To the Cleaners

Big data and your babysitter; Facebook's Thanksgiving turkey; and more.


  • This is civic tech: It’s GivingTuesday, but you knew that already!

  • GovTrack founder Josh Tauberer writes for ArsTechnica about how he made a change in Washington DC’s legal code simply by fixing a typo on GitHub, where the code is published. “This is a milestone in the advancement of open government and open legal publishing,” he writes, but adds that editing laws via GitHub isn’t about to become the “new normal.”

  • The Knight Foundation is investing $1 million in West Charlotte’s “Civic Tech Experience,” offering programs aimed at helping families build better digital skills, offering connections to economic resources and opportunities for community engagement, Zack Quaintance reports for GovTech.

  • Civil, the blockchain-based journalism start-up, is facing criticism from journalists who have worked on the platform who say they have yet to receive the compensation they were promised when hired, Leigh Cuen of CoinDesk reports. “Civil can talk all it wants about creating a new future for media, but the reality is it’s being built by putting journalists into debt,” said Jay Cassano, who left the Civil news outlet Sludge on Nov. 8 because, he said, undelivered tokens made up roughly 70 percent of his salary for five months.“I had to borrow money to pay my rent and student loans,” Cassano told Cuen.

  • Apply: BetaNYC, New York’s civic tech, open data and civic design community, is looking to hire a special events project manager.

  • Subscribe: Civic Hall Toronto has started a newsletter.

  • Brave new world: Patients using CPAP machines to help fight their sleep apnea are being surreptitiously tracked, with data on their nightly usage being sent not only to their doctors, but also to machine’s maker, the medical supply company and the health insurance company paying for their use, Marshall Allen reports for ProPublica. In one case, a user was told by his insurance company that it wouldn’t pay for a new mask until he proved that he was using the machine all night, but he couldn’t use the machine all night without a new mask.

  • Looking for a babysitter and wondering if they might be a drug abuser or have a “bad attitude”? The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell reports on Predictim, an online service that says it uses “advanced artificial intelligence” to assess a potential sitter’s personality from looking at their social media posts and assigning them a simple overall numerical score. Yet one more reason people using social media have to perform an idealized version of themselves. (Sittercity, an online babysitting marketplace, says it’s adding Predictim to its current array of screenings and background checks starting next year.)

  • Life in Facebookistan: You probably missed this memo, posted by Facebook’s communications and policy chief, Elliott Schrage, because it was made public on the eve of Thanksgiving, one of the best times of the year to release bad company news, as Nellie Bowles and Zach Wichter note for The New York Times. Schrage essentially confirmed the outline of the earlier Times story on how Definer Public Affairs, a Republican-led PR firm hired by Facebook to target its critics, stating, “Did we ask them to do work on George Soros? Yes.” Company COO Sheryl Sandberg, who had earlier denied being aware that Definers was hired, also admitted that “Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.” Recall that Mark Zuckerberg‘s initial reaction to the Times story was to tell his staff it was “bullshit.”

  • Patrick Gaspard, the president of the Open Society Foundations, responded to the Schrage memo saying “Sorry, but this needs independent, congressional oversight.”

  • MoveOn leaders Ilya Sheyman and Anna Galland have written to Sandberg and Zuckerberg not only protesting the company’s use of Definers, but also raising concerns about FB’s ongoing civil rights audit, stating that “Your audit process lacks anonymity, lacks a commitment to transparency, and includes questions that appear aimed more at helping Facebook defend itself against pressure than improve its processes.” MoveOn was one of the biggest spending on political ads on FB in 2018, purchasing more than $5.5 million.

  • The British Parliament has obtained a set of internal Facebook documents on data and privacy controls that the company has fought for months to keep secret, The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr reports. The documents stem from a legal battle between Facebook and Six4Three, investors in Pikini, a short-lived app that allowed users to find pictures of their friends wearing bikinis. Apparently Pikini was one of many apps that took advantage of Facebook’s loose controls on third-party usage of data, and then lost access after internal deliberations at Facebook regarding those policies. The documents in question may shed more light on decisions that set the stage for Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of Facebook user data.

  • Journalist Maria Ressa of Rappler, a Filipino investigative journalism site, tells Kara Swisher of Recode how in 2016 and 2017 she tried to get the attention of Facebook executives, all the way up to Zuckerberg, to address the false information and harassment aimed at her and her colleagues, but recalls that when she told Zuck that 97% of the Philippines population was on Facebook, he frowned and asked what was wrong with the other 3%.

  • Ressa also talks about the recently-released PBS documentary “The Cleaners,” which reports on the army of social media monitors in the Philippines, mostly women, who are paid to make content decisions at the rate of two seconds per post, asking Swisher, “Do you realize that freedom of expression globally is now being determined by minimum-wage earners?”

  • While Facebook now admits its leadership decided to target Soros after he gave a speech at Davos highly critical of the company (and Google), it’s worth noting that at the same time FB was working closely with a nonprofit fact-checking organization, Correctiv, to spot false information on the platform, as this story from Der Spiegel notes.

  • Tech and politics: Outgoing director of analytics for MoveOn, Milan de Vries, shares some of the lessons of data-driven organizing from his eight years with the organization. One example: those RESIST stickers on cars? MoveOn mailed out 300,000 of them to members after testing which design resonated best.

  • Laid-off Toys R Us workers just won a $20 million fund for severance pay from two hedge funds, and as United for Respect’s Anita Molenda, a Civic Hall organizer-in-residence who helped them organize, explains, it all started with “a few conversations with Toys R Us workers over Facebook,” followed by a viral video with them talking to Senator Bernie Sanders that got close to 5 million views.

  • Silicon Valley Rising wants to know why the city of San Jose is keeping its negotiations to sell prime land to Google secret from the public.