In Election Year, Houston Tech Ecosystem Works On Civic Engagement

Houston — Andrew Douglass has voted in each election—from the high-profile presidential contests to more obscure local referendums and council races—since he was able to at age 18.

Now he’s using his expertise as a freelance Web developer to make it easier for others to vote, too. “I’ve tried to be very civic minded,” he says.

Douglass, a former Code for America fellow, created a website to aid in early voting for last fall’s election for Houston’s mayor and council members. “I was really interested in why voter turnout was so low in local elections, and is there a technical solution for this,” he says.

Douglass says that the PDF map authorities had of voting places wasn’t very useful; he wanted to make it more interactive. So he created a beta site where voters could look up the nearest place to vote using their current GPS position. “It finds the nearest polling place with a list of the hours they are open; click on it for directions, and find a route on Google Maps from where you are,” he says.

The site is dormant now, but he’s considering ramping it back up for the fall. “I could get some help and work for it to be available for the national election in November,” Douglass says. “If we could find out a way to get people to sign up and get notifications about elections in their area, this would be a good year to do it.”

Douglass isn’t the only techie paying attention to civic matters. In this election year, activity is bubbling up among others in the Houston innovation community, who are applying their talents toward more community-minded endeavors.

Sketch City, founded late last year in Houston, is designed to bring together techies with government employees in order to use technology to help solve civic-related problems. The group has held monthly hackathons related to a variety of issues, including transportation and sustainability. Next month, a few weeks after the Super Tuesday primary in Texas, the group will host a “democracy” hack night along with the League of Women Voters.

RideScout founder Joseph Kopser, a self-described transportation “evangelist,” says he is frequently asked by techies about ways they can contribute to civic affairs. “Entrepreneurs come up to me and say, ‘I can code; I can design,’” he says. “They just haven’t found that idea that captures them.”

Kopser, who sold his transportation aggregator app to Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler AG in 2014, has joined an effort called Mobility Houston, which seeks technological solutions to Houston’s formidable traffic congestion. He says just bringing like-minded technologists together can result in a spark that could lead to an app or software that might help solve a problem.

“The tech community thinks about things in a way that is developing new ways to solve complex, but staid problems,” he says.

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