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.