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This New Media Consultant is the New Mayor, Online and Off

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, May 12 2011

Alex Torpey just started showing up: To meetings, on boards and committees around town, and at places like last year's Personal Democracy Forum, where he picked the brains of anyone he could find. On Monday, Torpey, 23, will be sworn in as the village president of his hometown, South Orange, NJ.

"It was coming to the point where I was hearing, like, well, this is how we do it here, especially in regards to IT," Torpey told me last night. "And the way they were doing it was not necessarily the most efficient or the most productive."

He had two choices, as he saw it: He could either invest significant time and effort into trying to convince people to change the status quo, or he could take a leadership position and make it happen himself. Torpey chose the do-it-yourself approach, and while he leaned on new social media tools to spread his message online, his election is more interesting because of what he might do than what he has done.

Torpey defeated a sitting town trustee in a very low-turnout election, and it sounds like his energy and hustle did as much for him as the platform he used to work online. That platform is NationBuilder, the email, web, fundraising and social media dashboard for campaigns and advocacy built by civic hacker Jim Gilliam and launched last month — and it's an interesting footnote to this campaign that Torpey used the same platform that the Scottish National Party just used to win en route to its upset victory for control of Scottish parliament. But, as a web developer and new media consultant, Torpey is one of a rising number of people inside government who think like programmers, not bureaucrats. That could mean change in the way government does business. It has, and continues to make change, in places like New Hampshire and Oklahoma, where state legislatures have healthy contingents of technologists.

"People are kind of frustrated with government," Torpey told me. "They don't really see the value of what government is trying to do, and so people are asking questions. They're either being apathetic or they're asking questions like, 'why.' And when they're asking those questions I think that begets change."

In this spirit Torpey promises to introduce concepts of open government — in the collaborative sense — and a modern approach to IT infrastructure. I'll be doing my best to watch in the same way I'm watching De Leon, Texas, where town administrator Karen Wilkerson recently started posting weather warning information to Facebook in response to comments she received there, and Baltimore, Maryland, where a new CIO should be settled in by now, and dozens of other cities around the country that operating on the thesis that a new approach to technology can have a positive impact on civic life.