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Civic Tech for Good

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons / Blogtrepreneur

Since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law just over seven years ago, roughly 12.2 million people have enrolled in coverage through Despite the site’s ultimate success, it’s difficult to forget the spectacular failure of its launch, which was marred by serious technological problems, including long wait times, broken drop-down menus, and network failures. To save the site—and perhaps the ACA itself—the Obama administration called on tech experts from government and the private sector to rescue the site. As politicians and pundits focused their attention on what went wrong, a team of developers, designers, and technologists went to work to get back on track and to ensure that their frustrated fellow Americans could enroll in a health insurance plan.

The public drama of the debacle and its eventual turnaround was an inflection point for civic tech—and highlighted a wealth of problems that top tech talent had yet to solve.

The ensuing influx of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest into the federal government—what has come to be known as the “tech surge”—has ignited a movement in which experts from the tech sector are applying their skills to solve problems in the public interest. One of the most well-known results of this surge is the United States Digital Service, a startup that originated in the Obama White House and was created to deliver better government services to the American people through technology and design.

Vivian Graubard, a founding member of the USDS and the new director of strategy for the Technology in the Public Interest program at New America, sat down with Baratunde Thurston at New America’s annual conference on May 18 to discuss what technology in the public interest means, as well as to investigate the future of civic tech.

Thurston, whose mother was a computer programmer for the US government, was essentially born into this space and can recall a time when people were very optimistic about the social impact of technology and the internet. Now, there’s more nuance to our understanding of how technology can be used for good, an understanding that will undoubtedly change the way we shape the conversation around civic tech in the coming years.

Indeed, Graubard, who spent nearly six years in the White House, believes we have already moved beyond the hackathons and open data and are now engaging workers in the federal government in ways that will help make them more efficient and effective at carrying out their core mission with technology.

In her own words: “Most of the time that I was [in the White House] was spent on trying to bring these best practices that we knew worked in the tech industry to bear in government when it came to policy implementation.”

In building up the USDS, Graubard and her colleagues quickly realized that they couldn’t just send a technologist to an agency and expect them to make sustainable change across the board. Graubard acknowledged that “technologists and people with these skillsets are not people who helicopter in and out—we need to think about embedding them long-term and making them a part of the organizational structure that persists.”

Now, Graubard is looking to build up and embed a similar network of tech experts within the non-profit ecosystem, one where technology can make an impact on the work of policy experts outside of government. Cecilia Muñoz, the vice president of policy and technology at New America, later remarked on the potential for embedding tech in non-profits, saying, “I feel certain that the way non-profits do the fundamentals of their work is going to involve data and technology, but most of them don't know it yet.” Muñoz added: “Part of what we’re hoping to accomplish is to demonstrate what’s possible when people who are solving important problems get in the room with technologists who offer a whole new set of tools.”

Where are some areas where this tech toolkit might be particularly effective?

The opioid epidemic, criminal justice and immigration reform, and voting rights are just some of the many pressing issues that technology could help address, agreed experts and activists across the government and non-profit spectrum who were in attendance. For instance, with the opioid epidemic alone taking the lives of, on average, 144 people a day, any effort to use technology to help understand and identify response and prevention efforts can make an immediate impact on  the efforts already being undertaken in local governments, nonprofits, and health organizations.

There’s undoubtedly more than enough work to go around. No one organization or entity is approaching a topic in the same way, working on the same issues, or embedding in the same communities. But it’s programs like New America’s Public Interest Technology Fellowship that give experts like Jeremiah Lindemann the support necessary to enable him to find technological solutions to the opioid epidemic.

Through his fellowship, Lindemann will be collaborating with local governments across the country to map the opioid epidemic, which, through data-gathering, will allow us to understand the impact of the epidemic sooner and begin saving lives. This is the exact kind of collaboration Graubard looks forward to fostering under the Technology in the Public Interest program at New America. Reflecting on what will make this experiment successful, she noted: “If we go into this by ourselves, we’ve failed before we’ve even started…The best thing we can do is work with each other and learn from each other.”

After all, it’s in the public interest.


Emily Fritcke was a program associate at Future Tense. She graduated from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, with a BA in English literature and history.