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.
First Post



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.