By Maisie O’Brien, Communications Coordinator
Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation shined a spotlight on a unique corner of the tech world with an event April 30th to discuss the potential for digital technology to revolutionize democratic engagement.
Presented in partnership with Tech4Change and the Harvard innovation-lab, the #Tech4Democracy Movement event showcased tech entrepreneurs from the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) community and highlighted their civic technology start-ups with a panel discussion and digital demonstrations.
MPP 2011 founder of TurboVote, a platform that assists users to register and vote in upcoming elections, described his initial interest in civic tech saying, “I was very motivated by the ideal of democracy where everyone votes in every election, and I wanted to create a tool to make voting easy and seamless like everything else on the internet.”
What began as a modest start-up founded in 2010 while Flaxman was earning his MPP at HKS has grown into a sizable nonprofit organization. Today, TurboVote has a two million dollar annual budget, a staff of eighteen, and a new partnership with county governments to streamline the voting process.
Panel moderator Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship, described the growing field of civic tech saying, “Promising start-ups are out there, but none of them stand out as the Facebook or Twitter of democratic reform. That groundbreaking innovation could be present in this room.”
Panelists represented diverse organizations in various stages of development. They discussed challenges related to financing and branding their ventures, and each expressed an ardent enthusiasm for improving government and democratic processes.
“It strikes me that the panelists –wisely– don’t aim to effect sweeping institutional change,” said Fung. “Instead they’re taking the existing system and building a little measure on top of it, which is making things much, much better and contributing to the health of democracy.”
Following the panel discussion, attendees participated in interactive demonstrations and spoke one-on-one with other innovators and interested colleagues from the Harvard community.
Joint MPP 2013/MBA student Else Sze demonstrated Agora, the platform she cofounded that serves as an online town hall offering communities new ways to share ideas. “It’s amazing that HKS is hosting digital events,” says Sze. “It’s great that they’re getting in on the action and inspiring people with an interest in civic tech.”
The event was complimented by a day-long tweetchat featuring the hashtag #tech4democracy. Online participants had the opportunity to direct questions about civic engagement and democracy to event panelists and attendees.
Panelists included Seth Flaxman MPP 2011, TurboVote; Cristina Garmendia MPP 2013, OpportunitySpace; Gaurav Keerthi MC/MPA 2014, Dialectic; and Mat Morgan MPP 2013, Shout About. They were joined for the interactive session by Phillip Harding MPP 2014, Connected Congress; Michael Mackenzie, Ash Center fellow, Participedia; and Elsa Sze MPP 2013, Agora.