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High-tech tools for better politics

What's hot in high-tech political tools, designed to get disaffected citizens off their duffs? A Kickstarter-like project for viable independent candidates.

What's hot in high-tech political tools, designed to get disaffected citizens off their duffs?

A Kickstarter-like project for viable independent candidates.

Crowd-sourced dossiers on politicians, detailing their true actions and agendas on important issues.

Open-source software that crunches and charts public records, making governmental agencies accountable.

Electronic alerts and pre-stamped mail-in ballots that jog would-be voters when election day approaches and explain all the issues, eliminating the "gee, that name sounds good" guesswork that often takes over in the polling booth.

You probably won't hear any of these bright ideas expressed at the DNC this week. But the concepts - already in gear and some blessed with success - were enthusiastically touted at the American Experiments Showcase.

Presented Monday by the University City Science Center and the Committee of Seventy in the Microsoft Reactor space at the UCSC Quorum, the competition promised "only bragging rights and higher visibility as the prize," allowed Committee of Seventy president and CEO David Thornburgh.

Still, the showcase attracted presenters from across the country. And a very cool bunch of mostly millennials they were, introducing smart concepts with equally snappy names such as e.thePeople (online voter guides), Brigade (a civic identity builder), (a gerrymandering fixer), CodeforPhilly (our much praised, municipal performance tracker) and Electorate, "a social voting platform to find and share election advice with trusted friends."

As both idealists and pragmatists, participants argued that there are moral sense and fiscal sensibility in their tech and social media-rooted missions.

BallotReady, using IBM Watson smarts to crunch, analyze, and verify news reports, voter attitudes, and multiple layers of crowded-sourced information, has set a lofty goal of tracking every referendum and every race in the country "from U.S. president to traffic court judge and water commissioner," said CEO and co-founder Alex Niemezeski. BallotReady is in "pre-revenue mode," surviving on start-up funding from the National Science Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. "But we believe the aggregated information we're gathering would also be worth paying for," she said. BallotReady won the "people's choice award" at American Experiments.

Juried event co-winner Crowdpac also boasts a viable business model. Giving encouragement to reluctant and underfinanced candidates, this Kickstarter-like market tester helped local upstart Chris Rabb defeat several "endorsed" contenders in the Democratic primary for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from the 200th District and raised almost $266,000 for "Black Lives Matter" activist DeRay Mckesson's race for Baltimore mayor. Of the 511,000 elected offices up for grabs in the U.S., 337,000 are filled by candidates running unopposed, said Crowdpac's head of business development, Liz Jaff. She called that "a sad sign that there aren't a lot of people participating in the process."

Some encouragement: The average donation on Crowdpac is a respectable $56.