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#PDF14 preview: An Interview with Jake Brewer

BY Sonia Roubini | Wednesday, April 2 2014

The next in our series of #PDF14 speaker previews is Jake Brewer. Jake leads the External Affairs Team at Change.org and describes himself as someone who has spent the past decade being “generally obsessed with solving social problems at scale”, particularly the problem of making citizen’s voices heard in government. Jake will speak on the main stage of #PDF14.

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

My uncle first introduced me to an 1800 baud modem on our 8088 PC when I was 6 years old, and taught me how to play on a local BBS (and also a text-only version of Zork, which was awesome). I remember thinking that I was "seeing" other people through the phone, and that we were "going somewhere else" right there from our family's desk. Though very simple, those first experiences with the Internet shaped how I saw everything after. Every time I encountered a problem throughout my adolescence I wondered, "could technology help me here?" And very often it could - from creating a database of my baseball cards to "helping me" freak out my 5th grade teacher when I wrote a self-executing batch file on the school computers that made it look like any keystroke would automatically format the hard drive in the DOS prompt (still feel guilty about that one).

As my awareness and desire to tackle societal challenges was awakened through college, using technology felt like a natural way to be more efficient in creating and scaling solutions - especially as it related to civic engagement and volunteerism.

In 2003 when I became the (very young) executive director of a 15 year-old nonprofit that still used filing cabinets for a significant portion of its "database," technology became not just something that could help, but a real life-line. With only three full time staff we were able to organize and support a network of 50,000 college students doing service work because of what the Internet allowed.

Since then I've had the privilege of working in the leadership of some of the best social good and civic engagement organizations on the web, from Idealist.org to the Sunlight Foundation, to White House initiatives, and now Change.org.

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

The "victory" notifications we receive from users on Change.org. Every single day, things actually change in communities all over the United States and around the world - in real people's lives - because of organizing citizens do (for free) online at Change.org.

I especially love seeing when the decision makers who receive the petitions from our users respond to let them know they will help - even if the problem can't be solved immediately. It's the beginning of a conversation, and that conversation is about building and enhancing democracy.

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

This will be my 8th Personal Democracy Forum (jeez, how did I get so old?!). There really is no event that consistently expands my mind as far, and creates as much space for conversations among the most extraordinary thinkers and doers in the country, as PDF. Every year it feels more and more like a family reunion for brilliant innovators than a "conference."

4. Your article about the tragedy of political advocacy made a big splash in 2010. Has your opinion shifted at all recently?

My thinking about how to make advocacy work more effectively on behalf of citizens hasn't so much shifted as it has deepened and evolved. I've spent the last several years (along with others) generally obsessing about what it will take to not only have the technical systems, but also the incentives, processes, and habits necessary to give citizens real impact in board rooms and the halls of government. If there's been a shift, it's in that I believe more than ever that we can make it work, and it doesn't have to be so damned tragic. What is incredibly fun today is having the platform and team to build and implement ideas versus just write about them.

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

1) A free and open Internet is not a guarantee, or something we can take for granted. It's something we need to fight for and protect.
2) The open government data movement is still brand new but growing. We've barely begun to scratch the surface of what's possible when government data is released online (in standardized, public format) and in real-time.
3) Culture trumps tech. It's not enough to just build the tools; as a community we need to lead those in government and business in an ethos of innovation, engagement, transparency and social responsibility - and make sure they know what that means in terms of action. The leaders who attend PDF know this, and more and more every new "tech" initiative can and should include it.