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A Personal Message from Civic Hall Co-Founder Micah Sifry

September 17, 2020 - 10:32am

Dear friends:

I’m writing with important personal news. At the end of September, I’m leaving Civic Hall to pursue new opportunities and projects. I’m excited to be moving on, but as you might imagine, this kind of change is also bittersweet. 

Five years and nine months ago, Civic Hall opened its doors. After many years of running the annual two-day Personal Democracy Forum conference, Andrew Rasiej and I had a vision of a place where people interested in the use of technology for the public good could gather year-round to work, network and hopefully collaborate around solving hard problems facing our society. We weren’t sure it would work, but soon hundreds of people and dozens of organizations became members of Civic Hall, and many promising endeavors and powerful partnerships were nurtured under our roof. Tens of thousands of people attended events and workshops there, also being touched and moved by Civic Hall’s values and spirit.

And we’ve had a big impact. By my rough count, more than three dozen early stage civic start-ups spread their wings and took flight while resident at Civic Hall. Many more individuals found community, friendship and support as they navigated the larger challenges of making positive change in a world tilted toward systemic injustice and inequality. There are many people who have come up to me to say, “I couldn’t have done what I’m doing now without the support I got from Civic Hall.” There has been nothing more gratifying than being part of the infrastructure that made that magic happen. 

This has been a team effort, and as we navigated the ups and downs of being a start-up together, I want to especially recognize the contributions of my longtime partner and co-founder Andrew Rasiej and Civic Hall’s executive director Jessica Quinn, along with all the dedicated staff who have shared this journey, in making Civic Hall’s secret sauce work.

The past year has been a challenging time. As many of you know, in 2017, Civic Hall won a City of New York sponsored competition to build a new and larger Civic Hall in Union Square with six floors, including an expanded collaborative workspace, a stand-alone event center, and a centerpiece of a tech workforce training center focused on serving underrepresented populations. Since then, our team has collectively spent hundreds of hours in planning, community outreach, and design work, and even though there remain many challenges in bringing this center to fruition, the building is under construction and is scheduled to open at the end of 2021. Finding the resources to create this new, expanded facility, has been an uphill battle, but as the saying goes, “if it were easy it would have been done already.”

And then COVID-19 hit. In response, first we decided to temporarily close our community space on West 22nd St. More recently, in the face of the ongoing pandemic, we decided that there was no safe way to continue to operate a physical community hub. Civic Hall is going to focus on keeping the Union Square effort going, leaning more deeply into the tech skills training component of that work while continuing to nurture civic tech entrepreneurs, looking forward to a day in the hopefully not-too-distant future when it will be possible to gather people in place the way we did before the pandemic. 

But it’s time for me to go in my own direction. We are in the midst of unprecedented challenges to our health and our democracy. I want to keep doing the kind of intellectual, community-weaving and mentoring work that I was doing at Civic Hall, but in forms and ways more in tune with the imperatives of this time. Through the end of this month, I’ll be completing some projects at Civic Hall, highlighted by the release September 22 of a major new report on the potential for emerging technologies like artificial intelligence to be used by public interest organizations. 

First Post, the biweekly email newsletter on civic tech and politics that I’ve written for the last several years, is going to come with me, though I’m going to take a little time to redesign and rethink its purpose and name. (If you’d like to be a charter subscriber, go here to sign up.) As one chapter in my life closes, I’m excited about some new projects that I’ll now have time for. One is a novel that I’ve been working on that explores how tech may change how we think about death and memory. Another is advising my soon-to-be new Congressman, Jamaal Bowman, on topics and projects related to tech and democracy. In these tumultuous times, I’m also looking forward to doing more political work as well.

Social distancing makes saying good-bye really strange. Until it is safe to be together physically, we’ve all already been cut off from each other. On the other hand, I’m not going any further away than I already am from you, my friends and colleagues in this work. Either way I want to stay in touch, and wherever possible, be of service. My personal email is and my door is always open.

Until we meet again…

Micah Sifry
Civic Hall President and Co-founder

The post A Personal Message from Civic Hall Co-Founder Micah Sifry appeared first on Civic Hall.

Defending Racial Justice Through Your Investments

July 21, 2020 - 5:21pm

Fiona: Matt, tell us who you are and what moves you.

Matt: I tell people I’m a reformed journalist. I spent ten years in journalism. I’m from London originally but I’ve spent a lot of time working on criminal justice here in the U.S. Some of my best work was done in New Orleans, where I uncovered some systemic issues in the jail system there and I really saw the problems with racism. I have taken that organizing mentality from journalism to strategic communications consulting. You’re supposed to be objective in journalism, but it was obvious to me that there were some people getting messed up and some people doing the messing up, and for me to quote them both with false equivalence just didn’t seem the best use of my time. So I’ve done organizing, particularly through the communications side of things. 

I got involved doing financial organizing in London when I worked with an investment organization called ShareAction. We were addressing the risk of climate change through the investment system and found that people now see climate change as a business risk. I was struck to consider the same risk in the criminal justice maze, the risk of racism. It strikes me that wealth is how injustice shows up in a person’s pocket. I’ve been looking in the last three months, since George Floyd’s murder, at doing an anti-racist organizing campaign through the finance system, which is not ambitious at all!

Fiona: In early July, Civic Hall published a newsletter on the topic of economic protest, highlighting #StopHateforProfit and #BlackoutDay2020 as latest examples. It’s this idea of leverage capital for good. In connecting with your work here, can you elaborate more on what antiracist work in the financial system looks like?

Matt: The economic protest aspect of things is so powerful. Many of us don’t realize that we are invested through our equity holdings in companies that we might not align in values with. I don’t know about you but I have a few Roth IRAs invested through Vanguard and Fidelity, and the like. Without us realizing it, those investments often are profiting off things that I would not be comfortable with, such as climate change. Blackrock invests in for-profit prisons. So it’s interesting when you see the chief executive of Blackrock coming out and

making a statement on “our actions to advance racial equity and inclusion.” He said he was going to release products to tackle racism and address diversity in staffing. There are huge institutional power and organizing opportunities there.

There’s been some really great leadership in this space, particularly by women of color who often do most of the work and don’t get the credit. As a white guy, I feel it’s important to lift some of those people up. Rachel Robasciotti is a wealth manager in the Bay Area, and she released a racial justice exclusion list of investing companies. It’s really interesting! Thing is, to invest through Rachel you need $50,000 in order for her to support your impact in an anti-racist investment strategy. But she’s really leading in this area.

On apps like Stash or Acorns, I can’t easily access antiracist products but I should be able to. So that’s one area of organizing I do. I want to also look at the likes of Blackrock and other major asset managers, and compare the companies they’re invested in with their rhetoric on antiracism. Amy Cooper, the woman in Central Park who is now being charged for filing a false police report, worked for Franklin Templeton, which is one of the oldest investment houses in the U.S. After she was charged, Franklin Templeton came out saying, “we do not tolerate racism of any kind.” But how deep does that statement go? I think of shop window signs that say “Black Lives Matter,” and I think it’s great they’re saying that but to what extent are they just trying to avoid getting their windows smashed? Do they fundamentally embody that? Do they hire Black staff? Do they promote them at the same rate? So Franklin Templeton has opened themselves up there to accountability. That’s where I’m interested in working: the large asset manager and institutional investor space. They move so much money and they’re not thinking about it because they all went to the same schools, they all look like I do, many of them play golf together and don’t think about this stuff. Feels like a big opportunity.

In the U.S. victims of systems of oppression are not given financial education for a reason. It’s deliberately kept complicated by the people who hold the power.

Fiona: I have a Roth IRA with Merrill Edge and was offered the option to invest in a socially and environmentally conscious portfolio, but I don’t know where they set the boundaries of what that means. I’m sure investigating this will just bring up more questions. I’m an immigrant so I don’t have generations of wisdom from people teaching me this stuff. It feels important to name that this is a complex world that not many people can access. 

 Matt: Absolutely. One of the companies at Civic Hall is BREAUX Capital whose Co-founder is Brian Williams. He and I were talking about this. His method of building financial literacy among Black millennial men is to have a buddy system to support budgeting, saving, etc. In the U.S. victims of systems of oppression are not given financial education for a reason. It’s deliberately kept complicated by the people who hold the power. The more complicated something gets, the more money and power get concentrated. For example, most of us are invested in companies and we pay them a fraction and trust them to run it for us. But that fraction of a fee adds up so these companies have huge amounts of wealth. There’s a responsibility there.

I’m lucky to have gotten my financial experience. I always wanted to be a writer and journalist, I landed in financial journalism as my first job. Then adding criminal justice journalism, weaving into climate change work, and now I’m back in the financial space. I feel lucky to have gone on this accidental journey, most of us are not this lucky. Most of us are just worried about having enough money in the future so we rightfully focus on making more money and building that security. 


Fiona: Apps like Stash, Acorn, and Robinhood seem to attempt to close this access and knowledge gap to investment by making it easier to make small, quick investments, though without trading experience, this comes with risks. The question of “how responsible is the company I’m investing in?” remains. Is there anything out there already, or are you working on some type of antiracist metric of accountability for investment firms?

Matt: Many folks have done this work already and I’m following their lead and I don’t want to take credit for anyone’s hard work. I’m meeting with those individuals and generally as many people as I can, to develop the focus of the campaign. I don’t want to replicate what already exists and I want to be strategic. 

The metric is the key. Imagine some sort of survey or scorecard that ranks the top 25 largest asset managers on their commitment and measurement in being antiracist. That will get the conversation started. They don’t want to engage, so the only way to get them to engage is leveraging their 24 other competitors, some of whom are perhaps engaging in some way. There needs to be a rigorous survey that gets them on the record. I suspect that we’ll find, which is what we found with climate change 15 years ago, that folks aren’t there yet, so they might all get failing grades. Once we’ve given them all an F or D, we can start working with them to make some progress. In a decade or so perhaps bringing the grades up to C’s.

Firms need to know it’s a rigorous assessment and that we can see through their “expert language” protecting “fiduciary duty to our investors” and dismissing consideration of morality. That is a good way to avoid taking any responsibility on social matters. But climate change has already done this work and revealed that you’re actually doing your fiduciary duty when you look at systemic risk in racism. If you’re invested in a racist company, there’s an investment risk. The trick is drawing that out and showing it to investment firms, making it clear that we cannot ignore it. 

It’s a long project and we have to figure out a way to do it sustainably so as to not burn people out.  

We have to be courageous and, like we’ve started addressing gender diversity on boards, we need to talk about racism in the investment space.


Fiona: I’d be curious how racism is quantified because though I’m having immediate reactions, I realize this is a complicated and tricky thing. Having been in the environmental space for some time I do appreciate the reminder that several climate accountability scorecards exist now.

Matt: Yes, and we shouldn’t shy away from the tricky conversations! 

Rachel’s list of exclusions includes any companies that invest in West Bank properties. It could be that Blackrock may have different comfort levels in this territory versus in the territory of for-profit prisons. I don’t know. But let’s start the conversation. What does Risking Racism mean?

There’s also an element of tone policing where people “tuck their heart” so as not to upset people in power. We have to be courageous and, like we’ve started addressing gender diversity on boards, we need to talk about racism in the investment space.

Fiona: What calls to action do you have for folx interested in more consciously engaging with the financial system?

Matt: If you’re using any of those investment apps like Robinhood or Stash, send a direct email to the product team and request an antiracist product. It’s easy to invest in the defense industry, but what if I wanted to put $20 to the antiracist industry? Contact Stash here, Robinhood here, and Blackrock here. For large investment firms, you can ask “is my money invested in private prisons?” Or “What about some of the other focus areas on this racial justice exclusion list?”

If folx know philanthropic investors at Nathan Cummings Foundation, David Rockefeller Fund, Disney Family Foundation, Sierra Club Foundation, or California Endowment, who all have pledged for racial equity, I’d love introductions. They need to be held accountable too, and I think the truth is, many of them want to be held accountable. They need someone knocking on the door saying, “you said you cared about this stuff, but where is the evidence?” It helps them have more direct conversations with their colleagues who are more resistant. 

If you’re invested with a firm, connect with the customer service team or your advisor and ask them where your money is invested. The more of us who ask for this transparency, the more they’ll notice this is a demand, and the more likely they are to share a substantial response. Contact Blackrock here.

Or drop me a line. I’m constantly having conversations about this stuff and I’m eager to learn more from people who care and want to get more involved. 

Fiona: Who’s inspiring you lately?

Matt: Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation. This is a guy who is turning one of the biggest sources of wealth and directing it to social justice efforts at Ford. He’s Black American, public school-educated, and just helped pass an incredible rent reform bill in NYC. He backs the wordy commitment to social justice with action, and even recently said that they’ll borrow money in order to more fully back these commitments. That takes guts and great leadership.

You can connect with Matt through his  website, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Watch the full video interview:

The post Defending Racial Justice Through Your Investments appeared first on Civic Hall.

Precedents, Good and Bad

July 10, 2020 - 10:04am

New, from Civic Hall’s Activate monthly newsletter, written by Tenzin Kyisarh, Curtis Davis and Fiona Teng 鄧穎恆, an up-to-date guide to many of the ways people are using their economic leverage to support the fight for Black lives, including #StopHateForProfit and #BlackoutDay2020.
The Movement for Black Lives is the “largest sustained mobilization in the United States in our lifetimes,” social scientists Lara Putnam, Jeremy Pressman and Erica Chenoweth write in The Washington Post. They have counted at least 5,000 individual anti-racism/anti-police brutality protests since the end of May, and say the real total may be closer to 8,000. In just one state, Pennsylvania, there have been more than 400 protests, compared to just 29 on Tax Day 2009, the spawning ground of the Tea Party movement.
Only the National Walkout Day protests of 2018, when the youth-led MarchForOurLives movement struck a nerve with young people across America, have been anywhere as close as big, with 1,313 individual protests documented then by the CountLove team of Nathan Perkins and Tommy Leung. I asked them if the geography of these two youth-led movements overlapped, and Perkins replied, “we definitely see the racial justice protests reaching new cities. Specifically: 976 of the racial justice protests (in 365 distinct towns/cities) took place in locations that are not near any of the walkouts; and 41 of the National Walkout Day protests (in 29 distinct towns/cities) took place in locations that are not near any of the racial justice protests. You can explore CountLove’s National Walkout Day and racial justice datasets here and here.
Must-read: Prayyusha Kalluri, one of the founders of the Radical AI Network, in Nature, arguing that artificial intelligence should be judged by “how it is shifting power.” She adds, with the International Conference on Machine Learning on the horizon next week, “those who work in AI need to elevate those who have been excluded from shaping it, and doing so will require them to restrict relationships with powerful institutions that benefit from monitoring people.”
Related: Here’s a new case study by Milena Marin, Freddie Kalaitzis and Buffy Price on how Amnesty International used AI to scale up human rights research, focusing on how they enlisted digital volunteers and micro-tasking technology tools to improve the scanning of thousands of satellite photos of Darfur in order to identify destroyed villages.
Congrats to Dan Newman, the longtime director of Maplight, the campaign finance reform organization. His new graphic novel, Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy, with art by George O’Connor, has just been published.
The Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) network has built an interactive map of 5.500 union contracts around the US that offer leverage for intersectoral and common good campaigns that local organizers can plug into. With many localities talking about imposing austerity on workers in the midst of the pandemic, and many contracts expiring and in need of renegotiation in the next few years, BCG sees this map as tool for building more collective campaigns and power.
Apply: The Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation is looking to hire a public interest technology workforce fellow.
Life in Facebookia: Here’s a great piece in Politico from our old friend and former techPresident editor Nancy Scola reconstructing how the #StopHateForProfit campaign came together.
A long-awaited civil rights audit of Facebook, two years in the making, is out, and as Mike Isaac reports for The New York Times, its authors, lawyers Laura Murphy and Megan Cacace, zero in on the contradiction between its stated devotion to free speech and its failure to adequately address the harms it keeps amplifying. Isaac writes, “In the audit, Facebook was repeatedly faulted for prioritizing free expression on its platform over nondiscrimination, and for not having a robust infrastructure to handle civil rights. The report homed in on three posts by Mr. Trump in May, which the audit said contained hateful and violent speech or which harmed voters. Facebook left those posts untouched, over objections by the auditors, the report said. In doing so, the social network set a ‘terrible precedent’ that others could copy and that could affect the November election, the report said.”
Again and again, the auditors zeroed in a series of decisions the company made starting last year to exempt speech by political figures from its rules about misinformation and hate—but also found weak spots even there, noting, “Ironically, Facebook has no qualms about reining in speech by the proponents of the anti-vaccination movement, or limiting misinformation about COVID -19, but when it comes to voting, Facebook has been far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation and voter suppression.”
Here’s a red-flashing light from the audit: “If politicians are free to mislead people about official voting methods (by labeling ballots illegal or making other misleading statements that go unchecked, for example) and are allowed to use not-so-subtle dog whistles with impunity to incite violence against groups advocating for racial justice, this does not bode well for the hostile voting environment that can be facilitated by Facebook in the United States.”
Overall, the report does give Facebook credit for making progress on a number of fronts, but still says that its approach to civil rights “remains too reactive and piecemeal.”
Color of Change president Rashad Robinson, who led the group of civil rights leaders who met with Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg Tuesday to discuss the #StopHateForProfit campaign’s demands on Facebook, tells Charlie Warzel of The New York Times that he is tired of being gaslit, of the company letting its representative in Washington, DC, Joel Kaplan, oversee how it responds to voter suppression content when Kaplan “has political leanings that would make it harder for my grandfather to vote,” and when Zuckerberg consistently fails to understand that President Trump’s statement about “looting and shooting” is racially coded.
Facebook says it “stands firmly against hate,” but as Ryan Mac reports for BuzzFeed, it’s still accepting and running ads from white nationalist groups.
Heads up: I’m off on vacation for the next few weeks. Stay safe. And in the meantime, here’s one way to keep things in perspective.

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community. 

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Economic Protest | #BlackOutDay2020

July 8, 2020 - 6:25pm

By now, many of us are aware of the #StopHateforProfit trend, a call to withhold advertising dollars from Facebook for the month of July. Because 99% of Facebook’s $70 billion in earnings comes from advertising, participating organizations and companies know that this economic boycott of Facebook to demand the platform to address how it spreads hate and disinformation carries weight.

And the people are taking action, too. #BlackoutDay2020 on July 7 (not to be confused with #BlackoutDay over a month ago) is a call to action: “We need one day of solidarity in America where not one black person in America spends a dollar.” This grassroots action has evolved into a call for solidarity beyond Black folx, and expanded to spending dollars at Black-owned everything.

Successful or not, the act of withholding and redirecting capital (a.k.a. boycotting and buycotting) for social benefit is not new.
From colonial to modern days, Hong Kong to Jamaica to Australia, tax resistance and strategic consumer spending choices have been deployed to try and shift the balance of power and wealth.

Today, amidst the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Americans are once again leveraging their capital for justice. For perspective, in 2018, Black American buying power was estimated to be around $1.3 trillion, with a total of $3.9 trillion including Asian American, Hispanic, and Native American buying power. For further perspective, the estimated 2021 federal budget is not far off at $4.8 trillion. 

Civic Hall supports the use of economic leverage in the fight for Black lives. Our Civic Tech Field Guide tracks boycott and buycott tools, like Mighty Deposits where you can find banks to invest in African American equity, and a growing collection of civic tech’s racial equity and antiracist efforts.   

We hope you’ll feel inspired to take one or more actions below.


 July 7: How Civic Hall Staff Participated in #BlackoutDay2020 

Director of Marketing and Storytelling


Marketing Associate


  • Ordered from Soul Out and Snowdonia in Astoria, Queens. She says, “they are open for delivery. Snowdonia recently opened for outdoor dining as well. If you’re in the area, make sure to check them out!”

Senior Marketing Associate


Director of Organizational Design


 Activate: Read, Support, Follow, Donate 


Learn more about 


Back-Owned Restaurants |
Instagram Source: @Kumeda.Design


Black Female-Owned
Businesses | Forbes

Support Black-owned Businesses: 

Follow Black Art, Entrepreneurship, Intellect:

  • BLK + GRN: A community of Black practitioners, entrepreneurs, influencers and wellness ambassadors sharing accessible, Black women-owned wellness products and resources.
  • BlackSpace: An organization of Black urban planner, architects, artists, activists, designers, and leaders, created a visual to help organizations imagine anti-racist, Black-centered operation principles.
  • Facebook Group dedicated to promoting and supporting Black-owned businesses.
  • Sleeping Giants gives people lots of entry points (we can all use our small economic power to put pressure on the corporates to halt their FB ads, for ex).

 Other Ways to Participate 

Support + Follow: 

Act Blue | Black-owned businesses | Black-owned food coop in Brooklyn | Black Visions Collective | Campaign Zero | Equal Justice Initiative | George Floyd Memorial Fund | Know Your Rights Campaign | Minnesota Freedom Fund | NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund | Reclaim the Block | Reparations paid directly to individuals and families | The Marshall Project | The Sentencing Project | Data for Black Lives

SIGN the Color of Change petition demanding Congress to protect Black businesses during Covid-19.

DONATE to Covid-19 Relief fund for black and brown communities | Know Your Rights Campaign

DONATE to Highly-rated charities promoting black health, education, civil rights, and community development


The Movement for Black Lives’s Electoral Justice Project unveiled its new omnibus BREATHE Act, a visionary piece of legislation. Learn more and read the bill summary here.


A timely discussion about building anti-racist technology & culture with two leading experts.

A powerful dialogue on policing within communities of color and what the Officials are doing in response.


Civic Hall aims to build the power and capacity of civic-minded people and organizations. This curated content is brought to you by our Activate newsletter, a once-a-month e-newsletter that focuses on social justice issues aiming to educate, inform, and activate our community to take action. We also have bi-weekly newsletters to keep you informed on everything #CivicTech (projects, resources, events, news, and more original + curated content). Sign up for these newsletters and stay connected!

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At Stake

July 8, 2020 - 10:03am

This is civic tech: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy center have released a new toolkit for public agencies seeking to center racial equity when they share and integrate data, Stephen Gossett reports for
A new study looking at parliamentary activity under COVID finds that most countries’ legislatures have continued to function, and the more they have adopted technology solutions, the more active they have been. (h/t Marci Harris)
Congrats to our friend Jim Fruchterman, whose new nonprofit Tech Matters, has raised $1.7 million in backing from corporate and foundation sources, including Twilio, Okta, Working Capital, Facebook and Schmidt Futures. ““The mission is to bring the benefits of technology to all of humanity, not the richest 5% of it,” he tells Ned Desmond of TechCrunch.
Here’s more on what’s at stake in the fight to protect the Open Technology Fund from political meddling, courtesy of Pranshu Verma and Edward Wong in the New York Times.
According to a survey of 4,446 Americans done by Civis Analytics, 16% have signed a petition, either on paper or online, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement or in protest of police abuses, 20% have shared opinions or news articles about those issues on social media, and 8.5% say they have participated in a protest, rally or demonstration. (Scroll down in the document to find this question.)
Non-violent movements that persist at this scale over time have often won huge changes, according to comparative research done by Harvard scholar Erika Chenoweth.
Here’s a gorgeous map of all the different types of protest that have been documents by Count Love as having occurred so far in the US in 2020, built by DemLabs.
Attend: The Movement for Black Lives’s Electoral Justice Project is unveiling its new omnibus BREATHE Act, a visionary piece of legislation, this morning at 11am with a live event here.
Apply: Black Girls Code is looking to hire a director of finance and operations.
Life in Facebookia: Private Facebook groups devoted to organizing protests against COVID shutdowns back in April have now pivoted to attacking the Black Lives Matter movement, the AP’s Amanda Seitz reports. Some have literally changed their name (from “Reopen California” to “California Patriots Pro Law & Order”) while others are lightly moderated and generally reflect the tide of Trumpite opinion. “Unless Facebook is actively looking for disinformation in those spaces, they will go unnoticed for a long time and they will grow,” Joan Donovan, the research director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, adds. “Over time, people will drag other people into them and they will continue to organize.” While Facebook says it does try to respond to content that violates its rules in private groups, independent experts disagree. Because private group members are reinforcing each other’s existing biases, they are far less likely to flag content for Facebook or fact-checkers to review, Donovan notes.
Tech reporters trying to cover Facebook say it “operates with the secrecy of an intelligence agency and the authority of a state government,” Jacob Silverman writes for the Columbia Journalism Review. ““It is locked down in a way in which no other tech company is,” says Charlie Warzel of The New York Times, with sources and reporters alike worrying that the company will tap any avenue to find and punish leakers. Silverman writes, “With the knowledge that a company that has built a globe-spanning surveillance apparatus might always be watching, reporters and sources take tremendous precautions. Any Facebook-issued device, or even a phone with the Facebook app installed, could be vulnerable to the company’s internal investigators. If a source has friended a reporter on a social network or merely looked up their profile on a company computer, Facebook can find out. It can potentially tap location data to see if a reporter and a source appear to be in the same place at the same time.”
End times: As you dig into your summer reading, this network map by Valdis Krebs showing how buyers of right-leaning and left-leaning political books on Amazon are currently clustering may give you some ideas of how to get out of your personal filter bubble.

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community. 

The post At Stake appeared first on Civic Hall.


July 3, 2020 - 9:54am

This is civic tech: Over in the UK, Joe Mitchell, longtime co-coordinator of Democracy Club, has gotten a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to map out what is, or isn’t, working in the democracy sector there and he’s sharing his intriguing research plan.
Speaking of intriguing research, Niloufar Salehi, assistant professor at Berkeley’s School of Information, has just been awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation grant to study a restorative justice approach to social media moderation.
A bipartisan group of senators have banded together to try to stop a power-grab at the Voice of America that is threatening the integrity of its Open Technology Fund, which has supported the development of encrypted communications tools like Tor, Tails and Signal for years. For more info, go to Save Internet Freedom.
MIT is taking its giant 80 Million Tiny Images machine learning training dataset offline after being alerted by researchers that it was riddled with offensive terminology and could be used by AI systems to describe people with racist and misogynistic language, Katyanna Quach reports for The Register.
Attend: Next Thursday July 9 at noon EDT Mutale Nkonde and Charlton McIlwain will be speaking together at an event co-hosted by All Tech is Human and TheBridge on “Building Anti-Racist Technology and Culture.”
Attend: The annual RightsCon conference, AccessNow’s signature event bringing together thousands of human rights organizers and tech activists, is going virtual this year (July 27-31) and registration is free.
Apply: The School of Data Science at the University of Virginia is looking to bring on a data activist in residence.
Apply: Brave New Films is looking to hire a screenings coordinator.
Life in Facebookia: Nick Clegg, the company’s VP of global affairs, says that it “does not profit from hate. Billions of people use Facebook and Instagram because they have good experiences — they don’t want to see hateful content, our advertisers don’t want to see it, and we don’t want to see it. There is no incentive for us to do anything but remove it.” Our friend Dave Karpf of George Washington University points out: “It’s technically true, Facebook doesn’t profit from hate. Hate is a monetary rounding error in Facebook’s balance sheets. Facebook *avoids regulatory scrutiny* from hate. Facebook turns a blind eye to hate so Trump will turn a blind eye to Facebook.”
This is exactly right. For many years, Facebook equivocated about allowing white supremacy and white nationalism on its platform, claiming to ban white supremacist content while explicitly allowing posts praising race segregation. In training materials revealed by Motherboard’s Joseph Cox, phrases like “I am a proud white nationalist” were given as examples of statements to greenlight—only the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in 2017 got the company to change its mind. But cracking down on such speech means offending more Republicans than Democrats, including the biggest Republican of all.
New York Times tech editorial writer Charlie Warzel argues that “Facebook can’t be reformed. After all, he writes, “The architecture of the social network — its algorithmic mandate of engagement over all else, the advantage it gives to divisive and emotionally manipulative content — will always produce more objectionable content at a dizzying scale.” So it’s time to change our demands, he says, in ways analogous to the movement to defund police and dismantle the carceral state. Agreed!
Meanwhile, the #StopHateForProfit campaign keeps gaining traction, with more advertisers overseas joining in, and now nearly one-third of its advertisers considering joining in, Alex Hern reports for the Guardian.
Deep thoughts: Working parents facing the “reopening” of the economy and the start of the fall school year are on the verge of an explosion, warns food blogger Deb Perelman in this New York Times oped.
Our friend Jerry Michalski has launched Open Global Mind, a collaborative effort aimed at helping us stop “drowning in the info-flood,” improve collective memory, and strengthen our ability to govern together, well.

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community. 

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Accountability, Growth, and Inspiration in the BLM Movement

July 1, 2020 - 6:01pm

Watch the full interview here (video snippets below):

Fiona: Tell us who you are and what energizes you.

Tysha: I’m really excited I have this opportunity to talk with you. I think it’s great to put a face to names and start to build this community. My name is Tysha Vulcain-Murrell. What energizes me is helping others and that comes in different capacities. It’s anything from getting my students connected to resources they need, or getting my cohort members at Civic Hall connected and networking with individuals they may be able to work with. And it goes beyond that. It means being a friendly face. We never know what someone’s dealing with in their day or life. Spreading positivity and joy really brings me happiness and keeps me energized, both personally and professionally.

Asher: I have been involved in local politics for close to 12 years now, which is scary to think about. The drive has always been two things: 1) connecting people. I remember a conversation I had with Micah [Sifry, Civic Hall co-founder] where we discussed the role of the organizer being to get the right people in the room. It’s not my job to drive the conversation but to facilitate it, making sure the people in the room can create space and drive forward the issues that are important to them. And making sure people have the tool sets—technical, knowledge, or social infrastructure—to carry work on their own. I see the purpose of the organizer is to organize themselves out of the job. When I’m no longer needed, I know that I’ve been successful. 

Fiona: The context of this conversation has changed in the last few weeks. This year we’ve been reckoning with so many things starting with Covid-19. And more recently, the uprising of a Movement for Black Lives. How are you both experiencing this uprising? What are the things you’re doing, or not doing, to help you move through this moment?

Tysha: That’s a tricky question. My involvement with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement shifts. Initially I was feeling upset, so when I first started going to protests it was a way for me to yell and chant and get my frustrations out of myself and into the ether. As I’ve had time to reflect on the movement, I’ve been able to be more intentional about what my activism looks like. As a Black woman, I feel responsible to show up because this movement is for me, my family, siblings, aunts and uncles, etc. So my involvement almost feels like a requirement and that can sometimes feel like a burden, but also inspiring. 

NYC has been amazing; we’re 20+ days strong with protests every day, I’ve never been to this many protests in such a short amount of time! That inspires me. I’m seeing our allies show up in different ways. I’m seeing POCs showing up in different ways. I’m seeing ways in which more Black people are coming out to protest. For me, it’s a mix of: How am I showing up to protest, what’s the energy I’m bringing? What are the ways I’m using social media to educate others and share information, for those who may not be able to go out and protest? What organizations am I donating to? 

I’ve defined myself as an activist since I was 18 years old so this feels normal in ways. Recently I took my little brothers to their first protest. They’re 17, 14, and 12 years old. That was such an experience! At 12, I had never been to a protest. It’s great to watch the youth get involved with the organizers. It has been inspiring. It also reminds me that the same way I, as an adult [am] making sure to take care of myself, I want to make sure that they have that space to decompress and just be kids, play video games, and not worry too much. So my involvement with the movement shifts and changes. At the core, I believe Black lives matter, it’s not an argument, debate, or politics. It’s a fact. This movement is a part of me and I feel proud and inspired that so many people are finally getting it and trying to do the work to make sure people understand.

Asher: First, I need to always make sure that everything I’m doing is centered in the fact that I’m a white, cis-gendered male. The very first thing I try to push with my white friends and how we approach anti-racist work is that that needs to be the first thing we’re aware of. I want to appreciate, Tysha, the tension that you bring up around wanting to be in the streets but also feeling a burden or requirement to do so. I live in an incredibly white part of Brooklyn, the organizing I’ve been doing for 10 years happens to with the people that I live around and find myself organizing with. 

Anti-Blackness and fascism have been around before Trump. I think there’s an important role in speaking to white people about how they / we show up, how we are allies. Most recently, it’s been in the little but important things, like “don’t just text all your Black friends and ask how they are.” Do the work to understand what emotional burden and emotional labor is, and understanding that these are difficult conversations and this is often the starting point. It’s not enough to say “we’ll endorse all Black candidates,” that’s not actually power-building. We have to work with organizations, listen to ones that are led by BIPOC in the communities that they live, and take the approach of listening and following instead of telling or posing. 

This can be difficult because white people are born into the world where we are right, and therefore we get to move our beliefs forward. I’ve recently thought a lot about the concept of “right and wrong” as inherently based in white supremacy, because it assumes that there is a “right” and it’s based in the fact that white people have historically always defined that. We need to get away from this idea that there is a “correct” and “incorrect” way to do things; the world lives in between. It’s not our job to determine whether something is ‘right’ because it implies there is a “wrong,” which, spoiler alert, always disenfranchises non-white people. 

Asher also offers this list of resources for white people to dig into.

Fiona: From hearing your experiences and living my own, I’m reminded that we all have a role to play in this moment. That role depends on our backgrounds, identities, skills, communities, emotional capacities. What calls to action / reflection / healing do you want to offer?

Tysha: My biggest call to action is to be intentional. Are you showing up to protest because 20,000 people are going and you don’t want to be the one who didn’t show up? Are you posting in social media because you’ve actually read through the resources or you liked the graphic and it seemed cool to share? Performative activism is easy, especially when we’re all virtual, but it’s harmful and can be hurtful to the movement. So being intentional about conversations you’re engaging in, [be intentional] about taking care of your mental and emotional self. If you’re completely drained, you won’t be able to fight the fight, and this is and has always been a long fight. For newer allies, we’re happy to have more people supporting and joining the Black Lives Matter revolution, but please realize that this didn’t start with George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, this started hundreds of years ago. Learn the history. Trayvon Martin’s name and case are well known, but what about Aiyana Jones who was a 7 year old Black girl who was killed by the police? Take the time to learn the history of systematic impacts of police brutality and anti-Black racism that’s the stem of America. This is far more than just the last month, this is American history.

For Black and POC folks, please make sure to take care of ourselves because social media is great for information and mobilization, but it can be draining to wake up everyday and see people that look like you continuously being attacked and murdered. Take time to log off and read a book just for fun, that’s ok even right now. 

Asher: I think it’s really important for white people to talk to white people, and also to consider privilege to privilege. I’ve been seeing recently this “contest of oppression,” like “I have a disability therefore I understand the Black experience,” or “I’m a white woman so I understand the black experience.” It’s not a contest. This is work we all have to do, so understand where the privilege starts. There are a lot of smaller things that are important to get into the habit of, like buying things from local Black businesses is an easy one. Just Google ‘Black owned shop masks‘ and you’ll find dozens of them. Getting more familiar with Black and Indigenous art and thoughts: music, books, poetry, etc. 

This isn’t new: Oppression has been around before this country and it’s what we’re founded in, so there’s always been resistance against it. Start conversations with inner circles of friends. There are lots of resources on how to have conversations with family, or how white parents can talk to their kids about race. Even with friends with whom you’re really aligned, conversations are still important. It doesn’t have to be a dedicated sit-down session, book club-style gathering, you can just be intentional—to raise up Tysha’s suggestion—if you’re having a zoom happy hour with friends, it can come up in conversation. “What’s going on at work / your business? Is your office recognizing Juneteenth as a day off? Are they donating to organizations?” And finally, pay attention to local organizing and politics. There are state elections happening right now, there’s a lot of state legislation that needs to be addressed in 2021, almost the entire city council is term limited out, so candidates—and letters of accountability of them—will begin to emerge as the 2021 elections ramp up. 

Tysha: I want to add that it’s important to remember that growth is bound to happen if we take time to be reflective. I’ve been an activist for many years, but recently I’ve been intentionally asking myself “how am I showing up for Black trans lives?” What conversations am I engaging in? What can I do to be better for the cause? Sometimes when we reflect on ourselves and what our activism looks like, it can be a hard reality to learn that I may have failed these people or have not been showing up. Realistically it’s bound to happen but take that as a learning opportunity to be a better ally, advocate, and activist. 

Tysha shares this Guide to Allyship with great resources on how to take on struggles of oppression as your own, and this Support Black People guide with organizations that folks may consider donating to.

Fiona: Who’s inspiring you these days? 

Tysha: Nupol Kiazolu is a 20-year old, Black activist. She’s an organizer, a leader in the community and has been an activist since she was 12 years old. It’s been inspiring to watch the way her activism has grown over time. Recently she led a protest in NYC that 15-20,000 people showed up to. It’s so powerful to see this young, full-time student, Black woman really taking the lead fighting for something she believes in. She’s very intentional and purposeful. Recently she was interviewed by Anderson Cooper, and profiled by CNN and teenVogue. She’s so young and impactful! She inspired me to be a better activist myself.

Asher: The first person who comes to mind is a good friend of mine. She’s an activist in Brooklyn whom I’ve been working with for a long time. She’s a very powerful Black woman who consistently shows up in white spaces to make sure that the Black female experience is heard. It’s easy for white people to gather and talk about politics and candidates, but she challenges us every time she enters a space, whether a meeting or email thread: in how we’re making decisions or how we’re having conversations. Her consistency in showing up is testament to her devotion to ensure that dismantling white supremacy happens in small rooms of 10 people as well as on the systemic scale. She’s also really fun! 

Asher’s friend would like us to learn about Politicize My Death, a pledge campaign started by a group of citizens who are sick and tired of gun violence.

You can follow Tysha and her work on LinkedIn.

You can follow Asher and his work on Twitter.

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Tracking the Tolls

July 1, 2020 - 11:32am

New from the COVID Tracking Project: the COVID-19 Racial Data Tracker, which it is doing in collaboration with the Antiracist Research and Policy Center. Black people make up 13% of the population but 23% of the deaths where race is known, they report.
Indeed, 31% of Black Americans know someone who has died from coronavirus, compared to 17% of Hispanic Americans and just 9% of whites, according to a new survey by The Washington Post.
A new report from Common Sense Media finds that 30% of K-12 students, along with one-in-ten of their teachers, lack the tools to engage in remote learning. This map breaks down the “homework gap” by state.
An analysis of 473 cities nationwide finds that poorer cities spend a larger share of their budgets on police than wealthier ones, Andy Friedman and Mason Youngblood report for Sludge. On average about 30% of city general funds go to police.
Related: New America scholar Hollie Russon Gilman, author of Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America, writes that “With people across the country calling for new community-based funding models, participatory budgeting can provide instructive lessons for achieving more direct community control over public funds—and investing more equitably in public education, infrastructure, the elderly, child care, and a host of other areas.”
Speaking of urban priorities, CityLab Berlin has posted video of a keynote talk given two weeks ago by Toronto’s Bianca Wylie about the lessons to be learned from the long and ultimately successful fight by the civic activists to block Sidewalk Labs’ planned takeover of a lucrative piece of the city’s waterfront.
Submit: The biennial G0v summit, which will be December 3-6 in Taiwan, is accepting proposals for talks (due today). Remote participation will be OK for speakers and attendees.
Attend: The 17th annual Games for Change Festival, happening July 14-16, will be virtual and for the first time ever, free to all participants. Register here.
Apply: ioby is looking to hire a director of engineering.
Tech and politics: A new study by Harry Yan, Kai-Cheng, Yang Filippo Menczer, and James Shanahan of Indiana University-Bloomington of political bots on Twitter with partisan personas finds that “Republican users are more likely to confuse conservative bots with humans, whereas Democratic users are more likely to confuse conservative human users with bots.” Add to this other research showing that knowingly interacting with political bots increases existing political polarization, conservative bots are much more active than liberal ones, and the fact that roughly one of six Twitter accounts is a bot, and you may want to conclude that Twitter is a hot mess. Which it is.
Three Democratic senators have written to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding he do more to prevent white supremacist groups from using the platform as a recruitment and organizational tool. With more major brands joining the #StopHateforProfit campaign, the company’s stock is taking a beating, Kaya Yurieff reports  for CNN Business.
If the likelihood of a 2020 general election meltdown keeps you up at night, you probably don’t want to read David Corn’s new feature story in Mother Jones about the efforts of a bipartisan group of former government officials, academics, and election experts to game out the likeliest scenarios and come up with remedies for them.
End times: Masks are not required in Japan, and yet.

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community. 

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Emergent Realities

June 26, 2020 - 11:16am

This is civic tech: New research work by Forensic Architecture, a firm based in London that uses a mix of cutting edge technologies including 3D modeling, data mining, machine learning, pattern analysis, and virtual reality, to conduct independent investigations into human rights abuses and police killings, is raising important questions about the official narrative describing how London police came to kill Mark Duggan, a Black man who died nine years ago and whose murder triggered immense protests at the time.
Meedan is out with a new report today on how fact-checking bots that it set up on WhatsApp using its Check platform can “(1) help audiences understand how to interact with the fact-checking team and see commonly-requested content, (2) serve as a bridge between a human editor and someone submitting content to a tipline and (3) cut down on unactionable content.” Working with four partners (AFP, Africa Check, BOOM and India Today) across five countries, Meedan’s process dealt with 5,700 fact-checks that came in from WhatsApp tiplines, mostly about COVID-19 issues.
Can mutual aid networks thicken neighborhood bonds and convert social solidarity around COVID-19 into longer-term political action that addresses systemic issues? That’s the question Diana Budds explores in a must-read LongForm article for, focusing on the Astoria Mutual Aid group. The answer she offers: yes, maybe, though as organizers try to intentionally engage relatively privileged people who think that all they are doing is “apolitical” volunteer work to help their neighbors, they may lose people who aren’t willing “to engage the realities of racial inequity and white supremacy.” I hope Budds stays on this beat.
Nearly one in five Americans say they’ve participated in a recent protest. That level of sustained engagement—if it stays sustained—is how nonviolent revolutions succeed. In the Atlantic, technosociologist Zeynep Tufecki argues that this generation’s Black Lives Matter protests are “the second civil-rights movement in postwar America” and “they are convincing people of the righteousness of their cause” which, by denying legitimacy to the powers-that-be, will lead to massive change. Amen to that.
A question for data visualizers: Did the widespread sharing of the #FlattenTheCurve meme unfortunately convince lots of people that the curve automatically goes down after it crests? Because this is not happening.
One last must-read for today: This first-person account from New Yorker Anthony Alojera, as told to the Washington Post’s Eli Saslow, is an urgent reminder that the COVID-19 crisis is far from over, and the people on the front lines—EMTs like Alojera—are bearing the brunt of savage inequalities, along with the mostly poor and working class people they are serving. I would argue that the emerging results from Tuesday’s primary vote in New York, where several newcomers who ran hard against the status quo are upending veteran lawmakers and pushing aside incumbents who thought they had the inside track to election to higher offices, is a sign that a lot of people are fed up and want far more change than is currently on offer.

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community. 

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June 24, 2020 - 11:09am

A note to readers: It has come to my attention that my use of the term ‘Facebookistan’ in First Post is racially insensitive. I apologize for the hurt that this has caused. While it has never been my intent to denigrate people or countries that have the suffix -stan in their name by using the term, and instead what I was trying to convey was the idea that Facebook, as a gigantic company run by a single ruler with huge powers and a population of more than 2 billion under his rule, had colonized all of its users, I understand that the impact is landing differently. Going forward I’ll refer to Facebookia instead.
This is civic tech: Emily Jacobi of Digital Democracy has written an eloquent essay on mapping and white supremacy, noting how maps made by Westerners have long been used as a “tool to enable slavery, genocide and massive land theft,” and lifting up the centuries of indigenously-drawn maps as a counter-tradition. Longtime readers of the page may recall Dd’s long-running and careful work with the Waorani people of Ecuador, and how they have co-developed a participatory mapping process as well as specialized software called Mapeo to produce hyper-local and incredibly detailed maps of these communities and their relationship to the lands they live on. Read her words, and consider how Big Tech companies like Google arrogated to themselves the right to build highly detailed maps of the world, and how some communities understood Google Maps as a form of surveillance capitalism and resisted its spread.
After nine months of deliberations, over the weekend, 150 French citizens drawn from a random representative sample of the country’s population met in “La Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat,” came to consensus on a broad series of policy proposals for addressing climate change, including voting to make “ecocide”—the knowing damage of ecosystems—a crime. Claire Mellier-Wilson, an observer, reports that the citizens assembly was quite productive, with its recommendations now going to French President Emanuel Macron on June 29th, and with the French media covering the process with some intensity. The assembly has called for three referendums to be held. As Democracy International notes, this is “the first time in French history that a citizen participation process leads to binding outcomes.”
Speaking of citizen deliberation, here’s Matt Stempeck’s second piece in his in-depth guide to “Next Generation Engagement Platforms,” this time focusing on private sector products Neighborland, CitizenLab and Delib. With rising demands in the United States to defund police and redirect local budgets, he also notes that these platforms may be useful to people pushing for more participatory budgeting solutions.
Civic Hall’s Tenzin Kyisarh, Curtis Davis and Fiona Teng 鄧穎恆 have compiled this in-depth look at “Innovations of This Protest Movement,” highlighting translations, interventions, crowdsourcing and more from black lives and the Movement for Black Lives.
Related: “Currently, only 2.7% of VC investment goes to women-led startups,” Allyson Kapin of the W Fund writes for Forbes. “And of all VC funding over the past decade, Latinx women-led startups have raised only 0.32% while black women have raised only .0006%.” She adds, “Investing in diverse-led startups isn’t about charity or altruism. Rather, this is about capturing an opportunity to back startups whose leadership understands untapped market needs. It’s about creating the future of tech to solve its biggest problems while addressing society’s structural issues in building economic power beyond the 1%.”
The pandemic has exposed deep weaknesses in state infrastructures like call systems and websites, as Colin Lecher reports for The Markup. In Florida, where more than 20 million calls to the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity, which handles unemployment claims, have come in, people have waited up to 12 hours to speak to an agent.
Attend: This Thursday, Code for America’s Brigade Network is hosting a webinar on “People Power: Connecting Community to Government During COVID-19” at noon EST.
Tech and politics: A lot of people are celebrating the effort of K-pop stans and TikTok teen activists who flooded the reservation pages for President Trump’s ill-attended campaign rally in Tulsa last Saturday, but technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci has a cautionary note: “People should think: Wait how will this be weaponized by someone else? (It will). What will happen to the public sphere? How could we design things for healthier outcomes no matter who the weaponizers are?”
Life in Facebookia: Retailers REI, Patagonia and the North Face, along with companies like Upwork and Dashlane, have joined in the #StopHateforProfit coalition’s call to pause their advertising on the platform until the company does more to stop the spread of hate, Allen Kim and Brian Fung report for CNN.
Privacy, shmivacy: A new Amnesty International report should raise concerns for journalists, human rights activists and anyone who thinks their phone use is private: It appears that in Morocco, the authorities are using a “network injection” attack that allow for “for the automatic and invisible redirection of targets’ browsers and apps to malicious sites under the attackers’ control, most likely unknown to the victim.” A forensic study of investigative journalist Omar Radi’s phone that even without clicking on any malicious links, his phone had been hacked from visiting any random website, since the attacker intercepted his cell signal and redirected it to a malware site without his knowledge. Amnesty is calling on NSO, the likely source of this practice, to halt its abuse. Using a VPN on your phone may provide some security, as well as regularly rebooting it, Amnesty adds.

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community. 

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Next-Generation Engagement Platforms (II) and the Current Moment

June 22, 2020 - 12:00pm

In my last post (Next-Generation Engagement Platforms, May 12), I covered three of the most powerful open source next-generation public engagement platforms. These platforms are compelling because they invite residents and citizens to do so much more than vote and submit complaints to governments. Each platform I covered invites its users to co-create their society through meaningful actions like voting on budget priorities or determining the physical makeup of forthcoming public spaces.

In the month since that post, Black Americans and their allies have led a long-overdue national reckoning on racism. The movement was sparked by yet another horrific police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, but it quickly grew to encompass racism in all its systemic permutations, at the individual and institutional levels.

One of the most concrete demands of this massive, decentralized movement is to de-fund the police. In many cities, police budgets have continued to grow by the millions while crime sharply decreased, crowding out spending on health and human services and other community. Black Lives Matter activists are determined to use the power invested in them by the protests to confront racism at the systemic level this time around, in the hopes of addressing some of the root causes behind the racist policies, decisions, and hierarchies affecting their lives before attention shifts.

This organizing work includes concentrating public pressure on municipal budgets. In CityLab, Laura Bliss writes about the Peoples’ Budgets blossoming in cities across the country. These proposals offer alternatives to the double-edged status quo organizers see, of over-funded police departments harassing underfunded communities. As Bliss notes, these budget alternatives follow in the spirit of participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting is where the residents of a city get to develop local improvement projects and then vote on funding them with public budgets. It’s a popular form of civic engagement because instead of just voting for a representative, residents get some degree of direct say in what their tax dollars will support. (We track over twenty participatory budgeting projects in the Civic Tech Field Guide, if you’d like to learn more).

Now, with a nationwide protest movement testing the levers of participatory democracy to see if they still work, we may see a shift from tactical urbanism’s parklets back to its social justice roots. There’s an election this year, and a huge amount of energy will necessarily go towards enacting change at the ballot box. More immediately, however, participatory democracy platforms can help give the public a meaningful place to engage. With this context established, I’ll review three more leading examples of digital engagement platforms.

To B-Corp, Or Not to B-Corp
All three of the following engagement platforms are operated by for-profit companies. In the civic tech sector, that often means the companies are social ventures, pledging to work toward public interest missions and reinvest profits back into their products and services. At least, until they get acquired by a larger govtech vendor, which, as we’ve seen, happens fairly regularly to civic tech startups. Still, an organization choosing a for-profit tax structure doesn’t make it inherently less virtuous than a non-profit organization.

There’s a halo effect that comes with open source projects, because they re-invest in the commons in a way that could benefit everyone, not just individual organizations. But choosing a private company’s engagement platform isn’t always a bad idea. To the extent that many of these engagement platforms are offered under a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, that comes with real benefits in freeing up your team’s time from managing technical minutiae. Installing, hosting, maintaining, and updating an engagement platform demands technical skills, time, and often, money, whether in the form of salaries or hosting fees. Government bodies and organizations without technical capacity to spare probably should choose a SaaS platform, which are hosted for them. The monthly fee is often less than the cost of a single software engineer in many places.

These platforms are free for resident-users, because they’re paid for by the government or institution hosting the public engagement process. Their pricing models are designed to reward, not punish, high levels of public engagement. For example, if a resident’s online proposal attracts 300,000 votes and comments from their neighbors, it won’t cost the host any more than if the proposal only attracted 100 votes and comments. Instead, the hosts pay for the features and level of consultation they desire.

In this post, we’ll go over:

Neighborland is a for-profit company based in the United States
Price: $1,000 per month for the self-service platform
Example installations: Berkeley’s Civic Center, San Francisco’s Central Market

Neighborland’s Imagine Mesa website

Neighborland is most often used in public planning processes by local governments. It’s best for reaching a wide breadth of participation over the course of a time-bound plan-making process.

The company was recently acquired by Nextdoor, a VC-funded startup that has raised over $450M to become one of the largest place-based social media platforms. Nextdoor is active in the majority of US neighborhoods. This growth hasn’t come easy; the US population unfortunately includes some people obsessed with crime in their area independently of low crime rates, and some “civic” apps grow their user bases by serving this demand rather than designing their feature set to moderate such behavior (we see you, Ring). Some Nextdoor users developed a reputation for racially profiling their neighbors, forcing the company to respond with a series of in-product features aimed at reducing profiling, including text analysis.

Neighborland, the public engagement platform, is still active and will be kept online for the foreseeable future. The platform is best used for public planning, especially when it’s deployed early in the process, before there’s a determined course of action. Its features mirror those of popular social networks (like comments and feeds), and enable a large number of people to take basic participatory actions (“64 neighbors want to improve the Caltrain Station Entry Plaza in Dogpatch“).

In the US and Canada, the company has worked at every level of government and with a broad mix of civic organizations. Over 200 agencies have used it, along with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, and universities, foundations, and nonprofits. More than three million US residents have participated on Neighborland-hosted projects. Neighborland’s partnerships with the cities of Mesa, Raleigh, and Los Angeles reached an average of 65,000 residents each — a high number compared to traditional and digital engagement processes alike. Its founder, Dan Parham, says about 10% of those residents actively participated on the platform on a more ongoing basis.

Spectrum of Engagement

As we did in the last post, we’ll evaluate each platform on the IAP2 Spectrum of Engagement. Again, it’s important to note that this scale isn’t meant to suggest that every platform should seek to fulfill all five goals.

Compared to some of the open source platforms, Neighborland offers a relatively limited set of direct democracy features. Residents can do things like submit ideas, vote up others’ ideas, comment, and join forum discussions (check out the full range of Neighborland’s configurations). Platforms like Decidim and CONSUL offer deeper forms of civic engagement, like collaboratively crafting policy proposals, voting on binding proposals, and visually allocating budgets. For this reason, Neighborland is better optimized for planning stage participation than an ongoing municipal platform. Other platforms are more tailored for ongoing public engagement, whereas Neighborland is primarily designed around public consultation within time-bound planning processes.

Neighborland’s strength is engaging meaningful portions of the public through digital means. Parham says they help their public sector clients “reach [between] ten and one hundred times the level of participation compared to traditional outreach methods, at one tenth of the cost.” This estimate is based on an analysis by the Metro Nashville Planning Commission, which found that residents could be engaged for $47 per person at events, $10 per person at public meetings, and $1 per person on the web. Given that events and public meetings are currently off the table, Neighborland’s experience successfully conducting large-scale digital outreach is worth keeping in mind.

Neighborland pro-actively works to ensure that public participation is representative for the locality in which they’re active. Motivated advocacy organizations can sometimes have an outsized influence in open planning processes. Neighborland helps partners achieve representative participation levels and mitigate town hall squeaky wheels by conducting outreach until they achieve statistically valid and demographically proportionate representation. They do this with earned media, targeted Facebook ads, representation quotas, and other outreach methods.

This offering was one of the bigger differences I found in comparing private sector companies like Neighborland with other options. Public engagement administrators can certainly run this kind of digital outreach themselves, and some do, but not all will successfully engage the public at this scale. By providing this service, Neighborland ensures far wider scale engagement than a planning website will ever secure on its own, and lends the processes’ results more legitimacy.

Parham claims a 100% approval rate for their clients’ plans, even with many projects completed. He stresses that this stat doesn’t mean the platform is a rubber stamp for officials: it’s not uncommon for plans to undergo significant alterations as part of the public engagement process. This was the case with a neighborhood plan in Atlanta, as well as the master design of Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the park example, the public engagement process helped identify public pushback on the allowance of revenue-generating development (like food businesses) in the park. This element of the plan was tabled to allow “further study.”

Because Neighborland regularly achieves high volumes of participation in a given locality, they use Google’s Natural Language Processing API to help governments sort and cluster the large amount of feedback. Parham says this “allows administrators to quickly gauge positive, neutral, or negative sentiment in the public’s response to a concept, scenario, plan, or policy that an administration shares.”

Neighborland also built their own topic modeling and counting tech to summarize participant-generated text. You may recall from my previous post that CONSUL has explored a similar approach. This application of NLP allows administrators to quickly identify the predominant themes that emerge from large volumes of text input from participants. Parham says that despite this time-saving feature, most of Neighborland’s clients still prefer to process public feedback manually, and cluster and synthesize it into themes themselves.

As a hosted SaaS platform, the company rolls out continuous product improvements, technical maintenance, and security updates behind the scenes, without action required from project administrators. These updates are included in the regular fee. The company promises “government and enterprise level security and reliability (99.99%+ uptime)” as well as “consumer grade site performance (2 second or less page load times).” Neighborland also offers a JSON API, which makes exporting project data easy for developers. The API allows the development of custom applications or integrations to extend the platform’s functionality, or connect it to other services.

Training consists of help text built into the administrator view of the portal, how-to videos, and developer documentation of the API. Hands-on training is available for an additional fee. The company says it is a market leader in meeting accessibility and equity requirements (including handwritten data, voice, SMS, and Twitter integrations). It also meets Americans with Disabilities Act and W3C accessibility requirements.

As a proprietary software solution, the code behind Neighborland is closed-source. Judging from previous startup acquisitions, the future of the platform post-sale isn’t guaranteed. Should the platform be folded into Nextdoor, you could later need to turn to another solution. Neighborland’s focus on time-bound engagement processes and the data portability they offer help partially allay these concerns.

Neighborland’s experiences to date are almost entirely located in the United States. They have hosted a project in Toronto, Canada, and are open to projects in other countries, “for a small setup fee.” Hosting multiple projects, using a custom domain name, CRM integration, and setting custom privacy agreement and terms of service, each require a bespoke contract agreement (over $2,000 per month).

Neighborland’s data license requires that data collected be shared between the public agency and the company itself, which they say is to ensure governments don’t censor citizen feedback or input. Neighborland also maintains an independent ‘ideas’ page for each city on the platform, and does not give governments the ability to delete the ideas placed there. This ensures that public input is kept online and accessible, and that even out-of-scope participant input is maintained rather than discarded. Project data is openly available for anyone to extract, analyze, and interpret. This allows contention from third parties like journalists, researchers, and opposing political factions.

Parham emphasizes that their platform is best used to achieve legitimate public buy-in, rather than demonstrate the appearance of buy-in. Because their process is more expensive and time-consuming than traditional survey methodologies, the company generally only receives interest from government bodies that are genuinely interested in gathering representative public input.

Overall, Neighborland stands out as a best-in-class platform for community engagement. They offer feature parity with similar platforms, a highly configurable offering, and the advantages of a hosted Software as a Service platform eliminates many of the technical headaches of managing an online service for smaller or less technically-equipped institutions. Neighborland’s success with a broad range and deep roster of public sector customers to date indicates that the platform is well designed for government users, as well. It is a good solution for engaging a large number of people to engage in a time-bound planning process where project administrators mediate participants’ input.

To get started using Neighborland:

A for-profit company based in Brussels, serving primarily northern Europe, as well as Canada and Chile. (Not be confused with the University of Toronto’s cybersecurity-focused research center, The Citizen Lab).
Price: CitizenLab’s pricing is based on the population of the city and the degree of features and services required. Prices range from $5,000 to $50,000 per year, but usually fall between $5,000 and $15,000.
Example installations: Youth4Climate, Grand Paris Sud (which consists of 23 municipalities)

CitizenLab’s Grand Paris Sud website

CitizenLab is designed to help groups inform, consult, engage, and co-create with constituents. It’s best applied at the local level, where people have strong feelings and ideas on their immediate environments.

Spectrum of Engagement

(Depending on installed features — the most basic installations won’t include the features most likely to facilitate true empowerment).

Even though CitizenLab hasn’t focused on the US market, I’m including them in this report because the team has put considerable energy into improving feedback loops on citizen input. In the product, that translates to nudges, internal assignments, notifications, email reminders, and other alerts that keep government officials engaged and responsive to constituent communications.

This strategy appears to work — Marketing Manager Coline Cuau said in a 2019 interview that 65% of their registered users actively contribute to consultations. That amounts to an average of 3 comments, 2 ideas, and 8 votes submitted per person, a really high ratio for this kind of digital engagement platform.

CitizenLab also promotes people finding and connecting with one another through their recommendation engine for related ideas. This way, not all innovation and empowerment needs to take place in relation to the authorities administering the engagement process. Neighbors advocating for similar things can discover one another, a missing link with most social media platforms.

CitizenLab prides itself on helping admins parse large amounts of citizen input. Its multilingual Natural Language Processing (NLP) feature automatically classifies large volumes of constituent comments into topics. Administrators get data visualizations and dashboards that map constituent feedback geographically and categorically. The company has partnered with Nesta, a leading civic technology foundation based in the UK, to research the effects of governmental use of NLP in public engagement. As we consider the role (and potential damage) of public sector AI, early research like Nesta’s will be critical.

Participation on the platform varies depending on a city’s outreach methods, but according to Cuau, generally about 15% of inhabitants visit the CitizenLab platform at least once. Only 2% of inhabitants in a given CitizenLab instance, however, created accounts and interacted on the engagement platform. This is a lower rate than some of the other platforms were able to demonstrate.

CitizenLab’s platform does not yet integrate with other government tech solutions, like the Constituent Relationship Management systems that many government and civil organization offices use to track communications with citizens (though they say this feature is a priority for future product development). In the meantime, CitizenLab’s API does allow data exports, meaning that a software developer could write a program that exports information from the platform to integrate with an office’s existing tools.

Their capability to provide demographic data depends on project administrators collecting it. While the company has noticed less usage from elderly residents, there’s currently no back-end capability to augment online participation with data from offline outreach and workshops. Government employees can manually add these consultations to the platform.

CitizenLab is explicitly designed to encourage strong feedback loops between engaged citizens and civil servants. The platform is set up to ensure people know what’s being done with their ideas and contributions, even if they aren’t being implemented. The platform is also designed to keep people engaged on next steps and implementation milestones. More than other platforms, CitizenLab encourages administrators to establish and communicate the parameters of their public engagement with constituents, including the criteria for idea selection, how votes are counted, and how directly democratic the process will be from its onset. This includes clear deadline dates on next actions, and reliable evaluation frameworks that people can understand.

On the admin side of the equation, CitizenLab’s own internal Key Performance Indicators focus on encouraging moderators to reply more often, more frequently, and in more depth. Moderators can assign constituent input to relevant colleagues and departments, who receive weekly summary and nudge emails to respond. They can participate within existing workflows (like email) so that the addition of an engagement platform doesn’t act as friction on more communication.

To increase public participation, CitizenLab recommends that engagement administrators reserve budgets for marketing and communications of their open input processes. Too often, the initial investment in the digital platform consumes the entire outreach budget. Because restricted budgets are the norm, CitizenLab prioritizes search engine optimization and email outreach campaigns. For engagement process administrators with their own email lists of constituents, email performs quite well for CitizenLab consultations: 40% of recipients open the email and complete the registration process on the platform, a high conversion rate for email marketing. Postcard mailer campaigns are an effective tactic (especially with live events on hold), but they are expensive and require more advance time.

CitizenLab prides itself on the core belief that public participation processes don’t exist to validate existing plans. The company says that it encourages project admins not to bother launching a public engagement process if they’re not willing to adequately reply to the public and take their ideas seriously.

Give a million residents a million keyboards, and officials will have enough support to cherry-pick their preferred comments and ideas. CitizenLab works to encourage public bodies to focus instead on achieving more active communication loops with their constituents. This, in turn, can beget further participation. When constituents see their input implemented, or even considered, it boosts trust and underscores that not all engagement exercises are participation for its own sake.

To get started using CitizenLab:

A for-profit company based in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, serving primarily Westminster-system parliamentary governments.
Price: $9,000 – $37,000 per year subscription, depending on government size and integrations required. Their full rate card is available on the UK Digital Marketplace.
Example installations: UK Department of Education, City of Bristol, the Scottish Government

Delib’s Simulator product allows participants to weight competing priorities

Lastly, I want to quickly mention It’s really designed for parliamentary democracies, but it’s still worth learning about here because of a few important engagement features.

Delib offers three products. Citizen Space helps public officials lead public consultations. Simulator allows citizens to try their hand setting priorities in resource-limited scenarios. And Dialogue engages residents in structured conversations.

Delib is also interesting from the founders’ journey perspective because the company’s platforms were co-developed with the United Kingdom government. The UK government funded 50% of the development costs for the first version of the Citizen Space product, and Delib, the private company, funded the other half. This development period included 6 months of research within the British government identifying user needs and assessing common problems within the governmental agencies. Delib spun Citizen Space out from this government incubation period as an independent company, and has spent the past ten years iterating and building out a broad base of subscribing agencies.

Delib is unique in explicitly inviting the public in to understand the trade-offs officials must make in their decision-making. Delib’s Simulator product allows weighted resource allocation and priority-setting that begins to reproduce the conditions government officials face in their own decision-making. There’s one thing that public officials and roleplaying gamers share in common, and that’s a deep understanding that you can’t have full strength, agility, and dexterity all at the same time.

Delib is also unique in its longevity, and as a result it has seen several digital engagement trends come and go. Delib’s Citizen Space platform, live since 2010, has been used in over 50,000 public consultations to collect over 5 million pieces of response data in public involvement processes. These processes have been hosted by over 400 government organizations, including national governments and their departments, local councils, public service agencies, and pan-European bodies. Delib’s products are primarily used in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. The Scottish Government used Delib to consult 24,000 people on their independence referendum. US President Obama’s first open government website,, used Delib to crowdsource ideas for transparently tracking the public funds.

Spectrum of Engagement

Delib has pioneered — and iterated upon — several open governance trends, from crowdsourcing in the 2000s to the recent excitement surrounding liquid democracy (which empowers voters to participate directly as well as through their preferred delegates). With each generation, Delib has moved the goal post a bit closer to meaningful online participation. This is reflected in their mature products, like Simulator, which take on more arduous goals of involving citizens in priority-setting and instilling empathy for the tradeoffs civil servants must routinely make.

Delib engagements regularly attract tens of thousands of public responses. When the BBC 6 music channel was in danger of cancellation in 2010, 50,000 responses on Delib products helped save the station. Engagements with the Department of Education and Transport for London have also attracted over 100,000 public responses. According to Ben Fowkes, Commercial Director at Delib, their flagship Citizen Space product is used for 5,000 consultations a year. But Delib says their focus is on fostering systemic cultural change within government. The team prides themselves on achieving the qualitatively important impacts more than engagement metrics. When the Mayor of Liverpool was faced with the reality of severe budget cuts, Delib’s Simulator brought the public into the course of action in a meaningful way by letting them experience what it was like to try to fund all of the deserving government programs without adequate resources.

The Delib platform uses open standards, and government agencies can easily export all of the structured data, of which they are the owners. The prominent “We Asked, You Said, We Did” section comes as a standard configuration on the Delib platform. It’s a compelling, easily-stealable way to demonstrate government responsiveness to citizens, and in turn, encourage further participation.

Delib’s strategy is to change government culture from within by convincing civil-servant-level staff to operate openly (and retain subscriptions to their platform, which facilitates such work). The Delib products are geared toward ongoing usage and the company’s goals are to drive widespread governmental adoption of their platform. For civil servants to continue working openly with these tools, their government agencies must retain subscriptions to the service. This is also true of many of the other platforms included in this report, but some of the other platforms are designed for more narrowly time-bound public engagements. Open source solutions like CONSUL and Decidim are equally committed to government culture change, but approach the challenge by building platforms the government can infinitely own, adapt, and improve on their own.

Delib transfers government engagement processes to open-by-default software platforms. The company prides itself on facilitating improved response times from government. Their government agencies commit to returning outcomes to engaged citizens, and the feedback and aggregation tools help civil servants reach ambitious targets. Transport for London, for example, returns with outcome results to engaged citizens within 90 days, considered a major win in the context of government infrastructure decisions.

Like many others, Delib’s products promote citizen ideation and crowdsourcing. Their platforms stand out for the slower, discursive journeys that they bring citizens through. The practice of democracy isn’t necessarily about the final decision reached, but rather the sometimes arduous collective processes of debate, dialogue, and decision. Delib’s Simulator product is designed to support these workflows.

The other platforms I’ve presented here also facilitate ideation, debate, and online voting. Delib’s Simulator goes a step further, elevating the citizen to the bureaucrat’s level of understanding so that they can gain a more sophisticated understanding of the tensions and tradeoffs inherent in governance decisions, as with the City of Liverpool example. Delib’s products demonstrate respect for a more enlightened relationship between citizen and government, where people with different perspectives must come to a common solution. Like, Delib’s products strive for a more enlightened relationship between citizen and government, where people with different perspectives need to come to a common solution.

To get started using Delib:

More options

If you’re looking for a US-focused solution and are yearning for more options to explore, check out Bang the Table and Public Input. There are also lots more digital public engagement platforms, public and private, in the Civic Tech Field Guide’s Engagement Tech section.

In conclusion

Whether we like it or not, civic tech is increasingly a business sector. Even this one subset of the field, public engagement platforms, is teeming with companies alongside open source projects. The recent creation of the Association Civic Tech Europe, a trade group for public engagement platforms, is further evidence that the sector is maturing. With so many options, it’d be easy to get lost.

Some common success factors enabling web platforms to connect online public engagement with actual results from analog political institutions are:

      • A driving political force that compels the government to share some modicum of real power with digital participation platforms. This can originate in external pressure from protest movements, as in the Spanish and Taiwanese cases, or budget hardships, as in Liverpool’s case, or, in many cases, internal motivation in the form of progressive government leadership willing to experiment with new methods.
      • People-powered institutions won’t rely solely on tech. For efforts like vTaiwan and e-Democracia (Brazil), significant teams of volunteers, consultants, and/or paid staff help synthesize large volumes of digital engagement back to the interpersonal level with public officials. This additional human labor connects digital citizen feedback to real-world political systems that might otherwise proceed without it. No matter which engagement tools you choose, you should allocate time and resources for this trans-mediating step.
      • Some of the most exciting citizen engagement platforms are designed to operate at municipal scale. Cities have emerged as a locus of action when national legislatures are otherwise blocked. Mayors and other local politicians are often too focused on keeping services running to spend too much time on entrenched political debates. It turns out that citizens are likewise less polarized on local policy issues, too. This dynamic appears to play out with web platforms, too. Civic platforms that attempt to shepherd polite conversations about nation-level issues eventually come to rest in the Civic Tech Graveyard. The successful platforms covered here instead focus on local level issues like housing, transportation, local economies, education, and quality of life factors like noise and air quality.

The public engagement platform genre of technology also presents risks:

      • Digital divides remain in who feels comfortable using technology and who can afford it. Rebecca Rumbul’s seminal mySociety study on the topic, Who benefits from civic technology? Demographic and public attitudes research into the users of civic technologies (2015) found that in the United States and the United Kingdom, digital engagement platforms primarily attracted older and less ethnically or genderly diverse user than the overall population. These divides are further complicated by broader socioeconomic barriers, where some groups of people feel more comfortable advocating for their interests than others. We need to work hard against this status quo to achieve anything resembling representative participation using technology.
      • For these reasons, most public engagement experts insist that digital consultation processes be augmented by a commitment to offline outreach like workshops, meetings, surveys in places where less-connected populations spend time. Our ability to run face to face workshops is hampered at the moment, and only some digital engagement platforms make it easy to integrate feedback from offline consultations with the rest of the data. Equitable, effective digital outreach has become more important.
      • Looking forward, developers of public engagement platforms are incorporating emerging artificial intelligence solutions, like the aforementioned topic clustering of citizen feedback. It is not clear what effect these technologies, widely recognized as imperfect, might have on citizens’ perception of whether their government is listening to them, or on governments’ perception of citizen voices. We should pay attention to research like Nesta’s on this topic, and choose platforms that show us their code when possible.
      • Power. The traditional gatekeepers of power aren’t inclined to respond to the public voice as it is expressed online. The majority of digital engagement processes conducted on the platforms I covered here were embarked upon voluntarily, by governments pro-actively seeking improved public engagement. Or as one platform founder put it, “Hundreds of agencies have used our platform. That leaves over 35,000 that haven’t.”

        Political force has been a key factor in how digital engagement platforms like Decide Madrid, Decidim Barcelona, or g0v Taiwan secured enough power to deliver meaningful outcomes from people’s engagement. It will be interesting to see if the Black Lives Matter protest movement can shift power back to digitally-organized communities as we’ve seen in Spain and Taiwan.

The deleterious effects of the pandemic’s sudden termination of many of our physical channels for civic voice, be they town halls, public workshops, or office visits with representatives, has not yet been determined. But in the face of extralegal murders at the hands of those entrusted to protect us from violence, people aren’t waiting. They have brought the anti-racism conversation to the streets in defiance of social distancing rules, and to the board room in defiance of racist social norms that prevent us from having uncomfortable conversations.

These digital platforms and engagement processes only have meaning if they are imbued with power. That power has to either be bestowed by those who already have it, which has historically happened in limited cases, or it has to be won.

If I were working inside of government right now (particularly at a local level), I would consider this a very important time to do more to hear from the people who have been hurting and without voice. That includes giving historically marginalized communities more ways to contribute to building the society they deserve to live in. Setting up a public engagement platform (digital or otherwise), making sure people have easy access to it, and mapping it to levers of actual, meaningful power in your institutions is one way to do that.

Everyone outside of government can organize, through campaigns and protests and democratic competition, and win the people the power to direct communal funds, collectively draft laws and policies, and reshape our cities. Digital engagement platforms are not going to win that power, but once secured, they can help focus it.

The post Next-Generation Engagement Platforms (II) and the Current Moment appeared first on Civic Hall.

Movements and Mis-steps

June 18, 2020 - 11:58am

This is civic tech: As the Movement for Black Lives deepens its political engagement with a three-day series of actions centered on Juneteenth this weekend, calls for People’s Budgets are spreading to more cities, Laura Bliss reports for CityLab; she notes that the moment represents an opportunity for the participatory budgeting movement, which is already active in many cities but until now has been limited in scope.
Tactical Tech has released the Organiser’s Activity Book, a self-learning resource for people
who work with the personal data of human rights defenders, investigators, campaigners, and others who are taking part in social or political action.
New York City is moving to create a public, online database of police disciplinary records, Erin Durkin reports for Politico. By July, pending charges against 1,100 cops — with the officer’s name, the charges against them and the date for a hearing — will be published online.
Apply: New Media Ventures is looking to hire a new head of investments.
The TechEquity Collaborative is looking for volunteers with skills in experience in web development, UI/UX design, or data analysis to work on its civic tech projects.
Rebellion in Facebookistan: A powerhouse coalition of civil rights organizations—the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Sleeping Giants, Color Of Change, Free Press and Common Sense Media—has announced a new campaign, #StopHateforProfit, asking businesses that advertise on Facebook to pause their spending in July until the company takes real steps to stop amplifying white supremacists and do a better job of supporting people targeted via the platform.
Said Color of Change President Rashad Robinson, who has been meeting for years with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg in an effort to get the company to change, “We have been continually disappointed and stunned by Mark Zuckerberg’s commitment to protecting white supremacy, voter suppression and outright lies on Facebook. As corporations take a stand against racism in our society, they should consider how their advertising dollars support Facebook making Black people less safe online. Facebook’s failure of leadership has actively stoked the racial hatred we see in our country and even profits off its proliferation. A key way for major corporations to demand racial justice is to withhold their dollars until Facebook becomes more responsible and accountable to Black communities on the platform.”
Here’s the list of changes that the coalition is asking Facebook to make to its platform. What’s notable about the list is none of them require elevating decisions about content to the company’s C-suite; they are all fixes that product managers can implement, assuming the company has the will to make them. (Full disclosure: My smarter little brother Dave Sifry, is the Vice President of the ADL’s Center for Technology and Society and actively involved in this campaign.)
More than 70 employees of the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, including dozens that work on the philanthropy’s education team, are calling publicly for changes in how the organization combats systemic racism, Theodore Schleifer reports for Recode.
Crisis, continued: Crisis Text Line’s ex-CEO Nancy Lublin has hired a spokesperson, who told Zoe Schiffer of The Verge that “many of the complaints about Nancy are coming from disgruntled and anonymous former employees who were fired for performance issues at [Crisis Text Line].” Read Schiffer’s detailed report on those complaints and decide for yourself if they appear that way.
In another strange twist, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has come to Lublin’s defense, telling Schiffer that he believes she has been treated unfairly. “When this came out the thing that struck me was where is the process, where is the investigation. Nancy has invested in and mentored and developed women and women of color in her multi-decade career. This is in very sharp contrast to a CEO who has never put women or women of color into positions of leadership and authority. To me the person you want to worry about is a person who has led organizations and never mentored women and women of color. That’s not Nancy.”
That is the same Andrew Yang who allegedly fired one female employee after she got married because he didn’t think she would work as hard, allegedly paid male employees more than female employees and then fired a women who complained about the disparity (paying a termination settlement in the aftermath), regularly invoked stereotypes about Asians in the course of his campaign, and when confronted by The New York Times’ Matt Stevens about his history as a CEO, admits that he “mis-stepped at various times.”
Deep thoughts: TechSoup board member Sheila Warren offers “Three Steps to Make Tech Companies More Equitable,” in Wired.

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The post Movements and Mis-steps appeared first on Civic Hall.

The Uprising at Crisis Text Line

June 17, 2020 - 11:48am

Last week, board members of Crisis Text Line—one of the largest and most impactful nonprofits in the civic tech sector—received a letter from an anonymous employee. The letter made a series of highly specific and explosive allegations, describing abusive, inappropriate, bigoted and unethical behavior by CTL’s founder and CEO, Nancy Lublin. Following a Twitter-driven employee walkout, on Friday afternoon, the board voted to remove Lublin from her post effectively immediately and made board member Dena Trujillo interim CEO. The board admitted that in 2018 it had been made aware of inappropriate conduct by people in leadership positions, including Lublin, but it had “failed to do enough” to confront racism and bullying at the organization. It promised a series of steps, including a staff-elected board position and the replacement of two board members by BIPOC candidates, and promised to work hard to ensure a “safe, open and anti-racist work environment for all team members.”
This is big news in the tech-for-good sector, so big that CNN covered it. In just seven years, CTL had become a civic tech standout, with reported income of $27.1 million in 2018. CTL’s free mental health services are available 24-7 in the US, Canada and the UK, and it is in the process of expanding globally. As of the end of 2019, its network of counselors had processed more than 105 million text messages. Its innovative approach to managing and prioritizing incoming requests for help, using semantic language processing to guide counselors to the most pressing cases and aid them in responding most effectively, won many plaudits. In 2019, it was one of five winners of the Skoll World Forum’s Social Entrepreneurship Awards, worth $1.5 million. Earlier this year, it was a TED Audacious Project prize winner.
If the philanthro-industrial complex can be said to have a center, Lublin was somewhere near the bullseye, widely recognized as one of the most successful “social entrepreneurs” of the last decade. In 2016, the fledgling startup, which grew out of Lublin’s previous nonprofit, announced it had raised $23.8 million in a Series B Round investment led mainly by Reid Hoffman, Melinda Gates, The Ballmer Group, and Omidyar Network, with smaller amounts from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Craig Newmark, Mark and Ali Pincus, Anne Devereux-Mills, Joe and Suzy Edelman, and Amy and Rob Stavis. When Hoffman, who gave Crisis Text Line its first $1 million, decided in 2017 to pour new funding into, he installed Lublin as its board chair. She was removed from Change’s board last Friday.
Lublin’s success as a fundraiser and networker powered CTL’s growth, but it clearly also centered far too much power in her hands internally, judging from the outpouring of complaints from current and former staff. Like past explosions at other nonprofits and social change organizations driven by the #MeToo movement, the earthquake at Crisis Text Line is a reflection of the larger uprising underway in the wake of #GeorgeFloyd’s murder. It is a reminder that just work requires just structures, and the ends cannot justify the means. For too long (and still) an individual’s ability to raise money from wealthy donors and foundations has skewed power in the social sector towards white men and sometimes women (and the people good at convincing wealthy white men and women to back them). Maybe something better will now emerge.
Aria Finger, the CEO of and a close colleague of Lublin’s for many years at that organization, acknowledged via Twitter that she had “not done enough” to address racial inequity there and promised to share a more detailed plan of action by June 24. A staff-led petition on calling for Finger’s dismissal (for promoting “racist, biased and discriminatory messages”), and the replacement of five board members who have held their seats during the five years of Lublin and Finger’s tenure at Dosomething had 660 signatures as of this morning.
Full disclosure: In 2013 and 2015, Lublin gave keynote talks at Personal Democracy Forum, with the first one notable for her calling out the Ford Foundation to sell its $400 million in order to fund more social justice work, and to free up funds for projects that didn’t fit traditional “buckets.” In 2015, Dosomething was a fiscal sponsor for Civic Hall’s launch, and it has been an organizational member in good standing since then.
To go deeper, follow the hashtags #NotMyCrisisTextLine and #DoSomethingDidNothing.
Tech and politics: After David Shor, a political data analyst at Civis Analytics, tweeted a summary of a research paper by Omar Wasow suggesting that nonviolent protests in the 1960s did more to move public opinion in a progressive direction than violent ones, he was criticized by colleagues and others for, as one put it, “using his anxiety and ‘intellect’ as a vehicle for anti-blackness,” and a few days later Shor was fired. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine cites this episode as a sign than “illiberal” norms are spreading among progressive circles. Jennifer Brea, Wasow’s spouse, tweeted in support of Shor, saying his firing was “nuts.”
Related: Jess Morales Rocketto, who was Hillary Clinton’s digital director in 2016, posted a twitter thread arguing that anti-blackness is a serious problem in “Political Data World,” noting that Civic Analytics was perhaps the most prominent purveyor of a data-driven approach to voter engagement that valued “efficiency” and “cost per voter” in ways that systematically entrenched whites in the field and culture of political tech. Read the whole thread, it’s important.
An open letter to from former employees upset that the for-profit company was making millions from a number of higher popular petitions related to George Floyd appears to have prompted the company to make a number of new commitments, including putting $6 million in a dedicated fund for supporting racial justice campaigning efforts and $1.5 million to build new staff team focused entirely on racial justice organizing. Acting CEO Nick Allardice also committed to a raft of internal structural changes “to address systemic racism within our organization.”
Online donations and sign-ups to racial justice organizations have exploded in recent weeks, Shane Goldmacher reports for The New York Times. Color of Change’s membership has quadrupled from 1.7 million to 7 million, for example. Two national bail funds reported receiving more than $90 million.
Here’s a stunning map of more than 3,500 local Black Lives Matters protests that have taken place in the United States since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th.
Here’s a crowd-sourced list and map of George Floyd protests of greater than 100 people made by Wikipedia users.
If you have time to read only one article about the rapid decision by IBM, Amazon and Microsoft to end or pause their sales of facial recognition tools to law enforcement agencies, make it this one by Kate Kaye in Fast Company. She notes that none of the three companies made any move to stop the use of predictive policing or other surveillance tech that they sell. “Limiting the scope of these [announcements] even to law enforcement is insufficient,” Safiya Noble, associate professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies and author of Algorithms of Oppression, told Kaye. “We need a full-on recall of all of these technologies.”
Life in Facebookistan: Lee Fang reports for the Intercept that Facebook Workplace, an office collaboration tool similar to Slack, was being marketed by the company to prospective corporate customers as including a tool allowing administrator to remove and block certain trending topics among employees, such as those using the word “unionize.” Robo-pinkertons, anyone?
Dozens of Tunisian, Syrian and Palestinian activists and journalists say their Facebook accounts have been deactivated over the last few months, Olivia Solon reports for NBC News.
Civic tech and COVID-19: Florida’s top data scientist, Rebekah Jones, was fired from her position with the state department of health in mid-May after she refused to manipulate data to support the state’s reopening, as NPR’s Greg Allen reported May 20th. Now, as a private citizen, she’s launched her own dashboard tracking how the state’s counties are dealing with COVID-19. The official state website claims that Florida has an overall infection rate of 5.4% but Jones says that number is misleading, because it counts each time the same individual tests negative as a separate data point, artificially inflating the denominator and making the state infection rate seem lower. Florida is one of 20 states where new COVID-19 cases are rising, but the state’s governor has so far balked at reversing his commitment to keep reopening. Jones is raising money to keep here new site afloat, here.
Deep thoughts: This oped piece in The New York Times by Hahrie Han describing how local community leaders and organizations in Minneapolis self-organized in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, “withdrew their consent” from the city’s police force, and figured out how to keep themselves safe and free of misinformation and fifth columns, is worth careful study and reflection for what it suggests about the potential of today’s movements to reorder society for th

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Innovations of This Protest Movement

June 16, 2020 - 6:10pm

It seems the U.S. and the world are no longer standing for anti-Black racism and the rising of a people-powered movement for Black lives is inspiring to witness and partake in.

As our small contribution, we compiled content and resources from the changemakers, creators, healers, and dreamers whose guidance we seek to find our way into a world where people don’t have to risk a global pandemic to declare a fundamentally human right: “Black Lives Matter.” 

We hope you’ll find something new, activating, even challenging, here. And if so, please take action


 Protest Innovations 

Here are some of the creative and innovative ways people are educating, organizing, and amplifying Black voices and the Black Lives Matter movement: 

 Education and Accountability 

Resources for if you’re protesting: 


Illustrated strategic protest

How to record video during protests


What to wear? Protesting Safely


Resources for if you want to support as an ally: 

Resources for if you want to hold your communities accountable: 

 How to stay engaged 


Act Blue | Black-owned businesses | Black-owned food coop in Brooklyn | Black Visions Collective | Campaign Zero | Equal Justice Initiative | George Floyd Memorial Fund | Know Your Rights Campaign | Minnesota Freedom Fund | NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund | Reclaim the Block | Reparations paid directly to individuals and families | The Marshall Project | The Sentencing Project |

Continue learning: 

  • Read

The Power of Crowds

June 9, 2020 - 11:39am
  • Total number of Occupy Wall Street-related groups on Facebook, fall 2011: 700
  • Number of US locations that held a Women’s March in January 2017, according to the Crowd Counting Consortium: 653
  • Number of US locations that held a March for Our Lives rally in March, 2018: 763
  • Number of US locations that held a #GeorgeFloyd protest in May: 502
  • Number of US locations that have held a #GeorgeFloyd protest so far in June: 677
  • Percentage of Americans who say they have participated, or plan to participate, in a protest, as of June 1: 12.9%
  • Percentage of those ages 18-34: 23.9%
  • Percentage that say that COVID-19 has impacted their decision to participate: 41.2%
  • Number of videos of police brutality or misconduct against protesters collected by lawyer Greg Doucette since May 30: 591
  • Number of documented acts of vigilante violence against protestors tallied and mapped by Alexander Reid Ross: 123 in 96 counties
  • Number of arrests or assaults on journalists tallied by US Press Freedom Tracker: 383
  • Map visualization of that collection by Manuchir Aminian
  • Number of tweets alleging that George Soros is paying for the protests and that he funds Antifa, on May 30th alone: more than 500,000
  • Number of #GeorgeFloyd protests held outside the US since May 28: 233
  • Total annual budget for the United Nations, 2020: $3,000,000,000:
  • Total annual budget for the New York City police department, 2020: $5,900,000,000

Bonus reading: An ode to the power of crowds, by Dan Hancox in the Guardian.
(Hat tip to the Harper’s Index, for inventing this formula.)

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community. 

The post The Power of Crowds appeared first on Civic Hall.

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