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A New Home for Civic Tech
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Discursive Engineering

February 13, 2020 - 4:57pm

This is civic tech: Congrats to our friends at Purpose, which has just been acquired by the Capgemini Group and will continue to function as an independently run Public Benefit Corporation as it enters its second decade. Its founder Jeremy Heimans will continue to serve as CEO and Chairman and the rest of Purpose’s leadership team—partners Jessy Tolkan, Anne Keenan, Dan Shannon, and Simon Goff—along with CFO Jon Damon and Chief of Staff Claire Harman, will remain at the helm.

Here’s New School professor Shannon Mattern in Places Journal dissecting the effort by Sidewalk Toronto (a division of Alphabet/Google, to include the public in its planning for the city’s waterfront:

Civic design tools such as participatory maps and community engagement apps help keep urban data and oversight powers in public hands. Yet those same tools can be co-opted by savvy tech developers who have mastered the techniques of discursive engineering. “Participation” is now deployed as part of a public performance wherein the aesthetics of collaboration signify democratic process, without always providing the real thing. A disingenuous use of maps, apps, and other tools of participatory planning — call it mapwashing — threatens to undermine the democratizing, even radical potential of civic design. Against this backdrop, the very meaning of “participation” is changing. Many of us live in a world of ubiquitous surveillance, haloed by a swarm of satellites, pinned in by huge repositories of proprietary geodata, tracked by devices that constantly ping our locations to sentinels in the cloud. The old tools of participatory design, like the survey and the map, have little value where automated data extraction feeds directly into algorithmic urban engineering. If urban design can be automated, if cities can be made responsive to real-time data collected from environments and inhabitants without their explicit consent, how meaningful is our participation?

Tech and politics: The Jupiter-sized gas giant that is the Mike Bloomberg presidential campaign is flooding the zone on Instagram, hiring many “influencers” with huge followings, as Taylor Lorenz reports for The New York Times. In addition, as Rebecca Ruiz also reports for the Times, the Bloomberg campaign is spending profligately, offering entry-level field organizers $6,000 per month (double the average) and opening field offices as far away as the US Virgin Islands.

While Big Tech has fretted over Senator Elizabeth Warren’s frequent criticisms, it has mistakenly ignored Senator Bernie Sanders, who has many of the same policy views as Warren regarding tech, Theodore Schleifer reports for Recode.

A new MIT study explains why Voatz, an online voting app that claims its blockchain tech makes it secure, is anything but, Matthew Rosenberg reports for The New York Times.

Here’s how Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff worked a backchannel connection to Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, to successfully pitch the president on a trillion-tree planting initiative that was originally dreamed up by former VP Al Gore, courtesy of Lisa Friedman reporting for The New York Times. “Trees are the ultimate bipartisan issue,” Benioff commented. “Everyone is pro-tree.” Or so they think!

Deep reading: If you are a Ph.D. student looking for raw material for your dissertation, consider making a dive into the huge pile of oral and written evidence collected by the UK House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee this past fall. Everyone from Avaaz to the “Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising” to mySociety, the Oxford Internet Institute and Facebook have submitted material.

People are still wondering if blockchain technology is actually really vital for anything, the BBC’s Chris Baraniuk reports. He cites its use by Maersk in a new system for tracking customs documentation on goods being shipped internationally, and its use tracking real estate sales in Sweden, and an experiment with online voting in Thailand. “These are thought-provoking ventures, though a debate remains as to whether blockchain is absolutely necessary for any of them,” Baraniuk writes. No kidding!

Life in Facebookistan: Judd Legum of PopularInfo reports that the company’s much-touted third-party fact-checking program is as thin as a silicon microchip. Over the course of January, its partners conducted a total of 302 fact checks on content, but as Legum notes, “Facebook has more than 200 million users in the United States, posting millions of pieces of content every day. The reality is that almost nothing on Facebook is fact-checked.”

Life not inside Facebookistan: The Irish Data Protection Commission, who are effectively the main data cops for the EU, heard just over a week ago from Facebook Ireland that it was planning to roll out a new Dating feature within a few days. So, concerned that no information was provided by the company “in relation to the Data Protection Impact Assessment…. “authorised officers of the DPC conducted an inspection at Facebook Ireland Limited’s offices in Dublin on Monday last, 10 February and gathered documentation.” The commission now says, “Facebook Ireland informed us last night that they have postponed the roll-out of this feature.”

End times: Combine Valentine’s Day and a neural network, and you get some very strange results, courtesy of Janelle Shane.

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 and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.   

The post Discursive Engineering appeared first on Civic Hall.

Sugar Daddy Dem Tech

February 11, 2020 - 4:25pm

This is civic tech: “Democracy tech” will be the next “hot” investment space, Wired UK headlines this oped by Robyn Scott of Apolitical. (Actually, Scott is writing about govtech, which is already attracting investors, but we’ll let ourselves dream that someone actually wants to invest in tech that enhances democracy, too.)

New Yorkers may remember that a 2018 Charter Revision Commission that Mayor Bill de Blasio created successfully proposed launching a citywide version of participatory budgeting, which is already used by more than half the city council members, but as Samar Khurshid writes for Gotham Gazette, so far hizzoner hasn’t put any funding into the program. Civic Hall, along with the Participatory Budgeting Project, BetaNYC, Girls for Gender Equity, IntegrateNYC, and the New York Civic Engagement Table, as well as Council Member Brad Lander, are all calling for him to rectify that, given the demonstrates successes of participatory budgeting at the district level.

Say hello to the International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers, a new network of drivers from 27 countries who are organizing to obtain better working conditions, as Bama Athreya reports for

Registration for the Civic Tech Innovation Forum, March 18-20, in Johannesburg, South Africa, is now open.

Tech and politics: If Google Search Trends are any guide, Senator Amy Klobuchar is peaking in New Hampshire at exactly the right time for her to pull off a surprise there. (Of course, people could be searching and finding out things they don’t like, too.)

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is spending Jupiter-sized amounts of money on his campaign while the rest of the Democratic field battles things out here on Earth, is pitching Silicon Valley hard on his bid, seeking more tech talent to come on board, as Theodore Schleifer reports for ReCode. The billionaire has so much money to burn he’s paying micro-influencers—people with as few as 1,000 followers online—to create original content “that tells us why Mike Bloomberg is the electable candidate,” Scott Bixby reports for the Daily Beast.

Back to Iowa: Writing in Democracy, University of Pittsburgh professor Lara Putnam pithily blames “Sugar Daddy Dem Tech” or “the convergence of grift, hubris, and insider networks that misallocates funds within the Democratic ecosystem” for the Iowa caucus app mess. Instead of supporting local organizing, she adds, “Dems’ Sugar Daddy problem is not just about tech—it’s a pull that continually channels funds into the hands of high-profile actors who claim to hold the keys to ‘grassroots engagement.’ These high-profile leaders invariably live in coastal metropoles: that’s where they made the connections that made them visible and persuasive to these funders in the first place.”

Speaking of Sugar Daddy Dem tech, Emily Stewart of Vox digs deeper into ACRONYM, the Democratic dark money group at the center of the Iowa app mess. One Democratic strategist told her, “Their pitch is that everyone is doing it wrong, and they’re here to disrupt and innovate. And they don’t always follow through with that in a successful way.”

Mikey Dickerson, the former Googler who helped lead the rescue of, writes on Medium that the solutions to Iowa’s tech nightmare are “hiding in plain sight.” He says, “thanks to the overwrought hero stories of 2008 and 2012, progressive politics has an entrenched belief that all we will ever need, tech-wise, is a couple of plucky volunteers to work miracles from their garage for a few weeks.” He also says, “we put misplaced faith in ‘the market’ solving our infrastructure needs, in the form of myriad shoestring operations competing for tiny venture-capital-style “seed grants” and contracts from PACs and campaigns.” All true, but given that Dickerson is the CTO of a $35 million Reid Hoffman-backed effort to rebuild the Democratic voter file, it sure would be interesting to hear how that effort is going.

Will micro-targeted ads on Facebook and anonymous texts to voters’ phones prove to be the digital secret weapons of 2020? That’s the core thesis of McKay Coppinslong feature in The Atlantic. Of equal or perhaps greater concern, he describes how the Trump campaign has been building online swarms of die-hard supporters who intimidate reporters when they produce unflattering coverage of the White House, going so far as to build a dossier on at least 2,000 people, including journalists, academics, politicians and other high-profile Trump foes.

Related: Here’s NBC’s Chuck Todd referring to the rise of a “digital brownshirt brigade,” but referring mainly to Bernie Sanders’ online supporters, in addition to Trump’s. Maybe referring to the supporters of a Jewish candidate for president this way isn’t the best idea?

Life in Facebookistan: A four-year-old Colorado boy died from the flu last week after his mother, following the advice of anti-vaxxers on a very popular Facebook group called Stop Mandatory Vaccination who convinced her not to give him Tamiflu, Brandy Zadrozny reports for NBC News.

A proposed settlement between Facebook and Washington state regulators regarding political disclosure violations committed by the company is coming under fire from campaign finance legal experts including Ann Ravel, a former FEC chair, who called it a “cave in” by the regulators, Eli Sanders reports for The Stranger.

Facebook is leaving up an altered video showing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tearing up President Trump’s State of the Union speech after he mentions scholarships for women and childcare policies, Drew Harwell and Tony Romm report for the Washington Post. “We all know the difference between editing something to make it more clear and editing something to make it more deceptive,” Dave Karpf of GWU commented. But Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said it did not violate its rules.

Related: Twitter has announced new rules for dealing with synthetic or manipulated media, and it will start labeling such content if it is being shared in a deceptive manner or is likely to impact public safety or cause serious harm.

Amazon has been quietly removing more books by and about Nazis from its store, David Streitfeld reports for The New York Times. No word yet on whether it is deleting digital copies that people may have stored on their Kindles, the way the company did years ago.

Privacy, shmivacy: ClearviewAI, the privacy-destroying facial recognition start-up, has been claiming that its matches are 100% accurate based on an ACLU methodology, but the civil rights organization is loudly disagreeing, Caroline Haskins, Ryan Mac and Logan MacDonald report for BuzzFeed News.

“Autocracies that use digital repression face a lower risk of protests than do those autocratic regimes that do not employ these same tools,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright write in Foreign Affairs, explaining “how technology strengthens autocracy.” They add, “The advancement of AI-powered surveillance is the most significant evolution in digital authoritarianism. High-resolution cameras, facial recognition, spying malware, automated text analysis, and big-data processing have opened up a wide range of new methods of citizen control.”

End times: While we wait for the New Hampshire results, here’s a mental massage. Make sure your sound is on.

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 and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.   

The post Sugar Daddy Dem Tech appeared first on Civic Hall.


February 6, 2020 - 1:03pm

Tech and politics: Evan Henshaw-Plath, a veteran developer of technology tools used in politics, writes for Civicist about the deeper reasons that the IowaReporterApp built by Shadow, a Democratic tech firm, failed to work. He writes, “The fundamental problem is we’ve got a very broken way we fund campaign tech on the Democratic side of the aisle in the United States. There is tons of money in politics but it doesn’t get used in the way which builds anything sustainable.”

Sam Frank, a relative newcomer to the political tech space since the 2016 election, who has worked closely advising state Democratic parties on the use of tech, adds more context.

Here’s a mea culpa interview with Shadow’s founder, Gerard Niemira, done by Joshua Green and Eric Newcomer of Bloomberg News.

Here’s some very welcome transparency from Tara McGowan, the ex-journalist-turned-progressive-powerhouse who started ACRONYM, the 501c4 organization that invested in Shadow in early 2019 in the hopes of building better tools for organizing and data management.

Warning that we still aren’t ready for the fall general election, Princeton computer science expert Ed Felten writes in the Washington Post that, “What we need most from our election systems is resilience.” He adds, “Even in the absence of a cyberattack, things will go wrong. A resilient system can detect problems, recover and reconstruct the accurate result from solid evidence. That’s what we saw in Iowa. Voters made their intentions clear, and the in-precinct paper ballot count was low-tech and public — as resilient as one could hope for. When something went wrong, officials fell back to a verifiable solution. The system worked, even if the app didn’t.”

This is civic tech: Say hello to Assembler, a new tool from the folks at Google Jigsaw that is aimed at helping news organizations spot doctored photographs.

San Francisco’s digital services team, led by Carrie Bishop, gets a glowing write-up from Alisha Green in SF Weekly.

Here’s a great checklist from Democracy Labs for software developers to use to help answer the question: should we build our own app or use an off-the-shelf product. The second tab of that spreadsheet is a guide to nearly three dozen free or affordable apps that Democracy Labs has tested for use in politics, activism, and advocacy.

Info disorder, continued: As conspiracy theories seem to appear and spread even faster than ever, futurist Mark Pesce writes that we must remember “the truth is slow and will ever be thus because to know anything at all takes time and effort.”

In the same light, Howard Rheingold, who coined the term “online community” and charted its contours before almost everyone else, writes for Public Seminar about how “Democracy is losing the online arms race.” Folks may recall that Rheingold started warning about the need for online “crap detection” more than a decade ago; in this piece, he argues that, “The biggest obstacle to de-crapification is the power of Facebook.”

Privacy, shmivacy: Teens are fooling Instagram’s tracking systems by creating accounts shared by several users, creating combined data trails, Alfred Ng reports for Cnet.

End times: Who says resumes have to be honest?

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 and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.     

The post Decrapification appeared first on Civic Hall.

The Shadow Economy: Why Campaign Tech Keeps Failing

February 5, 2020 - 2:48pm

If you want to understand what happened with Shadow and the failure of its IowaReporterApp you have to understand how electoral campaign tech work is done and funded. Let me tell you a story to make sense of it.

Shadow’s caucus app was built using Firebase and React, services quite commonly used for creating mobile apps. This app was built by one senior engineer who had not done mobile apps before, and a bunch of folks who, based on their LinkedIn profiles were very recent coding school graduates who, as of a couple months ago in two cases, worked as a prep cook for Starbucks and receptionist at Regus.

They messed up, but it’s critical to understand the context. Shadow is a company which came out of the collapse of another electoral tech company, Groundbase, which itself had some well-known folks in the campaign tech space.

I know about this because starting in 2017 I tried to do my own project,, in a similar space*, and through that work got involved with the standards process to make data sync between various systems.

What Shadow, Groundbase before it, and many of the rest of us like Affinity and The Groundwork (similar name, I know) all want to do is solve the problems which come up in progressive campaigns. We’re trying to create tools for the organizers.

Shadow made some tools which look useful. For example, their messaging app is similar to Hustle and GetThru (originally known as Relay). Their Lightrail app is something people really need. Think of it as a Yahoo Pipes/Zapier—tools for integrating web applications—but for the specific application programming interfaces (APIs) that we use in progressive campaigning from NGP/VAN, ActionKit, and ActionNetwork.

Lightrail is solving the problem that most people on campaign tech teams have. Mostly the job is wiring up various services, moving the data in to the right spot so the digital and field teams can be effective.

To understand why Shadow exists and how they failed to provide the tools the Iowa Democratic Party needed we need to know how this space works. The fundamental problem is we’ve got a very broken way we fund campaign tech on the Democratic side of the aisle in the United States. There is tons of money in politics but it doesn’t get used in the way which builds anything sustainable. Here are some reasons why.

Campaigns have a few primary motivators. First is getting votes. After all, you want to win elections, and if you’d don’t win, you don’t get to keep playing. To win, you need money, and you need to stay compliant with FEC rules. Break the rules, people don’t vote for you, unless you’re Trump.

Run out of money and your campaign is done. Just look at the reason given by most Democratic presidential candidates dropping out this cycle. They quit when they can’t raise more money. So, we have tons of money, and money for campaign tech, but it’s very focused on raising money, keeping track of money, and legal compliance. NGP/Van is very, very good at meeting these needs, so they’re the centralized company which most Democratic politicians use for their campaigns. Its tech around money accounting is great, its tech around walk lists and mobilizations is okay, and its tech around movement building is terrible.

Some organizations like ActBlue focus on the one very lucrative part of the stack, collecting small dollar payments with compliance. ActBlue does that one thing really, really well. As a result, it has transformed political campaigns, but as good as they are, their work doesn’t provide a funding channel for all the other tools we need.

Non-candidate groups often use ActionKit if they’re bigger or ActionNetwork if they’re smaller, or even NationBuilder, for their movement building work. The latter organization became persona-non-grata among progressives after the Trump campaign used it to get elected. MoveOn funded the creation of ActionKit, and the AFL-CIO did so for ActionNetwork.

Thousands of groups use ActionNetwork, but it’s barely a sustainable entity despite providing a very important service. They aren’t at risk of going away, but we’d be better off if they got more funding. ActionKit was recently rolled into NGP/VAN because it wasn’t sustainable as an independent entity.

To make things worse, the space is dominated by decision makers who are stuck on a very short-term decision-making cycle. Structurally there is no space for long-term investment, despite everybody stating that this would be good.

In normal tech circles we’d have a bunch of free software (open source) libraries and tools we build on together, but the campaign tech space doesn’t have this because decision-makers fear our tools will be taken and used by the other side. This is despite the fact that ‘they’ use totally different standards, tech, and structure of work. Ours works better than theirs, but it’s not saying much.

In the wake of the 2016 election there was a lot of energy around funding better tools. We had folks like Raffi Krikorian go over to work at the DNC. (He was formerly a top engineer at Uber and Twitter, and is now working for Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.) We had Higher Ground Labs, which was founded with backing from tech moguls Reid Hoffman, Ron Conway and Chris Sacca and led by Obama campaign veterans, pouring money into the space. They funded Shadow and many other projects.

Unfortunately, they funded it using a startup/incubator model. That is, giving startup funds to many projects in a cohort and helping them get to a minimum viable product, where they then pitch funders for more money. After the initial infusion, there was no more money to be had. These projects failed when they ran out of money. There was no budget to fund development between cycles. The decision-makers know nothing about how technology, or its development works.

Most of us have given up on building campaign tech. Thousands of other dedicated technologists who are organized through the Progressive Coders Network and RagTag are struggling but unsustainable. Campaign networks like Indivisible, Sister District, Swing Left, all use tech extensively but don’t have budgets to fund its development.

I myself am now building Planetary, Michael Slaby (CTO for Obama 2008, and later one of the developers of The Groundwork) is at Harmony Labs, Harper Reed is bouncing around the world being his fabulous self, having left the Obama campaign to do a payments startup. Eli Pariser is doing Civic Signals to fix social media platforms.

The decision makers refuse to use free software, alienating the ProgCode/RagTag communities. They also refuse to fund projects between cycles to build reusable platforms. So what do projects like and Shadow do when they want to keep the lights on? They take one-off campaign jobs. Affinity built tools for the Yes on 1631 carbon tax campaign in Washington, and Shadow built a caucus tool for state Democrats. Before shutting down, Affinity helped create Signalboost, a tool for secure organizing over the Signal app

This was a quick tool which was put together without sufficient funding. Building good tech is expensive. We can see from the budgets that the Iowa Democratic Party only paid $60,000 to shadow, and the Nevada party paid $58,000. That might feel like a lot, but it really isn’t given how much this stuff costs to build. It’s why the app wasn’t well tested or scaled well. The team was a few enthusiastic recent code school grads and one experienced engineer. This was their side project they built to get funding. There is no way they could succeed.

The problem is structural, because the way we’re funding organizing tech is wrong. We need it to be based on open source technology. We need a community of companies, parties, and third party groups funding it. And it needs to have funding between cycles.

There needs to be much more money going into organizing tech in order to sustain things. The Obama and Clinton campaigns spent tens (maybe hundreds) of millions of dollars on tech, but it was building tech which was mostly thrown away.

We’ve got a few vendors that last between cycles, but all the techies who work on campaigns go back to normal startups. A couple days after Obama was re-elected in 2012, the political staffers walked into the tech floor of the Obama campaign HQ and wondered where everyone was. They’d all been laid off. Harper Reed had found them jobs in industry and everybody faded back into tech companies. From a staff of hundreds, a handful went to work at the White House or OFA, but for the most part that knowledge was all lost.

We’re treating our campaign tech teams like we treat the field organizers, and it’s not working. It doesn’t work for the field teams either; that’s why they unionized.  If we want to prevent disasters like the Iowa caucus app or the failure to do effective social media campaigning in 2016, we need to change the way we fund, build, and employ the campaign workers, techies included.

What should have been done? The app shouldn’t have been built. This didn’t require an app (see Zeynep Tufekci’s explanation if you want more details). There are lots of ways to submit and verify vote counts without needing a custom app. At least they kept the paper backup. The sexy desire to have an app is something we should avoid.

Focus on the problem, not the solution of an app which sounds cool. The Iowa Democratic Party shouldn’t have asked for an app. The media shouldn’t have hailed it as futuristic, we shouldn’t demand immediate electoral results, and Shadow shouldn’t have tried to build it. A system with Google docs and having multiple people send in pictures of the tallies at each polling place would have sufficed. Or any number of other solutions which require less software. There’s a whole field of lean startups dedicated to solving the problem with less code. On top of that, folks like Matt Blaze and Ed Felten and many others have documented why digital voting systems are a broken concept. There is no way to do digital voting securely. Instead, we should use paper, use people, verify, audit, and make it transparent to all the campaigns. And yes, force the media to wait for results. We need an app for that.

(*Full disclosure: Civicist editor-in-chief Micah Sifry was an advisor to

The post The Shadow Economy: Why Campaign Tech Keeps Failing appeared first on Civic Hall.

Apps, I Did It Again

February 4, 2020 - 2:34pm

From to Orca, an app that the Romney 2012 campaign built to enable its volunteers to keep track of voters on Election Day, tech that is supposed to work at mass scale on its first live test does not have a good track record in the political arena. Add Iowa’s caucus reporting app to the pile. And it’s not like the warning signs weren’t there.

Here’s NPR’s Kate Payne and Miles Parks on January 14th: “Iowa’s Democrats hope the new app lets the party get results out to the public quicker, says Troy Price, the chairman of the state party. In an interview, Price declined to provide more details about which company or companies designed the app, or about what specific measures have been put in place to guarantee the system’s security.”

“The idea of security through obscurity is almost always a mistake,” Doug Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa and a former caucus precinct leader, commented in that same story. “Drawing the blinds on the process leaves us, in the public, in a position where we can’t even assess the competence of the people doing something on our behalf.”

The app wasn’t sent to caucus organizers for downloading until hours before the caucuses began, the AP reports, meaning that some precinct chairs had trouble downloading it or logging into it and never even used it.

As many people have been pointing out for some time, the soft underbelly of American democracy is our open information system. If people don’t agree about basic facts, such as if a vote was accurately counted, we are in big trouble. But while all kinds of conspiracy theories are flying around this morning, some tying the maker of the Iowa reporting app, a Democratic firm called Shadow, Inc., to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and also to Pete Buttigieg’s campaign, it’s best to remember that ineptitude explains far more failures than anything.

This is civic tech: NYC School of Data is coming up March 7. It’s BetaNYC’s annual community-driven conference, with programming support from NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, bringing together city officials, activists, and community members to talk about open data, civic technology, and service design. It will be held at CUNY Law School in Queens, with dozens of sessions, panels, workshops, office hours with NYC agencies, and  demo/usability sessions covering a wide variety of topics. Registration is now open— early bird pricing til Feb 10th.

Apply: New Media Ventures has opened its 2020 open call for startups that are working on shifting power, building movements, changing narratives and sparking civic engagement.

Apply: The civic crowdfunding platform ioby is looking to hire a Cincinnati Action Strategist to open a new office there.

Information disorder, continued: “Clout chasers” are spreading misleading claims about the Wuhan coronavirus using fearmongering and racial stereotyping and making the most of algorithms that amplify emotionally engaging content over facts, Brandy Zadrozny, Kalhan Rosenblatt and Ben Collins report for NBC News.

Mainstream media outlets are also generating a great deal of misleading and hyperbolic content about the virus, which social media platforms also amplify, Julia Carrie Wong reports for The Guardian.

End times: Performance artist Simon Weckert filled a handwagon with 99 second-hand smartphones with their GPS data on and then went for a walk, turning traffic-free streets red in the process.

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 and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.     

The post Apps, I Did It Again appeared first on Civic Hall.

Going Dark

January 30, 2020 - 12:49pm

This is civic tech: Oh look, here comes UpLink, a “digital crowd-engagement platform to accelerate the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals,” launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos by its founder Klaus Schwab and created with the help of Deloitte, Salesforce and LinkedIn. “A small group of activists focused on combatting illegal fishing activities in their local waters, for example, can post their mission on UpLink and not only crowdsource peer suggestions to further their work but also gain access to resources globally that can contribute to their efforts,” explains Howard Allen, a partner at Deloitte Switzerland, which helped them develop the app. I’m sure lots of small groups of activists have just been waiting for Uplink!

Wait, there’s more! “UpLink is open to any individual who can offer a contribution to the global public good,” says a detailed backgrounder. “The platform invites personal perspectives to help shape and define the global issues we face, and it invites ideas and projects which can provide the necessary resolutions. All contributions can be uploaded through UpLink’s digital interface. An intelligent system will review these upon submission, and connect those with high-potential to specific action groups: networks of leading businesses, NGOs, investors, subject-matter experts, and government representatives, who are tackling a similar issue and are ready to collaborate and scale projects to a global level.

Sadly, I predict UpLink will go where the “action platform” that TED promised to build after it got nearly a million in funding from the Knight Foundation back in 2013 went.

The use of online deliberation platforms like Decidim and Crossiety is on the rise across Switzerland, according to a survey of local authorities conducted by the Civic Tech Barometer, a project led by researchers from EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory (LaSUR) in partnership with Geneva Canton’s Consultation and Communication Department.

Bribe requests by municipal agents in Guadalajara have gone down 74 percent since the city started using a new website called Visor Urbano showing what land uses are allowed where.

Another one for the graveyard: Google has announced that it is shutting down its One Today nonprofit fundraising app, launched in 2013 to great fanfare. At the time, it was touted as a breakthrough because it would show users right up front how their donation would be used. It also had a social component, letting you set a cap to how much money you would donate if your friends gave to one of your causes. (h/t Jesse Littlewood)

Instacart employees in Skokie, Illinois, are voting on unionizing this Friday, Lauren Kaori Gurley reports for Motherboard.

Tech and politics: In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall sums up the state of play in the digital war between the right and left as 2020 heats up, noting that Republican-leaning groups are “far ahead” of the Democrats in how they are using once-novel techniques like geofencing to acquire the contact information of target demographics like evangelical and Catholic voters. Edsall notes, “The explosion of digital technology has created the opportunity for political operatives to run what amount to dark campaigns, conducted below the radar of both voter awareness and government oversight.”

Life in Facebookistan: The new “Off-Facebook Activity” tracker that the company just made available to its 2+ billion users will show you how you are being tracked and targeted even when you aren’t logged into the giant social network, Geoffrey Fowler reports for The Washington Post. He writes, “Even with Facebook closed on my phone, the social network gets notified when I use the Peet’s Coffee app. It knows when I read the website of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg or view articles from The Atlantic. Facebook knows when I click on my Home Depot shopping cart and when I open the Ring app to answer my video doorbell. It uses all this information from my not-on-Facebook, real-world life to shape the messages I see from businesses and politicians alike.”

The head of Facebook’s new oversight board will be Thomas Hughes, who was previously the director of Article 19, the British human rights organization. As Ben Gilbert reports for Business Insider, the board will be independent of Facebook but funded by Facebook to the tune of $130 million. As I have previously noted, no one has yet explained why this entity needs such a colossal budget, or what it will do to keep itself going if Facebook doesn’t fund it forever. Think of it this way: My child is independent of me and will be empowered to overrule me, but I pay all of their expenses and keep them employed and housed. Nothing to see here folks, just move along.

Facebook has settled an Illinois privacy class-action lawsuit to the tune of $550 million, Natasha Singer and Mike Isaac report for The New York Times. Illinois is one of only three states with a biometric privacy law, requiring companies to obtain written permission before collecting a person’s fingerprints, facial scans or other identifying biological characteristics. State residents can sue companies for up to $5,000 per violation, which could add up to billions of dollars in payouts for tech giants that lose such class-action suits. “The Illinois law has real teeth. It pretty much stopped Facebook in its tracks,” Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Times. “Tech firms and other companies that collect biometric data must be very nervous right now.”

Mom, don’t read this next item. A young woman named Samantha Jespersen tried for five years to get Facebook to remove a page claiming to a be a business named “Samantha Rae Anne Jespersen’s Butthole,” but despite her efforts, the company said it didn’t violate its community standards. Only after Katie Notopoulos reported the story for BuzzFeed News yesterday did the page get deleted. (And here’s the Reddit post that got the whole story started.)

Food for thought: There’s a new peer-reviewed study by academics David Broockman and Josh Kalla about the promising effects of “deep canvassing” in countering prejudices on issues like transgender rights and immigration, as Brian Resnick reports for Vox. Their work challenges the assumptions of most of the politics industry, which is committed to practices centered on argument and getting in people’s faces with facts. Resnick writes, “The new research shows that if you want to change someone’s mind, you need to have patience with them, ask them to reflect on their life, and listen. It’s not about calling people out or labeling them fill-in-the-blank-phobic. Which makes it feel like a big departure from a lot of the current political dialogue.” And Broockman tells him, “I think in today’s world, many communities have a call-out culture. Twitter is obviously full of the notion that what we should do is condemn those who disagree with us. What we can now say experimentally, the key to the success of these conversations is doing the exact opposite of that.”

Health tech: Wash your hands! If you are worried about the rapid rise of the Wuhan coronavirus, this short piece by Laurie Garrett, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered many of the world’s major epidemics, is essential reading. “Very simple measures can protect you,” she writes.

Here’s an up-to-date data visualization of the spread of the virus.

End times: Our friend Dave Karpf in Wired on why the Millennium Clock, a pet project of a bunch of early tech bros, is a “waste of time.” Oh, I see what you did there.

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 and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.     

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January 28, 2020 - 1:22pm

This is civic tech: New on the Civic Tech Field Guide, our “media tech” portal describing the many tools and projects devoted to everything from engaging the public and fighting disinformation to tracking and shifting media narratives.

Also new on Civicist, our own Matt Stempeck with a detailed guide to all the summer 2020 opportunities for young people looking to get started in civic tech.

Related: Amber Macintyre of TacticalTech offers some valuable warnings about how the growing industry of “digital listening” startups are turning public posts on social media into an intelligence-gathering service sold to political campaigns. (For more on how campaigns are collecting data on their supporters, see the Bernie Sanders item below.)

Congrats to Lou Moore and Zeryn Sarpangal, who are stepping into interim co-CEO roles at Code for America as founding director Jen Pahlka steps down after 10 years. As CFA’s just-released 2019 Impact Report details, there’s a lot going on over there!

Listen: Nathaniel Pearlman, host of the Great Battlefield podcast, chats with some guy named Sifry about creating a civic tech ecosystem.

Apply: The Office of the Manhattan Borough President is looking to hire a digital media specialist.

Apply: Seattle’s Citizen University is looking to hire a manager of learning experiences.

Life in Facebookistan: Speaking at Davos, billionaire George Soros says, “I think there is a kind of informal mutual assistance operation or agreement developing between Trump and Facebook. Facebook will work together to re-elect Trump, and Trump will work to protect Facebook so that this situation cannot be changed and it makes me very concerned about the outcome for 2020.” Last time he took on Facebook, the company sicced a Republican opposition-research firm on him, which circulated information smearing him and Color of Change, one of the company’s ongoing critics.

Speaking of Davos, don’t miss Tim Wu in The New York Times on the contradictions on display (as usual) at the annual gathering.

And speaking of speaking about Facebook, here’s Hillary Clinton at the Sundance Film Festival, telling the Atlantic’s Adrienne Lafrance that dealing with CEO Mark Zuckerberg was like “you’re negotiating with a foreign power sometimes,” referencing conversations she’s had “at the highest levels” with Facebook. “He’s immensely powerful,” she added. “This is a global company that has a huge influence in ways that we’re only beginning to understand.” Clinton also agreed with Lafrance that Zuckerberg’s attitude toward factuality—something he thinks people should be left to figure out for themselves by “cherrypicking” the opinions that appeal to them, was “Trumpian.” Clinton said, “It’s authoritarian.” She added, “Zuckerberg has been “somehow persuaded,” she said, “that it’s to his and Facebook’s advantage not to cross Trump. That’s what I believe. And it just gives me a pit in my stomach.”

Not worried enough about how Facebook’s corporate attitude toward the truth and its algorithmic impact on accentuating divisiveness is affecting the 2020 election? Read Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker’s story in Sunday’s Washington Post and Matt Glegenheimer, Rebecca Ruiz and Nellie Bowles’ story in Monday’s New York Times, both on how Facebook is amplifying the intense online infighting between Bernie Sanders supporters and those of other Democratic candidates. Who knows, maybe now that we live in Facebookistan, the only way to beat a platform strongman (the term that has been coined to describe the whole swath of authoritarians from Trump and Bolsanaro to Duterte and Modi, who have ridden the social media wave machine to power) is with another platform strongman? Ugh.

Tech and politics: Will Elizabeth Warren’s early investment in hyper-local organizing and one-on-one engagement pay off in Iowa? The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey and Holly Bailey have the details.

Meanwhile, the Bernie Sanders campaign has told its supporters to stop phone-banking into Iowa, saying that they have run out of people to call, Ryan Grim reports for The Intercept. People are being told to shift to canvassing in their home states or “friend-to-friend” organizing through the Bern app, which enables users to find friends in the voter file and enter information about their political preferences.

Writing for the American Prospect, Alexander Sammon argues that the rise of small-donor fueled presidential candidates, something that simply wasn’t possible to conceive before the rise of the Internet (and ActBlue), is the primary’s biggest story. (Don’t miss the candidate illustrations.) He notes, “according to a year-end report from ActBlue, the small-dollar donor community raised more than $1 billion for over 13,000 candidates and organizations in 2019. Individual contribution statistics are even more compelling: Over three million of those donors were first-time contributors, as many as in 2017 and 2018 combined. Forty percent of first-time donors gave multiple times in 2019. This happened in an off-year—exceedingly few federal offices were up for election in 2019.”

Food for thought: Author Shoshana Zuboff adds her twenty cents to the New York Times Privacy Project series, coming down hard on the big tech companies that effectively colonized us in the last 20 years. She writes:

It’s not surprising that so many of us rushed to follow the bustling White Rabbit down his tunnel into a promised digital Wonderland where, like Alice, we fell prey to delusion. In Wonderland, we celebrated the new digital services as free, but now we see that the surveillance capitalists behind those services regard us as the free commodity. We thought that we search Google, but now we understand that Google searches us. We assumed that we use social media to connect, but we learned that connection is how social media uses us. We barely questioned why our new TV or mattress had a privacy policy, but we’ve begun to understand that “privacy” policies are actually surveillance policies.

Read the whole thing.

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 and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.     

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Summer 2020 Tech and Social Good opportunities

January 28, 2020 - 10:04am

NYU’s commencement ceremony. Photo by Matt Stempeck.

The graduating Class of 2020 and their underclassmen are in the midst of considering their options for jobs, fellowships, and internships this summer. While this makes some of us feel incredibly old, we’re also excited to welcome them to apply their talents and fresh perspectives to help address the problems we face.

Moe Sunami of Ponoma College has started a collaborative document to help students find the right Summer 2020 Tech and Social Good opportunities. We shared the following in the doc, and wanted to share it here, too, for anyone just starting out in their career interested in tech and social good. Please share it with the students you’d love to work with someday.

The Civic Tech Field Guide was created in part to help new talent (you!) find their way in the field of public interest technology. We curate job boards, fellowships, volunteer opportunities, and civic hackathons. We also compile lists of civic hacking meetups and hubs around the world where you can meet others where you live (or want to live). Or you can meet people in online forums for social good tech. Listservs are a great place to begin learning and contributing. You should especially subscribe to our two Google Calendars – one for upcoming application and funding deadlines, and one for major civic tech conferences.

If you want to build something yourself (or with friends), check out the collection of social good incubators and accelerators, funders & donors, prizes, competitions, and challenges. Major civic tech platforms like TurboVote began as student projects. It’s worth investigating if it’s been done before in the Field Guide and its project graveyard. That doesn’t mean you won’t succeed, it just means you’ll have done your homework about differentiating your product when you talk to potential funders.

If you simply want to learn more about applying tech for the public good, we recommend courses, a reading list, peer-reviewed research, research and policy centers, civic tech news sites and blogs, shows, and of course, podcasts.

Lastly, our main catalog of engagement, government, civic data, advocacy, media, and high-tech civic tech is meant to help you find projects that already exist, for inspiration, employment, or competitor analysis.

We’ve been crowdsourcing this collection since about 2015. You can add missing projects to the guide here. It’s a project of Civic Hall, which you should visit if you find yourself in New York, as it’s a major community hub that offers coworking, events, and a rich community. Their First Post email newsletter also shares tech for public good jobs and application deadlines several times per week.

Lastly, we want to give a shout-out to the new edition of the Mozilla Foundation ‘zine, which offers a student guide to navigating the ethical issues in the tech industry (PDF). Given the growing need for tech employee organizing in recent years, it’s great to help students think about these issues before they decide who will benefit from their energy and skills.

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Reptiles vs Gods

January 23, 2020 - 1:28pm

This is civic tech: Say hello to Witness’ new Legal Video Advocacy project, which is “supporting advocates, lawyers, and incarcerated individuals in using video for sentencing mitigation and to advocate for decarceration through clemency and parole.”

Keep an eye on, a new effort to build a decentralized social media alternative to Facebook that is being led by Evan Henshaw-Plath, Tom Coates and Christoph Moskalonek, and which just announced an investments by Biz Stone. Henshaw-Plath, aka @rabble, was Twitter’s first employee (and code he originally wrote to help protesters swarm the RNC convention in NYC in 2004 went into Twitter), and as he explains here, Planetary is drawing on a lot of hard lessons learned from Twitter’s evolution.

Before she was an accomplished sci-fi writer, Malka Older was an aid worker in Darfur. And in this terrific piece for Foreign Policy, she takes a close look at the Satellite Sentinel Project, a highly acclaimed effort backed by actor George Clooney that sought to use satellites to expose genocide being committed by the Sudanese government. What she finds is sobering: the project was wildly successful at not only tracking but also predicting large-scale violence before it happened, but one of the key learnings of the project is that “documentation is no substitute for political will.”

Apply: The Center for Humane Technology is looking to hire a new executive director.

Applaud: The Cognizant US Foundation (which is a supporter of Civic Hall’s workforce development program) has announced a new $1.2 million grant to the Flatiron School for technology training designed to create job opportunities for underrepresented communities, including women, minorities, veterans, and those with disabilities, in five cities.

Speaking of the Center for Humane Technology, our friend Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, who runs the Emotion Regulation Lab at Hunter College, has written a smart critique of CHT’s core concept of “human downgrading” for Psychology Today. As she writes, “CHT’s mission is to raise awareness about the negative impact of the digital ecosystem on human well-being and to nudge tech companies and power players to combat what they refer to as Human Downgrading – a host of societal problems like addiction, social isolation, outrage, misinformation, and political polarization that they believe result from tech platforms’ efforts to capture and commoditize human attention.” But she argues cogently that this framing understates the resilience of human beings and overstates the power of tech. “Where things go off the tracks is that they think like the Silicon Valley denizens they criticize – in black-and-white, binary terms. For them, it’s our Paleolithic, reptile brains versus god-like technology. It’s the unassailable genius of the tech industry and the superiority of those who run it versus the cattle-like mindlessness of the rest of us consumers who click where they tell us to click.”=

Tech and politics: Democrats have the edge when it comes to developing apps to support “relational organizing,” Gilad Edelman writes for Wired. He highlights the Team app built by the Tuesday Company, which enables campaigns to “organize, coordinate, and measure volunteers’ relational communication and social media activity.” Edelman says, “it turns the kind of informal conversations people are already having about politics into the medium of organized persuasion and turnout efforts. Volunteers upload their contacts—friends, family, coworkers, whomever—to the app. The campaign matches those contacts against their voter lists and tells the volunteers which ones to reach out to, when, and on what subject. Organizers can suggest scripted messaging, but the volunteers are ultimately in control of what they write, as well as what medium they use—texting, Facebook, Twitter DM, and so on. They can also use the app to post to social media in a way that allows the campaign to track engagement.”

It’s interesting that this kind of harnessing of personal contacts is being referred to as “relational organizing” when it’s actually not really about building relationships so much as it is about exploiting them. But that’s what you get when political tech is developed to meet the needs of top-down, short-term campaigns rather the needs of horizontal, community organizing.

Voters in the Greater Seattle area will be able to vote by smartphone in a board of supervisors election just getting underway, Miles Parks reports for NPR. But while advocates for online voting like Bradley Tusk are cheering the news, saying, “This is the most fundamentally transformative reform you can do in democracy,” others are not so sure. “There is a firm consensus in the cybersecurity community that mobile voting on a smartphone is a really stupid idea,” Duncan Buell, a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in election technology, told NPR. “I don’t know that I have run across cybersecurity experts whose mortgages are not paid by a mobile-voting company who think it’s a good idea.”

End times: You’ve been given $10,000 a set of conference rooms, and a weekend. You’ve been instructed that you must hold “your name”-Con. What do you do? What does the event look like? Are there games? panels? speakers? The answers to this tweet are hilarious.

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 and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.     

The post Reptiles vs Gods appeared first on Civic Hall.

Facing Facts

January 21, 2020 - 11:53am

This is civic tech: Cofacts, a collaborative online platform based in Taiwan where users verify the authenticity of content they share, gets profiled by Al-Jazeera’s Randy Mulyanto. He writes, “Set up in 2016, Cofacts is designed as a chatbot and receives approximately 250 questionable messages for verification each week. Each story or video is checked against the platform’s ever-growing database of similar articles or videos that have already been fact-checked, as well as online tools before the outcome is messaged back to the sender.”

New on our Civic Tech Field Guide: a whole fresh reorganization of its Advocacy Tech section, including tech for canvassing, event organizing, direct action, volunteer management, email tools, SMS tools, call campaigns, petitions and fundraising, and a slew of watchdogging and transparency tools as well. Let us know if we missed something!

Say hello to the Apologia Project, which is using “satirical AI-generated media” to increase awareness about the climate emergency.

Privacy, shmivacy: A start-up backed by libertarian VC Peter Thiel, Clearview AI, has built a massive database of publicly available photographs of people (likely by illegally scraping social network sites like Facebook) and has been selling its tool to police departments eager to match photos captured of people in public to their identities, Kashmir Hill reports in a blockbuster story for The New York Times. She notes that while big tech companies have so far avoided crossing this Rubicon, Clearview’s founder, Hoan Ton-That, apparently hadn’t considered the consequences, which she writes, could include: “Strangers would be able to listen in on sensitive conversations, take photos of the participants and know personal secrets. Someone walking down the street would be immediately identifiable — and his or her home address would be only a few clicks away. It would herald the end of public anonymity.” When asked about these implications, Ton-That told her, “I have to think about that,” he said. “Our belief is that this is the best use of the technology.” Oops!

Related: Writing for The New York Times’ Privacy Project, Bruce Schneier argues that banning facial recognition tech is the wrong way to address rising privacy concerns. That’s because our faces are only one way to identify us. People can be identified by their heart-beat, gait, fingerprint, iris patterns—all of which can be obtained remotely via tech. And they can be IDed by their smartphone, credit card or license plate. The issue, he says, is that we need rules protecting people’s privacy and requiring their consent before any of these means are used to remotely ID them and treat them differently from others.

Deep thoughts: Make time for “The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure,” a long essay by Ethan Zuckerman for the Knight First Amendment Institute, which sketches out a challenging but plausible path toward a new generation of public-serving, non-surveilling media.

Heavy smartphone use may not be causing higher levels of anxiety, depression and sleep deprivation among young people, Nathaniel Popper reports for the New York Times. While there may be a correlation, several meta-studies suggest that there isn’t a causal connection, he notes.

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 and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.     

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Captaining America

January 16, 2020 - 5:02pm

This is civic tech: Oh look, a famous Hollywood actor has launched an online civic engagement platform! No, I don’t mean Edward Norton, who co-founded CrowdRise to help good causes raise money but mostly made money for itself. It’s Captain America star Chris Evans, who comes from a political family, as this gushing profile in Wired by Arielle Pardes explains. His effort, A Starting Point, aims to be an “online platform organized into tidy sections—immigration, health care, education, the economy—each with a series of questions of the kind most Americans can’t succinctly answer themselves” and with the answers provided by politicians from both sides being interview by Evans in short videos. The site also makes it easy for users to look up their representatives, find their videos, and contact them directly. Evans’ effort, which he and his partners appear to have already sunk millions into, earned him the cover Wired’s February issue. It’s a shame Evans is wasting his money on this well-intentioned effort, which will go nowhere for all the reasons there is a Civic Tech Field Guide Graveyard.

Attend: A fireside chat with Glenn Rodriguez after a screening of Algorithms Rule Us All on the topic of “Algorithmic Injustice: How I Fought to Win My Freedom After Biased Software Denied Me Parole,” Weds January 29 at 6:00pm at Brooklyn Law School.

Apply: First Draft News is launching its 2020 Local News Fellowships, offering intensive training on tracking and countering disinformation, along with a $20,000 stipend, managed by Nancy Watzman, formerly the director of the Colorado Media Project. The fellowships, which are supported by the Democracy Fund, aim to place at least five paid local news fellows in US communities expected to see large amounts of information pollution in this election year, such as Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida.

The Civic I/O 2020 pitch competition is open for applications; it’s a great opportunity to get your ideas in front of many of America’s leading mayors.

NYC’s New Lab, in partnership with the Economic Development Corporation, has launched Circular City, an open call for start-ups to use tech to help achieve the city’s sustainability goals.

Brave new world: “In practice, the ‘be your own boss’ promise of the gig economy instantly vanishes the moment you take on a gig job: It is, instead, a system that relentlessly dictates your schedule,” Lia Russell writes for The New Republic, in a searing piece about what life is like for many people living in Silicon Valley’s shadow.

Food for thought: Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic on how Silicon Valley has abandoned the start-up.

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 and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.     

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Tainted Pasts

January 14, 2020 - 3:20pm

This is civic tech: Our Andrew Rasiej and Jessica Quinn have an op-ed titled “Big Tech has a diversity problem” in Crain’s New York Business today on why the news that Big Tech companies are expanding their operations here needs to be accompanied by a more comprehensive and strategically inclusive approach to tech workforce development. “We need more public infrastructure supporting continuous learning and reskilling, effectively bridging hiring gaps and weaning Big Tech off its preference for Ivy League grads over CUNY grads,” they write.
Five leaders in the govtech arena talk to Ben Miller of on how the field has evolved (and not evolved as expected) in the last five years.
New York lawmakers are proposing to create a “public Venmo” payment system to help the unbanked and stimulate local economic growth, Jordana Rosenfeld reports for Motherboard.
Zack Quaintance reports for on how the Better Reykavik civic deliberation platform is starting to be used by government entities in the US.
Apply: The last day to submit proposals for The Impacts of Civic Tech (TICTeC) 2020 conference is this Friday.
Attend: BetaNYC and NYC Media Lab, among others, are helping organize #CreativesfortheCount, a create-a-thon aimed at figuring out strategies to improve the 2020 census count of children, Wednesday, January 22nd at the NYC Media Lab.
Attend: Demos and New America are presenting the launch of Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in An Era of Crisis, a new book by Sabeel Rahman and Hollie Russon Gilman, here at Civic Hall, Thursday, January 23rd at 6pm.
Subscribe: Longtime tech-democracy watcher Alex Howard is launching a text-based alert service called Subtext. [Correction: Subtext is the service Howard is using; the name of his alerts is “Making Sense of the Zeitgeist.” More info here.]  
The MIT mess, continued: Late on Friday afternoon, the traditional time for bad-news news dumps, MIT posted the report of a fact-finding effort into its ties to deceased child sex predator Jeffrey Epstein done by its law firm Goodwin-Proctor. Among the report’s revelations:

  • MIT Physics Professor Seth Lloyd received a personal gift from Epstein of $60,000 that he never reported to the university, and he also received two donations totaling $100,000 from Epstein for his university work without telling the university that Epstein was the donor. Lloyd was introduced to Epstein by his book agent, John Brockman, at an Edge “billionaires’ dinner” in 2004, and visited Epstein while he was serving his prison term. Lloyd has now been placed on leave by MIT. (Students at MIT have been demanding his dismissal for several months.)
  • Starting in 2013, three top members of MIT’s senior team knew of and approved of Epstein’s donations, knowing that he was a convicted sex offender, and having considered the “reputational risk” involved. They also decided to make his donations anonymous, an initiative that the report found has never been taken on behalf of any other donor. Though Epstein’s donations to MIT only amounted to $850,000, the report makes clear that MIT officials were hoping he might give much more, and that anything below $5 million would not need to be acknowledged publicly.
  • MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito was introduced to Epstein at the 2013 TED conference by a common friend, Linda Stone (the inventor of the phrase “continuous partial attention”—maybe she should have been paying more attention). Though Epstein was barred from attending TED because of his record as a registered sex offender, that didn’t prevent him from hanging out in the hallways where the meeting apparently took place.
  • Ito told the investigators that he then performed “due diligence” on Epstein, performing a Google search of Epstein and speaking to various individuals about him. “According to Ito, the ‘influential’ people with whom he spoke included Nicholas Negroponte, Media Lab co-founder…members of the Media Lab Advisory Council; tech billionaires, including a former LinkedIn senior executive and co-founder; and a well-known Harvard Law School professor. Ito also met other influential individuals at meetings with Epstein, including Woody Allen, a senior executive at the Hyatt Corporation, and a former prime minister of Israel. Ito explained that these meetings and discussions influenced his view of Epstein.”
  • A staffer working for Ito flagged Epstein’s Wikipedia entry at this time for Ito’s attention, but Ito apparently shrugged it off, writing Negroponte, “He has a tainted past, but Linda Stone assures me he’s awesome.” Negroponte, replied saying that Marvin Minsky, the lab’s founder, had “even visited him in jail,” and added “I would take Berlusconi’s money, so why not Jeff’s.” A few weeks later, Ito asked Stone again about Epstein, noting that “people in my office are weirded out as you can imagine.” She replied, “[h]e’s given a tremendous amount of money to Harvard” and “other scientists. Good to show that list.” Stone further advised Ito to “[f]ocus on his funding of Harvard, scientists, over many years” and noted that he “aggressively funds science & tech & interesting people.” To date, Harvard has not conducted any fresh accounting of the donations it received from Epstein.
  • Participants in Epstein’s visits to MIT between 2013 and 2017 included tech luminaries Reid Hoffman, Danny Hillis and Megan Smith, the latter who happened to be coincidentally at the university and who led an impromptu conversation with Epstein about her research into gender bias in the tech industry. I kid you not.
  • At one point, Ito considered the possibility of having Epstein visit MIT along with film director Woody Allen, then in the news for allegations about child sex abuse, and “Ito then emailed Epstein to relay the concern, commenting that “[s]ince you two were just in the news recently, I wonder if that might be bad.”
  • Epstein funded two of Ito’s personal ventures:  $250,000 in a company that was formed to commercialize technology developed at MIT, and $1 million into a $9 million private investment fund that Ito manages. Ito says he is attempting to “eject” Epstein’s money from these ventures.
  • After the Miami Herald’s explosive 2018 investigation into Epstein’s plea deal, Ito emailed friends and family saying he had cut off ties with Epstein, but the report notes that he continued to cultivate the financier into 2019. The 2018 MIT Media Center Disobedience Award had been awarded to the founders of the #MeToo movement, a fact that a junior staffer noted in complaining about the ongoing relationship.

Related: Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig is suing the New York Times, saying it defamed him for a headline that said he was “doubling down” on his defense of his longtime friend Joi Ito when he tried to explain that taking Epstein’s money anonymously was a mistake. You can re-read Lessig’s original essay on all of this here, which IMHO is written in a confusing enough way that a lot of people could have read it as saying the opposite of what Lessig says he meant (and indeed, Lessig added an addendum because of that confusion). That said, Lessig’s defense of his friend Ito is rooted in his belief that Ito only pursued Epstein because he was doing his job for an institution that required him to raise lots of money. If that was it, why did Ito let Epstein invest $1.25M into two of Ito’s personal investment vehicles?

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 and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.     

The post Tainted Pasts appeared first on Civic Hall.

Sugar, Sugar

January 9, 2020 - 6:25pm

This is civic tech: Seth Flaxman, co-founder of, gets a glowing profile from The Financial Times’s Gillian Tett. She notes that when Flaxman first got going, it was hard to convince people in the social enterprise sector to support efforts at strengthening voter participation. Not so any longer, she says, with raising $17 million in the past year.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his Chief Technology Officer John Paul Farmer yesterday released an ambitious new Internet Master Plan aimed to ensure “world-class connectivity” for all the city’s residents. Arguing that “no New Yorker should have to choose between a mobile phone bill and a monthly food bill,” the plan envisions steering the private sector towards universal service with a focus on covering parts of the city that lack meaningful or affordable connectivity. Nearly half of city households living in poverty do not have home broadband, and almost 38% of Bronx residents lack it.
While the report recognizes the serious digital divide in NYC and leans hard into finding ways to better use public resources to expand broadband access, it also implicitly recognizes the constraints on city resources that come with the lack of home rule, saying that where residents are underserved, “The City will offer the first seed investments in new, public broadband infrastructure. Initial investments will establish successful technical and partnership models, with private partners extending the public infrastructure using complementary private investment. In some cases, the value of bundled assets and revenue from the infrastructure may be enough to attract private-partner participation. At a minimum, the City will seek a partner who will maintain the infrastructure, make it available to operators on a non-exclusive basis, and add its own equipment and operations capacity to ensure new services become available.”
Potentially good news: A group of early internet pioneers led by Esther Dyson, the first chair of ICANN, and including Katherine Maher, the head of the Wikimedia Foundation, have organized a nonprofit cooperative to stop the sale of the dot-org domain to a hedge fund and instead take it over and keep it out of the for-profit economy, Steve Lohr reports for The New York Times.
Definitely bad news: The digital organizing group CREDO Action has been abruptly shut down by its parent phone company, CREDO, putting ten staff out of work, as Chase DiFeliciantonio reports for the San Francisco Chronicle. I emailed CREDO’s CEO Ray Morris, asking if he could explain the decision and how it would affect CREDO’s longstanding support for progressive organizations. He wrote back, noting that since 1985 CREDO had donated more than $88 million to progressive nonprofits while funding the CREDO Action team for almost 20 years. He added, “A note is being sent to members now to let them know that we remain deeply committed to advancing our shared progressive values, however beginning today we will no longer be engaging in direct activism campaigns. We will instead direct our community efforts solely through our philanthropy,” he added. 
Apply: Travel grants for this year’s Personal Democracy Forum CEE in Gdansk, Poland, are now open.
Life in Facebookistan: Company VP Andrew Bosworth, last in the news in 2016 when an internal memo he wrote admitting that Facebook’s never-ending drive to connect everyone in the world would have bad effects including perhaps someone dying “in a terrorist attack because of our tools,” is in the news again for a new internal memo that he wrote December 30th, which was obtained by Kevin Roose, Sheera Frankel and Mike Isaac of The New York Times. In this memo, he argues that while Cambridge Analytica didn’t win the 2016 election for Trump, the Trump campaign’s own masterful use of Facebook’s advertising platform (which Bosworth oversaw and thus is a shill for) got him elected. And, in terms of what’s made the memo newsworthy, Bosworth shares how he would very much like to ensure that Trump not get re-elected, but he avers that he would never tamper with its platform to achieve that end.
The whole memo is deeply self-serving and ought to be read with an IV bag filled with salt dripping into your carotid artery. For example, he claims that the Trump campaign didn’t micro-target or say different things to different people, but that is exactly what the FB advertising platform enables. By raising the idea of tilting 2020 away from Trump and then denying it, he is (yet again) performing the dance Facebook executives have adopted for all things political, which is to try to make all sides happy. But what’s most frustrating about the memo is what it demonstrates about the worldview inside the top echelons there: Bosworth is convinced that the real problem with Facebook is us. That is, it has no choice but to keep pumping junk content into the global bloodstream because we humans just crave it, like sugar. He writes:

While Facebook may not be nicotine I think it is probably like sugar. Sugar is delicious and for most of us there is a special place for it in our lives. But like all things it benefits from moderation. At the end of the day we are forced to ask what responsibility individuals have for themselves. Set aside substances that directly alter our neurochemistry unnaturally. Make costs and trade-offs as transparent as possible. But beyond that each of us must take responsibility for ourselves. If I want to eat sugar and die an early death that is a valid position. My grandfather took such a stance towards bacon and I admired him for it. And social media is likely much less fatal than bacon.

And no responsible company executive would ever dream of not giving the public what it wants, right?
Speaking of Facebook PR, here’s the saga of a piece of “sponsored” content from Facebook profiling five female company managers involved in the company’s efforts to protect the 2020 election that appeared, and then disappeared, from the pages of Teen Vogue, as reported by Rachel Abrams and Cecilia Kang report for The New York Times.
Food for thought: Stanford and Data & Society researcher Becca Lewis argues that “YouTube could remove its recommendation algorithm entirely tomorrow and it would still be one of the largest sources of far-right propaganda and radicalization online.” That’s because the video platform is an engine for creating celebrities, and far-right content creators use it to effectively build trust and intimacy with their audiences, “aligning qualities of authenticity and transparency with reactionary politics,” she writes.
Farmers in the Midwest are bidding up the price of 40-year-old tractors at auctions because they run just as well as newer ones and don’t need computers to be repaired, Adam Belz reports for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
End times: Just 28% of registered voters can correctly identify where Iran is on a map of the Middle East, a new poll from Morning Consult finds.
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Just In Time

January 7, 2020 - 4:08pm

This is civic tech: MySociety CEO Mark Cridge blogs that the long-running UK civic tech organization is going to make the climate crisis its overarching priority this year. “We’ll still talk about democracy; but more than likely we’ll be considering how participatory and deliberative approaches can be useful in finding consensus on the difficult decisions we’ll all need to take to avoid the worst climate impacts,” he writes.
NiemanLab asked a bunch of smart people for their predictions about the future of journalism and we quite like this one from Barbara Gray, the chief librarian and an associate professor of investigative research methods at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. She writes, “In 2020, local nonprofit media, j-schools, and civic tech projects will continue to ally with one of our most trusted institutions — libraries — to empower citizens to build the communities they want,” and she predicts “The alliance of these institutions can help foster community engagement, earn trust, benefit communities, and strengthen democracy.” Amen to that. (h/t Fiona Teng)
Matt Stempeck reports on all of last month’s updates to our Civic Tech Field Guide, including 171 new entries, a detailed section on narrative tech, tagging of “commercial” tools that have civic uses, and a lot more.
A lot of Americans have gotten more engaged in civic action since 2016, but as some guy named Sifry argues in the New Republic in a review of Dana Fisher’s new book American Resistance, “forms of digital organizing may have gotten in the way of a real revival of grassroots Democratic activism. Those millions of people are not for the most part joining local groups and reviving the party’s base. More often they are channeled by sophisticated algorithmic sorting tools into performing just-in-time acts of voter engagement with as little friction or social interaction as possible. There is a danger that, just as Facebook turned real friendship into a status update to be monetized, the national liberal-left email groups have turned real membership into a metric to be optimized.” 

Are you tracking your civic health yet?
Tech and politics: With the Netflix documentary The Great Hack in the running for an Oscar nomination, one of its erstwhile stars, Brittany Kaiser, has started leaking more information from her time working for Cambridge Analytica, Carole Cadwalladr reports for the Guardian. Count me as still skeptical that any of this is as big a deal as Kaiser and Cadwalladr want us to think it is.
Say hello to Hawkfish, a relatively new political data firm started by presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg last spring which is now bulking up on staff as he rapidly spins up his operations, as Brian Schwartz reports for CNBC.
Life in Facebookistan: Facebook is banning users from posting so-called “deep fake” videos, Tony Romm, Drew Harwell and Isaac Stanley-Becker report for The Washington Post. Parodies or misinformation like the “drunk” video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would not be covered by the ban, they note.
Ross LaJeunesse was head of international relations for Google, but after 11 years at the tech giant, he has resigned, burning his bridges with this essay on how the company has gone “evil,” doing such things as “working with the Chinese government on artificial intelligence or hosting the applications of the Saudi government, including Absher, an application that allows men to track and control the movement of their female family members.” LaJeunesse has announced he’s running for U.S. Senate from Maine, where he’s from, so one may want to take his words in that context. But it’s still quite a damning document from a person who was once pretty high up in the company.
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 and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.     

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Civic Resolve

January 6, 2020 - 12:10pm

According to a November-December 2018 survey conducted by NPR and PBS, nearly half of all American adults said they planned to make a New Year’s resolution. Personal health topped their plans, with 13% saying they would exercise more, 12% saying they would stop smoking and 10% saying they would lose weight. New Year’s resolutions tend to be personal of course, so it’s not surprising to see health along with other forms of self-improvement dominate the list. When it came to other-directed goals, the poll found 9% saying they wanted to be a better person, 2% saying they wanted to be kinder to others, and just 1% saying they wanted to get politically involved.
Being civic, that is, being engaged with others focused on common, publicly-shared needs, doesn’t rank very high among Americans, it seems. As Eitan Hersh writes in his valuable new book, Politics is For Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change, Americans spend very little time on civic or volunteer activity. According to a regular survey done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that asks Americans how they spent their previous day, the average person has about five-and-a-half hours of leisure time. About three-quarters of that is spent watching TV or on a computer. Americans spend just about nine minutes, averaged across all of us, in civic or volunteer activity.
Even people who are daily news consumers, the so-called “highly informed” part of the electorate, aren’t civically engaged very much. Hersh writes, “Consider the American National Election Study, the flagship political science survey of America attitudes since the 1940s. Among daily news consumers in 2016, less than 4 percent reported doing any work whatsoever on behalf of a campaign or party that election year. Even among those who reported that they were afraid of Donald Trump, only 5 percent reported that they did any work to support their side.”
Don’t pat yourself on the back if you are a regular voter, in other words. Being civic means being involved, and most of us just aren’t. Hersh adds, “Of Americans who consume news every day, most report belonging to zero organizations. Sixty-five percent report that in the last year they have done no work with other people to solve a community problem. Sixty-eight percent say they have attended zero meetings in the last year about a community issues.” He notes, by the way, that most of this data probably skews upward—that is, people tell pollsters they are more active than they actually are.
And, worst of all, of the people who claim to be politically active—a third of all Americans say they spend two hours a day on politics, Hersh found in a 2018 survey—80% of those people report that time is spent spectating, consuming news and social media and sharing content with others. Hersh calls those people “political hobbyists.” Are you one?
The National Conference on Citizenship produces annual civic health indexes in collaboration with many partners. It defines “civic health” as “the degree to which citizens participate in their communities, from local and state governance to interactions with friends or family. Civic health also relates to the overall well-being of neighborhoods, communities, states, and the nation.” For its reports, NCOC looks at a variety of metrics, including voter registration rates, how much people talk about politics with friends or family, trust in institutions, social connectedness, and various forms of civic participation including attending public meetings, charitable giving and volunteering.
So here’s a challenge. If you made a resolution to improve your health this year, how about including your civic health? I’ve made a simple spreadsheet with a ten point list of activities you can score yourself on: My Civic Health Tracker, at Feel free to copy that if you want to use it privately, or add your name and start tracking your monthly activity. (Power users: this is very beta, so if you want to suggest improvements or ways to change the scoring, dive in and make comments.)
We all know 2020, indeed, the 2020s, are going to be a critical time. How we show up as civic actors will be crucial.
P.S. Some good reading on how tech fits into this larger picture: Douglas Rushkoff in The Guardian on how we’ve been defined and reshaped and Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times on how to avoid dystopia.
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.

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Time Passages

December 19, 2019 - 3:24pm

This is civic tech: It’s the end of a decade, in case you haven’t noticed. (For me, time is a seamless stream and I don’t notice social constructs like “years” or “months.” I frankly can’t remember what today’s date is without looking at my phone or the little calendar icon on the bottom of my screen. In other words, I’m trying to ignore the aging process.) And ends of decades mean even more of the usual “end of the year” retrospectives, which are how lots of media properties repurpose old content rather than spending more money on new work that they worry no one will read anyway. So, if you want to really enjoy some tech flagellation in the end of decade department, you can check out Derek Thompson in the Atlantic complaining that the real “trouble” with Silicon Valley isn’t toxic social media, it’s that it hasn’t transformed the real world problems of “deteriorating infrastructure, climate change, low growth, rising economic inequality.” You can squint at this infographic. Or you can wallow in “The Decade Tech Lost Its Way,” a special section of the New York Times that I lost my way in trying to navigate through online. (Seriously, when was Big Tech’s “way” different?)
Maybe it’s only a certain kind of tech that “lost its way.” Far better to keep our eyes on the prize that civic tech aims for, which is demonstrable improvements solving social problems that affect people’s lives or better how we govern ourselves. There are a couple dozen civic tech organizations, a mix of for-profits and nonprofits, that can rightfully look back on the 2010s as a decade of real impact. For example:

  •’s more than 260 million users globally have started more than 25,000 campaigns a month and won many on issue ranging from women’s rights to health care to environmental justice;
  • In just the last three years, Code for America has helped expunge the criminal records of tens of thousands of people, helping them get their lives on track;
  • SeeClickFix users have posted and gotten more than 5.5 million local issues resolved in the last ten years;
  • Ioby, the neighborhood civic crowdfunding platform, has trained 20,000 local community leaders and helped more than 2,000 local projects get off the ground;
  • Digital Democracy, which has been building powerful technologies with indigenous groups on the ground in the Amazon for ten years, just won a huge legal victory protecting local Waorani land rights in Ecuador;
  • Campaigners using NationBuilder raised more than $400 million in donations and made nearly 12 million contacts in 2018 alone;
  • has helped hundreds of millions of Americans find out where their polling site is over the last several national elections; sent out millions of election reminders to its more than 7 million Turbovote subscribers, tracked hundreds of thousands of ballots through the mail; and helped a huge number find out how to register or obtain an absentee ballot.

All of these are examples of tech-enabled life improvement and power-shifting. There’s another story to be told about the impact of tech, it just doesn’t involve many celebrity VCs or much about a place called Silicon Valley.
In that vein, check out this new interview I did on Civicist with Dan Kass and Georges Clement, two of the co-founders of, a rising civic tech nonprofit that is focused on using data and tech to advance housing justice.
All that said, as we look ahead to (gulp) 2020s, it’s worth pondering how people using emerging technologies will warp the future. Tiago Peixoto and Tom Steinberg, two of the most experienced practitioners and analysts of civic tech, have published a new report with the World Bank titled, “Citizen Engagement: Emerging Digital Technologies Create New Risk and Value.” At the report’s heart are 11 predictions looking at the possible impacts of synthetic media, data-driven government, automated identity verification, online deliberation platforms, speech filtering by platforms, augmented reality, and blockchain-based tools on democratic processes. Peixoto and Steinberg are pessimistic about how disinformation and the use of “social credit” systems may reduce civic engagement and exclude many citizens from public processes. On the other hand, they see potential promise in the rise of verified voting, digital engagement platforms and the use of augmented reality to increase civic awareness and the abilities of citizens to participate in representative processes. And they come down in the middle in some unexpected ways on topics like automation, which they recognize may improve some government services but also reduce the personal nature of communication between citizens and governments, and the use of bots, which they suggest could help activists reduce some of the time and energy they have to spend on administrative tasks, allowing more time for organizing. All in all, it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking report, well worth a careful reading.
In a similar vein, the AI Now Institute is out with a big end-of-year report with 12 key recommendations, including:

  • Banning the use of “affect recognition” technologies that claim to be able to read people’s personalities, emotions or mental health;
  • Adopting a moratorium on the use of facial recognition by government and business, because of existing harms to people of color and the poor;
  • Mandating the public disclosure of the environmental impacts of AI;
  • Giving workers the right to contest the use of exploitative AI in the workplace;
  • Giving tech workers more abilities to challenge the unethical development or use of AI;
  • More transparency into public-private partnerships involving the use of AI (like police forces gaining access to Amazon’s Ring system)

Focusing more on the immediate challenges and opportunities with tech workforce development in New York City, City and State’s Annie McDonough profiles Civic Hall co-founder Andrew Rasiej.
Apply: The Center for Democracy and Technology is looking for a CEO.
Coming back to reality in the country a few billion of us live in, Facebookistan: Conservative libertarian Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member, is reportedly pressing company CEO Mark Zuckerberg to not change the company’s stated policy of not factchecking political ads.
Related: Henry Silverman, a Facebook product manager, announced Tuesday that the company is working with YouGov, the polling company, to build a pool of community reviewers “that is representative of the Facebook community in the US and reflects the diverse viewpoints — including political ideology — of Facebook users” to help the company spot potential misinformation. So if those community reviewers already believe a piece of junk information is factual, their bias will help Facebook decide whether to follow up on a claim that something is not true. Great! (h/t Kevin Roose).
The giant social network won’t ban false political ads, but in keeping with Zuckerberg’s longstanding fear of female nipples, it blocked a new advertising campaign by Storq, a company that makes maternity clothes, for violating policies prohibiting ads that are “sexually suggestive or provocative” or “overly focusing on one body part.” The horror!
Facebook is investing an astounding $130 million on its yet-to-be-operational independent advisory board, which will have the power to rule on content moderation decisions, Elizabeth Culliford reports for Reuters. The money is intended to cover operational costs for at least six years. Casey Newton of The Verge has a more judicious write-up about how the advisory board is taking shape that you are welcome to read; I can’t get over the fact that the company is going to spend more than triple the annual budgets of Code for America, EFF, the Internet Archive, and Access Now combined on this new body; or roughly equal the annual budget for the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia. $20 million a year for a board of 20 people and some case management software?!
If you don’t live in Facebookistan, you probably live in China, where the surveillance state is becoming much more pervasive, with local police gaining the ability to link facial recognition to cell phone data in real time, Paul Mozur and Aaron Krolik report for The New York Times. Their story casts the development in terrifying terms, since, as they write, “Once combined and fully operational, the tools can help police grab the identities of people as they walk down the street, find out who they are meeting with and identify who does and doesn’t belong to the Communist Party.” But deeper in the piece, there is much evidence that data leaks and petty corruption may make parts of the system less functional. In some cases, local residents are quietly pushing back on some of the more intrusive aspects of surveillance, using an old technology called plywood to prop open apartment building doors to get around facial scanners.
Speaking of surveillance, Vice’s Joseph Cox reports that “Amazon-owned home security company Ring is not doing enough to stop hackers breaking into customer accounts, and in turn, their cameras, according to multiple cybersecurity experts, people who write tools to break into accounts, and Motherboard’s own analysis with a Ring camera it bought to test the company’s security protections.” Ring has responded to reports of hacking by blaming its customers, but Cox notes that the product “is not offering basic security precautions, such as double-checking whether someone logging in from an unknown IP address is the legitimate user, or providing a way to see how many users are currently logged in—entirely common security measures across a wealth of online services.”
Google has fired a fifth employee for using the company’s internal information platform to share information relating to labor rights, Catherine Thorbecke reports for ABC News. The worker, Kathryn Spiers, has filed a federal labor complaint.
And with that, it’s time for an end of the year break. May you all have restful and peaceful holidays, and we’ll see you in 2020!

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.

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Using Tech for Housing Justice: The JustFix.NYC Story

December 18, 2019 - 5:17pm

Several weeks ago, I got a chance to catch up with Dan Kass and Georges Clement, two of the three co-founders of JustFix.NYC, a rising civic tech nonprofit that has been earning a lot of positive attention for the ways it is supporting tenants and affordable housing advocacy. As they both show in this conversation, JustFix has learned a lot of valuable lessons about how to co-create effective civic tech tools and practices, working closely with the community it is rooted in, using technology for housing justice. Kass recently announced that he was stepping down from the role of executive director, and Clement has stepped in as the organization’s acting executive director.

Sifry: Where to begin? How do you tell your story?

Dan Kass: Georges and I met at the Blue Ridge Labs Fellowship program, with our third cofounder, Ashley Treni, back in 2015. That was the same year that we did the NYC Big Apps competition, and we have pretty much just been going at it since then. JustFix started as a side project that I had been working on, collaborating with organizers in my neighborhood, doing tenant organizing work, with a perspective of how data and technology can contribute to what they were trying to do.

It took us a couple of years to figure out the funding game and really build out a team. We’re up to about 10 people now with two very complimentary services.  One is meant for individual tenants, anyone here in the city, public housing or private housing, that’s having issues in their apartment that will likely lead to displacement. Our mission at its core is to stem the flow of working class and low income communities leaving the city. Helping to get repairs and fight harassment from your landlord and understanding the process of fighting evictions, understanding the legal process, connecting with resources, things like that.

We have a number of different products that fall under that side of the work, either really easy to use texting services or fully-fledged web apps. What was really effective was doing these individual small projects one at a time and really seeing which ones stuck, and then building out the usability and accessibility side of those.

Q: How do you test and discover what sticks?   

Kass: My first civic tech introduction happened to be a workshop that Laurenellen McCann was  hosting. I’m kind of lucky to have started there. We have built lots of one-on-one relationships with tenants, plus a partnership network with tenant organizing groups who really have a lot of the institutional knowledge. Our staff is not just techies–we’re hiring organizers and building a multidisciplinary environment, where on a day to day basis, everyone’s really coming together and brainstorming around that.

Georges Clement: Usage is developed through actual contact with people as opposed to what’s viral on the web.

Kass: This is not the field of dreams kind of situation. Part of Ashley’s thesis was also really looking at preexisting behavior and what are they doing with smartphones in particular. What she saw was folks who are already documenting these issues. You’re already taking photos of your apartment. You already have these text messages with your super, with your landlord, so there’s already this process of documentation. But to then bring that into a legal setting where you’re on your own, you don’t have access to an attorney, you don’t have the right to an attorney a lot of the time. The question was how can you really leverage that in a way that’s actually going to drive results? And so we built a lot of our products around that challenge.

Clement: Just in the past few weeks, we have gotten agreements to launch what we’re calling the design advisory council. We’ve had relationships with dozens of legal aid providers and major community organizations, and more informal organizing groups, over the past few years. Now we’re using this design advisory council to formalize relationships with a handful of them and have it be a regular advisory group that is coming together on a quarterly basis. And then in addition to that we host workshops at each of the organizations on a regular basis, working with their tenant leaders as well as their paid professional organizing staff.

Q: How many people do you think you’re serving?

Kass: We have served just over 15,000 individuals. We launched our first tenant service in 2016. Obviously we are hoping to reach a lot more than that. This sort of segues into the fact that direct tenant services are really just half of the puzzle. What we can see from the outcome of these tools is in many cases that’s really a driver of getting a better dynamic with the landlord, actually getting repairs, for example. But we also know that the service delivery component alone isn’t necessarily transforming some of the root cause issues of how tenants get into some of these harassing and disrepair situations to begin with.   

So tenant services are one thing. And then on the other side, we started to really look at what are some of the more structural and institutional causes.  One of the biggest things that we are hearing from organizers is the difficulty in just tracking some of these landlords, due to the patterns of property ownership in the city. Every building is owned by a shell company, a limited liability corporation. So around 2017, we started to take a really deep dive  into some of the property ownership data and found a way to build an algorithm for property ownership mapping where you can really connect the dots and the shell companies to proactively display the buildings that are part of large corporate landlord portfolios.

In many cases, there are a handful of landlords that are really at the forefront of displacement. They know what neighborhoods to be investing in that are going to be gentrifying in a few years, ahead of time, and have business models established around how they’re proactively displacing tenants.

So we built this tool called Who Owns What that has has an order of magnitude more engagement than anything else we’ve ever done. Hundreds of thousands of people are using it,  including over several thousand people who use it on a daily basis. It was designed originally for tenant organizers to be able to use. But since we launched we’ve radically expanded the types of users who are on the platform, including legal aid attorneys that are building more comprehensive sort of litigation like class action status across a landlord’s portfolio. You’ve never been able to do that before. We’ve also been doing a lot of city council trainings on the tools so they can understand who’s doing what in their neighborhood.

The community reinvestment arm of banks are also using it to understand who this landlord is that might be applying for financing and make a more informed decision about them. City agencies themselves now use this tool. 

So while individuals are finding value with this tool, it’s also a pipeline into aligning this database of people and buildings to really fuel collective action, or organizing on a larger scale, class action litigation, and it allows the city to do more proactive enforcement.

Q: Say more about that. It’s not obvious to me right off the bat how helping individuals in their engagement with battling their landlord through the legal process to shame them or legally forced them to do something, how that leads to collective awareness or action. And the same goes for a search tool. Yes, lots of people are using your tool, which is awesome. But then what gets them into any kind of collective formation that they’re all identifying as people with the same problem who need to band together and then do something together.

Kass: We don’t have everything drilled in just yet. This is our idea at least. If we had just made kind of like a “Yelp for landlords” type thing, with no real clear incentives for people to contribute to the platform. We’re trying to provide incentives where people are really going to say, ‘Oh, here’s the actual value I can get out of putting my data into this platform, into this tool.’

Q: So when a person is battling a landlord, they’re also given the option to make the information they’re using available in some other ways.

Kass: We give get them the choice to do that, an opt in. The potential is because we have this partnership network of legal aid organizations and the organizing groups, if this offers them a better way to access all of these individuals and connect them together. So say you’re a legal aid attorney and you’re getting complaints around a particular landlord. You’re able to search for that landlord and we can give you the contact information of a dozen different people who live in a dozen different buildings that, that landlord owns spread across the city.   That’s something that has never been able to have been done before. So it’s really about these individuals opting in to having their data aggregated in a way that opens up the opportunity for all of this collective action that our partners can galvanize.

Q: Talk more about your partners and who’s paying for all of this.

Kass: I started this work with the Crown Heights tenants union, a group of people who really care about their neighborhood. Other groups are organizing it on a very local basis, all the way up to more traditional tenants’ rights nonprofits to the Legal Aid Society, which is a multi-million dollar operation spread across the city. Some of our partners are tenants’ rights nonprofits that have been around for over a hundred years. Certainly technology is something that is not there, a lingua franca, but they know that they want it. That’s a role that we help to play within the larger ecosystem.

Clement: On the legal side of things, one of the power users is the city’s Commission on Human Rights, because there’s lots of landlords that they come across that have this pattern of discrimination. The Robin Hood Foundation has been a supporter of ours from the very beginning and they’re very interested in the direct service side of things. How do we serve individual tenants to get their issues resolved?  We’ve also gotten funding through the Community Reinvestment Act function at a number of banks around New York, which is really interesting and sort of something that we’ve learned over the past few years. We’ve gotten funding from a number of other foundations, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneering Ideas portfolio, the Open Society Foundations, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

The first couple of years were very difficult because we were basically subsisting off of random prize money and stuff. And so it was basically just the three of us and it takes a lot to sustain yourself. There’s a big [funding] chasm there. To now be at the point that we’re at, with a growing team and  a million dollar budget, is very exciting.

We also see it as an opportunity and a responsibility that we’ve been given—the chance to do really interesting work in this space.

Q: Do you see yourselves only staying in New York or, or is this becoming something that people want you to do in other places?

Kass: So there’s definitely a lot of interest in us replicating these products in other places.  We started with a relationship with a group in Los Angeles, for example. People have seen our track record in New York, both the products that we’ve built, but also how we’ve gone about that, and so our goal is really bringing that same kind of model and doing a co-design process  there to understand what are the experiments that we can run that are based off of the priorities and the need that we uncover together.

Q: How do you think you fit into the larger civic tech ecosystem?  Also given your experience since 2015, where you think the gaps and needs are?

Kass: One thing that I observe about the work that we do, going back from day one, is we’ve always been pretty pragmatic. We’ve been pretty gung-ho about just doing the work, not necessarily have been as good about talking about the work that we do. We think we have a lot that we’ve learned that we are really eager to at least share into a broader conversation. We know that a lot of folks are also thinking about these things, such as how do we do real co-design? How can these tools do more sort of root cause issue work and be more transformative, and also where are they limited and where is that inherently the case? We are also really interesting in seeing how technology can be embedded within social justice work and different social justice movements, as another tactic in that fight and to really equip folks who have been on the front lines of this work for decades.  Our tagline is “supporting a 21st century housing movement” and so that’s about adding to this continuum of social justice work with a new sort of toolkit.

Clement: The idea of being a data and technology layer of the movement and building that particular capacity within the larger movement that’s happening is really critical. I recently spent some time with Palak Shah, from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and she is also focused on the possibility for technology and product development to be a capacity building element of a social justice movement.

Kass: Folks in the housing movement say the single largest constituency in New York are tenants. And imagine if you can really have the opportunity to organize around that and have a narrative around that? Because you know the opportunities for home ownership are only getting further away. There’s just no real way to really organize or activate it yet. And you know, I’m not going to say we are the silver bullet to any of that, but we think we’re an important piece of it.

Q:  I think it’s really interesting to think of JustFix as a civic tech startup that started rooted in a problem rather than a solution looking for the problem. You started with the problem of housing precarity and what can we do? Let’s ask the people who have the problem. This is absolutely civic tech’s third wave. The first wave was individuals who acted on their own to hack something and then kind of blew people’s minds with what they were able to do. The second wave that got attention was institutionalizing that type of behavior and beginning to create platforms or ongoing organizations around that type of work. The third wave is people developing from the standpoint of “let’s ask people what they need.”

Kass: Or, as Laurenellen McCann put it, “build with, not for.”


The post Using Tech for Housing Justice: The JustFix.NYC Story appeared first on Civic Hall.

There Goes Gravity

December 18, 2019 - 2:59pm

This is civic tech: Bernice Chan of Inkstone News profiles Fu King-wa, a media scholar at the University of Hong Kong and the maker of Weiboscope and WeChatscope. Both are ingenious tools for tracking the patterns of government censorship in China. Every day, they make copies of hundreds of thousands of posts on Weibo and WeChat; later, by revisiting them, the tools discover which topics have been censored.
Most 2020 political campaigns have no staff dedicated to dealing pro-actively with online disinformation campaigns, Davey Alba reports for The New York Times.
Here’s a useful guide called Defusing Disinfo they could consult. And here’s a new and fairly comprehensive resource guide from the Oxford Internet Institute aimed more at helping civil society organizations work through how they want to handle online disinformation.
Here’s a set of interesting recommendations for ways makers of synthetic media tools (aka “deepfake technology”) could insure that their products aren’t used unethically, from Aviv Ovadya writing for MIT Technology Review.
Tech and politics: With Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) out of the Democratic presidential primary, it appears that a lot of tech moguls are now lining up behind South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who, like Harris, has avoided the tough line other top Democratic contenders have taken regarding the power of Big Tech. As Theodore Schleifer reports for ReCode, the hosts for a fundraiser for him in Palo Alto yesterday included Netflix CEO and co-founder Reed Hastings; Nicole Shanahan, the wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin; Wendy Schmidt, the wife of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt; and Michelle Sandberg, the sister of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Another event for him in Woodside is being co-hosted by Justin Rosenstein, the co-founder of Asana. It has been previously reported that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan had recommended top staffers to Buttigieg.
Speaking of Buttigieg, here’s Charles Homans, the politics editor of The New York Times Magazine, with a piece titled, “How the Internet Came to Loathe Pete Buttigieg,” writing sentences like, “The gravitational center of the rage against Buttigieg has been Very Online, as has the maximalism of its tone — its insistence that Buttigieg, by thriving within the American architecture of capitalism and privilege, must personally embody all its worst qualities. On left Twitter, it is axiomatic that Buttigieg is not merely a relentlessly ambitious striver but an actual ‘sociopath.’” In general, whenever you see a politics writer claiming “the Internet” has any coherent belief, you should run in the other direction.
According to this report by Vanity Fair’s Chris Smith, the Bloomberg presidential campaign is hiring a huge number of field organizers at $6,000 a month (double the typical campaign salary) and pledging to keep paying them through next November, promising a ground game to whomever is the Democratic nominee.
Brave new world: Low-paid immigrants from the Middle East make up a large part of the workforce doing content moderation of “violent extremism” for YouTube at a center run by Accenture in Austin. As Casey Newton of the Verge reports in another in a disturbing series of exposes by him on the work of these digital janitors, the moderators there are required to watch five hours of gruesome videos a day (despite a promise by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to reduce that to four hours). Newton also found that these workers “are often not informed about the potential mental health consequences of content moderation when they apply for jobs. Listings and interviews tend to downplay the amount of disturbing content that moderators will actually have to view.”
In 2018, the workplace injury rate inside Amazon’s warehouses was three times as high the rate for all private industries in America, according to OSHA data analyzed in a new report, Packaging Pain, produced by several leading members of the Athena Coalition. According to the report, “Based on Amazon’s own internal numbers, workers at Amazon are more likely to be injured at work than police officers, solid waste collectors, lumberjacks or coal miners.” 911 calls from Amazon facilities also spike during the holiday rush period from Black Friday to Christmas.
Here’s a very disturbing report by Sloane Ryan, who runs the special projects team for Bark, an online child safety startup, showing how often adult male sex predators contacted her after she posted a photo of an 11-year-old version of herself on Instagram.

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.

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Disinfo Wars

December 12, 2019 - 7:08pm

This is civic tech: Here’s a comprehensive report by our own Matt Stempeck and Fiona Teng 鄧穎恆 on all the different technologies and digital tactics being used by the Hong Kong democracy protest movement, which is now more than six months old and still going strong
Global Voices is 15 years old, which makes a millennium in internet time. A big tip of the hat to Georgia Popperwell, Ivan Sigal, and the site’s huge community of contributors, who have collectively published nearly 100,000 posts since its beginning. Make a donation to help it keep going!
The How We Fix It podcast has a new episode up focused on Civic Hall member Ivelyse Andino and Radical Health, her Bronx-based health equity social enterprise that uses an app powered by artificial intelligence and community conversations to help black and brown pregnant women and new mothers understand their health care rights, build trust and develop self-advocacy. Give it a listen and subscribe—How We Fix It is planning to do more ongoing coverage of civic tech.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced yesterday that the company is funding a small independent team of developers called BlueSky to “develop an open and decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter itself would someday shift to. This could be promising.
Speaking of Twitter, here are two interesting Twitter accounts that I just learned about:
@CrowdfundCoops, an account that tweets whenever there is a crowdfunding campaign for a cooperative anywhere in the world; and @anti_ring, a project aiming to counter Amazon’s Ring surveillance network.
Speaking of Ring, there’s been a rash of stories of men hacking into the home security cameras and using them to spy on and taunt people in their homes, Bridget Read reports for The Cut.
Media matters: On Tuesday, I attended the morning half of “Disinfo 2020: Prepping the Press,” a day-long conference held by the Columbia Journalism School exploring how disinformation will affect the upcoming election. A number of impressive and valuable speakers offered their insights, including the New Yorker magazine’s Masha Gessen (who argued that not only was it reasonable for democratic governments to expect private platforms to subject paid speech to standards, it was time we stopped relying on private platforms to perform vital public media functions), and Syracuse University professor Whitney Phillips (who reminded the journalists in the audience how tricky it is to report on misinformation without also amplifying it, especially as people already inclined to believe an untruth will become more convinced of their belief upon encountering a debunking of it). Here’s Phillips’ excellent essay on the problem in the Columbia Journalism Review’s new issue on disinformation.
During a panel on the “new mechanics of voter suppression,” an audience member who identified with American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), interrupted expert speaker Shireen Mitchell, who had been explaining how issues like reparations had been used by the Russian Internet Research Agency in 2016 to try to depress potential support for Hillary Clinton in the black community. (The interruption takes place here during video of the event.) Shortly after, other people claiming to speak for ADOS denied any connection to the interruption, leading one person in the audience, Harvard Berkman Center fellow Mutale Nkonde, to worry publicly that an event devoted to fighting disinformation was itself being hijacked by disinformation.
Unfortunately, the fight against disinformation has never been a clean one—especially when traditional authorities like governments and corporations have so often broken the public trust. This had led to a situation where public skepticism sometimes goes overboard and people over-correct with excessive assumptions about the behavior of powerful actors. That’s what I felt as I left the conference, just after keynote speaker Carole Cadwalladr, the investigative journalist who broke open the Cambridge Analytica scandal, declared that “a white billionaire is suppressing black votes,” referring to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.
For a much more nuanced examination of social media on voter suppression, read GWU professor Dave Karpf’s new essay in Mediawell, the Social Science Research Council’s new forum for “research on the digital edges of democracy.” After detailing the efforts of the IRA’s “Blacktivist” account on Facebook, which amassed 360,000 likes, more than the verified Black Lives Matter account, Karpf writes:

The Blacktivist Facebook page is clear evidence that the Russian government sought to amplify and exploit racial strife in US politics. But strategic intent is not strategic impact. And the ease with which researchers can now assemble and visualize data on these influence operations can mask the difficulty in assessing what the numbers actually indicate. Some (likely significant) portion of Blacktivist’s shares, likes, and comments came from the IRA’s own click farmers in St. Petersburg. Those click farmers are densely clustered. They share, like, and comment on one another’s posts—pretend Ohioans promoting the content of pretend Michiganders, increasing exposure on the Facebook newsfeeds of pretend South Dakotans. But Russian click farmers do not cast ballots. They do not turn out to public hearings. When a separate IRA-backed account used Facebook to promote offline anti-immigration protests, it was hailed as proof of the dangers posed by these foreign disinformation operations. Yet it is also worth noting that barely anyone showed up to those offline protests.

But after offering that necessary grain of salt, because online disinformation campaigns may not directly alter voter behavior—contrary to Cadwalladr’s inflammatory rhetoric—Karpf also writes, “Much of the attention paid by researchers, journalists, and elected officials to online disinformation and propaganda has assumed that these disinformation campaigns are both large in scale and directly effective. This is a bad assumption, and it is an unnecessary assumption. We need not believe digital propaganda can ‘hack’ the minds of a fickle electorate to conclude that digital propaganda is a substantial threat to the stability of American democracy.” Read the whole thing, there’s more good stuff.
Related: Nearly 90% of the ads posted by the UK’s Conservative Party in the lead-up to today’s national election have been labeled as misleading, according to a leading fact-checking organization, First Draft’s Alastair Reid and Carlotta Dotto report. The ads feature claims about the National Health Service and income tax cuts that Full Fact, an organization that Facebook works with for fact-checking (but not for political ads, remember!), has tagged as false or misleading.
A new research study finds that Facebook will change a campaign more when it tries to speak to people who don’t agree with it, than when they address people who do, Isaac Stanley-Becker writes for the Washington Post. Facebook responded that it is only showing ads to the people they will be most relevant to, but the researchers argue it is “wielding significant power over political discourse through its ad delivery algorithms without public accountability or scrutiny.”
YouTube has announced changes to its anti-harassment policies barring video makers from insulting others on the basis of their race, gender expression, or sexual orientation, Casey Newton reports for The Verge.
Not only is Alexa listening to you, humans working for Amazon spend a lot of time listening as well, with really creepy effects all around, Austin Carr, Matt Day, Sarah Frier, and Mark Gurman report for Bloomberg.

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.

The post Disinfo Wars appeared first on Civic Hall.

The Civic Stack: Hong Kong Protest Movement Tech

December 10, 2019 - 3:40pm

A tech stack is the set of technologies people use to build applications, like programming languages and servers. The Civic Stack series asks leading activists, hackers, and public sector innovators to share the tools, services, and methods they use in their work. How do they organize their contacts? Why do they swear by a certain email service? What’s worth paying for, and what can we get for free? How does it all build up to creating change in the world?

In the first piece in the series, Matt Stempeck and Fiona Teng 鄧穎恆 spoke to media and activists in Hong Kong to better understand the tech supporting, and in other cases, actively fighting for, their efforts to maintain a semi-autonomous democracy on China’s doorstep.

Since June, millions of Hong Kong’s citizens have poured into the streets to protest a bill that would open them up to extradition to China. That bill has been formally withdrawn, handing protesters one victory. The battle over how much influence the mainland government exerts in Hong Kong rages on, as the confrontation has sparked a broader pro-democracy movement seeking additional assurances. Despite violence in the streets and an economic toll, the movement enjoys the broad support of Hongkongers. They translated that support into election victory, as pro-democracy candidates won 17 of 18 district council positions with unprecedented voter turnout in recent elections.

How did Hong Kong’s pro-democracy organizers do it? Entire books will be written about the broader historical forces at play. For more historical and economic context on the protests and the use of technology by all sides, we recommend Maciej Cegłowski’s Hong Kong explainer (Maciej is the founder of Tech Solidarity). 

In this post, we’ll look at the civic tech stack the organizers have been using in their day-to-day work. Much of this stack is created and maintained by the civic tech community in Hong Kong, which includes groups like g0v Hong Kong and Station for Open Cultures. These civic hackers have long been focused on common civic tech themes like addressing social problems by making government more transparent, and bringing together civil society to improve public interest technology. As pro-democracy protests took center stage, some of the community have shifted their focus to supporting the cause with their technical skills.

If this all seems sophisticated, keep in mind that Hong Kong’s activists aren’t new to this work. In 2011-2012, Occupy Hong Kong sustained one of the longest Occupy movements worldwide. It lasted 13 months in the plaza of the HSBC headquarters in Central, a business landmark. This protest set the stage for the 2014 Occupy Central protests, which took on the cause of universal suffrage that is now central to the current wave of activity.

The protest organizing stack

Organizing massive protests involving hundreds of thousands of people presents logistical challenges in the most open of nations. Hong Kong’s democracy activists face additional threats from police violence on the streets and China’s weapons-grade surveillance technology, which permeates digital life and is intertwined with state-infiltrated social media services like WeChat. 

Since the protests began, English-language articles have shared some of the civic stack used by Hong Kong’s activists. From the other side of the planet, Americans have now witnessed multiple watershed moments in technology that will reverberate for years to come: While here in  the United States, some cities and (Democratic) presidential candidates have called for a ban on law enforcement usage of facial recognition technologies, Hong Kong’s protesters have actively torn down lampposts with such cameras. They’ve reportedly distracted police drones with lasers. And like many before them, they’ve built and submitted data to shared crisis maps like to track resources and police locations. In a dystopian update to the crisis-mapping practice, Apple censored the map from its monolithic App Store under pressure from China, though the service remains available on the open web. 

We spoke with two Hongkongers to learn how movement-building and collective democratic action are carried out in an era of comprehensive digital surveillance designed to bolster authoritarian states. Their thoughts represent their perspectives. The transcripts have been edited for clarity and cohesion. Specific tools or technologies are in bold.

Holok is the impact strategist of Eaton HK, and represents an open source community called Station for Open Cultures. They shared some of the technology interventions they’ve experimented with as part of the pro-democracy camp (民主派), and observations on the work. Holok’s preferred pronouns are they/them.

Eric is a reporter in Hong Kong and shared his insights from a media perspective. Eric’s preferred pronouns are he/him.

Offloading digital risks to bots

Telegram Messenger has been a critically useful tool, and its usage in Hong Kong has surged as huge crowds have gathered to demonstrate. It’s an encrypted chat tool that, unlike Whatsapp, doesn’t prompt users to upload their chatlogs to Google Drive where they can be requested by authorities. It also allows groups to hold polls, leading to fluid group decision-making with emergent qualities. A crowd of protestors can vote on their next actions in real-time as events unfold. This is not without risks. After protestors beat up multiple men at an August airport protest, Bloomberg news likened its leaderless group dynamics to those of a mob.

Telegram has “many different purposes,” Eric tells us. For example, “there are channels for safe pickup vehicles for protestors after violent protests. Drivers may join them and report their locations and pick up [protesters]. [There’s] a channel for job vacancies for jobless protestors if they lost their work because of a court case.” There are also channels for people to share information about particularly violent police officers, like the Hong Kong Citizen Police Report (here’s its Github repository).

Administering protest groups on Telegram has proven risky, with reports of administrators receiving visits from authorities designed to chill their participation. Holok says, “Very early into the movement, our community member got arrested for administering a Telegram group consisting of 20,000 people for ‘inciting public obstruction.’” Then came the BigOcean bot, an encrypted Telegram chatbot that can act as the admin of a Telegram group without exposing a human admin to arrest. “Everyone will be anonymous,” Holok says. “Basically you are talking to a bot without memory, it just mirrors what to say to the screen. So there’s no way to know the user ID” of the sender.

“A similar bot was created for designers,” Holok says, because some designers in the democracy movement were reported to their bosses at commercial advertising companies. The result, NewPromoter bot, allows designers to share without putting their identities at risk.

Protest Logistics

The activists have made extensive use of iOS’s Airdrop feature to coordinate locally, sharing maps, flyers, and tips to everyone with an iPhone in the immediate vicinity of the broadcaster. 

Arrived at TST station, immediately bombarded with anti-extradition bill fliers via Airdrop in simplified Chinese #antiELAB #HongKong

— Alice Su (@aliceysu) July 7, 2019

“It’s like an anonymous digital flyer being sent to iOS users. People would do this in crowded places, like in the tube, on the train, during a concert, wherever possible.” Eric also recalled the power of AirDrop when he was at the frontline or a protest, “I once received a flyer saying police [were] coming when I was in the protest frontline.”

LIHKG Forum has also played a critical role in online coordination. Eric tells us that LIHKG is “like Reddit [and is the] main online forum for protestors to discuss and promote events. It is a branch of an older forum HKgolden, which has operated for many years, so LIHKG inherited many specific terms and ciphers that only frequent users understand.”

Getting away when you need to

Holok echoed Eric’s mention of ride services for protestors fleeing arrest. “There are people who organize “school buses,” which are volunteer drivers who will pick up the protesters and send them home. There are many groups doing that but one of them is a competitor to Gogo Van called “Call4Van” and you can send a Telegram message @call4van_bot to get a safe ride home.”

The authorities have adapted to protestors’ tactics, most recently sealing off exits to a university campus where activists were stationed in order to apprehend those inside. This forced some of those inside to attempt escaping through the sewers underneath the university.

A Hong Kong protester holds a wifi sniffer designed to count how many passing smartphones ping its network

Counting crowds

Crowd size estimates are often hotly debated, as they can be used as proxies to express the size of a movement, and whether it’s growing or fading (in the US, the National Park Service used to provide crowd size estimates, and no longer does, leading to the creation of the Crowd Counting Consortium). In Hong Kong, organizers prototyped a wifi sniffer to generate a proxy estimate of crowd sizes by counting passing cellphones as they look for wifi connections. Google notoriously used this technical trick to map wifi networks around the world with its Street View cars. The Hong Kong project has been put on hold due to security concerns.


“Livestreaming has been a great part of the movement, so No China Extradition Live consolidates all the livestreams from different districts,” Holok told us. The site aggregates the many video feeds, which the user can surf by switching between channels in the site. “And we are developing a map, Video Mapper, where people can tag the livestream records to facilitate human rights lawyers gathering visual evidence.”

Asked if livestreaming has amplified the protests and in doing so, increased participation, Holok points out that many video feeds do this and, as demonstrated by Stand News‘s Gwyneth Ho and many media anchors, provide viewers with an important sense of participation. For example, Ho is one such video reporter. She was livestreaming the Yuen Long attack, when over one hundred men in civilian clothes began violently attacking civilians, including her as well, sending her to the hospital for injuries.

A Hong Kong activist carries a portable mesh network antenna in their backpack


Maintaining connectivity is an ongoing priority for the protest movement. While the government hasn’t cut internet access, that is always a possibility. And local cell phone networks often overload from the huge number of people at protests like the airport demonstrations. “Whenever thousands of people assemble,” Holok says, “the mobile internet will be jammed due to too many requests, leading to either extremely slow or outright inaccessible Internet. This situation creates a warm bed for fake news such as that ‘the government cut internet from airport’ and can lead to evacuation of the assembly.” In response, and to protect against the possibility of the government blocking internet access, activists developed a mesh network that provides enough bandwidth for Telegram and text communication.

Holok shares another circumvention technology, i612, a blockchain-based archive for pictures (here is its open source code). “Basically it’s a library card for contents that writes the beta data to blockchain and makes it unchangeable.” It was built by a community member who goes by the alias KinKo.


Another aspect of the Hong Kong movement that has been less publicized than the street protests are the many efforts to starve the state and the businesses supporting it of resources. The boycott methods being used are quite thorough, including this four-color scheme to guide protestor behavior at a place of business:

A legend informs pro-democracy protesters about local businesses

The yellow square indicates a pro-democracy business that should be supported. The blue square indicates a pro-establishment business, to be boycotted. The red square indicates a pro-China business, and suggests the viewer “decorate” it with spray paint or stickers. The black square indicates Mafia or rogue attackers, and suggests the viewer “renovate” (break glass). The protest movement is not a purely nonviolent movement, and as police violence toward activists has escalated, some portion of protesters has retaliated and taken defensive action.

“There have been guidelines to what level of boycott you should do,” Holok says. In addition to the color-coded grid guide, sites like Words of Mouth have sprung up to guide consumer action towards Hong Kong’s restaurants.

Activists were temporarily able to exploit a loophole in the government’s tax payment system to undermine tax collections. Holok shares: “There is a tax resistance going on, so someone developed a ‘If I pay, you pay with us’ platform for taxpayers called PPS Automator.” Because the government pays $1 in transaction fees for each tax payment made through this portal, activists are urging taxpayers to pay in $1 increments, resulting in full loss of their tax revenue due to fees. The government eventually broke the tool by working with the payment provider to require users to manually submit their online payment once every ten attempts.

People are also trying to detach themselves from reliance on the city’s ubiquitous public transit system, Mass Transit Railway (MTR). Says Holok, “the Boycott MTR Pathfinder provides an alternative transport path for you instead because MTR has been collaborating with the police (e.g. closing down stations and transporting police).”


Masks have been an important feature of the Hong Kong protest movement. The government has banned them, opening protesters up to identification by adversarial facial recognition technology. Private Internet Access, a Virtual Private Network provider whose service can digitally masks users’ web activity, wrote up mask technology new and old on their blog.

Activists and journalists are also at risk of being doxxed. A smear site promoted by the Chinese government and hosted on a server in Russia published personal details of young protestors and journalists: headshots, dates of birth, telephone numbers, social media accounts, home addresses and “a record of ‘nasty behaviours’ such as participating in protests,” Holok says. One of the doxxed activists was later assaulted by three men, while others have been harassed and threatened by phone. In response, the democracy activists’ digital team has fought to take down the webpages and Telegram groups used to publish their private information. Thousands of complaints to DDOS Guard, the company protecting the hosting of doxxed information of private citizens, have led to little more than combative responses from the company.

We asked if being forced to rely on pseudonyms in digital conversations hindered the relationship building so critical to organizing a movement. Holok replied, “Surprisingly, pseudonyms don’t affect relationships and [social bonds] at all. We have encryption [chat] groups that are all encrypted and use pseudonyms, and [their participants] care about each other as much as close friends. In my community, we also have members who we only refer to in pseudonyms. I myself have been using a pseudonym for 10 years, and most of my friends don’t know my legal name. Of course, that is still dangerous because now [that pseudonym] is fixed and more or less like a pen name.” 

Activists have shifted sensitive communications away from public (and state-infiltrated) social media platforms over to private encrypted messaging apps like Telegram (leading to state-sponsored denial of service attacks on the service). The 21st century protest playbook also now recommends the use of VPNs and pre-paid SIM cards, one-way subway passes that are harder to surveill, and altogether avoiding Chinese digital services like Alipay (a payment service already making significant inroads into Western markets). 

Information warfare

Disinformation campaigns against the Hong Kong movement are rampant and well-documented. In response, civic hackers are attempting to take on viral campaigns. For example, rumors were spreading that the police were killing protestors and covering it up by faking their suicides. These rumors were supported with falsified raw data. In response, a member of the civic tech community refuted that narrative with verifiable data on Hong Kong’s suicide rate to provide a more objective perspective.

The g0v Hong Kong community has also built and maintains a Telegram bot for reporting fake news, @g0vhkFakeNewsReporterBot, which submits reports to g0v Hong Kong’s factchecking website. Another factchecking site, HKFactCheck, was launched ahead of the upcoming district election. (You can check out other factchecking and misinformation-fighting tools from around the world on the Civic Tech Field Guide). Holok admits that much like other efforts to fight misinformation online, the researched rebuttal never reaches nearly as many people as the original myth.

While the immediate drama of street protests draw much of the media attention, Holok’s community is also looking at longer term cultural persuasion tactics. FreedomHKG TV is a proposed hardware project “to break the monopoly of media.” The project is under development and adapts media jamming techniques to the streaming TV era. Its goal is to let the young hijack their parents’ TVs with Raspberry Pi devices to display movement-friendly YouTube streams. 

The movement has also created its own videogames to tell their story through media. The Revolution of Our Times is an Android game that lets players role play the protest experience. It has over 1,000 users and 766 5-star reviews in the Google Play Store. Screenshots and a player walkthrough can be found on LIHKG

Liberate Hong Kong is another Hong Kong protester-centered videogame. Its protagonist is an anonymous Hongkonger fighting to stay on the frontlines of the protests despite being shot, arrested, and otherwise attacked by the police:

(You can explore more civic games on the Civic Tech Field Guide).

Online petitions

“When the movement burst out in June, there was a round of petitions,” Holok tells us. “There were so many petitions by different groups and individuals. So we wrote a crawler to calculate the number of petitions and signatures out there.” Working together, the g0v Hong Kong community also put together Extradition, one of the first campaign sites to present the movement’s argument against the Chinese extradition law to the world.


In August, an anonymous LIHKG user, Scorched Earth, launched Freedom KHG, a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe designed to advertise the protestors’ mission to overseas audiences. The campaign quickly raised $1.8 million via a US volunteer’s personal account.

The 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund’s range of pro-social services for arrested protesters and their families

The 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was created this past summer to crowdfund medical expenses, legal fees, mental health support, and humanitarian relief for protestors. They also provide support to families whose breadwinners are detained in jail or trial. The group shows up at the police stations where the mass arrests are processed to provide support. They accept donations by all major credit cards and bank transfers to an HSBC account, and respond to requests for aid for those arrested (and their families) over Whatsapp.


Communities are no longer defined by their immediate geography, thanks to communications technology. Thus one compelling pro-social use of the internet during the Hong Kong crisis has been the solidarity work done by activists overseas, including members of the city’s ethnic diaspora, as well as pro-democracy allies around the world. Their contributions aren’t always material, but an influx of messages of solidarity and respect can also help sustain a movement.

Taiwan’s Watchout site, itself an effort to bolster democracy in the face of authoritarian rule, launched Hong Konger, a site in solidarity with Hong Kong:

Watchout, an independent news company, built this page to express solidarity with Hong Kong

A “Lennon Wall” is a public space decorated and adorned by the public, as a way to voice sentiments. The name refers to the wall in Prague where democracy activists posted grievances with the communist regime. The Umbrella Movement adorned a wall in the Central Government Complex in Hong Kong in a similar way. The wall hosted democratic sentiment, demands, and artwork. The artwork on both the original Lennon Wall and its Hong Kong descendants has been painted over and removed many times, but continues reappearing. Someone made Lennon Wall Hong Kong, a digital version of the wall that couldn’t be taken down as easily. Its endless scroll displays countless inspirational graphics, memes, and messages from around the world.

Tech: Democracy’s friend or foe?

It’s easy to look at the online and offline battles Hong Kong’s journalists and activists are facing and see that technology can be used in pro- and anti-social ways. The story we once told ourselves of tech inherently disrupting entrenched powers and enhancing democracy has proven far too naive. 

Asked about the balance between tech-powered organizing work, and their opponents’ tech, Holok said they generally see tech as neutral: “It depends on who you are providing solutions for, the gov[ernment]? Or the people?” They continue: 

“This really goes back to Martin Heiddigger’s The Question Concerning Technology. In his famous article, Heidigger worried that technological advancement will lead to the singularity,” Holok says, and that humans would be reduced to ‘standing reserve,’ or mere fodder for technology to use. Just consider the relationship between people who work at a company and the phrase “human resources.” 

“I think in my community, technology plays a different role in our worldview,” Holok continues. “Ideally it should be a vehicle for morals and ethics. While Hong Kong’s tech scene is struggling to fight the on-going dehumanization of tech abuse, there is much to learn from the non-tech civic groups and activists to figure out a way to use technology fairly.” 

“[A]s my idol Audrey Tang, the first transgender digital minister in Asia, said, technology is the least important [consideration] in the discussion of an open society. I’m grateful to the momentum brought about by the [pro-democracy] movement that makes civic tech much more relevant and approachable than before.”

The post The Civic Stack: Hong Kong Protest Movement Tech appeared first on Civic Hall.

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