The 15 employees of Civic Hall are working to bring together a diverse, talented community of players to drive the development and use of Civic Tech in New York City. How does Civic Hall work? What initiatives has the community launched so far? Why choose New York City? Civic Hall founder and CEO Andrew Rasiej answers our questions.
The Smart City concept encompasses all the social and political technologies and innovations that enable people to live better lives in a cleaner, safer, and more attractive but less costly city. In short, the main focus of a smart, connected city must be its residents. Meanwhile Civic Tech comprises all those innovations that help to boost citizen power, make citizens more pro-active in their relations with government, and ensure that public services intended for their use are accessible. Civic Hall – a collaborative workspace in the heart of New York City which unites a community of players working on Civic Tech – is one of these innovations. L’Atelier met up with Civic Hall founder and CEO Andrew Rasiej.
L’Atelier: What made you think of founding Civic Hall and what is its aim?
Andrew Rasiej: Every year we hold a Personal Democracy Forum conference – which this year is scheduled to take place in New York City on 9 and 10 June. This event is unique in that it brings together different sectors, domains and worlds which don’t normally interact: politics, technology, the academic world, the press, social entrepreneurs, Corporate and Social Responsibility professionals, etc. Twelve years on, the event has become so popular that participants expressed the wish to have a space where they could get together on a more regular basis. Civic Hall is a community workspace and meeting place which hosts Civic Tech initiatives. By ‘Civic Tech’ I mean any technology designed to further the public good.
So Civic Hall brings together social entrepreneurs, public sector employees, hackers, university staff and students, journalists, artists and many more besides. How have you built this community?
If you want to join the Civic Hall community you have to apply, explaining why you’re interested, why you wish to participate in this community, and what you can contribute. There are three types of members: full-time, part-time, and various organisations that get involved in our projects in a different way. Among these we have staff from our sponsors Google and Microsoft, and from government agencies – the mayor’s office, the department of environmental protection and so on.
We do our utmost to ensure that the community is as diverse as possible in terms of gender, race, age, geography, professional skills, and so on. Diversity is an integral part of Civic Hall, and we see it as a point of honour to cultivate diversity. We believe that in order to solve the civic and urban problems cities are facing today in a way that can be measured and develop replicable models, we need the most diverse possible community of partners and co-workers. We provide community members with a space where they can meet their peers. So when they come into this space they work together quite smoothly, and we also have an ambassador whose job it is to encourage people to get together on common projects.
So there are two types of initiatives – those coming from spontaneous encounters between members and those encouraged by Civic Hall. Could you give us an example of these initiatives?
One example of a project launched spontaneously by our members is led by Kristen Rouse. A three-term Afghanistan veteran who spent a total of thirty months there, Kristen wanted to create an organisation for veterans to tackle the problems experienced by the younger generation who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Well-known organisations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and a number of associated clubs already exist across the country. However, the VFW serves the many veterans of the Vietnam War and hasn’t really been addressing the problems faced by military personnel returning from more recent conflicts. In fact Kristen knew nothing about the new information and communication technologies. But then she met a member of the community and explained what she was trying to set up. This person advised her to place her project on a platform called Nation Builder, an online platform for campaign management. Over a coffee, another person taught her how to use the social networks, and then someone else designed a logo for her organisation. This is how she came to create the NYC Veterans Alliance. Within three months, four hundred veterans had registered on her platform. They then persuaded City Hall to set up a Department of Veterans' Services.
A good illustration of the initiatives to which we’ve contributed more pro-actively is Open Referral, an idea from Greg Bloom. The aim is to solve the problem of getting hold of information about the services provided by public bodies and not-for-profit organisations, especially services for marginalised or underprivileged people. You can’t find this kind of information online, let alone on a single platform. A very practical example illustrating the consequences of not having the data computerised yet is that every year the New York City library publishes a volume of around three hundred pages containing all the information an ex-prisoner might need in order to resume a normal life: information on finding somewhere to live, training courses, a job, how to get access to medical care. This book is in printed form and yet it’s not accessible online! Another example: if a police officer finds a teenager out on the street at night, he can’t use his smartphone to find a homeless people’s shelter which is open and has a bed available for the night, because this information doesn’t exist!
So because we know people in government agencies, in several non-profit organisations and in the technology sector, we run initiatives bringing these different players together in order to get a dozen public agencies and a dozen non-profit organisations to share all their data on a single platform.
Once that’s been done, other bodies have to follow suit, because if they’re not connected they won’t exist. This is the kind of venture that – given that it works well here in New York City – could easily be deployed in cities the world over.
Could you give us an example of collaboration arising from a request from the public authorities?
The New York Attorney General approached us recently and asked us to build an app to enable victims of domestic violence to obtain a protection order on their smartphones. A protection order is a legal document which indicates that a person must be protected, so that if a police officer is called to intervene during a marital dispute, the victim can prove that the spouse is forbidden to be in his/her vicinity. We thought the Attorney General’s idea was a very good one, but we reckoned that could go much further. We brought together representatives of the Attorney General’s office, the bureau of domestic violence at New York City Hall and several not-for-profit organisations – basically all New York entities working on issues related to domestic violence. And we asked what this community needed in terms of technology – maybe an instant messaging service to a specialist advisor, maybe a support network. We started a collaborative effort with six agencies and six non-profits in order to provide technology solutions to tackle the problem of domestic violence.
What are the advantages of being based in NYC rather than Silicon Valley, where the tech ecosystem is much more advanced?
Well, we think that today a space such as Civic Hall can only exist in New York City. I’m President of the NY Tech meetup which currently has 51,000 members and represents the tech industry in New York. The unique feature of our structure is that most of the members don’t actually come from the tech world but are professionals from all the other main industries: they come from the media sector, from healthcare, they’re lawyers, journalists, etc. What differentiates us from Silicon Valley is that we have a much more diverse ecosystem of professionals – people who use technology to transform their companies, their lives and themselves.
NYC also has a long history of not-for-profit organisations working in social services and has more of what I would call civic empathy than anywhere else. It’s important to understand that the technology is here to stay, it’s everywhere, so that the differentiating factor today isn’t the technology but the people who use it. And New York City boasts more first-rate talent than any other city in the world. Lastly, as regards innovation in the civic domain, I believe that if you can solve a problem in the Big Apple, chances are high that you can solve it elsewhere.
What are Civic Hall’s aims in the longer term?
New York is the best city to start in, but in the longer term our idea is not just to have a Civic Hall here, we hope one day to have several in other cities as well.
Perhaps they’ll be physical spaces like the one we’re in now, but we reckon that the activities and projects we run here could also be hosted in libraries, because libraries are not only the most under-used municipal spaces in our society, but they have huge potential on the civic front.
We’re trying to dismantle the industrial era and the economic and political structures it has left us with. The way to build new 21st century structures will call for collaboration, community, and secular spaces such as Civic Hall that are able to foster encounters between citizens.