Strategic Risks

Saving refugees time; Facebook's latest data leak; the "Nextdoor effect"; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Ample Labs has launched ChalmersBot, a chat bot that aims to assist people in Toronto access critical social services and resources.

  • Ian Babelon reports on the recent national summit on participatory budgeting in France, held in early November just outside of Paris.

  • Here’s how the U.S. Digital Service has been quietly rolling out a new tool designed to reduce the amount of time refugees have to wait to get a verdict on their asylum applications, as reported by Cat Zakrewski of the Washington Post.

  • If you are a woman elected official or know any, check out Underwire’s upcoming webinar December 11th on ways of fighting harassment of women electeds. Underwire is a project being launched by Civic Hall board member Allison Fine and community member Marya Stark (co-founder of Emerge America).

  • With term limits being applied to the members of NYC’s community boards, BetaNYC’s Lab Manager Lindsay Poirer argues in Gotham Gazette that it’s time for the boards to get a lot more data literate (and BetaNYC offers trainings, in tandem with the Manhattan Borough President’s office).

  • Apply: The Impact of Civic Tech (TICTeC) 2019 conference is now accepting paper and session proposals.

  • Apply: Civic I/O is now accepting applications for its 2019 Civic Technology Pitch Competition, which gets you the chance to pitch directly to 30 mayors and win $10,000.

  • Apply: The Center for Effective Public Policy is looking to hire a digital coordinator.

  • Dear God, no. In case you need a laugh, check out start-up VoteMatrix’s pitch for funding. Not only do we not need another website devoted to helping people figure out where their elected officials stand, or who to vote for, Votematrix’s funding pitch is, let us say, unconventional.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Documents released by the chair of a British parliamentary committee investigating Facebook and Cambridge Analytica suggest that the company has sold access to user data, contrary to its longstanding claims, by trading the value of that access for other things of value. Facebook denies using data as a bargaining chip for advertising and other concessions, as Craig Timberg, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Tony Romm report for The Washington Post. But as former FTC CTO Ashkan Soltani notes on Twitter, the document dump includes evidence that apps needed to spend at least $250K a year on Facebook ads in order to maintain access to user data.

  • Facebook also used access to data to “favor certain partners” like Airbnb, Lyft and Netflix, “and punish rivals” like Twitter, as Adam Satariano and Mike Isaac write for The New York Times.

  • Consumer watchdog agencies in the US and EU should be interested especially in lines like this one, from an internal email written by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: “I’m generally skeptical [sic] that there is as much data leak strategic risk as you think. I agree there is clear risk on the advertiser side, but I haven’t figured out how that connects to the rest of the platform. I think we leak info to developers, but I just can’t think if any instances where that data has leaked from developer to developer and caused a real issue for us.” This was written in 2012, after Facebook accepted a consent decree with the FTC promising to protect user privacy. As Issie Lapowsky comments in Wired, “Six years later, amid ongoing global investigations into how an app developer working with the political firm Cambridge Analytica was able to weaponize data for political purposes, that question looks remarkably naive.” 

  • Here’s Zuck’s own post on the matter, which tries very hard to explain that the company wanted to enable lots of developers to build on its platform and thus make Facebook more useful, but at the same explains that it had to also police developers who “built shady apps that abused people’s data.” At no point does he show the self-awareness to reflect on the possibility that his own creation was doing that.

  • We’ll let Soltani get the last word on Zuckerberg’s longstanding embrace of bartering access to users’ information.

  • More on how Facebook’s local news algorithm may have helped fuel the protests rocking France, along with some help from Change.org’s petition platform, as reported by Ryan Broderick of Buzzfeed News. He writes:

    A Change.org petition with fewer than 1,500 subscribers gets talked about on a local radio station. The radio appearance is written up by a local news site. The article is shared to a local Facebook page. Thanks to an algorithm change that is now emphasizing local discussion, the article dominates the conversation in a small town. Two men from the same suburb then turn the petition into a Facebook event. A duplicate petition goes viral within the local Facebook groups. Then a daily newspaper writes up the original petition. This second article about the petition also goes viral. So does the original petition. And then the rest of French media follows.

  • One might note that the headline BuzzFeed chose for Broderick’s story—The “Yellow Jackets” Riots In France Are What Happens When Facebook Gets Involved With Local News— was algorithmically chosen to get the greatest amount of attention, and definitely stretches the truth of what is going on in France. But hey, clicks!

  • Elsewhere inside tech: Second-tier temporary, vendor and contractor (RVC) workers at Google are starting to organize to demand better retreat, as this open letter to company CEO Sundar Pichai makes clear.

  • Brave new world: High end real-estate brokers in Beverly Hills talk about the “Nextdoor effect,” which is not that warm and fuzzy feeling you get from your kids playing in your neighbor’s yard. No, “The term is a reference to the neighborhood-based internet and social media platforms on which every threat — real or perceived — is shared, triggering heightened security concerns,” as Peter Kiefer writes for the Hollywood Reporter.

  • Laurie Penny went a four-day Mediterranean jaunt, the CoinsBank Blockchain Cruise, and her report for Breaker Mag suggests the trip was, well, like a scene from bad William Gibson novel.