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Geeks and Progressives Strive To Find Common Ground at Netroots Nation

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, June 24 2013

Ever since geeks, investors and progressives rallied to block the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act last year, various members of those communities have wondered how to harness that common energy and purpose again to achieve big goals, such as comprehensive immigration reform.

A panel I moderated explored this issue at Netroots Nation on Saturday. It featured former Netroots Nation CEO Gina Cooper, who's now a technology community organizing strategist, Jonathan Nelson, founder of the Meetup group Hackers & Founders, Code for America's Catherine Bracy, and Kristine Gloria, director of communications for Politihacks, a policy advisory group for tech startups.

It was a wide-ranging and lively discussion with Nelson busting the stereotype that all technology workers are privileged, optioned princelings travelling around in Wi-Fi enabled company buses. Nelson is himself a startup founder. He has had to work as an emergency room nurse until recently "wiping butts," before he could quit permanently to focus on his startup idea. He also told of his foreign friends, some of whom came to the United States to start companies, and who have no health insurance. One of them lost all of his savings because he cut his head and paid for his hospital treatment with cash.

Members of the audience, some of whom were developers, and others who operate in the political world, had plenty of questions for the panelists. They ranged from the local -- what can be done to keep San Francisco affordable as the influx of technology companies pushes prices up -- to the bigger picture, such as why political campaigns don't open source their campaign software, and how progressive politicos can reach out to geeks interested in helping out on a cause.

Even someone from congressional district 17 challenger Ro Khanna's team showed up and asked a question during the session. Amy McGonagle, a staffer from the Khanna campaign, sat through the session and asked the panelists what they think congressional candidates can do for the local community.

Nelson said that he'd like to see politicians push for more open data and open software initiatives, in particular in the healthcare space.

"If taxpayer money is funding software development, there should be a good reason not to open source it," he said.

A recorded session of the discussion is below.

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