Micro-Clues

Lessons from 10 years of civic tech investing; new initiatives worth watching; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Alissa Black and McKenzie Smith of the U.S. Luminate team share the findings of an in-depth study of the first decade of civic tech conducted by the global strategic advisory firm Dalberg on its behalf. Among its key findings:

    • “Over the last 10 years, civic tech in the U.S. has evolved through three distinct phases: from a period of early exuberance prior to 2008; to a focus on demonstrating and disseminating new models from 2008-2016; and most recently, a reevaluation of the role of technology in broader civic change.
    • “Funding, especially early-stage risk capital, is scarce.”
    • “Civic tech is a means, not an end.”
    • “Like many industries, civic tech has room to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).”
    The full Dalberg report is here and it’s chock full of important information.
  • The remnants of Sean Parker‘s start-up Brigade, which he pumped an estimated $40-50 million into, have been acquired by Countable, a civic engagement app that caught the post-2016 activism wave more successfully, as Josh Constine reports for TechCrunch. As part of the deal, Countable is open-sourcing Brigade’s voter matching software, which allows them to tie users to their official voting record, enabling personalized features like reminders of upcoming elections or ways to contact their elected officials. Brigade is also deleting “billions of rows of data” that it had collected on users from its earlier acquisition of Causes, another Parker start-up, which had pulled in the Facebook data of tens of millions of users back in the Wild West days of social network privacy grabs. Both of these steps are to be applauded.

  • Should governments move their code to be hosted in the cloud? Over at the Civic Unrest blog, Civic Hall member Shelby Switzer explains why it’s important that government not rely on just one (Amazon) or two (Microsoft) cloud providers.

  • Say hello to the Deliberative Media Initiative Lab of the University of Virginia, which will be led by Siva Vaidhyanathan, a leading scholar who has written seminal books on Google and Facebook. He says the lab will address one of the central problems facing democracy today: “While our current media ecosystem helps motivate like-minded people to find each other and act, it undermines the ability of diverse groups of people to deliberate informatively and dispassionately about issues using a shared body of accepted facts. The lab would address the problem by assessing and analyzing the current state of media and prescribing technologies, practices, and ethics that might foster and promote deliberation.”

  • Say hello to Public Hall, a new govtech workspace opening in July in the Westminster section of London. It’s a collaboration between the venture firm Public and the workspace accelerator Huckletree.

  • Congrats to the new class of Obama Foundation Fellows, among whom we recognize Shari Davis of the Participatory Budgeting Project and Alessandra Orofino of Nossas in Brazil.

  • Apply: TICTeC Local, mySociety’s annual conference on the use of civic tech in local communities, is next November 1 in London and it is now accepting proposals for talks. Presentation submissions should focus on specific digital innovations that are helping local communities and/or public authorities to foster citizen engagement/participation, drive efficiency, and combat social and environmental problems.

  • Future of work: “Ghost Work” is the name Mary Gray and her colleagues at Microsoft Research have given for a new global workforce that is largely invisible but critical to the back-end of today’s on-demand economy, and as she explains in this Washington Post op-ed, this work requires workers who are on call 24/7, destroying the concept of an 8-hour workday. And as she shows, they’re organizing collectively, connecting “to learn the ropes, flag bad clients and offer solace at the end of long stretches of tasks.”

  • Contractors in Google’s shadow workforce are organizing alongside their more privileged peers, April Glaser reports for Slate.

  • Friends of the Earth International has a new report out about how Big Data may increase the concentration of power in the global food system. It’s actually more about how six big hedge funds are driving the financialization of agriculture, but still worth a look.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Our old friend Nancy Scola breaks news over at Politico, reporting on the specifics of Facebook’s negotiations with the FTC. The company may agree to set up a federal approved privacy official at the social network and an “independent” privacy oversight committee that may include Facebook board members. The proposal doesn’t include any new restrictions on Facebook’s data handling practices, which has privacy rights advocates fuming.

  • Among the new products being rolled out by Facebook is one called Secret Crush, allowing users of the Facebook Dating feature to tell the platform up to nine friends they are hoping to hook up with, Louise Matsakis reports for Wired.

  • The moment when Mark Zuckerberg jokes about Facebook’s past record on privacy and no one laughs.

  • Instagram is testing a change that will hide how many likes and views photos and videos receive, to reduce competition on the platform and make it feel “less pressurized,” its head Adam Mosseri announced Tuesday. The test run will roll out in Canada, where people are already so chill it may not be possible to notice a difference. Account owners will still be able to check the tallies on their own photos and videos, so it’s not clear how much pressure will be reduced.

  • Speaking of privacy: Human Rights Watch reports on what it learned by reverse engineering a mobile app that the Chinese government is using for mass surveillance of 13 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. Among its findings: the authorities considering many forms of lawful behavior like not socializing with neighbors or avoiding using the front door as suspicious; “when people are using a phone that is not registered to them, when they use more electricity than ‘normal,’ or when they leave the area in which they are registered to live without police permission, the system flags these ‘micro-clues’ to the authorities as suspicious and prompts an investigation.” The app works with some of the region’s checkpoints to “form a series of invisible or virtual fences” that are used to control people’s movement and sift out undesirables.

  • Google says it will soon allow users to automatically delete old location and web history that it has saved on them, Todd Haselton reports for CNBC. This looks like progress, in that it takes the onus off users to remember to delete old data—but it also doesn’t really change the power imbalance much between the giant company, which has been hoovering up personal information faster than any other private entity on Earth, and its users its raw materials.

  • Oregon’s Washington County is ground zero “for a high-stakes battle over the unregulated growth of policing by algorithm,” writes Drew Harrell for the Washington Post, because that’s where local police are making intensive use of Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition tool and defense attorneys, AI researchers and civil rights experts are pushing back, fearful of it leading to the wrongful arrests of innocent people. He reports, “A grainy picture of someone’s face — captured by a security camera, a social-media account or a deputy’s smartphone — can quickly become a link to their identity, including their name, family and address. More than 1,000 facial-recognition searches were logged last year, said deputies, who sometimes used the results to find a suspect’s Facebook page, visit their home or make an arrest.”

  • Here’s a not so grainy picture of everything Amazon knows about you, from Ina Fried of Axios.

  • Food for thought: NYTimes tech columnist Farhad Manjoo suggests that the people who are about to profit hugely from Uber’s IPO have a huge debt to pay back to society.

  • Long read: Occupy Wall Street might have been a “shit show,” as organizer Nicole Carty puts it, but as this in-depth look-back by Emily Stewart in Vox shows, it also spawned “a bunch of movement infrastructure in the form of new associations, new organizations, new models for thinking about social movements, new communications strategies, new movement spaces, and in that way, it left more than was there before it started,” as former occupier Jesse Myers puts it.

  • End times: Hey, China, if you’re listening, hack Trump’s taxes, Hillary Clinton plays out the thought experiment. But her emails!

  • Privacy is dead! Long live privacy! And we have always been at war with Eastasia.

    You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please consider joining Civic Hall as a network member and supporting our work or sign up to our newsletter to stay connected with the #CivicTech community.