First Post



Why Twitter is not your town square; what the Army Corps of Engineers had to do with Katrina; and more.

  • Food for thought: On the tenth anniversary of Katrina, veteran reporter Michael Grunwald offers this Twitter-storm-rant on the ongoing scandal that is the Army Corps of Engineers. In theory, what the Corps does is old-fashioned civic tech, in the core sense of using technology for the common good, but as Grunwald points out, not only did 1,800 people die in New Orleans because the Corps flood protection failed, Congress never took steps to reform it after Katrina and the agency remains a prime hub for pork-barrel waste.

  • Our global town square: Data scientist Kalev Leetaru took a hard look at three years worth of Twitter messages from 2012 to 2014, and finds that “if Twitter is indeed a global town square, it’s one that most of the town hasn’t entered yet—and one where the townsfolk who have entered seem to be doing more listening than talking these days….rather than growing outwardly and spreading to new regions, Twitter is largely growing inwardly and intensifying its coverage of locations where it was already popular, including the United States, Indonesia, and Japan.”

  • Twitter has published explicit targets for improving the diversity of its workforce in 2016, Stuart Dredge reports for The Guardian.

  • EFF’s Parker Higgins points out that a big reason Russia backed down on censoring Wikipedia last week over the publication of an article about hashish (which apparently violated the country’s restrictions on content related to drugs) was because the site uses HTTPS encryption. As a result, Russian authorities could not avoid blocking the entire site when they sought to suppress that one page. Higgins argues that that level of “conspicuous overblocking” was too much censorship for Russian authorities to risk.

  • Google could face a fine of as much as $1.4 billion if Indian authorities decide it has been rigged search results in its favor there, Abhimanyu Ghoshal reports for The Next Web.

  • What political nerds don’t get about techies: Since David Roberts’ long piece in Vox about how smart “tech nerds” don’t get American politics seems to have struck a nerve, let me add a few cents about why I’m not enamored of his essay. The core problem is that Roberts makes a blanket statement about “tech nerds” that he never actually backs up. Tim Urban, the author of the Wait But Why blog, is his sole target, and that for writing a long post about climate change that gets the science right and the politics wrong. From there, Roberts leaps, gazelle-like, to the claim that “distaste for government and politics” is “extremely common in the nerd community” and that most tech nerds just think Washington is dysfunctional and both parties are equally to blame. Well, if “tech nerds” all thought that, then why are so many tech nerds plugged into the Obama administration (and campaign before it)? And why are Democratic campaigns so well stocked with tech nerds while the Republicans struggle to recruit top talent to their side?

  • (Oh, and as to Roberts’ claim that “there are no independents” in American politics, the fact is that when Americans have three viable choices on the ballot (rather than the duopoly), they often vote for the independent—just ask Senators Angus King, Bernie Sanders, Lincoln Chafee or Governors Bill Walker, Lowell Weicker and Jesse Ventura. If Democratic and Republican party identities were so strong, how did these guys all get elected?)

First Post



Gift cards for the homeless; who has control of the largest political email list in the world; and more.

  • This is civic tech: Handup has launched a gift-card program for the San Francisco homeless community, reports Kim Mai Cutler for TechCrunch. According to Rose Broome, Handup’s founder, in addition to providing donors with more ways to give, they also help connect homeless people to the city’s social service workers. “We don’t have a unified database of the homeless population in many cities, so every time they show up at a new non-profit or government center, social workers have to do a full intake all over again,” she said. “…Some of our really big goals involve not only distributing private money, but also making distributing government benefits more efficient as well.”

  • And this is NOT civic tech: Tana Ganeva reports for Alternet on a private Facebook group for residents of the Murray Hill and Kips Bay of Manhattan’s wealthy east side called “Third and 33rd (and Beyond!)” where many users post pictures and comments disparaging the neighborhood’s homeless.

  • If you missed last night’s demos from the Microsoft Civic team at Civic Hall, check out Yangbo Du’s Storify.

  • Chris Birk, the lead developer for the OpenGov Foundation, attended a meeting of Chicago’s City Council, and came away astounded by the “Mount Everest of paper” generated by just one session. He asks, quite understandably, “In the age of iPhones and Google Docs, is this the best system for running a major city, or any government for that matter? If legislation and laws—the most important information in every democracy—are born digital, shouldn’t they stay digital throughout their lifecycle?”

  • The Sunlight Foundation is looking to hire its next Labs Director.

  • Tech and the presidentials: “The largest political email list in the world” is now in the hands of the Democratic Party, Evan McMorris-Santoro reports for BuzzFeed. That is, control of the Obama for America list has now been handed to the DNC. As he notes, “More than just a huge file of emails, the Obama 2012 list includes information about which specific type of appeals a supporter responded to, how much they donated and when, how they prefer to be contacted, and other granular data that helped make Obama’s digital grassroots outreach the best over two separate campaign cycles. DNC control means that eventually the party’s presidential nominee will get access to the email list Obama built.”

  • Hillary Clinton’s decision to use a private email server while Secretary of State, and her handling of the issue since it has arisen, “has allowed a cloud to settle over her candidacy,” according to interviews with “more than 75 Democracy governors, lawmakers, candidates and party members” done by Patrick Healy, Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman for the New York Times. For example, here’s Clinton supporter Edward Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania: “They’ve handled the email issue poorly, maybe atrociously, certainly horribly. The campaign has been incredibly tone-deaf, not seeing this as a more serious issue. She should have turned over the email server at the start, because they should have known they’d be forced to give it up. But at this point, there’s nothing they can do to kill the issue—they’re left just playing defense.”

  • According to a new survey by Adobe, 42 percent of Americans check their email while in the bathroom. Apparently a lot of us would like to have a private email server, too. (More seriously, the fact just about everyone uses email must be part of why Clinton’s email issue has resonated; it’s easy for people to understand.)

  • Sasha Issenberg, author of the Victory Lab, argues for Bloomberg Politics that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Donald Trump doesn’t need a big field operation. He writes, “If supporters are eager to give their free time to the multibillionaire candidate, he would be wise to keep them away from phone banks or doorstep canvasses where they try to influence other voters on his behalf. Instead, he would probably find their labor most valuable building the crowds at events that sustain Trump’s abnormally intense media coverage. The political world can believe that Trump’s ‘much more traditional campaign’ is just around the corner; he just needs to continue to do exactly what he’s been doing.”

  • Future, Imperfect: Technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci argues in her New York Times column that it’s time for the media to “dampen the copycat effect” and stop giving killers like the gunman who planned his live televised murder of two TV journalists the notoriety they clearly are seeking.

  • David Roberts of Vox offers a long and meandering take on what “tech nerds” like Elon Musk need to learn about politics. The TL/DR version: if you want to address climate change, don’t treat the two parties as equally guilty for the current lack of action on the problem.

  • On Monday, Facebook was used by one billion people, the first time ever that it hit that milestone, claims CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

  • Internet provider CenturyLink is slated to receive more than $3 billion over the next six years from the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund for rural broadband expansion, David McCabe reports for The Hill.

  • The Daily Show, which is getting ready to relaunch with new host Trevor Noah, has hired digital polymath Baratunde Thurston to oversee all of its digital content, Dave Itzkoff reports for the New York Times. Thurston, who is a member of Civic Hall and longtime friend of PDM, was previously the director of digital for The Onion, author of How to Be Black, and founder of Cultivated Wit. Congratatunde!

First Post



How the greatest troll of them all stole the media spotlight; a defense of voting booth selfies; and more.

  • This is civic tech: Our Jessica McKenzie has a fresh report on the rollout of the New York City Public Library’s hotspot lending program, through which needy New Yorkers are checking out free Sprint Netgear Zinger mobile hotspots. Residents are eagerly signing up for the service, but as she notes, it’s not at all clear how the one-year pilot will be sustained.

  • Pennsylvania becomes the 23rd state to offer online voter registration today, the AP’s Peter Jackson reports.

  • For Slate, Ava Lubell explains why she is in favor of people taking selfies while they vote, which is illegal in many states because it could enable vote-buying.

  • “Let’s get democracy Cinderella to the redesign ball,” writes Dave McKenna on Medium. He’s highlighting the work of the #NotWestminster group, which is tackling the fun challenge of remaining local democracy in the digital age.

  • Trevor Timm reports for the Columbia Journalism Review about the successes digital news organizations are having suing the government under the Freedom of Information Act, and Buzzfeed’s plans to release a “sunshine report” about their FOIA requests.

  • The co-founder of the social impact firm Reboot, Panthea Lee, writes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that we should rethink user-centered design in development contexts. She notes, “User-centered design was born out of the private sector, and many in my field are starting to wonder if the methodology just isn’t right for the complex global challenges staring us down.”

  • Citizen Lab’s John Scott Tailton and Katie Kleemola expose an “elaborate phishing campaign against targets in Iran’s diaspora” that attempts to get around the safety provided by Gmail’s two-factor authentication. The campaign appears to be linked to previous Iranian government attackers.

  • Tech and the presidentials: FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver reports on how Donald Trump, who he jokingly refers to as “perhaps the world’s greatest troll,” has managed to keep earning the lion’s share of media attention, according to his tracking of Google News and Google Search data.

  • This snippet of handheld video, showing a Trump supporter confronting Univision’s Jorge Ramos after he was thrown out of a Donald Trump press conference, is pretty shocking.

  • The New York Times’ data-politics whiz Nate Cohn performed an analysis of Bernie Sanders’ support base, using data from Sanders’ campaign website about its local volunteers, and found—no surprise—that they are concentrated in liberal areas around the country. So far, so good—we’d love to see more data journalism based on the clues you can glean from careful study of what campaigns make available online through their websites and other tactics. But then Cohn takes a leap from hard data to mushy opinion, writing that the belief among Sanders supporters that they can expand this base is a lot like “trickle-down economics,” and twisting himself in pretzels to make a too-clever-by-half economics joke about Sanders’ current coalition, which he says is “even more unequal than the wealth in the United States.” Given that Sanders’ campaign is arguably the least dependent on wealthy donors of any of the major candidates running, this is a strikingly obnoxious judgment.

  • Future, Imperfect: The horrific shooting of a Virginia TV reporter and cameraman on live TV yesterday reignited the debate about video autopsy and graphic footage on social media, Jason Abbruzzese reports for Mashable.

  • “There’s a good chance that about 12,000 of the profiles out of millions belonged to actual, real women who were active users of Ashley Madison,” writes Annalee Newitz for Gizmodo, meaning that the 31 million men who were paying users of the cheating site were mostly communicating with fake accounts or each other. She adds: “It’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots.

  • Haven’t heard of the popular phenomenon known as “unboxing videos” where YouTube celebrities open up new toy boxes online and then comment on their contents? (As my kids are now grown, this was news to me.) Well, Disney is all over this YouTube trend and will be using it for a big online push for attention to its upcoming Star Wars movie, Shan Li reports for the Los Angeles Times. Apparently, these are the chachkes you have been looking for!

Digital Divide New York



The hotspot lending program means that, for a lucky few, going online no longer requires signing up to use a library computer a day in advance, lurking on the steps of public libraries after hours, or spending money at a coffee shop or fast food joint just to get a Wi-Fi password.

(Arnoldius via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The New Yorkers trickling into the basement reference room of the Fort Washington branch library on the Thursday before Independence Day were among the 730,000 New York City households without broadband internet in the home—but not for much longer. After a brief orientation they each walked out with a pocket-size Wi-Fi hotspot, theirs for the next six months—a full year if they choose to renew. The New York Public Library (NYPL), which serves Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx, first received a $500,000 grant from the Knight News Challenge last year to run a year-long, 10,000-unit hotspot lending program. Since then, the library has received $1 million from Google, with additional support from Open Society Foundations and the Robin Hood Foundation, and has partnered with the Brooklyn and Queens public libraries to expand the program across all five New York boroughs.

Since being made available to the general population, demand for the hotspots has been high: advance registration is required to attend orientations in the NYPL and the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) systems and slots are said to fill up within a day or two of being announced. Program coordinators in all three systems as well as the New Yorkers lining up to borrow the devices have almost entirely positive things to say about the program, but how the libraries could afford to keep the project going beyond the one-year pilot period is a question nobody can answer yet. It also remains to be seen how the libraries will determine if this program is the best way to leverage limited resources towards closing the digital divide.

“The patron response has been really positive,” Jesse Montero, the Director of Information Services at BPL, tells Civicist. “People are just really excited to get home wireless access. It’s really empowering for people. As far as getting measurable outcomes, that’s something we’re all looking forward to through surveys.”

Charity Kittler, the Library Hotspot Program Manager at NYPL, tells Civicist that the surveys include questions about patron demographics, device usage, and the lending program itself, but it remains unclear how the results of the survey will be used to determine success.

The hotspot, technically the Sprint Netgear Zing mobile hotspot, is small enough to fit in a pocket and can travel and connect anywhere in the continental U.S. Although data usage is “unlimited,” the device allows for 6GB of data a month at LTE speeds before getting downgraded to a slower 3G speed. This throttling is put in place to curb “excessive usage”—basically gaming or streaming videos. Up to nine devices (phones, tablets, or computers) can be connected to the signal at once.

The devices are activated before being shipped to the libraries and so, although the program is described as year-long, the internet could actually stop two to three weeks before the full 12 months are up. Nearly half of the 10,000 devices are already in circulation; the remaining half will be lent out through this fall.

Each library system designed their own programming and lending rules for the hotspots, so when they do start thinking about ways to move forward, they will have three models to compare and contrast.

—New York Public Library (Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx)

The NYPL initially began lending the hotspots out last year to participants in the library’s educational programs, like their English or literacy classes, but this April it expanded the program to any individual without home internet service. (Although recipients must sign something that says as much, this is on the honor system.) Patrons can take out the device for six months with the option of one renewal, for a total lending period of a year.

At the July orientation in upper Manhattan, library staff bustled about the basement reference room trying to make sure they let in people on the waiting list in the proper order. Before starting the orientation, one of the women leading it explained to a concerned patron that no, that woman (meaning me) was not cutting the line—she’s just a reporter sitting in.

The library staffer handed out user agreements, stapled hotspot information packets, and basic internet safety guides. She delivered the orientation in both English and Spanish, and did her best to answer questions about illegal downloading (“Honey, big brother watches everything. They’ll know.”) and data quotas.

Charity Kittler tells Civicist that most orientations have between 20 and 30 participants. The advantage of small orientations, she says, is that it allows for a little extra time for patrons to hang around and test out the device on their phone or tablet, and get assistance from library staff if necessary.

—Brooklyn Public Library

The BPL is lending the devices out for a full year, but without the option to renew. Like the NYPL program, anyone over the age of 17 is eligible to borrow, as long as they attest they have no home internet access.

There were only five people in the room when I arrived at a Crown Heights orientation in late June, just before the scheduled start time of 11 a.m. The two orientation leaders began the presentation by reading aloud from Powerpoint slides that explained the device and the borrowing rules. Three or four more people trickled in over the next half hour and some of the material had to be repeated.

A quick poll of the room while patrons went one by one to fill out the paperwork and receive their hotspot revealed that most of the attendees had heard about the hotspot program from friends or coworkers.

One woman, who had not registered for the class but had shown up at 8 a.m. hoping to get in off of an unofficial waiting list, said her friend told her it was “seventh heaven.” Unfortunately, the orientation leaders told me that Brooklyn Public Library policy is to lend only to patrons who have pre-registered for the hotspots, and that the woman would be leaving—that day at least—empty handed.

—Queens Library

The Queens Library system modeled their hotspot lending program after their tablet lending program. After Hurricane Sandy, Google donated 5,000 tablets to the Queens Library. Patrons can check out the a tablet for a month, with the possibility of renewing three times. The same terms now apply to the Sprint hotspots.

“We decided that we would not make them initially part of a program but lend them out like we do any other material,” Kelvin Watson, Vice President of Digital Services and Strategy at Queens Library, tells Civicist.

Until the library began the hotspot lending program, many patrons used the tablets—which come loaded with a custom library app—exclusively offline while at home. Although the app was designed to work online or offline, Watson says being able to get online makes for a richer experience.

“What we found was that we could now lend out a tablet and a mobile hotspot to the same patron. That allowed us to couple the devices or decouple the device,” Watson adds. “Now we ha[ve] an opportunity to come full circle in closing the digital divide, providing both the device and the connection.”

Watson has asked his team to pull information about data usage from each device, so that he can show the precise value of the hotspot to library patrons. “Data costs money, so this is how we can say—in dollars—what we’ve provided to the community,” he says.

Queens Library has 2,500 hotspot units to lend. When we spoke in mid-summer, Watson said that total circulation had already passed 4,000 (that includes initial checkouts as well as renewals).


The orientations in Brooklyn and Manhattan were attended by a diverse crowd. Fort Washington, which serves a large Spanish-speaking population, was prepared with print material in both English and Spanish, and the orientation leader was bilingual as well. At the Crown Heights branch, one man told me he came with his friend to help translate the English-language material for him (this man had already received a hotspot of his own and reported being very pleased with it, in spite of speed and data limitations).

Most of the people at the Crown Heights orientation I attended said the device would be used in their single-person households, but two of the women I spoke with at the Fort Washington branch said they had a recent high school graduate at home with whom they would share. Patrons said that they planned to use it to look for work, check email, and to keep in touch with family and friends. One of the orientation leaders said they keep one in their car and use it to listen to Pandora.

“The essential reason why I got it was to travel and that way if I hear about a job I can apply right away,” one of the women with a teenage son told me. “In the past I had to find a Starbucks and now with this hotspot I’m a different person.” She added that her brother-in-law, a Vietnam veteran, already has one and uses it to keep in touch with Veterans Affairs.

When and if the library systems decide to make the results of the surveys public, we might learn more about the make-up of hotspot users.

BPL set aside a number of devices for special populations, including the elderly and homeless. “We look for innovative ways to engage our patrons,” Nick Higgins, the Director of Outreach Services, tells Civicist. “The people we work with…don’t have traditional access to libraries.”

As part of their immigrant services, BPL lends the devices to students in their three-month-long citizenship classes so that they can study outside of class.

They also set aside 10 hotspots for older adults. BPL already has an established “books by mail” program for older adults, who can call and request books to be delivered to them. Higgins says they have reached out to a handful of the 350 registered books-by-mail users to see if they want internet access. If a patron says yes then a library staff member will stop by, set up the hotspot, and show them how to use it. Higgins says all 10 have been deployed. If the patron doesn’t have a device to get online (as is common, says Higgins) they will also loan a tablet.

Higgins also told Civicist about a new partnership with the NYC Department of Homeless Services to open outpost libraries in eight family centers in Brooklyn, and his plans to start lending hotspots out of those sites.


Although the first few devices were lent out last December, the last devices have yet to even arrive in the city. This is a one-year pilot program stretched out over two years (or more—there was an even smaller 100-unit pilot in early 2014). Challenges, I’m told, are few.

There’s just the small problem of figuring out where to get the next influx of financial support for the program. Kittler told Civicist that NYPL does not expect to get more funding from the same partners. The devices are paid for, but more money will be needed to keep the data flowing, to replace damaged or lost hotspots, and to expand the program.

Other states and cities are dealing with these same issues. Kittler collaborates with libraries in Kansas and Maine that have similar Wi-Fi lending programs (some of their lending periods are as short as two weeks). The Knight Foundation awarded $400,000 to the Chicago Public Library for a hotspot lending program at the same time as the NYPL grant. And a program in Seattle launched earlier this year to astronomically high demand—175 holds on 126 devices on the first day of circulation, according to James Risley, who reviewed the device for GeekWire. By the time Risley got his hands on one the waiting list was almost 1,300 people strong.

“I haven’t really talked to another library system that has a long term sustainability solution,” the Seattle Public Library’s IT director, Jim Loter, told Risley. “We’re certainly interested in continuing the program as long as there’s high demand for it, and at this point we have a number of options that we’re exploring in order to do that.”

“What the best way to tackle the digital divide in New York? I feel like I have this conversation every week,” Charity Kittler tells Civicist. “There are lots of different ideas being batted about internally.”

In the meantime, the hotspot lending program means that, for a lucky few, going online no longer requires signing up to use a library computer a day in advance, lurking on the steps of public libraries after hours, or spending money at a coffee shop or fast food joint just to get a Wi-Fi password. It might not be the always-on, Google-Fiber-fast connection many Americans want or even expect, but, if the sustainability problem is sorted out, hotspot lending programs could be an important part of a connectivity web, bringing underserved populations online, more often.

Full disclosure: Civic Hall co-founder Andrew Rasiej helped conceive and secure funding for this pilot program.

Read next: An Xiao Mina and Julia Ticona on why we should stop thinking of the digital divide as an issue of the haves and the have nots.

First Post



Bootlegged gov’t datasets; a Trump-Lessig third-party ticket; and more.

  • Government Openings: In Medium, Presidential Innovation Fellow Denice Ross looks at the value of open data in New Orleans, starting with the creation and sharing, post-Katrina, of “bootlegged copies” of government datasets like building permits, through the rise of the open data movement in 2009-10, up to some present-day releases that are truly impressive.

  • GovTech’s Jason Shueh reports on the first prototype projects resulting from Google’s Government Innovation Lab’s partnership with California’s Kern County. He writes, “The first prototype is what officials call a Virtual Resource Library (VRL), an online hub that once finished, will act as a crowdsourced resource for county services and collaboration. The second prototype is an enterprise app designed to pluck data from departments for countywide analytics.”

  • Why did Twitter stop letting transparency groups monitor politicians’ deleted tweets? In the Huffington Post, Alex Howard suggests that the real reason for the change is that “the executives who once called Twitter the ‘free-speech wing of the free-speech party’ don’t work [there] anymore.”

  • Narbeth Borough (outside of Philadelphia) is looking to hire a full-time Director of Civic Technology. “The ideal candidate will be well versed in the principles of open data, open government and Government 2.0.”

  • Tech and the presidentials: Spanish news media in the US isn’t taking Donald Trump lightly, reports Ashley Parker for the New York Times: “About 58 percent of all mentions of Mr. Trump in mainstream news media—broadcast, cable, radio and online outlets—in the past month have focused on immigration, while on Spanish-language news programs, the proportion is almost 80 percent, according to an analysis by Two.42.Solutions, a nonpartisan media analytics company. The Spanish-language news media has also been more critical in its coverage of Mr. Trump’s positions on the issue, with nearly all of it negative in tone.

  • Crazy talk? Harvard Law professor and erstwhile single-issue presidential candidate tells Politico Magazine’s Ben Wofford that he would run with Donald Trump as a third-party ticket. “I’ll make a promise,” Lessig declared. “If Trump said he was going to do one thing and fix this corrupted system, then go back to his life as an entertainment figure, I absolutely would link up with Donald Trump.” Lessig also says Trump’s statements about not being beholden to big money explain his appeal (as opposed to his attacks on immigrants and women). Your reading may vary. (See Evan Osnos’ New Yorker story on Trump’s appeal to racists, for one alternative view.)

  • Lessig also would make Joe Biden his Vice President and hand the White House over to him once his Citizen Equality Act became law, Emily Greenhouse reports for Bloomberg.

  • Speaking of money in politics, Bernie Sanders appears to be drawing more support from small donors for his campaign than Barack Obama did in 2008, 75% of it through ActBlue, Eric Lichtblau reports for the New York Times. Unlike nearly all the other candidates, Sanders has also rejected efforts by supporters to set up a Super PAC on his behalf.

  • founder Gina Glantz makes a sharp point in this Washington Post oped: conferences and media platforms centered on women don’t do much for women. For example, she writes, “Despite great women appearing at TEDWomen, one can only find 33 out of 102 participants who appeared at this year’s main event. Maybe there should also be a TEDMen and the best of both should be featured at a TEDEverybody.”

  • Future, Imperfect: As Uber starts offering services in San Francisco that look a lot like bus routes, The Awl’s Matt Buchanan speculates on where this may all be headed: a future of privatized mass transit that succeeds while “siphoning…the political will to fix existing—or build new—public transit infrastructure in major cities.”

  • Meanwhile, refugees making their way from the Middle East into Europe are heavily reliant on their smartphones, reports Matthew Brunwasser for the New York Times. He writes, “In this modern migration, smartphone maps, global positioning apps, social media and WhatsApp have become essential tools. Migrants depend on them to post real-time updates about routes, arrests, border guard movements and transport, as well as places to stay and prices, all the while keeping in touch with family and friends….Syrians are helped along their journeys by Arabic-language Facebook groups like “Smuggling Into the E.U.,” with 23,953 members, and “How to Emigrate to Europe,” with 39,304.”

First Post



Tech companies’ non-response to the refugee crisis; becomes Free Basics by Facebook; and more.

  • Caitlin Dewey has a must-read piece in the Washington Post on the failure of major tech companies to offer their platforms or skills in the face of Europe’s humanitarian crisis, comparing their inaction to the swiftness with which they have deployed their tools (and, it might be added, PR teams) to respond to natural disasters like earthquakes. She reports that to date:

    “…no private firms have partnered with ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] to develop tools or technologies to help European refugees, and no one seems interested in doing much more than flinging money at charity. Neither Facebook nor Google has launched their safety check-up features in Europe, for instance, though both did after Nepal’s earthquake earlier this year….Microsoft-owned Skype, which has periodically made calls free after major storms and other natural disasters, hasn’t extended the same courtesy to the hundreds of thousands of people now stranded in such places as Hungary and Croatia.”

  • Instead, Dewey writes, it is volunteer civic techies like Berlin’s Fluchtlinge Wilkommen (Welcome Refugees) that have started to step into the gap, but they are overwhelmed by demand and having trouble raising money at the same time. (Go here if you want to donate to them.)
  • Pope Francis made reference to technology in his address to Congress yesterday, the Huffington Post’s Alex Howard notes. It was not to his @pontifex Twitter feed, however, but to to his hope that we “put technology at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.”
  • Speaking of “more integral” uses of technology, Lucy Bernholz, Rob Reich, Emma Saunders-Hastings, and Emma Leeds Armstrong have developed “a basic framework for ethical, safe, and effective use of digital data by civil society organizations.” It has three key principles that make a lot of sense: “Default to person-centered consent. Prioritize privacy and minimum viable data collection. Plan from the beginning to open (share) your work.”
  • Deep inside this very detailed story by Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt for The Guardian on how backbencher Jeremy Corbyn won his unlikely bid to be the new leader of the UK’s Labour party is this fascinating tidbit:

    The digital team’s secret weapon was a soft-spoken young tech expert named Ben Soffa. As the TSSA’s head of digital operations—who happens to be Cat Smith’s partner—Soffa was seconded to the Corbyn campaign by his union to try to give it an edge over the other campaigns, which were thought to have been vastly better prepared. Soffa created an app—using the American political organising software NationBuilder—that allowed volunteers to make calls to potential supporters from their own homes. The app provided information about an individual’s Labour membership, which constituency they lived in and its electoral history. Volunteers would follow a series of questions, with the answers fed back to Soffa’s team through the app. The data coming back to Soffa showed a clear pattern by the end of June: Corbyn was garnering surprising levels of support from across the party, especially from the so-called “three pounders”—people who had signed up to vote as “registered supporters”. The figures were so good that the Corbyn camp assumed they must be incorrect. “The numbers are amazing, but it must just be that we’re finding all of Jeremy’s core supporters,” Soffa told Smith towards the end of June. Another coup by the Corbyn camp was the prescient decision to embed the £3 registration process directly into the campaign’s website—ensuring that thousands of people who visited the website were easily able to sign up. “It was just an obvious, natural thing to do,” Soffa recalled—but the other campaigns did not think to do it, an oversight they all now regret.

  • In the face of a broad backlash across the developing world, Facebook has quietly decided to rename its controversial “” program “Free Basics by Facebook,” Newley Purnell reports for the Wall Street Journal.
  • The city of Boston is going to use private data from social traffic app Waze to figure out if its “Don’t Block the Box” program actually reduces traffic jams and speeds up travel, Curt Woodward reports for BetaBoston.
  • Define American, one of the organizations Jake Brewer helped found and build, released this moving clip of him and Jose Antonio Vargas at the first meeting brainstorming the group’s very name.
  • Jake’s partners at Fission Strategy posted this tribute, filled with personal statements from many of his close colleagues there.
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Things are worse than Orwell imagined; how Ghanaians use social media; and more.

  • This is civic tech: The Smart Chicago Collaborative has posted the full 29-day, 174-hour curriculum for its recently concluded Youth-Led Tech mentoring program. The six week program graduated 141 teens from five poor Chicago neighborhoods. The curriculum is available for free download and re-use.

  • Ethan Zuckerman describes for readers of the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s leading daily newspaper, how Ghanaians using social media are changing how their country is seen by the rest of the world.

  • Bookmark this one: Jane Wiseman, the head of the Institute for Excellence in Government, has written a long and well-thought-out essay for Harvard’s Data-Smart City Solutions on “Customer-Driven Government.” (h/t Heidi Sieck) As she writes:

    Government Yelp pages are more common for agencies that directly serve the public on a one-to-one basis, such as departments of motor vehicles, post offices, libraries, courthouses, fire and police departments. Less common are Yelp pages for agencies without a public face, such as those that repair potholes, maintain public parks, regulate the timing of streetlights, or repair graffiti in public places. This is likely because these agencies typically don’t think of themselves as customer-facing and are less likely to create a venue for online feedback. Wouldn’t it be great if government sought out input on the quality of those services, and sought our input on how to improve them?

  • Washington DC’s Impact Hub and its managing director Beth Flores get profiled by DCInno’s Eric Hal Schwartz.

  • Code for DC’s Leah Bannon is moving to San Francisco, where she will keep working for 18F, reports Lalita Clozel for TechnicallyDC. Bannon, who has been a leader of the women-in-tech movement in DC, says, “The Black Lives Matter movement…got under my skin. I’d like to do a lot more with some underprivileged groups. I’m not really sure how yet.”

  • Today and tomorrow is Buntwani 2015, “a global gathering of actors from the civil society, technology, donor, research, government and policy sectors focusing on the intersection of governance and innovation” taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa. This year’s conference is focusing on innovation for good governance. Follow along via #buntwani. (Buntwani is Swahili for an open air space where communities meet.)

  • Tech and the presidentials: Lawrence Lessig’s exploratory presidential campaign says he is now more than halfway to his Labor Day fundraising goal of $1 million, which if he hits will cause him to formally throw his hat in the Democratic ring.

  • Future, Imperfect: The United Nation’s new special rapporteur on privacy, Joseph Cannataci, didn’t mince words when talking to The Guardian’s Adam Alexander. He says things are “worse” than anything George Orwell foresaw, “Because if you look at CCTV alone, at least Winston [Winston Smith in Orwell’s novel 1984] was able to go out in the countryside and go under a tree and expect there wouldn’t be any screen, as it was called. Whereas today there are many parts of the English countryside where there are more cameras than George Orwell could ever have imagined. So the situation in some cases is far worse already.”

  • Before you judge all users for “cheating,” read this post by Glenn Greenwald, who shares an email from a married woman who is now awaiting her outing.

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Monopolizing presidential debates in the digital info age; Twitter kills international Politwoops; and more.

  • Access Denials: When did it become OK for a single cable channel to monopolize access to a presidential debate, Susan Crawford asks on Medium’s Backchannel? Yet that is exactly what the Fox News Channel did with the first GOP debate earlier this month, with the result that if you didn’t have a cable subscription, you couldn’t watch. As Crawford correctly notes, “There is no speech more central to civic life than a political debate. And yet we have allowed access to that speech by way of the common medium of our era—high-speed internet access—to be controlled by a cabal of private actors.”

  • This past weekend, Twitter informed the Open State Foundation that it was shutting down its Politwoops sites in 30 countries and its related Diplotwoops service, which monitored deleted tweets by diplomats and embassies. This follows on Twitter’s equally shameful decision to shut down the Sunlight Foundation’s Politwoops account tracking US politicians’ deleted tweets earlier this year. Explaining its decision, Twitter told the Open State Foundation that it believed all its users deserved the ability to safely and privately delete tweets. Arjan El Fassed, the director of the foundation commented: “What elected politicians publicly say is a matter of public record. Even when tweets are deleted, it’s part of parliamentary history. These tweets were once posted and later deleted. What politicians say in public should be available to anyone. This is not about typos but it is a unique insight on how messages from elected politicians can change without notice.”

  • In Wired, Klint Finley reports on how pro-government Twitter bots are disrupting online activism by Mexico’s protest movements, “drowning out real conversations with noise.”

  • USA Today’s Brad Heath reports on how police in Baltimore regularly use phone trackers (aka stingrays, or cell-site simulators) in everyday cases. He writes, “Records show that the city’s police used stingrays to catch everyone from killers to petty thieves, that the authorities regularly hid or obscured that surveillance once suspects got to court and that many of those they arrested were never prosecuted.” State law requires that defense lawyers be told about electronic surveillance, while the FBI has asked police agencies to keep their use confidential.

  • Food for Thought: The Fall 2014 issue of the World Policy Journal is titled “Connectivity,” and this article by Egyptian political activist Mahmoud Salem, known on Twitter as @sandmonkey, captures well the upside and downside of connection technologies in revolutionary situations. On the one hand, he notes, a Twitter account called “Tahrir Supplies”—created by two girls forbidden by their parents from attending the street protests—collected $700K in medical supplies in one day. On the other hand, he writes:

    A revolution organized by social media is by definition a revolution made up of disparate individuals who share similar but general goals. When it came to details, however, the devil lay there smiling. Ideological disagreements reared their ugly heads. Political divisions cracked the collective. Shrillness and extremism quickly replaced rational discourse among even the most renowned activists, who had been allies for years.

  • ICYMI: Elena Fagotto and Archon Fung offer an excellent and careful parsing in the Boston Review of the benefits and weaknesses of information transparency.

  • This is civic tech: Our Erin Simpson reports on Blue Ridge Labs’ summer fellowship program, which had its roll-out last Thursday night at Civic Hall, showcasing five new civic tech products aimed at helping low income communities.

  • It’s not too early to sign up for the “Platform Cooperativism” conference coming up November 13-14 at the New School, convened by our friends Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider and in partnership with Civic Hall and many other related groups. It’s being conceived as a “coming-out party for the cooperative internet, built of platforms owned and governed by the people who rely on them.”

  • MySociety is looking to hire a U.S. Civic Technologies Researcher.

  • Media tactics: Operating from the principle that “anything can be interesting if it’s packaged the right way,” former Gawkerite Neetzan Zimmerman, now the head of social for The Hill, has boosted the inside-the-Beltway publication’s Facebook presence nearly twenty-fold in the last month, Lucia Moses reports for Digiday.

  • Here’s a great new guide for data visualizers on when to use maps—and when not to.

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Hillary Clinton unleashes 2016’s first “attack text”; Martin O’Malley tries to show off his tech nerd chops; civic hackers making the European Commission more transparent.

  • Tech and the presidentials: Huffington Post senior political reporter Amanda Terkel catches Hillary Clinton’s campaign doing something new: texting supporters so they could hear what GOP presidential candidate had to say “about Latinos when he thinks no one is listening” (that is, referring to U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants as “anchor babies”). As she reports, “People who texted back the words ‘HEAR’ then received an automated call with audio of Bush’s remarks in both English and Spanish.”

  • Dark horse Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley made an impression during his 36-hour visit to woo techies in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joe Garofoli reports. But, he notes, “While O’Malley may be fluent in techspeak, it has not translated into financial support from the sector.”

  • Writing for Politico Magazine, the former editor of Psychology Today, Robert Epstein posits a somewhat hyperbolic scenario wherein Google uses its search algorithm to shift voter sentiments toward Hillary Clinton. While it’s highly unlikely that Google could keep secret any effort to bias search results to favor a political candidate, Epstein still has a point. Voters can definitely be influenced by what they see in top search results. (Just ask President Rick Santorum.)

  • Instagram is now taking political ads, reports Natalie Andrews for the Wall Street Journal.

  • Government Openings: Alex Howard, the Huffington Post’s senior editor for technology and society, reports on the ongoing work of the White House’s police data initiative.

  • The White House has a new Tumblr:, where some of the letters Americans send to the President will be posted.

  • Scott Schwaitzberg of Tusk Ventures argues on Medium that the same technology behind digital currencies may make it possible to rethink government regulation. He writes, “Creating a fundamentally more transparent, almost unimpeachable system for health inspections, building inspections, environmental safety and other areas that currently face significant regulatory scrutiny is not a compromise to avoid an unpopular political fight, it’s an imperative for any regulator committed to maximizing public safety.”

  • Beltway Bandits: The AP’s Jack Gillum and Ted Bridis have discovered that hundreds of US government employees, including people at the White House, Congress and in law enforcement, used the Internet connections in their federal offices to access and pay for the cheating website None were named because they are not elected officials or accused of a crime.

  • Future of Work: Reflecting on this week’s news about Amazon’s punishing work culture, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskowitz points out that “the research is clear: beyond ~40-50 hours per week, the marginal returns from additional work decrease rapidly and quickly become negative” and “the current culture of intensity in the tech industry…is both destroying the personal lives of … employees and getting nothing in return.”

  • With $2.2 million in funding from the Knight Foundation, ProPublica is launching a “crowd-powered news network,” building on its already successful efforts to crowd-source investigative journalism built by engaging communities in story-telling, engagement editor Amanda Zamora blogs.

  • This is civic tech: Over the years, hacktivists and open data advocates have created a number of free online tools for understanding the workings of the European Union, and Laurens Cerulus reviews a batch of them including EU Integrity Watch, VoteWatch, MEPRanking, Parltrack, LobbyPlag, and LobbyFacts.

  • San Antonio has chosen Accela’s Civic Platform for a $14 million wave of civic tech improvements, Bailey McCann reports for CivSource.

elections First Post



How Bernie Sanders supporters are using Reddit, Facebook and clipboards to self-organize; Jeb Bush’s opposition to encryption; Amsterdam’s Internet of Things network.

    • Tech and the presidentials: Must-read: How Bernie Sanders supporters around the country are organizing themselves, frequently in advance of the campaign or with limited help from it, using Reddit, Facebook and clipboards, as reported by Ben Schreckinger for Politico.

    • One key Sanders supporter is Aidin King, a 23-year-old winery employee who administers the Bernie Sanders for President subreddit, which has 90,000 subscribers. (Notably, the Sanders campaign has made no moves to take over the Reddit page–those of you with long memories will recall how the Obama campaign’s online organizing team took over a supporter’s grassroots MySpace page back in 2007. One of the people responsible for that decision, Chris Hughes, is now the owner of The New Republic. The other one, Scott Goodstein, is working for the Sanders campaign.)

    • Related: On Facebook, Zack Exley shares that he joined the Bernie Sanders campaign six weeks ago, where he says he’s “doing the massively-scaled movement organizing work that I’ve been dreaming about, and only scratching the surface of, for two decades.” Exley was director of online communications and organizing on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, and also co-founded and was the president of the New Organizing Institute.

    • Interviewed for a Time magazine cover story, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump (who is also self-organizing his campaign) says he would get rid of the artificial separation between Super PACs and candidates, arguing “Now you’re not supposed to talk, you’re not supposed to – they go out and play golf, they get together, but they don’t talk. Who believes that? So I want transparency. I don’t mind the money coming in. Let it be transparent. Let them talk, but let there be total transparency.”

    • Paging Larry Lessig: Trump also says this about Members of Congress and campaign finance:

      All they do it fundraise. They don’t really govern. They just fundraise. Their whole life is raising money. And I say what percentage of the time you’re raising money as opposed to legislating? …I mean they’re constantly – it’s that time of year, you come in. I mean that’s all they do is raise money….It’s the rare politician that can do what’s right in the face of massive contributions.

    • And in a comment that is sure to interest companies like Apple, which have billions in profits parked overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes, Trump says, “We should let them back in. Everybody. Even if you paid nothing it would be a good deal. Because they’ll take that money then and use it for other things.”

    • GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush says he’s against encryption, reports Jenna McLaughlin for The Intercept. This is kind of like saying you are against math. The actual quote, from a South Carolina event sponsored by Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security, was ““If you create encryption, it makes it harder for the American government to do its job — while protecting civil liberties — to make sure that evildoers aren’t in our midst.”

    • The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin makes a really good point about the latest twist in the Hillary Clinton email server brouhaha: the post-facto discovery that some of her emails might have contained classified information is largely meaningless, because government bureaucrats routinely classify far too much information and often do so for reasons have little to do with actual national security. And, as he notes, “Criminal violations for mishandling classified information all have intent requirements; in other words, in order to be guilty of a crime, there must be evidence that Clinton knew that the information was classified and intentionally disclosed it to an unauthorized person. There is no evidence she did anything like that. This is not now a criminal matter, and there is no realistic possibility it will turn into one.”

    • Future, Imperfect: Cosmopolitan’s Jill Filipovic reports on how Twitchy, a conservative online platform founding by rightwing blogger Michelle Malkin that monitors Twitter, has become an “organized harassment tool.” The site, which Malkin sold to Salem Media, gets 2 million unique visitors a month. She notes that “Twitchy’s terms of use disallow content that is ‘fraudulent, unlawful, threatening, abusive, harassing, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, offensive, pornographic, profane, sexually explicit or indecent,’ but those terms don’t seem to be enforced.”

    • The Awl’s media writer John Herrman says the data dump “is in some ways the first large scale real hack, in the popular, your-secrets-are-now-public sense of the word. It is plausible—likely?—that you will know someone in or affected by this dump.”

    • This is civic tech: A bottom-up network of Amsterdam residents have built an open “Internet of Things” wireless network, Martin Bryant reports for The Next Web. “Unlike other ‘smart city projects’,” he notes, “this one is entirely crowdsourced by citizens and was put together in just six weeks.” Ten $1000 LoRaWAN gateway devices were all it took to cover the entire city.