Harvard students and technology leaders discussed ways to integrate technology into politics at the inaugural Civic Tech Challenge at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics Monday evening.
Lynne A. Sipprelle ’23, chair of the IOP’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics program, moderated a panel of six professionals who are involved in developing technology for civic engagement. The panelists included the founder of Outvote Naseem Y. Makiya ’08, Vice President at Higher Ground Labs Teddy Gold, and co-founder of the Politicking App and Harvard Public Service Scholar Jordan Wilson.
Russell L. Mindich ’20, the challenge’s organizer, said he created the event to teach undergraduates about civic and political technology.
“I felt that a lot of Harvard’s undergraduate courses and programs at the IOP and other political groups did not really cover the technological aspects of politics and wanted to, one, introduce the themes within it and, two, call upon students to create their own projects,” Mindich said.
In the panel, the technology professionals each described their own innovations for increasing voter participation and educating voters.
Gold said the 2016 election showed that the technological systems that ran political campaigns were outdated. His lab develops new ways for Democratic candidates to reach out to voters and run campaigns.
Makiya said he works on “relational organizing,” or creating digital spaces for activists to organize in any given area or topic.
“Relational organizing is just organizing as it has been done for decades,” Makiya said. “But the buzzword has come to mean engaging volunteers, engaging their friends, and for us it is…creating a platform where volunteers can come in and organize in their communities.”
After the panelists spoke, they judged proposals for new forms of civic technology from Harvard undergraduates.
The first presenters — Sarah S. Yoon ’21, Yanchen “Jeff” Jiang ’21, and Ava Ganik ’19 — created a campaign finance explorer that displays the sources and amounts of funding for any political candidate. The second presenter, Lisa Vo ’19, talked about her company, Grassroutes, an app that promotes local campaigns across the country.
“Candidates at the local level need to make voter contact, and that means face to face, door to door conversations,” Vo said. “And what is missing is that the technology available in political tech today is meant for your federal and Senate candidates.”
Presenter Lawrence H. Dang ’22 said the Legacy Museum in Alabama, which displays the history of American slavery, inspired his idea to build a website called “Truth Maps.” Through his site, he said he wants to educate the public about untold histories on topics like police brutality, environmental destruction, and indigenous history in the Boston area.
“A physical museum can only do so much,” Dang said. “But there are places everywhere to educate the public about untold histories.”
The judges named the students who developed Juntos, a website that provides destinations, services, and resources for asylum seekers, the winners of the competition. They awarded the team — comprised of Britney S. Vongdara ’21; Soyoun Choi ’23; Vivekae M. Kim ’21, a Crimson Magazine editor; and Meena Venkataramanan ’21, a Crimson News editor — with $1,000 and the opportunity to be mentored by the judges.
“We are really honored to have been given the opportunity to participate in the IOP Civic Tech Challenge,” Venkataramanan said, “We spent the summer working on immigration and border issues in Arizona and this is an issue area that really matters to us, so we are really grateful for the opportunity.”