Ten years ago this week I got to participate in one of the coolest events I’ve ever helped put together in my career - the first-ever Congressional Hackathon. The idea was developed in partnership with Matt Lira and Steven Dwyer who at the time worked for Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer respectively. Our goal was to pull together Congressional members and staff across the parties as well as programmers to explore how social media could improve the legislative process.
On the afternoon of December 7, 2011, we met in the Capitol and went far into the night brainstorming various ways that technology could help citizens become more a part of what happened on the hill. You can watch a highlight reel here and the after-action report. Efforts such as Project Madison and Citizen Cosponsor came out of gatherings like these and represented real hope that technology could improve democracy.
Here we sit ten years later and Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri is testifying to the Senate about how the app might harm teenagers and President Biden is launching a Summit for Democracy to try to stop the democratic backsliding we’ve seen over the last decade. Maria Ressa is getting awarded the Nobel Prize for her efforts to push back on the harassment and bring transparency to what is happening in the Philippines. Not exactly the future we were envisioning.
There are many things suggested in these reports that did happen and have made Congress more transparent. More members use social media to connect with their constituents (I still think this is overall a good thing), hearings are more accessible and video is a lot more reliable. However, many of these projects died as the people like Matt and Steve left the hill. A second hackathon was done in October of 2015 and the last in November of 2017. Congress hasn’t had another since.
I miss many parts of the hackathon culture from the early Facebook days. The adrenaline rush of working with a group of people - many of whom you just met - and just getting something built was exhilarating. No idea was off the table and collaboration was key. It was a way to get things moving quickly even if the ultimate implementation would take years.
Now, we’ve certainly been seeing the downsides of this culture as well. But one of the things I loved about the Congressional hackathons was how they did marry the cultures of Silicon Valley and Washington DC. In some ways, while they are polar opposites they can complement one another when their guards aren’t up and they aren’t in defensive mode.
I can’t help but think that we could use a little bit of this today. The problems we face at the intersection of tech and democracy are new and challenging. Not sure about you but I’m a little burnt out at what feels like the hamster wheel of outrage, hearings, talk of regulation, talk of why regulation isn’t happening, standstill, repeat. We could use something to shake things up and truly bring together the tech specialists who know how these platforms work with policymakers. There are no cameras so no need for soundbites or yes and no questions. Rather, a space to truly brainstorm, build and iterate.
Some ideas other than regulation that I’ve been thinking a lot about include, but are not limited to:
What the future of public broadcasting should look like in a streaming/online world (the German Marshall Fund wrote on that a bit this year)
How should politicians/elected officials be supported by the platforms?
What is the right balance for offices to use between traditional and online media?
How do we keep innovating so that we don’t get stuck in the past while new technologies are being built around us?
Now, putting this out there without any action yet definitely goes against one of my cardinal rules where I don’t want to just say what should be done but I want to help build it. Consider this a first step of putting this out into the universe, but not the last. If anyone is interested in working on this with me please reach out.
What I’m Reading
Just Security: The Absence of “The Donald”