A presentation by Tiana Epps-Johnson, Founder and Executive Director, Center for Technology and Civic Life.


Kirkpatrick: Okay, now we’re going to get more deeply into the civic tech and what’s happening with the digital divide. Tiana Epps-Johnson is founder and executive director of the Center for Technology and Civic Life, and what that organization does is publish civic datasets for the public that helps train election workers and find better ways for people and technology to work together. So, Tiana, there you are. Please join us on stage. Thank you so much.

Epps-Johnson: Thank you so much. Let’s go back a slide. Civic technology is maturing as a field, and as we grow, we’re having conversations about what civic tech actually means. We’re celebrating our accomplishments, and increasingly we’re looking inward and having honest conversations about whether we’re actually facilitating in the types of increased access, transparency, accountability, and connectedness that’s at the core of the work of so many of us.

My career in civic technology has been centered in the elections and voting space. And as I approach my five-year anniversary of being part of this very sleep deprived but dedicated team that published the first nationwide dataset of polling places for free online, I want to start a conversation with you today about are democracy’s persistent and arguably widening the digital divide. We’ve seen a huge growth in the number of civic tech organizations building tools with the aim of improving their communities. Undoubtedly, communities have new ways to engage with local issues, connect with their local elected officials, and engage with government agencies online. We’ve heard about many of those already this morning.

But this increased access to institutions and information isn’t created equally. Here’s an example. In 2013, the Center for Civic Design did an election website presence check. They wanted to find out how many counties where elections are generally administered have at least basic voting and elections information online. And what they found was shocking: 966 counties, or nearly a third of all the counties in the US, had no web presence at all with election information. So I want to dig into some of the challenges, both for civic technologists and also for local government to modernize the way that government and communities interact using technology.

We should probably start this conversation by talking about federalism and local control. This is a room that knows that the boundaries that define powers in the US are a lot more complicated than this map. There are an overwhelming number of responsibilities that counties, cities, even more localized special districts are exclusively responsible for in the US, and more often than not, these are the responsibilities that most affect our daily lives: mayors, city councils, school boards, fire districts. There are nearly 8,000 government agencies responsible for US elections alone. So federalism is a huge challenge for those of us that believe in civic technology, because civic tools are powered by civic data that’s maintained by these thousands of local entities. And there are very, very, very few widely adopted data standards.

These are the faces of millennials in the wild, collecting ballot data via physical mail.


Because for these jurisdictions, sending ballot data by mail was their preferred method of delivery. So even if you’re building this single tool, you’re faced with this daunting data challenge that includes phone calls and faxes and physical mail, and it really becomes more of an organizing challenge than a technology problem.

And for those of us in the open government space, connecting individuals with the information that’s directly relevant to them becomes an even more acute data challenge, because the information that makes those connections is this very difficult and confusing political geography: precincts that determine where you vote or electoral districts that determine who your representatives are and who is on your ballot. These political geographies cut through sort of all of the traditional ways that we understand areas. Things like census tracks and zip codes are totally not helpful for us.

Take this apartment building in Nashville, TN for example. There’s an electoral district that cuts straight through this apartment building. So neighbors literally vote different ballots, and they have different representatives on the metro council. And I’m sure you can guess that the information about these boundaries are also maintained by these thousands of local election jurisdictions in no standard format.

So what we’re seeing are a couple of major trends. We’re seeing tools that are built to be able to scale to any level of government and to multiple geographies, but without the data to really make them come fully to fruition. We’ll see tools with a national audience, but with shallow data that can connect you with information about maybe federal or statewide issues, maybe your state legislature, but there’s a local information gap. And then we’re seeing these really rich local tools with really powerful information and data, but they’re concentrated in a handful of communities. These tools are usually deployed first in the communities where they’re developed, and those are the places that you’d largely expect.

If we look at civic tech organizations in the open government space that were funded, as defined by a Knight Foundation study in 2013, you see that there’s a huge concentration in the San Francisco Bay area, in New York, and to a smaller extent in Washington, DC. And as civic technologists, after we build a tool and it works very well, we generally target population centers next. And when we do that, we’re leaving huge parts of the country behind.

So here’s what we’re doing at the Center for Technology and Civic Life to address this asymmetry of resources. CTCL is a Chicago based nonprofit. We are small but mighty team, and our mission is to modernize engagement between local government and the people they serve. One of the major driving questions for our work is how might we increase access to civic information? And for us, that answer starts with partnering directly with local government. And right now, most of our programs are focused on working directly with local election administrators, so the people who are responsible for running the voting and elections process in the US.

If we look at the composition of election jurisdictions, about 90% of our jurisdictions can be classified as medium to small size, so having 150,000 people or fewer. And in these small jurisdictions and these medium size jurisdictions, on average they have about two to four staff people, and almost never a dedicated technology person to help them keep pace with new technology or to implement new tools. So after we had conversations with literally hundreds of local elections administrators across the country—in their offices, at conferences; I spent a lot of time in a minivan driving around the country—we developed a professional development program for local election administrators where we help them build data and digital skills, and we also helped them network so that they can share best practices.

Our first training is really focused on closing that web presence gap. So we’re working with election administrators through a program that we call Electricity, and we built this website template. On the back end it looks like a Word document. On the front end, it’s designed using a lot of research about how voters interact with information online. And we paired this with the training that includes website fundamentals, how to write in plain language so you’re not seeing statutes on a website and you can actually understand the information, and how to publish data in both machine and human readable formats. So getting away from the PDFs.

These are some the administrators across the country, in Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, California, who went from, in some cases learning keyboard shortcuts for the very first time, to over the course of two to four days publishing their own websites, and they’re maintaining them now themselves.

We also publish standardized large civic datasets so that civic technologists and organizers who have local context can really focus their resources on building great tools and connecting with their communities rather than aggregating these really messy datasets.

Our primary datasets are candidate and election official contact information, and we publish these information about every state, every county, and every locality over 300,000 people. To date, this data has been accessed over 60 million times, primarily through the Google civic information API. And this cycle, we’re getting a lot more local, so we’ll have data for every county, again, every state, but also every town and city over a 130,000 people, while we also continue to work with these localities on digitizing their information and getting online in the first place.

Finally, we’re building what we’re calling the civic engagement toolkit. This was the recent Knight News Challenge winner, where we are aggregating about 10 to 12 existing resources and pairing that with step by step guides to help local election administrators during this 2016 cycle better engage with their communities.

So here’s where I make an ask, before I exit the stage. If you’re seeing a best practice using a tool that’s working really well in your community, encourage that local official—maybe you are that local official—to submit it to the toolkit. You can do that at techandciviclife.org, and maybe that will be among the things that we help connect many election officials with over the course of the cycle.

Thank you so much, and I look forward to having conversations with many of you as the conference continues.