Platform Issues

Next-Gen Engagement Tools; Eric Schmidt's Bad Look; The Skimm's Crash; and much more.


Civic tech responds: Mozilla has announced the first three winners of its COVID-19 Solutions Fund to support open source technology projects responding to the pandemic: VentMon, which tests the efficiency of open-source ventilator designs; Recidiviz, which has built a modeling tool to help prison administrators assess the impact on their jails; and COVID-19 Supplies NYC, which is using 3-D printers to make face masks in Brooklyn. A few more winners are due to be announced soon.

Just posted this morning on Civicist: Our Matt Stempeck with the first part of a series on “Next-Generation Engagement Platforms, and How They Are Useful Right Now.” It’s a detailed look at CONSUL, Decidim and vTaiwan, three of the most impressive open-source tools now in use around the world where governments and other organizations seek to involve people in meaningful decision-making.

The CMX Global community just had a global conference with about 2,100 virtual attendees, and here’s a very helpful write-up from organizers Ann Marie Pawlicki Dinkel and Beth McIntyre on what they learned from pulling off the event.

The US Congress is beginning to experiment with virtual hearings and other forms of hybrid meeting, as our friend Marci Harris of PopVox is helpfully tracking here.

Speaking of conferences, this Thursday is Personal Democracy Forum – Central/Eastern Europe. It’s running on Europe time, so folks in the Americas will have to get up early to watch live. I’ll be giving a short talk on “Solidarity or Siloes: The Internet’s Missing Link” at 8:00am EDT, and hope to pull together some ideas about the importance of social infrastructure, the challenges in building solidarity (drawing on how hard it was to build the Polish workers movement Solidnarsc), and how we have to bend the Internet away from its tendency to support the building of siloes towards more useful forms of democratic collaboration.

Meedan’s Digital Health Lab is building an emergency response resource to support pandemic fact-checking efforts.

The MIT Technology Review’s Patrick Howell O’Neill, Tate Ryan-Mosley and Bobbie Johnson have launched the COVID Tracking Tracer, to help keep up with the flood of new apps and systems being launched to help deal with the virus.

Related: Companies that sell house-arrest tech to criminal justice agencies are now trying to retool to sell their devices as COVID-19 quarantine enforcers, Raphael Satter reports for Reuters. Ugh.

Tech billionaire Mark Cuban hired a team of secret shoppers to investigate how 1,000 businesses in Dallas are protecting customers against the virus as they reopen, and they found that about 96% were “non-compliant across all mandatory protocols.”

Data scientist Cathy O’Neil points out that secret algorithms being used to determine when to re-open localities are “weapons of math destruction,” calling for more transparency in how they work.

Vinton Cerf and David Isenberg take to The Hill to argue that the Internet isn’t broken, it’s holding up exactly as it was designed to do, and exposing “serious inequalities in availability and utility.” Point taken.

Life in Facebookistan: Siva Vaidhyanathan reminds us that no industry has ever successfully self-regulated itself, pointing out that Facebook’s new Oversight Board has power over the most trivial issues affecting the company’s power. He writes, “Just ask yourself, ‘What about this board’s authority could save lives in Myanmar?” The answer is, nothing. “What about this board’s authority could minimize coordinated attacks on the workings of democracies around the world?’ The answer is, nothing. ‘What about this board’s authority could limit coordinated harassment of activists, journalists, and scholars by major political parties?’ The answer is, nothing. ‘What about this board’s authority could circumscribe Facebook’s ability to record and use every aspect of your movements and interests?’ The answer is, of course, nothing.”

Facebook is financing a new lobbying organization called American Edge to try to up its game in Washington, Tony Romm reports for The Washington Post. It is already the seventh biggest spending on lobbying across all industries, he notes.

Erin Gallagher has some nifty data visualizations showing how Facebook Groups and YouTube have spurred the viral spread of the #Plandemic conspiracy theory.

Thousands of workers at Amazon warehouses are organizing themselves to press for safer working conditions, as Labor Notes reports.

Media matters: If you’re thinking now’s the time to finally get your newsletter going, Simon Owens’ detailed dissection of The Skimm’s rise and recent decline (they laid off 20% of their workforce recently) is worth a read. The tl/dr: Beware taking on VC capital and trying to grow in every direction, including building a portfolio of YouTube videos that almost no one ever watched.

Tech and democracy: Sidewalk Labs, a Google affiliate with ambitions to remake the physical and social life of cities using “smart” tech, has abandoned its two-and-a-half-year effort to redevelop a prime piece of real estate on Toronto’s waterfront, Josh O’Kane reports for The Globe and Mail. Interestingly, there’s no mention of the news on Sidewalk’s website. Nasma Ahmed, one of many local community leaders who organized to block Sidewalk, offers some cogent reflections on what the battle was about.

Deep thoughts: Make time for Naomi Klein’s slashing critique in The Intercept of former Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s rise to the center of post-COVID-19 planning for New York state. One may quibble that she overstates Schmidt’s advisory role on various government boards into something like real power, but there’s no question that tech illiteracy among top politicians make them uniquely vulnerable to the predations of tech salesmen like Schmidt.

(Personally, I’m still waiting on Schmidt’s hilariously optimistic prediction that the new digital age would soon bring us “automated and machine-precise” haircuts—I could use one of those about now.)

End times: Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters summoning what is so special about a live concert sharing with thousands of other humans; this is some of what we are fighting to ensure lives on.

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