Blitzing Billionaires

Your cell phone data for sale; why "blitzscaling" is bad; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Writing for Civicist, Mary Joyce of DoBigGood looks at the opportunities for meaningful impact measurement in civic tech.

  • Volunteer developer Sabina-Alexandra Stefanescu explains how she came to be “hooked” on working with Code for Romania.

  • Chris Kuang and Rachel Dodell of Coding it Forward talk about their passion for plugging young people into civic tech. As they note, apart from a few programs like theirs, which places fellows in positions in the federal government, “There isn’t an established talent pipeline for young civic techies right now. They might have to wait 10 years to get involved because they don’t have the career experience to be competitive at places like USDS or 18F. We’re thinking about how to connect young people to the resources they need to come back to civic tech after their entry-level jobs.”

  • Code for Canada’s Marisa Bernstein explains how the need for better user testing led to the development of GRIT Toronto (Gathering Residents to Improve Technology).

  • Lots of cool new civic data visualizations to peruse here!

  • Attend: Personal Democracy Forum Central and Eastern Europe is April 4-5 in Gdansk and registration is now open.

  • Apply: The New Media Ventures 2019 open call for new projects closes on February 11.

  • Apply: The Center for Technology and Society (an arm of the Anti-Defamation League) is looking to hire a director.

  • Congrats to our friends Henry Timms, who is leaving the 92nd St Y to go run Lincoln Center, and Andrew Golis, who is leaving Vox to become New York public radio station WNYC’s chief content officer.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Employee bonuses at Facebook are now being tied to progress on the major social issues facing the company, Michal Lev-Ram reports for Fortune.

  • In case you are wondering what it was like to be there (at Harvard) during the first few months of Facebook’s spread, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has patched together an illuminating trip down memory lane.

  • Privacy, shmivacy: The big telcos have been routinely selling their customers’ real-time location data through third-parties to bounty hunters like bail bond firms, Joseph Cox reports for Motherboard. In response, Senator Ron Wyden comments, “This scandal keeps getting worse. Carriers assured customers location tracking abuses were isolated incidents. Now it appears that hundreds of people could track our phones, and they were doing it for years before anyone at the wireless companies took action. That’s more than an oversight—that’s flagrant, wilful disregard for the safety and security of Americans.”

  • Also in Motherboard by Caroline Haskins: Dozens of US cities have experimented with using PredPol, a controversial predictive policing software tool that claims to be able to tell police in advance which locations in their city, down to a scale of 500 by 500 feet, will see high rates of crime.

  • The UN World Food Programme is getting a lot of heat for its new data partnership with CIA-backed software firm Palantir, as Ben Parker reports for IRIN.

  • Food for thought: Make some time for Tim O’Reilly‘s thoughtful rebuke in Quartz of Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh’s argument that “blitzscaling”—hyper-rapid growth that allows an upstart to monopolize a user base—is the best way to win in the tech business.

  • Chickens, meet roost. New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo writes that, in the face of massively growing concentrations of wealth and inequality, the idea of simply “abolishing billionaires” is starting to gain traction. Manjoo situates this development inside of the tech boom, which he argues inexorably drives inequality because “Software, by its very nature, drives concentrations of wealth.” Um, what? But regardless of Manjoo’s confusion (it’s unregulated capitalism that drives concentrations of wealth, not software), he has a point. For two decades the culture has been unquestionably been celebrating newly minted tech billionaires, and now that worm is turning. Yes, patrons of universal basic income—it doesn’t appear that the people you are so worried about displacing will let you keep your piles.