Mapping the Modern Agora

Using computational social science tools to develop an open source framework for mapping civic spaces in the United States

Note: A research paper published from this project is available at Nature Human Behavior here, or as a preprint here.

A democracy is only as strong as its agora. The agora-like spaces that constitute civil society create opportunities for people to cultivate the capacities needed for self-governance. In modern America, however, the agora has eroded. Most people lack opportunities to engage with each other in the processes of power-sharing, deliberation, and contestation that make pluralistic democracy possible. Our culture of democracy is emaciated. Worse, efforts to renew and reform the agora are hindered by our inability to see the landscape of modern civic life. Without that big picture, reforms cannot be strategically identified or targeted.

Mapping the Modern Agora, incubated by the SNF Agora Institute, integrates big data on civil society organizations to map the modern agora at scale. Just as mapping the human genome enabled biologists to uncover insights about the human body, this civic genome will enable us to pinpoint areas of civic vulnerability and direct resources to strengthen the shared culture needed to make democracy work.

Project Goals:

  • Create a comprehensive map of the civic life in our communities by delineating, at scale, the individual civic spaces people have the opportunity to inhabit, including but not limited to, libraries, non-profit organizations, churches, civic networks, community-based organizations, and parks. In short, we seek to map all the civic spaces that make up the modern agora.
  • Develop a more coherent classification scheme for civil society than currently exists. Even as we develop a picture of the whole, we need to understand how the individual units are similar to or different from each other and how they relate.
  • Develop new lines of research and inquiry that can emerge from creating a picture of the whole. By developing a map of the modern agora, our hope is not only to solve the descriptive challenge, but also to develop lines of scholarly inquiry that previously have not been possible.

Over the long term, we aspire to map not only the geographic aspects of civil society, but also the digital ones. Our hope is that this can become a tool for researchers and practitioners to better understand, make sense of, and invest in strengthening civic spaces in modern democracies.

Mapping the Modern Agora Team:

  • Hahrie Han is an internationally recognized scholar on civil society and democratic revitalization. She is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Professor of Political Science, inaugural director of the SNF Agora Institute, and faculty director of the P3 Lab.
  • Milan de Vries is an associate research scholar at the SNF Agora Institute and former director of analytics at, where he revolutionized the use of data to advance grassroots organizing and influence civic behavior. De Vries holds a PhD in biology from MIT, where he witnessed the bioinformatics revolution and developed skills to transfer those insights to civic data.
  • Jae Yeon Kim is a PhD candidate in political science and a D-Lab senior data science fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, and a postdoctoral fellow at the P3 Lab. Kim studies political learning, organizing, and mobilization among marginalized populations using data science. Kim also builds tools that make social science research more efficient and reproducible.