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The ACLU is building a tech dream team. Your move, Trump

The 99-year-old organization is using design and open data to fight back against the president.

The ACLU is building a tech dream team. Your move, Trump
[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

It was November 16, 2016, just one week after Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States. Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, was doing an interview with MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow to discuss the flood of support the organization had received in the aftermath. In less than a week after the election, the nonprofit had gained 150,000 new members and had raised $9 million. 30% of contributions had come from states Trump won. “People understand what’s at stake, and they feel a need to take action,” Romero told Maddow. “We’re going to put them to work. We have a great deal of work to do.”

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During the interview, the ACLU’s website went down.

Marco Carbone [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

Even as the country was turning to the 99-year-old, New York-based nonprofit, it became increasingly clear that the organization’s digital infrastructure wasn’t quite up to the task. According to Marco Carbone, the ACLU’s then-associate director of IT, he and his team at the time had never imagined that roughly 5 million people would hit their website at once–until it happened during Romero’s interview with Maddow. “We had to turn all our attention to the infrastructure that was supporting this huge surge,” he says. They were able to bring the site back online in about 10 minutes.

That work prepared the organization for the next tsunami of web traffic–6 million people–when the Muslim ban was announced in January 2017. “The Muslim ban moment [was] when the country looked to the ACLU as a leader in this time and it became very clear that the digital technology had to be at the forefront of that,” Carbone says.

Today Carbone is CTO of the ACLU, overseeing a team that has grown beyond just IT to include a new product development group–a sort of internal startup composed of designers and developers who came from the United States Digital Service, the New York Times, and Kickstarter. The six-person team aims to make the ACLU’s often wonky legal fights easily accessible and support the ACLU’s advocacy arm by helping people find information about elections.

“Donald Trump represents one of the greatest threats to civil liberties in modern times and possibly in the history of the country,” says KP Trueblood, chief of staff at the ACLU who was formerly director of White House Operations under Obama and the budget director and deputy CFO for the Hillary Clinton campaign. “Mobilizing against him is the right thing to do for civil liberties. Tech is another platform for us to build products to help us shape the narrative and change public opinion.”

For now, the ACLU’s goal is to resist Trump and his administration’s steady walk back of civil liberties, including immigrant rights, criminal justice, reproductive rights, and voting rights. After all, the ACLU’s new tech prowess is thanks almost entirely to what the organization calls the “Trump bump,” or the approximately $120 million in online donations that have poured in since the election.

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While the ACLU’s lawyers fight Trump in the courts, the product development team fights him online by mobilizing the resistance using data visualization, sticky design, and an open-source data infrastructure that puts privacy first.

For the next three months, they will be laser-focused on one thing: A forceful repudiation of Trump in the midterm elections. Here’s how.

[Screenshot: ACLU]

Make national issues personal

While the ACLU and its supporters are unified around sending Trump a message in the midterms, there’s a problem: Many people have only a cursory understanding of the complex issues the ACLU is advocating for.

One example: Gerrymandering, or the skewed drawing of congressional district lines to achieve political ends, essentially predetermining which way districts will vote and depriving individuals of their voting rights. The way it influences national politics is obvious, but it can be difficult to understand how gerrymandering impacts you and your rights in your community.

How do you make gerrymandering visceral and personal? That’s where the product development team’s most recent project comes in. The data visualization, called What the District?!, provides a visual history of how congressional district lines have been drawn over the last 50 or so years. You plug in your address, and as you scroll, the district outlines on the map morph before your eyes, revealing just how arbitrarily the lines are drawn.

[Screenshot: Allen Tan/ACLU]

“Maybe redistricting doesn’t feel super personal, until it’s my neighborhood and I’m like, wait a minute–who you’re excluding and including matters,” Trueblood says. “I think that’s one of the most exciting things that’s happening with our tech and product team–building things that really tell the narrative of why these things matter.”

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That’s where technology can play a vital role. By providing the personal context, the tool makes nationwide issues local. What the District?! is powerful because you can plug in your address and watch how your district has changed over time.

KP Trueblood [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
“It is much faster to digest what [redistricting] means in terms of your voting rights than it is if we try to write up several memos or give you long explanations about the history of redistricting in this country,” Trueblood says.

Crucially, when you finish scrolling through your area’s district history, the ACLU offers you a quick way to share the way your district has been redrawn on social media. The ACLU’s social presence, which includes 2.3 million Facebook followers and 1.5 million Twitter followers, has grown significantly since the election. But data viz is a fundamentally new way for the organization to reach people–and What the District?!’s strength is that it provides a bridge between a powerful visual story and a quick way to share it on social media and spread the word.

“Since 2016, we’ve gotten very good at social and our brand is strong and we’re reaching people through that,” says Brett Camper, the head of the product development team who worked on What the District?!. “But… data viz and interactive tools help you from an educational perspective: what is this issue, what is it about, how does it relate to me.”

Camper originally pitched What the District?! as “a good tweet”–a one-off graphic perfect for sharing online–when he first joined the ACLU in January 2018 after founding a digital mapping startup and building the engineering team at Kickstarter. The project serves as an example internally for what the product team can do for different issue areas.

Now that team has done the work of gathering all the district data for the last 50 plus years, the data can be used again and again in new and interesting ways. That’s perfect, since the bigger goal is to build what CTO Carbone calls an  “ecosystem of apps that support political advocacy.”

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[Screenshot: ACLU]

Create a new kind of voter

The next step is getting people out to the polls to vote for candidates who prioritize civil liberties. To do that, they need information about which races are important and how candidates stack up against the ACLU’s positions.

That’s the idea behind an organization-wide project called Voter. The broader initiative, which launched in May and has roots in the ACLU’s long history of advocating for voter empowerment, is an attempt to mobilize as many ACLU members as possible to vote, and not just in national elections. Voter highlights local elections–think district attorney or county sheriff–that have outsized importance, yet tend to get ignored. It also includes an effort to provide scorecards for Congress members that rate each person based on how their voting record aligns with the ACLU’s positions.

Allen Tan [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

But while this work was ongoing at the organization, there was no digital home for it (besides a PDF of the scorecards), and no way for the public to access the information in a central place. A few weeks ago, the product development team launched a digital hub for Voter, which, once you type in your address, provides location-specific voter registration and polling information as well as the Congress member scorecards.

It also highlights specific candidates whose records on civil rights the ACLU has decided are important to highlight, like Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s campaign for U.S. Senate in Arizona. In summer 2017, Trump pardoned Arpaio after he was convicted of criminal contempt for violating a court order that prevented illegal detentions of people who were suspected to be illegal immigrants without proof, a case brought on by Latino residents in Arizona and which the ACLU argued. As well as spreading the word about Arpaio’s civil rights record on Voter, the ACLU is putting its money where its mouth is: The organization is spending $720,000 to oppose Arpaio’s campaign.

[Image: ACLU]

Unlike some websites that lay out the ballots for state and local elections online, however, Voter is much more selective in what it shows. It’s a way of decreasing the cognitive load on users by not overwhelming them with every single race that’s happening. “We’ve emphasized lesser known or overlooked positions, like county sheriff, which is one that the average person doesn’t think about a lot but has a huge impact on cooperation with ICE in your area, for example,” Camper says.

Voter’s design is simple and easy to understand–which is the whole point. “The most important thing is to have clear information that is useful and helpful for people,” says Allen Tan, a designer on the product team who formerly worked at the New York Times. “Whenever we make trade-offs–like can we have this fancy animation or this cool interaction versus this super clear way of indicating to people you can keep scrolling or there’s more information to be found–we will always optimize for the latter.”

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Gina Kim [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

The team launched Voter in July, but what you can see online is just version one. The ACLU is working with its 50-plus local affiliate offices to make the platform even more localized. Affiliates will be able to tell the product team which races they’re following so they can be added to the platform. Designer Gina Kim, who formerly worked at the U.S. Digital Service, is also working on making the scorecards in particular more in-depth. Rather than just showing a percentage, she’s prototyping a tool that will show how officials have voted on particular issues so that the ACLU’s base can decide where they align–and where they don’t. Projects like What the District?! will also feed into Voter, directing even more people toward the information hub. The site isn’t meant to be a one-off resource. Visitors to the platform are prompted to enter their emails so that the ACLU can follow up with more information about their local elections as they get closer.

“When you think about what it means to hold the Trump administration accountable, the midterms are the first opportunity to truly do that in a meaningful way,” Trueblood says. “We’re hoping to make sure people have information about voting records and candidate statements that allow them to make the best decision that advances civil liberties.”

Build infrastructure with ethics

Voter isn’t just a user-facing site. It’s also the face of a much broader data infrastructure project at the ACLU. Half of the work on Voter’s digital hub went into creating an internal data API with information about legislative districts and representatives that the product team plans to use for other projects in the future. Data gathered for What the District?! will also contribute to this effort, which Camper one day hopes to make open source for other advocacy groups to use. Eventually, the ACLU wants to build a completely free, open API for political data in America, democratizing access to data for anyone who wants to use it.

Brett Camper [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
While building tools like these, the ACLU has some restrictions that startups don’t have. It must abide by a much stricter set of privacy rules based on its own set of ethics when it comes to third-party sites and APIs; because data privacy is one of the ACLU’s core issue areas, it would be hypocritical for the tech team to ignore the organization’s ethical guidelines.

But, as Camper puts it, “it’s an added tax, even in a small way.” It means that some of the most common tools for building products online–like the Google street address search–aren’t viable options for the team. Even internal tools require far greater scrutiny than they would in a commercial setting. When he started at the ACLU in January, Camper wanted to introduce the project management tool Trello, but to do so he had to go through a 45-minute meeting with one of the organization’s lawyers, where they carefully went through the privacy policy. And Slack? Forget about it. “You can’t just throw ACLU member data into a Slack channel,” Camper says.

Even for internal tools, privacy is vital because the ACLU works on such sensitive topics. Lawyers working on DACA have the contact information and names of undocumented immigrants–information that would be at risk in a tech company’s servers.

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For external-facing tools like Voter, Camper and his team use APIs and sources that are based on open data, like Mapbox. Even then, the ACLU had to convince the company to agree to stricter data retention rules. Sometimes, there are no privacy-first APIs at all, like in the case of polling place information. The only source is Google’s Civic Information API. And while the data was funded by a Pew-sponsored project called the Voting Information Project, Google is the only company that’s actually used the data to build an API–which means that any website or app that provides that information is sending your address to Google when you use it. There’s no other easily accessible source of this data, so for Voter the team was forced to use the Google API, paired with an option for users to opt out.

In the future, Camper hopes to build the alternative, completely anonymous, open source version of that API, though that’s not likely to happen before the midterms in November. “Next time we do a project like Voter, I don’t want to make any requests to Google,” Camper says.

The ACLU’s CTO Carbone has similar goals. “A line we’ve never crossed is using Facebook pixels on our website or using Google conversion tracking,” Carbone says. “I would love to be able to put out a whole suite of privacy-protected activism tools, but we’re not at the moment able to,” mainly due to resources. Even with the Trump bump, the team still is small and under-resourced for all the projects they want to tackle.

The team’s data infrastructure ambitions also include building an API that doesn’t exist yet for the government website regulations.gov, which hosts upcoming legislation and provides space for citizens to comment on it. Right now, the ACLU manually collects its members’ comments on laws and then manually uploads them into the system because the government hasn’t provided an API. Now, the product team is reverse engineering the website to build an unofficial API for regulations.gov. Once in place, the team will be able to make the submission process easier, or even build a more user-friendly way for people to write a comment–and then provide the code to other advocacy organizations as well.

The user-facing design and the back-end work the product development team does is aimed at both achieving the ACLU’s short-term goal of resisting Trump and equipping the organization for a future when Trump is no longer in office and people aren’t as highly attuned to the fight for civil liberties. After all, it’s only Trump’s anti-civil rights agenda that’s brought the ACLU the huge influx in donations–and the non-profit has to make that last.

“One of the reasons we’re investing in the digital tech and analytics space is to make this as sustainable a nonprofit as possible–all in the name of mission achievement in the future,” Trueblood says. “If we do it right, it helps us advance civil rights and civil liberties in the country.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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