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#PDF14 Preview: Featuring Heidi Sieck, of Democracy.com

BY Sonia Roubini | Thursday, May 22 2014

Heidi Sieck is the Chief Operating Officer of Democracy.com, the new social platform for politics, connecting candidates, political organizations and voters from national to local level. Heidi has a twenty-five year background in innovation and activism at the intersection of technology and politics. Heidi will be speaking at #PDF14 on the “How the Web is Changing Local Politics” breakout panel on Thursday June 5 from 3:30 – 4:30.

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

I grew up in a tiny farm town in Nebraska in the pre-cable age. We had very little information about the broader world other than AM radio, three TV channels and fuzzy PBS accessed through "rabbit ear" antenna on a television set. I know from direct experience that lack of access to information limits opportunity. Not only can technology offer endless sources of information, it can ignite transformation in people's lives. Such is the theme of my life's work.

Fast forward 20 years. I was part of the AT&T team that worked on the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the first round of wireless spectrum auctions back when there were only two cellular carriers in each market. No one in the current technology scene may remember the innovators and policymakers from that time, people like Craig McCaw, Jim Barksdale, Senator Larry Pressler and Representative, now Senator, Ed Markey. Suffice it to say, everything happening in technology today is riding on the wired and wireless networks we innovated back then. It was a crazy, never ending regulatory war. I think crazier than today, actually. Without the Internet, advocacy had to be more creative. I remember, at one point, airplanes flying over San Francisco City Hall with banners behind them touting open access of cable systems. I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to be in the trenches during that time, watching these networks get built. Literally. We dug a whole lot of trenches for fiber optic cables back in the day.

Eventually, I went on to innovate in my own way. I'm particularly proud of leading the San Francisco 311 Customer Service Center. That was a beast of a project, burrowing deep into the sometimes dark reality of city government bureaucracy. We consolidated 2500+ listed telephone numbers and numerous city government call centers to create an excellent customer experience for the residents, visitors and businesses of San Francisco. Tens of millions of people have benefited from our "one call to City Hall," which warms my heart on a daily basis. In fact, the customer request tracking and data collection systems we built served as the foundation of the open data movement in the U.S. I'm so proud of that.

Democracy.com is starting to evolve into a similar foundational network. By creating a basic information infrastructure of elected and appointed officers, we are able to innovate products to empower more people to run for office who normally may not take the next step and ignite voters into action in a more sustainable way.

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

Helping candidates who are just starting their political careers. Just last week, I was helping a woman who is running for office for the first time. When I said, "You're starting with school board, but eventually I want you to run for U.S. Senate." I could literally hear her smile over the phone as she quietly said, "I would like that." That's when the world changes.

And, frankly, after spending 12 years as a straight-up civil servant bureaucrat before Democracy.com, it's nice to be able to go and buy pens without having to fill out a bunch of forms and ask for competitive bids.

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

I have been to two PDF conferences in the past. It's my all time favorite tech conference by far. The community is wonderful, friendly and collaborative. I love Micah and Andrew for their devotion to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful, honest, straight talk about essential issues facing this community. I'm particularly struck by the thoughtful curation of speakers and participants. So many technology conferences act incredulous when their gender, racial or socio-economic balance is questioned. How many times have I heard "we just couldn't find as many qualified _____?" Utter and complete nonsense. PDF knows the truth and lives up to the ideal. I am a devoted and forever fan for that reason alone.

4. 2014 is a big election year - what sort of role do you see for a platform like Democracy.com in the midterm elections?

Democracy.com is a nonpartisan social network for politics that is reimagining the way politicians, organizations and voters discover each other. Our Democracy Search is one of the best in the industry and provides nationwide geo-located information about elected officials, candidates, appointed officials and organizations. We have one of the simplest and streamlined online donation platforms anywhere. Our profiles offer every candidate in every election, no matter their budget, basic tools to run a successful online campaign. We're make democracy more accessible, easier to navigate and relevant to everyone, every moment, every day. We're just getting started.

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

Net neutrality. Period. See my first answer. Access to information is the key to unlocking human potential.

Some people may disagree and say that privacy and data security are more important. We'd all be stupid not to believe that something is going to happen that will fundamentally shake our trust in how much we're willing to let the Internet know about us. But what good is any of it if we marginalize information? The way I see it, if we're all going to lose our electronic identities somehow somewhere, it might as well be ubiquitous. Brings out the community spirit (insert sarcasm here).

With regard to politics, Democracy.com is a nonpartisan platform. I certainly have personal opinions about very serious issues we're seeing in our democracy. Very serious. But it is not my place to advocate for them (anymore). Perhaps we can all agree that 42% average voter turnout in midterm elections is truly unconscionable. Perhaps we can all shake our heads that Congress had a 9% approval rating last November (lower than Paris Hilton, Communism, Nixon during Watergate, and toe fungus). Yet, voters re-elect their representatives 90% of the time. Perhaps we can marvel at the fact that presidential candidates raise and spend $1 billion, yet we can't seem to fund our schools. From time to time, as we're out in the U.S. talking to our users, someone will say to us, "you know we're not a democracy, right?" To which we have to say, "Well, that's why we're here. Let's see what we can do about that."