Civic Hacking Civic Tech Criminal justice



  • Technology is creating new opportunities for improvement and reform of the criminal justice system.

    In Arizona, a county court created a web and video accessible kiosk where individuals can “appear” in court 70 miles away. Around the country, the ACLU released apps to crowdsource police oversight. And in Chicago, there is a new visualization showing the financial impact of mass incarceration.

    These are just three of the more than 50 projects surveyed in a new report—released today—which I wrote for the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College. The report, Emerging Justice Technologies and the Need for Evaluation, accomplishes three things. First, it introduces justice stakeholders, such as police, corrections, reform advocates, and court officials, to the larger trends of government and civic technology that are behind these new projects. Second, it surveys new criminal justice projects and platforms that aim to improve system efficacy, crowdsource information, and collect and visualize data. Last, it makes five recommendations to better nurture the understanding, creation, and implementation of emerging justice technologies.

    The surveyed projects are exciting, innovative, and many hold promise to increase fairness, efficacy, and comprehension of the criminal justice system. However, unlike building a tool to find a cab or a restaurant, technology affecting criminal justice requires more stringent assessment. The criminal justice system is the greatest point of control the government can have over an individual, so the need to “get it right” is paramount. Therefore, the technologies that compliment or supplant aspects of this system raise unique questions that require a high level of scrutiny and validation.

    Currently, however, critical questions about these new technologies go unanswered. For example, do platforms collecting detailed information about those on community release increase re-arrest rates? Can new technologies compound already present racial bias? Regarding user experience, are projects accounting for those with developmental disabilities, a significant cohort in the criminal justice system?

    For a number of reasons, technological advancement outpaces the capacity to answer questions like these. First, research for this report revealed that while individual projects exist, there is no centralized organization or university initiative focused on researching these new technologies. Second, the organizations creating many of the tools in this report are not in the business of research or validation. Third, this area of criminal justice is still new, which means limited attention and funding. Together, these hurdles mean that we run the risk of iterating projects without first understanding efficacy and potential negative, unintended consequences.

    With this in mind, the Research and Evaluation Center is moving forward with the report’s five recommendations to support civic technology and criminal justice organizations to verify and improve the impact of their work.

    First, the Research and Evaluation Center will build an initiative that brings together leaders from the criminal justice and technology fields. This will be a venue to convene experts and foster open dialogue about how technology can alleviate the myriad of issues confronting criminal justice. Creating this community will allow criminal justice and technology professionals to learn from each other while promoting new ideas and projects.

    Second, once this initiative is created it can begin to identify emerging and best practices through research and evaluation. This research can create a path towards validating practices that will be shared openly among government leaders, technologists, and reformers to improve creation and implementation of projects.

    Third, as a result of this work, a cadre of professionals will be created to span the worlds of criminal justice and tech. These individuals will be valuable for their capacity to understand complex criminal justice systems and technology and their ability to translate for those on either side of the criminal justice-technology spectrum.

    Fourth, this initiative will be inclusive and incorporate previously incarcerated persons and communities that are acutely impacted by the criminal justice system. Those affected by the criminal justice system possess invaluable lived experience that will improve user experience, project development, and user adoption. Last, this work will be used to educate the public on technology’s role in criminal justice and reform.

    Collectively, justice stakeholders, reformers, and those affected by the justice system will benefit from a unified home for emerging justice technologies. However, the bar for success cannot merely be the deployment of a new technology; it must be data driven and informed by the best research. To do otherwise will impede technology’s increasing role in a fairer and more just criminal justice system.

    Jason Tashea is a legal and criminal justice technology consultant at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is also the founder of Justice Codes,  a nonprofit focused on the use of technology to improve access to justice.

Civic Engagement Civic Hacking Protests



Some practical advice for conducting cultural acupuncture.

The final film in The Hunger Games franchise hits theaters today. Fans will be flocking to theaters to see the conclusion of Panem’s revolution, but the Harry Potter Alliance is already helping write the next chapter.

Odds in Our Favor is a campaign by the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) to hack the Hunger Games hype and get people talking about real life economic inequality. The practice of combining pop culture and civic engagement, which HPA co-founder (and Civic Hall fellow) Andrew Slack calls “cultural acupuncture,” helps leaders detect and redirect society’s psychological energy toward real world issues and action.

During the first iteration of the Odds in Our Favor in 2013, HPA asked fans to send in pictures of themselves holding up a three-finger salute to acknowledge that the economic inequality and oppression seen on screen were real world issues. In 2014, when Mockingjay Part 1 was released, we asked fans to share their personal Hunger Games stories around how issues like class, gender, sexuality, race, education, ability, employment impact their lives. These stories showed the reality of economic inequality in the U.S. With over 12,000 people telling their story, we were left wondering: what can we do to impact such a large and complicated issue?

This year, Odds in Our Favor is focused on sharing both stories of oppression and action. We’ve partnered with labor unions, nonprofits, artists and activists to form a “Coalition of Rebels” which provide fans with ways to take action. These partners share in-depth first person stories from the communities they work with at Each story—from Walmart workers to environmental disaster survivors to Syrian refugees—includes an action that either the storyteller has taken to create change in their community, or that the reader can take to make a difference. Fans are no longer just consuming or even telling the story; they’re participating in shaping it.

At the Harry Potter Alliance, we believe all fans can be heroes. Fans are passionate, enthusiastic, authentic and imaginative—four words usually missing when we talk about politics and civic engagement. Through cultural acupuncture we are using fandom as a force for good—and here’s how you can, too.


Cultural acupuncture means you don’t wait for people discover to your issue—you bring the issue to where they already are. The Hunger Games trilogy was one of the first major literary phenomena after Harry Potter. The energy and excitement was there, and fans were eager to engage with the story and the issues it represented. The Harry Potter Alliance chose to do something that ultimately shaped our organizing going forward: we followed the energy and did our first non-Harry Potter related campaign.

As the franchise grew to include four feature films, the energy continued to grow and to shift. Fans lamented that this story of economic inequality and revolution was being used to sell make-up and Subway sandwiches. We responded to this bizarre marketing by asking fans to tell the real stories of #MyHungerGames. This year, when the conversation shifted to anger and confusion around the Hunger Games theme park, we asked fans to share ideas for attractions that represent the real Hunger Games. Fans suggested $50,000 tickets, juggling acts where performers balance “rent,” “food,” and “medical,” and roller coasters that require three years of experience in order to ride.

By paying attention to Hunger Games fans, and to this particular cultural moment, we created a responsive campaign for engaging fans around issues of inequality.


As Odds in Our Favor has grown, we’ve worked with and learned from incredible partners. Having partner organizations on the campaign has allowed us to share stories from incarcerated young people, indigenous activists, mental health advocates, and other communities whose stories often go unheard in mainstream media. Partners also bring the campaign to new audiences: people who follow the partner organizations and use their services gain a new, creative way of engaging with issues they care about. The power of Odds in Our Favor grows, and partner organizers gain another tool for increasing engagement.

From labor unions to international NGO’s, we’ve see civic organizations use cultural acupuncture in incredible ways:

  • Project UROK created a special #MyHungerGames video series, where people shared stories about mental health and poverty.

  • OURWalmart and Fight for $15 have used the Hunger Games as a part of their protests, with workers holding up the three-finger salute and rewriting the lyrics to “The Hanging Tree.”

  • AFL-CIO have highlighted present-day labor issues in easy-to-read listicles illustrated with eye-catching gifs from the film.

  • Campaign for Youth Justice adapted their “Hands of Support” campaign to include the three-finger salute to demonstrate support for incarcerated young people.

  • HPA chapters have used the Hunger Games to organize their communities around everything from refugee support to climate change education. We’ve seen art shows, hunger (games) banquets, donation drives, teach-ins, and more.


Author John Green has long advocated that stories belong to their readers and that it is the imagination of readers that bring narratives to life—which we believe means that fans hold the power to continue the narrative long after the series ends.

Through the work of fans and partner organizations, we’ve done just that with the Odds in Our Favor campaign. We’ve shared #MyHungerGames stories from an impressive array of communities: workers, prisoners, refugees, protesters, mental health advocates, climate change survivors, and many more. Each story we share includes a call to action: sign a petition; start a discussion; join a march; tell your story.

With so many diverse partners and issue areas, these stories and calls to action could have sounded like a disjointed cacophony. Instead, weaving The Hunger Games narrative through each story and action has created the lyrics to a collective song that every civic organization should be singing: our issues are entwined, your liberation is bound up with mine, and everyone’s actions make a difference. In 2015, we’re witnessing a revolution, and cultural acupuncture is allowing us to understand what that means and imagine ourselves as heroes in the long narrative of history and change.

Katie Bowers is the Campaigns Director for The Harry Potter Alliance, which uses the power of stories to inspire social change.

Civic Hacking Hackathon International Development



As facilitators working with a vulnerable population, we could have better anticipated and mitigated the chilling effect of the media. Here are seven things organizers can do to better protect privacy during a workshop.

I don't want to be photographed. (Josh Levinger)

Civic hackathons, those technology-driven sprints for good, are both popular and potentially problematic. They can be exciting, stirring passions around important social issues. They offer the promise of improving lives. But they also risk squandering resources, producing tools that are often quickly abandoned, or at worst create unintended harm.

common and valid criticism of hackathons is that they often rely on technologists with little or inaccurate knowledge of the selected cause.

Ask a bunch of upper-middle-class 20-somethings to improve access to healthy food, and you’ll invariably end up with a grocery store map. A person living in a food desert might have instead pointed out that the barriers to healthier eating are logistical, economic, and cultural, not purely informational. A food justice advocate might have suggested advancing substantial policy changes for long term gains. But at most hackathons—which generally run between six hours to a full weekend—time feels too short for such deep dives, and the need to produce a product can take priority over making sustainable impacts.

Making effective use of a hackathon’s focused, skilled, and cheap labor requires a more informed and humble approach. Anticipating this, some organizers recruit and engage participants with experiences that can inform the technical work. This focus on listening, questioning, and context is a great evolution, but, especially when dealing with sensitive issues and vulnerable populations, it introduces new risks.

Last month, I facilitated a portion of the Refugee Hackathon in Berlin, Germany. The event spanned three days, gathering nearly 300 developers and refugees to exchange ideas and create tools that ease the experience of being a refugee in Germany. It was the perfect combination of pertinent politics and optimistic technology; in short, it was a total media spectacle.

A key strength of the hackathon was the involvement of people with actual refugee experience—people who either were themselves refugees to Germany or who volunteer with newcomers. Theirs’ was a unique and powerful story, and its retelling has influence beyond one humble hackathon. But as the event unfolded, it became clear that maintaining a safe space for these vulnerable people to fully participate conflicted with the media presence.

The image of the noble technologist uplifting the helpless refugee (to apply a lazy stereotype) supports valuable narratives for many. The technologists get to look like heroes, with a new project for their portfolios. The event organizers receive attention for their popular event, which bolsters their credentials. Members of the media profit directly from collecting interviews and photos, as this is their job. But also indirectly, the mainstream German community benefits as it consumes this positive coverage, allowing them to feel like the crisis is being addressed.

Media coverage for a feel-good event is good for many, but how does it affect the people this event was intended to support—in this case, the refugees? Many participated on the explicit understanding that they would not be named, photographed, or filmed. These people came to Berlin to escape violence, leaving friends and family back home. I heard from several individuals worried that if those violent actors could identify them as having fled, friends and family they left behind would become targets. As facilitators, it was our duty to manage these priorities and craft an appropriate space.

We offered a “photo opt out” system. We provided red stickers, which, if put on a name tag, identified the individual as someone who did not consent to being photographed. We posted several signs explaining this system at registration and around the workshop spaces in four languages and with language-agnostic iconography. The facilitators took several opportunities to remind the room not to photograph people with red stickers. We asked the individuals with privacy concerns to raise their hands so everyone would know to avoid them in photos.

We also instructed the group that we would be following Chatham House Rules:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

These rules are very popular at workshops where delicate information is to be shared, because it allows people to engage fully in the conversation.

In spite of these precautions, we still encountered several instances of worrisome media behavior. Some reporters were very respectful, chatting easily and maintaining a comfortable atmosphere. Others either missed the precautionary notices, or simply chose to disregard them. Eventually, two core issues emerged: obtaining informed consent and minimizing disruptions.

With so many media seeking group photos, the red sticker opt-out system quickly became difficult to enforce. When photographers did seek consent, the consent was not always informed.

One incident occurred when a reporter invited a French-speaking refugee to be photographed. Echoing a broader issue of underestimated diversity among Germany’s refugees, we had not anticipated the need to support French translation, so communicating with these refugees was problematic. The refugee asked where the photos would appear, the volunteer translator used his basic French to communicate an answer, and the refugee left with the reporter. Interestingly, the translator was not invited, because the journalist had no interest in what his subject had to say. Instead, the reporter posed the man outside for a few generic photos of a downcast refugee. Later, the refugee became concerned: he had understood that the photographer worked for the event organizers and did not want his photos published by a reporter. The translator flagged down a facilitator, and the photographer ultimately relented and deleted the photos. Effectively, the refugee hadn’t known what he was consenting to do, and the photographer hadn’t been clear about the potential consequences.

Even among the main language groups, the conspicuous cameras and frequent requests to “borrow” refugees and project managers led to constant disruptions. Remember: the explicit purpose of this workshop was to learn about the refugee experience firsthand from the refugees, identifying specific requirements and possible interventions. Allowing press to coerce participants into being “shared” soured the mood for many, and reduced the effectiveness of the event overall. The refugees weren’t the only ones visibly uncomfortable with the media presence—twice I overheard conversations among developers abruptly conclude or shift when a large television camera rolled up.

As facilitators, we could have better anticipated and mitigated the chilling effect of these reporters, writers, and photographers. Learning from these experiences, here are seven things organizers can do to protect privacy during a workshop.

      1. Offer an opt-out indicator that is very visible. We gave out stickers. We asked people opting out to raise their hands in front of the group. We gave polite but firm reminders when we saw violations. But still, we ended up spending a lot of time enforcing this system, instead of focusing on facilitating better outcomes. Our tiny stickers could have been much bigger. We could have given out red t-shirts, or at least a different color lanyards.


        These identifiers should be visible if their wearer is across the room or turned away, and they should stand out in accidental photographs to ensure proper deletion.

      2. Ensure consent is both sought and informed every time. If there’s a risk the meaning isn’t wholly understood, take the time to find a better explanation. All photos can wait.
      3. Discourage people from opting out of photos for solidarity. This one is controversial, and deserves discussion. Everyone should want to support people who need to opt-out from photography, but as I experienced it, we can’t do that by diminishing the seriousness of those requests. I attended an event years ago where only one person opted out. We paused to wave at him, and he stood behind the camera for group photos. Because he was easy to remember, we all scanned the room to find him before taking any photo, ever. We made it easier to take safe photos by reducing the number of people to actively avoid photographing.
      4. As a participant, support opt-out requests. If someone prefers not to be photographed, actively locate them as being outside your frame before snapping a photo. Keep an eye out for cameras at the event, and help review photos on social media later. If you see a consent violation, either intervene politely and firmly, or seek out a facilitator.
      5. As a facilitator, empower your team both to enforce privacy requests and minimize disruptions. You want your participants to feel comfortable handling or reporting issues, and you want your team to feel comfortable taking appropriate action.
      6. Allow for non-disruptive media engagement. If you expect a media presence, carve out time, space, or people where press can safely participate. Media access does not need to be a default.
      7. Anticipate how skewed media access could misrepresent your event. A few of our participants arrived with fully formed projects, and put the time we dedicated to listening to refugees towards courting the media. As a result, projects with the least refugee input came to occupy a disproportionate amount of exposure from the refugee-legitimized event.

Hackathons can be fun, inspiring, or challenging, and it’s natural for people to want to capture these experiences. As the hackathon model continues to evolve, and acknowledges the diversity of experiences needed for success, privacy and safety must become key operating principles.

Ruth Miller is a facilitator, interaction designer, and researcher based in Oakland, California.

Civic Hacking Data Science open data



The founder of a Hacker News-style site for data for social good projects says that there is not enough replication in the civic hacking community, and he means to change that.

A year after launching DataLook, a Hacker News-style site highlighting data projects for social good, Tobias Pfaff and his colleagues are spearheading a 10-week replication marathon of some of the site’s top reusable projects in advance of a TEDx competition they qualified for this spring. Participants are finding each other and collaborating on Slack, although if it makes more sense to take problem solving to outside sites—Github’s issue tracker, for example—they are encouraged to do that as well.

“I think there is not enough focus on replicating projects [in the civic tech community],” founder Tobias Pfaff tells Civicist in a Skype interview. “I think it might be less sexy to do things that other people have done before.”

However, Pfaff also points out that replicating projects can be faster and easier than starting an open data project from scratch. Replication, he says, “can be super sexy” because you can get things done—and start having an impact—quickly. He points Civicist to Jason Hibbets’ framework for civic hackers, which outlines three kinds of projects: green fields (new and untested); cloned (tested, approved, and repeated); and augmented (tested and improved upon).

One successful and much-discussed replication is the late U.S. Politwoops, a transparency project documenting politicians’ deleted tweets, which was based on a project first launched in the Netherlands in 2010. The service recently made headlines after Twitter pulled its API access for violating terms of service. However, other iterations of Politwoops continue to run smoothly in 30 other countries.

The first project replicated as part of DataLook’s marathon was a Twitter bot that automatically posts information about animals up for adoption at local shelters. The person behind it, Slack user justnisdead, says that future replications would only take 15-30 minutes per bot.

DataLook’s goal for the marathon is to demonstrate the impact that replication can have in just 10 weeks, and then to challenge the TEDx judges to imagine what they could accomplish if the marathon was extended to a year or more.

DataLook (originally Data for Good, until they found that name was already a registered trademark in the U.S.) was built during a startup weekend in Germany last year. It was always meant to be a home for replicable data for good projects, however in the year since Pfaff has found that the user base is really too small for a robust upvote/downvote-style site. There just isn’t enough traffic.

(He speculated this might be because many of the major players in the civic tech scene—Code for America, for example—are hosting many of these conversations in private or semi-private/branded spaces, and that others are spread out on various platforms like Reddit and DataTau.)

And yet Pfaff and his DataLook colleagues know many of the projects on the site are worth replicating. “A month ago,” Pfaff says, “we went through our complete database and discussed which [projects] are really cool and which are reusable…[which solve] generic problems that appear in every city around the world and at the same time the code is open source.” These are the projects they pulled out for a shortlist, and are actively encouraging data scientists to replicate during the marathon. The shortlist of projects includes Councilmatic; FixMyStreet; a food inspection forecasting app; Link-SF, a resource for homeless and low-income city residents; and more.

DataLook has asked encouraging interested parties to join an open Slack channel and find the projects that most interest them and connect with likeminded people. There are currently twenty or so members of the general DataLook channel.

Pfaff makes clear that the end of the marathon is not meant to be the end of replicating projects, but that the purpose of the marathon is “to see what is possible within a given timeframe.”

“And then we can see what happens next,” he adds.

Civic Hacking Civic Tech Direct Action

Volunteer Coders Force the Dept Of Education to Actually Help Debtors

Volunteer Coders Force the Dept Of Education to Actually Help Debtors

When it comes to making conned students aware of their right to seek debt discharges, and providing the means for them to apply for that discharge, the Department of Education’s technology is essentially nonexistent.

  • This March saw the launch of a web application that makes it easy for victims of predatory colleges to request student debt forgiveness from the Department of Education. For the first time ever, debtors were able to exercise their right to apply for student debt cancellation on their mobile phones. More than 300 applications flowed in that first week. But this website wasn’t built by the government; it was built by volunteers with the Debt Collective, including myself, in less than a month. The Secretary of Education Arne Duncan frequently touts the virtues of tech, but in so far as modernizing how the agency actually helps current and former college students, the heavy-lifting has been forced onto the backs of students, debtors, and volunteers.


    As the total college student debt burden reaches $1.3 trillion, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street called Strike Debt found that tuition-free education at all public two- and four-year colleges could be achieved with just $15 billion in new spending. Meanwhile, the government is expected to profit from student debt repayments to the tune of $127 billion over the next ten years. To make matters worse, student loans are unique from other kinds of household debt in that they cannot be discharged by bankruptcy. They are nearly impossible to get out from under, even in the most dire of circumstances. With these revelations, it seems true that some or all of this debt is morally illegitimate, and action is needed to give relief to these debtors.

    One of the only existing safety nets for millions of student debtors is the Higher Education Act, which gives the Department of Education authority to cancel debt when a school violates state law. But for many years the Department’s website had little to no information on how to dispute debt, let alone an online application to do so. The process was an uphill, seemingly impossible battle for debtors. That is, it was until this year, when a small group of volunteers at the Debt Collective decided to do something radical: the government’s job.

    For years, hundreds of thousands of students have found themselves scammed by predatory for-profit colleges. Corinthian Colleges, Inc., was one of the largest and most notorious of these chains. It was clear from multiple government actions and investigations, dating as early as 2007, that Corinthian was rife with deceptive and unfair business practices—from false job placement statisticssecurities fraud, to the unlawful use of military seals in advertisements. Despite this, the Department of Education continued to collect on the debt of scammed students, students Secretary Duncan admitted left Corinthian Colleges “in a worse position than when they started.”

    After months of watching the Department of Education do nothing, while hearing story after story of lives ruined by unpayable debt, our team at the Debt Collective decided to make a move. With help from some amazing lawyers, we began to craft a process to dispute students’ debt. Law student Luke Herrine spent hours coordinating our strategy with a team of legal experts, creating a multi-page application form that affected and eligible debtors would need to fill out by hand. In the form, each debtor needed to cite the specific legalese appropriate for their state. It wasn’t even clear that the Department would recognize the forms as legitimate—no one had ever done this sort of thing at scale before, and the Department had little-to-no information on their website. With an entirely paper-based and manual method, our first, ambitious goal was to submit 50 applications—one for each state.


    As the Facebook groups for former Corinthian students grew larger, it became clear that the goal of 50 Defense to Repayment applications was not enough. We wanted to dispute the debt for as many debtors as possible.


    Karissa McKelvey (left) and Ange Tran (Ann Larson)

    Karissa McKelvey (left) and
    Ange Tran (Photo courtesy Karissa McKelvey)

    Designer Ange Tran suggested we make a “wizard”—an application that walks debtors through each section of the long legal form. Tran had previously created a similar solution to automate sending letters for pro-solar policy advocacy in New York State. But years later, with a solid tech team and a large group of debtors in solidarity, our new application could take the concept further with mobile-first validated design, data-driven progress dashboards, and secure data storage. It needed to be built fast, too—as every day without a submission system meant another day of financial hardship and debt collector harassment for hundreds of thousands of debtors.

    Our online form had to enable a debtor to submit a variety of information about themselves: sensitive data, such as their social security number, birthdate, and address; state law(s) broken by the school that would fall under the Defense to Repayment provision (that changed based upon the state the student had lived in); and supporting materials, such as their story or evidence of abuses. Making people fill out a PDF directly using Acrobat would lead to a substantially lower conversion rate. Many don’t have access to a desktop or laptop computer, become overwhelmed by long forms, or have limited time with their busy schedules.

    The website had to be easy to read—checkboxes needed to hide away complicated legalese, replaced automatically using a spreadsheet of related paragraphs. Data had to be transferred over a secure, encrypted channel (https) with the completed forms accessible through only one secure administrator account to protect the privacy of debtors. With a conveniently-timed lull in funding for my day job, I began developing the back end system and overseeing the technical architecture, working with Tran, Herrine, and our front end developer and designer Zach Greene.

    We released the prototype to the public on March 25 after four weeks of research, design, and development. Within a week, the Debt Collective received over 300 applications (over 2000 to date). Herrine printed out hundreds of applications by hand and delivered them to the Department of Education with representatives from the Corinthian strikers. (When we asked the Department if we could send claims by email, they said no, they would have to be printed and submitted on paper.) Although the Debt Collective continued to submit applications on the behalf of debtors over the next few weeks, the Department of Education remained silent. We wondered if they were overwhelmed by the volume of forms.


    Finally, after two weeks, the Department of Education announced that they would consider the discharge of some students’ debt. This was a major victory for those affected, but also led to a tremendous revelation about the limits of the Department. They maintain that most debtors must still submit forms individually to prove their injury. A select group of 40,000 Heald students can submit to a “fast track” process, and need only complete an attestation form. But, laughably, the form only works in Adobe Acrobat—not on smartphones or other PDF programs. No wonder only 180 of the 40,000 eligible students have completed the form so far!

    The Department of Education loves certain applications of technology. In April, Secretary Duncan published a piece on on the importance of expanding the role of technology in the classroom. And they have an entire Office of Innovation and Improvement that provides grants for education innovation. But when it comes to making conned students aware of their rights to even seek debt discharges, and providing means for them to apply for that discharge, the Department’s technology is essentially nonexistent. If we could fashion a superior solution with a rag-tag, mostly-volunteer crew in two weeks and get the word out to thousands of students, why can’t a government agency with billions in funding do the same?

    Despite the vast amount of money, human resources, and technical knowledge the Department possesses, it still does not have an automated process to discharge the debts of all Corinthians—or any students—at once. The government’s failure to build technology may be one of intentional neglect, to erect barriers to legal processes to which we are entitled. There are resources the Department could use inside and outside of the government, such as 18F and Code for America, to build superior technology that better connect the data warehouses that track past, current, and future students and their family’s finances. But so far this hasn’t happened. Unfortunately, this is not a technical problem but a political problem. The onus of bad debt is placed onto the individuals who took the debt, not on the corporations that profit. And right now the Department’s technological priorities reflect that attitude.

    We’ve proved that something as simple as a PDF generator and mobile-first web front end can radically affect the landscape of education policy, but there’s still a lot of work left to do. We plan on extending the current application to work for all student debtors from multiple colleges, not just the Corinthian chain.

    As a Bay Area “techie,” I’ve heard more times than I can count that we are somehow “changing the world”—and usually I find it offensive. The tech community is rich with stories of startup-driven “disruption” that upends the status quo in a particular sector, without attention immediate needs within the political-economic climate. The fetishization of “disruption that changes the world” overlooks relatively simple efforts, aggrandizing those that affect more “fundamental” functions of the economy or the technology that runs it. But as government technology waxes and wanes, startups fail, and bubbles pop, we must dare to ask—what if the best things we can do in civic tech aren’t the most complex, cutting-edge, or “innovative” technological feats, but rather ones that are attuned to real needs on the ground and made in dialogue with grassroots communities and activists? Technology alone can’t “change the world,” but when technological is employed strategically by social movements, it can certainly help us do so.

    Karissa McKelvey is a programmer and former academic experienced in building interactive data visualization and collaboration tools.

Civic Hacking Civic Tech Democracy

Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?

Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?

  • It feels as if we can’t escape the culture of fear and extremism that is pervading politics. Political discourse is more vitriolic than ever after San Bernardino and Paris, and during the months of partisan name-calling and ugly mud-slinging among candidates for the U.S. Presidential Race. And clearly, there are no easy solutions to unraveling this vicious cycle.

    During the Christmas holiday, I had an experience that perfectly illustrated this to me. My family and I were at a friend’s house for a holiday event, and I overheard her guests talking as I walked through the kitchen. I heard, “The more he says, the more I like him.” Then, “He says the things we all think but are afraid to say.” I started to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, hoping they weren’t talking about Donald Trump. Then I heard, “The only problem with building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is that it will have to be so big that it’s impractical and expensive.” I tried to talk myself off the ledge, saying to myself, “Don’t open your mouth, just keep walking, don’t say anything, it won’t help or change anyone’s mind…..” But then as I was about to turn the corner, safely avoiding a conversation that would surely have turned ugly, I heard, “Of course we should ban Muslims from entering the country. Look what they did in Paris.” So, I turned sharply on my heel and unwisely marched over to the little group sitting around the kitchen table.

    “Excuse me,” I said, “but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and I wish that you would consider the fact that excluding or persecuting people solely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity is how (voice rising) the Holocaust started.” And then, when the response to that grenade lob was dropped jaws and the explanation, “It would only be temporary,” I looked at them incredulously, probably with disgust on my face, and said, “That’s what Hitler said and” just in case they didn’t get it the first time, “that’s how the Holocaust started.” Then I abruptly left, muttering, “This was a mistake, I can’t talk about this…..”

    I found this conversation terrifying—not only because the thought of Trump as Presidentimages is terrifying, nor because I was disappointed in myself because I lost my cool, and created an extreme, unbridgeable divide between our viewpoints by invoking the Holocaust. No, this conversation was most terrifying because these people were not bad people. They were the type of people I appreciate: good, kind, hard-working people who love their kids and their family.

    So where does that leave us?

    I don’t have a solution, and indeed, my own extreme reaction during the kitchen table conversation shows that I lack objectivity and am certainly part of the problem. I do, however, as a scientist believe that we can harness what we know about our minds and brains to neutralize this vicious cycle of social and political extremism. Could digital disruption help move us along a path to such change? There might not be an app for that, but below I list three steps I believe could put us on the road towards digital disruption of the political culture of fear.

    1. Frame political extremism as an emotion regulation problem. Before any digital disruption can happen, we have to make sense of the problem and have a concept of what’s going wrong. We have all had one of those kitchen table conversations I described above. In these conversations, our emotions get the better of us: fear, disgust, anger. This is a problem in how we control our emotions and how our emotions control our thoughts, decisions, and actions, something psychologists call emotion regulation. The problem is that our strong emotions rarely convince our debating partners. Instead, they solidify the views everyone already holds, causing us to cling to them even more strongly and rigidly. Common ground is lost, and the divide between perspectives seems increasingly unbridgeable.

    Imagine how a version of that kitchen table conversation happens on the political world stage, sabotaging attempts at diplomacy and mutual understanding. The result is not just upset and angry people. Now the result is that our emotions directly shape political discourse, legal decisions, and policies that can affect generations to come.

    Thus, a first crucial step towards disruption of the political culture of fear is to frame political discourse in terms of emotion regulation, applying what we know about what goes wrong and how to fix it on the individual and group level.

    2. Use technology to promote empathy. Recent research in political psychology suggests that empathy can help heal rancorous political divides. A recently-published study showed that when political advocates fail to understand the values of those they wish to persuade, this “moral empathy gap” causes their arguments to fail. However, when political arguments are reframed in the moral terms of the other side, they are more effective. For example, when asked about their views on universal healthcare, conservatives who heard “purity arguments” (e.g., sick people are disgusting and therefore we need to reduce sickness) were friendlier towards universal healthcare, compared to when they heard “fairness arguments,” which are more consistent with liberal values.

    If we can use technology to bridge the moral empathy gap, we might be able to reduce political polarization and promote better emotion regulation, more compromise, and deepened understanding. Virtual Reality (VR) might be one such technology. I previously wrote about Chris Milk’s thought-provoking TED talk on VR as the “ultimate empathy machine.” By creating a sense of presence and of real interactions with people and worlds, VR forges empathic bridges leading to greater understanding and compassion. In his work with the UN, Chris Milk uses VR to vividly portray the plight of refugees to politicians and policy makers. How does seeing and experiencing the suffering of 5-year-old children in the refugee camps influence policy making? Almost certainly for the better.

    3. Use technology to calm the fearful brain. As political ideologies become increasingly polarized, neuroscience research suggests that the differences between liberal and conservative viewpoints may extend beyond policy preferences to fundamental differences in the “fearful brain.”

    In a paper I wrote in 2014 with Dave Amodio, a professor at NYU, we found that children of liberal compared to conservative parents showed a stronger “N2” brain response to mildly threatening and conflicting information. A greater N2, derived from EEG, suggests more openness to uncertainty, ambiguity, and threat. A culture of fear, in politics or otherwise, is marked by the opposite of this: inflexibility and discomfort in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, along with resistance to change. These aspects of fear are part of the foundation upon which intolerance is built.

    What if we could create computerized interventions that promote our ability to cope with uncertainty and change, perhaps by strengthening the N2 response? My research on the stress reduction app Personal Zen, as well as other research, shows that this may be possible. More research is needed, but if science-driven digital mental health continues to evolve, reducing the political culture of fear could soon be in the palm of our hand.

    Tracy Dennis-Tiwary is a professor of psychology and neuroscience and writes about mental health and technology. This article was originally posted on her blog, Psyche’s Circuitry.