Azavea is a B Corporation whose civic and social impact mission means that we work on many projects that have a potential political element. Sometimes, those activities are deeply intertwined with the political activities. Our Cicero product is a database and API about elected officials and legislative districts. DistrictBuilder is a web-based legislative redistricting solution. We have created mobile applications for the Voting Information Project and developed applications for reporting election results as well as election day incident reporting. We’ve published white papers on gerrymandering and redistricting, and we provide paid time off to vote.
But while our work often pertains to the political process, our focus is generally in terms of citizen engagement. Over the years we have striven to remain non-partisan as well as to act, first and foremost, in the public interest.
Over past couple of months, Azavea, alongside several dozen other technology companies, joined three amicus briefs related to executive orders by the President that would significantly alter U.S. immigration policy. Amicus briefs are filed by “friends of the court” to provide additional information that the litigants may not have brought forward and to thereby help the judge(s) consider the case from other perspectives. One of these executive orders placed a ban on visas from six countries and a halt to all entry by refugees. The other action called for a halt to all federal funding for so-called “sanctuary cities”.
Given Azavea’s nonpartisan stance, I did not make the decision to join these amicus briefs lightly, particularly on topics that are politically charged. Nor does it make sense put the company’s name behind every topic that arises.
The amicus briefs opposing the travel ban made the argument that the Executive Order inflicts harm on companies by hindering their ability to attract top talent, by increasing costs, by making it more difficult to compete in an international marketplace, and by incentivizing companies to build operations and hire employees outside the United States. The sanctuary city case was brought by San Francisco against the federal government. In this case, the amicus brief supported the San Francisco case by making a similar argument: punishing sanctuary cities is antithetical to the values, culture, and practices of innovative companies and undermines the ability of American companies to compete globally.
A great deal has been written about these executive orders, their potential consequences, and the subsequent effort to halt their implementation by appealing to the federal judiciary. This is our democracy at work, and I don’t think I can add anything constructive to the ongoing dialog regarding these specific situations.
That said, I had never joined Azavea to an amicus group before, and I thought this might be an opportunity to outline how I have evaluated opportunities to directly engage Azavea in civic activity as well as why we did so in this case. In considering these cases, I have tried to ask myself a few questions:
- Does the topic affect the health, safety, and welfare of Azavea’s employees?
- Is it likely that our participation will have an impact on the outcome?
- Does this involve an issue in which Azavea is already engaged through our work? – Examples would include transportation, water, urban planning, ecosystems, redistricting, public safety, government transparency, open source, and open data.
- Is it likely that Azavea’s engagement will have a negative impact on an employee, partner, or customer? Or conversely, if we fail to engage, will there be a negative impact?
- Does the issue involve fundamental principles of democracy? – In addition to core values such as freedom of the press, association, and speech, I regard issues such as a clean environment, human rights, rule of law, healthcare, and equal opportunity as fundamental to creating the conditions for a healthy society. Is one of these issues at stake?
- Am I personally interested? – While Azavea is made up of more than 60 wonderful people, I am still the CEO, and I am interested and concerned about some issues more than others.
So how do these questions play out with these amicus briefs?
Health, safety, and welfare of employees: Fortunately, none of our colleagues have yet been directly affected by these executive orders, but the travel and refugee bans include the potential for extension to other countries. Further, at least a few of my colleagues have been far more nervous about traveling domestically and internationally than they should be, to the point that they have felt the need to make contingency plans in case they are refused entry at the border.
Potential for impact: While we were just one of more than 100 companies on the travel ban briefs, and one of dozens on the sanctuary city brief, I felt that the briefs supplemented the cases before the court in important ways, representing the potential impact of these decisions on businesses and the economy.
Relationship to Azavea’s work: There wasn’t a strong case to be made there. While we have done data visualization of immigrant communities, it’s not a large part of our business.
Negative impact of engagement or non-engagement: I struggled to come up with a scenario in which we would be negatively impacted by joining an amicus brief (unless the administration were to retaliate against companies that joined the brief), but I think that if a strong case is not made, allowing the executive order to stand could very much have a negative impact on current and future colleagues, not to mention the countless refugees whose lives would be negatively affected if the executive orders stand.
Fundamental principles: I believe the travel and refugee ban threaten basic principles of democracy citizenship, equality before the law, and a just and open society. The halt to the refugee program violates basic principles of kindness, consideration, and hospitality for our fellow humans.
My personal concerns: I have spoken out in favor of immigration reform on several occasions in the past. In part, this is because I think a fairer immigration system (I believe the current system could be much better) will lead to more innovative economy, higher employment, and more diverse workplaces. But it is also personal. I am the child of two immigrants. My wife is an immigrant. Her mother was a refugee from Vietnam who settled in France. My brother-in-law is an immigrant. And many of my colleagues have similar backgrounds. I believe this country’s long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees is one of its greatest strengths, and when we have rejected groups of people, we have later looked back on those decisions with shame. At a pragmatic level, immigrants have contributed to their communities in a myriad of ways, and they have enriched our society and culture through diverse perspectives, languages, and beliefs. I am proud of that history, and I want to see it continue. These executive orders undermine that legacy and threaten the future health of our democracy, the prosperity of the country, and our basic humanity.
While I have elected to put Azavea’s name behind opposition to these executive orders, Azavea’s civic engagement did not begin with the current immigration questions or with the current administration. Here are a few examples of other past activities:
- Worked with several news media outlets to build and operate FixPhillyDistricts, a project aimed at giving citizens a voice in the Philadelphia City Council redistricting process.
- Calculated compactness statistics to support a challenge to legislative districts before the PA Supreme Court.
- Developed a series of white papers on gerrymandering, compactness metrics, and redistricting.
- Developed geographic data visualizations of immigration patterns and foreign-born populations.
- Analyzing data to project the potential impact of voter ID changes.
- Joined Businesses for a Fair Minimum Wage and working with them to lobby the state legislature for an increase in the minimum wage.
- Joined Wage Change, a local Philadelphia effort to encourage businesses to voluntarily implement a higher minimum wage.
- Developing and supporting OpenDataPhilly on our own dime.
- Organized the OpenDataRace and recent OpenDataVote.
- Sponsoring events like civic hackathons and Transparency Camp.
- Campaigning for algorithmic transparency and sharing our own algorithms in HunchLab.
- Donating a portion of our profits each year to organizations that operate in one of five priority areas:
- Conservation, Ecosystems & Climate
- Local Arts & Culture
- Open Gov, Open Data, Open Source, Open Science
- Energy & Sustainable Transportation
- Technology Education
Stay tuned for more.