Bitsy Bentley

Bitsy Bentley, Artist/Activist

“It’s my hope that the skills I’ve honed doing for-profit research have great things to contribute to civic engagement and helping our leaders understand what we need from them. Market research was about helping companies understand what the needs are of our customers. So, what is civic engagement, what is civic research? Helping our public officials understand what the needs are of our citizens.”

Pronouns: She/Her/They/Them

Meet Bitsy. Bitsy is an artist and activist living in Brooklyn who left a thriving career in the market research industry to rededicate herself to social justice work. Bitsy now leverages her experience in research and product management in the civic engagement sector, most recently in participatory budgeting.

In addition to her fledging career in civic tech, Bitsy notes that her art and practice
intersect through her climate activism – she’s a seed steward (Organic Seed Alliance) – in a way that doesn’t touch her data: “I’m passionate about permaculture and small-scale carbon sequestration. And I’m really into seeds and plants. I have nine different varieties of apples and pears in my backyard in Brooklyn. I’ve been growing three different kinds of corn, squash, and beans. My core belief is that the greater the diversity we have, the more resilient we are to climate change. That has to be my guiding star for how I approach the world — the more likely we are to survive what is an uncertain future.”

You can reach Bitsy via email, follow her on LinkedIn and her awesome Instagram.

What Does She Do?

Bitsy performs visual data analysis and is a product manager. From her work as a market research in the for-profit sector, she’s developed expertise in how a business is structured and how it grows. She currently works as the Product Manager for myPB.info at The Participatory Budgeting Project in a grant-funded position.

Bitsy provides a working definition of Participatory Budgeting: “PB is a process where a community decides together how to spend shared funds. It’s really about co-creating and human-centered design.”

My PB.info is a website that gives New Yorkers updates on all the participatory budgeting projects that have been on the ballot since the beginning of PBNYC in 2012. It is also about giving the public a lens into what happens when it’s given autonomy to make decisions.

For the skeptics out there about Participatory Budgeting, Bitsy can point to some recent data showing how PB has made a difference: “I’ve found a specific emphasis on health and green infrastructure. I just did an analysis of the 2019 fiscal year capital discretionary budget for the City Council and I looked at projects lifted up by PB vs. those that were at the sole discretion of a City Council member. There were a number of areas where more money was coming through via PB than through just sole discretion. One of those was TREES. Since 2012 we’ve paid and planted 1,500 trees through PB — 6 of the 11 tree projects in this budget. Over half were participatory budgeting related.”

How Did She Get Into This Work?

“After The Emanuel Nine were murdered on June 2015, [the Charleston Church shooting] I came to this realization that the work I did was not having the impact I thought it would have had when I was younger.

Bitsy’s first job out of the University of Wisconsin/Stout had been in the market research industry. Over a period of ten years, she worked for Ipsos, and then for GfK as their VP of Data Visualization, with a focus on visual communication of data.

“I had taken time off to focus on my health and I realized, despite living in NY since 2006, that I didn’t have a connection to the City. I could have been living anywhere in America. Growing up in a small town in Minnesota, my mother was a teacher at the local high school; my dad worked at the power plant and made electricity for the town that I grew up in. Both my sisters are teachers and that’s the way they give back and contribute to our future society. And I wasn’t doing any of those things. I realized that I wanted to do something with a social impact.”

How Did She Come to Civic Hall?

As a refugee from the corporate market research sector, Bitsy’s first taste of civic tech was Data & Society’s Whiskey Wednesdays, and then BetaNYC’s School for Data. Through these overlapping communities, she came to Civic Hall after looking at six different co-working spaces, trying to find a good fit for the work she aspired to engage in. Not long after joining Civic Hall, she was lucky enough to find her current position via our Civic Hall Slack.

Bitsy is looking forward to returning to Civic Hall in 2019. “What I’ve found being part of the Civic Hall community is that I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to try things and figure stuff out, and that’s been invaluable for me.”

What Projects Is She Working On?

“In activism spaces – working with marginalized communities – not everyone has a computer. I’ve been working on data communication training that enables you to do everything on a mobile device from Google sheets to using a tool like Canva to share charts on social media.”

Through Data for Democracy, Bitsy has also been working with journalist and researcher Shireen Mitchell, aka Digital Sista, on analyzing the 3,500 Facebook ads (circa 2014-2016) which were released by the House’s (minority) Intelligence Committee. Some preliminary findings are quite jaw-dropping: “The Russians become more and more sophisticated with their language over time. As someone who worked in market research the understanding that these Russian propaganda arms have of American culture — to sow division among communities of color in particular — is more sophisticated than any market research I have even seen.” (Bitsy speculates that these are American-trained, possibly Ivy League, Russian hackers.)

What is She Reading?

Bitsy is immersed in Factfulness by Hans Rosling. “The world is much better than we think, and still full of needless suffering.” Having come from the commercial sector, Bitsy is also learning a great deal from The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.

What Is Her Ask of Civic Hall?

Now that we have a Civic Engagement Commission (thanks, midterm voters!) participatory budgeting is encoded in the City Charter. In the past, accessing PB was at the discretion of your City Councilperson; now, it’s a city-wide mandate. This past weekend, Bitsy and the PB staff headed down creating their strategic plan for 2019. That said, what comes next is very much T.B.D. — and will require everyone’s input.

As Bitsy currently winds down her 12-month assignment she is looking for another project to sink her teeth into in supporting participatory democracy, voting rights, or criminal justice reform: “Anything to do with public data, I love. I’m not super data sciencey, I’m more straightforward. I do a lot of exploratory data analysis and data visualization for analytical purposes. Just give me a pad of paper and a spreadsheet.”

“It’s my hope that the skills I’ve honed doing for-profit research have great things to contribute to civic engagement and helping our leaders understand what we need from them. Market research was about helping companies understand what the needs are of our customers. So, what is civic engagement, what is civic research? Helping our public officials understand what the needs are of our citizens.”