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PDM News: Building a Home for the "Internet Public" in NYC

BY Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, March 20 2014

Cheryl Contee and Erie Meyer at PDF 2013 (Photo by Esty Stein)

For the last nine months, we at Personal Democracy Media have been working on an exciting new project and big idea. It's time to pull back the curtain and tell you about it. We want to build a year-round physical community center, here in New York City, that will be a home for our community and all the people and organizations that we like to say are members of the “Internet public” (per Dave Parry). That is, we want to create a place where the same dynamic and diverse community that comes to Personal Democracy Forum every year--the doers and dreamers, the political activists and the civic hacktivists, public officials, public-minded entrepreneurs, the movement makers and shakers--can work and network together around common interests and solve problems. You can read more about it in our recently submitted Knight News Challenge proposal to help strengthen the open Internet.

Thanks to planning grants from the Omidyar Network, Ford Foundation and Google, we have been working with Kate Krontiris and Matthew Burton, doing intensive research on the broad needs of the open internet and civic tech community. We interviewed a diverse mix of more than 100 stakeholders and held several group design workshops with about 50 of them. Here's what we've learned: people who are fighting for the open web and a better society hunger for a place to come together regularly year round, and not just at large conferences or occasional meetings. They want to gather around something that is bigger than a one- or two-day hackathon, yet less structured than a start-up incubator. They also want a place for curated workshops and events, as well as daily serendipitous encounters. In effect, they want a “third place” where diverse constituencies can cross paths regularly and find common ground by working on actual problems in a deliberate way.

So, what we envision this new center as something like this: A big, beautiful airy space in downtown Manhattan (or Brooklyn), in the heart of New York’s burgeoning tech sector that people can use to work and meet, with room for small and mid-sized events and conferences (and a great stage for livestreaming), individual and group work areas, a bar for coffee during the day and beers at night, with lots and lots of WiFi! We also plan to invite some related organizations as anchor co-tenants to produce their own events and help us expand our community even more. The center would have an innovation lab at its heart, with full and part-time resident fellows, each working on a specific problems and responsible for work-shopping solutions with relevant stakeholders. There would be an ongoing series of daytime and evening talks, seminars, and tech demonstrations open to the public, and with monthly and yearly membership options for people and organizations who want to be able to use PDC as their home base for work and networking.

To learn more about the rationale for this big idea and dig deeper into the details of our research, check out and read our detailed findings report (.pdf). This continues to be very much a work in progress, but we feel we've formulated the plan enough to now ask for your input to help us refine and continue the work.

We are looking for feedback of any kind. Questions are as welcome as ideas. Offers to help and offers to be part of it are most welcome, as well as offers of introductions to partners or sponsors. Share your thoughts below, or by commenting on our Knight proposal.

And keep your eye on this page and we’ll update you as we progress.