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Science Center showcases the use of technology to improve democracy

The University City Science Center got into the swing of things on the first day of Democratic National Convention by hosting more than a dozen civic tech and political reform organizations that showcased their ideas of how technology and innovation can reinvigorate the principals of democracy.

That event was presented by the Science Center and the Committee of Seventy and supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It was followed by the American Experiments Challenge. The challenge featured six of the showcase organizations pitching their ideas to create new ways to improve campaign transparency and dialogue, to promote voter access and turnout, and to make elections more competitive and fair.

"We just put the word out," said David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, explaining who they go participants.

Thornburgh said he was impressed by how the organizations are using technology to improve the election process. "In that 18- to 34-year-old age group it is all about the apps," he said.

Stephen Tang, president and CEO of the University Science Center, said, as this year's presidential race is showing, the election process can be "messy," but democracy is "not a stagnant concept. It's alive and ever-changing."

Tang said the American Experiments program was concieved as a way to show off technologies aimed at enhancing democracy, the election process and civic engagement.

Two Philadelphia companies, Azavea and Code for Philly, participated in the challenge.

Azavea, founded in 2001, uses geospatial technology — the sciences of applying statistical analysis and other analytic techniques to data that has a geographical aspect — to enable people to explore complex questions and support civic and social impact projects.

Dan Ford, a community Ambassador for Azavea, said one of the products the company has developed is Cicero, a comprehensive database of elected officials and legislative districts. "It can be used for civic purposes to help organizations ensure they are targeting the right elected officials.

Code for Philly, founded in 2009, also uses use technology and data as a mode of civic engagement. The organization is made up of civic minded developers, designers, coders, organizers and communicators who work together to improve Philadelphia.

Dawn McDougall, Code for Philly's executive director, said the organization is populated by government geeks. "We help people understand how government works and help government understand how technology works," she said.

Neither Philadelphia organization made it to the final round of the American Experiments Challenge.

In a three-to-three vote, the judges ended up picking two winners: Democracy Works, a Brooklyn, New York, company that is working to make the voting process easier; and Crowdpac, of Palo Alto, California, which has a mission to use technology to make it easier for citizens to learn about politicians, run for office, and to find and support political candidates that match their priorities and beliefs.

A crowd-favorite award, done by text vote among those in attendance, went to Ballot Ready, Ballot Ready, a Chicago-based organization that produces nonpartisan online voter guides for all local, statewide and national elections and referendums so voters can become better engaged and make more informed decisions.

Judges for the challenge were Stan Freck, senior director, technology and civic engagement, Microsoft; Dustin Haisler, chief innovation officer, Governing Magazine; Adam Ambrogi, election team director, Democracy Fund; Danielle Cohn, director of entrepreneurial engagement, Comcast NBCUniversal; Wayne Kimmel, managing partner, SeventySix Capital; andRobin Carnahan, director of state and local government, 18F.

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Kristen Fitch

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