Nine months ago, Candace Faber became Seattle’s first “civic technology advocate,” a job that includes spreading the power of tech to underserved sectors of city government and community groups, and promoting open government.
A graduate of the University of Washington and Georgetown University, Faber explains how her past work as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State helped prepare her for her new job, and she describes the benefits — and limitations — of hackathons, her passion for podcasts and social media, and our path to preserving a livable Seattle.
Continue reading for GeekWire’s interview with Farber, edited for clarity and length.
GeekWire: What is your role as Seattle’s first civic technology advocate?
Candace Faber: This is still very much in progress. My role to date has been supporting the rollout of our new open-data policy and finding ways to expand that across all the departments. And exposing people in the city to what technologies are out there and what they can be used for to make life better for people in the Seattle, and also mentoring and supporting community efforts around specific technology.
What are your top goals in this job?
Faber: The specific task is to really nurture the community and an ecosystem that is able to do more of this across more domains.
If I were to say I wanted to get this one piece of software developed, it would take a long time to get that one thing done, compared to really looking for where there is energy and momentum and desire across the board. Just building a community in the city [government] of people across departments who are interested in technology and how new tools might be applied to their work is huge, and that has been a big part of my work this year.
On the community side, I’ve tried to be responsive to what people are excited about. There have been a number of community groups who have reached out to me, and I have been able to match them up with experts in the city to help with that work.
I really measure my success not by the specific programs I’m running, but how many other efforts can I help get off the ground and find resources that sustain them. That feels a lot more scalable.
Is there a specific social or environmental challenge where you’re most eager to see the application of technology?
Faber: I don’t think of the work in terms of specific issues. Any population that is not served well by the market is getting overlooked for technology development. Really anything that has an inequitable impact or any program that only serves people who are on the low-end of the economic scale, there are a lot of things there that are overlooked.
If there is a market for something, boy do we build the tool for it. It’s the things where there isn’t a viable, private-sector kind of market where we’re not seeing solutions come about.
Are hackathons the best way to address the needs that are being underserved by the private market?
Faber: The primary value of a hackathon is the space that it creates for new ideas. I don’t see hackathons as a sustainable mechanism for actually building tools. Anyone who develops software will tell you it takes a lot of iterations and there’s not much you can do in a single weekend.
The biggest impacts you get out of a hack is having people who are subject-matter experts and people on the technology side where they can think creatively about solutions. At least for the people who I work with in the tech community, it’s a great way to dive into an issue that you don’t know a lot about and learn a ton and walk away feeling empowered to make a difference.
I was told that your vision for Seattle is to help make it the center of “tech for change.” What does that mean?
Faber: There is a tremendous amount of goodwill and good energy in the technology community and also in the city as a whole. We have a ton of nonprofits, we have people who are very engaged in the civic sector who have some ideas about how we might be able to build healthier communities.
The challenge for us is how do we take all of these resources, this incredible knowledge and passion and years of experience and expertise that live in the social sector and philanthropy, and combine it with some of this fresh energy and insights from the tech community — including their ability to help us build tools that are not just a digitized process of current processes, but actually creating new ways of approaching civic problems.
How did your background prepare you for this position?
Faber: My first career was in diplomacy and it honestly feels very much like I’m doing the same work now, in that it’s trying to connect two very different cultures: the culture of government/public service and the culture of technology and creating environments where people can collaborate.
I look at this really around building community and a culture that can lead to a great number of things. When you think about the parallel with what has happened with the startup ecosystem in Seattle over the last several years, GeekWire and other actors have been a huge part of investing in that ecosystem so it can grow, and helping venture capital grow, and helping entrepreneurs grow and helping them understand each other and what customers need.
I think about civic technology in much the same way. If I can bring together government actors who have resources and insight, as well as nonprofits who have resources and insight, and the real users of the system whose needs are being overlooked, and then these incredible minds from our technology community who can create new things, connecting all of those pieces you get solutions that are much bigger than what one part can imagine.
Do you have any guilty-pleasure tech indulgences?
Faber: I’m a podcast addict and I really love the podcasts Reply All and Invisibilia. What it’s all about is taking things we intuitively feel like we know and have observed and making them visible and something we can look at and think about.
The more I look at data, the more frustrating it is to me to see what we don’t capture. We count what’s countable, instead of what counts. I’m really interested in the efforts to take things that really matter to people and put some data around it and make it workable.
I’m a big user of social media and am constantly evangelizing about Snapchat and Facebook Live and all the ways that people are using these tools. Because what I think it’s doing is taking things that are important to people, like their emotions, their joy and frustration and turning it into something that is tangible and communicable. I think we can actually do a lot with that, and I don’t think it’s any surprise that companies that are managing to create data out of social behavior are more highly valuated right now.
All of these tools that are about communicating in new ways, they’re starting to move past just digitalizing what we already do to create new possibilities. Snapchat is incredible in what you can do to create video stories with very little technical skill and there is an augmented reality component to it, if you think about Snapchat filters that are interactive. That’s really the space in technology that fascinates me the most.
There’s a lot of talk about our booming tech sector driving up housing prices and fears our region is moving toward a San Francisco-like divide between haves and have nots. Where do you see Seattle in 10 years in these regards?
Faber: I’ve been hearing people talk about that since in got back here three years ago. We have everything that it takes to live up to the mayor’s vision of being safe, affordable, vibrant, innovative and connected. It will take real policy choices and the technology sector engagement in those policy choices.
Most of our civic and social problems are not going be solved by applications. The only way they’re going to be solved is if the people who work in our tech sector and who are building the digital worlds in which we live understand the impact of their choices and make decisions that line up with their values. That will mean making different decisions about land use and investing meaningfully in affordable housing, really empowering government to live up to our mission.
We still have it in us to become that vision of the city where people of all backgrounds and classes can live. But we need to have a reckoning with what is really happening and acknowledge the re-segregation of our neighborhoods, acknowledge the impact of all of this on our arts community and then make some really bold, brave choices to make sure that this is a city in which everyone — including technologists — wants to live 10 years from now, one that is still diverse and vibrant and clean.