Civic Tech Grows Up at PDF

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As readers of these pages will well know, the rise of civic tech has been marked by a lot of “awareness raising,” novelty hackathons, and the scattershot release of various data sets by the government. Its more recent history shows (finally) a tilt toward the pragmatic. Real tools are being developed, private capital is lining up, and actual outcomes are being studied. This shift was evident during the Personal Democracy Forum, which took place at the end of last week in New York.

For the uninitiated, PDF brings together the biggest influencers in civic technology and grassroots organizing for a series of talks that reflect on civic life and look ahead to its future. Many of these talks often exist in the “world changing” haze that seems to hang over tech circles, but this year presenters took on a new tone discussing actual outcomes for actual humans.

Danny O’Brien took to the stage to talk about the sheer number of significant wins for the civic tech community lately including – net neutrality, ending¬†Section 215 authority, stopping SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA. But perhaps most notable about his speech was the focus on ensuring responsible stewardship of the power afforded by these recent wins.

“What I ask myself is, did we win because we were right or did we win because we had all these cool tools, and we used them for our own ends? […] Are we using these tools to aggregate power ourselves? Or are we making and using these tools to distribute power to everyone including ourselves? Because if we’re not distributing that power we’re just the same as the old boss,” he said. (Watch the whole thing below.)

Other presenters like Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld and the New York Public Library’s Anthony Marx, highlighted¬†existing civic infrastructure that we wouldn’t be able to make happen in today’s political climate – public utilities and public libraries. These explorations of civic life were refreshing reminders that we did once manage aspects of society to great value before Silicon Valley existed. Feld’s presentation is below.

Other discussions focused on how to make civic tech with actual citizens in mind, as well as new ways to organize constituencies and movements. In all, the two-day conference showed a new version of civic tech that has come down to earth and is willing to focus more of its attention on the challenges of governing, as it is on the next new and shiny app.