Post-PDF Questions


I spent last Thursday and Friday in New York City at the Personal Democracy Forum and left with three big questions to ponder.

1) How do we make apps more civic? Andrew Rasiej quoted Nick Grossman in a session saying, “We don’t need more civic apps, we need apps to be more civic.” Rather than creating a neighborhood-organizing applications, how do we get Airbnb to introduce neighbors to each other; enlist Uber to provide free rides to the polls on Election Day; or analyze Twitter to inform politicians of constituent sentiment?

2) What happens when the public square becomes private? Millennials increasingly use social networks to communicate with friends, get their news, and build businesses. But private companies own these immense social networks.  They can restrict access at any moment—potentially eliminating David Troy’s incredible maps of online social networks or the Sunlight Foundation’s Politwoops tool, to name just two examples.

3) Does the nonprofit model work for civic tech? Nancy Lublin told a powerful story about the challenges she faced to take the Crisis Text Line from an idea to its incredible success processing 6.7 million messages, and how her team struggled to gain funding from foundations. In contrast, Jim Gilliam, the CEO of NationBuilder spoke to an audience with Change.org lanyards hanging around their necks about the benefits of having both Andreessen Horowitz and the Omidyar Network behind the company and their for-profit model.

Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry have created something special with the Personal Democracy Forum and it is an important convening of the civic tech community that luckily answers many more questions than it raises.

Alex Wirth is the co-founder of Quorum, Washington’s next generation legislative strategy platform. He attended PDF15 as a Knight Foundation Fellow.