Going Dark

Davos does civic tech? Deep canvassing advances; Wuhan virus tips; and more.


This is civic tech: Oh look, here comes UpLink, a “digital crowd-engagement platform to accelerate the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals,” launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos by its founder Klaus Schwab and created with the help of Deloitte, Salesforce and LinkedIn. “A small group of activists focused on combatting illegal fishing activities in their local waters, for example, can post their mission on UpLink and not only crowdsource peer suggestions to further their work but also gain access to resources globally that can contribute to their efforts,” explains Howard Allen, a partner at Deloitte Switzerland, which helped them develop the app. I’m sure lots of small groups of activists have just been waiting for Uplink!

Wait, there’s more! “UpLink is open to any individual who can offer a contribution to the global public good,” says a detailed backgrounder. “The platform invites personal perspectives to help shape and define the global issues we face, and it invites ideas and projects which can provide the necessary resolutions. All contributions can be uploaded through UpLink’s digital interface. An intelligent system will review these upon submission, and connect those with high-potential to specific action groups: networks of leading businesses, NGOs, investors, subject-matter experts, and government representatives, who are tackling a similar issue and are ready to collaborate and scale projects to a global level.

Sadly, I predict UpLink will go where the “action platform” that TED promised to build after it got nearly a million in funding from the Knight Foundation back in 2013 went.

The use of online deliberation platforms like Decidim and Crossiety is on the rise across Switzerland, according to a survey of local authorities conducted by the Civic Tech Barometer, a project led by researchers from EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory (LaSUR) in partnership with Geneva Canton’s Consultation and Communication Department.

Bribe requests by municipal agents in Guadalajara have gone down 74 percent since the city started using a new website called Visor Urbano showing what land uses are allowed where.

Another one for the graveyard: Google has announced that it is shutting down its One Today nonprofit fundraising app, launched in 2013 to great fanfare. At the time, it was touted as a breakthrough because it would show users right up front how their donation would be used. It also had a social component, letting you set a cap to how much money you would donate if your friends gave to one of your causes. (h/t Jesse Littlewood)

Instacart employees in Skokie, Illinois, are voting on unionizing this Friday, Lauren Kaori Gurley reports for Motherboard.

Tech and politics: In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall sums up the state of play in the digital war between the right and left as 2020 heats up, noting that Republican-leaning groups are “far ahead” of the Democrats in how they are using once-novel techniques like geofencing to acquire the contact information of target demographics like evangelical and Catholic voters. Edsall notes, “The explosion of digital technology has created the opportunity for political operatives to run what amount to dark campaigns, conducted below the radar of both voter awareness and government oversight.”

Life in Facebookistan: The new “Off-Facebook Activity” tracker that the company just made available to its 2+ billion users will show you how you are being tracked and targeted even when you aren’t logged into the giant social network, Geoffrey Fowler reports for The Washington Post. He writes, “Even with Facebook closed on my phone, the social network gets notified when I use the Peet’s Coffee app. It knows when I read the website of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg or view articles from The Atlantic. Facebook knows when I click on my Home Depot shopping cart and when I open the Ring app to answer my video doorbell. It uses all this information from my not-on-Facebook, real-world life to shape the messages I see from businesses and politicians alike.”

The head of Facebook’s new oversight board will be Thomas Hughes, who was previously the director of Article 19, the British human rights organization. As Ben Gilbert reports for Business Insider, the board will be independent of Facebook but funded by Facebook to the tune of $130 million. As I have previously noted, no one has yet explained why this entity needs such a colossal budget, or what it will do to keep itself going if Facebook doesn’t fund it forever. Think of it this way: My child is independent of me and will be empowered to overrule me, but I pay all of their expenses and keep them employed and housed. Nothing to see here folks, just move along.

Facebook has settled an Illinois privacy class-action lawsuit to the tune of $550 million, Natasha Singer and Mike Isaac report for The New York Times. Illinois is one of only three states with a biometric privacy law, requiring companies to obtain written permission before collecting a person’s fingerprints, facial scans or other identifying biological characteristics. State residents can sue companies for up to $5,000 per violation, which could add up to billions of dollars in payouts for tech giants that lose such class-action suits. “The Illinois law has real teeth. It pretty much stopped Facebook in its tracks,” Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Times. “Tech firms and other companies that collect biometric data must be very nervous right now.”

Mom, don’t read this next item. A young woman named Samantha Jespersen tried for five years to get Facebook to remove a page claiming to a be a business named “Samantha Rae Anne Jespersen’s Butthole,” but despite her efforts, the company said it didn’t violate its community standards. Only after Katie Notopoulos reported the story for BuzzFeed News yesterday did the page get deleted. (And here’s the Reddit post that got the whole story started.)

Food for thought: There’s a new peer-reviewed study by academics David Broockman and Josh Kalla about the promising effects of “deep canvassing” in countering prejudices on issues like transgender rights and immigration, as Brian Resnick reports for Vox. Their work challenges the assumptions of most of the politics industry, which is committed to practices centered on argument and getting in people’s faces with facts. Resnick writes, “The new research shows that if you want to change someone’s mind, you need to have patience with them, ask them to reflect on their life, and listen. It’s not about calling people out or labeling them fill-in-the-blank-phobic. Which makes it feel like a big departure from a lot of the current political dialogue.” And Broockman tells him, “I think in today’s world, many communities have a call-out culture. Twitter is obviously full of the notion that what we should do is condemn those who disagree with us. What we can now say experimentally, the key to the success of these conversations is doing the exact opposite of that.”

Health tech: Wash your hands! If you are worried about the rapid rise of the Wuhan coronavirus, this short piece by Laurie Garrett, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered many of the world’s major epidemics, is essential reading. “Very simple measures can protect you,” she writes.

Here’s an up-to-date data visualization of the spread of the virus.

End times: Our friend Dave Karpf in Wired on why the Millennium Clock, a pet project of a bunch of early tech bros, is a “waste of time.” Oh, I see what you did there.

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