Shelby Switzer, founder of Civic Unrest
“I learned that as you’re building tech to benefit underserved and generally vulnerable populations that you have to be extremely ethical and conscious of how that software and tech, including the data its collecting, factor into whether those people are being helped or exploited.”
Meet Shelby Switzer. Shelby is a self-identified “API Activist” who joined Civic Hall after leaving a healthcare startup this January to fully embrace civic tech. Civic Unrest is both her consultancy and a blog where she is documenting her journey “to understand the intersection of technology and public infrastructure and amplifying the voices of the civic tech community.” Shelby was raised in South Carolina, attended the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, taking her undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge in the UK in Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic. She’s since worked at Voterheads, an online platform that enables civilians to be more easily civically engaged in local government; InnoVenture, a company and online platform seeking to foster economic innovation and growth through building local networks; and the South Carolina Center for Community Literacy, a non-profit dedicated to improving South Carolina’s high illiteracy rate through reading, outreach, and technology programs. Shelby’s been a New Yorker a little over a year now and you can reach her via her personal website or LinkedIn follow Civic Unrest on Twitter, and see her projects on GitHub.
What Does She Do?
“I write about the intersection of technology and public infrastructure, seeking to understand how policy and government shape the technology industry and how technology and the Internet are shaping government.”
Shelby’s blog Civic Unrest is a place for most of this work. Her ideal reader has some tech-savvy but might be new to the civic tech space. Her most recent post parses the distinction between publicly owned and community-owned infrastructure. Currently, Shelby is interested in interrogating Open Source. Specifically, what is the value of projects like Code Brigade which have a typical lifecycle of only two years? She is also interested in the work of The Maintainers – a research initiative by SUNY’s Andrew Russell which looks at the class of writers, artists, coders and business leaders who are doing the unglamorous grunt work of building and maintaining our society’s infrastructure.
Additionally, she has written for a range of tech publications; contributed research to studies on APIs and digital government; and work on open standards and open source civic tech projects. Projects have included: an Open Source municipal communication software, and an EU-commissioned study on APIs in government.
Shelby continues to be involved in the re-launch of Voterheads, which sends alerts to citizens when their public officials are taking up issues that concern them. In use in eight states, Voterheads is considering open-sourcing some of its software, throwing down the gauntlet to such rivals as Granicus.
How Did She Get Into This Work?
Being both entrepreneurial and civic is in Shelby’s DNA. Her mother had an ice cream store – every child’s dream – while her dad has been a serial small business entrepreneur and the host of a daily SC Public Radio show call South Carolina Business Review. While in elementary school, Shelby painted seashells and sold them around her neighborhood.
Shelby found her own way into civic tech as a result of participating in the first National Day of Civic Hacking and then joining Voterheads, a startup focused on local civic engagement… co-founded by her father! “That was actually my first foray into the tech field generally, and as I developed my tech career as a software developer and API enthusiast, I stayed active in civic tech communities across the country.”
A writer since childhood, she turned her fascination with languages — which include Medieval Welsh, in addition to German, Irish, and Latin – into a self-study of Ruby on Rails. A year later she found herself teaching the coding language at The Iron Yard in Atlanta, Georgia.
This January, following three years designing and implementing API’s and integrations for Healthify, she decided to strike out on her own and focus completely on civic tech.
How Did She Come to Civic Hall?
Shelby learned about Civic Hall at last year’s School of Data — which was just held this past March 2nd – and began attending events from that point on.
“When I quit my full-time job at Healthify, a healthcare tech startup, last month, I knew it was time to get more involved here.”
What is She Reading?
Shelby is currently immersed in How Long ’til Black Future Month?, the recently published short story collection of acclaimed science fiction writer NK Jemisin.
What Is Her Ask and Offer of Civic Hall?
“Government is not this distant thing that doesn’t affect you. I want to help change this mindset and also make gov’t more participatory and community-oriented.”
“I’d love to be a researcher for policymakers: how to build in the government or regulate it from a commercial perspective. I’m also looking for stories to tell and impactful projects to contribute to. I would love to chat if you’re working on community or government infrastructure.”