Personal Democracy Forum 2016: Mission Accomplished!

| Adam J. Hecktman


With apologies to all holidays, birthdays, and vacation days, my favorite two days of the year are the Personal Democracy Forum, which took place last week in New York.   Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) brings together a diverse set of people who think about our democracies, and build tools, solutions, policy, and research that tackles some of the greatest challenges to our society.  The audience includes technologists, journalists, authors, researchers, political and government officials, campaign leaders, and a myriad of others to talk about the change that could happen, has happened, and will happen with respect to democratic principles in an era of nearly limitless supply of data and technology.  

The theme of this year’s PDF was “The Tech We Need”.   This was far from a cheering session for technology solutions.  It was a far more nuanced discussion, looking at technology as an enabler, empowering us to come together and act together in new ways, and also looking at the tech-driven externalities that impede social or political progress.  

To be certain, great examples abounded for technology as a driver for democratic inclusion and participation:

  • Andrew Konya talked about his conversation platform called Remesh.  Remesh uses artificial intelligence to create the voice that best represents a movement, as accurately as possible and in real time.  
  • In a discussion on digital strategies for government, Seamus Kraft talked about OpenGov Foundation’s Madison Project. Madison allows citizens to use the internet to access the law as it’s being crafted, leave comments, annotate specific content, and interact with legislation authors and other citizens.  
  • Civic Hall took the opportunity to launch Civic Hall Labs.  Civic Hall Labs will leverage their considerable line up of talent in order to design, build, and study digital tools for public good. Further, Civic Hall Lab’s Erin Simpson (along with Microsoft’s Matt Stempeck and Civic Hall’s Micah Sifry) unveiled the Civic Tech Field Guide.  The Field Guide strives to define civic tech, organize a taxonomy for the functions civic tech can perform, and lay out the best ways to organize for impact (both using technology and people).  

The “we” in the “Tech We Need” was, at times, broadly defined as society in general.  And it was also more specifically defined in terms of communities that can benefit the most by a digital organizing mechanism:

  • Take Esra’a Al-Shafei, founder of, CrowdVoice, mideasttunes and others. Her communities are defined geographically, socially and culturally. She works for human rights while standing between autocratic powers and the political obstacles facing the LGBTQ community in her home region. Believing that change can only happen from within, she is a leading force for multiple grassroots efforts to inspire a generation to recognize both the immediacy of the opportunity before them, and the existential consequences of inaction.
  • Egyptian Activist Wael Ghonim depicted how the Egyptian revolutionary movement started with Facebook posts, then progressed to simple public actions to build momentum. He then described why optimizing for engagement using technology and social networks can be self-defeating if it leads to echo chambers, flame wars, or simply a “valley of open-mindedness”.  
  • Black Lives Matter co-creator Alicia Garza brought the house down using the movement to illustrate how you cannot simultaneously be pro-social change and anti-disruption.  You can’t sustain engagement in a society that expects a segment to participate in democracy without reaping the benefits of democracy.

Of course, the very same technologies that we use to collaborate, the social networks we use to inspire action, and the data that we use to influence change all come at a cost.  The cost is sometimes an unintended externality.  Or it could be based on intent, or even a business model.

  • MIT Professor Sherry Turkle cautioned us that these same technologies that can bring us together to act collectively also have the potential to drive an artificial digital wedge between humans. People today have an “always available” screen that they use to avoid the lulls of life and anxiety of real time interaction.  The casualty in this: empathy.  “Technology is giving us a chance to run from each other, and we’re taking it” Turkle said, noting that she is not anti-technology, rather pro-empathy.  
  • UCLA’s Safiya Noble Called out racial bias in search results, pointing out that when you are dealing with search engines, you are dealing with advertising algorithms.  The externality turns out to be the reinforcement of the negative patterns of our society: the objectification of women, adverse or harmful portrayal of minorities, etc.
  • Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian journalist, reasoned on how “post-web journalism” is journalism encapsulated in social networks.  Social networks are trying desperately to keep us on the inside, and they are succeeding, leading serious journalism to lose its audience.
  • Microsoft data and ethics researcher Kate Crawford called for a rigid study of discrimination in artificial intelligence algorithms. The value systems inherent in big data algorithms have real societal impact. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a crisis to see that impact.

These were just a few examples of the exceptional speakers and vital topics that were covered.  It was a balanced discussion of what technology can do for us, flanked by discussion of what it can do to us.  The conversation was all at once inspiring and cautionary.  At a time when the civic tech movement is trying to define itself and its role in creating better, more inclusive, and more productive democracies, the conversations could not have been more on point.  It left me motivated to learn more, engage more, and do more.  So, PDF…mission accomplished.

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Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.