DECEMBER 7, 2018

Episode 32 – Using Technology to Improve Civic Engagement

Sarah Ortiz Shields from Austin Tech Alliance

In this episode, we sit down with Sarah Ortiz Shields to discuss her work at the Austin Tech Alliance. Austin Tech Alliance promotes civic engagement within Austin’s tech sector while supporting policies that put tech and design thinking first. Recently Sarah has devoted her time to a project called informed.vote, where she has worked to make the local political process more transparent and accessible to our community. Listen now as we discuss policy, tech advancement, and simplification through design.

Lisa Graham (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of Change the Rules. My name is Lisa Graham and with me in the studio is my co-host Dan Graham and a very exciting guest: Sarah Ortiz Shields. Sarah is the Program Manager at Austin Tech Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting civic engagement in Austin’s tech sector. Most recently, she’s been working with Travis County to develop a one-stop resource center for local elections called informed.vote. Thank you so much for joining us. We’re really excited to have you here.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (00:26):
Thanks for having me.
Lisa Graham (00:26):
And can you talk about what is the mission of Austin Tech Alliance and what drew you to that mission?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (00:32):
Yeah, our mission is to really get Austin’s tech sector involved in civic action. So we do this through a number of ways ranging from local and policy agendas to programs that we run at ATA.
Lisa Graham (00:43):
And what attracted you to that mission?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (00:46):
Yeah, so I started out, I’ve been working in startups and in software in Austin for about seven or eight years and three years ago, I got sick of working in software and I decided I really wanted to do something more for the people of Austin. And so I joined the city of Austin in their design and technology fellowship. And that led me to meeting David and to learning about ATA.
Lisa Graham (01:08):
Previous advocacy experience, or was this something that just really spoke to you, it sounds like?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (01:11):
Yeah, I had been working in software for about 10 years and after the Wendy Davis campaign, that’s really when I started to get involved and started learning about local politics and that’s what led me to the city and then to ATA. I mean, I always voted, but I was never really super engaged.
Lisa Graham (01:30):
Why this, why do you think the Austin tech community needs to be more involved in politics?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (01:36):
You know, it’s a huge population in Austin. We have so many tech companies here. They’re all millennials, they’re all voting age and speaking from personal experience, you know, people just don’t know what’s going on in local and state politics. And it’s really important because you have the opportunity to actually make change.
Lisa Graham (01:54):
Absolutely. And so talking about that presence, what are the issues that you saw maybe as an employee before you got to the advocacy side. Do you reflect back on things that you saw that really needed to change within that community or the culture?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (02:07):
I can’t really, because I wasn’t really, truly involved when I was working in software, working at startups. You know, I probably voted for my city council member and for mayor, but other than that, I was not really knowledgeable about state and local policy agendas or even what the Texas Lege meant or when it met or how I could have a voice in that.
Lisa Graham (02:28):
When you’re trying to communicate with the tech community and get them involved, right? Like, so if we’re saying the tech community needs to be more involved in the city, how, what are the tactics used to communicate with that community? That would be different than saying, Hey, neighborhoods need to be more involved. People in healthcare need to be more involved.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (02:43):
So there are policies, there are local and state policies that affect hiring and the tech sector. One being the bathroom bill, which is at the state level and then another one being the paid sick time, paid sick leave which was on more of a local level. So these are issues that affect hiring and retention in the tech sector and in hiring in Austin in general.
Lisa Graham (03:12):
So it’s more of, really talk to them about the political issues or maybe even at the legislative level that are going to be affecting their business, not necessarily affecting the people who are working at the companies?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (03:26):
Well, that affect the business and then also affect the employees. So, you know, happy employees, more involved employees are more likely to stay at companies longer. And one way that employees can get involved is on a civic level.
Lisa Graham (03:38):
Got it.
Dan Graham (03:40):
You know, there’s also specific policies that can impact large sectors of tech, you know, when you had the city coming out and making decisions around Uber and Lyft, you know, and the message that that might send to other tech companies who are thinking about launching transportation companies or autonomous driving companies, or when they’re making decisions about short-term rentals or alternative dwelling units, even though this is the hometown of HomeAway and, you know, what does that mean for other marketplace based businesses and is Austin going to be a safe place to come launch those tech companies?
Lisa Graham (04:14):
Yeah. I’m curious too, in terms of that, like, how do you, how do you reach those? Is it reaching the employees? Is it more reaching out to the leaders of these companies to become more engaged? What’s the population that really starts to shift the needle on policy that’s affecting these companies or our, our city, frankly,
Sarah Ortiz Shields (04:32):
Lots of organizations in Austin tech organizations, they have somebody who’s interested or involved in policy at their org. So they’re interested in knowing what the lege is going to work on in that session or what our local leaders are going to pass. And so our org just sort of acts as a conduit between the lege and these organizations to educate them and to lobby for them at the state level.
Dan Graham (05:03):
So you’ve moved from tech to policy. Do you wish you could go back? Do, is this, have you enjoyed the shift? I imagine it’s very different.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (05:13):
It is very different. And I’ve had to learn a lot in a kind of short period of time. I really love it because I love working on things that directly affect residents. Right now I’m working on a project to convert the city’s paper forms to digital processes. And that’s really great because I can talk to residents who have used paper forms and have told me, you know, I have to go to an office downtown. I don’t have a car. I had to take a bus for 45 minutes. I had to wait in line for an hour. I had to interact with somebody to fill out a paper form. I had to take a half day off of work. Why can’t I just do this online? Why isn’t this a service that the city offers to be online? And so really hearing that from residents and from the public is what makes me come to work every day.
Dan Graham (06:00):
When you’ve looked at the different city departments and assessed the digitization needs that they have, you know, where’s the biggest improvement to be made? You know, what what’s the most exciting impact that could be had by moving to a more technological solution, at least you’ve come across so far?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (06:19):
Well, public health is one of the most accessed areas on the Austintexas.gov websites and that sort of ranges from everything from, you know, accessing food stamps to requesting birth certificate copies. So probably there, just because it has such a wide range. I did just work on something for the Office of the Police Monitor, which was wonderful because it gave the public, it gave residents, an easier way to complain about an interaction they had with the police force. So previously residents has to go to an office way up on Rundberg to fill out a paper form. And that soon won’t be the case. So making, you know, making services easier, whether it’s making a complaint or giving a compliment to an officer should be something that every resident should have access to.
Dan Graham (07:10):
Did the police department push back on that at all?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (07:13):
So it went through the Office of the Police Monitor, which is an oversight committee and not part of APD.
Dan Graham (07:18):
So when they have the big spike in complaints, they’ll come blame you?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (07:23):
Yeah, exactly. Hopefully not.
Lisa Graham (07:28):
And so can you talk to us about informed.vote? How did that come about? And you know, what, what does it do? How does it work?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (07:34):
Yeah, so in 2015, when Austin went from a council-at-large to the 10-1 system, Leadership Austin had a cohort that said, you know, there really needs to be a way for residents to learn more anecdotal information about who’s running for council, because there were so many people running in that first 10-1election. So something that not everybody knows about is that almost every organization in town offers or has a candidate questionnaire. So ranging everything from the Sierra Club to Austin Pets Alive to Black Austin Democrats, all of these organizations, almost a hundred in Austin, submit questionnaires to local candidates, and they answer them based on you know, who the submitting organization was. And so they have really interesting information, you know, ranging from, you know, do you have a dog? Do you have a pet? Or what is your favorite park in Austin? Or how do you feel about land use issues? And they’re answered in sort of a way, because they’re very conversational and it could be, it could be, it’s really great information for residents. And so they said, well, why don’t we take this information and aggregate it and put it up so that residents can read these sort of anecdotal conversational answers and learn more about candidates in this way. So that was the idea in 2015 and we partnered in early 2018 and we launched the site in September.
Lisa Graham (09:09):
And so what does the site do? Does it, is it a general application or is it just a way that people fill it out online so all of the info gets in the same place? How does it work?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (09:19):
So what we ended up doing is reaching out to 80+ organizations here in Austin that had submitted a candidate questionnaire and said, hey, you know I know that you submitted a candidate questionnaire. When you receive your filled-out questionnaire, send them to me and we will populate them on the sites. They’re all coded by 12 different issues that kind of range from education to innovation to land use. And then you can search either by topic or by race or by organization. So if you are really interested in animals, you can go in and you can go to, or if you’re really interested in the environment, you go in and you click on an icon that says environment, and you can see all of the candidate answers that that they’ve answered pertaining to the environment, or you can search by organization that is coded as environment.
Dan Graham (10:09):
Did you get did you get any flat-out refusals from organizations to share their candidate info and why? And if so, why do you think that is, I mean, were the answers secret? Like, hey, if you get elected, will you make sure and get these favors? And they just didn’t want that to get out?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (10:24):
I didn’t receive flat out nos from any candidates. I did receive flat out nos from some organizations. Some organizations say, Oh, well, we send this out and it’s a benefit to our paying members. So these answers are sort of proprietary to our members and, you know we don’t wish to share them. But then on the other hand, so some organizations said, you know, we don’t wish to share these, but then the candidates may have sent me those same answers. So we still sometimes ended up with them.
Lisa Graham (10:51):
Oh, interesting. So then the candidate would send you kind of a copy of what they had filled out or the information. And I think that’s, what’s interesting about that as well is it’s still a benefit honestly, to those 80 organizations because they still get to have the information they want. They still get to message. They still get to endorse, but then the general public has access to it in a really accessible way. Which is interesting. It’s great.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (11:12):
Yeah. And we didn’t include any endorsements. They’re just the exact answers that the candidates had written when they replied to the organizations. But they’re really fun. I read almost all of them because I entered them all on the site. And they’re really, you know, they’re fun. And it helped me learn a lot about all of the candidates running.
Dan Graham (11:31):
What’s the weirdest fact about one of the candidates that you learned?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (11:34):
Oh, I don’t know.
Dan Graham (11:39):
Who’s the weirdest candidate?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (11:41):
I’m not going to answer.
Lisa Graham (11:45):
You may look for yourself at informed.vote.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (11:54):
So we have updated the site to remove the candidates that are not in the December 11th runoff.
Lisa Graham (11:59):
So going forward, will this be for every city-wide election? Is it, and is it just city-wide candidates right now?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (12:05):
It was Travis County only. So anything that you saw in your Travis County ballot, we included. So that was judges, justice of the peace, city council and mayor, senate, sort of everything that was on the, your local ballot.
Lisa Graham (12:23):
Got it. And so, and by Senate, so state senators, state legislators. And is there a plan to expand this to other counties or are we still focusing on Austin right now in the Travis County area?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (12:33):
Yeah, I mean, for 2020, we are focusing really on updating the interface so that organizations and candidates can go in and enter and respond to their own questions. Right now I had to reach out to all of the organizations and then enter them manually into the site. But as the site grows and we get more answers and more organizations, it just isn’t going to be feasible. So in the version two, ideally candidates would go in and have a logged in state where they are able to answer all of these questions on their own. And then maybe just an admin is able to push them live after reviewing them.
Lisa Graham (13:08):
Got it. So just make it more accessible both to the candidate and the organizations that want to get the information.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (13:12):
Yeah. And hopefully adding an option to have the site in Spanish too.
Lisa Graham (13:16):
Oh, that would be great. So this is kind of what’s coming up next, right? And so the idea of being able to scale it a little bit, or just make it a little more accessible. Throughout the elections, how often are these things actually sent out? I actually don’t know how this works. So if an organization sends it to a candidate and I guess some of these candidates, they’ve basically been on a ballot now three times within 2018, are those updated or is there a chance for people to change their answers? Can that change from when you read it back in April to voting in a runoff?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (13:45):
Well, I talked to a lot of candidates about this process and I was sort of chatting with Danielle Skidmore earlier or sometime over the summer. And she said that she had received over 60 candidate questionnaires. So what she was doing was sort of listing them all in a line of when they had come in and the day that they were due and then replying to them, and most candidates are replying in PDF format. So they get sent back as a PDF to the organization. So theoretically, you know, they’re not modifiable. In upcoming, in the next version of informed.votes, there will be the ability for candidates to change their answers. But as part of my requirements for the site, I feel like it’s really important for users to be able to see what was changed and when it was changed because one of the main reasons for informed.vote was to hold these candidates really accountable to what they said and offer some transparency to the general public on, you know, how candidates answered one answer to the Austin Area Democrats and another answer to the Austin Area Republicans or how they’re answering questions on really hot topics like Code Next.
Lisa Graham (14:59):
So when you’re looking at it you’re able to see what questionnaire that was in the response to, so people can really see how those questions kind of compare to one another?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (15:07):
Lisa Graham (15:07):
And so what else is, I know this has been a huge initiative for you all, what are some other things that ATA has been working on?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (15:15):
Yeah, we spent most of September and October doing voter registrations at our member companies. I think I registered almost a hundred people, which is great. So really empowering our member companies to get their employees registered to vote and getting a Volunteer Deputy Registrar at their organization. So in Texas, we do not have online voting. You have to register with a VDR (Voluntary Deputy Registrar), which involves filling out a paper form. And then the VDR has to take those forms to the tax assessor’s office and drop them off and they have to be manually entered into a database.
Lisa Graham (15:58):
That sounds really time consuming.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (16:00):
Yeah! Imagine if we had online voter registrations! So we spent a lot of time doing voter registration, voter outreach through our, one of our programs called Tech Votes. We offered a voting guide to our member companies and to the community about, you know, how to encourage voting in your organization, what that means, how to get your employees interested in voting, but still remaining nonpartisan. We also partnered with the city and other tech leaders with a new initiative, the city just launched in late October that encouraged businesses to offer two hours off, to go and vote so that people would have time to go and stand in line. Does, you know, the lines are very long this year.
Lisa Graham (16:46):
What are some examples of those ways that businesses can get people to the polls or inform them of their voting decisions? You had said that y’all had given suggestions to these companies. And I know we just had the midterm elections, like record numbers of people. Now we have runoffs and several elections. And I think a lot of people are thinking, well, it’s over, I’m going to move on. What are some suggestions you guys give to companies to inform their employees and then get them to the polls?
Dan Graham (17:13):
Scooter. It’s all about the scooters.
Lisa Graham (17:16):
Two hours and a scooter – that’s all you need.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (17:18):
Obviously giving them time off to go and vote. Letting people know that December 11th is a runoff date. It’s a Tuesday, it’s five weeks out from our general election. So run-off elections have an average voter turnout rate of less than 5%, which is really low. So if employers really just let employees know that there’s a runoff coming up and encourage them to go and vote, that is the best thing that they can do.
Lisa Graham (17:47):
Got it. And totally out of curiosity, how accessible is voting on those days? Is it like election day where there’s more polls open or is it more like early voting where you have to go to some of these mega centers or your grocery store?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (18:02):
I don’t know. From what I recall, it’s less locations than on the general election.
Lisa Graham (18:10):
So other programs you guys are offering and what else is coming up for you guys?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (18:14):
Yeah. So another one of our programs is Paper Census. Papercensus.org. It’s a partnership that we entered with the City of Austin to reduce the city’s reliance on paper forms. So we’ve worked with three different departments this year in 2018. The office of the Department of Transportation Austin, Travis County EMS, and the Office of the Police Monitor. So we went and we worked with those departments. We found out what their most high use form was. And then we basically performed a design and research project with them and digitized that form and provided them a digital prototype that then they could take back to their department and code.
Lisa Graham (18:56):
And when is that launch? Has that been launched?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (18:58):
It’s ongoing, it’s an ongoing project.
Lisa Graham (19:01):
What has, have they noticed yet? Or have they been able to tell what difference in response rates have been?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (19:05):
So our first project that we worked on this Spring for City of Austin Transportation, their renewal period is in January for their on-street parking permits. So they, we provided them all of the development criteria and the prototypes. So they’ve been working to code that. So hopefully it will be ready in December, January for the for the renewal period. And at that point, we’ll be able to determine how many people went through a paper renewal and how many people renewed online. And we’ll have some hard data.
Dan Graham (19:33):
At this pace. When do you think the city will be paper-free?
Lisa Graham (19:36):
When paper no longer exists and trees don’t have trees?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (19:41):
Yeah, when we run out of cedar. I don’t know.
Dan Graham (19:48):
That sounds like a win-win!
Lisa Graham (19:48):
I know, would cedar paper be, “This is bad?” I don’t know.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (19:51):
Well, I wish that was a thing. There’s over 60 departments in the city. Each one of those departments probably has, I don’t know how many processes. So, I mean, I don’t know.
Dan Graham (20:06):
Is there a way even to measure it in bulk, like the city consumes X pounds of paper a year, or the city destroys this many rainforest acreage per year.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (20:19):
When I first started, I reached out to the city of the purchasing department to try and get that number because I wanted to know how many boxes or pounds of paper the city was purchasing as, as a whole. And they told me I had to go to each individual department to find out and talk to their purchasing person and find out how many boxes of paper were ordered. So it wasn’t, it wasn’t something that was feasible for me to reach out to each department to figure out their paper.
Dan Graham (20:46):
And they probably all order from different suppliers.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (20:49):
Lisa Graham (20:50):
Is this something that city departments are actively pursuing, or is it something that when you go in and say, we’ve got this great way to do this, it will save you money. Is there a lot of convincing that has to happen?
Sarah Ortiz Shields (20:59):
Well, we’re working, we’ve partnered with the City of Austin CTM department and CPIO, I don’t know what those stand for. So we coordinate with them and they offer their research and their designers. And so we go in and sort of as this working group team to departments that have expressed interest to digitizing their forms or their processes.
Lisa Graham (21:25):
Yeah, I find it so interesting the amount of, I mean, there’s always bureaucracy in government entities but you know, in my past life, I was a consultant in public sector and you would go into these municipalities where they, the biggest cost savings could be no longer renting an entire building to house all of their paper files.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (21:44):
We have those, yeah we have them.
Lisa Graham (21:49):
And so there is just this massive cost savings that comes along for an entire city with what you guys are doing over at ATA, which I think is amazing.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (21:57):
Yeah, it’s, it’s been really exciting. It’s exciting being able to improve service overall for a resident. So when we go in and we look at the form and how the form can be updated and get rid of the form, we’re also looking at the experience that the resident has as a whole, when they go in and they have to find a parking spot and there is no parking or the office is only open from 10:30 to 1pm. So we’re looking at the entire experience to improve that for the residents.
Lisa Graham (22:29):
And just increasing accessibility in your local government, which is what we need to be using this technology for. Well, thank you for what you all are doing. I think it’s incredible. And I think the transparency that you guys are providing for the Travis County and then the City of Austin is going to be really game changing as we go forward. And I cannot wait to see, I’m going to start checking out all those forms by the way. And I’m going to go create my own list of weirdest candidates that have filled out the application.
Sarah Ortiz Shields (22:55):
You should, it’s pretty fun.
Lisa Graham (22:59):
That’s great. Well, thank you so much for joining us. This has been amazing. I love hearing about what you guys do and thank you for it. We’re so happy to have had you, and thanks again for joining us. The Change the Rules podcast is sponsored by Chez Boom Audio for more information, visit chezboomaudio.com. And if you would like to get involved you can visit informed.vote to check out these forms and the Austin Tech Alliance at Austintech.org, Austin tech.org. Check it out. They’re doing amazing work in Travis County. And if you enjoyed this episode and want more, please visit change the rules on Apple podcasts to subscribe, and while you’re there and make sure to leave a review, it helps us promote the show and continue sharing stories of innovation.