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#PDF14 Preview: An Interview with Marci Harris of POPVOX

BY Sonia Roubini | Thursday, April 24 2014

This week’s #PDF14 speaker preview features Marci Harris, the co-founder and CEO of POPVOX - the award-winning online advocacy platform that meshes real-time legislative data with users’ personal stories and sentiment in a format optimized for Congress. Marci is a leading voice in civic tech, and will join us on the main stage in June.

1. How did you come to be interested in tech and its impact on society?

The interest in technology sprung from a larger interest in the way our democracy functions at every level -- and the role every individual plays in it.

As a staffer in Congress -- and before that, in local government -- I saw first hand the impact that real people can have. But there was a problem: while technology was making it exponentially easier and cheaper for people to direct input to Congress, it was becoming exponentially harder for Congress to distinguish signal from noise. As a staffer, I had more information than I could ever process and no way to easily find the information I needed, when I needed it. I knew that was a problem technology could solve.

I joined with a wonderful team to create POPVOX to both address the information overload problem for Congress and staffers, while helping people get their voices heard in an effective way and aiding organizations better make their positions known. The true power of POPVOX is not its technology, however. It is in the voices of people sharing their personal stories with their elected representatives.

That I find supremely interesting.

2. What's the most satisfying part of your work?

Without question, the most satisfying part of our work at POPVOX is hearing from people who say they feel better informed and able to participate in the federal lawmaking process than ever before.

This is important not just because we like to hear that people are using the website. Studies increasingly show that political effectiveness is very closely correlated to feelings of "civic confidence" and "political efficacy." In the most basic sense, if you feel like you can affect the actions of your legislators -- you are actually more likely to do so!

A constant barrage of messages like "Congress is broken," "Congress doesn't listen", "The People are powerless" is incredibly damaging to the body politic. It leads to apathy, resignation, and a very low bar for holding public officials accountable. While politics and lawmaking has changed significantly over time, the People are not powerless. As our systems change -- which technology is accelerating -- the public will have more opportunities for influence and participation. That also brings a greater responsibility to be informed, reasonable, and mature in that participation.

Four years ago, as we were sketching out what would become POPVOX, we all agreed that we wanted to create the opposite of big marble columns at the end of a tall staircase looming over anyone who dared to enter. The most satisfying part of our team's work at POPVOX -- and for so many others in the civic space -- is making government at all levels much more accessible, transparent, and responsive to the People.

3. If you've been to PDF in the past, what are your impressions?

Love PDF. I started out watching every session on the livestream back in the early years and wishing I was there. In many ways it is old home week for those in the space -- a chance to catch up with old friends, meet new ones, and find out about the work of others. I have learned so much from the talks and panels over the years, and from chatting with fellow attendees! There is also a wonderful serendipity to having people from all over the world gather in one physical place to share their experiences. Two days at PDF can be as productive as months of scheduling meetings and calls -- with the added bonus that everyone is on the same time zone for once! :-)

4. How do you think the open government ecosystem is changing?

The ecosystem is maturing, professionalizing, growing, internationalizing, scaling, localizing. In the early days, we would all gather at an event and talk about Tweeting politicians, GIS applications, and agencies storing data in the cloud as if it were all in the same category of "government and technology." We now acknowledge that transparency, government technology, and civic engagement are different and complementary things that require different approaches and different expertise. (And I, for one, am happy to see greater distinction drawn between "political" technology and "civic" technology.)

There have been victories and letdowns, as we have discovered through the years that "open government" can mean many things and some efforts are more significant than others. A few projects launched with great fanfare have flamed out, modest efforts have grown to significant impact. Open government pioneers have gone into the "belly of the beast" of government and some are cycling out with fewer stars in their eyes, now keenly aware of institutional challenges. As some in the vanguard become disillusioned, new people show up to infuse idealism and fresh ideas.

I think and hope we are entering a time in which there is no bright line distinction between "the government" and everyone else. "Open Government" does not just have to be about data. I think of open government as a re-assertion of the idea that our government belongs to us and we have a responsibility to make it work better. At the local level, that can mean schools open computer labs to the community when school is not in session. At a national level, that can mean sharing Medicare payment data so that researchers, journalists, and the general public can use it to make decisions or draw conclusions about how the program is managed. We are still in very early stages of realizing the potential of a truly "Open" government.

5. What are the key issues tech and politics/society to pay attention to at the moment?

I am most concerned about macro questions about how government (especially at the federal level) actually processes information and functions. Un-sticking the gridlocked gears and re-setting out political discourse is the most important challenge before us. That affects every other issue. While political considerations (money in politics above all) certainly exacerbate these problems, they are not the only source of the trouble.

Better information, data, metrics, and oversight can make a difference. I expect we will see a lot more work in that area over the next few years and would point to the growth of new data-driven "explanatory" media outlets as a first step in that direction.