… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

June 19, 2015

Pattern recognition: racism, gun violence and Dylann Roof

Filed under: ideas — Ethan @ 4:08 pm

When you read about Dylann Roof, the man who killed nine black men and women as they prayed, think about the patterns he represents.

Over the next few days, we’re going to hear about mental illness. We’re going to hear about troubled loners. We’ll hear about a young man’s racist fantasies, so outrageous that he would
celebrate the apartheid regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia. We’ll hear from family, neighbors and high school friends, and the picture that will emerge is of a young man who was strange, disturbed, sick, abnormal. The message will be that the massacre in Charleston was an unpredictable, unavoidable tragedy carried out by an individual madman.

Don’t lose sight of the patterns.

When Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African Americans at a bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, it was a hate crime. We know, because Roof told the survivors precisely why he had come to this historic church to commit mass murder: “You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.” It was an act of domestic terrorism. Roof has reportedly told investigators that he wanted to start a race war with his actions. Shooting nine black people as they prayed was a way to terrorize all black people and to destroy the safety and comfort of what should be the safest of spaces.

Attacking black Americans was also part of a pattern.

The United States is a dangerous place to be a black person. Black Americans are twice as likely to die from gun violence than white Americans are. Hispanic and Asian Americans are less likely to die from gun violence than white Americans. Gun violence is a tragedy that disproportionately affects Black Americans.

So is murder. In 2012, blacks represented 13% of the US population and represented 50% of homicide victims. Black men were 8.5 times more likely to be the victim of a homicide than white men. Politicians and commentators – notably Rudy Giuliani – are fond of pointing out that most black men who die of homicide are killed by other black men. That’s true. But it’s also true that most white men are killed by other white men. Most murder – 78% between 1980-2008 – is committed by someone the victim knew well, a family member, friend or other acquaintance. Given high rates of homophily in American society, it’s not surprising that black people know – and kill – black people and white people know – and kill – white people.

What is surprising is how police handle these murders. In New York City, the “clearance rate” for homicides with white victims is 86%. For homicides with black victims, the rate is 45%. In other words, in the majority of homicide cases where the victim is black, the case is unsolved and the murderer remains on the streets. Yes, investigating homicides of black people is often complicated by a culture that discourages cooperation with the police, the result of decades of mistrust between police and the communities they serve. But they are also the result of police decisions about resource allocation, and a culture of underpolicing black neighborhoods, in which police have demonstrated that they’re more likely to harass individuals at random through racial profiling than they are to investigate serious crimes.

And while we’re talking about the police, let’s remember that at least 101 UNARMED black people were killed by law enforcement in 2014. That includes Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley and Darrien Hunt, but it includes dozens you probably haven’t heard about, like Justin Griffin, a 25 year old basketball coach who had an argument with a referee – the referee was an off-duty sheriff’s deputy and he and another deputy beat Griffin to death. From 2010-2012, teenage black men were 21 times more likely than teenage white men to be killed by police.

We need to learn to see these patterns, some of us more than others. The pattern of police violence against black lives is much easier to see if you’re personally affected by it than if you’re not a member of a targeted community. In that case, it can be hard to see patterns from single incidents. We read about the death of a black man in police custody and are likely to see it as an isolated incident, unless someone points out the larger pattern of undue force applied by police to black suspects.

Thanks to Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, we have a narrative – #blacklivesmatter – that helps draw connections between Walter Scott’s death at the hands of the police in North Charleston, and the slaughter of nine of Charleston’s finest citizens at the hands of Dylann Roof. As Cullors has explained, #blacklivesmatter is not just about the death of black people at the hands of police or vigilantes: “The media really wants to say ‘This happened in Ferugson, this happened in Baltimore, this happened in New York. Are they the same?’ Yes, they’re the same. Black people are not a monolithic group, but what we are facing is something that’s extreme – and that’s poverty, that’s homelessness, that’s higher rates of joblessness, that’s law enforcement invading our communities day in and day out – and we are uprising.”

Cullors talks about a “Black Spring”, a parallel to the Arab Spring, where black people and their allies start uprising and demanding a more just nation. People who knew Roof tell us that he was obsessed with the protests resulting from the Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray deaths – a Black Spring is exactly what he appears to have feared the most. Those he killed, notably the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who as a state senator was a key figure in the fight to bring body cameras to South Carolina police, were precisely the people working to better the lives of the black community – and the community as a whole – in Charleston, SC.

Was Dylann Roof a troubled loner? Yes. But he was also resident of a state where a segregationist flag flies above the State Capitol and can’t be taken down or lowered to half mast without approval by the state assembly. To reach the scene of his crime, he drove on highways named for confederate generals. He lives in a country where black people are disproportionately the victims of official and unofficial violence. Dismissing him as a uniquely sick individual ignores the pattern.

Roof also lives in a nation with a unique and problematic relationship with guns. Reflecting on the murders in Charleston, President Obama pointed out, “At some point, we as a country, will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.” Rates of private gun ownership are higher in the US than anywhere else in the world – it’s twice as high as in Yemen, a conflict-torn nation in the throes of a domestic insurgency.

Our gun murder rate is off the charts in comparison to high-income nations – to find adequate comparisons, we need to look at countries like Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Parts of Latin America greatly outpace the US in gun murders per capita, but some of our most dangerous cities for gun violence – New Orleans, Detroit – have as high a rate of gun violence as the world’s most dangerous countries.

Not only were Dylann Roof’s crimes part of a pattern of gun violence that’s near-unique to the US, they are part of a pattern of mass shootings. Mother Jones, tracking shootings by single killers in public places in which four or more people were killed, has identified more than 70 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Like most mass killers, Roof used a handgun, and like the vast majority of mass killers, he obtained his weapon legally.

We have a pattern of mass gun killings in the US, and we have a pattern of doing nothing about them. Two years after the massacre of elementary school students in Newtown, CT, The New York Times has tracked gun laws passed in the year after the Newtown shootings. 39 laws tightened gun restrictions; 70 loosened them. If the pattern continues, South Carolina – a state where you do not need a permit to own any sort of handgun – is more likely to legalize concealed carry without a permit than it is to significant restrictions on handgun ownership.

We didn’t have to wait long to hear the argument that more guns would have saved lives in Charleston. Fox and Friends managed to find a pastor who argued that religious leaders should preach while armed, so that they could defend the flock from attack. NRA Board member Charles Cotton found a way to blame Roof’s crimes on a man he slaughtered, Reverend Pinckney: “he [Rev. Pinckney] voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

American resistance to sane gun control laws is based on fantasy. We fantasize that guns will protect us from being victims of crime. They don’t. Gun owners are five times more likely to be shot than non-owners. Women who live in a house containing one or more guns are 3.4 times more likely to be killed than women who live in gun free homes. For each instance someone used a gun to kill in self defense, more than fifty people were killed with guns. We fantasize that we will stop crimes with guns, if only pastors or teachers or any brave civilian were allowed to carry concealed weapons. We’d do well to remember Joe Zamudio, a bystander at the rally where Representative Gabby Giffords was shot, who had a concealed weapon and narrowly missed killing not the gunman, but the man who wrestled the weapon away from the gunman.

These fantasies keep us from seeing the pattern. We live in a country where it’s far too easy for anyone – a disturbed individual, a criminal, or an ordinary untrained citizen – to obtain a gun, and where gun violence is an endemic public health problem. People in other countries think we’re crazy. As the Economist wrote today, “Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass killings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.” These fantasies are constructed and marketed by people who don’t want us to see the pattern, people who believe, sincerely or cynically, that America would be a safer place if everyone was armed.

Here’s why patterns matter. So long as we treat each mass shooting, each black death as an isolated tragedy, there’s nothing we can do. We’re the victim of the law of large numbers, the reality that in any large group of people, there are those that will harm others, abuse positions of power, do crazy and horrific things. Every news report that focuses on Roof’s mental state, that tries to unpack the biography that led him to his crimes is a distraction from these patterns. There’s nothing we can do to bring back the lives of the nine people Roof killed. But there’s work we can do to make sure black lives matter. There’s work we can do to help Americans see our neighbors as people, not targets.

If it’s hard to see patterns, it’s really hard to see how they intersect. Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to explain how forms of oppression reinforce and compound each other, that understanding the challenges black women face involves considering not just racism and sexism, but the intersections of the two. The killings in Charleston are the product of intersectionality as well, of a society where racial hatred makes it possible for a young man to want to kill black people and where the ready available of weapons makes it possible for him to kill a lot of black people. America’s obsession with guns is a big part of what makes this nation so dangerous for black people. America’s endemic racism is a big part of what makes American buy, own and lobby for guns, to protect ourselves from an “other” that we fear.

Jon Stewart did a wise thing in reacting to the shootings in Charleston – he admitted that there were simply no jokes that could be made. But he also articulated a sense of hopelessness that’s easy to feel, and hard to fight: “I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack shit.”

We’ve got to do better than that.

Help people see these patterns. When you talk about Dylann Roof, don’t talk about a sick. sad young man. Talk about the lines that link Charleston to Ferguson and Charleston to Newtown. Rail at the confederate flag flying over South Carolina, but rail at the less obvious ways we disrespect black lives – over-incarceration, underinvestment in education, the disappearance of economic mobility and the rise of economic inequality – that prevent black people in America from having a fair chance. Understand that fighting gun violence is a way to fight racism. Help build a narrative to understand and combat gun violence in America the way that #blacklivesmatter helps us work for a Black Spring.

Mourn, but act. Support the people working at the intersection of these patterns, as the Brady Center is in campaigning against “bad apple” gun dealers, the 5% of dealers responsible for selling guns used in 90% of crimes. Look for new patterns, like the emergence of anti-government “Patriot” groups, heavily armed and often racially motivated, whose actions get far less media attention than protests against police violence.

We can’t bring back the nine people Dylann Roof killed. But we can and we must work to fight the patterns that make these killings possible.

June 15, 2015

Listening Machines, and the whether, when and how of new technologies

Filed under: ideas — Ethan @ 6:46 pm

One of my great pleasures in life is attending conferences on fields I’m intrigued by, but know nothing about. (A second pleasure is writing about these events.) So when my friend Kate Crawford invited me to a daylong “Listening Machine Summit” this past Friday, I could hardly refuse.

What’s a listening machine? The example of everyone’s lips was Hello Barbie, a version of the impossibly proportioned doll that will listen to your child speak and respond in kind:

…a Mattel representative introduced the newest version of Barbie by saying: “Welcome to New York, Barbie.”

The doll, named Hello Barbie, responded: “I love New York! Don’t you? Tell me, what’s your favorite part about the city? The food, fashion or the sights?”

Barbie accomplishes this magic by recording your child’s question, uploading it to a speech recognition server, identifying a recognizable keyword (“New York”) and offering an appropriate synthesized response. The company behind Barbie’s newfound voice, ToyTalk, uses your child’s utterance to help tune their speech recognition, likely storing the voice file for future use.

And that’s the trick with listening systems. If you can imagine reasons why you might not want Mattel maintaining a record of things your child says while talking to his or her doll, you should be able to imagine the possible harms that could come from use, abuse or interrogation of other listening systems. (“Siri, this is the police. Give us the last hundred searches Mr. Zuckerman asked you to conduct on Google. Has he ever searched for bomb making instructions?”)

As one of the speakers put it (we’re under Chatham House rules, so I can’t tell you who ), listening machines trigger all three aspects of the surveillance holy trinity: they’re pervasive, starting to appear in all aspects of our lives; they’re persistent, capable of keeping records of what we’ve said indefinitely, and they process the data they collect, seeking to understand what people are saying and acting on what they’re able to understand. To reduce the creepy nature of their surveillant behavior, listening systems are often embedded in devices designed to be charming, cute and delightful: toys, robots and smooth-voiced personal assistants.

Proponents of listening systems see them as a major way technology integrates itself more deeply into our lives, making it routine for computers to become our helpers, playmates and confidants. A video of a robot designed to be a shared household companion sparked a great deal of debate, both about whether we would want to interact with a robot in the ways proposed by the product’s designers, and how a sufficiently powerful companion robot should behave. If a robot observes spousal abuse, should it call the police? If the robot is designed to be friend and confidant to everyone in the house, but was paid for by the mother, should we expect it to rat out one of the kids for smoking marijuana? (Underlying these questions is the assumption that the robot will inevitably be smart enough to understand and interpret complex phenomena. One of our best speakers made the case that robots are very far from having this level of understanding, but that well-designed robots were systems designed to deceive us into believing that they had these deeper levels of understanding.)

Despite the helpful provocations offered by real and proposed consumer products, the questions I found most interesting focused on being unwittingly and unwillingly surveilled by listening machines. What happens when systems like ShotSpotter, currently designed to identify shots fired in a city, begins dispatching police to other events, like a rowdy pool party (just to pick a timely example)? Workers in call centers already have their interactions recorded for review by their supervisors – what happens when Uber drivers and other members of the 1099 economy are required to record their interactions with customers for possible review? (A friend points out that many already do as a way of defending themselves from possible firing in light of bad reviews.) It’s one thing to choose to invite listening machines into your life, confiding in Siri or a cuddly robot companion, and something entirely different to be listened to by machines installed by your employer or by local law enforcement.

A representative of one of the US’s consumer regulatory agencies gave an excellent talk in which she outlined some of the existing laws and principles that could potentially be used to regulate listening machines in the future. While the US does not have comprehensive privacy legislation in the way many European nations do, there are sector-specific laws that can protect against abusive listening machines: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, HIPA and others. She noted that electronic surveillance systems had been the subject of two regulatory actions in the US, where FTC protections against “unfair and deceptive acts in commerce” led to action against the Aaron’s rent to own chain, which installed privacy-violating software in the laptops they rented out, capturing images of anyone in front of the camera. The FTC argued that this was a real and concrete harm to consumers with no offsetting benefits, and “>Aaron’s settled, disabling the software.

I found the idea that existing regulations and longstanding ideas of fairness could provide a framework for regulating listening machines fascinating, but I’m not sure I buy it. Outside of the enforcement context, I wonder whether these ideas provide a robust enough framework for thinking about future regulation of listening systems, because I’m not sure anyone understands the implications of these systems well enough to anticipate possible futures for them. A day thinking about eavesdropping dolls and personal assistants that can turn state’s evidence left me confident only that I don’t think anyone has thought enough about the implications of these systems to posit possible, desirable futures for their use.


Dr. Doolittle meets the Pushmi-Pullyu

Over the past thirty or more years, we’ve seen a particular Pushmi-Pullyu pattern of technology regulation. Companies invent new technologies and bring them to market. Consumers occasionally react, and if sufficient numbers react loudly enough, government regulators investigate and mandate changes. There’s a sense that this is the correct process, that more aggressive regulation would crush innovation before inventors could show us the benefits of their new ideas.

But this is a model in which regulation is a very modest counterweight to market forces. So long as a product is on the market, it’s engaged in persuading people that a new type of behavior is the new normal. When Apple brough Siri to market, it engaged in a multi-front campaign to persuade people that they should regularly speak to a computer to make appointments, order dinner, check traffic conditions and seek advice. Apple was able to lower barriers to adoption by making the product a pre-installed part of their very popular phone, making it available for free, and heavily advertising the new functionality. Even the wave of jokes about the limits to Siri’s speech recognition capabilities and feature films that seek to complicate our relationships with digital entities serve the purpose of calcifying “the new normal” – people talk to their phones and share sensitive information with them, and that’s just the way things are now.

Perhaps at some point, we’ll see a lawsuit challenging Apple’s use of Siri data. Perhaps Apple will offer different financing packages for a future iCar with lending rates determined by a personality profile generated, in part, by a purchaser’s interactions with Siri. Empowered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, regulators might get involved and demand that credit decisions be made only using transparently disclosed, challengeable fiscal data, not correlations between one’s taste in takeout food and creditworthiness. Fine. But in the ensuing years, Apple has already won – we’re talking to our phones, sharing our lives, generating terabytes of data in the process.

The problem with this approach to regulation is that we rarely, if ever, have a conversation about the technological world we’d like to have. Do we want a world in which we confide in our phones? And how should companies be forced to handle the data generated by these new interactions? (We’ve got smart policy people in the room, and they’ve got suggestions, including “robot privilege” which behaves like attorney/client privilege, prohibitions against letting law enforcement lure robots into making you testify, in-line “visceral” notice of privacy risks in these systems, banning price discrimination based on privacy protected data, and reform of the “third party directive”.)

These questions, a friend points out, aren’t regulatory questions, but policy ones. The challenge is figuring out how, in our current, barely functional political landscape, we decide what technologies should trigger pre-emptive conversations about whether, when and how those products should come to market. If my example of Siri affecting your credit score seems either fanciful or trivial, consider the NSA’s expansive data collection programs as revealed by Edward Snowden. Again, we’re seeing pushmi-pullyu regulation in which branches of the intelligence community got out way ahead of popular opinion and congressional oversight, and is only now being modestly pulled back.

There’s encouraging news from the world of synthetic biology, where a powerful new technology for gene manipulation called CRISPR is promising to revolutionize the field. CRISPR makes it vastly easier to cut the DNA within an organism, which allows biologists to remove genes they don’t want and add genes they do. (Turns out that the cutting is the hard part – DNA’s self-repair mechanisms mean you can introduce sequences you’d like incorporated within DNA and the cell’s DNA-patching systems will include your sequence as a patch.)

By itself, CRISPR is provoking lots of thought about what sorts of genetic manipulation are appropriate and desirable. But a further idea – the gene drive – is leading to impassioned debate within the scientific world. It’s possible to make CRISPR inheritable, which means that not only can you change the genome in an organism, but you can make it virtually certain that its offspring will inherit the genomic change. (Inherited changes generally propagate slowly through a population, as only half the offspring inherit the change. But if you make a change on one half the chromosome and put CRISPR on the other half, the offspring either inherits the changed gene, or CRISPR, which will then make the change.) The upshot is that it could well be possible to engineer a species of mosquitoes that couldn’t pass on malaria, or that simply couldn’t reproduce, ending the species as a whole.

Who gets to make these decisions? The good news is that there’s both a precedent of executive authority to ban certain lines of research, and a robust tradition of debate within the scientific community that seeks to influence this policymaking. Smart people are making cases for and against gene drive, and I’ve had the pleasure of talking to scientists who are researching gene drive, trying to make it possible, who are genuinely thrilled to be having public conversations about whether, when and how the technology should come into play.

We need a better culture of policymaking in the IT world, a better tradition of talking through the whether, when and hows of technologies like listening machines. I’m grateful to Microsoft Research and the New York Times for hosting this conversation and hope it might be a first step towards more conversations that aren’t about what’s possible, but what’s desirable.


Note – I edited my blog post at 5:57PM to change the wording in two paragraphs, based on corrections from a speaker at the event.

June 11, 2015

Mystery Show is the new Serial. Kinda. (But it’s an awesome moment for radio.)

Filed under: Media — Ethan @ 4:45 pm

Hey guys, Mystery Show is the new Serial!

Well, sorta. Not quite. Actually, it’s almost the antidote to Serial. But in a way that acknowledges the awesomeness of both shows.

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I have a long commute, a serious walking habit, and an apparently endless need for distraction. The list varies, but heavy rotation currently includes Reply All, Love and Radio, StartUp, Song Exploder, the memory palace, Welcome to Night Vale, Theory of Everything, 99% Percent Invisible, The Moth, On the Media, This American Life, and Story Collider. All of which ended up taking a back seat when new episodes of Serial came out.

You remember Serial, right? The podcast by Sarah Koenig that spun out of This American Life, the one so popular that Slate ran its own podcast commenting on each episode? Serial brought podcasts to a much wider audience (specifically, the NPR listening audience) and helped demonstrate that podcasts didn’t need to resemble existing radio shows, but could tell very different types of stories.

I was thoroughly addicted to Serial until it became clear that we weren’t going to get the satisfying resolution we were looking forward to, a convincing explanation of Hae Min Lee’s final hours, giving us clarity as to whether Adnan Syed was a victim of terrible injustice, or whether he was a phenomenal liar. I still think the show was a brilliant example of storytelling, and I think Koenig took an amazing risk in telling a story without knowing how it ended. But I ended up feeling both disappointed and vaguely creeped out as it became clear that Koenig’s reporting wasn’t going to clear Syed of a crime. Instead, we were exhuming the worst days of people’s lives as a form of entertainment and contemplation, not righting a wrong or solving a mystery.

And despite the feeling that we were intruding where we shouldn’t, I listened to the end, fascinated. And I think the meta-lesson Serial told about the perils of investigative reporting, of digging deep and not being able to unearth Truth are invaluable. But Serial left me feeling implicated in a project I’m not entirely comfortable with.

So now here’s Starlee Kine, who like Koenig has featured prominently on This American Life (Koenig was a staff producer for TAL, and Serial is an official TAL spin-off, while Kine was a frequent guest producer on the show, and Mystery Show is unaffiliated with TAL) with another podcast about mysteries. And that’s roughly where the similarities end.

The mysteries explored by Koenig in the first season of Serial were as important as they get, matters of life and death. Those explored by Kine on Mystery Show couldn’t be more trivial. The three episodes thus far have explored a video store that unexpectedly closed, a novel that might have been read by Britney Spears, and a lost belt buckle. With the stakes so laughably low, Kine sets up a fascinating storytelling problem: how does she get listeners to care about mysteries so banal that the parties to the mystery barely even care?

The answer is that Kine is an otherworldly interviewer, capable of drawing people down conversational paths they never expected to tread. After all, this is a woman who persuaded Phil Collins to help her write a love song about breaking up with her boyfriend. She’s got chops. In early episodes of Mystery Show, Starlee gets a bar owner talking about Fellini films and his fear of love, and turns an informational phonecall with a Ticketmaster customer service representative into a counseling session, helping him recover his self confidence. If I saw Kine at a cocktail party, I would run in the opposite direction, afraid that I’d immediately reveal my deepest hopes and fears, then hear them a week later in my headphones, over a bed of tastefully twee indie pop.

It’s the third episode of Mystery Show that’s got me hooked. It’s the story of a belt buckle, found in a ditch, inscribed to “Hans Jordi”, from “Bill Six”. And lest you worry that Kine will leave you hanging, by the end of the episode, I promise that you’ll know who those people are and why a simple story of lost and found stopped me in my tracks with its emotional weight.

This is a remarkable moment for “radio”, a term that’s increasingly archaic as much of the best stuff is never broadcast over the airwaves. But that’s the term the producers at Gimlet, Radiotopia and other purveyors of fine podcasts use, despite the fact that 10 of the 12 shows I’m following exist only in the digital realm. Podcasting appears to have found a business model, and with phones increasingly integrated with other devices, like cars and home audio systems, there’s a large and growing audience for time-shiftable audio content. What’s great is that despite the fact that audiences are large and growing, the field seems to be getting weirder and more adventurous, rather than safer and more dull.

Take The Truth, part of the Radiotopia family of storytelling podcasts. Jonathan Mitchell makes “audio movies”, contemporary radio dramas that use all the affordances of audio, not just the human voice, to tell powerful and profound stories. It’s not my everyday listening because I find so many of the stories so affecting that they’re often disorienting. For example, “Can You Help Me Find My Mom?” is probably the best thing I’ve heard this year, but so powerful that I’m reluctant to play it for some of my favorite people… and I can’t even craft a proper trigger warning without giving away the best part of the story.

When Chris Anderson and other prophets of the long tail predicted the future of cultural products online, there was a lot of talk about finding markets for the previously obscure. What wasn’t as obvious, to me at least, was the ways that changing the distribution and revenue equation for content could spark a renaissance in creativity. Much of what I’m listening to on podcasts is much, much better than what I routinely hear on NPR or commercial radio. It’s as well produced (sometimes ludicrously better produced, in the case of Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder), more intellectually challenging and at least as likely to spark conversation around the proverbial watercooler (or, these days, on Twitter.)

Turns out that there was a massive backlog of talented radio producers who couldn’t get their content on the air. Turns out that some producers who were often on the national stage, like Koenig and Kine, had ideas big enough to be successful shows. Turns out that this is a very exciting moment for those of us with time to listen and ears to hear.

May 28, 2015

The death of Tidbit and why it matters

Filed under: Media Lab — Ethan @ 2:57 pm

The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs announced today that they had settled their complaint with the developers of “Tidbit”, a prototype piece of software developed by four MIT undergraduates as part of a hackathon. It’s about time. New Jersey made a boneheaded decisions to subpoena these students, and got what they deserved after wasting tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money: nothing.

Oh, the release from the state makes it sound like they’ve made a major step forward in consumer protection. But it’s worth unpacking what the Tidbit developers did, what they didn’t do, why New Jersey pursued the case, and why this matters, even though the case has now been settled.

What was Tidbit?

Tidbit was a prototype system and a thought experiment, designed to challenge the dominant model of supporting content providers online: targeted advertising. Instead of trying to capture your attention with an ad, with resulting revenue supporting the content provider, Tidbit captured spare cycles of your CPU and used them to mine bitcoins. While reading a story, your CPU would become part of the global pool of computers running SHA256 double round hash verification processes to verify and maintain the global transaction ledger, the blockchain, that makes bitcoin a non-duplicative currency. Close the window and you’d stop mining.

Would it have worked? Maybe not – mining bitcoins in the browser isn’t a very efficient process. (If you want to try it, read this article from Quartz, which includes a browser-based ap that allows you to mine. In the unlikely event that you mined a bitcoin, I suspect Quartz would own it through much the process Jeremy Rubin and his colleagues were proposing.) But it’s a very cool challenge to existing, problematic models that monetize your attention. In his blog post explaining the aftermath of the NJ subpoena, Jeremy explains that there were VCs interested in the idea and willing to fund further developments. Or perhaps Tidbit would have turned into a payment system using dedicated hardware, he speculates. We can’t know because the New Jersey subpoena led the students to stop all work on the project.

What Tidbit wasn’t was a system that hijacked people’s computers and forced them to mine bitcoins. The code Jeremy and colleagues released was a proof of concept which was not capable of actually mining bitcoins. New Jersey alleges that the Tidbit code was found running on three websites registered in New Jersey – Jeremy and his counsel note that the Tidbit code could not actually mine bitcoins, and was available online briefly. It’s possible to imagine scenarios where Tidbit’s code was downloaded and modified to hijack people’s computers, but it’s hard to see how that modified code could be blamed on Jeremy and his team.

So why did New Jersey take action against a student project?

New Jersey’s acting attorney general, insisting that his intention was not to stifle innovation, offered this reason for issuing the subpoena: “No website should tap into a person’s computer processing power without clearly notifying the person and giving them the chance to opt out – for example, by staying away from that website.”

It’s not hard to imagine scenarios in which unethical website operators run Tidbit-like scripts to hijack unsuspecting browsers into giving up CPU cycles. You don’t have to imagine – it happened. New Jersey prosecuted E-Sports Entertainment, which used malicious code to hijack 14,00 computers and use them to mine bitcoins. The company settled with the state for $1 million dollars. It’s possible that New Jersey thought Tidbit was heading down the same path and saw a chance to carry out a similar prosecution.

But there’s no evidence that the Tidbit team intended to hijack anyone’s system. In fact, the acting director of New Jersey’s consumer affairs director states clearly, in his press release about the settlement, “We do not believe Tidbit was created for the purpose of invading privacy.” (Indeed, New Jersey’s concerns seem to be about user autonomy.) Still, New Jersey subpoenaed the Tidbit team, and suggested that Rubin and others might face charges under the state’s Computer Related Offenses Act and Consumer Fraud Act, evidently because they believed “This potentially invasive software raised significant questions about user privacy and the ability to gain access to and potentially damage privately owned computers without the owners’ knowledge and consent.” Further, the press release states, “A New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs investigation has found that, despite initial assertions by Tidbit’s developer, the software was used to gain access to computers owned by persons in New Jersey, without the computer owners’ knowledge or consent.” Rubin, in his post about the settlement, insists that a five minute inspection of his code by a competent investigator, would have determined that his code could not have been used in this way.

What happened once the subpoena was issued?

Faced with the possibility of serious fraud charges, Rubin and his team stopped working on the project and sought support from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where Hanni Fakhoury led Tidbit’s defense. Fakhoury’s argument centered on the idea that the New Jersey AG was engaged in jurisdictional overreach, seeking information on a Massachusetts-based project based on the assertion that the tool had been downloaded and (mis)used in New Jersey. MIT faculty, graduate students and administration wrote to the New Jersey Attorney General raising concerns about the ways the New Jersey subpoena could harm innovation on university campuses around the country.

Judge Gary Furnari of the Essex County Superior Court declined the EFF’s motion to quash the subpoena, but expressed strong reservations and “serious concerns” that the state’s actions might discourage the development of new technologies. Judge Furnari expressed his opinion that
it appeared “the Tidbit program and other similar creative endeavors serve a useful and legitimate purpose” and had no inherent malicious intent.

Perhaps the judge’s caution led New Jersey to settle with Rubin and his colleagues. Despite the triumphal language of the New Jersey AG’s press release, Rubin and his team admitted no wrongdoing, paid no fine, and released a minimum of information (a total of two domain names). Basically, the settlement binds the students to obey the law, at the risk of a significant financial penalty… the situation they, and all other citizens, faced before New Jersey issued this subpoena.

Why does this matter?

First, it matters because Rubin and his colleagues went through a terrible experience. Once the team faced possible legal action, investors backed away from the project and the students were no longer willing to work on the project, fearing further complications. In addition to working through MIT’s notoriously demanding undergraduate curriculum, the students spent their “free time” working with the EFF and other lawyers, worried that their work on Tidbit would lead to fines and fraud charges. Their reward for thinking outside the box was a year-long trip through a Kafka-esque bureaucratic morass.

Second, it matters because New Jersey’s actions have likely chilled development along the lines Tidbit was exploring. Whether or not browser-based bitcoin mining was a viable replacement for advertising-supported content, New Jersey sent a signal that they might lash out at any technology that attempted to enlist a user’s machine in mining, even if the user consented to the exchange. Acting Attorney General Hoffman’s insistence that New Jersey is not trying to hobble innovation cannot be taken seriously, as the direct result of the state’s overreach was the death of the Tidbit project and the clear sign to other innovators that this line of thought was a dangerous one to follow.

Third, the Tidbit case matters because it revealed a situation most universities are ill-prepared to handle: the moment when an innovative project puts students into serious legal trouble. Much of our federal and state legislation around computer crime is so badly written and vague that any number of student projects could conceivably lead to criminal charges. My students routinely scrape websites to collect analyzable data sets – as we learned at tragic cost in the case of Aaron Swartz, an overzealous prosecutor can argue that this sort of data collection is theft on a massive scale.

What should universities do?

What should a university do if a project like Tidbit were created as a class project? (Tidbit was created at a non-MIT hackathon by MIT students.) What are the responsibilities of faculty and administrators if students get into legal trouble in the course of their educational work? Rubin sought the EFF’s support with guidance from the MIT general counsel, as the counsel represents the Institute, not students or faculty at the university. Colleagues and I were concerned that MIT had no direct way to support students in situations like Jeremy’s and brought our concerns to President Reif. He responded quickly and the Institute is working towards creating a new set of legal resources for students around the freedom to innovate. (I’ve been involved with the process, and can report that there’s been a great deal of progress, which I hope will be announced soon.)

Other universities need to start building strategies to defend their students… and soon. The combination of badly written computer crime laws and the spread of entrepreneurial culture to campuses suggests that more students will put forward ideas that lead towards legal challenges. Whether these are ideas designed to be explored solely within the classroom, or in the entrepreneurial/VC/startup space, I think it’s important for academic advisors to think about how we can protect and advise students on the legal challenges that may arise. As someone who teaches and advises students, I don’t want to encourage students to climb high without a legal safety net.

Furthermore, universities need to take the lead in protecting the freedom to innovate and combatting overbroad laws like the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and New Jersey’s Computer Related Offenses Act. As we encourage students to invent and create, we have a responsibility to ensure that they are operating in a legal environment that encourages creativity rather than shutting down promising lines of research before their impact is clear. We’re convening a discussion at MIT on this topic on October 10th and 11th, 2015. If you want to take part, please let me know via email or via the comment section of the blog.


For further reading on the Tidbit case, please see:

May 5, 2015

Re:publica Keynote: The System is Broken – That’s the Good News

Filed under: ideas — Ethan @ 10:23 am

I’m at the wonderful Re:publica conference for a single day, racing home to teach tomorrow… and thus far I’ve given a keynote and done over 12 interviews, so I haven’t gotten the whole feel of the conference yet. Still, it’s one of the most wonderful and high energy venues I’ve ever spoken at, and I’m having a great time.

My talk this morning focused on civics in the age of mistrust. The organizers (wisely?) put a different title on it, but the audience clearly got the core idea: we’re at a moment in time where mistrust in institutions is at a very high level, and any approaches to revitalizing public life or fixing civics needs to start from understanding mistrust and harnessing it productive.

At some point soon, I hope to annotate my speakers notes, likely on FOLD. But here are the rough ones now, for those who missed the talk, or for those who are interested and want to know what I meant to say.


I want to begin my talk by showing you a christmas gift I received in 2012 from my friend, journalist Quinn Norton.

quinnsbrick

I received the postcard a few weeks after she published an essay that was both brilliant and troubling. It was titled “Don’t Vote” and it was, in part, an apology to her great-grandmother, who had marched in the streets to demand women’s right to vote, the right Quinn was now urging us to stop exercising. She writes “I have decided that I am on strike as a voter, until voting means something.”

Quinn is opting out of voting not out of ignorance, but out of knowledge and frustration: with gerrymandering, with legalized corruption, and with her growing sense of impotence at changing these problems through the ballot box. She closes the essay by urging us to “let your body be your ballot” – to make change in how you act in the world, what you stand for, for how the organizations you work with or companies you work for treat people.

Her postcard is a much simpler statement: it’s an elegant essay reduced to a cartoon. The picture is of a brick with a logo that’s unmistakeable to any American voter – it’s the sticker you receive when you vote. It’s like the ash they smear on your forehead on ash wednesday – visible, public evidence that you’ve done your civic duty. The postcard is a cartoon, not a concrete suggestion: it’s not an encouragement to riot so much as it is a reminder that participating in a system that’s badly broken is an endorsement of it

Quinn wrote her essay after spending much of a year reporting on Occupy, while embedded within the movement, visiting 14 of the camps, and wrote a moving eulogy for Occupy in Wired. In her reporting, she is clear that she was in, but not part of, Occupy, covering it as press and treating it with the seriousness that it deserved, as clear evidence of people dissatisfied with how systems are working and looking for ways to change them, or replace them with something different.

I pinned Quinn’s brick above my desk so that I would look at it every day.
represented a tension between two sorts of civic engagement that I have been losing faith in: electoral, representative democracy and public protest.

I’m certainly not the only one losing faith in democracy’s ability to make change. We are seeing falling voting rates in the United States, with 2014 registering the lowest turnout in history for a US congressional election.

And the US is not alone. 2014 also saw the lowest turnout for an EU parliamentary election, and while EP elections always have lower turnout than national elections in Europe, both have been trending down in Europe since 1979, much as they have been in the US.

Lots of reasons have been offered for why participation in voting is decreasing. Many of these explanations blame the ignorance or laziness of voters: if only we weren’t so distracted by our phones and the internet, if only we weren’t so lazy, we’d take part in our critical civic duty. But this argument misses the critical fact that while participation in elections is shrinking, we’re experiencing a golden age of protest. And say what you will about people who take to the streets to protest their government, they may be many things, but they’re not lazy.

Protests are an essential part of democracy. They can be deeply effective as a way of demanding immediate change from those who are in power. Last week, my country watched people come out into the streets in Baltimore, NYC, Boston to protest death of Freddie Gray, a young man fatally injured after he was arrested by local police. After a week of protests, six police officers are now facing murder and manslaughter charges. Certainly doesn’t always work, but it can be powerful in forcing institutions to do the right thing

Protest gets more complicated when you’re not protesting a single incident and demanding a response, but protesting against a larger system that’s broken.

2011 was a pivotal year for protest with the arab spring protests, a wave of popular protests legitimately seeking to change oppressive governments. They’ve had a mixed outcome, as governments have gotten better at fending them off. The current tally gives us one clear success (Tunisia), three civil wars (Syria, Libya, Yemen), violent repression (Bahrain, Sudan), and the deeply complicated case of Egypt, where a successful revolution led to election of Islamist government, popular protests led to a military coup.

We’ve learned that protests are good at counterpower, at ousting a surprised and unaware government, but that protests have a much harder time building governments than toppling them. Even though it’s philosophically more easy to be excited about protests leading to revolution in monarchies than in democracies, by the middle of 2011, democratic movements in Europe, North and South America had picked up the spirit of the Arab Spring and turned it into an anti-politics movement – protesting against repressive and disempowering systems, not against singular injustices.

In Spain, the Indignados movement brought people into the streets, starting on May 15, 2011. Activists protested unemployment brought on by austerity policies, lack of opportunities for young people, and a general sense that Spain was being run on behalf of a wealthy elite at the expense of ordinary citizens. While the movements in the streets ended within a year, some supporters of the movement have build the political party Podemos, which is the second largest in Spain by number of members, but finished 4th in recent elections with only 8% of the vote.

The Occupy movement, began in NYC on September 17, 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. The movement focused on inequality, financial corruption, housing and college debt burdens, and had some measurable successes on local scales, fighting eviction and buying back outstanding debt. It has brought discussions of inequality into the political dialog in the US, and has helped establish a template for protest globally, with movements like Occupy Central in Hong Kong adopting tactics and rhetoric… but even its most ardent supporters will concede that the movement has not led to major changes to the US political or economic system.

These protest movements throughout Europe, North and South America have demonstrated huge energy and enormous popular support. But it’s hard to point to tangible, systemic changes that parallel the scale of mobilizations that have taken place. This may point to a paradox of these broad, anti-political protests in democracies. Unless you’re going to overthrow a democratically elected government, the likely outcome of a protest is that you’re going to get invited into government to try to fix things. And as activists throughout history have figured out, fixing the problems of inequality, corruption and lack of opportunity is a lot harder than motivating people to protest against them.

I want to offer two other reasons to be skeptical of systemic change through protests.

Zeynep Tufekci is a brilliant scholar of social change and of protest. She conducted fieldwork focused on the Gezi Park protests, which brought at least 3.5 million Turks into the streets of 90 Turkish cities from May to August of 2013. Zeynep reports that the rallies featured an incredibly diverse group of protesters – from ultranationalists to gay and lesbian rights activists – and that they fell apart very quickly. While they were dramatic, they were also incredibly ineffective. The one shared objective of the movement – ousting Erdoğan – failed utterly, as Erdoğan was elected president in 2014 without need for a run-off.

Why? Zeynep argues that it’s much, much easier to bring people out to protest than in years before – you can organize on Facebook, report on Twitter, livestream on UStream and now on Periscope. Combine all these channels for mobilization with a message behind the protests that was maximally inclusive – quoting a poem by Rumi, the movement’s motto was “Sen de gel” – You come, too! But in years past, took months of organizing behind the scenes to bring 50,000 people in the streets. Bringing 50,000 meant that you’d held meetings with different groups and made deals and compromises to find a common agenda. Now you can bring out 50,000 people by announcing what you’re against and inviting people to join you. But when the authorities crack down, or when it comes to turn from mobilization to making demands and setting an agenda, movements split and dissipate much more easily – and political leaders know this, and are less threatened by a million in the streets today than they were by 50k a decade ago. What we may be building in the wake of the Arab Spring and the Occupy protests, Zeynep warns, is a form of protest that can mobilize but can’t set an agenda or build a movement.

If that sounds like bad news, here’s some worse news from another scholar, Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, in Sofia, Bulgaria.
He worries that even if protests like the Indignados or Occupy succeed in ousting a government, much of what protesters are asking for is not possible. “Voters can change governments, yet it is nearly impossible for them to change economic policies.” When Indignados grows into Podemos, Krastev predicts that it’s going to be very hard for them to truly reverse policies on austerity – global financial markets are unlikely to let them do so, punish them by making it impossibly expensive to borrow

Krastev offers the example of how Italy finally got rid of Silvio Berlusconi – wasn’t through popular protest, but through the bond market – the bond market priced italian debt at 6.5%, and Berlusconi resigned, leaving Mario Monti to put austerity measures in place. You may have been glad to see Berlusconi go, but don’t mistake this as a popular revolt that kicked him out – it was a revolt by global lenders, and basically set the tone for what the market would allow an Italian leader to do. As Krastev puts it, “Politics has been reduced to the art of adjusting to the imperatives of the market” – we’ve got an interesting test of whether this theory is right with Syriza, a left-wing party rooted in anti-austerity protests now in power, and facing possible default and exit from the Eurozone this month. What Krastev is saying is really chilling – we can oust bad people through protest and elect the right people and put them in power, we can protest to pressure our leaders to do the right things, and they may not be powerful enough to give us the changes we really want.

If you’re feeling depressed at this point in the talk, that’s a good thing – it means you’re listening. But it also means that you may be looking for a new way forward, a third path between elections and protest. And for a lot of people – particularly for people like those in this room – we’ve hoped the way forward is through technology, through the mobile phone and the internet and the ways they might make engaging with society more fair, more participatory, make governments more responsive and closer to the will of the people.

I’m part of the first generation to use and build the world wide web – I dropped out of graduate school in 1994 to help found one of the world’s first social media companies. Like a lot of people who were working on the internet in the mid-1990s, I wasn’t there for the money, because frankly, no one was making money online at that point. I was there because people believed that the internet was going to change the world.

We believed that the internet was going to oust powerful companies that dominated markets with monopolies and make it impossible for other monopolies to take their place, because it was so easy to create new businesses online that no one would ever control the whole market for something as essential as search or online messaging.

We believed that the internet routes around censorship and that publishing online would allow people to speak freely, that censoring the internet was like nailing gelatin to the wall, as President Clinton once said, and that when countries like China encountered the internet, their governments would fall as people learned how they were controlled and manipulated.

We believed that the internet would let people interact with each other in new and honest ways, because no one knew who we were online. In a space where no one knew whether you were male or female, black or white, European or African, we would overcome the prejudices of the offline world and have conversations that were fully inclusive of all perspectives.

We believed that governments didn’t care what happened online, that they weren’t paying attention to it, and that if they were, the internet was far too vast to monitor all of it, and that even if they did, the companies we were using to communicate would protect our privacy, and that we could use unbreakable encryption to protect anything that truly needed to be secret.

In other words, we believed a lot of dumb stuff

It turns out that the internet doesn’t magically make the world a better place. We’re starting to wake up to that now – when the inventor of the World Wide Web launches a campaign to build “the web we want”, a web that’s very different from the one we’ve all built over the last twenty five years, it’s a pretty clear sign that this remarkable technology alone doesn’t transform the world in the ways we might hope

Of all the missed opportunities and wrong turns, the most disappointing may be the way the internet has failed to transform politics and government.

Some hoped that the internet would transform elections, making it easier for exciting new and unknown candidates to build a political base and take power. It works, sometimes – I had lunch yesterday with my favorite German politician, Malte Spitz of the Green Party, and it’s hard to imagine him getting elected without the internet. But it turns out that existing political parties have gotten very good at using the internet to raise money and disseminate propaganda, and to target advertising to persuade us how to vote for candidates who aren’t using the internet to solicit ideas and input.

We hoped that by demanding transparency, we would expose waste and corruption and make government more responsive and efficient. But it turns out that it’s a long path from releasing data sets to exposing systemic flaws in governance, and that it’s a task that requires not just coders, but journalists, artists, storytellers and activists. Even when we’re confronted with a trove of secrets, leaked diplomatic and intelligence documents, it takes enormous work to turn leaks into revelations and into actions. Transparency is a neccesary but not sufficient requirement for change.

We hoped that we as citizens might take on the work of actually crafting and shaping legislation, stepping back from the compromise that is representative democracy to participating directly in writing the laws that govern our societies. And while we’ve had precious few successes, it’s worth celebrating those victories we have, like the Marco Civil Do Internet in Brazil, written not only by professionals, but by a thousands citizens. Ronaldo Lemos and his colleagues at the Institute of Technology and Society in Rio are releasing a new platform, Plataforma Brasiliana, which will make it easier to collectively author legislation, but questions remain: yes, surpremely geeky Brasilians were willing to take time to author laws about the internet, but will anyone show up to write better tax policy?

Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, is one of the smartest people thinking about the internet and politics, and he’s recently published a brave and terrific book, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet). It’s brave because Micah thoroughly acknowledges that we haven’t gotten what we wanted from twenty years of bringing the internet to politics – indeed, in the US, our politics on a federal level are far worse than they were two decades ago. Fixing this is going to require us to build some tools that are very, very difficult to build. We need to solve the hardest problem in politics – how do you let people deliberate at scale, so that people can work together to build movements, to advocate for issues, to work together with elected officials to bring new solutions into the world. And he’s hopeful that people may be starting to build these tools, looking to people like Pia Mancini, the leader of Argentina’s Net Party, which is building Democracy OS, a set of tools that let citizens vote on policy proposals and work with legislators in the Net Party to promote new legislation.

I think Micah’s right that we need new tools. But I think the problem is even deeper than he imagines. When you ask Americans whether they trust their government to do the right thing most of the time, 24% answer yes. That’s down from 77% in 1964. For my entire lifetime, there’s been only one moment when a majority of the American people trusted the government to do the right thing… and that’s the moment George W. Bush was leading us into a disastrous war in Iraq.

But it’s not just confidence in government that’s dropping in the US – it’s trust in institutions of all kinds. From the 1960s to now, Americans tell you that they have less trust in newspapers, in churches, in non-profit organizations, in corporations, in banks, in the medical establishment. The only institutions where trust is increasing in my country are in the military and the police (though trust in the police is changing very quickly right now.)

I don’t have data at the same granularity for European nations as I do for the US, and I don’t want to make the mistake of treating European nations as a group, but I want to note that one survey sees several European nations has having a bigger problem with institutional mistrust than the US. Edelman’s Trust Barometer is built annually by asking 1000 citizens in each of 33 nations questions about whether they trust the government, NGOs, business and the media. They found that trust is at an all time low, and that Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Ireland all have a lower level of trust in institutions than we are experiencing in the US.

I don’t know what’s causing this increase in mistrust in the US and Europe – I don’t think it’s a single thing, but a combination of factors. Inequality is on the rise, globally, as Thomas Piketty has been telling us, and it’s easy for trust to decline when we feel like very few people are getting rich and we’re getting poorer – whether we blame government, corporations or banks, we lose trust in those institutions. Transparency, for all its benefits, means that we know more about the failings of institutions, about corruption or just sheer incompetence – it’s hard to learn about the causes of the 2008 financial crisis and come out with trust intact in the global financial system and those responsible for regulating it. The professionalization of politics has something to do with mistrust – once we start seeing politicians as a different class of people rather than as people like us, representing our interests, we don’t trust them to have our best interests at heart. I think mistrust can come from a sense of powerlessness – if governments and corporations and the media can’t rally together and make real progress on a critical issue like global warming, are they really as powerful as we think they are?

I fear that mistrust has something to do with globalization, and increasing diversity in our societies. Mistrust began to rise in the US during the reforms of the civil rights era that began ensuring equal rights for African-American citizens… and it’s possible that people started trusting governments and universities less when they were providing services not just to people like them, but to people of other ethnic or national backgrounds. This might be a way to think about euroskepticism and rising nationalism, as some people mistrust institutions that are redistributing wealth across the continent to people they identify as “other”

Political scientist and economists are generally pretty scared of mistrust. There’s a low level of mistrust that you need to have a liberal democracy function: the legislative, executive and judicial branches all look at each other with a low-level of mistrust so that they’re able to act as checks and balances to each other. But high levels of mistrust end up being corrosive. If people don’t trust banks, they don’t deposit money and eventually the bank can’t make loans. If people don’t trust governments, they don’t pay taxes and the government can do less and less. Institutional mistrust is corrosive in large doses – it leads to societies where we interact and trade only with people we trust deeply, like family or tribe.

Many of my friends around the world who are trying to revitalize interest in civics are working to increase the trust in institutions. Whether they’re encouraging people to monitor elections, releasing government data sets or helping cities find and fill potholes, they’re working to lower the cost of civic participation and give people a better chance to have a positive experience with the institutions they’re affected by. I think this work is important and admirable, but I also think it’s not nearly enough to tackle the problems we face today.

The radical idea I want to put forward is that we can’t reverse the rise of mistrust. Instead, we’ve got to figure out how to channel it productively. We have to start treating mistrust, our deep skepticism of the institutions in our lives and in our communities into a civic asset.

I’m seeing at least three different ways people are learning to harness mistrust. In our research at Center for Civic Media, we’re seeing a great deal of civic activism that’s unfolding outside of government institutions. People who have a high degree of frustration and mistrust, but who are finding ways to make change outside of winning elections and passing laws.

In his book Code, Lawrence Lessig observed that there are at least four ways we regulate behavior in our societies. We pass and enforce laws to prohibit certain behaviors; we use markets to make some behaviors expensive and others cheap; we use code and other architectures to make some behaviors technically possible or impossible; and we use norms to make some behaviors socially desirable and others taboo. When we lose faith in some kinds of institutions, say in governments’ abilities to pass and enforce good laws, we see people channeling their desire for change towards code, towards markets and towards norms.

I’d like to see European governments take action to prevent the massive violations of privacy we’ve seen committed by the NSA, but I have very little faith that the American government will make significant changes to prevent the sorts of violations revealed by Edward Snowden. And since I don’t have very much faith in my government to make these changes, it’s exciting to see projects putting their faith in code to make surveillance far more difficult by making use of strong encryption routine. Mailpile, Mailvelope, Tor, Whisper Systems, The Guardian Project – these are all people channeling their frustration and mistrust into making change through code.

I’d like an international binding carbon tax, but it’s hard to have faith that the UN and other international institutions will find balance between countries like China and India, that want to give billions of citizens a better lifestyle, fossil fuel producing nations, and nations like mine where a remarkable percentage of people aren’t convinced that human beings have a role in causing climate change. But even if I’m skeptical of governments and international institutions, I can look to the market, to companies like Tesla, trying to build beautiful and exciting electric cars, and to entrepreneurs around the world working to make solar power not only the most sensible way to produce power, but the cheapest.

Many of the hardest problems we face worldwide are problems of human rights, of protecting the rights of minorities from the actions of majorities. It’s critically important that we legislate to protect the rights of all people, but it’s not enough when we lose trust in the institutions designated to protect those rights, as is happening with Americans and our police forces today. Protecting the rights of minorities, whether it’s African Americans in my country, or the Roma in Europe, requires us to change norms, to address our basic beliefs. Around the world, we’re seeing people working to change norms by making media and building movements – the #blacklivesmatter movement has created a narrative that is forcing American law enforcement to face that they’ve got a real and persistent problem with racial bias and may be the first step towards making real change.

So one way to harness mistrust is to try new theories of change, to look for ways we can make change through markets, code and norms. Another way to harness this mistrust is to become engaged, careful critics of the institutions we mistrust.

Luigi Reggi was working for the Italian government, building a massive open data system so that people could see where EU funds were being spent in his community. He built a gorgeous open data portal, but found that not only did most people ignore the data he worked to present, but they also had a general sense that Italy wasn’t getting its money’s worth from these EU projects. So, working outside the government, he started something new. Monithon is a project that invites people to monitor an EU funded community project, to ask hard questions about whether the project ever got completed, whether it’s working well or at all, whether the project meets a community’s needs. Their biggest partner is Libera, a group that works to identify and resist the role of the mafia in Italy, and they’re mobilizing not just seasoned activists to monitor the effectiveness of EU projects around Italy, but high school students, who are now taking on evaluating these projects in their community as a hands-on lesson in citizenship.

I call this idea “monitorial citizenship”, and my students and I have been working on ways we can make it work at scale, inviting thousands of people to take on the task of monitoring their government not just as a one-time thing, but as essential and important a task of citizenship as voting. We’ve launched a project in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the mayor, Fernando Haddad, started his term by publishing 100 concrete promises – I’ll put this many streetlamps in this neighborhood, build this many new low-income housing units. He held elections for over 1000 citizen monitors whose job it is to see that the mayor lives up to these goals. And we’ve built a tool that lets citizens meet and decide what infrastructures they want to monitor in their communities – schools, playgrounds, sidewalks – and quickly build a survey that anyone with a smartphone can take. The data they collect – the photos, GPS locations, questions they answer – get posted to a shared map which can be shared with the government or with the press, or used by the community to self-organize and take on these challenges directly. We launched it three weeks ago in Sao Paulo and it’s popular enough that we’ve expanded projects into nine Brazilian cities, working with neighborhood and community groups.

Here’s the interesting thing about monitorial citizenship – sometimes you find that your mistrust of institutions is deserved, and you’ve got data to back up your suspicions. And sometimes you discover that the people who represent you are doing a better job than you’d imagined. It’s a model that can turn mistrust into advocacy for change or can lessen mistrust, and it works as well if you’re auditing the promises a company, a university or a government makes.

Some of the most exciting mistrust-fueled work I’m seeing looks at the idea that we could eliminate institutions altogether, building systems designed from the ground up to be decentralized. One of the first times I was in Berlin, more than ten years ago, I watched the folks from Freifunk build a mesh network that spanned the entire city, a network with no single point of failure and no single internet service provider in charge of it. This same impulse, to build systems that have no center, is what’s animating the interest in Bitcoin, a currency that doesn’t force us to trust central banks or currency policies, whose faith is in algorithms and distributed computation, not in the institutions that failed so badly in 2007.

These three approaches – building new institutions, becoming engaged critics of the institutions we’ve got, and looking for ways to build a post-institutional world – all have their flaws. We need the new decentralized systems we build to work as well as the institutions we are replacing, and when Mt. Gox disappears with our money, we’re reminded what a hard task this is. Monitorial citizenship can lead to more responsible institutions, but not to structural change. When we build new companies, codebases and movements, we’ve got to be sure these new institutions we’re creating stay closer to our values than those we mistrust now, and that they’re worthy of the trust of generations to come.

What these approaches have in common is this: instead of letting mistrust of the institutions we have leave us sidelined and ineffective, these approaches make us powerful. Because this is the middle path between the ballot box and the brick – it’s taking the dangerous and corrosive mistrust we now face and using it to build the institutions we deserve. This is the challenge of our generation, to build a better world than the one we inherited, one that’s fairer, more just, one that’s worthy of our trust.

Thank you.

April 22, 2015

Introducing FOLD, a new tool (and a new model?) for storytelling

Filed under: ideas,Media,Media Lab — Ethan @ 8:00 am

This morning, Center for Civic Media at MIT is releasing a new publishing platform, FOLD. Alexis Hope (a Masters student in my lab) and Kevin Hu began working on FOLD when they were students in my class News and Participatory Media. The class asks students to take on a reporting task each week, using existing tools or building new ones to solve a particular challenge. FOLD was Alexis and Kevin’s solution to a challenge I put forward around writing “explainers”, articles designed to provide content for stories that give incremental updates to a larger story (and to develop an appetite for those stories based on deeper understanding of their significance.)

Alexis and Kevin took seriously an idea I put forward in the class – the idea of explainers with an accordion structure, capable of shrinking or expanding to meet a reader’s need for background information. Alexis and Kevin built a story that could compress into a list of half a dozen sentences, inflate to a six-paragraph essay, or expand further into a rich multimedia essay with maps, images and videos appearing alongside the text. The class loved the idea, and Alexis decided to take on developing the platform as her Masters thesis. Kevin continued collaborating with her while pursuing a different project for his thesis, and Joe Goldbeck joined the team as a lead developer.

FOLD Authoring preview from Alexis Hope on Vimeo.

What’s emerged after a year’s work is fascinating and full-featured tool that allows for a novel method of storytelling. Stories on FOLD have a trunk and leaves. The trunk is text, with a novel form of hyperlinks – instead of linking out, they link to cards that appear to the right of the trunk and show images, videos, maps, data visualizations. They can also contain other text or links to the web. This has the effect of encouraging massive linking within stories – rather than a link potentially leading someone away from your webpage, it builds a stronger and richer story on the site.

While I’ve had the pleasure of advising Alexis on her thesis, FOLD is emphatically not my project – had you asked me a year ago, I would have told you that the last thing the world needs is a new content management system. But it’s been fascinating to try writing on FOLD and discovering the ways in which it’s a tool I’ve wanted and needed for years. I often write posts with hyperlinks every other sentence and trust my readers to check those links to understand the whole story… while realizing, of course, that very few do. FOLD brings those references to the front, capturing some of your attention in your peripheral visionas you read the core, trunk text. It’s incredibly easy to add media to a story in FOLD, and I find that when I write on the platform, I’m far more likely to include rich imagery and video, which makes my stories visualizable and understandable in a very different way than blog posts.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 1.11.58 PM

Alexis, Kevin and Joe are launching FOLD without a clear business model. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think we know what FOLD is good for yet, and I think that’s exciting. It’s possible that FOLD becomes an alternative to platforms like Medium, a place that encourages people to write beautifully on a beautiful platform. Perhaps it becomes something like WordPress, which hosts content for millions of people as well as maintaining an incredibly robust platform for independent publishers. (Not only are we releasing FOLD as a platform, but as an open source codebase.) Maybe it’s a tool for a radically new form of writing, perhaps stronger for literary than journalistic writing. Maybe some of the ideas of the platform are adopted into other systems and the influence of Alexis, Kevin and Joe’s thinking spreads that way. We don’t know, and that’s exciting.

For me, personally, I’ve loved the experience of seeing something cool and potentially influential coming out of our lab that wasn’t my idea and which I’ve helped guide, but emphatically haven’t built. This feels like a shift in how I’m trying to work in the world, and one I’m starting to get comfortable with.

Like many people of my generation, I’ve changed jobs several times in the past twenty years. Rather than switching firms, I’ve also shifted careers, moving from a dotcom startup to founding an international volunteering agency, to academic research (and co-founding another NGO) and finally, at age 39, to teaching at the graduate level at MIT.

When you change careers, some skills transfer, and some don’t. The shift from research to teaching was far sharper than I’d expected. There’s an unkind saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” I’d offer a rewrite: “Teaching well forces you to stop doing things, and focus on helping others do things.” I build less, and write less, than before I came to MIT. But I coach more, listen more, and I’m starting to love the experience of watching projects I help advise coming to life.


Glyph from Savannah Niles’s story about Cuba

One of the most beautiful stories I’ve seen produced with FOLD is “What You Need to Know About the Cuban Thaw”, written by Savannah Niles (also for my News and Participatory Media class.) The story is illustrated with animated, looping GIFs, produced with a tool Savannah has been building for her thesis called Glyph. I’m one of the readers on Savannah’s thesis, and while I’ve thought these images were very beautiful, I didn’t understand what they were for until I saw them in this story. They add a sense of motion and life to stories without interrupting the reading experience as videos end up doing. This experience of supporting work I don’t understand and then discovering why it’s important – with Glyph, with FOLD, with dozens of projects around the Media Lab and in my broader work on Civic Media – is one of the most exciting experiences of my career.

I hope you’ll give FOLD a try and help us figure out what it’s for. Let us know what works, what doesn’t, what you want and where you think the project should go.

April 14, 2015

The Civic Statuary Project

Filed under: CFCM,ideas,Media,Media Lab — Ethan @ 1:28 pm

The University of Cape Town removed a controversial statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes last week, after a month of student protests. Rhodes, who build the De Beers diamond empire, was an unrepentant imperialist whose wealth came from purchasing mineral rights from indigenous leaders and turning their territories into British protectorates. Under his rule in Cape Colony, many Africans lost the right to vote, a step which some scholars see as leading to enforced racial segregation in South Africa. While Rhodes made major donations to charitable causes – including the land the University of Cape Town sits on – his legacy is a challenging and difficult one for many South Africans.

A month ago, student activist Chumani Maxwele emptied a bucket of excrement on the Rhodes statue on the UCT campus. Subsequent protests against the statue including wrapping it in black plastic, smearing it with paint and covering it with graffiti. When the statue was pulled down, protesters beat it with belts and chains as it was hauled away.

beatingrhodes

Protests against the Rhodes statue received widespread support online, spawning the hashtag #RhodesMustFall, and inspiring other attacks on statues throughout South Africa. Statues of Queen Victoria and George V have been splashed with paint in Point Elizabeth and Durban. Statues of Afrikaner leaders and Boer War generals have been targeted as well. The attack that’s received the most international attention was a defacement of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Johannesburg, part of a protest that argued that the revered activist had worked with the British colonial government in South Africa to promote segregation.

Statues are one of the oldest forms of figurative art, dating back at least to 40,000 BCE with the Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel. In ancient Egypt, Pharaohs were memorialized with Sphinxes, massive limestone statues that dominated the landscape – we might think of these as the first civic sculptures, public art designed to honor religious and political leaders. Fifteen hundred years later, Greek sculptors- who had previously portrayed mythological figures – began honoring political leaders in bronze and marble.

Statues erected for civic reasons are also torn down for civic reasons. Seven days after the Declaration of Independence was signed, General Washington’s troops tore down a statue of King George III that had been erected in 1770 in Bowling Green, a small greenspace at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. The decision to tear the statue down was practical as well as symbolic – the two tons of lead in the statue were turned into 42,000 musket balls for the use of revolutionary soliders. Statues of leaders who’ve been ousted are often torn down, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes with the help of conquering armies.

US marines pull down a statue of saddam hussein on
Statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, Baghdad, torn down by the US marines.

It’s not only political leaders whose statues fall. In the wake of revelations about widespread sexual abuse by Penn Statue football coaches, a statue of Joe Paterno was removed by the university. The decision to remove the Paterno statue has been controversial, and a crowdfunding campaign has raised funds for a new Paterno statue in downtown State College, Pennsylvania, two miles from the university campus.

While statues are one of the oldest forms of civic artwork and technology (their only rival for age is the cave painting), they still gain attention when people erect them today… especially when they are erected without permission. On April 6th, a small group of artists placed a bronze-colored bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden atop a pedestal in Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn. By mid-afternoon, the bust had been covered with tarpaulins, and later that day, it was removed entirely. The bust took over six months to construct, and cost tens of thousands of dollars to design and deploy.

snowden projection

Frustrated by the brief lifespan of the Snowden statue, The Illuminator Art Collective – a group of artists not related to the original sculptors – projected a hologram-like image of Snowden on a cloud of smoke behind the pillar. The Snowden projection is part of a tradition of artistic intervention that has used projection to create provocative art in public spaces. Polish-American artist Krzysztof Wodiczko has used projections to bring statues “to life”, turning static war memorials into active spaces for the discussion of war and peace.

(Projection is a powerful tactic for civic activism – see Hologramas Por La Libertad, which is using projections of street protests against the side of the Spanish parliament to make a point about new laws that strongly restrict public protest. But this is a story about statues, not projections, so we’ll honor the effort and move on.)

A few days before the Snowden statue and projection, we found ourselves discussing civic statues in our lab, Center for Civic Media. The issue came up not because we were having a deep discussion about the nature of statuary, but because we moved a worktable revealing an open area that might students and I thought might be perfect for a statue. We began talking about the idea of a statue that could be rapidly deployed, which could change to honor different people at different times, and which would inspire discussion about why someone was being honored as a civic hero.

We built a prototype civic statue using an old projector and a sheet of optical rear projection acrylite. (The Media Lab is the sort of place where sheets of acrylite are just kicking around and folks like Dan Novy are generous enough to lend them out.) For our demo, I decided we would honor Professor Attahiru Jega, chairman of Nigeria’s election commission, which had just conducted a presidential election widely regarded as free and fair in which the incumbent president was defeated. Nigerians on all sides of the political spectrum honored Jega’s role in administering a fair election, and “Jega” began to emerge as slang for being chill, calm and avoiding conflict: “20 people showed up for dinner at his house unexpectedly, but he was totally Jega about it and sent out for chicken.”

This week is the Media Lab member week, where sponsors come to visit our labs and see our projects. We decided to rapidly prototype the statue so we could show it off, with some simple design constraints:

– It should be quickly deployable, easy to set up and move
– It should be relatively inexpensive (our target is a standalone programmable statue that costs under $500)
– It shouldn’t require a specialized photo shoot – it should use available imagery
– It should prompt discussion within the group hosting the statue about who should be honored and how

As we thought about who to honor, I came across this tweet from my friend Liz Henry:

As it turns out, that brave and awesome man was Feidin Santana, a 23-year old Dominican immigrant who heard Walter Scott being tazed and captured footage of his shooting by police officer Michael Slager. As with Prof. Jega, we found an image online, masked it and added text to form a plaque. Savannah Niles, who is working on a project to build smoothly looping animated GIFs that she calls Glyphs, went a step further and built a statue of Santana that moves, subtly.

savannah from Ethan Zuckerman on Vimeo.

Niles explains what a Glyph is, showing the statue of Feidin Santana

Our prototype raises as many questions as it answers. Some are practical: Should this be a single unit, perhaps using a mirror to bounce the projection onto the screen? Will this work only in dim, interior spaces? Others focus on the community aspects: How do we decide who to honor? We held a brief email exchange about who we might feature, and quickly realized that there’s a real problem when people disagree about who should be honored. We’re working on a system that will allow people to propose candidates and select people to be honored by acclaim, rather than by fiat, which is how we selected Prof. Jega, Feidin Santana and feminist scholar and activist Anita Sarkeesian as our first three honorees.

As we work on this project in the long term, I’m interested in taking on a richer and deeper set of questions: What are statues for in a digital age? Is the rapid deployment and impermanence of these statues a feature or a bug? Can new types of statues help challenge long-standing gender and racial disparities in who we honor?

The civic statuary project is an experiment, and we may or may not continue it beyond showcasing it at this members’ meeting. But this question of how societies honor their civic heroes is a rich one, and I hope this experiment – and this blog post – opens conversations about who and how we memorialize.

April 4, 2015

Paying Attention to Garissa

Filed under: Africa,Developing world,Media — Ethan @ 8:14 pm

On Thursday morning, heavily armed attackers, believed to be members of al-Shabaab, invaded Garissa University and killed 147 students. Mohamed Kuno, a high-ranking al-Shabaab official, has been named by the Kenyan government as the mastermind of the attack. Two days later, we are hearing terrifying details, including a student who hid in a wardrobe for more than 50 hours, afraid that the police who came to rescue here were militants trying to lure her out. Her decision was a wise one – the militants told students they would live if they came out of their dormitories… then lined them up and shot them.

Al-Shabaab militants have attacked Kenyans dozens of times, most notably at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2013, which resulted in at least 67 deaths. With each attack, questions arise about how small groups of militants are able to create such carnage. Early reports suggest that the University, located 90 miles from the border with Somalia on a busy road often used for military operations, was protected by only two security guards, who were quickly slain by the militants. Kenya’s 400-mile long border with Somalia is largely unguarded, due to lack of funds and lack of security personnel. (Many have observed that “lack of funds” is a matter of priorities – Kenyan MPs are some of the best paid in the world, receiving $15,000 per month in salary and allowances, while Nairobi’s anti-terror unit has a monthly budget of $735 per month.)

Kenya’s active and vocal twittersphere is filled with condolences, remembrances and accusations, blaming the attacks on endemic police corruption, on military incompetence, on Somalis within Kenya. The deaths in Garissa are inspiring international reactions, including a moving tribute from France and Francophone African nations, where the #JeSuisKenyan hashtag is trending.

Matuba Mahlatjie, news editor of eNCANews, a 24-hour news channel based in South Africa and focused on news from the continent, offered one of the most striking tweets in response to the Garissa massacre.

His tweet is a reference to the large, well-publicized demonstrations of solidarity in Paris that drew participation from world leaders. Thus far, the most encouraging public demonstration may be a much smaller one: a solidarity march of Somali-Kenyan leaders in Eastleigh, a Nairobi neighborhood known for its large Somali population.

Mahlatjie cautions that Africans should raise their own voices about Garissa, rather than expecting non-African media to cover the story.

With due respect to Mahlatjie’s concerns, I was curious to see how American media was reporting on the tragedy in Garissa in comparison to Charlie Hebdo and other recent terror attacks. The graphs that follow below are generated by Media Cloud and list the number of sentences per day in a set of 25 large American publications that mention terms associated with a specific attack – “Obama” is included as a comparative search term, as he usually appears in this set of sources 500-800 times per day.

garissa

It’s likely that attention to the Garissa story will peak today or tomorrow, at which point we may see a higher level of attention. But as of yesterday, Garissa was mentioned in 214 media sentences in these 25 prominent news sources.

charlie hebdo

That’s a much lower level of attention than Charlie Hebdo received in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the newspaper in Paris, with sentence mentions peaking at 1,436 – briefly, “Charlie Hebdo” was a more common phrase in these media outlets than “Obama”. It’s also a lower level of attention than the Westgate attacks received, peaking at 406 mentions two days after the attack.

westgate

I wrote angrily about the lack of attention paid to the attacks in Baga, in the Borno State of Nigeria, by Boko Haram, which happened at roughly the same time as the Charlie Hebdo attacks and received much less attention.

baga

boko haram

The attacks in Baga may represent a perfect storm of media indifference and inability. Reports were not definitive, the area where the attacks took place was inaccessible, and attention was distracted by the tragedy in Paris. The events in Garissa are receiving significantly more attention than those in Baga, though it’s worth remembering that Garissa is easily accessible from Nairobi, a city many news organizations use as their African hub.

I will check back in a couple of days with more graphs to see if interest in the Garissa story grows. As I noted in a post about the massacre in Baga, it’s important to honor every death, and to try and understand every tragedy like the one in Garissa. As my friend Ory Okolloh reminds us:

March 6, 2015

“It’s scary when we can do this out of love and there’s nothing you can threaten us with”

Filed under: Africa — Ethan @ 11:45 am

What’s a “holy shit visualization”?

It’s a way of looking at data that makes turns a statistic you might have flipped past in a book or skimmed by on a web page into something that you can’t forget. It’s a visceral reminder of the power of images and the power of looking at dry numbers in human terms.

For Mike Evans, the map below was a holy shit visualization. Properties in yellow are in tax distress. Those in orange are under tax foreclosure. Those in red have been foreclosed.

In 2014, 50% of properties in the city of Detroit were in danger of foreclosure, being foreclosed, or owned by the city. That’s a frightening statistic. But seeing what it looks like on the map makes the scale of the problem more visceral.

holyshitmap

Evans knew this was a powerful visualization when he took the map to the county treasurer, who had his own “holy shit” moment seeing the data. Mike asks, “What does it mean when the county treasurer doesn’t know this? What does this mean for a homeowner who’s far more removed from this information?”


Mike Evans, image from Crain’s Detroit Business

Evans is senior developer with Loveland Technologies, a for-profit technology consultancy in Detroit, MI that focuses on mapping land ownership in cities, especially in Detroit. He visited Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab yesterday to talk about the community mapping work he and his team have taken on in Detroit and around the US. Loveland is a project started by Jerry Paffendorf, who had the clever idea of selling distressed properties in Detroit one square inch at a time. Detroit auctions thousands of properties at a time, and properties that don’t sell for outstanding taxes begin auctioning for $500 apiece. Paffendorf bought some of these properties and started selling them off via Kickstarter for a dollar per square inch (one of the first Kickstarters ever started), and Loveland Technologies got its start building a map that let people see their property ownership, much as the Million Dollar Homepage allowed advertisers to see their online presence purchased a pixel at a time.


Merry Inchmas from Inchy, Loveland’s first mascot.

(There was a serious side to the idea. Paffendorf felt like most people don’t get the chance to be property owners, and speculated that owning even a tiny piece of Detroit would get people thinking more seriously about the problems and challenges the city faces.)

The map, designed to visualize a fanciful public art project, began growing more complex features. But it took on a life of its own when Evans layered data from the county’s massive foreclosure action onto the map. Suddenly, the Loveland map became a resource for Detroit homeowners to tell whether their neighbors were in trouble, whether their neighborhood was in danger of attracting blighted properties, whether they might lose their homes.

“We put this out and suddenly people are calling us up, complaining that we’re illegally foreclosing on their property, demanding that we take them off the list,” Evans remembers. “We’d explain that we weren’t the authorities – we were just visualizing data. And people, not unreasonably, would say ‘You wouldn’t be doing this if you weren’t the city.'”

“It’s a powerful experience,” he explains. “You look up your childhood home and you either breathe a sigh of relief or you call your mom. You click on your neighbors and your friends, and when you get bad news, you start thinking about how you might help them.” The tool quickly became popular with churches, who would look up houses of congregants, and then raise money to rescue members who were in distress. Often churches and friends wouldn’t raise enough money to pay off people’s debt, but payments as small as $300 could often forestall foreclosure for as much as three years.

The name Evans and colleagues gave the tool – Why Don’t We Own This – has at least two meanings. Why are Detroiters being removed from their homes when no one else wants to buy these properties? And how can Detroit take ownership and responsibility for the problems facing the community?

As the map gained prominence, “We became ‘the guy who can get you things'” Evans explains. City council members began asking for reports on their districts so they knew what areas were most affected. With high-level requests for data coming in, Evans and colleagues had more leverage to ask for data. While they’d scraped the initial set of auctions data despite city objections, people within city government started volunteering data sets to the project, and the tool became more feature-rich.

In portraying the city’s foreclosure crisis, Evans offers sympathies for both homeowners and for the city. Many of these forecloses houses were left in wills by grandparents to grandchildren, he explains. The people who inherited properties didn’t know about the water bills and property taxes they would need to pay, and quickly found themselves falling behind. At the same time, it’s hard to put too much blame on the city, which is coping with municipal bankruptcy, accusations from the UN that Detroit’s water shutoffs violate human rights, and a fire department so broke that it uses a fax machines and Faygo cans filled with change as a fire alarms.


Detroit fire alarm. Really. Photo from Detroit Free Press.

Every mayor who’s taken leadership of the city agrees that a critical step towards improving the city is confronting the problem of urban blight. (Evans refers to these as “OMGWTFBBQ” properties.) Abandoned houses attract illegal dumping. They lower the property values of other houses on the street. Kids are afraid to walk to school past the buildings, not knowing who or what is in them. There’s widespread perception that every mayor has failed to address blight… but Evans points out that the city has torn down more than 25,000 buildings between 1995 and 2014. “Cities don’t get the love even when they do what they said they would do,” Evans offers. “But actually, it’s government’s job to make sure we know what they’re doing regarding blight.”

Addressing blight is a major motivation for offering open data in Detroit. Detroit has an open data portal, but it’s not exactly a marvel of usability – to really use the data, in many cases, you need to export the data to a GIS program like ESRI. Evans offers a real-world example of the importance of accessibility: a homeowner who wants to attack blight in her neighborhood by mowing the lawns of unoccupied houses on her street needs a simple way to know whether properties are occupied or not. “Accessibility is the real open data. Just having it open isn’t important if people can’t utilize it.”

The idea of accessible, usable data that Detroiters could leverage to protect their neighborhoods helped inform the project Loveland Technologies is most famous for: Motor City Mapping. Based on the success of their map of foreclosed properties, the Loveland team was invited to a meeting involving Dan Gilbert (local billionaire, founder of Quicken Loans), the White House, the Kresge and Skillman Foundations, and local projects like U-Snap-Bac, which provides funding to restore distressed properties. The team started with the idea of removing every blighted building from the city, and quickly realized that they would need a comprehensive map of Detroit’s blighted properties. The Loveland Technology team made the argument that they should instead map every property in the city, take photos and try to determine whether those properties are occupied or not.

What resulted from the discussions was Motor City Mapping, a wildly ambitious project that mapped 400,000 properties in about a month using 150 volunteers armed with Android tablets. As Evans explains it, he wanted nine months to take on the project and ended up being negotiated down to a month-long development cycle. As he was unboxing and syncing 150 new Android tablets, the data collection software he’d built was two days old and still riddled with bugs. (Evans had wanted to roll out on iOS, but the process of releasing software, waiting for Apple’s approval and reinstalling was too slow and pushed him onto Android, at a time when the tablets he wanted were just coming on the market and were hard to obtain.)

For the next month, 150 surveyors walked the streets of Detroit photographing each property, reporting its condition, identifying blight and determining whether a house was occupied. Evans and a colleague stayed in the office, fixing bugs and adding features. “It was the best kind of scope creep. We’d realize we needed Google Street View data as a double-check for locations. We’d want to add in assessor data. The tool got more complicated and more useful every day.”

Having real-time data matters when you’re trying to transform a city. In particular, it’s critically important to have data about whether properties are occupied or abandoned. Detroit’s police force is so stressed that they generally don’t evict homeowners when their properties have been foreclosed on. As a result, buying a foreclosed property at auction in Detroit is a deeply uncomfortable gamble. The property you bought for $500 might be abandoned and ready for you to fix it up… or it may be occupied by a family unhappy about you showing up on their doorstop. Most investors don’t want to purchase the occupied buildings, which is why having Motor City Mapping’s data on occupied properties is so crucial. As the project has continued from its startup phase, the team prioritizes re-surveying tax distressed properties they believe are occupied, trying to minimize situations where people are purchasing occupied buildings.

Realtime, or near realtime, mapping of a city has other positive implications. When the city wants to provide services like cutting grass, they can use the maps to scout areas ahead of time, and can mark maps once they’ve provided services.

discovery interface

Evans shows off the ability to generate custom maps based on queries. What properties in your neighborhood are in poor condition or recommended for demolition? The map above shows how to generate that information with a few button clicks.

official info

It’s important, also, that maps are annotateable. The image above shows an apartment building that was in good condition when Motor City Mapping checked it out. But below, a resident has reported that the building was damaged by a suspicious fire and should now be considered a blighted structure.

community info

Real-time mapping was challenging and expensive to accomplish. Most of the 150 workers who surveyed the city didn’t have cars, Evans explains, so Quicken Loans employees volunteered to act as their drivers. Since volunteers would be in a car all day with workers, Motor City Mapping then ran background checks on their workers, and ended up losing 30%, who had records for violent offenses or felonies. Maintaining a team of mappers long term may not be something Detroit can afford – instead, mapping may come in part from citizens who download the app and use it to maintain maps of their communities.

Loveland Tech, in the mean time, is taking on government contracts and expanding their system to include dozens of other cities. They sell the tools that allow other cities to overlay data sets on their street maps. Unfortunately, the tool is only one part of building a system like the one in Detroit. Buffalo, NY, a city that features many of the problems Detroit faces, offers a beautiful map but without information on condition or occupancy. To make the maps really useful, cities need to work with Loveland to release key data sets, a process that can trigger resistance from government agencies, some of which see selling this data as a way to address their budget shortcomings. Evans remembers that it took two months into the Motor City Mapping project before the Wayne County Assessor would give the team their data set – until they came under massive public pressure, the Assessor wanted to sell the data instead.

If the impact of Loveland’s maps makes city officials say “holy shit”, it’s worth asking how Evans and his team have been so successful in taking on these controversial, provocative and deeply useful projects. Evans credits much of the success to being in the right place at the right time, to being invited to meetings like the one that launched Motor City Mapping.

I think Evans, Paffendorf and others have a secret weapon in these battles: the power of whimsy. Before joining Loveland Technologies, Evans was the founder of PishPosh.TV, a video production company that wanted to build “a discovery channel that doesn’t suck”, showcasing maker culture and teaching people about low-cost computer hardware like Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. (It’s taken on a newsier, muckraking tone recently with Slash Detroit.) Evans heard that Paffendorf was building a free, urban minigolf course with art professor Steve Coy and decided to make a video of the project. Soon after, Evans moved his video production company in with Paffendorf’s “Imagination Station“, and became a co-conspirator on multiple projects.

Not all these projects are easy to explain. Paffendorf gained a certain amount of notoriety in Detroit by raising $67,000 to build a statue of Robocop, to be erected in downtown. Slopping reporting and online rumor-spreading led to outrage over the idea that a bankrupt city would use public funds for a fanciful sculpture – as Evans patiently explains when I bring up Robocop, all money came from donors (many from outside of Detroit), and the statue will be build from molds made by the original designers of the costume at Universal, and forged at Venus Bronzeworks, a venerable Detroit institution. But the sheer silliness of the idea has a life of its own and has led to previous Detroit mayors coming out publicly to oppose the statue project.

I think this gift for whimsy helped Evans and Paffendorf avoid some of the initial resistance they might have faced when launching projects like Why Don’t We Own This. After all, it’s hard to worry about a couple of kids upending Detroit’s foreclosure policy when they’re the guys best known for urban minigolf and fanciful Kickstarter projects.

Evans has a simpler explanation than the one I offer. When you’re broke and taking on projects out of passion, not out of profit, it’s hard for people to stand in your way. When he began scraping auction data from county websites, it was easy to ignore any potential legal consequences. “What are you going to do? Sue us? We’ve got nothing. You want to bankrupt us? Okay, here – you can have our dog.” (Fortunately, the county chose to work with them, rather than threatening legal action.) When the laughter at Center for Civic Media dies down, Evans explains, “It’s scary to those in power when people are able to do projects like this out of love, and there’s nothing you can really threaten them with.”

February 11, 2015

Helping Launch the NetGain Challenge

Filed under: Developing world,Geekery,Human Rights,Media Lab,newcivics — Ethan @ 2:28 pm

This morning, I’m at the Ford Foundation in New York City as part of the launch event for NetGain. NetGain is a new effort launched by the Mozilla, Ford, Open Society, Macarthur and Knight Foundations, to bring the philanthropic community together to tackle the greatest obstacles to digital rights, online equality and the use of the internet to promote social justice.

The event is livestreamed here – in a moment, you can head Tim Berners-Lee and Susan Crawford in conversation about the future of the web.

For the past six months, I’ve been working with Jenny Toomey and Darren Walker at Ford, John Palfrey at Phillips Andover, and friends at these different foundations to launch the NetGain challenges. We’re asking people around the world to propose difficult problems about the open internet that they think governments and companies have not been able to solve. We’re collecting these challenges at NetGainChallenge.org, and asking participating foundations to take the lead on one or more challenges, coordinating a new set of investments in tackling that problem.

I had the privilege of introducing a session at this morning’s event about these challenges. It was an Ignite talk, which means I probably didn’t manage to say all the words I have listed below. But this is what I was trying to say:


45 years ago, the first message was sent over the internet, between a computer at UCLA and one at Stanford University.

25 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee turned the internet from a tool for academics into something most of us use every day, by making it easy to publish and read online – he created the World Wide Web.

What’s followed on Sir Tim’s invention is a transformation of the ways we work, play, shop, argue, protest, give, learn and love.

Given the amazing transformations we’ve seen, it’s easy to forget that the internet is a long, ongoing experiment. The internet as we know it is the result of trying new things, seeing how they break, and working to fix them.

The first message sent on the internet was “login”, as Charley Kline and Len Kleinrock at UCLA were trying to log into a machine at Stanford. They only managed to transmit the letters “lo”, then the system crashed. An hour later, they had it up again and managed to transmit the whole message.

On the internet, we have a long tradition of trying things out, screwing up, fixing what’s broken and moving forward.

Twenty five years into the life of the World Wide Web, there are amazing successes to celebrate: a free encyclopedia in hundreds of world languages, powerful tools for sharing breaking news and connecting with old friends, platforms that help us organize, agitate and push for social justice.

But alongside our accomplishments, there’s still lots that’s broken.

In building an internet where most content and services are free, we’ve also adopted a business model that puts us under perpetual surveillance by advertisers. Worse, our communications are aggregated, analyzed and surveilled by governments around the world.
The amazing tools we’ve built for learning and for sharing ideas are far easier and cheaper to access in the developed world than in the developing world – we’re still far from the dream of a worldwide web.

We’ve built new public spaces online to discuss the issues of the day, but those discussions are too rarely civil and productive. Speaking online often generates torrents abuse, especially when women speak online.

Despite Sir Tim’s vision of a decentralized web, there’s a huge concentration of control with a few companies that control the key platforms for online speech. And as we use the web to share, opine and learn, quickly losing our legacy, erasing this vast new library as fast as we write it.

These problems may well be unsolveable. But it’s possible that we’ve been waiting for the wrong people to solve them.

In 1889, Andrew Carnegie gave money to build a public library in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the first of 1,689 libraries he funded in the US. These were not just spaces that allowed people to feed their minds, but in many towns, the only spaces open to men, women, children and people of all races.

Newspapers and the publishing houses made knowledge available to those who could afford it, but Carnegie made it available to everyone.

As television became a fixture in the nation’s homes in the 1950s, the Ford Foundation worked with other philanthropists to build a public television system in the US, ensuring that this powerful new medium was used to educate and enlighten as well as to entertain

The foundations here aren’t going to be able to put internet into every home the way Carnegie brought libraries to every town. But there are problems philanthropy can tackle in unique ways that provide solutions that go beyond what corporations or governments can do on their own.
That’s what led us to the idea of the grand challenge. We’re drawing inspiration here from Google’s moonshots and from the XPrize Foundation. More importantly, we’re taking guidance from the people we work with everyday, on the front lines of social innovation, to identify the challenges we need to overcome to for the internet to be a true tool for justice and social inclusion

The speakers you’re about to hear aren’t here with solutions: they’re going share with us the thorny problems they’re working to solve. We’re asking each foundation that’s a member of Netgain to take the lead on one of these and other challenges, convening the smartest people in the field, our partners, our grantees, our beneficiaries to understand what we can do together to tackle these deep and persistent problems.

These aren’t the only challenges we need to tackle. We need to hear from you about what problems we can take on and what brilliant guides – like nine speakers we’re about to hear from – can help us navigate our way through these challenges.

We’re taking this high-risk strategy of aiming at the toughest problems because even if we fall short of our goals, we think we’ll make enormous progress by working together. Every six months, we plan to bring our community together, convene around a grand challenge and start a process of collaboration and experimentation. We may only get to “lo” before we crash, restart and rebuild. But every time we do, we’ll be moving towards a web that’s more open, more just, more able to transform our world for the better.


Please join us at NetGainChallenge.org and help us identify the challenges we should be taking on.

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