UnCivil Times

Blockchain company Civil falls short in coin offering goal for Civil Media; #MeToo now has one year of digital data available; and more


  • This is civic tech: Local community issue-reporting platform SeeClickFix just logged its five millionth user report, and naturally it was a pothole.

  • After a year of controversy over Sidewalk Labs’ plans for a massive data-driven development on Toronto’s waterfront, the Google-owned company is proposing to create an independent “Civic Data Trust” to steward the data that will be collected by its Quayside project.

  • Bianca Wylie, an independent civic activist who has emerged as the Jane Jacobs of the Sidewalk-Toronto controversy, says she advised Sidewalk a year ago to take a more open approach. She now writes that having ignored that advice, the company “is running a theatrical, dishonest, and patronizing marketing/influencers/public relations/crisis communications campaign on our city while our politicians grow increasingly uncomfortable. Sidewalk Labs continues to act like it’s the government. And now, we the residents are supposed to be excited about this company’s involvement in the governance of our data? Seriously? How stupid could a company think the people in this city are?” (Read the whole thing, she and her colleagues are doing heroic work.)

  • Here’s a bit more background on what a data trust could and should look like, from Sean MacDonald of Frontline SMS who has long been working on the idea, and Wylie.

  • Sonia Weiser reports for New York magazine on the rise of apps in a number of countries aimed at enabling people to report street harassment, and the challenges they have faced gaining traction.

  • Want to know if there’s an electric Citi Bike available near you in real-time? Or even better, want to repurpose the code to make a similar map for your city? Check out this build for NYC from Glitch user Aliza Aurfichtig and a remix by Daniel Schep for Washington DC.

  • The folks at Apolitical have pulled together a global directory of government, public sector and policy innovation labs.

  • Attend: The “All Tech is Human” Summit on Ethical Tech, sponsored by the Tech and Society Solutions Lab of the Omidyar Network, this Saturday at ThoughtWorks in NYC.

  • Attend: TICTeC Local is coming up November 6 in Manchester, UK.

  • Read: Just published and available for free: Citizen Science: Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy, a collaboration that grew out of the 2016 European Citizen Science Association conference. (h/t Matt Stempeck)

  • Apply: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is looking for proposals leveraging the power of data to improve local crisis response systems that can “reduce the use of force, arrest, and/or incarceration, and instead connect vulnerable populations to evidence-based treatment programs and services for improved outcomes.”

  • Tech and politics: The Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber Mission Center says it is “aware of a growing volume of cyber activity targeting election infrastructure in 2018,” NBC News’ Pete Williams and Ken Delanian report. The center’ also says, “Numerous actors are regularly targeting election infrastructure, likely for different purposes, including to cause disruptive effects, steal sensitive data, and undermine confidence in the election.” Supposedly, all the intrusions have either been prevented or mitigated. Does that make you feel better?

  • “Our political conversations are happening on an infrastructure built for viral advertising, and we are only beginning to adapt,” the ever-trenchant Renee DiResta writes in her latest piece for Wired. She adds: “More speech does not solve this problem. Without moderation, the web becomes an arms race in which every political conversation is a guerrilla marketing battle fought between automated networks pushing out content using any means necessary to capture attention.” 

  • Remember Barack Obama‘s 13 million member email list, built as part of his winning 2008 presidential election campaign? According to Kenneth Vogel and Maggie Haberman‘s reporting for The New York Times, consultants tied to the Trump campaign are selling access to a 20 million member list of emails and phone numbers of Trump supporters. As Vogel and Haberman note, this “appears to be the first time that the campaign of a sitting president facing re-election has opted to market its list” instead of tightly controlling access to it. The next time one of your relatives complains about all the robocalls they’re getting, tell them about this.

  • Tech companies that have partnered with Saudi Arabia, like Uber, Slack and WeWork, have some big questions to answer, writes Anand Giriharadas for the New York Times oped page.

  • ICYMI: Here’s Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA)’s ten point “internet bill of rights,” as explained by Kara Swisher of The New York Times.

  • A year ago yesterday, actress Alyssa Milano urged victims of sexual abuse to share their stories using the hashtag #MeToo, and since then it has been used more than 19 million times on Twitter alone, Monica Anderson and Skye Toor report for Pew Research. The biggest single day was a month ago, September 9, on the news of CBS executive Leslie Moonves resignation. Almost 30% of the uses of #MeToo have been in tweets written in languages other than English, with Afrikaans (7%), Somali (4%) and Spanish (3%) making up the largest non-English shares.

  • Also new from Pew Research: A majority of Americans have at least heard of social media bots and among those aware of the phenomenon, 80% are concerned that they are being used for bad purposes.

  • What sharing economy? Writing for Massachusetts’ Commonwealth magazine, former Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge says states and cities should rethink the fees they charge ride-share companies by creating congestion zones and charging per-mile rather than per-ride, in order to better balance the positive and negative effects companies like Uber and Lyft are having on local traffic.

  • Writing for Medium, our friend and Civic Hall member Douglas Rushkoff argues that “universal basic income” is not a solution to rising inequality or the destruction of jobs by automation, but rather it is “nothing more than a way for corporations to increase their power over us.”

  • Speaking of which, “the more employees are surveyed, the harder they try to avoid being watched, and the harder management tries to watch them,” writes Ellen Ruppel Shell in a terrific article on “The Employer Surveillance State” in the Atlantic.

  • Life in Facebookistan: In Myanmar, hundreds of military operatives used Facebook to build a years-long campaign to stigmatize the country’s Rohingya minority and target them for genocide, Paul Mozur reports for The New York Times. Many of the accounts they created to manipulate public opinion appeared to be news pages devoted to pop stars and other cultural figures. Mozur writes:

    One of the most dangerous campaigns came in 2017, when the military’s intelligence arm spread rumors on Facebook to both Muslim and Buddhist groups that an attack from the other side was imminent, said two people. Making use of the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, it spread warnings on Facebook Messenger via widely followed accounts masquerading as news sites and celebrity fan pages that “jihad attacks” would be carried out. To Muslim groups it spread a separate message that nationalist Buddhist monks were organizing anti-Muslim protests. The purpose of the campaign, which set the country on edge, was to generate widespread feelings of vulnerability and fear that could be salved only by the military’s protection, said researchers who followed the tactics. Facebook said it had found evidence that the messages were being intentionally spread by inauthentic accounts and took some down at the time. It did not investigate any link to the military at that point.

  • Nearly 100% of internet users in Brazil have WhatsApp, and as Ryan Broderick reports for BuzzFeedNews, it’s “overrun” with misinformation as the country votes for its next president and fact-checking groups are having a very tough time penetrating what’s being shared on it, but they can see how false information rapidly moves from secret WhatsApp groups to Facebook.

  • After insisting that it would not police posts for false information, Facebook now says that it will ban false information about voting requirements and fact-check fake reports of violence or long lines at polling stations ahead of next month’s elections, Reuters reports.

  • Harassment is a much bigger problem on Instagram than the company is ready to admit, Taylor Lorenz writes for The Atlantic.

  • Blockchain agonistes: Writing for The Guardian, economist Nouriel Roubini doesn’t mince words about blockchain, calling it “nothing more than a glorified spreadsheet.” Oh, here are a few more words:

    …far from ushering in a utopia, blockchain has given rise to a familiar form of economic hell. A few self-serving white men (there are hardly any women or minorities in the blockchain universe) pretending to be messiahs for the world’s impoverished, marginalised and unbanked masses claim to have created billions of dollars of wealth out of nothing. But one need only consider the massive centralisation of power among cryptocurrency “miners,” exchanges, developers and wealth holders to see that blockchain is not about decentralisation and democracy; it is about greed.

  • This long-read by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker on the cult of Ethereum, the leading alternative to Bitcoin, is well worth your time. The tl/dr version: don’t believe the hype.

  • With a few hours left to go yesterday before a self-imposed deadline, the much-vaunted Civil token sale to finance a new ecosystem of decentralized journalism creation was miles behind its goal of raising a minimum of $8 million on its initial coin offering, having pulled in just over $1.4 million with $1.1 million of that coming from ConsenSys, the blockchain company that has been floating Civil Media’s boat from the beginning. As Matthew Iles, Civil’s founder, wrote on Medium, “We are not where we wanted to be at this point in the sale.”

  • Dan Sinker, a leader in digital journalism innovation, tweeted angrily, “Everyone knows that with crowdfunding you make your last 80% in the final 11 hours. Piece of cake. Well done. Journalism is saved,” adding, “I’m usually very positive about dumb ideas.”

  • In light of Civil’s flop, this mini-conference Friday at Columbia’s Journalism School on Blockchain in Journalism: Promise and Practice should be interesting.

  • Whatever one may think of the role of blockchain in the future of journalism, consider this: A lot of quality investigative reporting has always been sustained by benevolent philanthropists. From The Nation and New Republic and the National Review in the past, to The Intercept today, most independent quality journalism has been subsidized by benevolent philanthropy. Adam Hochschild, the heir to a mining company, has long subsidized Mother Jones magazine. Right now, ConsenSys’s support (financed by the blockchain bubble) is making media startups like Sludge (a Civic Hall member organization focusing on money in politics) or Documented (focusing on the lives of immigrant New Yorkers) possible. The more things change, the more things remain the same?