Amplify Those Trends

New tech and social justice report, bad YCombinator ideas, & more


  • This is civic tech: The Technology for Social Justice Project has released its participatory action research report, “#MoreThanCode: Practitioners Reimagine the landscape of technology for justice and equity,” written by Sasha Costanza-Chock, Maya Wagoner, Berhan Taye, Caroline Rivas, Chris Schweidler, and Georgia Bullen. The report sought to include voices of technology practitioners whose work is focused on social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest, and who are often left out of current debates about the role of tech in society. It involved 188 participants. From that group, the report maps an ecosystem whose practitioners primarily identify (in descending order) with terms like access, digital divide, digital literacy, open source, creative commons, internet freedom, net neutrality, inclusive design, activist tech, civic tech, digital privacy and security, open data, and diversity/inclusion/equity. Structural barriers that permeate the broader tech sector also show up a lot in the nonprofit, community and public tech subsectors, and the report makes a series of strong recommendations for how to address and change that. One important theme that anyone involved in civic tech should attend to—while the report shows that participants understand the difference between govtech and civic tech, some criticized civic tech as a field that is predominantly white, male, US-centric and mainstream or establishment, and expressed a stronger identification with “community tech.”

  • The report comes with a searchable database of more than 700 organizations, a job board with more than 14,000 listings compiled by matching commonly used social justice tech terms with listings on Indeed.com, in-depth profiles of 13 practitioners, and a lot of raw data to examine.

  • Mozilla has announced 26 new Fellows in Openness, Security and Tech Policy.

  • VCs Ben Horowitz and Chris Lyons are creating the Andreessen Horowitz Cultural Leadership Fund to partner with top African-American cultural leaders and work with them on investing in young African-Americans entering the tech industry.

  • Neighborly has announced a new “Networks Accelerator” aiming to help communities build affordable broadband for themselves.

  • New York City’s buildings department has launched a new online construction map showing every major project taking place in the city, sorted by scale, property history and other metrics, including violation histories, as Winnie Hu reports for The New York Times.

  • This is civic dreck: YCombinator just had its Demo Day and Pinboard’s Maciej Ceglowski is not impressed. An example of his running commentary: “AskMyClass is using Amazon Alexa and Google Home speakers as a teaching assistant in elementary schools. I am actually impressed at how many ways this one is horrible. Automating away teaching jobs with surveillance and AI for small children is 100% YC.” And as he sums up: YCombinator is run by young, wealthy people as a temple of innovation. They chose to fund debt collection, mac and cheese home delivery, automating away elementary school teacher jobs with surveillance AI, and defrauding Nigeria with cryptocurrency scams.” Read the whole thread!

  • In Arkansas, Medicaid recipients are being “digitally redlined,” Sarah Holder reports for City Lab. “In order to stay eligible for Medicaid, Arkansas’s recipients must report their working hours each month, and it must be done online—the state doesn’t offer a way to do it via mail, telephone, or in person.” This in a state that ranks 48th in the country for digital access, and where the website that accepts the reports closes down every night at 9pm.

  • Fight for the net: According to evidence submitted as part of a lawsuit seeking to reinstate federal net neutrality rules filed by 22 state attorneys general and a number of other government bodies, the Santa Clara County Fire Department paid Verizon for unlimited data service but suffered from heavy throttling by the company during its recent efforts to fight wildfires, Jon Brodkin reports for Ars Technica.

  • Tech and politics: The Democratic National Committee believes it thwarted an attempt to break into its Votebuilder database, which is used by campaigns all over the country, and reported the effort to the FBI, Donie O’Sullivan reports for CNN.

  • Issie Lapowsky reports for Wired on how major tech companies are doing more than the US federal government to respond to foreign efforts to disrupt the democratic process as the 2018 election approaches. While some government agencies are taking action, nothing is being coordinated across the government, which many observers warn only increases the chances that adversaries may decide that there is little deterring a concerted attack. Lapowsky quotes Republican Senator Ben Sasse warning Tuesday: “Both the executive branch and the legislative branch are just waiting for the catastrophe. It’s ridiculous, and everybody around here ought to be fired when that moment comes, and this institution did nothing to prepare for it.”

  • Related: Former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos writes for LawFareBlog that it’s too late to protect the 2018 elections from outside attackers like Russia and Iran, but that “there is still a chance to defend American democracy in 2020.” He warns, “While swinging a national vote in a system run by thousands of local authorities would be highly difficult, an adversary wouldn’t need to definitively change votes to be successful in election meddling. Eliminating individuals from voting rolls, tampering with unofficial vote tallies or visibly modifying election web sites could introduce uncertainty and chaos without affecting the final vote. The combination of offensive cyber techniques with a disinformation campaign would enable a hostile nation or group to create an aura of confusion and illegitimacy around an election that could lead to half of the American populace forever considering that election to be stolen.”

  • My two cents: All the Democratic groups that are focusing on shifting the balance of power in Congress by retaking the House and/or the Senate in November ought to be planning for what they will do if the reported election returns do not track with the pre-election polling, and if there are cyber-attacks aimed at causing physical disruptions like traffic jams or power outages in heavily blue precincts. As Lapowsky and Stamos make clear, the federal response so far has been scattered and mostly focused on exposing and indicting bad actors after the fact, not prevention. 

  • Writing in the Harvard Kennedy School Review, Ben McGuire compares how the Clinton and Sanders presidential campaigns used digital tools to organize and mobilize voters in 2016, and argues: “Although the two campaigns thought about and used digital tools very differently, both approaches reveal that we still have a lot to learn about cultivating leaders and supporting communities through digital media. They also show that future campaigns must stop artificially separating digital from organizing; the choice between organizing a campaign through digital tools versus traditional face-to-face methods is a false one. Despite growing sophistication of social media tools, trying to turn millions of low-effort digital engagements into functional and useful volunteers is unrealistic. The problem is not that we don’t yet have the right tools. It’s that campaigns have not been able to turn digital engagements into meaningful interactions at real scale. And despite technological advances, face-to-face conversation between human beings remains the most effective way to achieve mobilization and persuasion.”

  • Life in Facebookistan: A new study by researchers at the University of Warwick looked at every anti-refugee attack in Germany over a two-year period, and after examining many variables, found that “towns where Facebook use was higher than average…reliably experienced more attacks on refugees,” Amanda Taub and Max Fisher report for The New York Times. Not only that: “Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent. Nationwide, the researchers estimated in an interview, this effect drove one-tenth of all anti-refugee violence.” And as Taub and Fisher report, even in pro-refugee towns, Facebook pages devoted to organizing support for local refugees came to be dominated by anti-refugee sentiment. (The full paper, written by Karsten Muller and Carlo Schwarz, can be found here.)

  • So, assuming this study holds up, not only does using Facebook make people individually less healthy and happy, it appears it makes whole societies less so. But take note: a number of people are raising questions about the study, including the fact that it was not peer-reviewed, the method it used for measuring actual Facebook usage is indirect, and the fact that the authors have reduced their own estimate of Facebook’s impact on attacks on refugees in the latest version of the paper (from a 50% increase to a 35% increase). Max Fisher of the Times defends their reporting here.

  • Facebook’s VP of Product Partnerships, Ime Archibong, reports that the company has suspended more than 400 of “thousands” of apps that it has investigated, due to concerns about the developers who built them or how the data they collected may have been used, including myPersonality, an app that had 4 million users.

  • Mistakes were made: Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeedNews on, well, um.: “I need to think a lot more about this. I haven’t given it as much thought as it deserves…. I don’t know if we necessarily considered as much as we should have the negative approaches or the harassing approaches that [@-ing people] enables….We didn’t at that time think about how will people game this and artificially amplify those trends and I don’t know if we were equipped to do so….I think we probably could have recognized the threats much faster, but I don’t know….I don’t know if that was necessarily the best way to, I don’t know if that would have worked to get here because I don’t know if we were to understand all the dynamics at play until we reached a particular level.

  • Data visualization magicians John Kelly and Camille Francois share, in MIT Technology Review, what the political “filter bubbles” on Twitter actually look like. They should sell these as posters.

  • OK, folks—I packed this First Post as full as I could to keep you occupied while we take off next week for vacation. See you after Labor Day!