Author: samlee

Civic Technology: Civic > Tech

Exploring a Nepali hillside with Nepali technologists & entrepreneurs

It’s been about 2 years since I transitioned from the World Bank to my current position at Humanity United. It was not easy for me to take a break from fields I remain passionate about (international development, transparency, data, etc), but I have enjoyed learning and the deep dive into new issues (forced labor, migration, supply chains) and new regions (South Asia & the Middle East) while continuing to hone my tech chops through practical and meaningful ways.

That said, I find myself reflecting more on civic technology in 2017 than in most recent years. In part, it is a growing unease with political tides and discourse in the US. Part of this can be addressed by keeping the mentality that Joe Goldman of the Democracy Fund proposes- 9 Resolutions for Democracy in 2017. Well before the last election cycle, I have also struggled with what the next phase for civic technology should be. How would we make good on our promises to change the world? I saw the good. I saw the bad. I was equally parts of both. My friend Josh Tauberer captures many of these sentiments here: Civic Tech’s Act III is beginning. Now more than ever, Act III looms large.

Many of us who were born in the late 70s or early 80s have had a very different experience with technology. With it comes a very different set of expectations for technology. We’re old enough to remember what life was like before our current connected state but also young enough to appreciate pushing those boundaries onward- a unique place indeed.

So what does all of this mean for those of us working in civic technology?

  1. Civic > Tech: The civic in civic technology has always been important, but the civic piece has always been the key. Our calling cards may have been technology, but without a deeper investment in understanding and appreciation for the power dynamics underlying social issues, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again. When it comes to the specific issues we are committed to, there is no such thing as being a generalist.
  2. Full Hearts + Clear Eyes: The danger of elevating the civic in civic tech is that we may compromise our ability to see and act rationally. But if we periodically regulate this passion with reason, amazing things are possible. In terms of our hearts, while they may be concealed, our actions should always be open to scrutiny.
  3. Impact Before Scale: We often convince ourselves that impact doesn’t come until our tech scales, but for social issues, we can and should fight and claw for every inch of impact from the initial pilot stage. When it comes to fighting for impact, let us be impatient. No doubt making this happen is extremely difficult and will largely depend on good ‘ol time inefficient manual work and effort- but all for a worthy goal. You know what builds confidence in a moonshot more than anything else? Bringing back a little piece of the moon…

Now comes the fun part for me. Putting all of this into practice.


As always, open to your thoughts and comments.

2017… thoughts on curiosity and discovery

An amazing paragraph on curiosity and discovery

As a child, I used to lament that I was born in an era when much of the world had already been “discovered.” All the continents had been mapped. There were no foreign lands to set foot on for the first time.

As an adult, I have found that it is taking the curious approach of an amateur that leads to new discoveries; and that expertise at best is a temporary snapshot in time- at its worst a fallacy.

It is in this spirit that I plan to continue my journey into 2017. In 2016, I ran every single day. According to FitBit, this distance was the same as trekking across the Sahara Desert (2983 miles). I will again run every single day in 2017, but I have a few other personal goals. They are:

  1. Be more present at home (both quality and quantity of time)
  2. Drink less
  3. Write more

Cheers and watch this space!

The Next Leg of My Journey – Humanity United

Banksy West 24th Street NY

It’s been quite an eventful month. After four years at the World Bank, I officially joined Humanity United, a part of the Omidyar Group. Thirty intense days later, I have found a quiet moment to reflect on what drove me to HU and what excites me about the path ahead.


Big Challenges Require Big Approaches

My eclectic career has taken me many places. I’ve always been driven by passionate curiosity- thoughts and assumptions are best tested, if possible through direct experience. One of the unexpected but welcome side effects of this approach has been the opportunity to work across sectors, in the process better understanding the strengths and limitations of each. As I look back on my journey to date- including time spent in NGOs, international organizations, and the public and private sectors- clarity surfaces. Complex challenges require big, flexible, and inclusive approaches. Mandate and a flexible toolkit of solutions make up a rare and potent combination not to be taken for granted.

It Starts With Human Rights

Many organizations don’t want to broach the subject of human rights. Yes, it makes people uncomfortable. Yes, it’s a difficult thing to bring up with international partners. Yet what good are the lofty goals of development work, humanitarian assistance, or public service if we don’t serve those who are overlooked or oppressed by the status quo? Without an emphasis on human rights, we are only promoting and sustaining an inherently unequal world. Putting the human in human rights isn’t just a talking point. Being able to employ a human-centric approach to human rights rightfully honors those we seek to serve.

Smart with Heart

The distance between head and heart doesn’t have to be so far. All head or all heart? This represents a false choice. It’s possible and optimal to be both. I feel very fortunate to have joined a group that is immensely talented, intelligent, fun, and warm. With hard work and dedication, meaningful impact seems not just possible but probable.

Recap: Open Data Day 2015- Washington DC

DC - Open Data Day Workshop
Open Data Day DC – Intro to Open Data Workshop by Eric Mill (photo credit: Anjelika Deogirikar)

February may be the shortest month of the year, but for Open Data enthusiasts around the world, February holds our biggest hopes and offers signs of a burgeoning international movement. On Open Data Day (Feb 21) almost 200 global locations (browse #OpenDataDay for a flavor) held events celebrating Open Data through skills-building, networking, and use to help address civic issues. Despite significant snowfall, the growing civic tech community in Washington, DC again displayed its passion and drive in full-force. More than 300 people showed up over two days to Open Data Day DC– to learn and hack with data at the World Bank on February 20 and 21, 2015.

In response to demand from previous participants, Open Data Day DC included more dedicated capacity-building time in the form of workshops and breakout discussions. Once again, Eric Mill did not disappoint with his Intro to Open Data session. Aaron Schumaker delighted the audience with “Data Science Isn’t Magic.” As always, Max Richman wowed the crowd with his “Open Mapping” tutorial. And injecting a bit of a personal aside, I finally had the chance to sit-in on Laurenellen McCann and Jessie Posilkin‘s amazing and relevant “Build With, Not For” session on civic engagement.

And if this wasn’t enough, participants had the chance to join a number of relevant discussions on the finer technical points of open data and its use led by civic tech doers and leaders including Traci Hughes (DC Office of Open Government), Tom Lee (Mapbox), Kat Townsend (a fellow Open Data Day DC organizer- woohoo!), Lindsay Young (GSA/18F), Rebecca Williams (Senior Engagement Liaison,, Joel Gurin (Center for Open Data Enterprise), Matt Bailey (Code for DC), and Leah Bannon (Code for DC).

The heart of Open Data Day is of course the rich projects that diverse participants pitch and collaboratively hack on. This year was no different and a healthy mix of local and international projects were worked on- topics covered included DC education (this group always comes out ready to go and plugs their work into Code for DC), Code for Nepal returned a year after launching at Open Data Day DC and worked on a subnational visualization of literacy data, a high school team explored the connection between campaign finance and counter-party political positions (future Sunlighters?), Howard University students from Nepal worked on an SMS alert application for farmers, a World Bank transportation economist led an exploration of a massive taxi dataset from the Philippines, etc. More details and initial outcomes here:

Open Data Day DC was an intense whirlwind- but like many others, I am excited for the next one.  Why? For starters, my fellow organizers- Josh Tauberer (Mr. Open Data DC), Eric Mill, Kat Townsend, and Julia Bezgacheva– they are fine, fierce, and dedicated practitioners of open data and good friends to boot. Not only is this crew a pleasure to work with, but our approach to Open Data Day is also a bit of an iterative hack (To this end, please do provide feedback!). Open Data Day DC is not viewed as a one-off event, more of a cog in the DC civic tech wheel. Much has also been said in criticism of the “civic hackathon” in general, but I still believe that when designed and implemented properly (build with, not for again) there are very few citizen engagement tools as effective.

“Open” initially drew me to Open Data, but “Data” has kept me here. And I feel fortunate to be a part of this amazing global and local community.

Thank you to all the volunteers and the sponsors of Open Data Day DC- The World Bank (DEC, Open Aid Partnership, Global Media Development Program, Community Outreach, and Open Finances), O’Reilly’s Strata+Hadoop, U.S. Open Data, Development Seed (no party like a Mapbox party), and Amazon Web Services! This would not have worked without you! See you next year!

DC- Open Data Day Welcome
Welcome! See you next year! (photo credit: Wikimedia DC)