Choice Cuts

Machine learning and democracy; caught cops; fake books and Amazon; and much more

  • This is civic tech: Colin Megill, the co-creator of, writes for Civicist about how new forms of mass participation and deliberation, powered by machine learning, could help open up democracy beyond the false choice of the two-party binary.

  • Folks in the global Code for All network are sharing what they’ve learned about how to bring governments into the civic tech journey, Grace O’Hara of Code for Australia reports.

  • Here’s a nifty chart looking at how different kinds of “place-based civic tech” relate to democratic institutions and processes, with attention to the variation between projects that work within government vs those that pressure it from the outside, drawn from a paper by Syed Omer Husain, Alex Franklin and Dirk Roep. (h/t Rachel Weidinger)

  • The Plain View Project, which catalogued offensive and racist public Facebook posts made by several thousand current and retired police officers, is having an impact, as Mitch Smith reports for The New York Times. In Philadelphia, for example, 72 officers have been pulled off street duty; in St. Louis the city’s top prosecutor said she would stop accepting cases from 22 officers.

  • Tech and politics: Higher Ground Labs, which seeds and supports political tech start-ups aimed at supporting the Democratic party, has announced its latest accelerator class, which is receiving more than $1.4 million in funding. The 11 start-ups and two fellows are working on projects that “collectively address misinformation and false-media, strengthen data analytics, integrate and measure performance, proliferate creative content, and much more.”

  • Related: Today’s must-read is Peter Hanby’s in-depth look in Vanity Fair at the efforts of Democrats to “retake” the internet by mastering the combination of emotional messaging, psychographic targeting and distributed organizing that is seemingly working so well for the populist right. On the one hand, this strategy makes a kind of sense: facts alone don’t trump emotions. And if a new wave of progressive tech start-ups lower the cost of using sophisticated monitoring and targeting tools so more than just the most well-heeled groups can access them, that seems like a plus. But contrast the animating vision of this form of political tech with the vision shared above by Colin Megill, and ponder, is building a better propaganda machine the best anyone can hope for? (Also, are we really sure that “psychographics” and “sentiment analysis” isn’t anything more than fancy BS?)

  • Senators Mark Warner (D-Va) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) are introducing legislation to require major tech companies disclose to their users how they are making money from their data, Kim Hart reports for Axios.

  • Sidewalk Labs has finally unveiled its full blueprint for its redevelopment of Toronto’s eastern waterfront, “outlining a vision for a technology-driven neighborhood that is much larger than its original proposal,” Josh O’Kane reports for The Globe and Mail. The document weighs in at more than 1500 pages, three times the length of the Mueller report.

  • Here’s a quick and useful summary of the Sidewalk blueprint, by Will Knight in Technology Review. Tech critic Frank Pasquale adds, quoting first from Knight’s piece: “’The question for Torontonians—and for inhabitants of other smart cities—is whether the promised improvements are worth the privacy risks  …Where ‘privacy’ is an inadequate stand-in for ‘oligarchy, power, modulation, discrimination, democratic decay..’.”

  • Google is telling its employees that while they are free to personally protest recent policy decisions by YouTube, if they march in this week’s San Francisco Pride parade as part of the company’s official float and contingent, they must not do anything but support Google, The Verge’s Megan Farokhmanesh reports. The irony of protecting the free speech of YouTubers with controversial views while suppressing the speech of employees was not lost on some LGBTQ Googlers, he notes.

  • Ravelry, a social network hub for knitters with more than 8 million users, is “banning support of Donald Trump and his administration” because of its “support for open white supremacy,” Edith Zimmerman reports for The Cut.

  • Life in Amazonistan: Not only has Amazon taken over the book business in America (more than half the books sold here get purchased via Amazon), as David Streitfeld reports for The New York Times, the company’s open platform has become a gigantic magnet for book counterfeiters. The “long tail,” which was once celebrated as a way for producers of obscure content to find an audience, is also dissolving the boundary between quality content and fakery, because Amazon takes little responsibility to check the authenticity of the books it sells.

  • Airbnb, another open platform that enables a lot of beneficial economic activity but also seems to be incentivizing law- and norm-breaking, comes in for some tough coverage in Wired, where Paris Martineau explains how nine people built an illegal $5 million short-term rental operation in NYC.

  • Artificial intelligence programs are proliferating in call centers, where they are supplanting human managers in tracking and controlling how customer service reps behave, down to regulating how fast they speak, if they aren’t energetic enough or showing enough empathy, Kevin Roose reports for The New York Times. Roose notes that “Phil Libin, the chief executive of All Turtles, an A.I. start-up studio in San Francisco, recoiled in horror when I told him about my call center visit. ‘That is a dystopian hellscape,’ Mr. Libin said. ‘Why would anyone want to build this world where you’re being judged by an opaque, black-box computer?’”

  • Schools have long sought to monitor and control student behavior, but in the wake of the school shooting epidemic, many are embracing invasive new and unproven systems of surveillance, Jack Gillum and Jeff Kao report for ProPublica.

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