Thoughts in preparation for The Impact of Digital Communication on Civic Engagement at DPLA Fest.
A lot of my career has revolved around data and communications.
The first civic tech tool I ever made, in 1999, was “KillerOnThe Loose.com”, a dumb notification tool that let you know, via Wireless Application Protocol, if there was a person nearby who has killed one or more people and who may kill others. It was more performance art than anything, focused on the towering insufficiency of technology.
I helped make EveryBlock, an early experiment in neighborhood data, and at Smart Chicago I helped launch many tools, methods, and programs around data and people, including Youth-Led Tech, Connect Chicago, Smart Health Centers, Documenters, and Expunge.io.
What I always want— what’s at the center of my work— is communion. I seek to use data and technology as a bonding agent for people— making a common set of principles, facts, and goals.
It’s not easy, and I have not succeeded.
The election of the current president— and the wide-ranging foreign intelligence operation that helped him win— is a good indication of failure. The tactics centered around discord, and they were successful.
But if we choose— and I do— we can keep “right on going on / a sort of human statement“, as Anne Sexton says.
- Use ubiquitous systems instead of building news ones. That often means text-based systems in signups for programs like CUTGroup, which is a community of residents of Chicago and all of Cook County who get paid to test out civic websites and apps
- Use the smallest amount of technology possible, including make-ready tools like Google docs, which I’ve used in documenting meetings around police accountability and school mergers
- Go sideways— use existing tools for unintended purposes, like Genius, a tool designed to explain rap lyrics, to annotate municipal executive orders and track progress of police reform
Libraries are natural places of communion. Let’s do this.