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Software for Civic life – affecting positive social change

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Joshua-Michéle Ross has great blog post related to an interview with Mike Mathieu of Frontseat.org. Frond Seat is a civic software company and incubator, whose objective is to build software for civic life. The interview is enlightening in how Mike sees the tech community providing innovative services based on freely available raw data from Government institutions.

I’ve embedded the two videos below, and have outlined some of Mike’s comments. The points outlined below are paraphrased from the video conversations.

Software for Civic life – Part 1

  • Historically software has been really expensive to develop, but now software is getting cheap
  • The focus of innovation is more around data and communities of users
  • Front Seat are experimenting with ways of taking advantage of cheap software, and data to make the world a better place

Front Seat has created Walkscore as a means to measure the walkability of neighborhoods. It plugs into the Google local search API to rate neighborhoods based on 13 different categories. It is available as a web service and it’s walkability ratings can be easily used by third-party real estate sites.

Countmore.org is a another site created by Front Seat which is targeted towards voter registration for college students in swing states. It’s based on a supreme court ruling in the 70s that says college students can either register to vote in their home or college state. The site was built in a couple of days and shows students if the electoral race is closer in their home or college state. It then gives them a way to register online to vote.

  • When we think software for civic life – we think how can you be a better citizen, how do I make better choices.
  • We have hundreds of ideas in the idea bank and it’s a trade off between how much investment would it take, the importance of the issue and the opportunity for change. Front Seat is like a social hedge fund – creating software to where there is an opportunity to make a disproportional positive impact for social change.

Software for civic life – Part 2

  • With the Sunlight foundation there is the idea of more and more open data from Government, but don’t hold your breath on the Government releasing more data.
  • Mysociety has a lot of projects which are similar in vein (to Front Seat). The objective is to create simple ways for citizens to connect with Government. The famous project is Fixmystreet.
  • Tom Steinburg’s advice was don’t do any projects that rely on you being able to get the Government to open the data, because either budget issues, political issues etc. will keep that from happening.
  • The Sunlight foundation is a great example, where one of the projects is to create a unique ID for all the senior decision makers in Government. The rational is that you can connect up different databases e.g. the Federal Elections Commission donor database, and you can then map that against voter records and how people voted in Congress. They’ve shown some very interesting correlations in how the votes of Congress people change when a certain industry quadruples their donations to that candidate in the week before a vote.
  • It’s interesting to see some of the data types and services that Government typically held onto, or where in control of, are passing into public domain in terms of infrastructure, mapping etc.
  • The focus in the for-profit world in technology has shifted from software as competitive advantage, to utilising data and communities. On the other hand Governments, civic organizations, non-profits etc. are sitting on piles of data. They have active communities of interest which provide for a huge opportunity in data mining to improve the efficiency of their operations.
  • I know of one case a social service group in Seattle was dealing with public inebriation. They were spending about 2 million dollars annually dealing with that issue. They went and tracked down the data and found about half a dozen individuals caused 80% of those expenses. They then actively cared for these 6 people through intensive interactions with social workers. In the end they saved half their budget just by looking, and having transparency around that data they collected.
  • There is an inhibition within Government around making data more transparent and freely available. Most parts of Government are not paid to take risks. They’re paid to be efficient and maintain the status-quo. I think the future is the Government opening up the data, but not doing the innovation themselves. The tech community can do the innovated based on the raw data feeds from Government.
  • There is a lot of talk about the Obama administration naming a CTO. I think the single biggest thing they can do there is make the mandate for different agencies – including Congress – to make data feeds publicly available to people who want to make the world a better place.

Summary

There is lots of data currently available that can be used improve civic life and increase transparency in Government. The Apps for Democracy competition demonstrates that individuals can make use of this data to create usable applications to serve the public good.  This trend looks to continue with initiatives all over the world including the UK’s recent Social Innovation Camp. The most interesting developments, however, will be in relation to the Obama administration and how they’ll approach this subject. If the commitments to public data within their Technology white paper are enacted, the future for transparency and innovation in Government to citizen interaction looks bright.

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