Soup Sandwich

Sidewalk's Collab tool; deep fake challenges; biased platform politics; and more


  • This is civic tech: San Diego Code for America Brigade captain Isaac Wang is running for city council, and he’s trying to make his work as a civic technologist (along with his background as a veteran and urban planner) a big part of his pitch to voters, as Seth Combs reports for San Diego’s City Beat. He says, “We still have all these local governments who still have no idea what to do with technology. They’re using these legacy systems that are 20 or 30 years old. We’re so far behind the private sector in terms of using technology to manage government. Whether it’s data on street repair or information on when is this housing development moving forward, how do we convey the end goals of information transfer to citizens. If [the city’s] website can’t do this, then it’s a soup sandwich.”

  • Ariel Kennan, the director of civic innovation for Sidewalk Labs and Farhaan Ladhani and Sean Willett of Toronto nonprofit Digital Public Sqaure share news of the launch of Collab, their new co-developed digital tool for supporting communities that want to make “more inclusive, collaborative decisions.” The tool is an early-stage prototype that right now allows users “to propose their choices for events in public spaces and then walk them through the trade-offs associated with each proposal. For example, a farmers market provides fresh produce and draws a lot of foot traffic, but the space may then feel too congested for a community picnic.”

  • Civic Hall member and longtime open-source open-government developer David Moore had this interesting comment on how Collab scores the trade-offs it helps users uncover: “Looked at the public demo of the new Collab tool. Top-down participation tools are never going to inform a city resident, “Your municipal government is captured by real estate industry, so community public spaces aren’t adequately funded.” But outside-gov’t non-profit tech might!”

  • Related and not just ironically: Toronto’s Bianca Wylie writes in Medium about what its like for a civic entity—in this case the city of Toronto—to try to negotiate with a company, Sidewalk Labs, that doesn’t operate according to normal market pressures because of the deep backing of its parent Google, and thus “where the only pressure and tension Sidewalk Labs’ experiences comes from pushing on one question – what will they let us do?” She adds:

    Alphabet can basically pay their way to play with whatever they want. This may involve subsidizing housing, financing transit at better rates than available elsewhere, etc. This deal may be one where item by item, Toronto appears to get (or gets) a whole bunch of stuff it would like to have. But Sidewalk Labs is not a benevolent actor. It’s not a philanthropy, charity, or non-profit.
  • San Francisco has become the first American city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by government agencies, as Kate Conger, Richard Fausset and Serge Kovaleski report for The New York Times.

  • Downtown Brooklyn is becoming a living incubator for a host of “smart city” sensor experiments, Mary Frost reports for the Brooklyn Eagle.

  • Future of work: According to the Freelancers Union, a whopping 57.3 million Americans were part of the gig economy in 2017, but as this symposium in the American Prospect featuring several leading economists lays out, this number is wildly inflated. At the same time, “non-standard” jobs—like housekeeping workers who clean rooms at a hotel or corporation, but actually work for a third-party contractors—are definitely growing.

  • The staff of Kickstarter is trying to form a union called Kickstarter United, but the company’s CEO Aziz Hasan says that management won’t voluntarily recognize it, Bijan Stephen reports for The Verge.

  • California’s state senate judiciary committee has passed a bill banning the creation of digital “deep fake” sex scenes if they lack the consent of the performers portrayed.

  • Tech and politics: The Trump White House has launched an online survey asking Americans to report if they think “political bias” has caused them “to be suspended, banned or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ of user policies.” I can’t imagine that this won’t get trolled.

  • Infowars, continued: Roughly half of all Europeans have been exposed to online disinformation spread through social media accounts linked to Russia in advance of the upcoming European elections, according to new research from Safeguard Cyber, which monitors half a million bot accounts, Daniel Boffey reports for The Guardian.

  • The city of Baltimore has twice been victimized by hackers demanded ransom, most recently earlier this month, Victoria Song reports for Gizmodo.

  • Digital forensics expert Hany Farid of UC Berkeley says that in preparation for 2020 election, his researchers are building “soft biometric models” of all the presidential candidates to be better prepared to be able to spot faked videos of them, Olivia Beavers reports for The Hill.

  • Eighteen countries along with five major tech platforms (that collectively have far more users than those 18 countries have citizens) have issued the Christchurch Call, promising to take more action to counter violent extremist and terrorist content online.

  • Australia, Canada, the European Commission, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jordan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Senegal, Spain, Sweden and Britain joined the call, but the Trump Administration took a pass, saying that “free speech concerns” gave it pause, as Tony Romm and Drew Harwell report for The New York Times.

  • While we can all agree that tech platforms should try to do more to stop the circulation of hate speech or the live broadcast of acts of terrorism, the Christchurch Call skates past some hard questions. For example, should Facebook delete the accounts of Palestinians that the Israeli government deems as causing “incitement,” for example? As Glenn Greenwald noted in a December 2017 Intercept piece about this issue, “calls by Israelis for the killings of Palestinians are commonplace on Facebook, and largely remain undisturbed.”

  • Deep thoughts: Long-time alpha-geek and often very funny writer Paul Ford tells Wired readers why he (still) loves tech, which he calls “a difficult industry.”

  • End times: One of the comedians I grew up with, Tim Conway, passed this week. How he made us laugh. (And yes, Harvey Korman peed himself during the skit from trying (and failing) so hard not to laugh.) RIP Tim.

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