Time Passages

A decade of civic and un-civic tech; future predictions; the messy present; and more

This is civic tech: It’s the end of a decade, in case you haven’t noticed. (For me, time is a seamless stream and I don’t notice social constructs like “years” or “months.” I frankly can’t remember what today’s date is without looking at my phone or the little calendar icon on the bottom of my screen. In other words, I’m trying to ignore the aging process.) And ends of decades mean even more of the usual “end of the year” retrospectives, which are how lots of media properties repurpose old content rather than spending more money on new work that they worry no one will read anyway. So, if you want to really enjoy some tech flagellation in the end of decade department, you can check out Derek Thompson in the Atlantic complaining that the real “trouble” with Silicon Valley isn’t toxic social media, it’s that it hasn’t transformed the real world problems of “deteriorating infrastructure, climate change, low growth, rising economic inequality.” You can squint at this infographic. Or you can wallow in “The Decade Tech Lost Its Way,” a special section of the New York Times that I lost my way in trying to navigate through online. (Seriously, when was Big Tech’s “way” different?)
Maybe it’s only a certain kind of tech that “lost its way.” Far better to keep our eyes on the prize that civic tech aims for, which is demonstrable improvements solving social problems that affect people’s lives or better how we govern ourselves. There are a couple dozen civic tech organizations, a mix of for-profits and nonprofits, that can rightfully look back on the 2010s as a decade of real impact. For example:

  • Change.org’s more than 260 million users globally have started more than 25,000 campaigns a month and won many on issue ranging from women’s rights to health care to environmental justice;
  • In just the last three years, Code for America has helped expunge the criminal records of tens of thousands of people, helping them get their lives on track;
  • SeeClickFix users have posted and gotten more than 5.5 million local issues resolved in the last ten years;
  • Ioby, the neighborhood civic crowdfunding platform, has trained 20,000 local community leaders and helped more than 2,000 local projects get off the ground;
  • Digital Democracy, which has been building powerful technologies with indigenous groups on the ground in the Amazon for ten years, just won a huge legal victory protecting local Waorani land rights in Ecuador;
  • Campaigners using NationBuilder raised more than $400 million in donations and made nearly 12 million contacts in 2018 alone;
  • Democracy.works has helped hundreds of millions of Americans find out where their polling site is over the last several national elections; sent out millions of election reminders to its more than 7 million Turbovote subscribers, tracked hundreds of thousands of ballots through the mail; and helped a huge number find out how to register or obtain an absentee ballot.

All of these are examples of tech-enabled life improvement and power-shifting. There’s another story to be told about the impact of tech, it just doesn’t involve many celebrity VCs or much about a place called Silicon Valley.
In that vein, check out this new interview I did on Civicist with Dan Kass and Georges Clement, two of the co-founders of JustFix.nyc, a rising civic tech nonprofit that is focused on using data and tech to advance housing justice.
All that said, as we look ahead to (gulp) 2020s, it’s worth pondering how people using emerging technologies will warp the future. Tiago Peixoto and Tom Steinberg, two of the most experienced practitioners and analysts of civic tech, have published a new report with the World Bank titled, “Citizen Engagement: Emerging Digital Technologies Create New Risk and Value.” At the report’s heart are 11 predictions looking at the possible impacts of synthetic media, data-driven government, automated identity verification, online deliberation platforms, speech filtering by platforms, augmented reality, and blockchain-based tools on democratic processes. Peixoto and Steinberg are pessimistic about how disinformation and the use of “social credit” systems may reduce civic engagement and exclude many citizens from public processes. On the other hand, they see potential promise in the rise of verified voting, digital engagement platforms and the use of augmented reality to increase civic awareness and the abilities of citizens to participate in representative processes. And they come down in the middle in some unexpected ways on topics like automation, which they recognize may improve some government services but also reduce the personal nature of communication between citizens and governments, and the use of bots, which they suggest could help activists reduce some of the time and energy they have to spend on administrative tasks, allowing more time for organizing. All in all, it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking report, well worth a careful reading.
In a similar vein, the AI Now Institute is out with a big end-of-year report with 12 key recommendations, including:

  • Banning the use of “affect recognition” technologies that claim to be able to read people’s personalities, emotions or mental health;
  • Adopting a moratorium on the use of facial recognition by government and business, because of existing harms to people of color and the poor;
  • Mandating the public disclosure of the environmental impacts of AI;
  • Giving workers the right to contest the use of exploitative AI in the workplace;
  • Giving tech workers more abilities to challenge the unethical development or use of AI;
  • More transparency into public-private partnerships involving the use of AI (like police forces gaining access to Amazon’s Ring system)

Focusing more on the immediate challenges and opportunities with tech workforce development in New York City, City and State’s Annie McDonough profiles Civic Hall co-founder Andrew Rasiej.
Apply: The Center for Democracy and Technology is looking for a CEO.
Coming back to reality in the country a few billion of us live in, Facebookistan: Conservative libertarian Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member, is reportedly pressing company CEO Mark Zuckerberg to not change the company’s stated policy of not factchecking political ads.
Related: Henry Silverman, a Facebook product manager, announced Tuesday that the company is working with YouGov, the polling company, to build a pool of community reviewers “that is representative of the Facebook community in the US and reflects the diverse viewpoints — including political ideology — of Facebook users” to help the company spot potential misinformation. So if those community reviewers already believe a piece of junk information is factual, their bias will help Facebook decide whether to follow up on a claim that something is not true. Great! (h/t Kevin Roose).
The giant social network won’t ban false political ads, but in keeping with Zuckerberg’s longstanding fear of female nipples, it blocked a new advertising campaign by Storq, a company that makes maternity clothes, for violating policies prohibiting ads that are “sexually suggestive or provocative” or “overly focusing on one body part.” The horror!
Facebook is investing an astounding $130 million on its yet-to-be-operational independent advisory board, which will have the power to rule on content moderation decisions, Elizabeth Culliford reports for Reuters. The money is intended to cover operational costs for at least six years. Casey Newton of The Verge has a more judicious write-up about how the advisory board is taking shape that you are welcome to read; I can’t get over the fact that the company is going to spend more than triple the annual budgets of Code for America, EFF, the Internet Archive, and Access Now combined on this new body; or roughly equal the annual budget for the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia. $20 million a year for a board of 20 people and some case management software?!
If you don’t live in Facebookistan, you probably live in China, where the surveillance state is becoming much more pervasive, with local police gaining the ability to link facial recognition to cell phone data in real time, Paul Mozur and Aaron Krolik report for The New York Times. Their story casts the development in terrifying terms, since, as they write, “Once combined and fully operational, the tools can help police grab the identities of people as they walk down the street, find out who they are meeting with and identify who does and doesn’t belong to the Communist Party.” But deeper in the piece, there is much evidence that data leaks and petty corruption may make parts of the system less functional. In some cases, local residents are quietly pushing back on some of the more intrusive aspects of surveillance, using an old technology called plywood to prop open apartment building doors to get around facial scanners.
Speaking of surveillance, Vice’s Joseph Cox reports that “Amazon-owned home security company Ring is not doing enough to stop hackers breaking into customer accounts, and in turn, their cameras, according to multiple cybersecurity experts, people who write tools to break into accounts, and Motherboard’s own analysis with a Ring camera it bought to test the company’s security protections.” Ring has responded to reports of hacking by blaming its customers, but Cox notes that the product “is not offering basic security precautions, such as double-checking whether someone logging in from an unknown IP address is the legitimate user, or providing a way to see how many users are currently logged in—entirely common security measures across a wealth of online services.”
Google has fired a fifth employee for using the company’s internal information platform to share information relating to labor rights, Catherine Thorbecke reports for ABC News. The worker, Kathryn Spiers, has filed a federal labor complaint.
And with that, it’s time for an end of the year break. May you all have restful and peaceful holidays, and we’ll see you in 2020!

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