Laws and policies impact every part of our lives. But the complexity of laws often leaves us confused. This is the problem that Civis is tackling presently.
Civis is India’s first platform that enables citizens to understand legislation and share their feedback on laws and policy decisions; while providing an avenue for the Government to understand citizen’s priorities and gather feedback on policies in real time.
You can find them at www.civis.vote.
Civis has been shortlisted for the Agami Prize, for pioneering a civic technology platform. In this interview Antaraa Vasudev, Founder of Civis talks about her journey.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
My name is Antaraa, I’m the founder of Civis (www.civis.vote), an experimenter in the civic technology space and a ballerina. At Civis, we’re looking to help Governments and citizens converse, by helping citizens understand laws and policies in simple language, and helping Governments understand citizen’s feedback on these laws in real time.
Prior to founding Civis, I worked at an international non-profit – Asia Society, where I handled policy-related public education programmes. Prior to Asia Society, I interned at Niti Digital and Bennett Coleman and Co. Ltd. (Times Group).
I learned Ballet for 13 years, and have spent many hours in dance studios. I love the dance form and I think I’ve learned some pretty awesome life skills through it. At 20, I was given an opportunity to teach Ballet with the Imperial Fernando Ballet Company in Bombay, to children between the ages of 3 and 13, and it was a whole lot of fun!
From where did the idea of Civis came from, why do you think that such a platform is required and how do Civis works?
It’s funny how sometimes you look back and you realise that what you’re doing now is so closely linked to the stuff you did as a kid. At the age of 8, my best friend and I were super concerned about cows falling ill after eating garbage.
To us, it was the most horrifying thing and we decided to write to the President of India and ask him to look into it. We wrote a letter and drew unhappy cows on the opposite side of the page.
Then we went and gave the letter to the President’s paan wala, who went and gave the letter to the President’s dhobi, who made sure that the President received the letter himself!
A few weeks later, late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, President at the time, wrote to us saying that he would look into our concern.
Civis kind of works the same way, we put up laws open for public feedback on our website and help people understand and respond to these laws – so that they can share their concerns with the Government.
Once you share your feedback we make sure that the Government receives all the inputs shared on Civis. On the flipside, we help the Government understand citizen’s feedback through data and analytics so that they can efficiently engage with citizens on the issues that matter most to them.
In some ways, civic technology applications like Civis are reimagining how things work, so we’re creating a need by illustrating how things can be done better.
How were the college years? You have a degree in Political Science, do you think it propelled you in some ways to start Civis?
It sounds like an often repeated cliche, but some of my greatest memories are from when I was in college. I graduated with a degree in Political Science from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
We learned about different aspects of policy in college, like international relations, political theory and comparative politics – this perspective, and an understanding of how these systems have evolved was really phenomenal and adds immensely to how I think about Civis.
Aside from the coursework, which shaped my understanding of policy and piqued my interest in the field even more, I also really valued the opportunity to intern with different organisations and get hands-on exposure to varying career paths.
Please tell us about the initial years of Civis. Were there any specific episodes of success or failure that you remember? Do you think they helped in forming Civis as it is today?
We’re still very much in the initial years of Civis, and every day brings fresh insight and learning.
Please tell us about your team.
Civis is made possible and runs thanks to the hard work of our volunteers and interns (some of our interns we met through Lawctopus by the way!).
We’re really lucky to have on board 3 interns at the moment from different parts of the country who are working tirelessly to make Civis a success. Bini graduated from NUSRL, Ranchi, Arif is pursuing his law degree at Alliance School of Law and Sohini is studying at Symbiosis Law School.
Our volunteers come from different walks of life, they are seasoned professionals who give us considerable amounts of time to help solve Civis’ design challenges or technology issues.
Since both your team members are volunteers and you yourself have volunteered in the past, can you tell us how law students can also volunteer and contribute to Civis.vote?
We’re really looking to build communities and we’d love to have a campus ambassador programme or civic hackathons, but we need some help coming up with ideas. Anyone who has an interesting idea on how we can simplify laws or better Civis should reach out to us and we can see how to make it happen!
What is the future like for Civis?
We’re looking to release a mobile app next and also make sure that our web application is accessible in multiple languages. We’re also looking to make our content more engaging and fun and work on different formats of sharing content like video and infographics.
How did you know social entrepreneurship was your calling? Do you have any advice for students who want to be innovators and changemakers? Tell us in what ways incubation with IIM, Bangalore and IIM, Nagpur as well as NSRCEL has helped Civis?
Haha! I don’t think I have enough grey hair yet to be qualified to give advice! Jokes aside, I think the one thing that helped me understand that I could do something like Civis and the advice that I’d like to give others is that finding a mentor can really change your life.
It’s hard to find people we gel with, who can help guide us across life’s different and trying situations, but if you do have someone you regard that way – cherish them and be open to guidance.
Organizations like IIM Nagpur and NSRCEL make life so much easier as an entrepreneur because you get access to multiple resources and can learn from management professors who have studied and have immense knowledge of young organisations or from other entrepreneurs who have faced similar challenges in the past. It also does give your venture credibility and helps you access different networks and markets.
Which books, movies, and resources (courses/experiences/online tools) have informed or inspired you the most?
I’m a big fan of TED talks and a few talks have really inspired me. I also enjoy reading a lot so it’s a little hard for me to pick a few books, but one of my favourite reads at the moment is ‘New Power’ by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans.
Interview by Varun Sharma.
The Agami Prize will be awarded to innovations and entrepreneurial initiatives that can exponentially increase quality, effectiveness, access, and inclusion in and around law and justice. Read more here.