Hope, change and tech

Photo: White House
Photo: White House

It’s Tuesday morning. The Muslim travel ban is four days old. Stories of refugees coerced into signing away their green cards, children separated from parents, doctors denied entry into the land of the free dominate the airwaves. Protests have erupted in airports from SFO to JFK. Court orders are ignored. Chaos reigns.

There are moments in one’s life when you know everything has changed.

I hop on a video chat with the founder of CrowdJustice. The plan had been to roll out the crowdfunding platform for public interest legal cases in the U.S. in a couple weeks. We decide to speed that up and launch in 18 hours. There are two brothers fleeing war in Yemen that were headed to Michigan to reunite with their father. Instead they are forced to give up their visas at Dulles and put on a plane to Djibouti. They need help. The site that turns “legal cases into publicly funded — and backed — social causes” takes on their case.

While moments of darkness have been the soundtrack for much of the year, two trends have given me a lot of hope. People that have never been politically active are showing up at town halls and peaceful protests around the nation in record numbers. And, a new generation of civic-minded tech entrepreneurs are taking center stage — helping empower people with modern online tools and working to fix structural problems to make our government more transparent and accountable.

Both the Trump and Bernie movements tapped into a very real feeling that Americans are being left behind. That they’re stuck on the sidelines and nobody is listening. Many in the technology industry have been working on these issues for years and more are joining since the election. This is an exciting moment to be at the intersection of technology and government.

Countable has made contacting your elected officials and keeping tabs on policies as easy as swiping left or right. The app, which launched in 2014, has suddenly shot up to #2 in the app store in the past month.

California has recently announced a new digital services team to streamline bureaucracy and lead a user-centric revamp of the child welfare system in the world’s sixth largest economy.

A new data collection tool on police use of force — developed by data scientists from Bayes Impact in collaboration with police officers — is shining a light on some of most serious issues facing our country.

The city of New York unveiled the first images of its 258,000-square-foot civic tech hub late last month. Civic Hall will be located in the heart of Union Square. And a new VC, Ekistic Ventures, is looking exclusively for ideas and young companies to invest in to help improve our cities.

The Silicon Valley-based startup OpenGov has seen a surge in interest from state and local governments for its cloud-based software. The Andreessen Horowitz-backed startup is revolutionizing budget planning, improving internal data management, and making critical information accessible to citizens and elected officials to modernize government.

Tech has even managed to bridge the partisan divide. Working with the NAACP, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, D-Calif., and former state Senator Sam Blakeslee, R-Calif., announced the national expansion of a new online video platform for state government, Digital Democracy, which empowers advocates, journalists and everyday citizens.

Our democracy and our institutions are being tested. But an engaged citizenry and a new tech industry are giving me a lot of hope. The power of activism empowered by technology is clear and we are seeing results that matter. Less than a week after the Yemeni brothers were illegally forced out of the U.S., the Virginia attorney general and governor joined their cause. Their stories became national headlines as part of a bigger movement for justice. The 19- and 21-year-olds won their case and are now starting new lives in Michigan with their father.

About Brian Purchia

Brian Purchia is the CEO and founder of Riff City Strategies and co-founder of CivicMakers. The long-time media and public policy strategist served as New Media Director for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Change.org’s first Communications Director. He was the driving force behind the nation’s first open data law, open source software policy, and API for government.

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