New Global Civic Tech Group Emerges from Omidyar Network

Luminate has become independent in order to be more agile and to pursue strategies that impact civic empowerment, data and digital rights, transparency and independent media.

by / December 20, 2018
The Omidyar Network compared the civic tech space against modern social movements and found that the space, while growing, has a long way to go until it gains such national recognition. The Omidyar Network

In a major move within the civic tech space, Luminate, a global philanthropic organization, has emerged from Omidyar Network’s long-standing governance and citizen engagement initiative.

Officially launched in recent weeks, Luminate aims to fund projects and organizations that can drive changes that fall into one of four categories: civic empowerment, data and digital rights, transparency and independent media. Luminate's work is quite similar to what it was doing while under the umbrella of Omidyar Network, a philanthropic "impact investment" firm established in 2004 by eBay founder and entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar.

In that capacity, the group gave financial support to 240 groups throughout 18 countries over the past decade or so, totaling roughly $320 million in investments. Within that, there has been a civic tech component which has funded about $50 million worth of projects in the U.S.

What stands to change, now that Luminate has evolved to become a separate organization, is its ability to operate with increased agility and as an independent voice, allowing it to better pursue its goals, said Stacy Donohue, Luminate’s managing director.

The timing was right for Luminate to become its own group, given that in recent years there has been an increase in authoritarian governments across the globe, closing civil spaces and limiting expression and independent media, according to Donohue. Luminate’s mission is to counter such changes by supporting public services in a way that improves quality of life for everyday people and also empowers the masses to have a voice and hold institutions to account.

As an independent organization, Luminate will be a more vocal and visible advocate for the issues at the heart of their mission, tailoring their processes in a way that's designed to support their work and the causes they invest in, said Donohue. “It’s a great combination of keeping the best of what we have been doing with more flexibility in ways that are even more helpful for our investees,” she said.

What this means on a practical level for civic technology in the U.S. is that Luminate will continue to support nonprofit groups such as DoSomething.org, which has 5.5 million members and recently helped get the vote out during the consequential midterm elections, which shattered records for turnout, particularly among the young voters. On the for-profit side, Luminate is also continuing to work with companies like Elucd, an early-stage startup based in New York City that enables police to measure how residents are feeling about law enforcement in their neighborhood, providing feedback about what is and is not working. Luminate has also previously worked with large-scale nonprofit organizations like Code for America.

Overall, Donohue expects Luminate to continue expanding its civic tech strategy to include other approaches to change work, including non-digital efforts such as capacity building and logistical campaigning tools. She said her group is seeing an increase in offline innovation work that may or may not have a tech component.

In terms of international projects, Luminate is active across the globe. The organization is working in Brazil right now with a platform called Nossas, which has a tagline that’s pretty straightforward: laboratory of activism. Donohue pointed to Nossas as innovation work with both online and offline components. Started in Rio de Janeiro, the organization now has 300,000 members and operations spread throughout nine cities. It has helped with the creation of a 24/7 police station dedicated exclusively to serving women as well as a WhatsApp-based system for reporting violence in Brazil's slums, known as favelas.

While being part of Omidyar Network was vital in past years to get this work visibility and support, Donohue said Luminate is an evolution that’s free to take stronger stands on issues. And that’s just what the group plans to do.

“We’re really excited about having the flexibility going forward given the state of the world right now,” said Donohue. “The issues we work on have always been important, but they've never been more important than they are right now.”

Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.