In late 2012, I had lunch in downtown Manhattan with Beth Noveck. I still remember the sun streaming in through the large windows at NoHo Star. It was a far-reaching, transformational conversation that spanned topics from law and philosophy to technology and democracy.
I was inspired by Beth’s vision of using network and data technologies to help create truly 21st century institutions: a “Wiki Government,” as she called it. But beyond highfalutin theory, I admired that Beth had put this bold idea into practice. As U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the first Obama Administration, she piloted a platform called Peer-to-Patent, which leveraged crowd-sourcing to help streamline the broken patent process. (“Crowd-source wisely, not widely,” Beth would say.) In a nutshell, Beth built a tool that enabled U.S. Patent Office officials to tap into a network of experts around the world to crowd-source “prior art” information about patents under review. Peer-to-Patent enabled the competitors of a given patent applicant to submit relevant information about related patents they were familiar with (often their own) directly to the official examiner — saving the government valuable time and money, and increasing the accuracy of patent approval.
Now here was an elegant tech-enabled solution that realigned incentives amongst actors to help solve a vexing public problem. Wiki Gov indeed!
Launching the GovLab
In early 2013, I joined Beth to co-found a civic innovation platform called The Governance Lab (GovLab), aimed at using technology to transform governing institutions and improve individuals’ lives. Our motley crew of founders included a serial tech entrepreneur, a statistics professor, and a policy wonk. Despite these disparate backgrounds, we were united by an overarching vision:
The Governance Lab strives to improve people’s lives by changing how we govern. We endeavor to strengthen the ability of people and institutions to work together to solve problems, make decisions, resolve conflict and govern ourselves more effectively and legitimately. We design technology, policy and advocacy strategies for fostering more open and collaborative approaches to governance and we test what works.
Taking an expansive approach, we envisioned the GovLab’s efforts spanning the related spheres of “open government,” open data,” and “civic technology.” We were fortunate at the outset to secure nearly $5 million in funding from the MacArthur and Knight Foundations — generous support that allowed us to grow rapidly. Over the next few months, we set up an institutional partnership with New York University (where the organization is based). We also began recruiting a rockstar team of thinker-doers and launched three initiatives: Research, Academy, and Living Labs.
Just over a year go, the GovLab organized an inaugural two-day conference/hackathon called The Experiment, bringing together 150 policymakers, entrepreneurs, and engineers to develop concrete solutions for using technology to improve how we govern.
My takeaways from The Experiment are largely reflected in a thoughtful blog post by my friend, Jason Shah, a rockstar tech entrepreneur who joined us for the event. As Jason wrote:
Pairing up influential government leaders with competent technologists gets products built, and actually used. One without the other is often an incomplete equation for problems that need government participation for resolution…. Getting more people, especially developers, simply to be aware, and invested in, improving governance is a still-untapped source of innovation.
The Experiment was an one of the most inspiring events I have ever taken part in. Why?
Because it demonstrated the incredible potential for developing new ways to solve hard problems by bringing together leaders from one sector —government — with those from another — technology.
From its inception, the GovLab was deeply infused by a commitment toaction research, which involves “experimenting in real-world settings with a partner organization. In this process, the research team and partners work together to collect and analyze data, evaluate performance based on various metrics, and change practices based on the feedback or evidence gathered.”
In this spirit, GovLab launched a series of Living Labs — engagements with real-world clients who face real-world problems. Our institutional partners included the World Bank, UNDP, England’s National Health Service, and ICANN. These governance bodies faced a range of complex challenges — from using wiki-based tools to collaboratively draft amendments to Libya’s Constitution, to opening up the world’s largest public health data-set online to promote better health outcomes in the UK.
Such problems are critical yet difficult to address because they demand solutions that span technology, design, law, and policy. These are precisely the type of hard inter-disciplinary problems that the GovLab aims to help solve.
Meanwhile, the GovLab’s Research team spent summer and fall of 2013 preparing an exhaustive grant application to study the emerging field around “opening governance.” These efforts ultimately bore fruit: in early 2014, the MacArthur Foundation announced a three-year, $5 million grant to continue supporting their pioneering academic work.
Going Local: Building Civic Tech From the Ground Up
I was inspired by the deeply positive reaction to our efforts at the GovLab, which underscored a clear need for tech-enabled solutions to help address public problems. But engaging with institutions like the World Bank and ICANN also made me aware of the challenges in trying to scale technology-enabled solutions while working with large, complex bureaucracies.
In late 2013, I began to shift my focus toward market-driven mechanisms for building civic technology. I saw an opportunity at the other end of the governance spectrum — in towns and cities — to build lightweight technology tools for a range of local problems, from permitting and procurement to land-use and housing. Inspired by our work at the GovLab, I left to pursue this idea further.
This was the path that led me to begin building MeWe. More on this soon.