#PDF14 Speaker Preview: An Interview with David Moore, Executive Director of the Participatory Politics Foundation.
BY Sonia Roubini | Friday, May 16 2014
This speaker preview features David Moore, a ten year PDF veteran and the Executive Director of the Participatory Politics Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with a mission to increase civic engagement. PPF's flagship project is AskThem.io, a free questions-and-answers platform with public figures. From 2007-2013, David directedOpenCongress.org, a leading non-profit resource that received 27 million web visits and created the open-source Contact-Congress project. David will be speaking at #PDF14 on Thursday, June 5th from 3:30 – 4:30 on the “How the Web is Changing Local Politics” breakout session.
1. How did you come to be interested in tech and its impact on society?
Through organizing. In college, I was active in international labor rights and municipal living wage campaigns. After college, I worked for labor unions and political campaigns in about five states. With student organizing, there was always information & strategies & tools that needed to be shared between campus groups, and e-mail list-servs were inefficient & unproductive. So we created easier-to-use web pages with links to replicable documents and economic case studies, which supported my belief that useful information can be made much more widely accessible for distracted activists, and that the outcomes of their real-life networking can be tremendous.
Later, in Democratic campaign organizing, I saw that most campaigns could only increase voter turnout among even registered primary voters by a couple of percentage points and that nearly half the public wasn't voting at all in Congressional elections. Our non-profit, the Participatory Politics Foundation, was created with the central mission to increase chances for participatory actions during everyday life, primarily over the Web. Elections are important, but we have the potential for greater social democracy & innovations if people can just as easily support real net neutrality to their U.S. representative or endorse a more-balanced military budget as they can like a photo on Facebook or stream a movie on Netflix. Our new project, AskThem.io, is a step towards a more continual public conversation with everyone who represents you, and it works from federal legislative policy questions down to local city issues.
2. What's the most satisfying part of your work?
In 2008, the artist Kevin Bewersdorf said in a Rhizome interview, "Try to wrap yourself around this cliché -- if [internet] surfing is wandering for 40 days and 40 nights in a desert, the boon is the vision brought back from the quest and the wake is the path of the whole quest's footsteps." The juxtaposition of the boon and the wake.
One major satisfaction for me is interface design - for example, I still remember wireframing the Contact-Congress Message Builder that PPF developed on OpenCongress in 2010-2011, to email all three of your members of Congress. A second is seeing, with real user data, how people actually pick up and use tools you build (and we'd love to build many, many more of them). A third is writing blog posts, which no one really reads and shares anymore; a fourth is Twitter lists, and how comedy patterns became integrated with tech workflows. A fifth is getting a substantive policy response to a public question from an elected official on AskThem; the answers so far have been high-quality. Surfacing new & useful information for peer-to-peer organizing in cities, user-friendly tools for activists.
3. If you've been to PDF in the past, what are your impressions?
It's my 10th consecutive year - I only missed the inaugural, in 2004, because I was working on the Presidential campaign in battleground Ohio. I am on the record as affirming that PDF holds the crown in the tech-politics circuit. It's the premier networking event for civic tech. The people it showcases are really excellent practitioners and the policy experts are league-leading. (If anyone wants to get tacos with me for lunch, get at me, we'll make a dash. They're not the top-10 tacos in NYC, but they're serviceable.) More to the point, I'm grateful to Micah & Andrew and their team - this is my second time presenting at the conference - the first was to unveil our major re-design of OpenCongress in 2009, when we added personal logins to vote "aye" or "nay" on bills and track & share legislation. This breakout will be on how AskThem works for crowdsourced question-and-answer with city governments. Find me for an espresso run and I can outline some of our other non-profit project ideas, such as a new open-source engagement site for NYC government and twenty municipal governments nationwide.
4. What's the driving idea behind AskThem.io, your new project? Do you anticipate that it could help bring about real political change?
Fundamentally, we saw that the U.S. civic-tech landscape was missing a questions-and-answers platform with people in power, as existed in Germany with ParliamentWatch and in the UK with mySociety's family of sites. OpenCongress supported great organic netroots conversation about bills and votes in Congress, but we never had the resources to develop it into a two-way platform for constituent communication. Another was the success of the White House's "We the People" petition platform, where many petitions that surpassed the signature threshold would receive an official response - we saw it as a generally-productive, lightweight civic engagement tool for rehabilitating a baseline of trust in government. Now, with AskThem, anyone can ask a question and push for a public response from any level of government, or any public figure with a verified Twitter account.
The cultural change we seek to ensure is that if a question receives enough popular support, it will be addressed with a minimum of obfuscation in a public forum for accountability (not just transparency). It's one of the platforms in what Prof. Yochai Benkler and his colleagues described in 2012 as the networked public sphere, all on the open web. We have over 75 elected officials nationwide signed-up to respond to public questions, and we've already seen how NYC council members have used the site to engage their constituents - for example, Council member Brad Lander of Brooklyn is drafting legislation based on a constituent's questions on race & social justice, which in turn he's adapting from a progressive initiative in Seattle. Here, AskThem can serve as a platform to support networked policymaking in cities, which is where our focus has been and where civic tech can have a quicker impact. We're currently seeking charitable funding support to keep AskThem going through the 2014 elections and beyond, as a "We the People" for every elected official and more public figures.