AIGA Seattle is proud to introduce a new written series to spotlight local female leaders. The interviews will provide insight into the designer’s world, including stories about how they chose their creative field, their struggles and achievements, tips for others, and perhaps their favorite food. Look for posts every two months. And, if you have a recommendation for talent, or are interested in writing for the series, please email Kirsten, AIGA Seattle's Women Lead Director at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It takes a special kind of person to bring government and tech together—two worlds with vastly different cultures that move at vastly different paces. But Candace Faber does it with grace and patience. Since 2015, she’s been leading the charge in civic tech as Seattle’s first Civic Technology Advocate. Her role is to engage the local community of technologists, data scientists, and innovators on civic issues like climate, homelessness, and transportation while looking for opportunities to implement tech-based solutions.
The Road to Civic Tech
Candace graduated from the University of Washington with not one, but two bachelor’s degrees—Political Science and Slavic Languages and Literatures. She then achieved a Master’s in Foreign Service at Georgetown University. For years she worked in the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat before moving back to Seattle in 2012. While the leap into the tech scene may seem big, it was a natural move for Candace to apply her experience as a diplomat in a new way.
“When I moved back here, I just dove in and started engaging in the startup scene. I noticed that there was a huge amount of technological innovation happening, but not much of it was being applied to civic and social problems in a meaningful way. I started doing some organizing work around [these social problems] and ended up getting hired by the City.”
"To create space for innovation, people have to suspend their normal way of doing things and be willing to approach problems differently."
The organizing work she’s speaking of takes many forms, one of which is the hackathon. “Hackathons let unlikely allies come together within an environment dedicated to solving problems. Instead of complaining and criticizing, we get a chance to envision better solutions. They are a great way to expose public sector and nonprofit workers to what technology can do, while allowing technologists to apply their skills and imaginations to difficult social problems.”
Most recently, she organized a hackathon called “A City for All,” as part of the Age-Friendly Seattle initiative, which focuses on making Seattle more inclusive of people of all ages and abilities. When it comes to what to expect from hackathons, and from civic tech in general, Candace says, “Civic and social issues are complex. They tend to be what we would call “wicked” problems, or problems where there is a great deal of complexity, resistance, and change. I try to be really clear that technology by itself is not going to solve homelessness, or traffic, or emergency preparedness. However, we can break down those issues into discrete challenges, and that’s where technological innovation can lead to breakthroughs.” For example, in this hackathon, one team addressed the challenges faced by people in need of on-demand and accessible transportation services. The team built a prototype for a website that would make it possible for users to check eligibility and request rides at the click of a button, instead of making numerous phone calls. As Candace stated, information technology alone can’t bridge gaps in services, but it can improve access to what is available. That’s the kind of progress that she likes to see.
Even so, Candace would love to move things along faster. “To create space for innovation, people have to suspend their normal way of doing things and be willing to approach problems differently. That is a big ask for government, where the obstacles to making change are tremendous. We need to intentionally create environments where people can imagine new approaches. I hope to generate opportunities for collaboration that go beyond events and prototypes, leading to lasting change.”
Successes in Civic Tech
One of the biggest wins in her time as Civic Technology Advocate is the implementation of the city’s open data policy, which she undertook in 2015 and 2016 in collaboration with the open data team. As part of that process, Candace won consensus on the final policy text and Mayoral executive order, and worked with the team to implement it across the City. The policy has been the catalyst for specific tools being built with the open data, such as a map of traffic accidents across the City and the iOS app Seattle Trails. She also counts as successes the four hackathons, more than 100 outreach events, and countless connections she’s facilitated in her nearly two years at the City.
While these have all been concrete wins, Candace is quick to acknowledge that building lasting change is slow, painstaking work. “One of the efforts I am most proud of is a collaboration with the Seattle Police Department and several community organizations to tackle the abuse of technology to coerce and control people, which is an increasingly common form of relationship violence,” she said. “That’s not the kind of thing you solve overnight, and we might never have a big press release about it, but it’s still worth doing.”
Teams Over Mentors
When asked about mentors, Candace jumped right into describing the team they’re putting together in her Digital Engagement division. A good team motivates her, which makes sense for a facilitator who works to bring different worlds together. So when she’s building a team around a project, one of the most important traits she looks for is people who can maintain optimism. “That can be a really challenging thing to do in an environment with so many obstacles,” she said. “I have seen a lot of motivated, passionate, innovative people come into government and then leave after a very short time with a long list of frustrations.” For inspiration, she looks for the people who persist and maintain a positive attitude. She points to Brendan Babb doing innovation work for the city of Anchorage and Michelle Thong in San Jose as prime examples of people continuing to push forward tech in the civic space.
On Being A Woman In Government
When Candace began her role as Civic Technology Advocate, she noticed that, among the managers in her division, she was both the youngest person by 13 years, and the only woman. Now, the women outnumber the men, five to four, which she credits to her director. “It’s really, really encouraging to me to see things beginning to change.”
"The number one thing I want younger women to know is that it isn’t going to be easy, but it’s important to keep showing up—and to keep fighting for greater representation for others as well."
Advice for Women
“I don’t want to sugarcoat it. I know of no industry where women do not have to fight for their seat at the table. It can be exhausting to get up every day and go into a place where you and your skills are undervalued. It’s worse when you have to deal with sexual harassment or sexist comments, which I have had to deal with in every job I have ever had. For a while, I thought I could find some place where I would be safe from all that. I no longer think there’s anywhere to run. However, I hope that women continue to show up and fight for our seats at the table—and not only because we deserve equal treatment. When women are involved in decision-making, the decisions are better for everyone. Especially when we are thinking about how we design services or technology, it’s important to have people at the table who can represent different communities. The number one thing I want younger women to know is that it isn’t going to be easy, but it’s important to keep showing up—and to keep fighting for greater representation for others as well.”
When it comes to banding together though, Candace believes if it doesn’t exist, create it. When she and a coworker realized there wasn’t a space for women to come together to talk, share stories and mentor each other, they created the Women of Seattle IT Happy Hour—a space to break out of individual silos, build community, and encourage each other. That kind of solidarity can go a long way, and give women the support they need to take on their own individual challenges.
On What Allies Can Do
Often times it can be hard for men to become aware of persistent inequities, let alone address them. For that, Candace suggests, “The number one thing I would say is, do the work on yourself. Read things that women write, attend talks that women give—it’s all out there, but it requires people investing in opportunities to start to see the world through a different lens…I’m encouraged when I see men take it upon themselves to begin to study and understand these issues.” When people accept women’s perspectives as valid, they’re better able to empathize, and more likely to notice and take action when something discriminatory or inappropriate happens—like speaking up, or if a woman’s voice isn’t being heard, helping amplify it and creating space for it at the table.
And for those nervous about walking a tightrope, she offers really great advice: “We’re not going to get it right 100% of the time, period. Whether you’re working on gender issues, or whether you’re working on race issues, there’s just no way not to step in it. You’re going to try to move forward, you’re going to say something, you’re going to ask a question, and you’re going to expose prejudices you didn’t know you had, that’s just part of the process. And I think that’s a really uncomfortable thing for most of us…we want to do the right thing. But sometimes doing the right thing means getting a little bit uncomfortable.”
A Passion For Dance
Outside of work, Candace unwinds with modern dance. “I love Seattle’s dance community. I didn’t grow up dancing or doing anything like that but I go to dance classes quite a bit and go see dance. With everything else that’s happening in the city it’s nice to see this vibrant arts community still surviving and doing really exciting work.”