Many Concerns

How to "de-risk" govtech; Epstein info-disorder; life in YouTubistan; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Robin Carnahan, Randy Hart, and Waldo Jaquith have published a handbook for state governments on “De-risking custom technology projects.” The subject headings from the table of contents offer a good flavor of what’s inside: “Procure services, not software,” and “Require demos, not memos.”

  • Here’s yet another cautionary tale about a Silicon Valley startup with millions in VC funding and founders from Stanford that thought it could use big data to improve how cities plan for emergency disaster response, as reported by Sheri Fink for the New York Times. The start-up, One Concern, markets its products as lifesaving tools for emergency responders, but Fink reports “interviews and documents show the company has often exaggerated its tools’ abilities and has kept outside experts from reviewing its methodology. In addition, some product features are available elsewhere at no charge, and data-hungry insurance companies — whose interests can diverge from those of emergency workers — are among One Concern’s biggest investors and customers.”

  • City halls around the world are becoming more like … civic halls. That’s the conclusion you may come to as you read Emily Nonko‘s story in Fast Company about an emerging trend in civic building design—formerly stuffy and forbidding spaces for official government business are now being designed with public cafes, stages, cozy meeting spaces and a lot of public access.

  • Information disorder continued: The suicide of accused child sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein has set off a wave of countervailing conspiracy theories, and as Charlie Warzel explains in the New York Times, with some help from disinformation researcher Renee Diresta, the mainstream media no longer knows how to not help conspiracies thrive online. Warzel writes:

    It’s increasingly apparent that our information delivery systems were not built for our current moment — especially with corruption and conspiracy at the heart of our biggest national news stories (Epstein, the Mueller Report, mass shootings), and the platforms themselves functioning as petri dishes for outlandish, even dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish. The collision of these two forces is so troubling that an F.B.I. field office recently identified fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorist threat. In this ecosystem, the media is frequently outmatched and, despite its best intentions, often acts as an amplifier for baseless claims, even when trying its best to knock them down.
  • TikTok, the video-snippet sharing platform, is taking off in India among Tamil speakers and fueling caste-based hate, threats, and violence, Niles Christopher reports for Wired UK. TikTok says “hateful or violent content has no place” on its platform. “The problem with Tiktok is that they are not very open to advocacy or engaging with civil society. Not even to the standards of its American counterparts,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, a South Asian human rights group, told Christopher. “I think they’d rather pay the fines and don’t care.”

  • Life in YouTubistan: People “from Brazil’s newly empowered far-right from grass-roots organizers to federal lawmakers — say their movement would not have risen so far, so fast, without YouTube’s recommendation engine,” Max Fisher and Amanda Taub report for The New York Times. They add, “New research has found they may be correct. YouTube’s search and recommendation system appears to have systematically diverted users to far-right and conspiracy channels in Brazil.”

  • Organizing for democracy: Alan Wong and Arman Dzidzovic report for Inkstone News on the “donation stations” and other forms of quiet help that many older Hong Kong residents are setting up to supply the youthful protesters at the front lines of the city-state’s pro-democracy protests with gas masks, helmets, water, food, and clothing.

  • Here’s some survey data from a team of university researchers on who is participating in the Hong Kong protests, drawn from nearly 7,000 respondents. Most are aged between 20-30, describe themselves as moderate or centrist, and more than half also participated in Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement.

  • Tech and politics: Oxford Internet Institute researcher Felix Simon takes a look at how politicians are using Instagram to convey authenticity and get their ideas out.

  • Privacy, shmivacy: Consumer Reports’ new digital lab reviews 29 home Wi-Fi routers, finding serious problems in how some of them handle digital security. (Full disclosure: I am a long-serving member of CR’s board.)

  • End times: More than two million people have signed onto “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us,” a Facebook event being billed as “AlienStock” and likely to be a giant bust, as Hannah Knowles reports for The Washington Post. It is the silly season, after all, but organizers still expect between 5,000-30,000 people to show up September 20 in the little town of Rachel, Nevada (population 54).

  • Here it is, the conference call chat-thread from hell. Scroll backwards for the full effect.

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