Team Human vs. Team Machine

Ten years of civic tech; Zuck cheats at Scrabble, how to make sure your vote isn't purged, & more


  • This is civic tech: Cyd Harrell, a veteran of the civic tech community, has a must-read post up on Medium about “Civic Tech as a Tween,” that traces the field’s growth from the first hackathon in the US focused on using government data for public good, the DC “Apps for Democracy” contest in 2008, which definitely was a key take-off moment. I appreciate her effort to see the field with a long-range perspective, but like others in the Code for America orbit, she defines civic tech primarily in relation to making government work better, which in my humble opinion is a subset of the larger push to help people and communities become more powerful in making their voices heard and solving their own problems. Read the whole thing and add your comments!

  • Harrell also shared her Civic Design Timeline, an open Google doc of key moments in the development of civic tech in the US.

  • To make sure your name hasn’t been removed from your state’s registered voter roll, go to DontGetPurged.org, built by the folks at Vote.org.

  • Libraries are critical social infrastructure: That’s what sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues in this oped from Sunday’s New York Times. Amen to that.

  • Apply: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is seeking “pioneering ideas” proposals focused on technology, infrastructure and health, and in particular on how “emerging technologies will transform infrastructure in ways that might help or hinder opportunities for everyone in America to live a healthier life, now and in the future.” Grants will run in the $200,000-$400,000 range for anywhere from one to three years.

  • NYC Planning Labs is looking to hire a developer.

  • Here’s CityLab’s Laura Bliss on the ongoing controversy roiling the smart city project Google sidekick Sidewalk Labs is trying to pull off in Toronto: “Nearly 11 months into [Sidewalk Labs’] original, one-year consultation agreement [with Toronto, the company] has provided little information during the public engagement process about how data gathered at Quayside would be owned and used. That has advocates, researchers, and other involved in the project worried about exactly what the tech company wants with Toronto, and who gets left with the bill.”

  • Related: An undergraduate researcher at the NYC College of technology has discovered that LinkNYC, the company behind the kiosks beaming free WiFi on city streets, may be “actively planning to track users’ locations,” Ava Kofman reports for the Intercept. LInkNYC is run by CityBridge, one of whom’s investors is Sidewalk Labs.

  • Life in Facebookistan: If you don’t think Facebook is on a full-on charm offensive, supplementing the ubiquitous ads it has been plastering cities with declaring things like “Fake news is not your friend,” you’ll be convinced of it after reading The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos’ long feature about him. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is trying, he’s really trying, and he also likes banana bread for breakfast. But after a series of conversations with Zuck over the summer about the company’s problems and his underlying views of tech and society, Osnos found him “straining, not always coherently, to grasp problems for which he was plainly unprepared.” And putting things in terms sure to make sense to New Yorker readers he adds, “The contrast between the public and the private Zuckerberg reminded me of Hillary Clinton. In both cases, friends complain that the popular image is divorced from the casual, funny, generous person they know. Yet neither Zuckerberg nor Clinton has found a way to publicly express a more genuine persona.”    

  • Osnos reports that Zuck once lost a game of scrabble to a high school girl while on a corporate jet, so before they played a second game, “he wrote a simple computer program that would look up his letters in the dictionary so that he could choose from all possible words. Zuckerberg’s program had a narrow lead when the flight landed.” The girl told Osnos, “During the game in which I was playing the program, everyone around us was taking sides: Team Human and Team Machine.” 

  • More important: Zuckerberg, reports Osnos, still bristles at the suggestion that Facebook may have distorted voter behavior in 2016: “I find the notion that people would only vote some way because they were tricked to be almost viscerally offensive,” he said. “Because it goes against the whole notion that you should trust people and that individuals are smart and can understand their own experience and can make their own assessments about what direction they want their community to go in.” This the president of Facebookistan, the largest country in the world, speaking, whose engineers have growth-hacked the hell out of 2.2 billion users.

  • Here’s Casey Newton of the Verge, explaining why he is lately less and less interested in “reading tech CEOs perform their thoughtfulness.”

  • Ah, that lovely word “community,” which Zuckerberg leans on so much. Here’s a story about how a community in India attacked and beat five strangers to death because of videos circulating on WhatsApp warning of outsiders kidnapping children, by Pranav Dixit and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeedNews. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is the most used app in India, but more than 200 million users who mainly turn to it to watch and share videos. While WhatsApp has added some new features to reduce the rate of sharing via the app, many rural users are on older versions and haven’t gotten the anti-misinformation message.

  • Speaking of tech in India, an investigation by HuffingtonPost India’s Rachna Khaira, Aman Sethi and Gopal Sathe has found that the country’s giant Aadhaar identity database, which has the biometrics and personal information of more than one billion (BILLION) Indians, has been compromised by a software patch that disables critical security features. The patch allows unauthorized people to generate Aadhaar numbers at will, and is still in widespread use, they report.

  • Media matters: For some reason, state attorneys general who are Democrats haven’t been invited by the Justice Department to a September 25th meeting that AG Jeff Sessions has announced to investigate whether companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are stifling conservative content, Tony Romm and Brian Fung report for The Washington Post.

  • Duke University sociologist Christopher Ball explains in a New York Times oped why Twitter’s plan to launch a new feature exposing people to different political views may backfire, drawing on a study he helped conduct that paid a random group of Democratic and Republican users to follow a bot that retweeted messages from elected officials and opinion leaders from the other party.

  • In Germany, YouTube’s recommendation system is consistently directing people towards inflammatory content about refugees, Max Fisher and Katrin Bennhold report for the New York Times.

  • The European Parliament is voting in two days on the European Copyright Directive, and Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing warns that two provisions that were inserted at the last minute threaten to wreck the internet. One would turn online providers into “censorship machines” and the other would impose a “link tax” forcing users to pay news sites if they want to link to their content.

  • Pinterest’s slow growth approach to social networking is starting to show results, Erin Griffith reports for The New York Times, suggesting that it may be possible to get to scale (it’s now at 250 million monthly active users) without sacrificing civility.

  • Happy New Year to our Jewish readers! Can I just say for the record that ordering a cinnamon raisin bagel with lox, cream cheese and capers is actually no worse than putting ham and pineapple on a pizza?