Dan Schneiderman

Personal Democracy Forum 2011

13 June 2011

As I’m riding towards Washington DC for Open Gov DC, I thought I would finally write about what I thought about Personal Democracy Forum from last week. While I won’t write about every talk that was given, I have posted my notes on my github account (https://github.com/schneidy/Notes-from-Confernces/tree/master/2011/PdF). I highly encourage you to check out some of the talks for yourself, all which are posted here: http://www.livestream.com/pdf2011/folder

Originally I had heard about Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) last year when interning at the Sunlight Foundation. During my first week there, half the staff was out of the office due to the conference. I had heard mixed thoughts about the whole event. Some said it was inspirational, others said that the whole event was mainly talk, but not much about taking the first step towards actually doing anything. Still, when I was offered the chance to attend by the Participatory Politics Foundation (where I’m interning right now), I jumped at the opportunity.

During the morning of the first day, most of the talks were focused on the “Spring Awakening”. All of those talks were purely incredible. It was different hearing everything from a first person view of what has happened in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. I’ve read tons of news articles and have watched Al Jazeera over the past few months, but hearing the stories of how the people took hold of their own lives and hearing this though people who were there at the center of it all was something beyond belief. You could see pure emotion emerge in every word spoken.

Some of the other talks from that morning included Senator Kristian Gillibrand (my senator). Until the conference, I never knew how interested she was in government transparency and rural broadband. It made me rather proud that my representative stood for the same values that I did. The one problem that I had with her talk was her views on cyber security. Her views felt a little uninformed and not quite right for the audience.

One of my regrets from the first day was attending the first breakout session which was a panel on “Online Politics in 2012”. The whole discussion felt very buzzword-ish and twitter-heavy. Instead I wish I had attended the discussion with Doc Searls who co-authored “The Clue Train Manifesto” which I read for my Cyber Politics Class this past year. The second breakout session was better, with a discussion on whether or not social media and civil discourse is an oxymoron.

The afternoon was extremely energetic. Dan Sinker, the creator of the @MayorEmanuel twitter account gave a hilarious talk about how the twitter account was created and led him to be known by the media. I have already pre-ordered the book. Lawrence Lessig was one of the more enthusiastic speakers of the entire day. In the past I have heard that he was one of the best current technologist speakers, and after his talk on net neutrality I would have to agree.

The cocktail party that night was slightly awkward as it’s always hard introducing yourself when you are still a college student just entering the field. However, when heading towards the subway, I ended up talking with Stephanie Singer, the democratic nominee for City Commissioner in Philadelphia, about our own thoughts of the conference so far. It was one of the most pleasant conversations I had that day.

At the start of the second day, I ended up feeling a little out of it as most of the talks didn’t really touch on any personal stories within open government. I think that had to be the one touch that the conference could use to make it perfect for me, well that and a few more technical talks on opening data. My thoughts on the day did improve as I had a small breakfast with Craig Newmark, the creator of Craigslist, before he had to be miked up.

Most of the second day was on the slower slide as it repeated a lot of what was said on the first day. However, some talks did spark my interest. The hyperlocal (yes, I know, another buzzword) was talked about on multiple occasions and I couldn’t help but think about the class on Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”. The idea of becoming involved in local politics to make better citizens kept popping up in my mind, which I think still holds true today.

During the entire conference, there was only one talk that was given a standing ovation, and that was Jim Gilliam’s titled “The Internet is My Religion”. His story of how the internet saved his life on multiple occasions was incredible. I don’t think any description I give would do it justice. The one comment I have to give on it is that I don’t think it was a good presentation for PdF, but would have made a TED talk to remember forever. You can judge for yourself by watching the video here: http://livestre.am/OncD

Breakout sessions during the second day were beyond incredible. Cory Doctrow led a session where he had a conversation with the entire audience. The conversation ranged from bitcoins to how to comment systems online. In between the breakout sessions, I attended the Sunlight’s Foundation’s press release of Checking Influence, the Influence Explorer app for gmail. It was weird seeing an actual press conference for them after interning there, but was still worth attending. The last breakout session was focused on the aftermath of Wikileaks. My favorite part of that breakout session was the mini presentation given within it on Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman. Her talk was the first time I have ever seen anyone talk about Anonymous and the hacker culture in a serious way without leading to fear mongering. At the end of the breakout session, I went up to her and asked her if I could talk to her at another point in time about her study on the subject to which she positively replied with saying that I could email her and we could possibly meet sometime this summer.

Another area that I would like to see out of the conference would be a few more demos or an increase in involvement from college students. There was a few students from NYU showing off several applications that they created, but I felt like a good portion of the population attending the conference was a little on the older side. It normally wouldn’t both me as much, but as there was often people talking about the Millennial generation, but one really representing the generation, it felt a little one-sided.

Overall I would say that the conference was worth attending. If given another chance to attend I would. One personal goal for next year’s PdF is to be able to present or at least talk to others about side projects within Open Government that I hope to work on during the next year.