A Snapshot of Civic Innovation in America

Today the White House announced their first class ofPresidential Innovation Fellows. The 18 fellows will be working on a range of government technology projects that will allow citizens tosecurely download their own health information, do business with tech companies, access federal services and information,convert foreign assistance from cash to electronic transfer, and spur open data. They have a range of skills, from web design and software engineering to robotics, open data, and entrepreneurship.

Micah Sifry’s tweet alerted me to to this program, and he mentioned that the program seemed light on women. That got me thinking: If this is the best of American civic innovation, what does American civic innovation look like?

One can assume that whoever was selecting the fellows intended to select the most skilled people to work on their projects, but that they would also want to get a good geographic, ethnic, and gender representation, since the group would represent the country’s best in public interest innovation.

States of Residence of 2012 Presidential Innovation Fellows

If this is the face of American innovation, it is highly concentrated geographically. This is what you get when you pop the states of origin of the fellows into ManyEyes. However, this map is misleading. It doesn’t tell you that there is only one fellow from Seattle, while there are six from the Bay Area.

So here’s another visualization of the metro areas that the fellows come from. From this visualization you can see that just over 75% of the fellows come from three urban areas: the Bay Area (Marin County to San Jose, with San Francisco at its center), the DC area (northern VA, MD, DC proper), and New York City

Metropolitan Areas of Residence of 2012 Presidential Innovation Fellows

This is good news for DC and New York. Judging from fellow counts, DC now matches Silicon Valley as a civic innovation hub and New York’s Silicon Alley is not far behind. This indicates that DC has succeeded in growing its own tech sector capable of nurturing highly skilled technologists to work on government projects.

New York can also be proud of its Silicon Alley. Two of the three NYC-based fellows are experts in open government, a sign the city is developing a specialty in the area, nurtured by institutions like Personal Democracy MediaandtheInstitute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School, events likeOpenGov Camp, Personal Democracy Forum,Participation Camp,and a large number of NYC-based civic projects and apps supported by Code for America.

Other than showing that New York, DC, and the Bay Area are the centers of civic tech it also shows that there’s very little going on in these ares in the rest of the country. In fact, 94% of fellows are from the East and West Coasts. In the world of civic innovation, in the flyover joke true?

Genders of 2012 Presidential Innovation Fellows

What about gender? As Micah pointed out, only two of the fellows are women. That’s 11%, which is pretty pathetic. Are there really so few women in civic innovation or did the selection committee do a bad job picking talented women? Eleven percent seems extremely low, so I’ll go with the latter explanation.

Ethnicity is much trickier. The White House did not release information on ethnicity and, unlike gender, it is much trickier to determine from a name and a picture (even a name and a picture can lead one astray in determining gender self-identification). For this reason I am not going to embarrass myself by creating a graphic on ethnicity, suffice it to say that the majority of fellows are white men.

If the fellows are a snapshot of civic innovation in America, I am really excited to see the projects and skills sets America has been able to nurture. I am also excited that the federal government is embracing these innovators and activists. In the future I hope that this kind of work will be carried out by a wider range of Americans, not just white men on the coasts.


3 thoughts on “A Snapshot of Civic Innovation in America

  1. I couldn’t agree more that 2 female Fellows is pretty weak, but the geographic distribution you lay out here isn’t all that telling. Of the 5 Fellows hailing from the Bay Area, I was quickly able to find that only 4 of them are truly from the Bay Area (vs. based there now). It’s a clear technical hub. And if you look at the distribution of Fellows by US population rather than square mileage, the bi-coastal distribution isn’t too huge a disparity.

    • True. You can explain coastal skew by population density. But you can’t use population density to explain the concentration in 3 specific coastal areas: NYC, DC, and the Bay Area. The White House Fellows, for example, are more evenly distributed: UT, AZ, FL, AL, NC, ME…. The distribution of the Innovation Fellows does tell a story of civic innovation hubs. Boston could be there, but it’s not. That’s interesting. [UPDATED]

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