Into The Present

The Vatican's first hackathon; the medical aftermath of mass shootings; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Josh Gee reports on what he learned from two years working inside Boston government as the “PDF killer,” successfully identifying 425 forms and moving 122 of them online, saving Boston residents thousands of hours of unnecessary paperwork. Not surprisingly, a great deal of his work was social engineering: “On average, it took me about 30 minutes to make a digital form and five weeks to meet with, earn the trust of, and get buy-in from the employees who would use it.”

  • Check out Project Lantern, a keychain-sized device that costs less than $50 to build which can broadcast a local Wi-Fi network for when traditional networks go down. It just won first prize in the WINS Off-the-Grid Wireless challenge run by the National Science Foundation and Mozilla.

  • Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who then worked on the Obama 2008 campaign and more recently bought and then gave up The New Republic, has a new book out focused on his work trying to address the underside of the winner-take-all economy. (I’ve read an advance copy and it’s quite good.) In Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn, Hughes makes artful use of his own rags-to-riches life story, which combined a lot of hard work plus the luck of having the right sophomore year roommate at Harvard, to make a larger point about the elemental unfairness of wealth inequality in America. His solution, a guaranteed income of $500 a month for adults earning less than $50,000, would lift 20 million out of poverty overnight, as Concepcion de Leon writes for The New York Times.

  • Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has written the U.S. Customer and Board Protection agency asking why it still hasn’t set up the capability to use anti-forgery and anti-tamper features in e-Passports, despite the US having led the global push to adopt smart-chipped passports gain back to 2007. Zack Whittaker of XDNet has the full story. As Alex Stamos, the chief security officer at Facebook comments, “It’s amazing how much good one curious, competent technologist can do when positioned correctly in government, in this case @csoghoian.” That’s Christopher Soghoian, Wyden’s senior technologist.

  • The Vatican is holding its first-ever hackathon March 8-11, focusing on social inclusion, interfaith dialogue, and helping migrants and refugees. Alejandro Tauber of The Next Web has the backstory.” One of the hackathon’s organizers, Father Eric Salobir of OPTIC—the first-ever Vatican affiliated think tank on technology—jokes, “If I had a dry sense of humor, I’d say it will bring the Vatican into the present instead of the future.”

  • Tech and politics: Kate Gage, a former senior tech advisor to the Obama White House, takes to Medium to explain how Lab 736, a swat team of engineers, designers and digital experts she co-founded, is working to solve the core technology challenges facing state and local Democratic parties.

  • Ted Fickes of Mobilization Lab shares the top six trends that are affecting campaigners worldwide in 2018. It’s a smart list, taking into account the rise of bot-driven member recruitment, distributed organizing, the decline of the cute cat video, the dominance of mobile, the increasing risks of oppositional campaigning in an age of increasing authoritarianism, and the environment of hyper-polarization.

  • Twenty-three states attorney general, led by NY’s Eric Schneiderman,, are suing to block the FCC’s net neutrality rollback, Dell Cameron reports in Gizmodo. They are arguing that that “an open internet, and the free exchange of ideas it allows, is critical to our democratic process.”

  • Tech writer Adrian Chen, who was among the first to report on Russia’s Internet Research Agency and its troll operation, pushes back on the notion that the ability to spread memes via social media marketing somehow equals the ability to influence or change voters’ minds.

  • In case you don’t understand the technology of the AR-15, the high velocity semi-automatic assault rifle used in the Parkland massacre, read this account in The Atlantic by an ER radiologist who helped treat some of the victims.

  • Opposition watch: More evidence that the “resistance” is powered by a demographic wave of college educated middle-aged white women, courtesy of in-depth field research by Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol in Democracy Journal. They write:

    Sociologically, what we are witnessing is an inflection point—a shift in long-standing trends—concentrated in one large demographic group, as college-educated women have ramped up their political participation en masse. The visible collective protests they have joined in response to national events are just a small piece of a far more consequential rebuilding of the face-to-face structures of political life that the same people have ended up leading. The grassroots are leaning in, and their little-d democratic commitments are as important as their capital-D Democratic alignment….At the current pace, it seems likely that the pop-up leaders and grassroots groups of 2017 will, by 2019, have repopulated the local layer of the Democratic Party in much of the country. National media misperceptions to the contrary, this will not look like a far-left reinvention of Tea Partiers or a continuation of Bernie 2016. It will look like retired librarians rolling their eyes at the present state of affairs, and then taking charge. And it will happen first and foremost in the suburbs, those middle-class, Middle-American spaces that grew up alongside a generation—the Baby Boomers—whose last act of generational transformation may just have arrived.

    Putnam and Skocpol offer a very granular and useful view of the changing dynamics of local grassroots activism, post-Trump. But oddly they take some off-key swipes at the national leadership of Resistance groups, describing them as out of touch with this rising base. Oh well, academics can’t all be omniscient, can they?

  • Apply: The Wikimedia Foundation is looking to hire a technology law and policy fellow.

  • Attend: This Sunday at Civic Hall, ProgHackNight and the NY Attorney General’s office are holding a “pre-hack” to develop ideas for “Hack for Take Back Day” on March 11. The focus is developing better ways of disposing of prescription drugs and educating the public about the dangers of medication abuse.