Can tech and government innovate together for social good? Inside a new effort to change the tide

DemocracyLab volunteers (from left): Nicole Warren, Akshat Vasavada, Arash Oliaei, Shirley Liou, Marlon Keating, Shilpa Bothra, Rachel Forst, Laura Yu Jia, Mark Frischmuth. (DemocracyLab Photo)

Rising housing costs often cause the people working to make Seattle a better place to be displaced. But Melissa Cliver has an idea for a technology platform that would help social service providers and non-profit workers remain in the city. Cliver’s vision is Room for Good, an organization that would connect civic-minded homeowners with social service workers to provide them with affordable housing. She says she’s validated the product but needs help building out the platform.

Seattle is full of innovators like Cliver who are thinking creatively about ways to address the city’s biggest challenges. What those ideas often lack is the technical talent and resources to get off the ground.

That’s where DemocracyLab comes in.

The platform connects government officials and non-profits with tech workers to help them build projects that benefit the public. The site has a running list of projects for volunteers, like Room for Good.

On Saturday, government and non-profit officials will get together to identify projects that are ready for volunteers from the tech industry. Then on Sept. 22, a larger event called Civic Tech Volunteer Hackathon will bring those volunteers in to work on the projects. DemocracyLab will be the hub for volunteers to communicate and continue to work on the projects over time.

Clashes between Seattle’s public and private sector have generated more headlines than collaborations over the past year. But there is new energy behind engaging the tech industry on the city’s challenges. Last week, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan created a new Innovation Advisory Council bringing representatives from Amazon, Microsoft, Zillow, and other tech companies together to consult on issues like homelessness and congestion.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signs an executive order creating a new panel of tech advisors. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

DemocracyLab is separate from the council but Frischmuth sees opportunities for the two groups to work together. Durkan’s technology policy lead, Kate Garman, is speaking at Saturday’s event. She and Frischmuth are brainstorming ways the council can utilize DemocracyLab’s platform.

DemocracyLab itself is a project built by tech volunteers. The organization’s Slack team has 100 members, with an average of 25 active weekly users.

Mark Frischmuth. (DemocracyLab Photo)

“We’ve built the platform on a budget of a few hundred dollars per month, which has gotten us to where we are, but won’t work forever,” said DemocracyLab founder Mark Frischmuth. “The good news is that our launch is proof that it’s possible to build a platform without money, and that the tool we’ve built should help other projects follow in our footsteps.”

Frischmuth is pursuing a Master’s degree in public policy and governance at the University of Washington. He graduates in March and plans to work for DemocracyLab full-time. Frischmuth has been working on DemocracyLab for more than a decade in different iterations. The project picked up steam last year when Marlon Keating, an Amazon engineer at the time, joined as a technical co-founder. DemocracyLab has also partnered with Joel Meyers of Seattle Tech for Good and other civic tech ventures.

“These two events are a collaboration among several local grassroots civic tech groups, Open Seattle, Seattle Data for Good, and Seattle Tech for Good,” said Frischmuth. “It’s the hope of the organizers that this is the start of greater collaboration toward our shared goal of engaging Seattle’s tech volunteers to advance the public good.”