First Post



What the open data movement left out; mySociety surveys civic tech demographics; and more.

  • mySociety’s research director Rebecca Rumbul has released an important new study, “Who benefits from civic technology?” It’s the first fruit of mySociety’s big new thrust into user and impact research on civic tech. The report looks at variations in usage of civic tech—defined as technologies “that enable citizens to hold governments to account”—in the U.S., U.K., Kenya, and South Africa, and examines the attitudes of users towards the platforms they are using. A total of 3,705 online survey responses were collected. The sites were FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou in the U.K., GovTrack and SeeClickFix in the U.S., Mzalendo in Kenya and People’s Assembly in South Africa. (Other country sites were also in the study but did not generate enough user responses to be statistically useful.)

  • The report found that in the U.K. and the U.S., the vast majority of users of these sites (FixMyStreet and GovTrack, specifically) are older, with roughly half over the age of 55. The opposite is true in Kenya and South Africa. Men account for 2/3 or more of the users except in the U.S. case, where the gender breakdown was even. In the U.K. and South Africa, whites use these sites disproportionately more than their share of the population (that question was not included by the sites in the U.S. and Kenya). Across the board, these civic tech sites attract users who are not surprisingly highly political engaged and better educated than the general population.

  • Here’s one of Rumbul’s key normative findings: “[the] data tells us that in the U.K. and U.S., civic technology users at least in some ways resemble the existing dominant class, and that this class has recognized the potential of civic technology to facilitate and amplify effective civic interaction, whether that be in tracking political information on welfare, researching legislative progress for professional purposes or maintaining the local community environment. This has significant implications for civic technology implementers. Many groups conceive of civic technology as a tool for effective and accessible democratic action. The digital environment is thought to reduce traditional barriers to engagement and access experienced by the less engaged groups within society. If, however, digital democracy tools are predominantly being used by a homogeneous group already dominant in society, this has the potential to skew policy and practical interventions in favor of this dominant group, at the same time compounding disadvantage amongst less dominant groups in society.”

  • This is a very important and sobering conclusion. But we should be careful not to over-interpret this finding. mySociety’s study did not look directly at economic class, so it’s possible that these civic tech platforms are actually helping empower some people who otherwise wouldn’t be in the position to “pay to play” in the political arena the way the top one percent do. It also looked at a narrow band of civic tech platforms: the generic parliamentary transparency sites (GovTrack and TheyWorkForYou) and two community problem-solving platforms (FixMyStreet and SeeClickFix). Notably, it doesn’t provide any user data from the SeeClickFix sample (by the way, the company hit its two-millionth report yesterday and is today launching some impressive new neighbor engagement features). It would be edifying to spread the net wider to include platforms like Vermont’s Front Porch Forum and Minneapolis’ e-democracy, as well the growing array of mobile-centric civic engagement platforms. Finally, civic tech is a bigger field than just government accountability tools. Defining it that narrowly leaves out vital projects like Democracy Works, which focus on helping people register and vote; or the Smart Chicago Collaborative, which makes tools with its urban and working-class community, or whole urban ecosystems like what is happening in Detroit. As Microsoft’s CivicGraph shows, the civic tech ecosystem is much bigger than just the sites mySociety surveyed. So while the issues Rumbul raises are real, more research is needed before saying this is the whole story.

  • Mark Headd chews on the mySociety survey and takes heart that it shows that many users of these sites believe that they are useful, and that using them makes them more confident to engage public officials. But he also notes that if public officials aren’t more responsive as a result, the promise of accountability offered by these sites could lead to disillusionment.

  • Related: On Medium, Abhi Nemani, who was until recently Los Angeles’s first chief data officer and before that one of Code for America’s principals, asks whether the open data movement in the United States has taken the wrong track and should have been fighting all along for governments to modernize their digital services rather than just opening up their data.

  • On Civicist, Eilis O’Neill reports on civic hackers who are taking on the fracking industry as well as other environmental causes.

  • Jason Putorti, a co-founder of Brigade and Votizen, now at Bessemer Venture Partners, offers his idiosyncratic guide to companies working on several major challenges facing American democracy.

  • On FounderDating, Ron Bouganim, the founder of the GovTech Fund, explains why he thinks offering new technology services to government agencies and employees is a huge growth opportunity.

  • Engine is partnering with the Technology Association of Iowa and the Cedar Rapids Gazette to hold a Presidential Tech Town Hall in Cedar Rapids on December 7.

  • Democracy Works, the people who brought us Turbovote, is looking to hire a software developer. If you apply, you have to use this subject line: “Will code for democracy.”

  • posts a scathing open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who visited India again this week and held a townhall-style meeting in New Delhi.

First Post



Big Apps semifinalists; The Electome; Uber Under the Hood; and more.

  • This is civic tech: The annual NYC Big Apps competition just announced the 2015 semifinalists, in the categories of affordable housing, zero waste, connected cities and citizen engagement. Congrats to several Civic Hall members Melanie Lavelle of the Benefit Kitchen team, Maria Yuan of Issue Voter, and Sanjaya Punyasena of Simpolfy.

  • The Knight Foundation is giving $648,000 to MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines for a new campaign analytics project called The Electome. Research scientist William Powers explains the project’s goals: to move beyond the politicians and media’s fixation on the horse race, and to listen more closely to citizen voices and see if candidates and journalists are responding to those concerns. Twitter has given the lab (which it funds) a gift for this project, too–the full firehouse of 500 million new tweets written each day. The project also plans to use data fro Facebook, Reddit and Google searches, and the Washington Post and Mashable will be working directly with it as well.

  • The Electome could be a transformative project, as a Knight press release outlines: “In development since last spring, the Electome is designed to create real-time, comprehensive map tracking election-related content and show the connections between three main information sources: the media and journalists, messaging from the candidates, and public conversations on social media. It will look to use computer science tools, such as machine learning and natural language processing, to trace the election’s narratives as they form, spread, morph and decline – identifying who and what influences these dynamics and outcomes.”

  • Two questions from this corner: Will the Electome’s algorithms be open for inspection by others? And will its editorial decisions be open? Let’s hope so. I’ll let you know what I find out.

  • Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley is taking his civic tech pitch competition to Boston’s District Hall next Wednesday, Jon Chesto reports for the Boston Globe.

  • Luke Fretwell, the founder of the civic tech blog GovFresh, offers some useful suggestions on how to improve a set of proposals made by the state’s Little Hoover Commission. The bipartisan commission, which is tasked with government oversight, is calling on the governor and legislature to create a new post of chief customer officer along with an internal digital services team. It also wants the state government to focus on open data and human-centered design.
  • The web we want? Writing for Fortune magazine, Mathew Ingram explains how Facebook’s Instant Articles and Twitter’s new Moments feature are jointly killing the web link, and ponders whether that is bad thing. Here’s one reason why it is, as he writes: “because Facebook controls the algorithm that determines what users see or don’t see, then it gets to decide what the news is, and what is important. And that’s a potential problem if Facebook chooses to delete disturbing images or news stories about war and promote peaceful happy stories instead. In some cases, information disappears from Facebook and the social network never explains why.”

  • Seventy-two feminist and civil rights organizations have asked the US Department of Education to issue guidelines to colleges that would urge them to ban Yik Yak and other anonymous social media apps in the interest of stopping the harassment of marginalized students, Amanda Hess reports for Slate. She argues that this is a dumb idea, and points out that while Yik Yak has been used on campuses by racists and homophobes to target students, it has also been used to quickly rally visible support for suicidal students and victims of homophobia. She also notes that “no social network has been more aggressive about stemming harassment and encouraging community than Yik Yak has.”

  • Sara Watson of the Tow Center is building an annotated guide to “Constructive Technology Criticism,” and she’s posted it up on Medium so folks can add their comments in the margins.

  • Uber just launched a policy blog called “Uber Under the Hood” and the Washington Post’s Brian Fung has the preview.

Citizen Science Crowdsourcing Data Science



About six years ago, Shane Davis quit his job as a biologist to spend all of his time aggregating and analyzing data about oil and gas.

Davis says he gives citizens the tools “to fight off” the oil and gas industry. With information he provides, Davis says communities can go to companies and tell them:

‘Wait a minute. We have information here showing that over the last X amount of years your operations have already caused groundwater contamination at this rate or your patterns of spills are at this rate.’ Or this many people got hurt. Or there are complaints, laundry lists of complaints about your operation. Or maybe these operators have had huge problems with their well casings. Maybe they’ve contaminated private water wells or an aquifer.

In other words, Davis is stepping in where he says state regulatory agencies have failed to protect the people, earth, and water of Colorado from pollution. Indeed, all over the U.S. and world, environmentalists have stopped relying on government agencies to monitor everything from oil spills to the spread of invasive species. Instead, calling themselves “citizen scientists,” they’re taking matters into their own computers and smartphones: gathering, analyzing, and publishing data. Some, like Davis, have adopted a combative stance toward the government. Many others would rather work with government agencies and say they’re contributing information the state simply doesn’t have the capacity to gather.

Davis gets his information from a state agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC. When companies send mandatory reports about their operations to the state, the COGCC uploads them to their website as PDFs. Since PDFs are nearly impossible to aggregate and analyze, Davis developed tools to scrape information from them and dump it into an Excel spreadsheet—“a really, really topnotch spreadsheet, a spreadsheet that has incredible functionality,” he says. Then, he looks for patterns: spills, groundwater contamination, well casing failures.

At first, Davis spent 70 to 80 hours a week doing this work. “I was basically in my own solitary confinement for two years,” he recalls. “Now, it’s gotten a lot easier. I’m pretty quick at it.”

When Davis finds useful information, he brings it to communities and shares it.

“My presentations are not data-heavy. You’re going to lose everyone if you just jam it packed full of data,” he explains. “I’ll put in images, satellite images of the shale formation, and I’ll pick a bunch of people—politicians or environmental whatever. And I’ll show where they live, right on top of that shale formation. But then I’ll show them all the other well bores that are around their house and some failures that have happened. Maybe there’s a benzene spill.”

Davis is not the only citizen scientist to adopt this tactic: to take advantage of the troves of data available on government websites to tell stories. Adrian Cotter, who’s been with the Sierra Club for 13 years, says environmentalists have always considered themselves “data-based” and the only difference is the accessibility of data: “There’s just a lot of resources online for finding everything from all the oil rigs in Alaska to all the [oil] leases in the Gulf.” Overlaying that data with maps, as Cotter did with oil rigs and the migratory paths of the caribou herds of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, can tell powerful stories.

In 2012 and 2013, six Colorado communities voted on bans or moratoriums on fracking within their borders. Davis visited all of them, bearing information about the oil and gas industry. He recalls telling them, “Hey, look what’s happening in your backyard! Near your schools, your playgrounds, your universities, public parks. This is the information that I can give you.” In its turn, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the industry trade association, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the measures. It’s unclear to what extent Davis’ data managed to sway voters, but he’s been credited with inciting anti-fracking sentiment in Colorado and with coining the term “fractivist.” Five of the measures passed, one of them by only 13 votes.

Since then, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association has sued all five communities, saying only the state has the power to regulate the industry. The state has joined the industry in the suits, which Davis views as yet more evidence that “regulatory agencies are designed by those they benefit the most” and are not capable of protecting the citizenry. Courts struck down three of the fracking bans, and the Colorado Supreme Court is considering the other two.

Some citizen scientists find it more efficacious to work with government agencies rather than fighting them. David Newell, a professor at Southern Cross University, in New South Wales, Australia, and a researcher of frogs and toads, says, “We need to work collaboratively to be able to bring about change.”

For example, he wanted to find out how far the invasive cane toad had spread across his state of New South Wales. It would have been expensive to launch a study—and, besides, people already had the information; there just wasn’t an easy way for them to share it.

“Well, they can ring up their local park service office and somebody would write it down on a piece of paper and if we’re lucky it might end up in a database,” he says he thought at the time. “But let’s actually come up with a mechanism by which people can use technology, log their record, and also at the same time gain additional information around what it is that they can actually do—so give them a portal to be able to contribute to the database and then get additional information.”

That’s why Newell decided to build Toad Tracker, which has since become Toad Scan, a means for average Australians to report cane toad sightings. Toad Scan is the opposite of a PDF: Instead of uploading information in such a way that anyone interested in the data has to wade through reams of documents in order to find anything useful, all the data is right there, instantaneously available to the public.

That democratization of information at first made government regulators uncomfortable, Newell recalls, because “they see themselves as the knowledge-holders of databases.” That said, he adds, once “government agencies see that this is a really valuable tool to be able to capture spatial information,” they generally come around. His goal is for citizens, academics, and the public to work together towards conservation goals.

As for Shane Davis in Colorado, he’ll continue to fight. “I’m not stopping until we change law so it favors communities and the environment and does not favor corporations, corporate capitalism, oil and gas,” he says.

First Post



Facebook starts 2G Tuesdays; SXSW’s troubles with gaming panels continue; and more.

  • Government openings: As the Open Government Partnership’s annual summit starts in Mexico City, Martin Tisne, the Omidyar Network’s director of policy for its government transparency initiative, argues that it’s not enough for governments to promise to be more open with their data: “Do we change the course of history with the mere existence of more data or because people access it, mobilize, and press for change?”

  • Related: In tandem with the summit, the White House released its third “Open Government National Action Plan,” which it says “both broadens and deepens efforts to help government become more open and more citizen-centered.”

  • A “We the People” petition on the White House website demanding that President Obama publicly affirm his support for strong encryption has received more than 100,000 signatures, which means it is due an official response, Jenna McLaughlin reports for The Intercept.

  • Conference call: With BuzzFeed and Vox Media both threatening to withdraw from SXSW Interactive unless two controversial panels are reinstated, the festival’s organizers are now considering an all-day event focused on combatting online harassment, Re/Code’s Noah Kulwin reports. The “Level Up” panel on overcoming harassment has already been reinstated.

  • If you want to go even deeper into the rabbit hole of abuse and disinformation that afflict just about everyone who tries to take on the GamerGate trolls, read Arthur Chu’s piece in the Daily Beast about how SXSW mishandled a panel on improving online culture that he was involved in proposing.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Facebook is giving its employees the “opportunity” to experience what using the company’s mobile app feels like to someone with a slow connection typical to the emerging markets the company is trying to conquer, Jillian D’Onfrio reports for Business Insider. The initiative, which is called “2G Tuesdays” and is supposed to “help close the ’empathy gap’” between Silicon Valley and emerging markets, works like this: “When a Facebook employee logs in to the app any Tuesday morning, they’ll see a prompt at the top of their News Feed asking whether they want to try out the slower connection for an hour. ‘For that next hour, their experience on Facebook will be very much like the experience that millions of people around the world have on Facebook on a 2G connection,’ Facebook engineering director Tom Alison says. “They’re going to see the places that we need to improve our product, but they’re also going to see the places where we have made a lot of progress.”

  • No word on whether Facebook employees will also be given the “opportunity” to take public transit to work instead of its private San Francisco shuttle bus service, or be offered the opportunity to buy their own food and do their own dry-cleaning.

  • This is civic tech: Loveland Technologies, the Detroit civic hacking company, has built a city-wide map in support of Angel’s Night, an annual effort to combat the spread of suspicious fires and arsons that take place around Halloween. The map highlights vacant structures that are in arson “hot spots” and those next to occupied homes deserving particular attention.

  • Civic start-up Give Lively, a new social enterprise dedicated to building technology that permits people to “give better” is seeking a senior engineer.

  • Writing for Philadelphia magazine, Hannah Sassman and Gretjen Clausing explain how Philadelphia could negotiate a much better deal with Comcast that would genuinely benefit the city’s poor, provides affordable internet to all, and expand technology education in all the city’s schools. The city’s franchise agreement with the giant Fortune 50 company is up for renewal.

First Post



SXSW cancels panels about gaming culture; NY Attorney General to investigate internet providers; and more.

  • Today’s civic tech must-read: Rachel Cohen, a writing fellow at the American Prospect, argues in “Pushing civic tech beyond its comfort zone” (a feature article in its Fall 2015 print issue) that technologists who talk about “revolutionizing” local government by improving its IT, making it more responsive, transparent, data-driven and cost-effective are “set[ting] up people for later disappointment.” She writes, “Accountability, however, is ultimately a political matter, and civic tech cannot simply steer clear of politics in the belief that technology will solve problems on its own.” Among the civic tech leaders cited in her piece: Ben Berkowitz of SeeClickFix, Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford (co-authors of The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance), Sean Moulton of the Project on Government Oversight, Tiago Peixoto of the World Bank, Dan O’Neil of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, Haley Van Dyck of the U.S. Digital Service, Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics and Eric Liu of Citizen University. Oh, and some dude named Sifry and some conference called Personal Democracy Forum.

  • Just launched by Political Animal and Poderopedia: NarcoData, a digital platform tracking 40 years of Mexico’s drug cartels, including their emergence, geographic expansion, international relationships and criminal activities.

  • Embattled Empaneled: Hugh Forrest, the longtime organizer of SXSW Interactive, has announced that two previously announced sessions related to online harassment and gaming culture—one that was seen as pro-GamerGate and one that was not—have been canceled due to “numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming.” (GamerGate refers to a loose-knit online network that has viciously targeted women in the gaming industry.) Forrest’s statement noted that SXSW’s “big tent” of ideas requires civil and respectful dialogue and that if a “safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment” cannot be assured, the “sanctity” of that big tent would be compromised. Not explained by his statement: why the conference organizers couldn’t assure sufficient on-site security for these two panels to take place.

  • Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” was the non-GamerGate panel canceled by SXSW. On Twitter, one of its organizers, Randi Harper of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, shared a stream of protests about the decision, noting that “we didn’t demand that the GamerGate panel be removed from the schedule. We just asked that safety precautions be taken.” She also noted, “Our panel was not about GamerGate, but instead making design decisions in abuse systems.”

  • Another co-panelist, Katherine Cross of CUNY Graduate Center, said, “The panel was meant to be a wide-ranging discussion about how we might design websites, social media, and online games to be less susceptible to online harassment and hate mobbing. We were going to discuss various design proposals, including some already extant in the gaming industry that have been proven to work, but our panel was meant to be a solutions-oriented discussion of harassment in general.” She also told Austin Walker of Giant Bomb News that SXSW had not alerted her panel about threats of violence before announcing their panel’s cancellation.

  • The other canceled panel, “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” featured several supporters of the GamerGate movement. Perry Jones of the Open Gaming Society says the group is raising money to hold its panel during SXSW somewhere nearby.

  • As Noah Kulwin writes for Re/Code, SXSW’s decision shows that “The online hate mob of Gamergate is good at two things: Sending horrible threats to women online, and forcing people to shut down events featuring people critical of Gamergate.”

  • Digital politics: The White House is disagreeing with FBI Directer James Comey’s recent claims that increased scrutiny of local police behavior and fear of officers that their actions will go viral—the so-called “YouTube effect”—is leading to a rise in violent crime in some cities, Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo report for the New York Times. “The evidence we have seen so far doesn’t support the contention that law enforcement officials are shirking their responsibilities,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in response to a question about Comey’s remarks.

  • A new study from the Brennan Center for Justice, “Voter Registration in a Digital Age: 2015 Update” looks at the 38 states that now offer electronic and/or online registration and finds that it is boosting registration rates, increasing voter roll accuracy, and saving money.

  • With the help of his newly installed senior enforcement counsel Tim Wu, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has told Verizon, Time Warner, and Cablevision that he is probing whether their so-called “super-fast” “premium” internet connections are actually ripping off customers with slower-than-advertised speeds, Christie Smythe reports for Bloomberg Business.

  • The news from Facebookistan: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is continuing his charm offensive in China, giving a speech in Mandarin while on a visit to Tsinghua University in Beijing (where he is on the board of its school of economics and management), the Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Meanwhile, as Vindu Goel reports for the New York Times, Facebook’s project (which was recently renamed “Free Basics”) is struggling to gain acceptance in India. As Goel notes, one of Facebook’s local telco partners, Reliance, is known for shoddy service. And as he writes, one phone shop owner told him, “Even if Reliance’s network were good…the package excludes WhatsApp, a popular messaging app owned by Facebook, and users must pay to see the photos in their Facebook feeds. ‘If you have to pay for data, what’s the point of calling it free?’ he said.”

  • Your moment of zen: Former President Bill Clinton tells Mark Halperin of Bloomberg Politics that he likes the “selfie” phenomenon. “In a way I like it, though, because it’s democratized record-keeping of memories—because if you can afford a cell phone, you’ve got a camera, and a camera will operate at a fairly high resolution, with a fairly good amount of clarity, and if you need to for some reason you can print it out.” He also joked that if selfies existed back in the 1980s when he first entered politics in Arkansas, he “might not have lived” to run for President. “I did not have a selfie with that woman.” No, he didn’t say that.

First Post



Global imagination failures; Ben Carson’s Facebook strat; and more.

  • Today’s civic tech must-read: Civicist contributing editor An Xiao Mina writing on our “failures of our global imagination.” Read the whole thing. Afterwards, you probably won’t think about the “First World” or the “Third World” in the same way, or how we use our devices.

  • Tech and the presidentials: When GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker dropped out of the race, none of the other Republican campaigns sought to pick up his digital team, and as Issie Lapowsky reports for Wired, this may be the latest evidence that conservatives are still lagging behind liberals in how much they prioritize tech for their campaigns.

  • Surging Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is heavily reliant on Facebook, where he has 4.3 million fans, David Drucker reports for the Washington Examiner. “Carson personally takes and answers three questions every night on his Facebook page; the interaction generates an average of 100,000 responses that are shared approximately 10,000 times.”

  • Doug Watts, Carson’s chief communications counselor, tells Drucker: “…we all came in sharing the ethic of having a social media-oriented—centric—campaign, because we were all totally taken with [President] Obama’s campaign in 2007 and 2008, and of course no Republican has even come close to exercising that kind of a program. And we thought you could.”

  • Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has finally hired a pollster, Maggie Haberman reports for the New York Times. Sanders’ top adviser Tad Devine explains: “He is not a big consumer of polling, so he did not see the need for it, but I think he understands it in terms of targeting media buys and for voter contact that it has value and can save us money because we won’t waste resources by, for example, buying the wrong shows on TV.”

  • Twitter is partnering with CBS News for the November 14 Democratic Presidential debate, Adam Sharp announces. “Twitter will provide CBS News with real-time data and insights, and will bring live reactions and questions from voters around the country onto the debate stage.”

  • Spying times: A federal court has dismissed a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation and a number of other organizations, stating that the plaintiffs had not proven that their communications were intercepted by the NSA.

  • Fight for the Future is charging that Facebook lobbyists on Capitol Hill are quietly supporting the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act while publicly the company claims to oppose it.

International Development Tech Culture



The problem with first world problems, and why we need to shift the way we talk about global tech

Sahal Gure Mohamed, 62, texts on his mobile phone while waiting in line at dawn to register at Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. (Internews Europe/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There are #firstworldproblems, and there are #thirdworldproblems. When it comes to communications technologies and phones, there are the problems of being a human being in the 21st century. Recent articles about the role of mobile phones for migrant and refugee communities have unleashed a torrent of tweets and articles: If they are so in need for help, why do refugees have phones? How can they possibly be that desperate if they can afford a data plan?

I used to joke about #firstworldproblems myself, but after seeing misunderstandings like these, I stopped.

To be fair, these are good questions if your image of technology is that of luxury and distraction, and if your image of refugees is stuck in 20th century imagery of destitution. But travel the world over, and the role of mobile phones is clear: They are as essential as clothes, money, food and water. They help people stay in touch for business and family reasons. They have maps. They can help people take notes and share those notes across long distances. They have music. They are more affordable than clean, running water and more portable than a suitcase. In a mud hut in East Africa, a crowded bus in Southeast Asia, by the river in rural China, phones and their capabilities can improve the lives of many, both for utilitarian and emotional purposes. They are the Swiss Army Knives of the 21st century.

This misunderstanding is unfortunate but not uncommon when it comes to narratives about the global south. When President Obama boarded a plane for a state visit to Kenya, CNN described the country as a “hotbed of terror.” This was not the first time broadcast media made a sweeping generalization about the country, and Kenyans on Twitter quickly revived the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN to draw attention to the absurdity. In previous years, such as during the 2013 elections, hashtags such as this one and #TweetLikeAForeignJournalist drew attention to outdated generalizations about life in the country. This past year, the hashtag jokes even prompted a visit from CNN’s managing editor, who publicly apologized for the mis-characterization.

A similar flurry of misguided articles erupted recently around Taylor Swift’s concert tour in China. A rumor emerged that Swift’s t-shirt line, bearing the phrase “T.S. 1989,” would be repurposed as a thinly veiled reference to the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. Article after article in English-speaking press suggested there would be heavy censorship of the shirts online and that the tour itself might even be canceled. Nothing of the sort was happening inside the country. Writing in Vox, Max Fisher identified the source of the confusion: it’s hard to see past the story of censorship in China and imagine the daily lives of young people living under censorship and enjoying pop music from around the world.

I think of the examples above as symptomatic of a larger problem: we have what author Claire Light has called a failure of our global imagination. And by “we,” I mean those of us living and working in privileged Western contexts, far removed from the daily lives of those living in places of war, censorship, and rapid industrialization. We can imagine the general experiences and emotions that these words evoke—fear, doubt, uncertainty, excitement—but we cannot imagine the ins and outs, the everydays, the way people live under circumstances very different from our own.

This failure can have devastating consequences. Empathy is founded in our ability to see ourselves in the lives of others, to understand their pain and suffering and respond with compassion. If we cannot imagine the lives of others very different from ourselves, we cannot empathize with their joys and sorrows, and if we take as a frame of reference our own experiences, we cannot deeply engage with others’ lived experiences. If we assume that phones are frivolous, luxury devices for playing games and getting distracted at the dinner table, we cannot imagine how critical they are for helping people find their way to nearby safe points—and then we overlook the need to distribute prepaid SIM cards alongside water bottles. If we assume that transparency and openness are universal goods, we cannot imagine how that openness can be terrifying for a queer person trying to live safely and with dignity in a country with anti-LGBT legal structures—and then we enact Terms of Service and user experiences that promote the very thing (visibility) that can make their lives more dangerous.

The world has long been interconnected. If yesterday’s globalization was one of mass production and distribution of objects and a one of political relations, the globalization of today is that of people to people. Thanks to increased mobility and, more broadly, global internet connectivity, we are more in touch with the images, words and narratives of people living in parts of the world we may have never heard of and heard from. A tweet in Spanish can spark surprise in the English-speaking world, and an image meme made on China’s Sina Weibo can slowly wind its way over to Egyptian Facebook. A lot of people are finding voice, but it’s just as important—if not more so—that with this interconnectedness, those of us with greater privilege and access understand our own responsibility to listen and, where appropriate, amplify.

How can we change this? How can we transform our global imaginations to understand the rich diversity of human life and living in the 21st century? While travel outside major tourist zones can help, scaling that up for all people can be difficult, if not impossible. The tourist industry makes it easy for people with means to skip over to new cities, but it also cloaks the diversity of local life and living, something that takes time, language skills, and patience to understand and experience.

More importantly, for those of us who have the privilege of accessing diverse global experiences, we need to shift the narrative. And we need to listen and reflect the stories of others’ lives more effectively. Here’s how I think we can do that.

Writers about tech need to nuance the narrative. New tech has different effects on different people, and not everyone is a middle class Westerner. Every time we trot out the tired argument that selfies are a form of narcissism, we limit our perspectives on the vast diversity of creative production enabled by new and networked technologies like smartphones. There is no doubt that some selfies for some people serve a narcissistic, self-aggrandizing purpose. But selfies can be a form of advocacyof creating visibility for underrepresented people, of simply connecting with family and friends back home (sometimes “home” is thousands of miles away). It can seem puzzling to see refugees arriving on the coasts of Greece with selfie sticks, but what better way than a selfie to tell family and friends back home that you’ve made it back safely and in good spirits?

The broader dialogue in Western media and intellectual culture must stop critiquing technology’s effects on society with a lens that seems to focus largely on middle class Americans and Western Europeans. Phones can certainly distract from in-person conversations, but they can also facilitate vital connections amongst a global diaspora. When we broadly apply critiques of technology to everywhere and every context, we overlook important discourses around justice, intent and power. We need to understand how technology is used in different cultures and for those with limited resources, and we need to remember positionality when it comes to how people use technology.

We need to tell the human stories of the next billion. Really tell them. Use photos. Use stories. Use videos. It’s not enough to talk about the “next billion” in abstract, like an opportunity to reach teeming masses of people ripe for monetization. We need to understand their lives and their priorities with the sort of detail that can build empathy for other people living under vastly different circumstances. A common misperception I’ve heard about refugees fleeing their country is that they probably wouldn’t prioritize their phones. And yet, it’s almost certain that anyone in a natural disaster in San Francisco would grab their smartphones. How else will they call their families, access resources, alert the authorities?

Can we shift narratives about the developing world to talk about building agency through technology? To talk about connecting once-disconnected communities through technology? Can we move past the sweeping discussions of marketing and monetization opportunities for the next billion and learn more about what motivates them to use the internet and phones in the first place? It’s one thing to share photos of a solar-powered cell phone in the Sahara; it’s quite another to tell the story of the music the phone’s owner listens to and how he uses the texting feature to stay in touch with family while he travels.

It’s time to abandon the First World/Third World dichotomy. Whether or not this dichotomy was a helpful one at some point in the past, it’s no longer helpful now. The “Third World” has glittering skyscrapers and glowing smartphones, and the “First World” has decaying neighborhoods and entire swaths of the country without broadband. There are very real and important differences between rich and poor countries, and these dynamics play out at the level of international relations, all the way down to the mundane and often humiliating work of applying for visas. But this framing creates a divide that limits our capacity to understand the vast spectra of the way human beings live in the 21st century. I don’t yet have a better vocabulary for this, but I hope someone smarter than me can figure that out. For now, I do use the phrases “developing world,” “global south,” and “poor countries,” but I’d like to have a better framework. Any suggestions?

Remember the diversity of ways we use communications technology: that includes connecting with people we care about and depend on. In contrast to narratives about vanity, slacktivism, and luxury when it comes to tech in the middle-class West, so much of the conversation about technology in the global south focuses on information and practical communications, like around agricultural trends and educational material. This is good and important work. But highly pragmatic use cases are just part of the reason anyone has used communications technology. Informal markets from Asia to Africa are filled with music and movies, like a Bluetooth-powered Napster, and people are just as likely to send text messages and Facebook posts to check in with friends and loved ones as they are to access important healthcare information and market reports. These things can coexist.

Like a city, the internet and mobile phones provide for a vast diversity of human needs, which include the basic human need for companionship, support, and access to joy in the face of suffering. Fortunately, this part of the global imagination doesn’t require too much effort: Just think of how everyone you know uses technology, the number of apps, the different ways they laugh, smile, cry, and scowl at what they see behind those plates of glass.

Shifting the narrative is such a critical part of the motivation behind my work with global internet cultures, and the above are just a few ideas for how I think we can do that. But more important than trying to know everything about the world is establishing a culture of knowing that we don’t know. The assumption that we can parachute into a foreign culture with formal expertise and knowledge and make things better has never been acceptable, and it has led to a lot of unnecessary suffering, especially in colonized countries. The fact that people in marginalized parts of the world can now call out misguided attitudes and perceptions about them will go a long way, and those of us with access to media and policy can do well to amplify and extend these voices.

But it is also not possible to know every detail about other people’s lives. Attention is limited, as is time. We can learn everything we can about the day to day of rural Laos, but the conflict in Mali will seem completely opaque. Instead, it’s more important to know that we don’t know, know that we need to listen to those who have greater familiarity, and to know that there are ways to go further. Adopting an attitude of humility and curiosity can take us much farther than an attitude of assuredness and assumption. This seems to me like a good place to start—and if you have other and better ideas, I’d love to hear them.




As the dust settles on the Liberal Party’s victory in Canada’s recent federal election, websites designed to facilitate and promote various forms of tactical voting are analyzing the impact they might have had on the results.

Going into the 2015 campaign, sentiment against the incumbent Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper was so high more than half of New Democratic Party (NDP) supporters were willing to vote Liberal to defeat him, and vice versa. With limited potential to gain support from the Canadian majority who subscribe to values more progressive than those he represented, Harper’s best hope of staying in office was to see the left-leaning vote split evenly between the other two major parties.

Among the web tools trying to stop this from happening were vote swapping hubs, which helped citizens to trade, for instance, a Liberal vote in one carefully chosen riding for an NDP vote in another, in the hopes of giving each swapper’s preferred party a better chance of winning a seat.

There were also websites encouraging so-called “strategic voting,” which means voting for the person who has the best chance of beating your least favourite party’s candidate, without asking anybody to vote for your favourite party elsewhere in return., for example, made it easy for users to find and interpret the poll data they would need to cast a strategic vote, once they had entered their postal codes into a web form. In addition, the site raised awareness of strategic voting via social media—collecting over 90,000 Canadians’ formal pledges to vote for whichever candidates had the best shot at defeating the Conservatives—and even mobilized volunteer phone teams and door-to-door canvassers to promote the idea.

Since the reasoning behind people’s voting decisions isn’t recorded anywhere, it’s impossible to measure the impact of strategic voting with absolute certainty, but experts believe it did influence the election outcome. The NDP, whose share of the popular vote slid from 30.6% in 2011 to 19.7% in 2015, appear to have received the short end of the stick in a number of ridings. After starting strong but then falling behind the Liberals in the polls during the first few weeks of the campaign, the NDP’s downward spiral was probably amplified by the willingness of strategic voters to flock to whichever party was ahead.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May stated publicly that she believes strategic voting is the reason why her party won only one seat. “People would come up to me,” she said, “and tell me ‘I love what you’re doing… but this time around I can’t vote Green because we have to get rid of Harper.’”

Presumably she wouldn’t have the same complaint about vote swapping, which preserves the overall vote count for each party, albeit at a cost to certain individual candidates. The administrators of Vote Swap Canada 2015 note that a number of Green supporters, who were looking for swaps in ridings where the Greens had a fighting chance, did not manage to find a partner. Some NDP supporters had the same problem.

Between the two most prominent swapping hubs this election, Vote Swap Canada 2015 and, only around two thousand votes were formally traded: a dip from previous years. The latter site, which had planned to focus its energies and poll funds on swing ridings, found it a challenge to figure out where these ridings actually were, according to administrator Jim Harris. “The electorate was more volatile than usual, and a lot of the ridings that were close last time were looking solidly Liberal by the end of the campaign. If there had been more close races, then we would have been able to make more matches, and each match would have made a greater difference, too.”

Nevertheless, Harris doesn’t regret having invested his time and effort into the experiment. “There were a lot of different groups attacking the Harper Conservatives from all different angles. It appears as though Leadnow [the organization behind] were the ones who were really effective this time. At any rate, I’m glad see Harper go.” will remain live for the foreseeable future as a means of raising awareness about the concept. It may or may not actively match swappers for the next election, although the team at Vote Swap Canada 2015 expects that swapping and other kinds of tactical voting will continue to exist for as long as Canada has a first-past-the-post elections system. Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau promised electoral reform on the campaign trail, but after having benefitted from FPTP during this election, he may find it tempting to renege on that pledge.

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Why fixing gov’t is no good if we don’t fix politics, too; Google Votes; and more.

  • Today’s civic-tech must-read: Our own Andrew Rasiej reflects in Civicist on this week’s third annual CityLab conference, hosted by The Atlantic magazine, the Bloomberg Foundation and the Aspen Institute, which he attended in London. He writes that the movement to innovate government using technology has never been more robust, but warns: “we are all missing something fundamental that is preventing any of our collective work from becoming transformative….All of us in the field of government re-invention will fail unless we bring our energy and ideas to the urgent need to innovate the political processes that deliver to us the government we truly want.”

  • He adds, “The theory that government innovation will eventually be so successful that its benefits will trickle back up the food chain and deliver us better politics is a false premise. Politics is ‘the horse’ and government is ‘the cart’ and we can have the fanciest cart on the planet but it is being pulled by an elephant and a donkey that when combined cast a shadow that looks like a pig. (And leaves just as bad a mess.)”

  • Jason Shueh of GovTech reports on Google Votes, a fascinating experiment brewing inside the giant company that is essentially testing out a version of “liquid democracy,” where people can either vote directly on a topic or give their proxy to someone they trust to know more. If Google Votes works well, it would be a welcome addition to the deliberative democracy toolset. Google Moderator, the company’s prior contribution to this field, was quietly discontinued some years ago.

  • Former Maryland Governor and longshot Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley helped judge a civic tech start-up event hosted by Microsoft in Washington DC Wednesday, and The Huffington Post’s Alexander Howard offers this round-up on O’Malley’s own pitch.

  • Notably, O’Malley is talking up civic tech, which he variously defined as websites, apps, and social media that “connect caring human beings to one another and the problems we face as a people”; the creation of 911 and 311 systems; and “the use of modern technology for crowdsourced problem solving.

  • Colin O’Connor reports for Gotham Gazette on the rise of participatory budgeting in New York City—it’s now in 27 council districts—and asks why every council member isn’t embracing it.

  • American political technology vendors like Precision Strategies and NGP VAN worked closely with the winning Liberal Party campaign of Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Sean Miller reports for Campaigns & Elections. DSPolitical’s Matthew McMillan wouldn’t say who his firm worked for, but bragged about targeting “individual houses and apartment-building floors” by IP addresses in urban centers like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.

  • The European Parliament is about to adopt rules aimed at protecting net neutrality, but Stanford’s Barbara van Schewick says they are flawed and in need of some critical fixes, which she outlines.

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What a statistician has to say about all-male panels; a smorgasbord of civic ideas; and more.

  • Today’s civic-tech must read: Continuing his series of posts on the future of civic tech, Civicmakers founder Lawrence Grodeska offers a smorgasbord of ideas centered on what he sees as the unrealized civic tech opportunity: transforming the “broken public input process for government at all levels.” He writes: “In the end, I feel the biggest opportunity is not technology, but the process by which we make decisions together.” Hear, hear!

  • is hosting an online presidential candidates forum that has been endorsed by the DNC, which is under fire for limiting the number of televised debates, Sam Frizell reports for Time magazine. So far Senator Bernie Sanders has agreed to participate; all the other candidates have also been invited.

  • Access Now (a Civic Hall member) has started an online campaign against the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act now being debated in the Senate.

  • Lauren Bacon talks to mathematician Greg Martin about why all-male conference line-ups are statistically impossible if speakers are chosen by NOT treating gender as a factor. In fact, he argues that if speaker lists were actually selected without bias, we would be 18 times more likely to see women over-represented than under-represented.

  • With San Francisco hotly debating a ballot proposition that would curtail the short-term housing rental market, a bunch of tone-deaf billboard ads by Airbnb, which is spending heavily to defeat the referendum, came under fire yesterday, Roberto Baldwin reports for Engadget.

  • Mike Bracken and the core of his digital team at the Government Digital Service in the UK have gone to work for the Cooperative Group, a set of mutual businesses owned by more than eight million members.

  • The Knight News Challenge has announced the 45 semi-finalists in its current cycle, which is focused on “how we might make data work for individuals and communities.”

  • So, it turns out that #BoycottStarWarsVII was invented by anonymous trolls, reports Fruzsina Eordogh for Motherboard.

  • Google knows what people are thinking of dressing up as for Halloween.