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iCitizen: How one app got a huge room of millennials talking about the presidential debates

We millennials are, rightfully, stereotyped as to have our phones glued to our hands 24/7. So, it would only make sense that there is a potential for this generation to become involved if given a quick and savvy way to do so. Enter iCitizen

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icitizen app

It’s not as hard as you might think

President Obama’s final State of the Union address has instigated a great deal of buzz throughout the country. As we say goodbye to his presidency and look toward the 45th, a recurring topic of conversation is how to get millennials involved in the voting process.

Now, to get us to do virtually anything, there has to be some sort of technological aspect involved. We millennials are, rightfully, stereotyped as to have our phones glued to our hands 24/7. So, it would only make sense that there is a potential for this generation to become involved if given a quick and savvy way to do so.

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icitizen: “A hub for your civic life”

This is the mission of icitizen. Launched over two years ago, and rebranded and re-released less than a week ago, icitizen is working to bridge the gap between millennials and politics. With the slogan “A hub for your civic life”, icitizen works hard to provide politicians with information curated from the app.

The app is simple to utilize, as users can swipe right (if they care about a topic) or left (if they don’t care about a topic). Topics include everything from arts and culture, to parks and recreation, to voting and taxes.

The app was put to the test the night of the State of the Union, as representatives and members of icitizen came to Illinois State University in Normal, IL for a live-stream watch party.

Potential to make a change

While some students were incentivized by extra credit and free pizza, many students came for the opportunity to be civically engaged. Organizers and sponsors were astounded by the turnout, over 600 people, and we able to spread the word about the importance of being involved in politics and the community.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the members of icitizen following the address. Their mission is one of importance and their execution has the potential to make a change in how younger generations engage with politics.

TL: How did you come up with the idea?
Beth Huth [VP Marketing and Business Development]: icitizen has been around for about two and a half years. And it started from an idea from an entrepreneur in Nashville who thought about making the idea of communication between the citizen and politics an easier process.

He was flipping through channels and he would see polling results on one channel reporting ‘this’ and polling results on another channel reporting something completely different. And he thought, ‘what if we created a place that centralized voice for citizens to come and gain information on politics as well as express their voice on what they do and do not support.’

TL: Are you local to the area (Chicago/Southern Illinois)?
BH: we’re headquartered in Nashville and our CEO, Russ Reeder, was originally based in California and he just recently relocated to headquarters in Nashville. He is also now a co-founder with a company in rebranding and re-visioning icitizen. And, just four days ago, we launched version two of our app.

So, we’re excited about this partnership because this is the first time that we have had polling as well a relationship with AASCU, and our 400 different universities put to the test.

TL: And how has that been going so far?
Alex Schreiner [Partnerships & Outreach Manager]: well, three or four days into it, I could not believe how many students that we got to come to this event. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen so many students gathered in one place for something political that’s not a rally or protest. This was a nonpartisan event, and we packed this house with students from Illinois State University, from Heartland Community College.

I was blown away by the attendance and the participation, and the buy-in that we got from the schools that were involved in it.

So, I think that for us this was really encouraging that there is so much enthusiasm about our vision for what these events can look like, and changing the way that we ask students to participate in politics. [Because] the old way just isn’t working anymore.

icitizen app using

Illinois State University communication majors Adamm Isabelli and Alex Cesich put in their two cents using the icitizen app.

TL: Was that the big motivator for the rebrand and redesign? So that it could be targeted toward a younger audience?
BH: Absolutely.

You know, when I think about the future generations of our country, the people who are really going to make a difference, it’s the millennial generation.

In two years, over 36 percent of our voting population will be millennials.

So, when I think about voting, and I think about calling people to action to have a say in what is going on in policy and community, the old way, where you basically just find a voting place, is broken. Allowing millennials to engage with politics, such as any form of legislation or bills, or just issues that are driven in their world – having it on a mobile device is a huge motivation for us.

TL: Can you tell me a little about the role of polling in politics?
Mark Keida [Director of Polling]: The reason we include polling is because polling is a way that you can make your voice count. So, when you put a poll out there, and there’s no answer to it, we don’t know how you feel. When you think of the electors, and there are over 300 million in the country, we have 535 members of Congress, senators, and the House, plus our president. How do they know [what citizens are feeling]? Polling is one of the ways that we get the intelligence of what the people think. And so, we developed in our app a polling capability.

We did this for the event, we put out 30 different poll questions, and we will continue doing that all of the time as a part of our app, so that we can hear what people think. And then what we do is, with the issues that are most popular, share that data anonymously with elected officials. Alex mentioned that this world is real-time and ongoing, and everything is on the super-computer or smartphone. This is the way the world is moving. And, when you think of polling, it’s very old types of technology, but we’re putting it on an app so that this way you can do it in real-time.

Giving these elected officials a way of putting a finger on the pulse of seeing what people really think and what they really want, is democracy in action. It’s something that is done between elections.

So, it isn’t just voting every two years. The president talked about that tonight, you know, get involved between elections – don’t just vote during the election time. And, what icitizen is really trying to do, is help people: they’re passionate, they’re interested in getting involved, and they are on their phones all the time. So, we’re putting those two together and saying, “well how can we get people involved?” And the phone helps us do this.

icitizen app iphone

TL: How did you become involved with Illinois State?
AS: When I started working for icitizen, I was in D.C., and we were just starting the process of identifying really who were the most important markets for us to try and launch this to. And universities and schools are such an obvious choice. There’s been a tremendous need amongst these institutions for the type of information and data that we are able to provide and knowing what your students’ political sentiment is, and social sentiment of different issues.

So, we actually got an email from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities which said, “hey, somebody in our office just downloaded your app. Can we talk?” And then we found out that we were, basically, within a couple of miles from each other in D.C. So, I went into the office and sat down with members of AASCU, and, as we started talking, I think both sides realized at the same time that there is so much potential here for what this relationship can transform to in the next couple of years. We basically started talking about this event two years ago, and asked how we could make it a student-oriented State of the Union event.

Jen Domagal-Goldman [AASCU member] said, “you’ve got to meet these people from Illinois State. They are so motivated”. And she said, “if you want to do a live watch party and live-stream this across the country from the university – let’s have a giant gathering at one school and broadcast it to other schools that are interested. We think we have the perfect place, and it’s Illinois State”.

And, they were so right. They have connected us to Heartland Community College and the folks over there were incredible at working with us. And what we saw were ripple effects from one very small group of people at Illinois State University faculty, and it rippled across the entire school. I mean, they got everybody involved. We wound up having 600 people and we ran out of chairs. I never hoped, in my wildest dreams, that this would be the case in the first year that we’ve ever really tried anything on this scale. It’s amazing.

Staff Writer, Taylor Leddin is a publicist and freelance writer for a number of national outlets. She was featured on Thrive Global as a successful woman in journalism, and is the editor-in-chief of The Tidbit. Taylor resides in Chicago and has a Bachelor in Communication Studies from Illinois State University.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Joyce Malle

    January 13, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    I use I citizen and love it. They have quit sending me polls. I complained once and now I haven’t received any polls in months. Censorship.?

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Tech News

4 ways startups prove their investment in upcoming technology trends

(TECH NEWS) Want to see into the future? Just take a look at what technology the tech field is exploring and investing in today — that’s the stuff that will make up the world of tomorrow.

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Woman testing VR technology

Big companies scout like for small ones that have proven ideas and prototypes, rather than take the initial risk on themselves. So startups have to stay ahead of technology by their very nature, in order to be stand-out candidates when selling their ideas to investors.

Innovation Leader, in partnership with KPMG LLP, recently conducted a study that sheds light onto the bleeding edge of tech: The technologies that the biggest companies are most interested in building right now.

The study asked its respondents to group 16 technologies into four categorical buckets, which Innovation Leader CEO Scott Kirsner refers to as “commitment level.”

The highest commitment level, “in-market or accelerating investment,” basically means that technology is already mainstream. For optimum tech-clairvoyance, keep your eyes on the technologies which land in the middle of the ranking.

“Investing or piloting” represents the second-highest commitment level – that means they have offerings that are approaching market-readiness.

The standout in this category is Advanced Analytics. That’s a pretty vague title, but it generally refers to the automated interpretation and prediction on data sets, and has overlap with Machine learning.

Wearables, on the other hand, are self explanatory. From smart watches to location trackers for children, these devices often pick up on input from the body, such heart rate.

The “Internet of Things” is finding new and improved ways to embed sensor and network capabilities into objects within the home, the workplace, and the world at large. (Hopefully that doesn’t mean anyone’s out there trying to reinvent Juicero, though.)

Collaboration tools and cloud computing also land on this list. That’s no shock, given the continuous pandemic.

The next tier is “learning and exploring”— that represents lower commitment, but a high level of curiosity. These technologies will take a longer time to become common, but only because they have an abundance of unexplored potential.

Blockchain was the highest ranked under this category. Not surprising, considering it’s the OG of making people go “wait, what?”

Augmented & virtual reality has been hyped up particularly hard recently and is in high demand (again, due to the pandemic forcing us to seek new ways to interact without human contact.)

And notably, AI & machine learning appears on rankings for both second and third commitment levels, indicating it’s possibly in transition between these categories.

The lowest level is “not exploring or investing,” which represents little to no interest.

Quantum computing is the standout selection for this category of technology. But there’s reason to believe that it, too, is just waiting for the right breakthroughs to happen.

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Internet of Things and deep learning: How your devices are getting smarter

(TECH NEWS) The latest neural network from Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows a great bound forward for deep learning and the “Internet of Things.”

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Woman using smart phone to control other devices in home, connected to deep learning networks

The deep learning that modifies your social media and gives you Google search results is coming to your thermostat.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a deep learning system of neural networks that can be used in the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Named MCUNet, the system designs small neural networks that allow for previously unseen speed and accuracy for deep learning on IoT devices. Benefits of the system include energy savings and improved data security for devices.

Created in the early 1980s, the IoT is essentially a large group of everyday household objects that have become increasingly connected through the internet. They include smart fridges, wearable heart monitors, thermostats, and other “smart” devices. These gadgets run on microcontrollers, or computer chips with no processing system, that have very little processing power and memory. This has traditionally made it hard for deep learning to occur on IoT devices.

“How do we deploy neural nets directly on these tiny devices? It’s a new research area that’s getting very hot,” said Song Han, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at MIT who is a part of the project, “Companies like Google and ARM are all working in this direction.”

In order to achieve deep learning for IoT connected machines, Han’s group designed two specific components. The first is TinyEngine, an inference engine that directs resource management similar to an operating system would. The other is Tiny NAS, a neural architecture search algorithm. For those not well-versed in such technical terms, think of these things like a mini Windows 10 and machine learning for that smart fridge you own.

The results of these new components are promising. According to Han, MCUNet could become the new industry standard, stating that “It has huge potential.” He envisions the system has one that could help smartwatches not just monitor heartbeat and blood pressure but help analyze and explain to users what that means. It could also lead to making IoT devices far more secure than they are currently.

“A key advantage is preserving privacy,” says Han. “You don’t need to transmit the data to the cloud.”

It will still be a while until we see smart devices with deep learning capabilities, but it is all but inevitable at this point—the future we’ve all heard about is definitely on the horizon.

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Google is giving back some privacy control? (You read that right)

(TECH NEWS) In a bizarre twist, Google is giving you the option to opt out of data collection – for real this time.

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Open laptop on desk, open to map privacy options

It’s strange to hear “Google” and “privacy” in the same sentence without “concerns” following along, yet here we are. In a twist that’s definitely not related to various controversies involving the tech company, Google is giving back some control over data sharing—even if it isn’t much.

Starting soon, you will be able to opt out of Google’s data-reliant “smart” features (Smart Compose and Smart Reply) across the G-Suite of pertinent products: Gmail, Chat, and Meet. Opting out would, in this case, prevent Google from using your data to formulate responses based on your previous activity; it would also turn off the “smart” features.

One might observe that users have had the option to turn off “smart” features before, but doing so didn’t disable Google’s data collection—just the features themselves. For Google to include the option to opt out of data collection completely is relatively unprecedented—and perhaps exactly what people have been clamoring for on the heels of recent lawsuits against the tech giant.

In addition to being able to close off “smart” features, Google will also allow you to opt out of data collection for things like the Google Assistant, Google Maps, and other Google-related services that lean into your Gmail Inbox, Meet, and Chat activity. Since Google knowing what your favorite restaurant is or when to recommend tickets to you can be unnerving, this is a welcome change of pace.

Keep in mind that opting out of data collection for “smart” features will automatically disable other “smart” options from Google, including those Assistant reminders and customized Maps. At the time of this writing, Google has made it clear that you can’t opt out of one and keep the other—while you can go back and toggle on data collection again, you won’t be able to use these features without Google analyzing your Meet, Chat, and Gmail contents and behavior.

It will be interesting to see what the short-term ramifications of this decision are. If Google stops collecting data for a small period of time at your request and then you turn back on the “smart” features that use said data, will the predictive text and suggestions suffer? Only time will tell. For now, keep an eye out for this updated privacy option—it should be rolling out in the next few weeks.

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