This Week in Civic Tech: Civic Engagement Tools for Election Officials, White House Honors Makers

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / June 16, 2016
The White House Champions of Change initiative recognizes individuals "doing extraordinary things" to benefit communities across the U.S. The White House

This Week in Civic Tech presents a lineup of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover the latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each Friday for updates.

Facebook launches suicide prevention feature

Facebook has launched a new feature that may be the closest thing a social network has done to “social work.” The Silicon Valley giant released a new suicide prevention feature to help people report potentially suicidal users. With the National Center for Health Statistics reporting suicides at an all-time high, the feature's goal is to decrease incidents through early detection from friends and family, while at the same time providing educational resources for support.

Promising confidentiality, Facebook first recommends users report serious threats to law enforcement; however, the tool offers a way to flag posts to the platform's operations team. The staff, who are on constant watch for questionable content, will now be tasked to review the flagged messages and respond by sending reported users a menu of help options. These include communicating with a friend, connecting to a suicide hotline, and educational materials on ways to cope with suicidal thoughts and mental illness.

Reporting users receive a separate menu that enables them to send direct Facebook messages to those they’re concerned about or to reach out to mutual friends to orchestrate help from a number of people. Likewise, Facebook creates suggested text messages that can be sent or altered.

In a New York Times article about the new feature, Facebook said its suicide prevention efforts have gone on for the last decade, tracing their roots back to the company’s response to an outbreak of suicides in Palo Alto, Calif., the hometown of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Election toolkit for officials

There are many polling and political platforms for voters, but it’s hard to find a platform uniquely tailored to the need of local governments. This is why Tiana Epps-Johnson, a technology and democracy fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, has developed a civic engagement toolkit specifically for election officials.

Her platform, which was sponsored in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, equips election organizers with an array of tools that help create election websites and infographics, as well as apps for locating polling stations and predicting their wait times.

“Local election officials are a trusted source of nonpartisan election information, but they often lack the tech resources to ensure that all voters have access to the information they need to cast an informed ballot,” said Epps-Johnson in a release. “The idea behind the Election Toolkit is that any local election official — regardless of their tech background — should have the tools and skills to effectively engage with their communities.”

Epps-Johnson said much of the platform originated from her time working at the Ash Center, and now she intends to support the effort in her role as the founder and executive director of the Center for Technology and Civic Life. Here she said her team will deliver additional resources and training for local election officials while publishing free open source data sets to drive civic engagement.

White House honors maker movement leaders

On June 17 the White House will recognize 10 thought leaders and innovators as part of its White House Champions of Change for Making program. The initiative is meant to bolster innovators and the Maker Movement as its technologists, artisans and tinkerers serve communities with goods made from advancing technologies like 3-D printers, laser cutters and other modern manufacturing methods. The awards will take place on the anniversary of President Obama’s White House Maker Faire held in 2014 and the event is connected to the White House Nation of Makers program that calls on the tech industry to empower students, entrepreneurs and citizens with new tools for social mobility and economic growth in cities.

In a pre-event release, the White House revealed the innovators that will officially be announced by U.S. CTO Megan Smith and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Deputy Director Thomas Kalil in a live stream on Friday at 1 p.m. EST. Descriptions of the White House awardees are summarized below.
 
Gregg Behr
Gregg Behr, from Pittsburgh, is the executive director of the Grable Foundation, a portfolio of community investments that has built a collaborative funding environment called the Remake Learning Council. The RLC has grown to include 250 schools and educational organizations. In 2016, the White House said Behr organized Remake Learning Days, a regional effort that collected more than $25 million to support 21st-century learning across southwest Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Umberto Crenca
Umberto Crenca, from Providence, R.I., is the co-founder and artistic director of the nationally known makerspace AS220. Crenca has dedicated 31 years to the incubator and STEM lab that now spreads across more than three buildings totaling 95,000 square feet.
 
Dara Dotz
Dara Dotz, from San Francisco, is the co-founder of Field Ready, an emergency management organization that leverages digital manufacturing to make on-demand humanitarian supplies. Dotz’s work has been seen in the aftermath of Haiti’s major earthquake in 2010 and many other parts of the world.
 
Renee Fredericks

Renee Fredericks, from Anchorage, Ala., directs the Youth Education and Employment Services at the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The White House has recognized her work to apply modern digital fabrication tools into native Alaskan crafts.

Limor Fried
Limor Fried, from New York City, is the founder of Adafruit, a maker company that provides learning resources in electronics for youth and adults. Adafruit has grown its staff to more than 100 people at its NYC factory.
 
John Niebergall
John Niebergall, from Sherwood, Ore., is an educator in the Sherwood School District. In his 32 years of service, Niebergall raised more than $825,000 to create a classroom and mobile Fab Lab that provides students instruction and industry-standard software for student-run, school-based enterprises.

Sonya Pryor-Jones
Sonya Pryor-Jones, from Boston, is a chief implementation officer for the Boston-based Fab Foundation. Pryor-Jones' leadership has allowed the foundation to support the local community with maker tools and technologies.

Felton Thomas Jr.
Felton Thomas, from Cleveland, is director of the Cleveland Public Library and president-elect for the Public Library Association. Thomas' leadership has prompted the library system to establish a dedicated makerspace called TechCentral and include MakerLab programs at 27 branches.
 
Bahiy Watson
Bahiy Watson, from New Orleans, is the founder of the 1881 Institute of Technology, a makerspace that works to connect disadvantaged populations to economic opportunities in modern manufacturing.
 
Lisa Marie Wiley
Lisa Marie Wiley, from San Antonio, is a retired army sergeant and contributor to the Veteran Affairs Innovation Creation Series. The crowdsourcing challenge spurs the invention of low-cost prosthetics and assistive technologies from the maker community. After surviving an IED explosion in 2011 that required amputation, Wiley used the life-changing event to help other amputees find prosthetic solutions.

 

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.