Here is a first of two posts on this point.
So where does the TrustTheVote Project fit in the broader “civic tech” movement that so many people in the technology world write and talk about? At base, civic tech, as the Knight Foundation defines it, is using the power of technology to connect people and improve government at all levels.
But that’s a pretty big tent, and many civic tech leaders have been trying to put the groups engaging in civic technology into categories. Tom Steinberg of mySociety, a U.K. digital activist group, says civic tech organizations are usually focused on one of four objectives: citizen empowerment, better digital government, influencing decisions, and finally, regime change.
Micah Sifry of the Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident blog, says, “civic tech ought to be seen broadly as any tool or process that people as individuals or groups may use to affect the public arena, be it to gain power, influence power, disrupt power or change the processes by which power is used.” What makes it different than old style activism, he writes, are “radically cheaper networked communications, sensors, and collaboration’’ made possible by computers and the Internet.
Sifry is right in many respects. But you’ll notice that both Steinberg and Sifry both have a strong activist bent – they want to change government. At the TrustTheVote Project, to be fair, we’re certainly about citizen empowerment, and better digital government, and we’re disrupters, too, having come out of Apple, Netscape, and other Silicon Valley companies, so perhaps that makes us activists as well.
But really, we’re all about embracing and improving the oldest and most basic “activist” act of all – voting.
And that’s why we like Forest Gregg’s attempt at a taxonomy of civic technology; Gregg, of DataMade, a data visualization company, groups civic tech projects into four kinds of practical apps designed broadly for a public purpose.
- News apps: ones that inform the public about an issue or problem;
- Propaganda apps: like news apps except they have a goal to persuade people to act, or work toward a specific political goal.
- Access apps: these are designed to open up government to people who might have been excluded from some governmental product or service.
- System plumbing apps: these attempt to increase the flow of information to and from government and the public.
Let’s look at the TrustTheVote Project’s various apps in development for improving our voting process and see how they fit, or don’t, Forrest Gregg’s taxonomy.
Online Voter Registration. TrustTheVote has been a leader in building open-source software that makes it easier for people to register to vote. We helped Rock the Vote develop its “Rocky” software that powers its online voter registration (OVR) tool. The Commonwealth of Virginia uses TrustTheVote Project’s “Reggie” software, a more complete voter registration tool for government, to support its online voter registration portal. Our Reggie software is being offered to registrars around the country so that they can adapt it to local use.
On first glance, OVR is simply an access app; it is designed to make it easier for people to vote by making registration quick and easy online.
Online voter registration, however, is just one part of the TrustTheVote Project’s larger Voter Services Portal, a key node of the open-source software package that we are developing for election administrators. The VSP is a web user interface that communicates via API (application programming interface) with a local elections office’s database to help a voter register, determine eligibility, view and update their own voter record or address, and other functions. So the VSP, too, is an access app – it gives voters better and easier access to government information, and to a government service – registering to vote.
But the VSP is also a system plumbing app – it helps the flow of information in both directions, from voter to elections office and vice-versa.
And actually, the VSP is more than an access or system plumbing app. It’s making a traditional government service work better for everyone. It’s like if the TrustTheVote Project were creating software that would make Motor Vehicle Department procedures of registering and titling cars easier and online. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea; someone should do that—but, not us.
We’re about voting; the TrustTheVote Project is aiming to make all aspects of voting – from registering, the polling place experience, casting and counting votes, and audits of the vote after Election Day, more efficient, more accurate, and easier both for the voters and the elections officials who administer voting.
In short, we are aiming to improve the most critical infrastructure element of democracy – free and fair, accurate, verifiable, more secure and transparent elections.