PDF 2017 Highlight:  Making Government Automatic For the People

This past week Civic Hall Labs was in attendance for the 2017 Personal Democracy Forum in NYC, and several of our team members were featured in the conference’s breakout sessions.

Our Director of Programs, Erin Simpson, was on the panel calledMaking Government Automatic for the People”, which also included NYC Council Member Ben Kallos, Benefit Kitchen Founder Melanie Lavelle, and Civic Hall’s Head of Partnerships and Business Development, Peter Shanley. The panel dealt with the challenges and promising initiatives in modernizing how governments get people information about city benefits and services.  

Erin was there to discuss a major issue facing struggling New Yorkers: the lack of accessibility around NYC’s health, human, and social services ( everything from legal aid, to veteran’s services, or even homeless shelters) and how we’re attempting to eliminate that problem with our Open Referral program.

Despite the unassuming name, New York City Open Referral is going to be among the nation’s largest tests of modernizing a city's health, human, and social services information. Currently, there is no “one-stop-shop” for these services in NYC. If you try to google them, all that will come back is a barren search page. Social service workers try to know the organizations by heart, but all the time spent on calling, emailing, and keeping in constant touch with these organizations takes away from the time they have to help people. With tens of thousands of services available to New Yorkers, no one person can keep track of them all.

We have to do this work together, and NYC Open Referral will build the infrastructure to enable that cooperation. It’s a big problem, so Open Referral made an explainer video to help folks realize how this directly affects them and their neighbors.

This issue was highlighted in a talk by Greg Bloom, the standard’s author and Open Referral's Chief Organizing Officer, last year. After his grandmother’s death, people in her neighborhood struggled to connect with people/services they needed because she was the “keeper of information” for their area. You can view that talk below.

This is obviously a huge problem, and it gets even worse the more you look at it. This level of poor information and fragmented services means that people aren’t getting the help they need, we can’t accurately analyze data to see what is working and what isn’t, and it’s next to impossible to innovate in the space because the data foundation simply isn’t there. 

The NYC Open Referral project is designed to support the expert service providers and leading government agencies helping New Yorkers. Working together, we’re going to help folks standardize and share their data -- enabling automatic, trustworthy information sharing across a community of practitioners and more accessible information for folks in need. Whether you’re a struggling family who needs to find social services, or a caseworker who is trying to provide good information to the community, you’ll be able to find it.

We plan to speak more on this project in the coming months, and we were incredibly happy to have Erin talk about it in the context of this larger conference. 

Lastly, we’re recruiting! Join this work by applying for our Product Manager or Program Associate positions, or reach out here if you are a NYC-based organization that provides health, human, and social service referrals.

More soon!


Mayor De Blasio Announces 2017 NYC BigApps Winners

Mayor Bill de Blasio, Civic Hall Labs and New York City Economic Development announced three Grand Prize winners and one Judges Award winner of the 2017 NYC BigApps Competition.

“NYC BigApps is about New Yorkers helping New Yorkers. Every year, we ask our tech and creative talent to help solve pressing challenges. They step up and consistently exceed our expectations with innovative ideas for New York,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

This year’s competition adopted a user-centered focus, with each challenge anchored in the expressed needs of community end users and the social practitioners who serve them. Developers, designers, students and nonprofit professionals were asked to solve challenges faced by immigrants, seniors and youth in the areas of transportation, knowledge and community resiliency.

Civic Hall Labs hosted a series of product development workshops that drew more than 500 developers, designers, subject matter experts, students and nonprofit professionals, providing valuable tools that support an empathy-driven approach to creating viable solutions.

“As the producing partner for NYC BigApps, Civic Hall Labs served as a resource for New Yorkers to grow ideas and projects that will improve the welfare and wellbeing of our communities,” said Elizabeth Stewart, Civic Hall Labs Executive Director. 

The competition culminated with The Finalist Expo and Awards Ceremony where nine finalists presented to a panel of judges who selected the winners:

On Board (Grand Prize Winner): a distributed passenger check-in system for New York City’s paratransit network (Access-A-Ride). By creating a public, independent database of passenger pickups, On Board empowers transit advocates to assess and improve service schedules and quality, and ensures a safer, more reliable ride for thousands of New Yorkers.

PASSNYC Opportunity Explorer (Grand Prize Winner): offers a common application through which students will be able to both find and apply for over 200 NYC-based after-school, summer and weekend extracurricular programs.

nesterly (Grand Prize Winner): enables older households with spare space to connect with young people willing to exchange help around the house for lower rent through a digital platform.
Dollar Van NYC (Judges Award Winner): a multilingual app providing real-time access to over 500 licensed commuter vans that provide rides for as little as $2.

Winners will receive the Grand Prize worth more than $30,000, which includes $15,000 in cash, admission into Civic Hall Labs' Civic Accelerator program, discounted courses and workshops from General Assembly and pro bono legal services from BakerHostetler.

The Judges Award winner will be given the opportunity to pilot their app on LinkNYC’s 7,500 Links throughout the five boroughs.

“This year’s BigApps winners epitomize civic technology at its best and provide New York City with exciting new resources. The finalists demonstrated once again that New York City leads the country in innovation that puts people first, improves neighborhoods and makes cities more livable,” said Andrew Rasiej, President and Co-Founder of Civic Hall Labs.
The 2017 winners were selected from a group of impressive finalists:

Border Buddy: providing free legal services for travelers targeted by President Trump's Muslim ban. Travelers can register for Border Buddy to track their flight arrival information. Border Buddy will send a lawyer to the airport if a traveler has not contacted them more for than two hours after arrival.

Rapid Response: providing technology for immigrant communities and advocates fighting mass deportation through participatory deportation defense programs.

Conductor: aggregating transportation data from a variety of sources in order to give riders more accurate directions and information. Conductor delivers that information in a range of formats, making it accessible to different communities.

Kurtin: increasing minority college graduation rates by providing fun, relatable, and interactive tools that help high school students gather the critical insights necessary to make informed college selection decisions.

Torus Teens: an online platform that connects urban teens with out-of-school programs and resources to explore interests, build skills, and expand networks outside of the classroom.                                  

The NYC BigApps competition is sponsored by Microsoft, Intersection, LinkNYC, BakerHostetler, and General Assembly. The final event was sponsored by ersi, First Republic Bank, AppNexus, and Civic Hall.

Reprogramming BigApps 2017 to be about New Yorkers

Partnering with the NYCEDC, we're using participatory, user-centered principles to redesign NYC's largest civic innovation challenge. Civic Hall Labs is managing NYC BigApps 2017, a civic tech competition that challenges local residents to create tech tools that solve the City's civic challenges. We've rebooted that challenge to respond to the needs of youth, seniors, and immigrants. In 2016, we held seven listening sessions with direct service providers and NYC youth, seniors, and immigrants to define NYC BigApps challenges that deliver empathy-driven submissions. These sessions revealed three major issues for New Yorkers, which were announced at our sold out NYC BigApps 2017 launch event at Grand Central Tech on January 12th: transportation, access to knowledge, and community resiliency.

One of the #NYCBigApps principles is accessibility. We want to make the product development process accessible to civic innovators and entrepreneurs from all backgrounds. This is why Civic Hall Labs is holding seven ideation and prototyping workshops and open sourcing the learnings for  workshops. January 24th marked the first of seven ideation and prototyping workshops, where over 100 participants came together to learn more about the challenge areas, discover their individual design process, and left with the necessary tools to begin the initial research phase of the product development process. Check out the first product development workshop recap to learn about how human-centered design can help you build better tech. 

This week’s session focuses on human-centered and empathic approaches to design research and ethnography, and will incorporate methods such as user and subject matter expert interviews, as well as observations and secondary research methods. Click here for the full Ideation & Prototyping Workshop schedule, which Civic Hall Labs will hold through April 19th.

Applications for NYC BigApps 2017 close April 30th. Winning teams will not only receive cash prizes, but will be admitted into Civic Hall Labs’ Civic Accelerator program, a community-sourced innovation platform that works with civic entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into early stage startups through training in design-thinking, prototyping and startup methodology. The Accelerator launches in 2017.

Announcing the 2016 Healthy Public Challenge Winners!

Civic Hall Labs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 Healthy Public Challenge!

The Challenge kicked off on August 1, inviting entrepreneurs, designers, developers, academics, and the public at large to consider how to leverage technology to create a healthier public. We received an incredibly diverse group of submissions. Winning civic innovations range from utilizing mobile apps to data visualization to digital literacy. Issues areas addressed by challenge projects include tenant rights organizing, combating gender-based violence, increasing civic participation, and challenging police misconduct.

We’re thrilled to share that the judges have selected the following ten teams to move on to the next phase of the Challenge:

Hollaback! - HeartMob

HeartMob is the innovative tech solution to online harassment: empowering bystanders to rebuild fragmented online communities from the inside out.

Article 25

Article 25 will launch a real-time Twitter sentiment visualization of people affected by HIV/AIDS on World AIDS Day to improve community dialogue and support structures between at-risk young people and the established HIV community in Brooklyn. Afterwards, they will transform data into an advocacy tool to strengthen city HIV policies.

Heat Seek

Heat Seek is providing better, more user-friendly data to tenant organizers and tenant attorneys in order to support their efforts to identify and assist tenants at risk of harassment and forced displacement.


Looped offers a hybrid mobile solution for caregivers to manage their information and caregiving responsibilities and coordinate with family members involved in care. It also connects users with other caregivers in the community in order to build their own support networks, for both practical and social or emotional support.

The Good Men Project & ThinkPlay Partners

The partnership with and ThinkPlay Partners will engage a global dialogue on expanding men's emotional literacy to increase all people's social connectivity and longevity. This initiative is designed to address our national epidemic of social isolation (44 million adults age 45+ are chronically lonely, AARP 2010), violence and deteriorating social cohesion.

NYC Councilmatic

Councilmatic will run its public comment program, bringing together neighborhood groups with local government entities to discuss community health issues. A special homepage section will showcase upcoming public health events in NYC City Council, with ability to subscribe to free email updates and a two-way SMS chat program.

The toolkit will arm tenants with the knowledge and infrastructure to setup their own tenant associations, drawing from the collective knowledge and experience of community organizations. Through research, they will identify the challenges of developing self-sustaining tenant associations and ideate on opportunities to address those barriers.

Rockaway Waterfront Alliance

Leading out of lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy, First Wave is an intergenerational program that empowers local tech-savvy youth to teach older adults and immigrants about social-media, the internet and cell technology to reduce social isolation of our vulnerable populations during emergencies and to increase community and social interaction.

Reported PD

Reported PD is an app that helps underserved populations easily capture details about police behavior and submits interaction details to the local Civilian Complaint Review Board for official processing. It also fosters community engagement by connecting users and sharing local stories.

Participatory Budgeting Project

Open data promises a revolution in democracy, but usually only wonks and technologists can truly harness this wealth of information. Participatory Budgeting Project will aggregate and demystify civic data so ordinary people can assess the data-driven needs of a community, and drive equitable spending of spend public money toward health-promoting investments.


Each winning team will participate in a six month advisory period, which includes mentorship from the Civic Hall Labs Experts in Residence. Each team will also receive $10,000 to further build their solutions into viable prototypes that can make real impact in the health of the public.

Visit the challenge website and follow us on Twitter (@civichalllabs) to learn more about the winning teams and next phase of the 2016 Healthy Public Challenge!

Tips for the 2016 Healthy Public Challenge

With the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Civic Hall Labs is introducing a new way to think about health through a civic lens. We want you to tackle problems that face our society as a whole, problems like inequitable access to public resources, poor engagement between groups within society, and limited participation in political processes due to inadequate information. How can technology be used to address these issues? And how can addressing these issues improve the health of our public?

For your ideas, we’ll award you $10,000 and connect you with our Health Experts with decades of experience building stronger communities. They will work with you over the course of 6 months to develop your solution and help you adopt a systemic approach to health. This isn’t a one-off contest. This challenge is an ongoing process that supports you throughout the journey of bringing you innovation to life, learning, and evolving over time.

For that reason, we’re accepting ideas in all stages of development, whether that’s a seed of an idea, a late-stage prototype, or a brand new feature of an existing technology or program. In all applications, we’re looking for a strong understanding of the problem your technological solution is attempting to solve and a realistic commitment by your team to a potential solution. That said, we realize that there are points that may be unclear at this stage. We ask you to put forward your best idea of what you think your solution will be.

Finally, we want you to remember that the technology itself is not the goal. The end goal of the Healthy Public Challenge is not to produce the next fully-fledged, profit-making app used by millions. Rather, we are interested in how existing technologies can be used in an innovative way to address issues like community discourse and participation, or how a new feature can improve the civic work an organization, business, or agency is already doing. We hope that the resources we offer you to explore this question will inspire you and others to consider how a societal perspective on health can shape future policy and how technology can be used as a tool to cultivate community engagement.

Learn more about the Healthy Public Challenge and apply here. Applications are due by 11:59PM ET September 16, 2016. Reach out with questions to or on Twitter @CivicHallLabs. Good luck!

Launching the 2016 Healthy Public Challenge

This summer, with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Civic Hall Labs is hosting the Healthy Public Challenge to catalyze innovation in addressing the civic roots of health.

Civic Hall Labs exists to collaboratively design and build technology for the public good. As one of our themed labs, Health Lab uses an interdisciplinary approach to shift from the mainstream notion of health as disease management to addressing the civic roots of health. We have launched the Healthy Public Challenge to catalyze innovation addressing the civic roots of health in order to further a Culture of Health. Instead of focusing on public health by managing disease, we want to ask the question of what makes a healthy public.

At a time when ideological divisions deepen disengagement, classism and racism isolates communities, and disinvestment in the safety nets destabilizes families, the health of our public is deeply threatened. These civic roots have a tremendous impact on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of our communities. To create a healthy public, we believe that technology can be used as a tool to ensure the public’s vitality against the chronic maladies of isolation, disempowerment, and instability.

Civic Hall Labs has launched the Healthy Public Challenge as a call for solutions that build a healthy society in these three target categories:

Civic Cohesion
Civic Agency
Public Assets

Submissions are now open to all entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals, academics, technologists, designers, planners, university students, and the public at large to propose civic solutions that have the potential to create a healthy public.

Make sure to check out the Challenge website to learn more about the official rules.

We’re hiring! Director of Technology, PMs, Communications, and more


Since our launch last month at Personal Democracy Forum 2016, Civic Hall Labs has hit the ground running. We’ve made significant progress in a short time frame - developing infrastructure for our first set of pilots, establishing new relationships with organizations and collaborators, and preparing to launch an exciting new approach to challenges that you’ll hear more about soon.

Most importantly: we’ve been preparing our systems for scale. We've accomplished a lot so far with our lean team, but are looking to do much more in the next year and beyond. That’s why we’re bringing on 5 dynamic new team members, including a Director of Technology. We’re growing so that we can better address the complex challenges of designing and developing technology for the public good. To do that, we’ll need to bring on accomplished, civic-minded, individuals with diverse perspectives and expertise.

If you’re passionate about people-first processes and critical evaluation, we’d love to hear from you. Learn more and apply at

Our official launch at Personal Democracy Forum 2016

The collective problems we face as a society are complex, and they can’t be solved by one sector alone.
— Elizabeth Stewart, Founding Executive Director

In front of hundreds of technologists, entrepreneurs, academics, government officials, and community leaders at Civic Hall’s Personal Democracy Forum 2016, Founding Executive Director Elizabeth Stewart spoke about Civic Hall Labs’ mission and introduced several upcoming initiatives. Learn more about how Civic Hall Labs seeks to advance civic tech and bring together diverse sectors to create technology for the public good.

Watch the video of our launch below: