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#PDF14: An Interview with Anthea Watson

BY Sonia Roubini | Tuesday, April 8 2014

The next in our series of #PDF14 speaker previews is Anthea Watson. Anthea is part of Google's Civic Innovation team, building products that facilitate civic engagement, open societies and free expression across digital platforms. She describes herself as a technologist and community organizer working at the intersection of the Internet and urban systems and will join us as a main stage speaker at #PDF14.

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

After law school, I worked as a community organizer in Milwaukee, WI, Eagle Pass, TX, Belzoni, MS and Michigan City, IN. I wasn't really into the Internet back then; I thought a clipboard and a telephone was all the tech I needed. But in 2008, during the Obama campaign, when I saw how people with shared interests and goals were finding each other online and coming together to change their communities, I was totally hooked.

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

When a developer launches a new tool using data from the Google Civic Information API, and we watch the number of requests come in on the dashboard. It's a great feeling knowing that each query represents a person out there who we helped engage in the civic process.

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

PDF is a collection of makers, hackers, thinker and geeks who care about how the Internet is changing the process by which we all make community decisions. Whether they're building new tools to make it easier to vote, access public services or elect a particular candidate, this group is at the bleeding edge of civics and technology. They care about justice, government efficiency and better outcomes, and it's ridiculously fun to spend two days hanging out with them.

4. What do you see as the most important challenges facing people working in the tech-enabled civic engagement field today?

We need to work harder to ensure diversity is built into everything we do. I'm proud of how far our community has come, and I know we all aspire to be a space in which everyone feels welcome. But we have more to do. We should do this because we'll solve hard problems faster and build better products, but also because it's the right thing to do. Diversity should be defined in the broadest possible way-- gender, race, sex, and class are traditional measures of diversity. But we should also be more inclusive of the international civic community-- especially from the developing world, and we should be inclusive of people with different skill sets, including data scientists, artists, economists, government officials and other professions. We're tackling the hardest problems in the world, and we're going to need every idea and every skill set in order to make progress.

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

The key advance in technology in the near future is personalization. Users will be able to customize their experiences, and technology will learn user's interests and help surface the information they need at the time they need it. Technology will reflect your environment and preferences. By customizing and curating information, civic engagement tools will be able to lower the barriers to participation. We'll get better at presenting people opportunities to affect the decisions being made by policy-makers. We'll be able to increase the amount of civic engagement, but more importantly, increase the quality of civic engagement. It's a bright and shiny new world, and I'm excited to be a part of it.