Advocates, activists & app creators highlight participation, transparency at PdF

Activists, technologists and thought leaders converged on New York University this week for Personal Democracy Forum (PdF)– a two day conference focused on how technology interacts with democracy. This year, the event also served as a springboard for building and launching applications that improve public service and civic engagement.

In the weekend before the event, non-profits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), advocates, activists and hackers joined forces for PdF:Applied a hackathon focused on helping organizations improve their outreach. Participants submitted their ideas, and teams were created to build out applications for those ideas. The applications were then judged and three entrants were picked to present at the conference.

The first place entry is a new service from the New York chapter of CommonCausePoll Watch USA – which will help individuals find their polling places and monitor election activities through a smartphone application. The two runner up entries were and Crowdshift. allows users to physically see which stop the subway is at, at a given time and follow it through the line map using real-time data. The initial phase has been created for the New York City subway system, although developers envision future iterations.

Crowdshift allows activists to organize actions with shifts. The project is lead by technologist and PdF principal, Andrew Rasiej who relinquished his role as hackathon judge to form a team and build the app. The application has a decoupled API, so in the event that a given calendar is seized or hacked, the underlying shift schedule is obfuscated and protected.

The Sunlight Foundation also launched two new service additions to its suite of government transparency projects – Scout and Call on Congress. Scout allows users to subscribe to customized email or test alerts on congressional actions and provides bill tracking across all 50 states. Call on Congress is a service designed to help individuals without ready access to the internet or smartphone applications to gain information about congressional activity over the phone.

Call on Congress uses technology from Twilio, which will allow individuals to search for information about specific bills or government contributions over the phone. Both services are notable for their equalizing effect, as alert services like this are typically provided by companies at a significant cost.

Representative Darrell Issa of California, also launched his own open government initiative – The Open Gov Foundation – in a newsmaking keynote alongside Senator Ron Wyden, which opened the conference. The Foundation is designed to maintain the Representative’s work on open government, such as Project Madison beyond his time in office.