Access is Everything

Active Citizens Wield Tech and Data to Shape a Better Future

Ken Kaplan Executive Editor, iQ by Intel

Elections and changes in government urged by apps, tweets and status updates are one thing, but it’s the ability to do something with open data that is leading to a new era of social activism.

Stop, children. What’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.

Buffalo Springfield was exactly clear in their 1966 anthem “For What It’s Worth,” and for most life remains a struggle between feeling stuck and wanting a better way.

Authors of the textbook entitled Elementary Civics: The New Civics, published in 1918, may have spotted this trend when they wrote, “A new conception is making its way into the teaching of citizenship. It is the philosophy of social evolution.”

If that book were updated today, nearly a century later, it would describe how the philosophy of social evolution is being realized every day by people using Internet technologies.

It would also point to a new conception of our times, one that sees access to public and personal data as essential to our lives.

Today, people are turning to their personal computing devices to catalyze neighborhoods, school administrators and politicians, all in an effort to improve life for themselves and people in need.

Websites and e-mail have evolved into faster, interactive social media and networking technologies like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, allowing grassroots movements to build steadily or quickly groundswell into collective mandates that impact elections.

Many point to the 2012 election of U.S. President Barack Obama (see infographic from that year by Forbes below) and the Arab Spring uprising across Northern Africa and the Middle East, where people rose and demanded changes in the way they are governed.

People are using new technologies to organize and spread eyewitness news from around the world in hope of shaping a better future. For many visionaries, this is just scratching the surface of what’s to come.

Creating change at the top is a big deal, but so is establishing a neighborhood park, demanding clean drinking water or improving schools.

What’s unique to our time is the horde of public data about everything from weather to transportation becoming available to developers who make tools for civics.

“With the rapid evolution of cloud computing and the ability to have different data sources online, there’s greater access to data about a wide variety of our actions, whether it’s consumer, personal health or an interaction within an agency or the government,” says Jason Kunesh, CEO of Public Good Software based in Chicago.

“Now the data is available for people to actually interact with and see and help them create change,” he said. “That’s really something new for us.”

Kunesh’s technology firm is in business to help non-profit companies work more efficiently and get better results with tools to raise funds, manage volunteers and build their communities.

Civic Hacking

PGS is part of the National Day of Civic Hacking happening May 31 and June 1. The event is occurring in more than 100 cities, with many first time hackathons coordinated outside the U.S. in places such as Australia, China and India.

At last count, there were 120 projects with aims to connect citizens, software developers and entrepreneurs so they can use publicly released data, code and technology. Many events will include Maker technologies, such as Intel Galileo technology, which developers can use to discover new ways to use microcontrollers with sensors to improve communities and governments.

Last year’s National Day of Civic Hacking brought Kunesh and his company to the attention of the Data Services Accelerator, a project created by Intel and Second Muse to help early-stage projects grow, many of which were born from civic hacking.

“The good thing about National Day is it creates a platform where designers work with entrepreneurs, who work with members, who work with artists and technologists across all different disciplines and backgrounds,” said Ali Llewellyn of Second Muse, the group helping to organize the events.

“I think the key is we’re bringing projects that are actually sustainable and employable.”

Making History

When the 2012 Obama campaign asked Jason Kunesh to lead the design of its online user experience, there was a sense of history unfolding. It was the first presidential campaign to make Internet outreach and community support central to its operation.

Kunesh had dabbled with technology ever since his dad brought home a Commodore VIC-20 computer when he was a kid growing up in the Northwoods, in a little town called Manawa, Wisconsin.

“There wasn’t a lot to do in the winters and it was before the Internet, so I learned about BBS culture and taught myself how to make games and hacking hardware,” he revealed.

But Kunesh didn’t see his future as an information technology worker bee, so he graduated from college with an English degree.

“I liked the modernists like Hemingway, Pound and Joyce. Modernists felt like coders, expressing the most meaning in the fewest amount of words, with really concise and precise language.”

By the mid-90s he was in Chicago, playing in bands. He was the musician who could design your personal web page.

In a twist of the usual story about a computer-guy-turned-winemaker-guitarist-etc., Kunesh was sidetracked by IT. In 1998, he joined his first start-up, followed by stints at Orbitz and at The Point, the company that would become Groupon.

Those successes led him to start his own user experience design company, which proved to be the right place at the right time because soon afterward the Obama campaign brought him in to lead its user experience technologies during the President’s re-election effort.

It was a brilliant move by the campaign and Kunesh did not disappoint, crafting online experiences that are credited with significantly helping Obama to win the election.

“We had a great core team,” Kunesh remembers. “I worked with the technology team and pretty much helped make sure the greater campaign understood the value of iteration.”

When asked about what stands out from the campaign, Kunesh points to the release of about 200 apps. “And I think the other thing was just realizing the campaign was widely regarded as kind of a gold standard in terms of technology in the arena of politics.”

A Different Disruption

After the campaign, Kunesh helped to found Public Good Software, a for-profit company with a social mission.

He uses the word “disruption” in a slightly different way than one would in Silicon Valley, where the narrative is the Internet has disrupted the sales channels of brick-and-mortar retailing or newspapers.

“One disruption is I can make something cheaper or create a new market,” he said. “But another kind of disruption is to change the way people interact with their government, or change the relationship between the public and the private or the public benefit and social.”

The result, he believes, is a new space for innovative companies and is a core concept of the National Day of Civic Hacking, as well as the Data Services Accelerator. People and companies must perform public benefit in a sustainable way.

“We have our social mission built right into our articles of incorporation,” he said. “We are not a mainstream VC-backed vehicle, but there is still a big enough sector of the market, even in the VC community. You are starting to see these types of things become a little bit more commonplace.”

He said that Airbnb started to change people’s thinking about what could be funded.

“We’re one of the first public benefit startups to be a corporation,” he said. “Given the signs of things to come, I don’t think we will be the last by any means.”

He and many more civic activists will be participating in this year’s National Day of Civic Hacking.

 

Jason Lopez contributed to this story.

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