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Hello, World! Civicist Is Born

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, May 1 2015

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A version of this letter is cross-posted over at the newly-launched Civicist, which you can read here.

Dear readers:

We’re very excited to announce the launch of Civicist, a hub for news and analysis of the civic tech world. We will cover the growing ecosystem of people and projects using tech for civic purposes, building on the community-organizing and network-weaving we’ve done every June since 2004 during Personal Democracy Forum, and now year-round at Civic Hall. With this announcement, we’re also going to mothball techPresident, the group blog and news site that we started in 2007 to focus on how tech is changing politics. If you are a loyal techPresident reader, don’t worry—we are still going to keep an eye on that arena. But with Civicist (pronounced "Civik-ist"), we are going to focus especially on the ways people are using tech for social good.

This is actually not that big a shift. We’ve always been most interested in how tech could be a disruptive force for positive social change, the kind that opens up the political system, empowers more ordinary people, and makes government work better. But we think that the action, and innovation, has shifted away from partisan electoral politics and towards civic engagement, broadly defined. At Civicist we will continue to bring you a daily roundup of the latest news in First Post, which goes out to Civic Hall members in the morning mail every weekday and gets posted online later in the day, and throughout the week our team will deliver fresh reporting and thinking on all the ways that this field is taking shape.

It is an exciting time to cover this emergent field. Civic tech’s precise meaning is still being forged as its practitioners keep discovering the best ways to do everything from partner with government, build on government data, influence government to move in a particular direction, co-create services with government, or even create their own freestanding civic services that solve a community need without direct reliance on government. As my sage old friend Andrew Kopkind might have said were he still around, its meaning hasn’t been fully meaned yet.

For now, we think of civic tech as a big tent. It includes civic apps—tools or platforms designed primarily for a civic purpose—but it also encompasses big apps or platforms that have civic effects. That comprises everything from SeeClickFix or NationBuilder in the former case, to Yelp (when people use it to review government services) or Google (with its Civic Information API) in the latter. People working to upgrade government’s use of technology—govtech—are certainly part of the civic tech ecosystem when their efforts involve engaging with the public. The same goes for political technology—a candidate or issue campaign's efforts to mobilize the public inevitably also involves drawing people into civic life. We're taking a broad view, and plan to keep an eye on developments globally, as well.

We've recruited a diverse group of contributing editors who will enrich this conversation with their own insights and observations. They include: Hollie Russon Gilman, Erhardt Graeff, Marci Harris, Mark Headd, Allyson Kapin, David Karpf, Laurenellen McCann, An Xioa Mina, David Moore, Antonella Napolitano, Matt Stempeck, Anthony Townsend, and Ethan Zuckerman. To kick off our coverage, we've asked them to share their thoughts on "What is civic tech?" and will be publishing their responses this week and next. Jessica McKenzie, our managing editor, and I will contribute our own feature reporting, and we’ll also commission feature pieces from freelancers and post occasional op-eds from other voices. (If you’d like to join in, either as a contributing editor, freelancer or op-ed writer, drop Jessica a note at jessica@civichall.org.)

While Civicist is cross-partisan, it is not neutral. We're opinionated. Tech is not an apolitical force in society; it can be used for good or for bad. When we say “civic tech” we mean the use of tech to improve the conditions of all. We agree with Zephyr Teachout when she argues that the opposite of corruption—the use of public power for private purposes—is "love of the public."  It's for this reason that we have occasionally editorialized on behalf of causes like net neutrality or internet freedom. To us, today's civic activism is focused on searching for what it takes to make the promise of a democratic and just society for all a reality, and how wise use of technology can assist in that quest.

Between PersonalDemocracy.com and techPresident.com, there's a rich archive of more than 14,300 posts to dig into, as well as an assortment of PDF conference videos, podcasts, and a smattering of special reports. We're going to keep all that content up for as long as we can. And we're going to put Personal Democracy Plus to bed and make the content there free instead of keeping it behind a paywall. (Old subscribers to Personal Democracy Plus are being converted to Civic Hall community members and your daily subscription to First Post will continue.)

Finally, in addition to covering the world of civic tech, Civicist is also going to cover the community of Civic Hall, our newborn center for civic innovation in the heart of Manhattan's Flatiron District. The people who belong to Civic Hall and come to its events are a vibrant part of the civic tech movement, and when their work strikes us as important or path-breaking or worth celebrating, we'll share that here. In just three months, Civic Hall has grown to more than 300 paying members, representing a broad range of organizations including government agencies like the New York Attorney General's office and NYC's 311 system, as well as non-governmental organizations like Code for America and BetaNYC and companies like Change.org and NationBuilder. In the coming weeks, we'll be adding a more robust calendar of events as well as a web portal for Civic Hall members to use for networking with each other. To stay on top of all of this, you can sign up for our free weekly external events newsletter, or come join as a member to get the First Post inside scoop and internal events calendar delivered to you directly.

Micah L. Sifry