Like Most Civic Hacks, Our Winning App Came to a Halt

david capelli 1

My adviser, Carla Mays, and I won the Hillary Clinton Presidential Hackathon at Impact Hub San Francisco on April 27, 2016. Our technology? Gone.

We built a technology solution to bring innovation to the election process. The winning solution titled “Voter Protection/Equity App” allowed for on demand voter registration help, on demand care resources while waiting in line and on demand reporting of voter suppression/discrimination at the polls, a major issue in swing states like Florida, with long lines and hot weather. More importantly, we wove in a non-digital solution and implementation strategy for any campaign or election commission to easily and effectively implement.

Despite Hillary Clinton’s innovation and technology agenda being released weeks after, our winning solution came to a screeching halt when trying to work with her campaign and other groups. The larger issue is not a Republican or Democrat issue, but an overall government problem that technologists are starting to identify: civic innovation models in the United States are failing.

When a diverse team wins a tech competition and is promised to be brought in for development as a prize, being told to volunteer is part of the problem. Having an innovation agenda or a hackathon doesn’t mean anything if we can’t implement solutions we have developed and won.

david capelli 2This translates to failing civic innovation and smart cities models. Many diverse communities with minority majorities, like Miami and Los Angeles, cannot rely on San Francisco or Portland models for smart cities and civic innovation. Portland is a smaller, homogeneous community and presents dangers for larger cities to model. San Francisco’s tech and venture capital focus has sparked record-setting inequities and displacement.

Cities like Miami, Los Angeles and other emerging, minority majorities should work with and fund diverse entrepreneurs in their own communities building local solutions and reject Portland models of sustainability. There is no secret about why Columbus beat out San Francisco for the Smart Cities Challenge. People can actually live in Columbus. The current model for civic innovation and smart cities is a flawed approach and no presidential agenda can fix that if he or she doesn’t fund what they promote.

Governments, investors, entrepreneurs and philanthropists must stop group think. Civic and social innovation must have a new model that includes ethical frameworks for working and designing for existing and real communities and populations with return on investment versus moonshots and hypothesized sustainable smart cities full of high wage tech/sustainability workers enjoying the sharing economy. This is why cities like San Francisco are completely unlivable and hard to mitigate using current civic tech and innovation solutions.

Civic innovation must truly engage citizens by providing real economic opportunities to co-create local solutions. The current hackathons, online platforms and town halls are useless and have little or no real pathway to implementing these solutions that yield the best return on investment for cities, residents and investors.

We are in the process of undertaking original research in smart cities, civic tech and innovation. Our research will focus heavily on mitigating current negative externalities, development of revenue models that help cities and municipalities and cybersecurity/privacy of civic tech solutions/ smart cities. Until governments keep their word on building equity and inclusion in the innovation economy, hackathons and presidential agendas will continue to be harmful.

If interested in building the next generation of government innovation and smart cities designed for people, please contact us at or

This article was co-authored by David Capelli and Carla Mays.


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