing, and so in each of these places we’ve got willingness to experiment, we’ve got universities, and we’ve got a strong tech ecosystem that can support that work.
Krontiris: So you’re viewing yourself in some way as a convener, and in addition to the technical expertise that you can bring to the space, but as a convener of other entities.
Stempeck: Yeah, and it’s one of the nice things about the civic tech movement as a whole, is that it’s beginning to coalesce in a way that we’re seeing—you know, civic hall launched last week in New York. We’re seeing physical hubs, and places where people can go to actually talk this work through, maybe even have a desk.
Krontiris: Some Internet!
Stempeck: Some Internet. The movement’s maturing in that way.
Willoughby: My name’s Carter Willoughby. I’m from Boston, and I work with Tom Menino at Boston city hall, and he started all of this, so I just wanted to echo what Matt said about the importance of top-down commitment. I think that’s the real critical ingredient, because it echoes something of what David Goulden said in the previous session, is the companies that are really driving this change in the business world—there’s a commitment at the top, and we saw Bill Ruh from GE, and you think of Immelt and the commitment that GE has made to the industrial Internet. Boston city hall, it wouldn’t have happened with bottom-up innovation with just some smart folks from Cambridge coming in and trying to do some things, it was really the mayor that drove it and wove it into all the departments of the city and was able to make the outreach to the citizens’ groups and the activists, getting people engaged at all levels, so you’ve got to have that top-down commitment to drive it.
Stempeck: Which is almost paradoxical, right? Like, Susan Crawford mentions in her new book, “The Responsive City,” that we’re trying to disrupt some hierarchical systems, and some legacy systems, and to do that you actually need the executives at the top of those very systems to be brought in.
Harris: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think that that speaks to some of the things that have been learned over the past few years in civic tech, in that the projects that are working with governments, and cooperatively, not necessarily just storming the gates from outside, have actually shown, I think, greater impact and that they’re sustainable. So, it’s not just that there’s buy-in from the top down, but also that the projects are taking the time to understand what the real needs are within government, as well as on the citizen side, so that there’s a cooperative effort.
Krontiris: So, maybe just picking up on that, I know that POPVOX has kind of been thinking a lot about learning and impact, basically, in this space. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve learned from the first iteration, and how is that informing how you’re moving forward right now?
Harris: Just to give a bit of background, the idea of POPVOX came when I was working as a staffer in Congress. My co-founder was an advocate that was trying to get the attention of Congress, so we were living the problem that eventually POPVOX was created to solve, which was both trying to have better signal, rather than noise, of all the incoming constituent input being directed at Congress, and then also to provide a place where the various positions that organizations were taking on bills to support or oppose could be found in one place. I noted when I was a staffer that I was doing the same Google search that every other staffer was doing, “Who supports HR 1234,” The idea with POPVOX was to bring that together in one place.
I could talk for a very long time about what we’ve learned. We’re in the process of re-launching the site with a 2.0, kind of incorporating some of what we’ve learned over the past four years, but I think one of the things that is common with a lot of the online civic engagement projects of the past few years is that the 1.0 of these projects really enabled those people who are already participating—with rare exceptions, and there are plenty of exceptions. We lowered barriers, but in a lot of cases, the people who were still familiar with how Congress worked, or are comfortable figuring out what a bill number is, and there’s still an enormous barrier to participation that is not technological, it’s a UX problem. And I think, to Katie’s point, our next iteration, both at POPVOX and I think in the civic technology world, is to try to solve some of those UX issues, to widen the net of people who are participating, we’re all going to be more mobile, we’re also working with each other so that, you know, we, for instance, are talking to a lot of companies and projects that are really good at targeting a millennial audience, or designing great videos to explain what’s going on in a bill, or various—we are not going to be the one company or project that figures out how to explain how Congress works to everyone. We do a lot more good if we work as a back end, which you were just describing, to really focus on that delivery mechanism of getting messages to Congress in a way that Congress can use, and then lots of other projects and companies can work on “How you explain this to a millennial audience, how do you explain this to an older audience, how do you explain this to a rural audience” etc. So, I think that the 2.0 of the civic engagement world is scale, and it’s scale by working together.
Krontiris: Tell us a little bit about on the receiving end in Congress, like, what are some examples of what’s happened as a result of the sort of service that POPVOX is able to provide?
Harris: So, the analogy I always give for what it felt like to be in Congress, on the receiving end of this information, is like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. I mean, you just could never get through all the information that was coming in in time to see anything other than a new pile building up.
Krontiris: Sounds delicious.
Harris: Yeah, right? Constituent mail is not as delicious as chocolate, but it is so important, and, you know, part of that experience of reading those letters, which actually do get read, was realizing that there are some really important stories out there that shouldn’t just be left to the black box of the constituent management system or the discretion of a staffer to make it up the chain and actually become part of the debate. So, part of the goal with POPVOX was to provide a place where you could actually see what a member is hearing, where members could see what their colleagues were hearing. And on the receiving end in Congress, there’s kind of a—we always say, there’s 535 small businesses. Every office runs their constituent management piece in different ways, but there are softwares that are processing that. Our goal with POPVOX is that they know that when it’s coming to our system, it’s a verified constituent, they’re only weighing in one time per issue, it’s going as directly as possible into their system so they’re spending less time filtering and trying to process it and more time responding and actually, you know, getting through the information that’s there.
Krontiris: Okay, that’s very helpful. I want to ask you, Jerry, we’ve talked about—when we think about civic life in America there are things that are event driven, like elections, for example, but there are also many cities that are experiencing—we’ll take Detroit as an example here—a kind of contextual moment in time that feels a bit like a crisis, a kind of particular event. Talk to us a bit about what it’s like to try and improve people’s awareness around what’s happening in that city, in that kind of moment in time, and what are we learning about what happens when we build systems in a kind of crisis environment? Are they sustainable when things improve, for example? Talk a little bit about how context affects the kind of problem solving that we’re able to do.
Paffendorf: Good question. I moved to Detroit about six years ago, very early 2009, and I sort of accidentally found myself a part of the civic technology scene. I think I was kind of walking through the forest, doing the regular kind of Internet startup thing—what are cool ideas for something? And then fell into a civic technology hole, which is about 30 feet deep, and I passed out.
Peters: You really know how to make us sound like an inviting group.
Paffendorf: Woke up some time later, and I was at the forefront of some sort of local civic technology expression revolution. No, the way that we started out—so, real short, LOVELAND is a company dedicated to mapping cities, and we map them at the parcel level. So, like when you search an address on Google and you see a map marker, the address is actually a reference to a shape or a subdivision of space that has size, you know, like a square, a rectangle, a triangle, or a rhombus, or something. So we kind of make x-ray glasses for looking at a city and seeing every shape that makes up that city, and then querying different attributes of it. So, every property has an owner, has zoning, has a taxable value, it has whether it’s up to date on the taxes that it’s paying—and those taxes are supposed to go to make city services function or not function. So when you take the red pill on it, parcels a really interesting, they’re sort the cellular unit for how our cities work or don’t work. They’re occupied or their unoccupied, they’re productive or they’re not productive, they’re blighted or they’re not blighted.
And so in Detroit we started, just through the observation as you traveled through the city—you know, it was a city that had two million people 60 years ago, and now it has about 600,000, so when you just think about that you have a lot of excess—you’ve become too small for your clothes, you don’t have enough people to occupy all that space in the same way that you once did, so you have sort of blight—I’ve got to remind myself, sometimes people don’t use that word. Blight meaning distressed architecture. Vacant houses, vacant buildings, dumping, overgrowth, you know, things of that nature that accidentally accumulate, that you don’t want there, you know, are a huge problem in the city. So, you necessarily, as you drive through it or live in it, you ask yourself questions like “Who owns this?” or “Who would I get in touch with to fix the problem that exists here?” So, the easiest way that we could determine to help solve that problem was to make a map that showed who owns everything in the city. So, we put out a website called Whydontweownthis.com. It had ownership information for every single property in Detroit, and it also carried information about tax foreclosure in the city.
One of the things that originally attracted me was the story of the mythical $50 dollar house, or the $500 dollar vacant lot, and I just couldn’t get my brain around how something like that could exist, and it turns out it’s part of the tax foreclosure pipeline in the city, and people no longer paying for their properties because they don’t get city services, they’re leaving town, and things of this nature, so we sort of—I don’t want to say accidentally, like we were that blind to it, but again—accidentally ended up making something that was viewed as an essential city service. People of all types, even in city government, would use our tools to see that sort of information aggregated and put together through a nice UI—you know, very easy to visually sort, show me everything that the city of Detroit itself owns—holy crap, I didn’t know we owned 90,000 properties, that’s insane! Show me everything going into foreclosure—ah, it’s a terrible situation! And these were the people who were talented, experienced people running their own departments, but had never been able to see this information put together like that, and the same thing for residents, and so for a long time, maybe four years or so, more than four years, we sort of did the independent thing, because the city wasn’t that keen to share its public data.
There’s a lot of questions about why would people want to see this, we can’t show public information to the public, you know the drill. There’s lots of reasons why, I think, that range from cities being concerned that that their data doesn’t have enough integrity to share, so there’s sort of a risk averseness. We can’t put out wrong data! But the alternative is the present. When there’s no data out, and things are horrible. And then, down to job security stuff, people don’t want to see their department transformed, sometimes, because it could mean that if it took seven people, and $2 dollars per look-up, they don’t want to transform and make it free and simple, even if that’s for the greater, greater good, out there. So, we sort of wandered in the desert by ourselves, smoking cigarettes behind a loading dock, and somebody we knew in the department would come out with a thumb drive with the latest tax information. Put the trench coat up, go home, pop it in and update it. But just about a year ago, actually, almost to the day—you may have seen the papers. Detroit is going through bankruptcy. They actually just had the court rulings. Their plan of adjustment was approved the other day, whatever all that means, but they’re restructuring their debts, and they can use money more effectively, rather than paying off creditors to provide city services.
About a year ago, as part of that trial, we got invited in to sit at a big table with a number of foundations and city department people, folks from the White House and local business leaders, to ask “If you guys could do one thing to help us get on top of the blight problem and the property tax problem in Detroit, what would you guys do?” And we proposed actually going out and visiting every single property in Detroit, to sort of do a property census, you know? Which had never been conducted before. People just knew that there were a lot of problems: Ooh, a lot of crappy stuff over here, seems really messed up over here, but to what extent, it was not quantified, so it was not plannable, manageable, budgetable, all those sorts of things, so for the first time we really got a chance to flex the muscles that we had been training independently, to create a coalition of city departments, both at the local level and state level and city residence to go out and visit all 400,000 properties in Detroit using technology we’d built, an app called Blexting, which is short for blight texting. You know, tap the parcel you’re looking at, take a picture, enter it. Is it occupied or unoccupied, what’s the land use that’s happening here, there’s blight indicators, is there dumping, is there fire damage. And created a service, a website, called Motorcitymapping.org where you can literally, city-wide or neighborhood by neighborhood, press a button to see all the vacant properties that are open to trespass, all fire damage, all dumping, all residential properties in poor condition that are owned by the city, or whatever sort of criteria that you’re looking for. And what it’s amazingly morphed into is, once we were given the spark to do it—and maybe this is kind of leading into a, how do you—you need to start somewhere, and so often times you’re going to start independently before you get invited into the big tent, I guess. Probably no other way to do it. But when the magic really started to happen with our work in Detroit was when the rubber met the road, as far as being invited to collaborate with the decision makers, because they make the budgets, they set the policies, they—you know, you can deluge people with emails requesting to purchase a property or demolish a property, but until that’s somehow incorporated into the city’s civic pipeline, whatever you want to call it—process, really is what it is, it’s not going to do as much good as forming like Voltron together into one thing.
Harris: Well, you start by solving their problem.
Peters: But that’s the thing, is that it’s less that it’s top-down, to be honest, than that it’s outside-in. You know? You have to sort of prove it from outside, and what you need there is the sense that the constituents need it, that you’re doing something for the citizenry, that you’re providing a valid service. And then you have to go ahead and get adopted. And the adoption part does tend to—you want relatively senior people, you want decision makers who have been vested with that sort of democratic legitimacy. It doesn’t always have to start at the very tip top of the system, but it has to get pulled in and made official. We have to stop being renegades, for all of your cloak and daggering around.
Paffendorf: Smoking and a thumb drive.
Peters: I’ve got to say, you make civic tech sound way more adventurous, with your bear traps and your trench coats. The highlight of my week is when a county official snail-mails me a hand written list of polling places and precincts, and I have to go get someone to OCR it. There have never been cigarettes and trench coats, in my variation.
Krontiris: So, it sounds like in this context, in this sort of crisis moment in time, in Detroit, there was an opportunity, and you’ve done something good with that opportunity. I mean, what are you seeing when that happens, kind of, moving forward? Assuming things get back on track.
Paffendorf: So this is kind of a framing, in a nutshell, thing. It’s a lesson I learned in Detroit, and I feel like it probably applies elsewhere, is that underlying the more self-evident crises that are happening in the city—there are multiple ones, you know, there are economic change crises, the whole job situation, what Americans need to do to manufacture just changed, and that was a crisis. There are social crises in Detroit—there’s a horrible history of racism and regional relationships. The city doesn’t get along well with its much whiter neighboring counties and cities. There’s a blight crisis, a physical crisis of architectural distress, pollution, and mess. But underlying a lot of that stuff was an information crisis. Really, nobody knew what was going on, and I feel like that’s a pattern that repeats. Any time you see—any time might be a strong word, but really there’s just a lack of understanding, in a truly fundamental, almost shocking way. You’re talking about, you know, Lucy and the chocolate factory, was that her name? Yeah. That type of thing, where it’s amazing, because you have—they’re not bad people, they’re the best at what they do. They’re competent, caring people running the departments, but they’re operating through an information crisis that they can’t even see that they’re operating in, and it might just be that some of these tools, the ability to organize information and make it so accessible is so new that it doesn’t even occur to you as something that’s possible, you know what I mean?
Peters: Or, actually I’m going to borrow a totally unrelated sector idea. There’s a fantastic book called “The Bright Continent” that just came out where a woman named Dayo Olopade writes about innovation in Africa mostly being that it’s innovation that comes from a place of lean resources, and lean circumstances, as opposed to fat, and in the same way, if you compare what you have in Silicon Valley, with all of its venture capital, and all of its support networks, and all of the deep understanding of technical power and all these new ideas, government is operating lean. It’s a little strange to compare, say, the federal budget to the Kenyan economy, but actually, in terms of the resources available to them, and the restrictions on their ability to act. No latency, you can’t have service disruptions, failure isn’t really an option—those kind of limitations end up serving to give you a similar innovation environment, there. It’s a lot more restrictive, it’s a lot harder. There’s what they don’t know that they don’t know, but there’s also the things that they understand but don’t have the resources to do.
Krontiris: Okay, let’s actually open it up to you guys. I know that there are a bunch of questions. Sure, we can start here, David.
Audience: So I think you’ve all done pretty amazing work and your numbers are impressive and I kind of want to learn from you guys about adoption, which you kind of started talking about, but you didn’t really tell us how you are having people adopt and use your technologies. Your example was you go, actually, in the field and you map all the buildings, but I’m curious about what specific strategies you’re using to have people who need to be using this information, and this data, actually have access to them and adopt them, because I think those would be interesting similarities.
Krontiris: So, maybe Marci, do you want to take that?
Harris: When we started POPVOX, and none of the co-founders had ever done a start-up before, we didn’t realize that it was supposed to be impossible to serve three different user types, so we just did it anyway. But, that’s kind of key to adoption of POPVOX, so that the three user types are individuals who are sharing their opinions with Congress, members of Congress and staff who are receiving the input, but also the advocacy organizations and ad-hoc organizations that are organizing around a particular issue, and the reason we designed it that way is because offline, the drivers of people participating, at least historically, are these organizations, or even parties, that are trying to say, you know, hey, go tell Congress this or that. I happen to believe that that’s changing, and we’re even seeing in POPVOX that there are a lot more people who just care about an issue and decide to go tell all of their friends on Facebook or Twitter, “Hey, you should go tell Congress this or that,” but our initial adoption—about 50 percent of our adoption—has been through organizations that are telling their membership to go weigh in on a particular bill that’s pending in Congress. Our adoption right now, we’ve had about 400,000 people use the system to send a message to Congress, and we’ve delivered about four million messages to Congress.
Krontiris: Katie, do you want to talk about that?
Peters: I think you have to make lots of friends. If you’re going to be good at the technology portion, you can’t necessarily be good at everything, so, for us, reaching voters is a game that we’ve effectively outsourced. We work with colleges and universities. We teach them some basics of digital organizing and we send them to go register their students to vote. Similarly, we decided that if this needed to be made official, we needed to win over local election officials, and we found a fascinating user anthropologist, who was willing to go spend some serious time actually shadowing elections operations. I went home to my home town in central Missouri, and followed my clerk who’s been in office 32 years and built some really fantastic tools, and asked her—peppered her with questions for a week straight, about everything that she did, and followed that up with enough other places that we’re pulling them in. And little by little, you find your partner organizations, but it’s—that’s the part where you have to go from building the platform to building an entire ecosystem. If we were going to voters all by ourselves, it wouldn’t get very far.
Krontiris: Okay, great, so we have another question here.
Long: I’m Charlie Long. I co-chair the Urban Land Institute’s sustainable development committee here in the Bay Area, and I think all of your stories are just absolutely fantastic, and fundamentally they’re about a redistribution of power. I think the points made having to do with, you need leadership from the top—usually the leadership at the top doesn’t want to share power, and so it really takes a particular kind of leadership to basically give the green light to the sharing of power. The question I have really has to do with the peculiar nature of climate change and resiliency planning, because we just finished a project where we looked at models in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s really clear that no one city, or no one county, or no one flood control district can act all by itself, and the need there is almost the kind of need that Jerry is meeting in Detroit, which is multi-jurisdictional information. So, it would be interesting to hear all of you talk about how the information redistribution of power is working in terms of climate change and resiliency, because those are some very, very major challenges that we face.
Krontiris: So just to clarify that I understand your question, you’re asking—when you say the information redistribution of power, what are you referring to with climate issues? Give us an example of something you’re thinking about.
Long: Well, for instance, if you’re trying to protect the area within one city from sea level rise, the action needs to be not just by that one city, it needs to be by all the cities that are adjacent to that city, because if one city is protected from sea-level rise, the water’s just simply going to go around the levy, or whatever other protection exists, and so it requires cooperation at a scale that is frankly unusual in this country, because every single jurisdiction usually has more of a competitive relationship with the adjacent jurisdictions than a cooperative relationship. And so how can the tools that you all are experimenting with, and frankly moving ahead with, create compelling information having to do with how jurisdictions need to work together to basically address a common problem.
Krontiris: Does anyone want to take that?
Paffendorf: Two things. First one is sort of flippant. So, in Michigan people—this is flippant, they’re not excited about climate change, but one of the things that people talk about in that state, is that’s what’s finally going to bring everyone to Michigan, and back to Detroit, because it’s too damn cold right now, and there’s all the fresh water, so y’all can—
Long: In fact, my friends in Detroit are all saying, “Now when are you coming?”
Paffendorf: Yeah, right. Exactly. I just had to say it, because it’s not as urgent of a need back home. But, just speaking from personal experience with this citywide survey and the blight mapping project, one thing I saw happen that created a lot of regional cooperation is, first off, there was a mission that was big enough—you know, in this case, this was bankruptcy, and this was blight in Detroit, which is almost an outlandishly-sized problem. In fact, on Detroit’s terms, it was almost kind of like a moon landing. It still is, in that way, where it’s just something that feels totally impossible to do. People are paralyzed by it, but then there was a glimmer of hope, and some funding and resources that got behind it, and then it was like, well, maybe we can do this damn thing. So, like, train the astronauts, get the engineers. We’ll see if we can figure this thing out, even if it costs, you know, five billion dollars, or whatever it ends up being, and takes ten years. But, when we conduct—matching that mission, which inspired people, with some kind of basic data set—so, when we had, you’ve got to imagine you’ve got more than a dozen departments all around the city that collect their own data about property and stuff, utilities, fire department, crime data, coding, and permits, all of this stuff. More than that, but all of this stuff. They didn’t want to combine their data together, ever, for whatever reason—I don’t know why, but probably similar to what you’re talking about.
Regionally, people didn’t want to share their stuff, whatever that reason is. When we were able to provide a base layer of new information that nobody had ever seen before, that this is the human context of what is perceived to be blighted, vacant, unoccupied, land use of these types—they couldn’t wait to shuffle all their data together against it, because it created a common picture that they had never seen before. So, maybe as a tip, I don’t know if this is useful, but to correlate it with what I saw in Detroit, the climate change goal that you talked about is a big enough one to inspire people, I would think. It’s also sort of abstract, so people kind of wait for crises to happen, but it could be framed in a way that’s inspiring enough, and if you could put together some sort of data set that you could show, like a baseline that you could share with all these different municipalities to basically make it very easy for them to say, if you could share something with us to match into this, we could show you something interesting back, right away. It makes it easy for them to do, and then makes the result of what they see back very compelling. Because that’s what we saw in Detroit. It was easy, share it, and they’d go, “Well, damn, utilities are all off in these properties, but you say they’re occupied.” And it’s like, “Well, yeah, that’s because there’s something happening there that you didn’t know about,” and it could be the same kind of thing here.
Peters: I think he hit on the magic piece, and I’m going to repeat it back, is that sense of it being a big enough problem, but also an urgent enough one and with a vision. I think the problem is thinking about seawalls or rising tides and all these other things is not one of coordination. The coordination problem will almost certainly solve itself once there’s a common vision that you can go for. It’s that democratic systems are notoriously bad at long-term planning. It’s actually a problem that Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel were talking about yesterday is that, we know that the technological disruption we’re unleashing right now will resolve itself economically over the course of a generation or so, that the kinds of jobs that exist, and what people do, will fix themselves in some ways, in a system that adapts, but that the short-term harm still hurts a great deal, and you have to think compassionately about that. Our governmental systems are designed to deal with the short-term harms. We talk about jobs in the day to day, not because we don’t believe that in the long term the economy will sort itself out, and new jobs will sort of appear and we’ll figure it out, but because being an unemployed 40-year-old trained in some sort of manufacturing industry that’s getting outsourced or roboticized is where the pain points are, and so when the pain points aren’t here yet, that vision and that moment of needing to come together, is what’s missing.
Harris: I also think there’s an opportunity to tie in with what you were saying earlier about outside-in, and ULI is actually in an interesting place. My first public service experience ever was as tornado recovery coordinator in my town in Tennessee, and we brought ULI in to help us, you know, create a vision of what the town could look like when we recovered.
Audience: Was that Jackson, Tennessee?
Harris: It was Jackson, Tennessee.
Audience: I was on that panel.
Harris: I thought you looked familiar! And we’re doing it. I mean, ten years later, that entertainment district—well, it was amazing to see. I actually call that experience my first start-up. My first start-up was a town. The town came together and had a vision, and then—I mean, it gives me chills just thinking about what then came because the community coalesced around a vision that ULI actually helped to seed. And I think that with bigger vision and cross-jurisdictional problems and big issues that are not necessarily going to be taken up by individual governments, an outside entity helping to bring people together collaboratively in a vision, and then having those people sell it back to their representation, is the way our democracy works.
Audience: Well, I think all three of you hit the nail on the head, there’s no question about it.
Stempeck: If I were to actually contest Katie’s point that the acute crisis isn’t felt yet. New York just marked—I wouldn’t say celebrated, but marked the two-year anniversary of Sandy, and Sandy was a big wake-up call to New York on the regional level and on the climate change level of adaptation. The city’s planning a lot to help mitigate climate change, and do what we can, but also recognizing that we are now in an era of bigger and more frequent storms, so how do we adapt to that. And a lot of that is working regionally with New Jersey, with various transportation agencies and city agencies. I think open data helps a lot there, especially within a standard everyone can use. I think organizationally you need to go to work across departments, and have incentive and people who are empowered to do that, like Jerry’s point of the unknown unknowns, and being able to work laterally. One neat program I’ll just shout out, in New York, is Rise NYC, where they put up $30 million dollars for any kind of business focused on climate adaptation. So, you have everything from the physical seawall, which they brought in, like, a giant steel wall to the startup demo, to really lightweight web software to help utility companies dispatch people better to respond to downed power lines, but again, that gets to the point of attacking it from every angle, right? And then also knowing that you’re all there, together, and using similar data as each other really helps it actually have any impact whatsoever.
Krontiris: Who provided the funding for that?
Stempeck: I think this—I knew you were in New York for Sandy, so I know that you were—
Peters: That? Yeah, it wasn’t fun.
Stempeck: I believe the city of New York and the Economic Development Corporation.
Krontiris: Okay, so we have a question here, and then we have one down at the end, so we’ll go here first.
Audience: My question is, is it possible, you think, that technology could make government big while making it low cost? So, satisfying liberals to make pervasive government, and appeasing conservatives by making it lower cost, so you get the best of both worlds. I wonder if you think technology can enable this utopia, if you will.
Paffendorf: This is the dream of civic tech, right? Is that you’ll have an effective government that’s effective, but also responsive to citizen’s needs, but also efficient and lightweight, right? And, I’ll let you guys speak to the political realities of achieving this, but I think another key part of that is that civil society is a big part of civic tech, and what civic tech enables is not just government tech and government IT, but it also allows communities to play a role like they never have before. And part of smarter government is hearing the citizens’ voices for the first time, which Marci and Katie have built their careers doing, and basically allowing that citizen layer on top of the government layer to interact, so you are providing some of the services and, you know, at the civil society level.
Peters: I will say, I sort of think that civic tech might help keep government smaller, not necessarily in the sense of overall budgets or scale but in terms of proximity to the citizens it’s serving. Elections are a really hard problem. We look at all the ways where there are lines, and there are inequalities, and it’s run out of, as I said before, 8,000 separate jurisdictions across the country. Every state sets its own election law, but it’s generally the counties, or in some places the towns, that actually carry it out and hold most of the power. In the past, the main way we’ve addressed problems is by passing additional federal laws that hand down requirements and mandates so that in the 1990s, you had motor voter, the National Voter Registration Act, and in 2002 you had the Help America Vote Act, HAVA, and you decreed how they should be run, and you added layers of regulation, and that works in some ways. It is a mechanism for solving a problem. But what we’re doing instead is trying it from the opposite direction. We’re dealing with code as a code base as opposed to code as legal structure, and we’re starting with each of the 8,000, and thinking more about if you want the end result to be that each voter gets the services they need, which do vary considerably between urban and rural jurisdiction, and college students versus retirees, can you keep the service delivery in the hands of those 8,000 separate people who actually know their constituents much better, and do something that’s a little more personalized and a little more customized, which then, in that sense, is small, rather than big.
Krontiris: Okay, so I think Leroy, you’re going to get the last question here.
Catherine: Wait, let me in too.
Krontiris: And then Catherine. But we need to keep things moving along. So, you ask your question, then you ask your question, then we’ll have the panel respond to those questions.
Leroy: I appreciate the work that you do, and I appreciate the work that Detroit is doing. My question to you: what plans or system do you have in place to engage the community if there’s a negative turnout in the taking up of civic tech? Because if the community takes up this civic tech, it will be able to see farther. What’s next, after civic tech?
Krontiris: Okay, so, question there about what happens when there’s a negative reaction. I’ll let you think about your answers there, and then what’s next. And what is your question, Catherine?
Catherine: You started talking about this already, but essentially we’ve got a system where people are not voting, but then people who are actually trying to vote are being dissuaded from voting because of the law, and I’m wondering if civic tech can actually help people vote when you’ve got folks that are actively passing laws to keep them from participating.
Krontiris: Okay, so both of these questions, I think, get at what should we be concerned about. What are the dangers here? It’s not a panacea. So, does anyone have any particular responses to Leroy or Catherine’s question?
Paffendorf: I have. It’s a general one about how transparency really feels, when it gets very extreme, and this might be a little bit further out there, where my brain was going when you were asking your question before too, because I do feel like that’s the trend of things, but I also feel like as computers keep doing their dance of sensing more about the world, and capturing more imagery, from the ground or from the sky, and as more information that’s technically public right now actually becomes public and queryable and attachable back to individual people, I think it’s going to feel really weird. It will feel weird in an unpredictable way, and we’ll probably live differently because it feels weird, and I’m sorry I can’t be more specific about it, because it’s one of those singularities that makes your mind go, like—I don’t know what that’s going to be like. Maybe as an example, there’s a really neat website called Enigma.io, which is trying to be like Google for public information, and if you type your name into that, you might find some really weird things that you didn’t know were public information, but exist out there. For the negative side of things, I’m trying to think, like—yeah, I don’t know. I creep myself out.
Harris: Well, I would say on the question of negativity, we actually already have that, and I think we’re living almost at the height of that, or the extreme of the pendulum swing right now, with the gridlock, and the partisanship, and the lack of participation, and the cable news discussions that we have right now, and I think that’s the extreme. I think that technology can actually help us, because this is—one of my theories is that that negativity is driven by a top-down activism system that means that you have to keep people really jazzed up and passionate in order to have them participate, especially if you’re at an organization trying to drive that participation. So whether you’re cable news looking for audience, or an online publication looking for clicks, or organizations looking for action—you’re trying to get people really angry, really passionate, really jazzed up, and that just lends itself to a lot of negativity, because the power and the pulls are on the polls. Oh, that was a good statement. But, I think that technology enables a flatter participation that is not so top-down, and that if we can get the UX right, we can have people participating while they’re not quite so passionate, and not always so angry, and not quite so driven that you can actually share your opinion and participate when you’re feeling kind of like you’d like to evaluate the pros and cons of something, and that brings us to a place where we can have a more rational and cooler discussion.
Paffendorf: I’ll mention, real quick, a phrase, I’ve fallen in love with this phrase: the invention of the ship is the invention of the shipwreck, and I don’t know what kind of new and amazing wrecks we’re all building right now, but they will be there, even if they’re better. Even if it’s nicer to be able to cruise from Europe to the Northeastern U.S.
Krontiris: Katie, did you want to say something in response to this?
Peters: I did, I was going to see if Matt wanted anything in here first.
Stempeck: Well, I think that all civic tech is on the spectrum between politics and civics, and—I might leave it at that.
Peters: I think what I would comment, and pull back up, is Genevieve Bell from last night, who said that the tech only does what we have decided as a society we are going to design it to do, and I think the fun part about being a civic technologist is that we come from a discipline that thinks about user experience and user interface, and so what I do is try and build things for the voter. They are my constituents, they are my clients, they are my users, and user is a small term for that, in a very real way. It’s a deep relationship, and you have to care about them a lot. The problem is that that is not the sole thing that has to drive either technology—we’ve designed tons of bad technology that ignores those principals—and it’s not the soul thing that drives governance. So I can do a lot to make sure people know what ID they need when they come to the polls. I can do a lot to let them make sure that they know how they can go about getting that. But I can’t do a lot about the costs of getting your birth certificate in Texas, and so part of—
Catherine: Or the fact that it should be illegal that you have to have that in the first place.
Peters: Part of what you need, then, is to take not just the technology that you’re building, because it’s not just about the platform that comes out of it, but those principals of designing for the citizen, and really getting those centered elsewhere, because when those aren’t in play, you know, there’s plenty of things outside of our abilities to cope that our lives very different, or a lot harder.
Krontiris: I think when we talk about civic technology, we touch on issues of justice, of participation, of law, of power in society, and I think if we had another three hours, we could really dig into some of these different topics in different ways, so I would encourage you to seek out these individuals at lunch, or the rest of the conference, and really ask questions about how they did what they did, because I think there’s a lot about this kind of dogged attention to trying to fix a wrong that you see in the world that they’re exemplars of. So I want to thank you for joining all of us, and thank you, as well, for your great questions and participation, so, thank you.