Digital Democracy and You (Part One)

Although the winner of the 2016 presidential election has yet to be announced, we can safely claim that civic engagement has won some major victories this election season. In addition to the expansion of early voting availability and turn out (which has seen higher representation by women in key battleground states), and paid time off to vote, tech companies and nonprofits have forged innovative partnerships to reach unregistered voters, promote civic engagement, simplify voting procedures and clarify choices. While the growing role of technology and social media has been associated with boosting voter turnout and registration, these same forces have also been scrutinized for subtly (yet significantly) influencing voters in a variety of ways, or even outright censoring news according to their own political preferences/community guidelines. Even so, the most dramatic impacts are likely yet to come with the paradigm shifts associated with liquid democracy, and big data on the horizon.

So, in honor of the election, our goal for this issue is to help readers navigate this brave new world of democratic engagement in the internet age. Part one of this two-part issue, will feature interviews with Jenny Gottstein and Lorelei Kelly about their work upgrading the idea of good citizenship.

We hope you enjoy this issue of Inclusion.Tech, and look forward to your ideas and feedback, growing our community, and together making the world a better place.

Best,

Savannah Kunovsky, & Claire Hsu

Upgrading Good Citizenship

In this article, we connected with Jenny Gottstein (The Go Game) and Lorelei Kelly (Georgetown University), who shared their thoughts on redefining civic engagement and how democracy could work in the digital age.

IT: What is the role of civil society, the public sector and tech companies in promoting inclusion and diversity, and especially through civic engagement?

Jenny: What we need is something so simple, and yet quite radical. Companies need to give people a day off, and to establish election day as a holiday in work culture. Then legislation will follow as politicians look to the public and the private sector and if companies take the lead role, then we will get the ball rolling. Even just making a big to-do, by bringing in cupcakes, or having a happy hour and allowing people to leave early to vote, making voting socially acceptable and celebrated, that’s powerful!

“making voting socially acceptable and celebrated, that’s powerful!”

Lorelei: In light of the current crises of confidence in both the public sector and in the tech sector (which has emerged as a de facto fourth estate), one crucial goal is to restore faith in our democratic institutions. In order to do this, we’ll need to map out a new division of labor for civics in a world where information is participatory, potentially explore new norms and standards for information sharing by machines, and determine the rules of engagement for expanded inclusion and disclosure of conflicts of interest.

IT: Speaking of which, Jenny, can you talk a little bit about your upcoming event and ValuedVoters project? And Lorelei, can you tell us about your work leading the Resilient Democracy Coalition?

Jenny: So at the Go Game, I’ve help to set up games including a citywide food truck scavenger hunt, a mobile road trip game to benefit local parks and a zombie-themed disaster preparedness game, and one day my friend Stuart (of SF Native Tours / Green Guides) lamented the lack of a culture of celebration around election day. So what we are creating is a chance to give folks time off and to enjoy a free party, complete with a raffle and fabulous prizes, in celebration of their civic participation. The long-term dream is to see Election Day be celebrated at the same level as federal holidays, such as the 4th of July, with parades, BBQs, fireworks, etc. For now, we’re looking to create a space for people to high five each other and to celebrate their participation in our democracy. In addition, we have created a 100% nonpartisan web-portal with links to voter guides and information about the party at Woods Cerveceria (Address: 3801 18th St, SF, CA 94114), which will start at 5pm on November 8th!

Lorelei: The gap between the opportunities associated with big data and our government’s capacity to process and integrate this wealth of knowledge into its work is a considerable challenge. At the Resilient Democracy Coalition (which is housed at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation), we are working with the public and tech sectors to fill these gaps by building constructive interactions through data and technology sharing between the Executive Branch and Congress and by identifying opportunities to reinvigorate the deliberative process and diversify the knowledge gathering and communications methods used by committees in crafting policy.

IT: What inspired you to take on this challenge, and what opportunities are there for engineers to get involved or follow suit?

Jenny: We’re seeing an exciting trend of making political participation more engaging and even entertaining, such as politically relevant video games, and we’re interested in contributing to this movement by elevating the visibility of politics in a positive way.

Lorelei: Although commercial tech has provided some great new models for building and organizing — like agile development, design methods and scrum teams, I get worried when people think you can transfer private sector methods to the public sector. We don’t want a minimal viable product democracy, after all. We must make sure our democratic institutions are protected from gaming and malevolent abuse. Governing institutions are special. They are the canonical source of policy and national memory and need intentional protection. Dare I say, they need empathy and love? Despite this distinction, it’s still helpful to, as civic tech entrepreneur Sean McDonald put it, “look at government as a subscription service for the provision and preservation of common goods,” in order to, as taxpayers, help to create a technology-enabled system that helps to achieve this collective goal.

There are opportunities for everyone to get involved, both tech and non-tech folks! Technologists can introduce themselves to the local staff and connect them to the hacker community. Data scientists can help develop micro-media press lists of reputable social media influencers. Event organizers can help members engage with constituents on policy issues in new ways. Community journalists can help create dashboards to organize relevant information together with their representative’s local staff.

IT: How can global tech and Inclusion.Tech support these efforts?

Jenny: One clear place for tech companies to play a role is to improve the failing voting system and the dismal state of electronic voting. Although tech companies are already engineering innovative products to bring out the vote, more energy could be focused on the actual voting experience, and although we’re already starting to see exciting partnerships happening in this space, it’s all hands on deck and if we don’t take the lead, someone else will.

Lorelei: One idea that should be borrowed from the engineering community is the emphasis on system-wide resilience. How can democracy best endure through rough times? Whether online or off, civil communication is vital for democratic resilience. After all, America’s greatest strength is its ability to scale inclusion, and social media, which has enabled us to communicate with each other and discuss ideas at an unprecedented scale, is already exploring online norms for this new style of engagement, such as Reddit’s code of conduct and Mozilla’s excellent community guidelines. If presidential candidates were held to the same standard that we expect of online communities, we’d all be in a better place. Ensuring that civic efforts are civil, would be a great place to start towards rebuilding confidence in our democracy, and in each other.

“Ensuring that civic efforts are civil, would be a great place to start towards rebuilding confidence in our democracy, and in each other.”

Note: Interviews edited for length and grammar.