Communities

The personal as important as the technical at Personal Democracy Forum

Video: Dave Troy, “Segregation, Society, and the Future of Social Data” at PDF on YouTube

The Personal Democracy Forum was born more than a decade ago out of the idea that the Internet’s power to connect us could transform democracy. At PDF15, held last week in New York, tech tools built on the Internet were ubiquitous, but the sessions often focused on the personal, in recognition that human behavior is central to even tech-driven change.

The two-day conference is the annual collision of people involved in technology, governance, activism and more. While participants explored civic engagement from a number of angles, some notable research released at the conference focused on the most regularly measured aspect: voting.

The first, by Google, sought to identify and study people who were generally informed about their communities but didn’t engage in the political process — a group it called “Interested Bystanders” and counted as close to half of the U.S. population. A common refrain they had was that voting wouldn’t lead to real change. However, the picture looked more promising when viewed through a personal lens; when civic action could be linked to something they cared about personally, or had personal expertise in, they were more likely to get involved.

The second, by Knight Foundation, focused on millennials who voted in the 2012 general election but dropped off in 2014, even though they could have significantly more impact on local elections than general ones. The biggest factor cited by focus group participants was the dearth of information on local candidates and issues, compared with the avalanche of information that surrounds national elections. In fact, many participants were not even aware what was affected by local voting, said Jon Sotsky, Knight’s director of strategy and assessment. Schools? Yes. Transportation? Yes. Parks? Yes. He said people were most drawn into conversation when civic action was framed in terms of the issues they cared about.

Local elections are much less susceptible to the influence of money that dominates national politics, noted Erin Vilardi, whose organization VoteRunLead prepares women for civic and political leadership. She said that even without experience, local candidates can succeed by becoming “the human hyperlink” between people and the community issues they care about. Catherine Bracy, of Code for America, offered another concrete way to raise local involvement: Fix the public meeting, which is a painful experience for most.

PDF15 was about the intersection of technology, human behavior and society, meaning electoral engagement was just one slice of the conference. Dave Troy of Peoplemaps demonstrated how social media data could be used to show how the population of a city had self-organized, and which clusters were closest and farthest apart. For example, in St. Louis, there was no visible overlap between black and white social media users, whereas in Baltimore there was strong overlap around interest in sports.

Media technologist and author Deanna Zandt dove even more deeply into the personal:  Since social media has become such an essential communication tool, why doesn’t the format encourage us to seem anything other than happy? If we never convey vulnerability, can we ever actually connect? It was another angle on a theme that emerged from other sessions: Technology can inform us, but it often takes a human connection to truly engage us.

Andrew Sherry is vice president of communications at Knight Foundation. Email him at [email protected] or connect with him on Twitter @andysherry.

Video: Deanna Zandt, “Imagine All The Feelz” at PDF on YouTube