When the going gets weird, the weird go pro (2017 life update, part II)

man on grass hill in Astoria

I haven’t put this out there publicly yet, but should! I left Microsoft (and NYC) last week after 3+ years on the Technology and Civic Engagement team. I was extremely fortunate to get to serve on that team and learn about creating social impact at the scale of a giant tech company. The team, now Microsoft Cities, is in great shape — they’re expanding to more US cities, and will be covering more areas of social and civic impact work. I’m still deeply supportive of their work, if I can be of assistance connecting.

For a while now, I’ve been eager to get back to creating things myself, and I’m now in a great place where I can incubate projects again. Right now, I’m parked up in a beautiful place next to the ocean in Gloucester, MA. I’m going to hit the proverbial road and travel Latin America this winter, as well. Hit me up if you’d like to cross paths somewhere great. Ideally I find somewhere to park up relatively quickly.

Some of my upcoming work will go through the newly formed Bad Idea Factory, a creative collective of people building things to make you thinking face emoji. You can follow along with that crew’s misadventures on the popular microblogging service Twitter.

In terms of what I’m going to work on…here are a handful, in various stages of progress:

  • Revive and radically open up my puzzle states project to bring popular attention to the state legislators gerrymandering away our elections.
  • Build a web app to automatically track all of your giving across nonprofits, crowdfunders, and political campaigns. This one exists in alpha form, thanks to Justin Nowell. Hit me up if you’d be interested in trying it out.
  • Something, anything to detect capture more methane and buy us time to produce less carbon.
  • Make a game app that makes saving money anywhere near as fun as spending it.
  • Build a tool that helps people maintain a large number of healthy relationships, in excess of the Dunbar number, that isn’t a CRM or transactional, sales-based relationship model.
  • Publish more travel and freelance writing and photography.
  • Develop a noise sensor that lets you know midnight audio levels in the house you’re about to buy or rent.
  • See if we can invent washing machine filters that keep synthetic microplastics out of our oceans / oysters.
  • A bunch of random art projects to track your path across maps, an emoji alethiometer, turn street grids into sheet music, etc.

So, I plan to stay busy, while also adopting a healthier work-life balance and learning Spanish? Needless to say, I probably need to narrow that list down, but get in touch if you’re interested in collaborating. Or just want to get beers in a nice place together somewhere.

This is my 2017 blog post

Here’s what I’m up to recently…

I took a leave of absence from my job at the end of 2016 to join the peerless Digital team at Hillary for America for the final four months of the campaign (more on that soon). Now I’m back at work as Director of Civic Technology at Microsoft in NYC.

We held our seasonal demo night where we gave updates on many of our projects:

I’m also working to connect newly engaged Americans to effective ways to create change, including at the recent NYC edition of the Debug Politics hackathon (Fast Company’s writeup), where I gave a talk to connect technologists to existing work in civic tech.

I’ve resumed curating the Machine Eatable lunch series on data science for civic good. Come have sandwiches.

With my collaborators Micah Sifry and Erin Simpson, I’m continuing to maintain and build a massive collection of civic tech resources at http://bit.ly/organizecivictech.

I’m also continuing to track when tech products embed civic engagement as civic features, and when companies mobilize their users to take political action in the companies’ interests. Let me know if you see examples of either!

Here are some of the interesting events I go to each month. Come join?

Lastly, I’m working on some product ideas with friends and will share those here as soon as they’re functional enough.

Introducing the Civic Features Collection

http://civicfeatures.tumblr.com/ (also in the top nav)

I’ve been inspired for some years now at the potential social impact of embedding social good and civic features into otherwise mainstream technology platforms. After years of building technology projects in DC that only reached 20% of our email list, the ability to reach millions of regular people in the apps they already use is alluring.

I’ve collected examples over the years to help make the argument and increase the practice internally. The similar examples I’ve collected for my Companies Mobilizing Customers Tumblr, which tracks the politicization of users in mainstream apps, have recently been featured in the New York Times (“The Uber-ization of Activism“) and at Fusion (“Meet the Apptivists: The volunteer lobbyists helping keep Airbnb, Uber, and other startups alive“). Given the attention being paid to in-app political campaigns, I thought it would make sense to also share the public-good civic features in a more visual format. Unlike the Companies Mobilizing Customers Tumblr, I’ll try to provide more context and commentary on the featured features. Today, for example, Facebook’s state-sponsored cyber-attack feature is in the news, because it’s how the State Department learned that individual employees’ social media accounts had been targeted by Iran. Check it out.

Here’s what our Civic Tech Fellows did this summer

Our incredible cohort of Civic Tech Fellows (and Program Manager Saron Yitbarek) spent their summers building useful tools and programs to support the field of civic tech. Here are some demos of new tools and projects that are early in development, shared with the Civic Hall community on August 27th, 2015.


  • Blockchain for Social Impact
  • Civic Graph
  • Civic Graph check-in
  • USDA Innovation Challenge and Big Apps
  • Maker Kit
  • Civic Tech Casefinder
  • Microsoft Translator
  • BRCK
  • Tech Jobs Academy website launch template
  • An open website launch template

Continue reading Here’s what our Civic Tech Fellows did this summer

Modeling NYC Subway Flow and School Districts’ Effect on Housing Value

Justin Rao and Jake Hofman coordinate the Data Science Summer School program, hosted and sponsored by Microsoft Research. Each year, dedicated students spend their summer learning how to conduct research thanks to a network of researchers, mentors, and advisors. All of the course materials are openly and freely available on Github.

Tonight, we’re celebrating the program’s second class. Last year’s students researched questions about racial profiling in New York City and how to optimize the city’s bikeshare system. This year, it’s all about subways and school districts. Continue reading Modeling NYC Subway Flow and School Districts’ Effect on Housing Value

In praise of echo chambers, and Nuzzel

I once spent an afternoon during my time at the MIT Media Lab with a marker board and Kshitij Marwah. We drew out the various news products we could make using link-sharing data from once-removed contacts in users’ networks. We thought we might help people discover content they were likely to like sooner, by surfacing trending links before even their own network had discovered and shared them.

A version of this idea has successfully been productized by the team at Nuzzel. Once a critical mass of your contacts share a link (8 seems to be the magic number in my network), the app sends you a push notification with the story. The app primarily looks at shares within your immediate network, but also has an extended network view. With its timely but manageable updates, it fits squarely within a new generation of apps designed to live in your phone’s notifications shade.

Screenshot by @nmonroe
Continue reading In praise of echo chambers, and Nuzzel