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Investing in Civic Technology for the ‘Common Good’

Micah Sifry (left) and Andrew Rasiej, co-founders of Civic Hall in New York City

Since it opened its doors in New York City’s Silicon Alley in 2015, Civic Hall has fostered collaboration between “social entrepreneurs, change-makers, government employees, hackers, academics, journalists and artists” who share a common mission: to use technology for the common good.

“We support a constant flow of civic engagement and information,” said Elizabeth Stewart, executive director of the nonprofit research and development arm of the initiative, Civic Hall Labs

Stewart spoke with CMSWire after the organization received $4 million in funding from investment firm Omidyar Network on Dec. 5. “That’s important for a city to progress. And it’s happening on a regular basis.”

A History of Civic Tech Support

Civic technology isn’t what you would normally associate with investment firms. But this isn’t the first time Redwood City, Calif.-based Omidyar Network funded civic tech. 

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay and his wife Pam established Omidyar Network in 2004 to invest in for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations “that catalyze economic and social change.”

One of its early investments was in the Personal Democracy Forum, a yearly conference which explores how the internet changes politics, governance and advocacy. When the conference founders, Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry, created Civic Hall to build a space for the growing PDF community to gather year-round, Omidyar invested again, giving $500,000 to help launch the organization. 

Stacey Donohue
Stacy Donohue, Investment Partner, Omidyar Network

“We’ve been investing in civic technology for a decade now, and Andrew and Micah have certainly been pioneers in this space,” Stacy Donohue, investment partner at Omidyar Network, told CMSWire in a phone interview this month.

“They were some of the first conveners of thought-leaders at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement. And they have been an inspiration for a number of other organizations that have started up in the meantime. Since it’s been open it seems to have really struck a chord with people. Because of this incredible growth and success of the whole team we decided to double down on the original investment.”

Civic Hall is only one of the nearly $1 billion in investments the firm has made. 

The same day that it announced its reinvestment in Civic Hall, it also made a $500,000 investment in Citymart, a civic tech platform that helps city governments improve procurement processes. 

Since 2011, Citymart has helped more than 60 cities in 25 countries. Examples of their work include helping reduce electricity use in public housing in New York City and enabling the elderly to live independently in Sheffield, England.

Meets a History of Civic Engagement

Calling Rasiej and Sifry pioneers in the space is no understatement. 

Along with their experience running the PDF conference, Rasiej and Sifry both have strong backgrounds straddling the world of technology and government.  

Rasiej acts as chairman of the NY Tech Meetup and also founded MOUSE.org, which focuses on 21st century public education. He is an advisor to the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, DC-based organization using technology to make government more transparent. 

He’s advised Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Congressional Minority leader Dick Gephardt on new media concepts.

Sifry helped found the Sunlight Foundation in 2006 and continues as an advisor. He also serves on the board of Consumer Reports, the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science and was a visiting lecturer on “The Politics of the Internet” at Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2012.

When the two created the Personal Democracy Forum, it was to bring people together to ask the “big questions” on how technology would change governance. With Civic Hall, they’re taking the next step, to “move the needle and demonstrate improvement in people’s lives” as Sifry said in a video interview.

Community Feel …

Donohue pointed out that 46 percent of US cities with populations over 250,000 now include titles like chief innovation officer and chief data officer because of the explosion of data and the need for government to keep up with digital advancements.

“It’s significant growth in the overall increase in the talent of the digital ilk,” Donohue told CMSWire.

She called Civic Hall the perfect match to meet government’s need for better technology. 

“It’s tapped into a need,” she said. “It’s greater than a hackathon but less than a full-time incubator. It’s got the elements of a co-working space that’s a community look and feel that is unique. Civic Hall has really found a way to integrate all the different players in the ecosystem, from city government technologists and civil servants to entrepreneurs. It’s a really interesting mix.”

But you don’t have to be a government employee or an entrepreneur to participate. 

Just ask Jo Ladzinski. She is the former marketing coordinator for Civic Hall who is studying integrated marketing communications at Medill Northwestern University. 

“I’ve built a phenomenal network of people using tech to further the greater good,” Ladzinski told CMSWire in an email. “It’s a great way to see how technology can be leveraged for the benefit of all.”

Meets Community Impact

Over 25,000 people have attended over 500 Civic Hall events since it opened, including forums, workshops, hackathons and demos. Civic Hall Labs was launched at the 2016 PDF conference to “help bring civic tech solutions to life.”

And the two have demonstrated results. Through the organization, government agencies and citizens have rolled out initiatives such as:

  • The New York City Police Department and other government departments now have better access to the state’s health and human services database through better data management
  • Melanie Lavelle and Daniel Beeby built an app that collects government financial assistance forms that help individuals determine for which benefits they’re eligible
  • Idealist and Civic Hall partnered for a career cafe/brown bag event where participants learned about opportunities and new initiatives  
  • Civic tech innovators entered contests that foster a strengthening of civic cohesion through technology interventions tackling social isolation, inter-generational learning and support, and gender-based violence 
  • The launch of civic tech platforms like CivicGraph.io and Councilmatic
  • 2017 will see the launch of a training program on how to foster early-stage thinking around ideas to solve problems through technology in the city
  • Civic Hall is taking over management of New York City’s Big Apps, a natural fit considering its mission: it’s an annual competition that provides programmers, developers, designers and entrepreneurs with access to municipal data sets to build technological products that address civic issues affecting New York City 

In a Partnership With Government

Elizabeth Stewart
Elizabeth Stewart

Stewart called the initiative a place for citizens and government officials who are passionate about democracy. They can talk about advancements, but also struggles: technology can have its obstacles, especially for a highly-regulated government agency.

“We’re not just building for government, but partnering and listening in a relationship with them,” Stewart told CMSWire. “That’s where we able to walk into the kitchen and the person from the mayor’s office of economic development or the Manhattan DA might be there. They see us as a place to experiment new ideas and access talent and the digital tools that aid them in their work.”


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