YPP Network Description

The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) formed out of recognition that youth are critical to the future of democracy and that the digital age is introducing technological changes that are impacting how youth develop into informed, engaged, and effective actors.

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Social Media Helplines for Positive and Safe School Communities – icanhelpline

February 27, 2018 - 1:43pm
How do youth allies promote young people’s critical thinking on privacy, in informal learning contexts in the Americas? This blog post is part of a series showcasing the work of different organizations at the intersection of youth development, digital rights, and online safety. Quick facts Who: Anne Collier by iCanHelpline.org (run by The Net Safety Collaborative) What: A social media helpline for schools Mission/vision: To help U.S. schools and districts reduce cyberbullying and grow student […]
Categories: Blog

Youth and Privacy in the Americas: a blog post series

February 27, 2018 - 1:39pm
How do allies who work with youth, in informal learning contexts in the Americas, promote critical thinking on privacy? Before I came to MIT, I worked for five years as a technological capacity builder in nonprofit organizations in Latin America. Through this work, I encountered strong tensions between the missions, visions, and methods of organizations that work on youth and child issues, versus those that work on digital rights. Youth and child rights organizations seemed […]
Categories: Blog

Hiring a Media Cloud Researcher / Community Manager

January 29, 2018 - 9:01am

The Media Cloud project (http://mediacloud.org) is seeking a Researcher/Community Manager to conduct research on media manipulation and to work with social change organizations to analyze conversations in digital media. The Media Cloud platform is a set of online tools for monitoring and measuring online media coverage. After becoming proficient in the use of the Media Cloud tool suite, the Researcher/Community Manager will contribute to ongoing research and help partner organizations explore online media coverage of issues related to their goals. The Researcher/Community Manager’s primary responsibilities are to develop a deep understanding of digital media ecosystems; to work with Media Cloud partners to conduct research on their dynamics; and to use those experiences to help inform further development of the Media Cloud tools.

The Media Cloud Researcher/Community Manager will work closely with researchers and developers on the Media Cloud team at the MIT Media Lab and at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. This grant-funded position provides an opportunity for someone to conduct important research into how social mobilization interacts with media and to help make Media Cloud more useful for non-profits trying to understand and the role of media for democratic processes. It is expected that scholarly and popular publications will arise from this research.

  • Produce original research using Media Cloud tools and publishes in cooperation with Media Cloud team and partner organizations;
  • Manage communications with multiple external partner organizations;
  • Construct and maintain search queries on various topics using Media Cloud tools;
  • Clearly and concisely communicate research discoveries to partners and partner needs to the Media Cloud research team;
  • Develop and produce reports and multimedia training materials for partners and sponsor organizations;
  • Represent the needs of end users, participate in design discussions and help prioritize improvements on the Media Cloud tools;
  • Report to Media Cloud Team on important trends in topic areas critical to partner organizations;
  • Help with Media Cloud outreach efforts by running training sessions, workshops and supporting.
  • This is a one-year appointment with the possibility of extension.


  • Bachelor’s degree in social sciences or health-related field, and at least one year’s research experience;
  • Experience and/or interest in social change topics, particularly in the field of political communication and/or human rights;
  • Active participation in online communities;
  • Experience with creative uses of new technologies for social change;
  • Project management experience;
  • Excellent writing and communication skills;
  • Excels at considering issues from multiple perspectives;
  • Able to work independently and as part of a team;
  • Strong group facilitator;
  • Expertise with explaining complex technical concepts to non-technical audiences.


  • Master’s degree in political sciences, communication, or social sciences
  • Fluency in languages other than English.

Apply via the MIT Careers website (Job ID 15618)

Categories: Blog

Why Wholesome Memes Might Be Our Best Hope Against the Nazis

December 6, 2017 - 1:50pm
In Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and Its Discontents, the historian Hiromu Nagahara describes a Japanese government meeting convened during the second World War. A wartime ban had been placed on American popular music, and so officials were serenaded instead by the popular nationalist songs of the day, including "Over There," a 1939 tribute to the bravery of Japan's soldiers—and, unbeknownst to all but a music journalist in attendance, a cover of "Over There," the 1917 American anthem better known by its opening hook "Johnny, get your gun."    Nagahara tells this story as a case of and for transnational optimism, evidence that even mortal enemies could share a deep and common cultural connection under conditions of total war. Of course, the same facts can be read in the opposite way: that two nations could cheerfully hum the same tune while violently slaughtering each other.    I've been thinking about this story since Jason Koebler at Motherboard published an article earlier this summer revealing that many mainstream memes are made by Nazis. And not just the ones featuring fascist frogs, either: dank memes of all kinds often emerge from subcultural territory occupied by the alt-right before circulating throughout the wider web. Jason raised the question of whether it is ethical to share memes manufactured under such conditions, as if they were conflict diamonds.

But it also made me wonder: what does the mutual appreciation of these memes say about us? What common aesthetic allows a Nazi and a non-Nazi to appreciate the same dank meme? Should we worry about that kind of cultural connection? And if so, what should we do about it?

This problem is not new, but in fact just a different form of an ancient struggle between fascism and democracy. The common aesthetic of these circulating memes is the nihilist irony that developed as a reaction to WWII and today fuels the alt-right while fatiguing the rest of us. Our best cultural weapon against the advances of the alt-right, then, are wholesome memes, which look much like the memes you know, but are rooted in sincerity and compassion rather than nihilism.





As Jason referenced in his article, for decades academics have been arguing whether it is ever OK to cite Martin Heidegger. The basic problem is that Heidegger was a brilliant and influential philosopher and also a Nazi. Some people argue he was so brilliant we can't ignore his philosophy; others said no, you shouldn't cite Nazis, because they were Nazis.

The debate was renewed in 2014 with the publication of Heidegger's long-embargoed Black Notebooks, which are somehow even more sinister than their title makes them sound. To save you from reading a thousand pages of a Nazi's diary, what the Notebooks show is that not only was Heidegger a committed Nazi, but that Nazism was baked into his thought, which means his philosophy must not only be discarded but actively opposed.

But how do you fight one of the philosophy's most brilliant/damaged thinkers on his own turf? In 1953 Jurgen Habermas, perhaps the most influential democratic theorist of the postwar West, argued that Heidegger was too important to be ignored but too dangerous to rely upon. Instead, he proposed that "it appears to be time to think with Heidegger against Heidegger": to take his critical insights and transpose them democratically in order to, as one commentator put it, "to leave space for the citizens themselves to determine and develop their different collective and individual life projects." For the purposes of this essay, we can think of Heidegger as the philosopher of Nazi memes, and Habermas as the philosopher of democratic memes.

And so the time has come to think with memes, against memes: to reappropriate and redesign the meme-form to fight fascism and rebuild democracy.





There are many kinds of memes: dank, spicy, and fresh, just to name a few. But the memes that Jason identified as emerging from the alt-right are often wrapped in layers of irony that insulate the reader from caring about their subject. Who cares about climate change if we're all garbage?

This particular style of nihilism resembles that found in Heidegger's philosophy, specifically his concept of being-toward-death. According to Heidegger, we are thrown into the world, and our uncertain fate makes us feel guilty and anxious. Only the resolute anticipation of our own death can free us by allowing us to see, in our individual absence, our individuality. Our own death makes possible our own life.

Being-toward-death thus liberates us by alienating us. It reminds us that we are individuals, apart from society, and that when we die, our being ceases. Except here is the thing: being an individual waiting/wanting to die is no way to live together in a society, which is precisely the problem we face broadly, now. We sit and scroll and daydream of the day we will each be dead in the ground, freed of our respective responsibilities. Meanwhile, the alt-right, enthusiastically alienated from/by society and without a single fuck to give, is on the march.

The good news is that there is an antidote to this kind of alienation. The bad news (for lovers of nihilist, ironic memes, anyway) is that it's to be brutally, unironically earnest, to others and with yourselves. It requires a New Sincerity, but for memes: replacing the ethic/aesthetic of postmodern irony with an earnest wholesomeness that, as Habermas hoped, helps us live together rather than apart.





Postmodernism refers to many things, but can be broadly understood as a philosophical and artistic movement, developing especially after the catastrophe of the Second World War, that questions modern concepts of progress and objectivity. In literature and art, this skepticism was performed especially through irony, which projected expertise while protecting authors from being pinned down to truth-claims. In the decades since, postmodernism spread not only across the humanities and arts but the sciences and now everyday life, with government officials offering alternative facts and Facebook struggling to define fake news.

Yet in recent years a new movement has sought to transcend postmodernism by moving beyond irony and rebuilding the world it once sought to split. If this movement has a manifesto, it might be David Foster Wallace's 1993 essay on television and US fiction. The essay, while nominally a review of contemporary sitcoms, is also a commentary on the postmodern aesthetic of nihilist irony: distant and distancing, and terribly isolating. The title of the article itself (E Unibus Pluram, or "out of one, many") describes both how televisual culture operates and the ultimate effect on a nation subjected to it.

Written while he was drafting Infinite Jest (which, may I remind you, features a germophobic President tanned an unnatural orange whose television stardom gets him improbably elected despite a quixotic campaign of building a border wall and launching trash into Canada to Make America Clean Again), Wallace argued that "irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective [and] at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture."

For Wallace, the nudged ribs, cool smiles, and knowing winks of televisual culture made people laugh, but also made people afraid of being laughed at, and thus simultaneously kept them pacified by entertainment and frozen by fear, afraid of becoming entertainment. This is also why, when people asked Wallace what the massive Infinite Jest was about, he often told them "loneliness."

Against this debilitating irony, Wallace both predicted and prayed for a new post-postmodernism, one that, rather than daring to be skeptical, would dare to be sincere:

"The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels...who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels."








In late 2016, as the entire world was collapsing, a new kind of meme was exploding. Wholesome memes did not originate on reddit, but they came to be gathered there, aggregated in an eponymous subreddit that called for memes expressing "support, positivity, compassion, understanding, love, affection, and genuine friendship by re-contextualizing classic meme formats, and using them to display warmth and empathy...with no snark or sarcasm." Such memes are not pre-ironic but post-ironic: they are aware of, and actively remix, the expectations and form of more nihilistic genres in order to express authentic sentiment and acknowledge the human connection between author and viewer.

Wholesome memes are effective because they encode, in a spreadable and durable digital form, the kind of emotional labor that picks people up and encourages them to go on, even if it's not clear where they are going or what awaits them. They dare to speak of the ordinary with reverence and conviction. They require vulnerability on the part of both author and viewer, and through that vulnerability build strength. They liberate not by anticipating individual death but by affirming shared life: that, after we pass on, we do not die, but instead live on through the people and institutions that compose the common world we made together.

For these and other reasons wholesome memes are also remarkably Nazi-proof. It's not only that territories controlled by the alt-right don't source wholesome memes, it's that they can't. Or, at least, they haven't yet, and I think it's unlikely they will. The wholesome ethic is egalitarian, antifascist, and resists ironic deployment. Instead, wholesome memes are fundamentally democratic because they build solidarity, indeed are solidarity: in both essence and function artifacts of a democratic consciousness, realized through communicative action, that Habermas has spent his life trying to build after Heidegger and despite postmodernism.





Most of us were raised in a postmodern age, taught first on the schoolyard, and eventually in the schoolhouse, to be cool, distant, safe, and so also passive, weak, complicit. But the challenges we face require a change in our culture, and thus also the media that both bears and transforms it. That change is here in wholesome memes. And it could not have come at a better time.

This change will not be easy. Living wholesomely is hard. Sincerity has risks. Faith can be tested, and can falter, but mustn't fail. Particularly in the present, beset by false facts and fascist frogs, but still trying to forge the path ahead, progressing in a dumb determined animal way, simply because we must. Because authentic wholesomeness, not the wholesomeness of a child but of a monk, not inherited but chosen, not given by grace but earned by hard work, can be mocked, or betrayed, but it can never be corrupted. It has the lasting strength of strength surrendered; "no one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own accord." And in these dark days, it may be the best hope we have.

Categories: Blog

Hiring a Media Cloud Collections Curator

December 1, 2017 - 10:37am

The Media Cloud project is seeking a contract collections curator to help assess the state of our existing media collections and work towards improving the quality and reach of our data to support data-driven research about the role of online media in civic discourse. The curator will collaborate with the research and technology teams to understand the current coverage and health of the different collections and contribute to their improvement. They will assist in the identification of additional web-based news sources and data from different digital platforms, work to improve the presentation and use of existing collections, and collaborate with external partners. The position will be a 6-month part-time contract position based at the Center for Civic Media (at the MIT Media Lab). This is a grant-funded contract position that we hope to extend, or perhaps turn into a staff position.

Media Cloud is a joint project between the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. We are an open source project producing research about the networked public sphere, and helping others do their own research about online media. We make available to the public our existing archive of more than 550 million stories, adding more than 40,000 new stories daily. The project is funded by grants from different foundations. We produce both the open platform and research that helps our funders make decisions about how best to influence online civic conversations about democracy, activism, and health.

We are a diverse project of researchers and technologists who love to wrestle with hard questions about online media by using a combination of social, computer, and data sciences. The ideal candidate will work well with all members of the team, from senior faculty to junior developers, and will thrive in an academic atmosphere that privileges constant questioning and validation at all levels of the platform and of our research products

Minimum Qualifications:

Research experience;

  • familiarity with media ecosystems and journalism;
  • experience working with databases and digital research tools;
  • demonstrated ability to work with technical and research teams;
  • good at considering issues from multiple perspectives
  • able to work independently and as part of a team
  • interest in working on issues related to democracy, gender, race, health, and globalization.


  • assess the current state of Media Cloud’s media collections and document key findings in a report;
  • improve the overall health of our data sources;
  • contribute to the ongoing identification of additional sources and collections;
  • work with the Media Cloud team to facilitate the presentation of media collections to users;
  • work with the technical team to improve data discovery and ingestion tools;
  • assist in the identification of additional data from different media platforms;
  • collaborate with partners and volunteers to improve the coverage of media collections.

Helpful Skills:

  • experience working on big data systems and/or projects investigating online media;
  • global outlook;
  • passion for solving difficult data problems;
  • multilingual.

We strongly encourage women, people of color, people of all ages, and people of any sexual identity to apply.
The job is based in Cambridge, MA, but much of our team is distributed around the world. We are open to alternative working arrangements that include part time residence in Cambridge. We imagine this position as a 3- or 4-day a week engagement over 5 to 6 months, but are open to other approaches.

Apply by sending a cover letter, resume, and portfolio to jobs@mediacloud.org.

Categories: Blog

Data for Black Lives: Automating (In)Justice

November 18, 2017 - 12:33pm

Automating (In)Justice: Policing and Sentencing in the Algorithmic Age

Data for Black Lives (D4BL)  is "a group of activists, organizers, and mathematicians committed to the mission of using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people." This is a liveblog from the Automating (In)Justice panel for the D4BL 2017 Inaugural Conference. Liveblogging contributed by Rahul Bhargava – apologizes for any errors or omissions.

Adam Foss starts by talking about how criminal Justice reform has been a hot-button issue. In Boston we incarcerated a generation of black men, but now we are feeling the impact of this the “smart on crime” approach. Right now all along the continuum people are trying to use data to solve this historical problem of mass incarceration.  There’s good to that, and bad to that.


  • Adam Foss
  • Charmaine Arthur
  • Samuel Sinyangwe
  • Kim Foxx
  • Julia Anfwin

Charmaine Arthur

Arthur is the Director of Community Programs at Freedom House (in Roxbury, Boston). Their founders were at the forefront of the Boston bussing crisis.  They’ve started a school for children of color to fight for equitable education.  They work with high school and college students to create success and opportunities through coaching, college-level opportunities, and other community work and civic engagement.

Data helps them in a number of ways. It helps them do their work better.  It gives them context. It helps them identify who they serve. They measure things like race, sex, grade, graduation, attendance, family base, economics, and more. They use SalesForce for a lot of this. Data allows for some accountability.

This data is a shell.  Until they meet a person they don’t see the life. And they let the students use their own data and be advocates.

Data can also be a false sense of progress and hope. It takes time to work against this. Freedom House survives through funding from foundations, and often they dictate how to do the work.  The corporatization of non-profits is happening – they’re using the same language as Wall Street.  How do you feel about the “return on my investment” in this work?  Absolutely not. We don’t talk that way about our young people.

Samuel Sinyangwe

Sinyangwe’s work began with the death of Michael Brown in 2014.  Just afterwards communities that had been experiencing police violence were able to say that. Others attempted to shut this down by saying they didn’t have the data, as if your lived experience needed a study to justify it.

They built the most comprehensive database of people killed by police in the US. They showed that police killed 323 black people the year Michael Brown was killed.  Then they began to use data as a tool for accountability.

Then they could have a conversation about why the numbers were the way they were.  Why are 1 in 6 homicides in Oklahoma City committed by police? 1 in 3 people killed by strangers in the US are killed by police officers.  Over 1200 people a year for the last five years. How do we make this apparent and accessible to people?  Visualization has been critical to help peopleunderstand what is going on, and move to some kind of action.

They have national data, and also deeper data bout the top 100 departments in the US (through public records requests and other means). In Orlando, FL they met with police leadership and the data showed that they are the second highest for people killed by police. When they presented all this they explain this because Orlando is a heavy tourist place, and there are lots of folks on Orange Ave corridor; clearly this is unque and they can’t be compared.  So Sinyangwe pulled the New Orleans Bourbon St. data, which shut down that conversation.

The people in this room can download the dataset and use it – http://mappingpoliceviolence.com.

Kim Foxx

Foxx is the state’s attorney of Cook Country, Chicago. They release this data to the public in a very accessible way. There is a sense around mass incarceration that things are “anecdotal.” 86% of the people in Cook County jail are black or brown.  94% of people in the juvenile system are black and brown. In the prosecutor’s office we don’t know how this happens, because the systems are black boxes.

For Foxx it was important to have the public know what she was doing, and how she makes decisions. How do you measure if you are better than your predecessor? She ran on the issue of people in jail being stuck there only because they are not able to afford their bail. Sharing information gives them a benchmark.  Foxx insists that “you can’t fix what you can’t measure.” 

Sharing budget, agenda, and more lets the public know. People can run the datasets themselves. They’ve hired a Chief Data Officer for the Prosecutors office, and released the last 6 years of data; precisely because they wanted it to be continuing and accountable.

In 2016 their second highest felony offense (after gun possession), was retail theft (shoplifting). They didn’t know that until they dove into the data.  Illinois’ level of retail theft felony is $300.  Indiana is $750.  Wisconsin is $2500. When you think about the impact of a felony conviction you can ask a question about what we are doing.  At her department, they decided to not charge retail theft as a felony for under $1000 (they can do that at their discretion). The data helped them see that, and led to that decision.  Next year they’ll be able to look at the impact of that on prison and jail populations, and more.

Chicago has an issue of violence, and Foxx has limited resources. If we are about public safety, we must look at on a continuum. Violence is connected to education, arrests in schools, and more. The highest incidence of violence is in places with under-resourced schools, the places where people returning from convictions live, and more. You can’t arrest your way out of violence. The justice system is not just reactive.  We can’t put the wrong people in jail.

Julia Anfwin

Julia was destined for computer science, but took a turn towards journalism.  She covered technology for 15 years. She started writing about criminal justice because she was writing about the data being collected and was wondering about how it was being used.

The highest stakes algorithm judging people is the software used across the country to create “risk assessment scores”. At ProPublica she wrote about this. This is used at pre-trial, parole, and sentencing.  San Francisco, most of New York, and lots of other places use this. As someone math and data literate she looked for studies to justify this.  No one was doing these studies. In fact Eric Holder asked the sentencing commission to have these studied. The only studies were by the companies that created it. New York State purchased this in 2001 and released number in 2012; but they didn’t look at race. She did a FOIA request in Florida to get data, and succeeded in getting 2 years worth of score (2 years).

Anfwin looked at the scores and found for black defendants there were sentences across the board. For white people, almost no-one was getting longer sentences. These algorithms are totally biased. The rigorous statistical analysis after 6 moths of work backed this up.

Computer science community has validated all this work, but the criminal justice community has totally rejected this. It becomes bout a debate about the definition of fairness. Bringing numbers to the table helped this debate happen.

“You gotta bring numbers to the fight”



Adam shares that in Chicago the shootings aren’t that outside the average, but you just can’t get to a hospital in 45 minutes or less so the homicide numbers are worse. In Boston, they say homicide is way down, while shooting rate is through the roof (because you are at a trauma hospital in 4 minutes).

Samuel shares that in the absence of data you just have assumptions. When you talk about addressing police violence you run into an old script.  It says that anything that restricts how police use force endangers police or community. There is no data to support any of those claims. These are assumptions that are taken as fact. This couldn’t be challenged well because the data wasn’t there.

They’ve tested this with the data we have now, and find they are lies. They looked at use of force policies and how restrictive they were. They tested whether there was an increased risk in departments that are most restrictive. In fact these were the safest for civilians and police officers. You share that finding in the room with the police union and they have nothing to respond with. This can move those conversations forward.

Foxx asks what makes you a good prosecutor? How do you measure the outcomes of what you do? IF you say that you want to keep communities safe, and give someone a harsh punishment, and then see the person over and over, are you successful? Is this harsh sentencing aiding public safety? We have to look at the aggregate impacts on community, otherwise we’ll continue to do the same thing.

We haven’t defined what “tough on crime” or “smart on crime” means.  If you don’t have to own that “tough on crime” means lots of people in prison and decimated neighborhoods, then the data doesn’t matter. The narrative of “personal responsibly” has dominated prosecutorial offices for years. This narrative lets you not care about the impact, and absolves you from the conversation. We cannot afford to do that. In what place can you invest 500 million on crime and have a 55% recidivism rate?

Adam shares that Foxx was elected on a wave of anti-incumbent prosecutorial elections. Next year there are 1000 DA elections across the country. This is an opportunity. Foxx is a leading example of what can happen when we change.

Foxx shares that 80% of elected prosecutors are white men. Less than 1% are women of color. This is important, because we need people in these positions to push back on this. She is from public housing, a single mother-family, all the risk factors that make her high risk from an algorithmic sentencing point of view. These un-connected people don’t know the impact of the policies, and that’s a problem.

Arthur shares that there are lots of egos at the table.  Yes you have to bring numbers, but what happens when you are worn out fighting with the numbers, because those numbers are lives. Understanding “why” matters.  There has to be action with the communication. It takes time, and we have to keep chipping away. But the funders say here, have 3 years to fix it. We just can’t do it. Quality programs are proactive and find youth before they fall off the wall.

Adam asks the panelists – what do you need to do your work better? How is data going to help us?

Arthur shares the story of her kids, who have had different experiences of racism – from shootings and support failures to more. The danger of the story about 18 year old black males is dangerous for individuals. The information Sam has is information Freedom House can use. They can give youth the tools to advocate for themselves. We need to advocate for our own.

Sinyangwe argues that the field of stopping police violence is new. The data is out there for you. The policy information is out there. Help produce knowledge that communities can use for change. Look at civilian review boards – there is no data to tell you which structure is the most useful. Make this stuff accessible.

Foxx wants to amplify this. We don’t validate why things are happening; we don’t understand them. We have to be cognizant of the nuances in spaces, otherwise we’ll just adopt things because other folks have. They need people in the data/analytical space to come to the criminal justice system. Advocacy from outside is good, but we need help inside it too to figure out what questions to ask. Foxx wants people to work with prosecutors to help.

Anfwin has a team of two programmers that she works with. Every industry needs more tech literacy. The most shocking thing of criminal justice scores was the shocking amount of forgiveness applied to white defendants. Her analysis of car insurance rates was the same chart – with higher risk the rates declined in white neighborhoods. They use the word “bias”, but the algorithms have allocated “forgiveness”. This is an important re-framing. Can we build-in forgiveness for more than one group of people.



How do we help advocates use data better?

Anfwin shares that people over-collect data before they have a question.  You need a targeted smart question before you start collecting data.  Otherwise your data is putting data at risk. You have to think about when your data is lost, because it will happen.

Surveillance is a real risk, reminds Sinyangwe. You have to take steps to protect yourself. The framing of your statistics matter.  Especially folks that aren’t data literate; they’re the ones that need to take these numbers and use them.

What do you say to black communities that don’t feel safe and want more policing and surveillance?

There is not a magic answer to that, says Arthur. We used to depend on our neighbors. We’ve lost trust. We used to have a shared understanding of what the village looked like. Community policing works for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone. It can build trust.

Those numbers are real people that live and breathe. We need to really remember that. We need the police. Arthur was going to be a cop, but her mama said that her calling was to work with young people.

Foxx hears this question a lot. She goes into neighborhoods and talks with people in forums. The ACLU folks were talking about stop and frisk. A woman stood up and shared that she was scared to go to the bus stop. She didn’t want an open-air drug market next to the bus stop. Another woman asked about getting rid of the unlicensed snow cone seller. Foxx didn’t understand, because she didn’t live there, that the problem was around the loitering around the snow cone person and the drug sales and more that happened there. People have a deep fear of the police, and a deep fear of the person causing harm.

People want policing that isn’t dangerous to them. This narrative can’t be lost. Law enforcement has to contend with bad tactics and bad policies in the communities that need to trust law the most (because they are suffering the most).

Is the decision whether to keep this data a problem of resources, or a deliberate effort to not collect it?

Sinyangwe says it is a combination. The political system responds to crises. The Department of Justice only opened up an investigation into Fergurson, Baltimore, Chicago when something big happened. Patrick Sharkey found in a recent study that the crime decline in the past few decades was driven by non-profit organizations. For every 10 NGOs working on stuff, there was a 6% drop in violent crime and 10% drop in homicide. The only place resourced to respond when you need safety help is the police department. That was a choice; and they defunded other alternatives. Other studies show that mass incarceration had zero perfect impact on the decline in crime; but that is where all the money goes. Same result for spending on police – very little impact on crime (0% to 5%). We have to shift to community-based responses. Those are the evidence based responses to this problem.

Anfwin attributes this to benign malice (if that exists). Journalism is the last watchdog – people respond. And journalism is in crisis.  All the money is going from them to Google and Facebook. Journalism needs our support to bring attention to this.



Categories: Blog

Data for Black Lives: Opening Panel Live Blog

November 18, 2017 - 7:54am

Data for Black Lives (D4BL)  is "a group of activists, organizers, and mathematicians committed to the mission of using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people." This is a liveblog from the opening panel for the D4BL 2017 Inaugural Conference. Liveblogging contributed by Rahul Bhargava and Catherine D'Ignazio. They apologize for any errors or omissions.

Yeshimabeit opens with a reminder that data and technologies have far too often been weaponized against black communities.


Cathy O'Neil

Data is presented to us as facts.  Cathy found in finance that data had been weaponized (during the last financial crisis). She left for data science, where she say the same thing happening.  Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.

Algorithms are predictions. They use data as input, but you've chosen it and ignored some. Then you train it for success (you have to define success). She uses cooking as an analogy. When she decides what to cook for her kids she uses various criteria. For example, she disregards ramen noodles because she doesn't think they are food (her kids would disagree).  She's in charge, she gets to define success (ie. if the kids ate vegetables).

The point is: whoever's in power gets to choose what is relevant data and what success looks like. You optimize for success over time. The definition of success matters a great deal. Behind the algorithmic math are people who define success, but don't "share in the suffering of failure".

We have had a long history of racist police policy based on broken windows policy. The explicit goal as to arrest people on small charges which would theoretically reduce worse crimes in the future. But what that looks like is concentrated nonviolent crime charges in black neighborhoods. We do not have crime data. I want to make that point again. We do not have crime data. We have arrest data. We have an enormous amount of missing data on white crime data. Blacks get arrested five times as much as whites for marijuana possession whereas usage rates are the same.

We're not predicting crime - we're predicting policing.

A report by Human Rights Data Analysis Group shows that Predictive Policing Reinforces Police bias. This explores the difference between an actual crime versus an arrest as a data point. Predictive policing is perpetuating the cycle of broken windows policing even for places where they say they are not pursuing that strategy any more.

Recidivism risk algorithms is being used to get rid of the bail system. This is not simple. IT is used in sentencing, parole and bail.  People are assessed on their risk of getting arrested , failing to appear for court, etc.  These might have legitimate reasons (getting your kids from school) - the risks are higher for some people.

The questionnaires used for these assessments contain questions that are proxies for race and class. "Any prior convictions", "Do you think the system is rigged against you", "Did your father go to prison", "have you been suspended from school"  - all of these are proxies for asking race. Many of these questions would be unconstitutional in an open court but are used against you in a risk assessment. This creates a pernicious feedback loop of its own device. You get a longer sentence if your risk score is higher.

These risk scores were created to fight human bias. Judges are also racist. But unfortunately the idea of objective, scientific risk scores is not working.

Cathy O'Neil's pernicious feedback loop caused by unjust algorithms.

We need to instill the concept of ethics into data science trainings.  Cathy asked a creator if they used race.  He said no.  She asked if he uses zip code.  He says yes. The data scientists don't feel any responsibility for their use.

She says we should have a Bill of Rights for Data in this country that would explain how these scores work and are being used against us.

Malika Saada Saar

Recently Malika brought leading women's rights defenders to Google to talk about tech's role in gender violence. While talking about tech's impact on womens lives, one advocate said she felt like part of the "resistance" fighting the Empire, but while doing that the Empire was building another Death Star.

In civil society, government and more we have done the work to demand equality.  We might not have succeeded yet, but we know where to go to demand accountability.  Tech is a new circle of power; a new ecosystem of abuse, violence, subordination, and exclusion.  We have to see this, name it, and hold it accountable.

The other side is that we can use this to advance our rights.  BLM started as an online love letter. The moment of naming and shaming violence against women is only happening because of social media. #MeToo is what has allowed for this powerful echo chamber for naming and shaming what has been done to our bodies as women and girls. Social media has done more for representation of black and brown folk than the Motion Picture Association. We have to recognize that we can use this space for purposes of mobilization and the advancement of our rights.

Malika was trained as a human rights lawyer. Being at Google has been an opportunity to do that work. Her training focused on documenting abuses, so the world knows what is happening. At Google she can document in a way she never imagined before.

You have these smartphones. You can use them to bear witness, to document human rights abuses. Whether you are documenting them in Ferguson or Uganda. You take the digital evidence of those abuses and share them on these global platforms. It is absolutely what has changed the conversation around police brutality.

So much of how abuse happens is in the context of isolation and silence. Almost every genocide, every rape, happens in the context of isolation and silence. How do we use these technologies to surmount the silence and isolation? That is the power and promise of these technologies. The proof of it is in what we have seen around police brutality.

Malika saw another manifestation of this with women in Rwanda. They used smartphones to document abuse at the hands of their husbands and then showed the videos to the judges. We can use these technologies for the purposes of taking back power and protecting ourselves.

Google has been thinking about how to use VR to "scale the prison walls". Abuse in prisons can happens because others are behind the walls.  They created an immersive experience of solitary confinement. For four minutes your are in it, and it is narrated by people who have been there.  Now they are doing it for girls behind bars. Using technology in this way to bear witness is powerful… and there is danger. After four minutes we have the privilege to take the headset off and lay it down.

There are ways that we will use these technologies, reimagine them, to advance our rights. There are also ways that we have to make sure that, not only do we take what others have created for our own purposes, but also we are in the rooms to create the products themselves - for our communities, for our rights, for our safety. But it's also about how we name and recognize problems. We must hold this new space accountable - from the same place of insistence on equality and dignity that we have done in every other circle of power and privilege.

Dr. Atyia Martin

This conference has the power to impact how we change the struggle. This is an opportunity for us… so there is hard work in involved. Dr. Martin is going to connect this to the resilience plan for Boston. The strategy has been launched,  and embeds racial equity, social justice, and social cohesion.  We have to ask who benefits and who is harmed from some policy or approach? How can be address this as an opportunity to work on these social justice domains? We have to see the multiple benefits this strategy can bring.

When we talk about racism we don't always have the same framing and starting point. Our definition used in our resilience strategy is a strong academic definition but I want to share another one:

A historically rooted system of dehumanizing power structures and behavior based on ideologies that reinforce the superiority of white people and the inferiority of people of color while harming both. It is embedded in all of us. We are conditioned to adopts the behavior that fueled racism as a continuous process.

Dr. Martin has been working and re-working on this academic definition for seven years. This definition is important to understand the context of the data we work with.   Data is biased. It is human and bias is part of the human condition. We live in a society that constantly presents messages about who people of color are. How do we turn data into information? Data are some pieces that we put together the story that we call information. It starts from the collection, how we collate and synthesize, and then how we leverage that to make decisions that impact millions of people. Not just in terms of policy, but if racism is embedded everywhere then this applies across the board. We often leave this part off -- what is our personal responsibility as individuals?  

We have to work on ourselves if we want to call ourselves social justice warriors.  You can't walk someone else through a process you haven't gone through.

Our definition of racism has created two challenges. On the one hand it says that you are a good person if you point out racism. And you're a bad person if you get that pointed finger and you are a racist. So we miss the complexity. It's disrespectful to the struggle and to the people who are living it everyday.

In our culture both people of color and white people all "drink the same Kool-aid" - people of color are taking in the same media as everyone else. We have to manage the underlying things as well.  In most cases we haven't done the work to think about where that comes from. What does that mean for how I navigate the world?

The world assumes we're happy to talk about racism everyday, because we live it. We don't have the language for that y`et, but data can help us do this.

The other piece is white people who have internalized the other side of it. She wants to contribute some framing around the concept of power which we have been talking about. What does power actually mean?

  • Who gets to make decisions?

  • Who gets to allocate resources?

  • Who gets to establish the norms and standards?

  • Who gets to decide how we paint the picture of what's happening right now?

  • Who is to blame and who are the victors?

  • Who gets to decide the history?

  • Who has the time to engage, to attend meetings? (Time itself is a form of power. People of color are more likely to live in food deserts, more likely to have long commutes.)

Relationships are one of the biggest ways we perpetuate racism and other forms of social injustice. Who we decide to have over for dinner matters. Everything in our society is based on our personal relationships.  How can we leverage data to show this racism, classism, sexism?

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. - Wayne Dryer

Purvi Shah

Purvi comes from the world of law. Law for Black Lives is a sister project of Data for Black Lives.  She deferred going to law school because she got engaged in organizing, but hte organizers said no - we need you to understand the law.

She had a hard time the first year. She thought she was going to law school to learn about justice but what she ended up learning about were the rules and regulations of oppression. Law has always codified injustice and oppression. Purvi's first example of this is Johnsion v. M'Intosh was a case the created the concept of property rights… the case is about a white person taking land from a native person.

The second story was August 9, 2014, when Michael Brown was shot and his body lay in the street in Ferguson. She was a lawyer for Center for Constitutional Rights and was glued to Twitter and television and watching the protests happening. She marched into her office and asked what they were going to do. At that time, their organization was suing the President, the Pope and the NYPD, so we were pretty busy. Her boss said they were busy but why don't you go to Ferguson.

She went there a few days after the killing. In Ferguson she noticed that the media was covering the story as if it was all looters, but she say parents, veterans, and more marching each day as a ritual. Documenting what was happening online, she remembers seeing a family with all orange shirts on. They were in town for the family reunion and while she was about to tweet that they were all teargassed - babies, grandmas, and more. Purvi reminds us that this is the history of how black people are treated when the protest the killing of a family member."There is an indifference to my life" is the attitude this builds.  That's why it is important to assert that "Black Lives Matter".

This was a turning point for her as a lawyer. There was an execution style killing of Mike Brown and then hundreds of people were being arrested. One of the challenges in this situation was that lawyers did not want to stand with the community. We needed hundreds of lawyers and didn't have enough lawyers to assist them. So what they ended up doing is building the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee. They started connecting to lawyers across the country, started small, did daily calls, and shared briefs.

Post-Ferguson, there was the grand jury announcement in 2014. Then there were rallies the day after that event which sparked national protests. They saw a role for lawyers operating within the system that was creating all these problems. Then in July, 2015, they hosted Law for Black Lives. They wanted to have a turning point for the legal community. They had 1000 people that were interested and hosted 2 days of conversation about the role of the law in creating the world in which black lives matter.

They discussed policing, the environment, co-ops, and more. Law for Black Lives has mobilized lawyers from Charlottesville to Charleston, supporting victims and organizing.  They organize lawyers towards solutions as well.  At this point they have 3500 members. Over 20 have worked collaboratively to built this over the last 3 years.

Purvi Shah talks about "Movement Lawyering" and asks what are the ways that lawyers partner with the people most impacted by social problems and take an explicit, non-neutral, values-based position in their work.

Purvi wants to share some lessons from her work for people in the room. She argues that like data, law has the veneer of neutrailty; a false neutrality.

Movement lawyering is about connecting law to social movements (buidling on a long history).  This hasn't always been identified as a clear strategy, with supporting theory and practice.  What would it mean to be a "movement data" person? For them it meant partnering with the people. This is about creating an atmosphere to support people functioning and moving forward (quote from Arthur Kinoy).

"It's not about winning cases, it's about shifting power," says Shah.

Solve the problems people want you to solve. The Vision for Black Lives documents this comprehensively. People have tons of ideas for this community talk about.  Predictive sentencing, homelessness data, food justice - Purvi encourages us to start there.

She says a couple rules is that 1) There should be no rogue agents and 2) There should be no savior complexes. People in this room have a lot of expertise. How do you offer your expertise but in partnership with existing groups?

"Partnership means going at the speed of trust."


She calls on this movement to center black leadership – the folks living at the most intersections and the margins. Privilege is complex - this is not about just values and ideas, but also about strategy. People who have the lived experience are the ones most likely to see the solutions.

Emotions >= data. Lawyers, like data people, are very analytical. Both are trained to be neutral.  But emotions are a data point; both for the communities we work in and for ourselves. We need to create space for the trauma we feel, and the secondary trauma of experiencing the communities' trauma.

A Bill of Rights is great but what about a Code of Values? Law for Black Lives has a code of values on their website. They believe in democratizing the law, for example.

We have to: Change ourselves, change our work, shift our institutions and shift our fields.


What is the main goal for Data for Black Lives over the next few years?

Yeshimabeit: One of the things they are focusing on is building out this network and relationships with the people here and nationally.

Cathy: I joined Occupy in 2011 and that was 6 years ago and we still meet every week. Most people don't know that Occupy still exists but that's not hte point. The people I met then are now working for Senators, integrating themselves into the systems. It's a network that you build and make strong bonds, and then you keep going. It has a certain goal and mission.

Atyia: We need to re-think a lot of things. We need to reframe how we are thinking about the world based on research and information, remember our critical thinking and bias skills. We need to re-intellectualize - we have become so fractured around different interest areas rather than big picture goals. We get stuck on strategies versus outcomes. We need to put a mirror on ourselves on a regular basis. The research shows that if you think you are super smart then the more dangerous you are in terms of your bias. The Northeast region sees a lot of well-meaning folks that haven't done the work on themselves.

Purvi: Center yourself on things that change conditions for people suffering right now.  Work on the problem and the underlying thing.  You have to keep people alive while working on the system.

Malika: How do we make sure that there is a constant dialogue between Google, Facebook, Twitter to what you are doing? Not just issue of access. How do we unlock these spaces for criminal justice defenders for example? The other intersection that has to play out is that there's a divide between rights defenders and tech. What's the intersection between those groups? If they are not talking about predictive policing then they are not doing their work. There's a difference in knowledge and language. A lot of it is generational. Ella Baker would have said - it's the younger folk who know how to bring a movement forward.

Cathy spoke about proxies for race and class. Every place has proxies for certain modes of oppression.  How can we work towards identifying and exposing these proxies in lots of fields?

Cathy: I loved finance and started with Occupy. And I thought the weaponization of math was a finance problem. She was previously deciding who got comparison advertising when they searched for flights on travel sites. Then a venture capitalist came and his vision for the future of ads was when he got to see flights to Aruba and not see ads for University of Phoenix because that "was not for people like me." She was ticked off and then started looking at predatory online ads from trashy, private higher education institutions like U of Phoenix. I felt that I was complicit in a technology that was making people suffer. For the second time after being in finance. I'm creating a system that I personally will not suffer from but others will.

Cathy loves her luxury yarn advertisements, but on the other side it is predatory - payday lenders and for-profit colleges.  It is ruining people's lives and we call it a service.

Malika: Within human rights and civil rights community, we don't know this. It's a form of rights abuse that we don't understand. There's a real need for folks like you and the civil rights communities to be in dialogue to map these things out.

Google was asked by the civil rights community to pull down the payday loans ads.  They mobilized to bring Google to the table and explain it.  They made the decision to take them down.  Right now their is a conversation about bail bonds.  There might be more violations of civil rights.

Atyia: What was just described by Mildred is the idea that policies and practices have disproportionate outcomes for people of color is old history. This is the hisotircal context. Every issue has a historical story for why we see the problems today. Fo

The Social Security Act of 1935 did this.  They wanted to give every citizen access to money.  But the "fine print" didn't allow for agricultural workers and domestic workers ("These are proxies!" chimes in an audience member).  These started off intentionally.  This is not new, it just comes in new forms.

Purvi: The new piece is that our data is being collected. How you interact on social media is being used to identify you. Everyday people have to understand what's happening here. Most of this is happening in non-transparent ways. How can we shift the ethics and values about how this is done.  We can't bring this down from the top levels.

Malika: People of color and women have to be in the room as designers and creators.

Cathy: I agree with all that but I want to add something which is that this is about power but it is also happening in an extremely secretive environment. We have no access to weigh those algorithms, test them, see if they are wrong, see how they influence people. It's not exactly the same thing. It is historically embedded, but the tech has made it possible for people that have power to have even more power.

Atyia: The vehicle is new, but the methodology is ancient. This is important for data scientists, because you don't need to come up with things from scratch.

Malika: The tech companies talk about being justice-driven. Tech has stood up around things like the travel-ban, the bathroom-ban, DACA and more.

Community organizer from Newport News, VA, who works with youth. Working with the black community you work on lots of issues - mental health, economics, environmental justice, and more.  Is there a toolkit to train us and the youth on how to identify what data is important and what we need. The questions we have might not be the data we need to find the trend and disrupt the norm.

Cathy: This is important, and hard to answer. Different fields have different forms of evidence gathering.  "Big data" is mostly online data.  The kids are being surveilled by the big tech companies.  They can go "incognito mode" to protect themselves.  Videos and documentation are important.  The ACLU tool can immediately live stream police interactions.

Purvi: With Law for Black Lives we created chapters. How do you organize yourselves in the local communities and build bridges to people being impacted? How to democratize and build toolkits? There are pieces that are very complex. But how do we take democratization as far as possible? What's the connectivity point in this room to make that toolkit?

Categories: Blog

Increasing Voter Knowledge with Pre-Election Interventions on Facebook

November 14, 2017 - 8:52am

Liveblog of Winter Mason's talk at MIT sponsored by the MIT Gov/Lab on 13 November 2017. All errors are mine.

Moving voter knowledge is hard but possible.

Winter starts by introducing the unusually large research team serving the Civic Engagement products at Facebook. Civic engagement is one of the five major pillars of how Facebook seeks to realize its mission. Zuckerberg has clearly stated that ensuring people have a voice in their government is a priority for the platform and is the mission driving the civic engagement product team. 

Political efficacy is their north star for "better" for evaluating their product success. They see themselves involved in addressing a longer term trend in declining political efficacy in America as documented by ANES (see definition and graph below).

The civic engagement team at Facebook also thinks deeply about the values that are driving their work. In their work they reflect on whether they are being selfless, protective, fair, representative, constructive, and conscious. The value of consciousness is about knowing what their impact is whether positive or negative. They want to understand whether they are doing the things they are trying to do and not doing the things they are trying to avoid.

Research Strategy

The research process for the team begins with qualitative research: asking people is the cornerstone to understanding how people think about civics and politics. They have done research in 12 countries and multiple U.S. cities, group interviews with U.S. Senate and Congressional staffers, and interviews with social media managers of world leaders.

They have found that elections are one of the core ways that citizens feel they are heard. Everybody wants to have some way to connect with their representatives. However, people feel that there are few opportunities to be heard—they are skeptical whether individual voices matter. There has also been concern, especially among international interviewees, that there is personal risk for discussing politics online. These insights drive subsequent research and product design ideas.

Quantitative analysis on the platform around representative pages have found that connections between users and politicians do not follow constituencies. They have also noted that discussions are spiky around major events. Breaking down a topic model around legislator page discussions found that in-district and out-of-district users shows that it's hard to know whether to pay attention to certain things like swearing when you don't know if it's a true constituent. This led to the constituent badging design feature that shows who is in the district, helping representatives focus their attention in discussions.

Quantitative analysis has also revealed gaps in political engagement on Facebook. There are differences across ages and between men and women, with women on average contributing far fewer political comments among users ages 20–60. By using surveys, they can also check for political ideology self-reports to understand what biases may exist across the political spectrum among users.

CASE STUDY: 2016 U.S. Election Voting Knowledge

Voting Plan was Facebook's flagship product to enhance people's knowledge of their ballot. It provided the slate of candidates for people running in a user's district and any endorsements that had been made.

Note: All data in this study was anonymized and then deleted after the study. Analysis happened within 30 days of the election and those data are no longer available and there is no way to go back and check on individuals' preferences now.

They conducted a large scale survey to measure their impact on both knowledge and key attitudes. The survey was built according to your own ballot. Contest knowledge questions asked about which offices were being elected this year. And candidate knowledge questions asked about who was running for those offices. And they wanted to make sure they were changing people's positions so they measured "affective polarization," a.k.a. how tribal people were feeling toward their own party.

Random control groups were used to causally determine the impact of these products. The treatment group received a newsfeed promo inviting them to use the voting plan, which they could also access through search, bookmark, and friends' posts. And a random 1% of users were in the control group that still had access to the tool through search, bookmark, and posts but did not get the newsfeed promo.

They found a significant lift in knowledge of ballot contests for treatment versus control. This 6% lift is equivalent to the difference between high school and college students. There was no difference in candidate knowledge, which means this a place for improving the design. There was also no difference on affective polarization (which is good!), they were not having an impact on political attitudes.

CASE STUDY: 2017 French and UK Elections Voting Knowledge

On politician pages, there was a new "Issue" tab where officials could add cards with their positions on different issues. Of course, only the few most hardcore political junkies would go to an issues tab on a politician's page.

See video on Huffingtonpost.fr.

So, the "Election Perspectives" product was introduced in the 2017 French and UK elections so that these issue position cards could be added onto newsfeed items that discussed those particular issues. This allowed people to browse through and compare the positions of different candidates and different parties. Users could then also share different policy cards.

They saw a lot of engagement with these cards. First, they broke down clicks and shares and saw that there was some difference between issue interest and those that sparked a desire to share after browsing the cards.

And they did survey research in UK and France (at both election rounds) that asked about knowledge about candidates as well as perspectives on their own knowledge and the diversity of political information sources. In France, they found that the impact was detectable during Round 2 between treatment and control among those who had the lowest political interest. Of course, this was a small group because those that have low political interest are least likely to interact with the Election Perspectives tool. That said, this is now driving some design work on how they could reach this group in other ways.

In the UK, they ran the same survey as during the first two rounds in France although with a much larger sample. There were also two control groups because the UK has a long-term hold-out group not exposed to Facebook civic engagement products. However, despite the larger power and stronger design for impact of any of their products there was no different political knowledge even when controlling for political interest.

Conclusion: Increase voter knowledge is a tough yet worthwhile endeavor. Winter notes that the neutral impacts are still important because they ensure that they are being responsible in their research and their product design.

Selected/Edited Q&A

Question: How are you acting on the gap in female participation that you illustrated?

Facebook doesn't just want to optimize for engagement with the platform. Fairness is a principle they take seriously in practice. There is one example from a product where they changed the privacy settings around sharing political preferences. The stricter privacy model reduced overall participation but increase female participation which the closer to the true goal.

Question: Is Facebook only committed to thinking about civics in such a high-minded way about voting information and elections, especially considering we are realizing that low-minded, meme-pandering is a huge part of the discourse and is having an impact on elections?

If Facebook found that memes were really effective and getting politicians to listen to their constituents, then they would have to look closer at that. They are completely committed to the goal of having real voice in government.

There are other teams at Facebook focused on civil discourse. They know that women don't participate online in politics because of the abuse they sustain. And it is against their goal of fairness, so they opt for a higher minded approach because it is closer to their holistic goals.

Question: The elephant in the room is the problem of fake news and the use of advertising by nefarious actors, the best known is Russia.

Winter thanks the audience member for disambiguating between Facebook's opinion and his own. First, the Facebook company position is that they need to address bad stuff like fake news and the company has been very public about hiring up on this and will likely continue to do so.

But if Winter argues that if Facebook only tried to stamp out the bad stuff and didn't try to promote democracy, then they would be missing out on a huge opportunity. His high-minded belief is that in the long-term the focus on things like voting information may help address these problems.

Question: How are these new products improving the quality of political discourse on Facebook?

Studying this is on Winter's to-do list. He knows they have roughly doubled the connections between people and their representatives and doubled the number of interactions between them. But looking at the nature of political discussion before and after the introduction of their new products has not been closely researched yet.

Question: How do you deal with biases in the sample participation on Facebook and on your research? Are you re-weighting them to what the American electorate looks like?

This is something I Winter has been looking at and he says he should probably report on his slides. And it turns out that respondents to their surveys are closer demographically to the American electorate than to the Facebook population.

Question: Could reducing men's commenting produce fairer participation or perhaps we should move toward a model of collective action? And what does this mean about political efficacy?

There is much more to research here. In their analyses, Facebook has found that being connected to your representatives is most closely correlated with political efficacy.

Question: What about products between elections? Would you do something about election promises?

They have been thinking a lot about this, especially accountability ideas, although they don't know exactly how to implement this. The "Town Hall" tool is the start of this to allow everyone to easily follow their representatives after an election. And now there is a way to get a summary of posts from representatives on a regular basis.

Question: You talked about the difference between civics and politics. How are you thinking about civic engagement and grassroots efforts?

They recently sat down with the leaders of groups like Pantsuit Nation and March for Science and asked them about what their needs were and what they wanted to do next. They are really excited to do more thinking about this.

Civic media
Categories: Blog

Data For Equity: The Power of Data to Promote Justice - Liveblog

September 26, 2017 - 3:28pm

This is a live blog account from the Data For Equity: The Power of Data to Promote Justice event.


Barbara Best, Executive Director, Center for Public Leadership, introduces the panel. The moderator is Yeshimabeit Milner, the Executive Director and Founder of Data for Black Lives which uses data science to create concrete measureable change in black lives.  The panel has been organized by Black Student Union and Black Policy Conference. People are tuning in via the livestream.

Yeshi introduces Data for Black Lives. They are building a movement for scientists, activists and organizers. We can use data and tech to make concrete change in the lives of black people and all people. Data and tech is changing the world so fast. We can look to the past to respond to the present moment. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin - separated seeds from cotton fiber. Cotton became king in US. By the 1850s, the Us produced the vast majority of cotton produced worldwide. The cotton gin was a gamechanging social invention. But it had extraordinary negative impact on transatlantic slave trade. For millions of enslaved people, cotton gin helped expand a cruel and violent system. No technology is neutral. For far too long data and tech have been weaponized against community. But we have examples of technology for positive social change. We are seeing advances now in civic analytics and data at all levels of government. Data plays a huge role in allocation of resources. These tools have a role to play in equity and to help elevate the voices that have been silenced.


This call to action is more urgent than ever before. How do we use data to expose inequity and hold governments accountable?


The four panelists here have used data in inspiring and different ways to promote justice. They include:

William Isaac, Fellow, Open Society Foundation; Research Advisor, the Human Rights Data Analysis Group
Kelly Jin, Director, Data-Driven Justice at the Arnold Foundation; former Citywide Analytics Manager, City of Boston
Carlos Rojas, Special Projects Consultant, Youth on Board; Founding Member, Boston Education Justice Alliance
Paola Villarreal, Harvard University Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; former Data Science Fellow, ACLU

Yeshi will use some of the questions submitted online prior to the event to guide the panel discussion. Each panelist will briefly introduce themselves.


William Isaac leads with an introduction of his work. He focuses on algorithms and their role in public decision making. There's an assumption amongst policy-makers that data is good and objective. Through his research he wants to show that data is not objective and that algorithms in and of themselves do not solve those problems. His research tries to illuminate that and build towards something better.


Kelly Jin has worked in many organizations. She feels everyone should tackle one issue: every year we have millions of people cycling through local jails. This costs a lot of money. When you look closer many have mental health issues, substance abuse issues. They launched the data-driven justice program at the White House last year to try to address this at the local level. People keep ending up in jail. How to bring together ER doctors, sheriffs and local communities to hold government accountable? She previously built the data team at City Hall Boston.

Paola Villareal says she comes from a corrupt country and she thought it would be different here. But it happens that it's not - it's just a different kind of corruption called oppression. There are many pipelines that show that. Every state and city has a different type of oppressive pipeline that is biased against people of color. She is here because she started to work on data, analyze it and show disparities. It is super important to learn about these shocking biases and oppressive systems.

Carlos Rojas says he comes from a perceived corrupt country - Colombia - and moved here when he was five. They moved to Dudley Square. After 6 months here, he became undocumented because they had flown in with a tourist visa. He noted how black and brown kids interacted with police. He was told to never, ever approach or talk to a police officer. If you do, be very polite or you might get arrested. As he grew up, he became aware of the ways that these problems start within the school system. What does it look like to reform school-level policies. School-to-prison pipeline in this country is a real thing. It sends young black and brown people from school directly into prison. They believe that young people organizing and in partnerships with adults can make beautiful things happen. Data that corroborates that lived experience is also very important. He has examples of amazing advocacy efforts but they are also having struggles getting the state to hold agencies accountable.


Yeshi says this represents real breadth. One of the first questions from the audience - what have been the pro and con impacts of data-driven decision making in government over the past decade?


Kelly says she wouldn't go that far back. The core of a of the work around open data has only blossomed in the last five or so years. Cities have done a lot of work to open up their data. It's hard to unlock data, but fundamentally this is public data. That's the first step - how do we unlock it. From that, the engagement of a much broader community is what matters. If you have 300 data sets it means nothing if no one is using them for policy change or research or recommendations. The policy changes that have happened as a result of people looking at the data are what matters. One question is what tech infrastructure can we build on top of open data to provide value back to citizens. For example, individual health data donated to researchers. Technology - why aren't we using more open source? It's amazing to see the turnout for this event - how can these people get involved?


Paola says that people are here because of openness - this has happened in the last 8-10 years. Open source, open government, open data. It's not just a set of tools but a mission. Openness in general is one of the best things that have happened. But on the other hand, machine learning in the criminal justice system is one of the worst things that has happened. We need to solve that. In the meantime, I would call for an embargo on that.


Walter agrees that openness is the biggest thing he has seen. We have seen the big coastal cities who have embraced data. He has seen something different in the midwest. In Michigan, they faced the Flint water crisis. They had no digital records of the water pipe existing. It turns out that they actually did have records but they were on file cards and there was one person responsible for them. Loveland Technologies is a company that then took those cards and digitized them. Data does have a lot of good use when you are allowed to share, usually with partners not inside government. The cons of this movement - there have been some weird things coming out of machine learning.  Part of it is algorithm but part of it is the institutional decision making on top of that. Some people in government don't want to use data at all. Others say data will solve all our problems and don't like when you say bad things about data. There has to be some middle ground. It's not just machine learning or algorithms. Some places have predictive policing but don't even use the software. Even when they have the tools when the institutions don't change as well then nothing changes. Particularly need to focus on accountability mechanisms.


Kelly adds that one thing they have talked about is TQ - what is the technology/data quotient within government and how do you improve that? Data and tech vendors come into government. What are you doing? What decisions making? Data ethics and algorithmic transparency - how do you ensure that? The algorithms should also possibly be public.


Carlos says that in the school systems it has been striking what data has been capable of both positively and negatively. No Child Left Behind put schools in frenzy of data collection around test scores and what amounted to a toxic culture of high stakes testing. The policy ended up doing exactly what it was not designed to do - closed schools, left many students behind. The biggest predictor of how well you do on a test is how much money your parents make. But on the other hand, youth organizers have been demanding that schools collect more data. In the case of dismantling the school to prison pipeline, the state wasn't collecting data on school discipline. We didn't see data on who was being suspended and expelled. For years, we had to rely on personal narrative and anecdotes to prove that young people of color were being suspended at egregiously disproportionate levels. We demanded that the state collect disaggregated data, school by school, so that we could see better the school to prison pipeline.


Yeshi asks the next question. Openness has made it possible for us to be here today. But one thing we are grappling with, once people get the data, what are they going to do with it? Not everyone can learn R. She got involved with data collection as a youth organizer. How do we scale data literacy and change how we teach about data to get more women and people of color to make the open data movement more lively and accessible to more people?

Paola says we need more ways to tell stories and show how data impacted communities. We need more community engagement and co-creation. Show communities the data and ask them what they think. Data scientists are not saviors. They collaborate with communities to define the problem.

Carlos states that he has seen the impact when data scientists align with community groups. And they have also seen data waste when researchers create data and then it just sits on a shelf and isn't used by groups that could benefit from it. They are lucky to work in a city that is rich in data science. Lot of people in Boston are interested to take direction from people on the ground. They come to them and say "What research do you need done to make your work effective?" Then when young people are in a legislator's office they have data to back their arguments. We have been very invested in those partnerships. On Oct 19th, they will be gathering with youth and parent groups to review at the Chapter 222 data, talk about what is happening on the ground, determine how to move forward.

Paola says the most impactful work she has done was in teams of lawyers, community members, advocates and activists.


Kelly says she wants to talk about the role of media in this. How do we continue to show that there are women and minorities working in this field? For example, the film Hidden Figures. And on "how do we engage" - not to have data for data's sake but to determine what the questions are and then figure out what are the data sets to help make those easier to answer. What data are we not collecting? There are so many cases where no one is collecting that information. There is a huge piece of catching up.


Walter thinks a lot about how you teach these concepts. For undergrads and people in college they created InnovateGov program that teaches them data science and then places them in government agencies. They found that you need to have something that you are passionate about. A lot of the stuff is boring. But the coolest part is that when you possess the knowledge you can present it to someone to make a case that they should change things. For example, a student team collected surveys about how to reach people involved in foreclosures. For high school students - smaller toy data sets where you introduce concepts and giving them passion or interest in a topic.

Yeshi asks what are some good examples of cases where agencies and orgs have used data for justice? That will help us after the Q&A.

Carlos talks about Youth on Board. They created surveys with questions that would help paint picture of students of color as well as listening projects where they would go have quick conversations. To engage them, they needed two things: big signs and bags of candy. Their questions were like, "Do you have police in your school? How do they affect the environment? Have you been suspended? Do you think it was fair? Do you think your race had anything to do with it?" We didn't find anything surprising. They passed the Chapter 222 legislation which said instead of districts just doing zero-tolerance, they had to try other methods before suspension and expulsion. But they had no way of holding schools accountable on this. They decided to develop an app that summarizes major changes and allows you to report an equity grievance and they developed the Boston Student Rights app. Incredible tool that collected 26,000 cases. Students are using it to educate themselves and their teachers. Sometimes they are using it to advocate for themselves and prevent themselves from being suspended. All the data goes to the department of equity which the community group has a good relation with.

However, but now the schools are doing things like dismissing students early, doing emergency removals, and providing an informal no-trespassing notice. These things fall under the radar but then are not held accountable from the state.

Paola discusses her work for the ACLU and its relationship with the City of Boston. Although the entities did not agree, there was an open and transparent process. Data & Society is a great research organization.

Kelly talks about Measures for Justice - they are doing the hard work to do data collection and make it open and available. How do philanthropists step up to do that work? Coding it forward class at HKS taught by Nick Sinai creates partnerships between undergrads and the city of Boston. Finally, Jen Palka runs Code for America, like Teach for America for technologists who are placed in local jurisdictions.

Walter says he has so many examples. Sam Singyawe is amazing and part of Black Lives Matter started Mapping Police Violence. Some smaller ones in Detroit - like Data-driven Detroit, Future City Detroit - projects that are building the public infrastructure for data. A lot of nonprofits are doing the heavy lifting.


Categories: Blog

Hiring a Media Cloud Contract UX Specialist

September 22, 2017 - 8:21am

Online media is in a state of flux. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, so-called fake news - these are all recent developments that have radically altered the landscape of news and information online. We call this the "networked public sphere", and the Media Cloud project was created to track and understand it. Come help us design easier-to-use data-centric web tools for academic internet researchers and human rights activists that let them investigate coverage and conversations online about topics they care about.

The Media Cloud project is seeking a contract user experience specialist to help assess our existing web-based tools, and design new ones, to support data-driven research about the role of online media in civic discourse. The specialist will begin by designing and leading a process to evaluate the usability of our current suite of web based tools (available at tools.mediacloud.org). They will collaborate with the technology team to understand the current and future features available, focused on how they could be used by media-makers like documentary film producers. They will assist in development of training guides for novice users in the non-profit space. The position will be a 6-month part-time contract position based at the Center for Civic Media (at the MIT Media Lab), but the UX specialist will work closely with members in other institutions as well. This is a grant-funded contract position that we hope to extend, or perhaps turn into a staff position.

Media Cloud is a joint project between the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. We are an open source project producing research about the networked public sphere, and helping others do their own research about online media. We make available to the public our existing archive of more than 550 million stories, adding more than 40,000 new stories daily. The project is funded by human rights foundations. We produce both the open platform and research that helps our funders make decisions about how best to influence online civic conversations about democracy, activism, and health.

We are a diverse project of researchers and technologists who love to wrestle with hard questions about online media by using a combination of social, computer, and data sciences. The ideal candidate will work well with all members of the team, from senior faculty to junior developers, and will thrive in an academic atmosphere that privileges constant questioning and validation at all levels of the platform and of our research products. Experience working on big data systems, or data-driven interfaces, as is experience working on projects investigating online media.

Minimum Qualifications

  • at least two years experience working as a UX designer on web-based products;
  • familiarity with user-centered design and research methodologies;
  • demonstrated ability to translate between technical and non-technical audiences;
  • demonstrated ability to iterate on design ideas quickly;
  • demonstrated ability to use data to validate decisions;
  • experience writing design documents and user guides;
  • interest in working on issues related to democracy, gender, race, health, and globalization.


  • design and lead a usability study with non-profit partners;
  • document key findings in a report;
  • create and assess mockups for existing and new features;
  • contribute to the ongoing identification of key features to add to the platform;
  • assist in the development of user guides for tools;
  • collaborate with undergraduate interns working on same project.

Helpful Skills

  • a strong portfolio showing user-centered design approaches applied to data-intensive products;
  • passion for solving difficult engineering and data problems;
  • experience designing data-driven interfaces;
  • experience working with design tools like Sketch, Photoshop and Illustrator;
  • knowledge and interest in social sciences;

Much of our substantive work focuses on issues of gender, race, and globalization. We strongly encourage women, people of color, people of all ages, and people of any sexual identity to apply.

The job is based in Cambridge, MA, but much of our team is distributed around the world. We are open to alternative working arrangements that include part time residence in Cambridge. We imagine this position as a 2- or 3-day a week engagement over 5 to 6 months, but are open to other approaches.

Apply by sending a cover letter, resume, and portfolio to jobs@mediacloud.org.

Categories: Blog

An Open Letter From Civic Hackers to Puerto Rico & USVI in the Wake of Hurricane Maria

September 19, 2017 - 2:49pm

I am working with a group of civic developers committed to supporting Hurricane victims for relief & recovery who have helped with the software development and data analysis of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma primarily in Texas and Florida. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, we want to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the same way. Devastation has already occurred in Puerto Rico and the USVI, and we’re here to help in the response and recovery pending from Maria.

But, we won’t jump in without your permission. These places have a long history of imperialism, and we refuse to add tech colonialism on top of that.

Here’s how we might be able to help: Rescue

Sometimes emergency services are overloaded fielding calls and deploying assistance. Remote grassroots groups help take in additional requests through social media and apps like Zello and then help to dispatch local people who are offering to perform rescue services (like the Cajun Navy in Houston after Hurricane Harvey).

Shelter updates

As people seek shelter while communication infrastructure remains spotty, having a way to text or call to findt the nearest shelter accepting people becomes useful. We can remotely keep track of what shelters are open and accepting people by calling them and scraping websites, along with extra information such as if they accept pets and if they check identification.

Needs matching

As people settle into shelters or return to their homes, they start needing things like first aid supplies and building materials. Shelter managers or community leaders seek ways to pair those offering material support with those in need of the support. We help with the technology and data related to taking and fulfilling these requests, although we don’t fulfill the requests directly ourselves.

If you are interested in this, please let us know by emailing me (bl00 at mit) or finding us on Twitter at @irmaresponse or @sketchcityhou.

Here are other groups lending aid already (maintained by someone else).
If you’re looking to jump in an an existing task, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team already has a tasker active for helping to map the area for responders and coordination.

Categories: Blog

How Would You Design Crypto Backdoor Regulation? Ed Felten at CITP

September 19, 2017 - 10:43am

Law enforcement sometimes argue that they need backdoors to encryption in order to carry out their mission, while cryptographers like Bruce Schneier describe the public cybersecurity risk from backdoors and say that the "technology just doesn't work that way."

I'm here at the Princeton University Center for Information Tech Policy, liveblogging the first public lunch of the semester, where Ed Felten shares work in progress to find a way through this argument. Ed is the director of CITP and a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University. He served at the White House as the Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer from June 2015 to January 2017. Ed was also the first chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission from January 2011 until September 2012.

Ed starts out by pointing out that his talk is work in progress, that he's thinking about the U.S. policy context. His goal is to explore the encryption policy issue in relation to the details, understand the tradeoffs, and imagine effective policies– something he says is rare in debates over encryption backdoors.

Five Equities For Thinking about Encryption Backdoor Policies

People who debate encryption backdoors are often thinking about five "equities," says Ed. Focus on public safety concerns the ability of law enforcement and intelligence community to protect the public from harm. Cybersecurity is the ability of law-abiding people to protect their systems. Personal privacy is the ability of users to control the data about them. Civil liberties and free expression concern the ability of people to exercise their rights and speak freely. Economic competitiveness is the ability of US companies to compete in international and domestic markets. Across all of these, we care about these things over time, not just immediately.

Ed notes that policy debates often come to loggerheads because people weight these equities differently. For example, people often contrast public safety with cybersecurity without considering other factors. They also come to loggerheads when people start with these equities without asking in detail what regulation can and cannot do. 

Understanding Policy Pipielines

When we think about policies, Ed encourages us to think about a three-part pipeline. Policymakers start by thinking about regulation, hope that the regulation creates changes in design and user behavior, and then ask the impact of those changes and behaviors on the equities that matter. In this conversation, Ed is working from an assumption of basic trust in the US rule of law, as well as realism about technology, economics, and policy.

The Nobody But Us Principle (NOBUS)
In the past, signals intelligence agencies have tended to have two goals: to undermine the security of adversaries' technologies while strengthening the security of our own technologies. Lately, there's been a problem, which is that US adversaries tend to use the same technologies: strengthening or weakening adversaries' security also affects our own security.

The usual doctrine in these situations is to assume that it's better to strengthen encryption, in hopes that one's own country benefits from that strength. But there's an exception: perhaps one could look for methods of access that the US can carry out but adversaries cannot; these methods are NOBUS (nobody but us). For example, zero-day exploits are an example of something that intelligence agencies might think of as NOBUS. Of course, as Ed points out, the NOBUS principle raises important questions about who the "us" are in any policy idea.

NOBUS Test in Crypto Policy

Based on the NOBUS principle, Ed proposes a principle that any mandated means of access to encrypted data must be NOBUS with high probability. Several rules fail this test, such as banning all encryption, or requiring that encryption be disabled by default.

Why Do People Need Crypto?

Ed offers some basics on cryptography, pointing out that cryptography is used to protect three things. It protects confidentiality, so unauthorized party can't learn message contents. Crypto protects integrity, so unauthorized parties can't forge or modify messages without detection. It also protects identity, protecting people from impersonation. Ed describes two main scenarios for uses of crypto: storage and communications.

In storage situations, device keys and passcodes are combined to create a storage key that can be used to encrypt and decrypt data from a computer or a phone. Once the key is no longer being used, the information is removed and the device is safe.

Encrypted communications are more complicated. Here is a typical situation: In a handshake phase, two people use long-term identity keys to confirm who they are and receive a session key. During the data transfer phase, the session key is used to encrypt and decrypt messages between them. They might change the session key from time to time, and when they are done with the key, they delete it. Once they have deleted a session key, an adversary will be unable to decrypt anything that was said during that session key. Systems like TLS for secure browsing and the Signal protocol fit within this framework.

Trends in the Uses of Crypto

When law enforcement make statements about how they're losing access to communications, they're making a claim about trends. We are seeing a move toward more encryption in storage and on devices, says Ed. To understand the actual impact on security, Ed argues, we should ask instead: who can recover the data? If only the user can recover the data, then law enforcement/intelligence (LE/IC) may lose access. But if the service provider can recover, then LE/IC can get access from the provider. To think through this, Ed asks us to imagine email services. Messages might be encrypted, but law enforcement can often still get companies to give the data to law enforcement.

Ed predicts that in situations where most users want data recovery as a feature, or where the nature of the service requires the provider to have access, the provider will have access, and law enforcement will be able to access it. This includes most email and file storage. Otherwise, users will have exclusive control, in areas such as private messages and ephemeral data.

Designing a Regulatory Requirement for Crypto Backdoors

Any regulatory requirement needs to work through a series of trade-offs, issues that have no relation to the technical questions, says Ed. He outlines a series of decisions that need to be made when designing a regulation on crypto backdoors.

The first question to ask is: should we regulate storage only, or storage and comunications? Communications are harder because keys change frequently and LE/IC can't assume access to the device. Storage regulations typically assume that LE/IC has access to the device, so this is an important question. Storage-only approaches are simpler, so regulation writers should consider whether they should stretch for communications or not. In today's conversation, Ed focuses on storage for simplicity.

The next decision is to ask which services are covered by the regulation. There are many kinds of products that use crypto, and regulators need to decide how much to cover. The broader the range, the more complicated the regulation is, and the greater the burden becomes across the equities. But simple regulations can put many of LE/IC requests beyond their reach. Ed urges us to stop thinking about the iphone, a vertically-integrated system run by a single company. Think instead about an android phone, which involves many different companies from many countries in one device: chip makers, device manufacturers, OS distributors, open source contributors, crypto library distributors, mobile carriers, retailers, and app developers. All of them put technology on the phone, and you have to decide which ones in this supply chain are covered by the regulation.

When deciding who to cover in the regulation, you also need to ask what they're able to do. Chip makers can't control the operating systems. Manufacturers are often foreign. App developers are small teams or individual contractors.

The next decision is to ask how robust encryption backdoors must be. If users attempt to prevent access, how strongly must the system resist? Ed outlines several options. The first option is not to resist user attempts. Another option is to make disabling the backdoor at least as hard as jailbreaking the device. A stronger option would be to require users to conduct non-trivial modifications to hardware to secure. If you require this, you will make it much less likely that adversaries and would-be targets would evade the public safety investigation, but it also probably requires hardware modifications. Legacy systems would be unable to comply, and depending on who you require to comply, they might not be able to comply; you couldn't ask Google to require hardware backdoors on android phones, whose hardware they don't control.

Next, regulators need to decide how to treat legacy products. Do you allow legacy systems? Do you ban them? If so, how can people tell if their system has a backdoor to comply with the ban, and do you want them to know?

Another decision is to work out what to do with travelers. If someone travels to the U.S. and brings a device that is compliant with their own country's rules but not US policies, what do you do? Do you allow it, so long as the visit is time-limited? Do you prohibit it, detecting and taking away the device? Do you try to reconfigure the device at the border? Manually? Automatically? How would these requirements violate trade agreements?

All of these decisions, says Ed, are decisions you need to make even before discussing the technical details. Next, he talks through the most common technical proposal, key escrow, to show how regulators could reason through these policies.

Technical Example: Key Escrow

Under the key escrow approach, storage systems are required to keep a copy of the storage key, encrypting it so that a ``recovery key'' is needed to recover it. The storage system creates and stores an escrow package. Recovering takes a three-stage process: extract the escrow package from the device, decrypt the escrow package to get the storage key, and use the storage key to decrypt the data.

If you use key escrow, you have to decide if you're going to require physical access. On option is to require that physical access is necessary, you could allow remote access to the escrow package, or you could leave it to the market. Requiring physical access limits the worst case from the leak of keys; even if the recovery key is compromised, users could protect themselves through physical control. In the US, law enforcement have said that they envision using key escrow systems only in cases of physical access and court orders. Relying on a requirement for physical access depends on a technical ability to do so, something that is theoretical so far and may be difficult to force hardware supply chains to comply with.

Next Ed shows us a matrix of four policy approaches:

  • The device must include a physical access port for law enforcement
  • The company must hold and provide the escrow package and give it to law enforcement if requested
  • The company must provide the storage key directly when requested from law enforcement
  • The company must provide the data

Lower on the list, the company does the work and has more design latitude about how to respond. But the bottom two policy approaches have a NOBUS problem, since they expose users to third party access. Requiring companies to provide the data and to store the key probably fails the NOBUS test as well. In the top two options, law enforcement needs knowledge about many devices, probably managed through industry standard.

Maybe there are more options. Ed talks about a number of other possibilities, including working on who holds the recovery keys. Giving all keys to the US government could harm competitiveness and be blocked by other governments. Giving keys to other countries fails the NOBUS test because it gives other governments a competitive advantage.

Another option is to split the keys, giving the keys to multiple parties and requiring them all to participate. Imagine for example that one key is held by the company and one by the FBI. This approach has some advantages. The approach is NOBUS if any one of the key holders is NOBUS, since any key holder can withhold participation. This approach is also more resilient against compromise of recovery keys. Disadvantages are that any key holder can block recovery, availability is harder to ensure, and every key holder learns which devices were accessed.

Another split-key model requires that some subset of all keys be used (K-of-N keys) to access the data. The advantages of the system are that the approach is NOBUS if at least N-K+1 of the key holders are NOBUS. It's more resilient against compromise than a single key. Among disadvantages, any N-K+1 key holders can block recovery, K key holders learn which devices were accessed, and the system is much less resilient against compromise than a simple split key.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Ed wraps up by arguing that we can have a policy discussion beyond the impasse people in security policy have reached. He suggests that we think about the entire regulation pipeline, from regulation to response to impact. Next, regulators need to think about the full range of products, how they are designed, how they are used, and the impact on equities. The NOBUS test does help regulators narrow down choices. Yet each of the decisions has tradeoffs with pros and cons. Overall, Ed hopes that his talk shows how regulation debates should engage with details and unpack how to think about the policy by working through specific proposals.

Finally, Ed encourages us to take the final step that his talk leaves out: thinking through the impact of policy ideas on the equities in play and how to weigh them.

mobile devicesnetworkstechnology solutions
Categories: Blog

Digital Democracy: Participatory Mapping & Tool-building in the Amazon

September 14, 2017 - 10:24am

This is a liveblog of a talk by Emily Jacobi (@emjacobi) at the MIT Center for Civic Media, written by Erhardt Graeff, Rahul Bhargava, and Alexis Hope. All errors are our own.

  Digital Democracy (DD) works in solidarity with groups around the world to empower marginalized communities to use technology to defend their rights. This means that they are different from other groups because they are not trying to pursue their own agenda through their work. Their mission is driven by the agenda of their partners.   DD was founded almost 10 years after being inspired by research they were doing in Burma. Emily noticed a correlation between internet access and political engagement. She had a realization that new technology was being leveraged to make new kinds of engagement possible, but that it also creates new risks and challenges. They started by doing workshops and trainings that were requested by local partners Some of DD's earliest work was with women in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Women in the camps were self-organizing to respond to violence. The organization learned a lot about what it means to be engaged in a long-term partnership, and about not coming in with preconceived notions of a solution.   They developed an SMS project that failed, but it led to a call center there that made positive impact. Emilie Reiser (from Civic Media) worked with this community on that project and the work informed a lot of what DD does now.   Their approach involves two interlinked components: (1) direct engagement with local partners and (2) building open-source tools that come from the lived experiences of their partners.   The core values underlying all their work are:
  • Self-determination & Autonomy

  • Accessibility

  • Collaboration

  • Social & Environmental Justice


These values are not just about the inherent injustices faced by the indigenous people they work with, but goes to the core of how people are included in design processes and decision making about their futures. Their accessibility work includes topics such as language, usability, support for offline work, and more.


Currently DD is working on longer-term projects in Ecuador and Guyana.


Guyana Case Study

See https://www.digital-democracy.org/ourwork/guyana/


Wapichana people were guaranteed full-autonomy before independence, but have had to fight for over 5 decades to try to win this independence.  DD has been working for the past 5 years on mapping projects there.


They've created a hyper-detailed map of their area. This includes everything from where they gather eggs, where rare birds are, churches, homesteads.


They right now only have rights to where the villages are. The map helps them document their use of other lands to then try and gain rights to them. The mountains around them have lots of illegal gold mining, which is creating environmental risks that affect them.

Part of the mapping work has involved helping people use drones to take imagery of illegal gold mining. They’ve taken the images to the government, and the government has responded by stopping the illegal mining activities.  In addition, they have been able to use this imagery internally to drive community discussions about why these issues matter to their survival.

They have also been in talks with the government to determine whether they can have their full land rights recognized.

Ecuador Case Study

See http://www.digital-democracy.org/blog/update-from-the-ecuadorian-amazon/


In Wuorani territory of eastern Ecuador they are working with native people's in a national forest. DD has been asked to accompany the Wuorani people to map their entire territory. This involves 12 current communities with the plan to bring in 10 more over the next year.


The process starts with paper maps (accessible to all). Some communities will separate men and women for different workshops to ensure that everyone has a voice during the session by minimizing the gender dynamics.



The hand-drawn maps beautifully illustrate their connection and knowledge of the land.  The process lets them take the information in their heads and share it with government officials making decisions about things like mining rights. Then they go out and collect GPS points they record in paper booklets (for now). They also do media making to capture narratives from across the territory. This project has helped bridge the gap between young people (who are often driven to move to the city for work) and elders, who have a deep knowledge of the area.



They have "Technicos" that get trained are elected by the community.  They take these walks to take GPS points to produce a formal map based on the collaborative hand-drawn one.



See http://www.digital-democracy.org/blog/mapeo-preview/


One big gap they find is that in offline environments there are very few tools that work.  The ones that do are very complex to learn (ie. ArcGIS). DD wanted a tool that would remove them from the equation, letting communities manage their own information.


A key goal of Mapeo is that all data and visualizations can be locally-owned and managed, the software is easy-to-use, works offline, and is collaborative. They've built on top of ID Editor, which is used with OpenStreetMaps (OSM). OSM has been helpful in creating maps of places that do not have them—for example, companies hadn’t mapped Haiti before the earthquake because there wasn’t commercial value in it, and OSM allowed people to build new maps.


They've changed ID Editor to be culturally appropriate for the Wuorani people. This includes more appropriate defaults, and picking iconography to represent things like nesting grounds, villages, etc. The Wuorani people have also used Mapeo to identify not just specific locations, but also larger areas. For example, designating an area where they won’t hunt again for a while. It’s been useful in helping address self-governance questions.


Once they've captured the GPS points, they print out a draft and have the community check and edit it in physical form.  Once those edits are done they print out big versions of the map.  They are designing and developing an interactive map that will also integrate stories and blogs about certain areas.


Seikopai digital participative mapping from Digital Democracy on Vimeo.

  • My family is from Guyana — I can’t believe you’re working there. Why did you choose Guyana?

    • DD got a Knight News grant to work on what has become Mapeo. DD connected to the Guyana groups after they heard about DD's previous work in Peru. Then they were invited in to collaborate.

  • I worked in an area on the coast and we were doing a tree inventory. This tool could be great for mapping the trees and how they use them.

    • The desktop version of Mapeo works well, but they are working on a mobile version that will work better for ongoing work.

  • Is there a fear that the information could be used by the wrong people?

    • DD has forked off of OSM, so everything is internal. The community can decide what is released to the world and when. Open data is important when discussing players in power. For small actors, opening data creates opportunities for exploitation. DD tries to help their partners are agency over that and navigate it.

  • How long does this take?

    • Sometimes groups really need to make a map. Other times the mapping is a way to build community awareness. With the Wuorani the first few villages took a long time, but now DD just provides tech support and bug fixing.

  • Do you have materials about how to be the sidekick and support well?

    • Right now neither side of DD's work is ready to easily share. The idea is to have guides and manuals. The idea of being a "sidekick rather than a superhero" is a great way to say it. DD tries to fight the superhero narrative.

  • How do start to talk with our funders about this type of process - maybe building partnerships for 3 years before tools are designed built.

    • Can we do this as a coalition somehow.  Mapeo was funded by the Knight News Challenge, which they've managed to stretch for a long time. DD's partners work with international groups to find funding to support roll-out. We now have a tool that is worthy of investment but a few years ago I would have been lying to make the pitch that we have a project that is ready to go.

  • Is the tool ready for implementation in other places—for instance there is a need for mapping biodiversity in Mexico?

    • If you know how to use GitHub, then yes! But we do not have a lot of the supportive resources put in place that a lot of people need to implement it. It's also important to note that the tool is oriented toward a community working on it together rather than an individual. Also, it is important to note that the Wuorani people's map icons are those people's intellectual property but they are working on generic rainforest icons that anyone can use on their own maps.

  • Is there any effort to adapt Mapeo to coastal communities?

    • We are fortunate that their is a lot of the Amazon and lot of people working on that effort. But I think it's possible to adapt to those geographies.

  • Would you be interested in bringing in additional drone mapping and machine learning processing to expand the mapping efforts?

    • One of the most valuable aspects of the current mapping process is the human element where everyone has a chance to have a voice in the process. There are some cases where a more rapid response might be warranted to address a specific need, but there is a lot of value in the slower process.

  • Some people think about mapping in terms of the switch from oral traditions to written or visual, and so how do you think about what is lost through the process?

    • The Wuorani was first contacted by Baptist missionaries a few decades ago, which led to disease and social problems. And for them mapping represented something that was imposed on them, telling them where their territory was and what they could or couldn't do with it. Maps have been used to disempower people for centuries. The Mapeo process offers them an opportunity to claim some of this power back.

Categories: Blog

Organizing Christians to Protect Migrant Rights: Robert Chao Romero

August 5, 2017 - 8:31am

As latino communities face increased pressure and risks from US immigrations and customs, how are latinos of faith organizing to protect the vulnerable while also including white Christians in migrant-led efforts for change?

Yesterday, I got to hear from professor Robert Chao Romero, a Chinese-Latinx American historian and immigration lawyer at UCLA. He's the author of The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940 , winner of the Latin American Studies Association's Latina/o Studies Section Book Award. I got to hear Robert speak in Kingston, Rhode Island, at a retreat for university faculty who are Christians.

Robert opens up by talking about latino students who conclude that Christianity is a system of oppression and colonialism without having the chance to learn their own history of faith-inspired activism. As a historian, Robert has led a series of initiatives in LA that foreground latino religious histories of social justice. As one example, Robert tells us about an annual 4th of July Freedom Ride hosted by his church. The Freedom Ride shows people historic sites of injustice in the LA area, asking a local community leader or pastor to tell the story connected to each location. At every spot, the group holds a prayer for healing. Through tours like this, Robert and others in his community are able to keep community history alive and powerful. He's now working on a book that covers 500 years of Christian latino social justice organizing.

Robert also tells us about student-hosted discussions at UCLA about immigration and faith, part of a project called Jesus for Revolutionaries (J4R). Recently, students have organized events that share the voices of undocumented students with the wider community at UCLA. Meeting in one of the Christian fraternities, their first event gathered 80 people to hear from their undocumented peers. For many of the people who pass through, Jesus for Revolutionaries offers a first step of a conversation between their faith, values, and identity, one that often leads to participation in other Christian groups for latino and black students.

J4R focuses on connecting activist students with Christian ministries that offer good bridges between students and underserved communities. In addition to giving students an opportunity to serve, J4R also gives students exposure to churches that have developed genuine collaborations with undocumented communities. Over the years, non-Christians have also led J4R initiatives, accessing resources to support their educational and financial needs. Through J4R, many of these non-Christians have connected and collaborated with Christians for the first time, or the first time in many years. J4R also participates in the annual UCLA immigrant youth empowerment conference. Last year, students held a workshop exploring what the Bible says about immigration, exploring how undocumented youth might think about faith in their own lives and question unwelcoming theological assumptions they hear from others.

In the past seven months, Robert and Erica have participated in the Matthew 25 Movement, a mostly-evangelical (but not limited to evangelical) movement that has come together to support vulnerable groups in the US. The bipartisan movement was convened in November before the election by Alexia Salvatierra, author of Faith Rooted Organizing, to imagine practical ways that the church could support communities affected by the upcoming election. After the election, they held another meeting in Union Church, a Japanese Christian church with a history rooted in the internment of Japanese people during the second world war. When 200 people showed up, the group decided to organize as the Matthew 25 Movement. In the initial gathering, people from Christian organizations including Biola University, Fuller Seminary, Asuza Pacific University, and a mix of other church groups and communities are now working together to defend the vulnerable. The movement takes its name from a passage in the book of Matthew where Jesus tells his followers that those who welcome people who are different from them are ultimately welcoming Jesus.

While the message of Matthew 25 is universal, the movement's work on migrant rights is led by latino churches. Looking at the media create by the Matthew 25 movement after Robert's talk, I was fascinated to see how they created messages and framings that implicitly include and appeal to non-latino Christians.

To participate, Christians and churches take a pledge "to stand with and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus." In Southern California, many people in the Matthew 25 Movement have focused on immigration and community policing. When one church asked their community to take the pledge via phone during a church service, immigrants in the community wept to see their neighbors reach for their phones to commit love and support.

How can people get involved in the Matthew 25 movement aside from the pledge? The group has an educational task force that does trainings and seminars in churches, in parallel with groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table who have been working on these issues for years. The advocacy task force works with legislatures. The deportation defense and protection group works with lawyers and churches to help families plan for what to do if they get deported and access the resources they need when it happens. The Matthew 25 movement also matches immigrant and non-immigrant churches to come together in support of specific families that need protection. Even among churches that aren't open to operating as sanctuary churches, they may be willing to offer other kinds of direct support to families, with the guidance of latino-led churches.

To illustrate the need for deportation defense, Robert and his wife Erica Shepler Romero tell us about the story of pastor Noe Nolberto Carias Mayorga, a south LA pastor who came to the US from Guatemala while a teenager. He's now being detained by ICE, while his family (who are US citizens) and his church pray that he won't be deported. The Matthew 25 movement is working to support pastor Noe.


A Japanese-American professor whose family was part of the internment during the second world war asks is there are statistics about the racially-targeted nature of enforcement of immigration laws, much as it was racially motivated in WWII.

Robert answers that the United States has many white Canadian and European undocumented people, and that much of the enforcement of immigration laws is racially disparate. He points to the recent conviction of ex-sheriff Arpaio, who violated a court order requiring him to stop racial profiling.

Another person asks if conservatives and republican Christians are joining the Matthew 25 movement. Robert responds that Pastor Noe's case is starting to get wide attention. High ranking conservatives have started to stand up for him. People with personal relationships to high ranking Republicans and to president Trump have sent letters.

Categories: Blog

Lessons from Galileo on Science and Religion: Eric Salobir and Maria Zuber at the Defiance Conference

July 21, 2017 - 1:13pm

Today at the MIT Media Lab's Defiance conference, Jonathan Zittrain facilitated a conversation about the story of Galileo and what it means for our understanding of research and activism that violates deeply-held boundaries. Joining the conversation were Father Eric Salobir and Professor Maria Zuber.

A lawyer, a priest and a planetary scientist walk into a room... #DefianceML pic.twitter.com/k1l5ZLtmUc

— Saul Tannenbaum (@stannenb) July 21, 2017

Father Eric Salobir is a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Order of Preachers (known as Dominicans). As part of the General curia (government) of this religious order, he is in charge of media and technology. He is also the founder of the OPTIC network aimed to promote researches and innovation in the field of digital humanities.

Maria T. Zuber is Vice President for Research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at MIT, where she has responsibility for research administration and policy, overseeing MIT Lincoln Laboratory and over 60 research laboratories and centers at the Institute.

Jonathan opens up by asking Father Eric how he started on a career as a person of faith, especially after a career as a banker. Eric responds, "while I was a banker, I found myself loving my work to bring people joy and hope and engage around ideas. Over time, I realized I wanted to do this all the time. I discovered the dominicans." Joining an order is like entering a bath time and time again. I met with many people inside and outside the church. I learned that one of the big problems in our time is a lack of hope. When you have two dominicans, you have three opinions: you don't have to enter a box or deny anything of who you are, he says. Jonathan asks: is there a moment when you have to take an oath? Father Eric responds that the Dominicans have an oath: a vow of obedience to God. After you make that decision, Dominicans have to follow the decision they made on their own.

Jonathan asks Maria Zuber: "you're a planetary scientist studying plate tectonics. Was there a moment when you felt: that's my calling?" No, says Maria; it was genetically-encoded in me to become a scientist. There are stories in my family about me in my playpen, rockets taking off, and me pointing at the rockets. Maria started reading science textbooks in elementary school. She always wanted to do astronomical research and has never deviated from the plan.

Jonathan asks about the story of Galileo. When most people hear about him and his work, what's the canonical story and the real one? Maria responds that Galileo was convicted of heresy for his support of the Copernican system, our understanding of the solar system where the sun is at the center. This system replaced the Ptolemaic system, which put the earth at the center. It is true that Galileo was accused of heresy by the Catholics. But Galileo didn't help himself, she says. The church was open to the idea of Galileo exploring the Copernican idea. He took observations that showed things like the moons of Jupiter, showing that things went around other things than the Earth. The church was open to him publishing material that treated the idea as a theory, but he wanted it viewed as fact, and there were still things that were unexplained. Was the church more scientific about this than Galileo, asks Jonathan? Maria notes that Galileo went after passages in the Bible that were consistent with the Earth being fixed and claimed that it was incorrect, despite their being multiple possible interpretations. It wasn't what Galileo said, says Maria, but rather how he said it.

In the latter part of his life, Galileo moved away from collecting data and dedicated himself to seeing that it be adopted. Perhaps if he had continued to collect data, things might have gone in another way, says Maria. Jonathan next asks Father Eric what the story of Galileo is within the Dominican order. Father Eric thinks there was an epistemological over-reach on both sides. Galileo wanted to think about the consequences of his theory for theology, but the theologians did the same. They were not able to be challenged and should have faced the evidence, says Father Eric. In the time of Galileo, people saw science as unifying–so changes in one area were seen as threats to others. In-between the scripture and the science is the interpretation of the scripture. In John Paul II's statement on Galileo, he argued that the theologians were unable to reconsider their understandings, and they preferred to shut out Galileo.

In 1979 John Paul II wrote of Galileo that, he "had to suffer a great deal... I hope that theologians, scholars and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply and, in frank recognition of wrongs from whatever side they come, dispel the mistrust that still opposes, in many minds, a fruitful concord between science and faith." Why 1979, asks Jonathan. Maria points out that as early as the mid-1700s, pope Benedict allowed the publication of Galileo's book. It had been on the banned list, and then it was given approval; people in the church thought the matter was settled then. But that wasn't universally understood within the church or outside it.

What lessons might we draw from this history? asks Jonathan. Maria says that religion can help provide order to people who would otherwise fear their world. Science wasn't seen as a full understanding of nature; it was viewed as a way of explaining the observations we saw. People were afraid of eclipses, but the Ptolemaic system could still predict eclipses, which people feared. We should always be open to data, and if it causes us to change our idea, we should change it. But we also have to think about the pace of change. Even within science, change can occur in a way that's so quick that other scientists don't accept it.

Father Eric points out that at Galileo's time, the organization of all society was linked with religion. Galileo's work shook the whole societal system in ways that people weren't ready to face.

Jonathan notes that there had been a blurring between science and society at the time. Is it actually possible for people to de-conflict by keeping different conversations between science and religion. Father Eric says it's important for people from the humanities including theology and philosophy to ask questions that scientists might not always be able to ask.

Jonathan asks, if you're being spiritual, it's a set of values that you're reflecting upon and making the case for them. Do you think science has values as well, or is it a view from nowhere? We recently had a March for Science, where Joi spoke. Jonathan recalls some nervousness from scientists that it makes it just another player among many rather than an over-arching framework? Father Eric thinks that technology has taken the leadership; people expect a certain kind of help from technology. It brings a new set of questions. Science is about discovering what already exists, he says. It puts you in a situation of seeing reality as bigger than you. If you are a creator of technology, you don't have the same mindset of humility. You can have the same superpower feeling. Jonathan asks: if there were a march for science next week, would you happily march and what would your sign say?

Science provides the knowledge that provides the framework for technology, says Maria. It tells us what we can do and it doesn't tell us if we should do it, and it doesn't tell us what the implications are. Jonathan asks Maria about her institutional role as VP of research for MIT, would you ever find yourself looking at a massive research project and saying to someone: you need to have a values analysis or person involved. Maria explains that at MIT, we like to think that we create and use technology to help the world. Our fundraising campaign is "the campaign for a better world." Yet we hear about the negative outcomes as well, from things like automation.

Jonathan asks: is there knowledge better left undiscovered? Maria would say that more knowledge is better than less; the challenge is to choose a prudent pathway in order to progress. Father Eric agrees; what matters is how something is implemented. Is the technology mature enough, and is society ready for it? Jonathan asks: could you see a scientist making the judgment: humanity isn't ready for this. "Why only the scientist?" asks Father Eric. Society needs to answer those questions together.

When the floor opened up for questions, I asked a question. I mentioned that it seemed odd for a conference celebrating defiance would include a panel advocating for sticking within one's lane, especially with a prize that celebrates scientists who went into politics, citizens who do science, and people who create great art and ideas despite substantial resistance. I asked if maybe the story of Galileo locks us into an individual versus collective understandings of defiance, and where we might find inspiration for being defiant in productive ways.

Maria talked about evangelical groups that support Christians to better understand climate change, groups like the Evangelical Environment Network and climate scientists like Katharine Hayhoe.

Father Eric describes a Dominican in Brazil who works for farmers around land rights. he says, "There is only one thing you cannot disobey: it's your conscience. If there's something you see as fair and right, even if it's dangerous: no worries, do it. Conscience doesn't mean that you will never move. It's not like a compass: if you're in a boat, when the boat moves, the compass moves. Instead, it's like GPS, many sources combine to tell you where you are."

Jonathan responds, perhaps we have the Galilean model of the individual encircled by opposing forces, and the Pope's recent encyclical on climate change, which is an institution using their power to challenge and overturn assumptions as well.

Categories: Blog

Escaping The Conspiracy Trap: Masha Gessen at the Defiance Conference

July 21, 2017 - 10:48am

Conspiracy thinking can take over our understanding of the world and immobilize our ability to create a better future. How does that work, and what can we do about it?

Conspiracies are perfect for simple thinking, because a conspiracy by definition explains everything — @mashagessen #DefianceML pic.twitter.com/Io3rnf86OO

— MIT Media Lab (@medialab) July 21, 2017

Here at the Defiance Conference, we're joined by journalist and author Masha Gessen. As a journalist living in Moscow, Gessen experienced the rise of Vladimir Putin firsthand. In her 2012 bestselling book The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, she gave the chilling account of how a low-level KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency. Her upcoming book looks at how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia.

Conspiracy thinking contaminates life under certain kinds of regime, says Gessen. She starts with "an unfunny joke" from a 1940s diary of an academic who kept a journal of the Hitler years: "Hitler has run into Moses. Hitler says to Moses, tell me the truth: you set the bush on fire yourself, didn't you?" The joke illuminates, says Gessen, partly because it refers to the Reichstag fire, which many people believed was started by the Nazi party to justify their following actions. Conspiracy thinking is also infectious. In this story, Hitler believes in conspiracies, people believe conspiracies about Hitler, and Hitler thinks that Moses is behind a conspiracy too.

Conspiracies form around the promise of simplicity. Authoritarians get elected by couching their promises in an imaginary past, drawing from traditional values. Conspiracies also work this way, presenting something that already happened as something that is going to happen. She describes 9/11 truthers, pizzagate, and birthers. Russiagate is also a conspiracy: it explains how we got here and how we're going to solve the problem: Russia got Trump elected, it is claimed, and when we prove it, we'll be able to get rid of him.

But the possible existence of conspiracy is not an excuse for conspiracy-thinking, says Gessen. When we cling to this idea that there's one thing that explains everything, we do grave damage to our own ability to think, our politics, and our ability to act.

Why is conspiracy thinking so terrible? It prevents us from looking at the complexity of a given situation. Sometimes things are just a mess. If you read yesterday's New York Times interview with the president, says Gessen: here's a man who can't grasp the meaning of health insurance, federal employment, parades, handshakes, dinners. But somehow, people still believe that he can grasp the meaning and import of a conspiracy: for example that he can keep a secret for many months. What's wrong with thinking that the president can do this? It's not reality, says Gessen.

Becoming divorced from reality is a very dangerous thing in life, action, and politics, says Gessen. A focus on the Russian conspiracy theory interferes with our grasp on reality. The Russian part of the story is a different kind of mess. In the popular imagination, the Russian government is governed with an iron fist of one man who controls armies of trolls, spies, etc.. Yet we know that the DNC was hacked by two independent groups that weren't aware of each other. That's not an accident; it's the kind of mess that the Russian state is in. The inroad to the Trump campaign was made by a low-level lawyer who was trying to advance the interests of her clients, says Gessen. She was probably in no position to dangle her offers. She was partly a con artist trying to con Don Jr. into taking that meeting, and she was successful. She may likely have been in competition with other Russians who also stood to benefit greatly by establishing relations with the Trump campaign.

Even if we accept the theory that the Russian government played a substantial role in the election, says Gessen, American voters are still the people who elected Trump. Some have argued that we need to take a closer look at the fabric of American society after the election, many people have focused instead on the Russia story, says Gessen. Newspapers don't have infinite resources, and their focus on Russia draws attention away from other things. For example, journalists haven't been asking many questions about US foreign policy toward Russia. Instead, they're asking about Russiagate. Similarly, argues Gessen, focus on Russiagate has reduced journalists' focus on the impact of the election on the state of US democratic institutions.

Conspiracies obscure the future. When we focus on conspiracies, we think about what happened. Conspiracy-thinking anchors our hopes about how discovery of the conspiracy will magically lead to change, rather than the things that create real change. The only way to counter a message of the imaginary past is to imagine a glorious future. People who resist authoritarian power often say that things were great before the authoritarian rose to power, and that we need to go back to how things were. Of course the resistance needs to focus on what to salvage, but someone needs to think about the future says Gessen. One of the reasons a complex world becomes so frightening is that people can no longer imagine the future. Citing Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom, Gessen talks about how rootless people become when they can no longer imagine their future.

To defy conspiracy thinking, we need to engage with reality, says Gessen. Accept new information as something that exists in context, and just what you're learning today. Conspiracies pull us into our online universe of ever-spiraling conspiracy theorizing.

Categories: Blog

Biohacking and the FBI: Ed You at the Defiance Conference

July 21, 2017 - 9:00am

How is the FBI thinking about its relationship with bio hacking communities as they attempt to support innovation while also limit the risks from DIY biotech?

"After 9/11 we had to defy our inheritance." -- Ed You, special agent at FBI. #DefianceML pic.twitter.com/RilUhErvaY

— Pinar Yanardag (@PINguAR) July 21, 2017

Here at the Defiance Conference, we're joined by Ed You, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit. You is responsible for creating programs and activities to coordinate and improve FBI and interagency efforts to identify, assess, and respond to biological threats or incidents.

Investigations are inherently reactive, says Ed. After September 11th, the FBI decided to rethink their mission to focus on prevention. Ed is a molecular biologist by training, and now that the FBI has focused on prevention, they're hiring more people like him. Next, he talks about "WMD Coordinators," people like special agent Josh Cantor who work in the FBI's field offices on biological weapons. They work to establish partnerships with hospitals, researchers, and others who understand the risks before something happens.

The 21st century will be the century of the life sciences, says Ed. As we look for the promise of bio in our lives, we also need to think about the security implications. Ed talks about recent research about genetically modifying animal viruses to spread to humans. After this result came out, scientists put a temporary 60 day moratorium on this kind of research. Ed shows us conspiracy websites that raise fears about government funded work on biological weapons. He argues that

As synthetic biology becomes more widespread, it's possible to send information on DNA to synthetic bio companies and get a vial of smallpox or some other flu in the mail; a Guardian reporter actually did this in 2006. Since the report came out, the US has introduced regulations to carefully screen who makes these requests and what they ask for.

Yet it's also important to keep biological research open to the public if we're to gain the benefits of bio research in the 21st century, Ed tells us. Recent projects have made it possible to do CRISPR gene editing in the home. These are going to be genuine engines of innovation, just like the homebrew computer clubs that started in garages. At the same time, says Ed, governments are worried about genetically-engineered bio weapons and have cracked down on communities of innovation.

"How do you spur innovation while addressing innovation?" Ed asks. If you crack down on innovation, you could drive people underground and constrain important public benefits. Ed says that the FBI is trying to find ways to protect innovation. "Putting up walls is not the answer," says Ed, who encourages the FBI and biohacking communities to join up. "Be guardians of science," Ed encourages biohackers, inviting them to think about how best to protect public safety and mentor others to be responsible. Toward that end, the FBI became a sponsor of iGem, an international competition for bio hackers. Ed asks us to look at pictures of young people from China and other countries who participated in iGem. In the future, says Ed, these are people who will become leading citizens of science, and perhaps across the table in negotiations with the US. The FBI has also held meetups with DIY biohacking communities.

DIY bio is a good thing, says Ed. We need more of it, and we need to protect it, something that was emphasized in the 2009- 2017 US report on the study of bioethical issues. He argues that the FBI model can be an example for how other governments engage with creative communities. It pushes people's comfort levels, and it can lead to public benefits says Ed: some biologists have now been applying to join the FBI: "What better act of defiance than that?"

Categories: Blog

Hiring a Media Cloud Contract Software Engineer

June 22, 2017 - 7:08am

Online media is in a state of flux. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, so-called fake news - these are all recent developments that have radically altered the landscape of news and information online.  We call this the "networked public sphere", and the Media Cloud project was created to track and understand it.  Come help us build data-centric tools for academic internet researchers and human rights activists that let them investigate coverage and conversations online about topics they care about.

The Media Cloud project is seeking a contract software engineer to help us build tools that facilitate research about the role of online media in civic discourse.  We are an open source project producing research about the networked public sphere, and helping others do their own research about online media.  We make available to the public our existing archive of more than 550 million stories, adding more than 40,000 new stories daily.


The contract software engineer will work on our server architecture, which collects, processes, and makes these stories available via an API.  They will work under senior engineers to plan, design, build, maintain, and run all levels of the project's platform. This includes back-end tools that collect and archive the data, researcher tools that enable analysis of that data, and occasional contributions to front end tools that expose the data and analysis to the public. Buzzwords - big data, quantitative text analysis, machine learning, etc.


Media Cloud is a joint project between the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The position will be a 6-month contract position based at the Center for Civic Media (at the MIT Media Lab), but the engineer will work closely with members of the team from both centers.  The project is funded by human rights foundations. We produce both the open platform and research that helps our funders make decisions about how best to influence online civic conversations about democracy, activism, and health. This is a grant-funded contract position that we hope to extend, or turn into a staff position.


We are a diverse project of researchers and technologists who love to wrestle with hard questions about online media by using a combination of social, computer, and data sciences.  The ideal candidate will work well with all members of the team, from senior faculty to junior developers, and will thrive in an academic atmosphere that privileges constant questioning and validation at all levels of the platform and of our research products.  Experience building text-based big data systems, or working as a data scientist, is helpful, as is experience working on projects investigating online media.


Minimum Qualifications:
  • B.A. degree, preferably in computer science or data science related field;
  • at least two years experience working as a software engineer;
  • programming fluency – Python required, Perl and Javascript are helpful;
  • demonstrated ability to design, build, test, and deploy robust code;
  • demonstrated ability to iterate quickly through prototypes;
  • demonstrated ability to use data to validate architectural decisions using data.
  • interest in working on issues related to democracy, gender, race, health, and globalization.
Helpful Skills:
  • passion for solving difficult engineering and data problems;
  • experience writing, maintaining, and optimizing SQL queries against large databases;
  • experience implementing and maintaining a production ETL pipeline;
  • experience scaling platforms to handle large data sets;
  • experience writing web crawlers;
  • experience working with PostgreSQL and Solr / Lucene in Ubuntu environments;
  • knowledge and interest in social sciences;
  • work with senior engineers to establish technical vision for project;
  • contribute to, and follow, a technical roadmap to meet research needs and complete grant deliverables;
  • collaborate with other developers, designers, and system administrators in implementing technical roadmap;
  • communicate project status internally and externally to our community of users;
  • maintain, upgrade, and build systems within large, existing codebase to collect, archive, and analyze content from online media;
  • writing code to scale systems to handle ever expanding data requirements.

Much of our substantive work focuses on issues of gender, race, and globalization.  We strongly encourage women, people of color, and people of any sexual identity to apply.


The job is based in Cambridge, MA, but much of our team is distributed around the world.  We are open to alternative working arrangements that include part time residence in Cambridge.


Apply by sending a cover letter, resume, and link to your GitHub profile to jobs@mediacloud.org




Categories: Blog

Civic Media Co-Design Studio 2017: By Any Media Necessary

June 19, 2017 - 8:52am

This semester, the Civic Media Collaborative Design Studio was focused on youth media and gentrification. For this version of the course, we wanted to develop media projects that respond to the current political, cultural, economic, and environmental crisis with youth-led visions of a more just and creative future. We partnered with ZUMIX and The Urbano Project, two youth arts and media organizations in the Boston area, and NuVu Studio, an innovation school for middle and high school students in Cambridge. 

Co-Design Studio students, ages 11 to 26, gathered weekly at the Center for Civic Media to work on media projects to challenge narratives from a youth perspective, while discussing topics central to design justice, gentrification and transformative media organizing. The Studio made visits to NuVu, The Urbano Project, ZUMIX and other sites, and had visits from Evan Henshaw-Plath, Lawrence Barriner II from MIT CoLab, Marisa Jahn from StudioREV, Jose Gomez-Marquez from the MIT Little Devices Lab, Jorge Caraballo Cordovez from East Boston Nuestra Casa, and Mike Leyba and Homefries from Fair Economy and City Life/Vida Urbana. You can see the class syllabus here.

These are the resulting projects:

Open Book/Libro Abierto - atelier/co


Open Book/Libro Abierto is designed to be a versatile platform for community members to share their stories. The print medium allows users to interact with the book in a tactile way, physically making their mark on the story of their community. The book presents handwritten and printed words along with photos of community members, and offers viewers access to audio interviews via QR links. Our goal is to create a hackable book that invites viewers to share their stories and start conversations, responding in whatever medium they choose. The book will be exhibited in Urbano’s Nomadic Sculpture, where visitors will be able to read the stories and respond by writing directly in the book. We hope to foster productive and honest conversations about what displacement and community mean to the people of Egleston Square, both physically written in the book as well as verbally during and after the exhibition.

Here are the links to Open Book/Libro Abierto's projectfinal presentation slides, and to the case study.


East Boston Voices - Peas in a Podcast

"East Boston Voices" is a podcast special centered around events of gentrification and displacement in East Boston. The mission of Peas in a Podcast is to unveil the hidden stories of the neighborhood to the greater Boston community, hopefully instigating change among East Boston’s residents. Each member of the group interviewed someone in the community who’s dealing with the effects of gentrification and displacement directly, compiling their stories and presenting their contents to the audience with added data and thought-provoking questions.

Here are the links to Peas in a Podcast's episodesfinal presentation slides, and to the case study.


Displacement of residents is a growing problem in many communities in the Boston area. However, this crisis in the making remains mostly unknown, partially owing to the fact that those impacted are often low-income immigrants whose primary language is one other than English. To counter both the lack of attention as well as the anti-immigrant sentiment that buoys displacement, Homesticker proposes an interactive mobile installation that allows residents of neighborhoods to label locations that they consider to be their homes, giving a face to the victims of displacement and also demonstrating the problem’s magnitude.

Here are the links to to Homesticker's final presentation slides, and to the case study.



Rainbow is a public installation that tells the stories of about Cambridge residents and their history with the area. The goal of the project to highlight important issues mainly gentrification in and around Central Square. Using audio recordings and photography, this installation will help the voices of people who live in the area to be heard and shed light on how universities and businesses are changing Central Square and making the low-income life increasingly difficult.

Here are the links to Rainbow's final presentation slides, and to the case study.

Categories: Blog

Kathy Cramer on The Politics of Resentment: What I Learned from Listening

May 31, 2017 - 9:12am

On May 30, 2017, Kathy J. Cramer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and author of The Politics of Resentment,  spoke at the MIT Media Lab. This is a summary of that talk; any errors are mine. Research Question Cramer notes that the question on many scholars and citizens minds right now is "Why do people vote against their interests?" Most are implicitly asking, "Why are people getting it wrong?” But she believes that the better question to ask is "How are people understanding their world?"   The motivating question in the research Cramer has done that culminated in her 2016 book is "How does social class identity matter for the way people understand their world?” She tries to listen to people talk in the places where they live and spend their time. This gives her a chance to understand their social identity. So she invites herself into conversations with people who vary across socio-demographic characteristics.  Methods When she started in 2007, she chose to study a couple dozen communities in Wisconsin that would represent a diverse sample. Before she set out to visit a place, she would contact the local newspaper and the University of Wisconsin extension office nearby to learn where to find groups people who meet up regularly that she might chat with. She found herself in diners, churches, gas stations, and other local haunts.    Cramer had a semi-structured interview protocol to follow but tried to let the conversations go where they would. In the first year of research, she would return to the groups up to three times over the following year, and then at least once a year going forward until the study ended in 2012. When her book came out in 2016 and after the election, she followed up with the groups, sharing her book and findings and asking them about their current opinions. 

Rural Consciousness In the smaller communities, Cramer hears an unexpectedly intense resentment toward the big cities. There is a clear sense of Madison and Milwaukee (the state’s biggest cities and capital) versus the “outstate." The mental map for rural folks is that power emanates from Madison, and not the reverse. They feel they aren’t getting their fair share of power and resources and respect. Small town Wisconsinites feel deeply disrespected by urban dwellers.    Rural consciousness is identifying as a rural person, regardless of where you are from or end up, and a strong perception of distributive injustice that disfavors you and your identity. Cramer notes that this is a complex identity ripe for mobilization. It comprises resentment toward:
  • cities and city people, 
  • elites (government, financial, cultural), 
  • people of color, and
  • partisan polarization.
When you tap into one part of the resentment, it can activate the other parts, which makes rural consciousness a fertile ground for populism. Cramer defines populism here as essentially, "people are good and government is bad."   Rural folks explain, "Our hard-earned taxpayer dollars are going to people who don not deserve them." They thoroughly believe that others don’t work as hard as they do. And by hard work they mean, "when you have to shower after work, not before it.” And when Cramer followed up with the groups after the book came out, they agreed that they were resentful. There is also a sense of loss. That these people's communities and their standard of living have been taken away—that their status is threatened.    Despite high levels of government employment throughout the state by local, state, and federal authorities, there is a belief that government is urban and distant. Even if workers are local, the decisions they follow are from the city to the rural area. They believe the government is not really working for them.    In 2010, Scott Walker ran for governor of Wisconsin. He tapped into rural resentment by saying those folks were right. He proposed Act 10, which undermined state worker unions, arguing that private workers deserve to benefit more. There was a schism among voters: 50% of the state was for it and 50% against. The other big issue he campaigned on was a proposal for high-speed rail between the main cities of Milwaukee and Madison, which was badly needed. However, Walker argued this didn’t benefit real Wisconsinites, saying it wouldn’t help any of those with poor roads in the north of the state.    Cramer is still reflecting on how Donald Trump’s campaign activated rural consciousness. In contrast to Scott Walker’s assault on public employees, Donald Trump pointed to immigrants, Muslims, and women as undeserving groups. And he made strong claims about policies that would alleviate resentful voters’ problems.    Importantly, when she ask these rural folks what they hope will change with the new administration, they say they don’t expect anything to change. They set a very low bar. And it’s clear to her, that their criteria for Trump’s success is not anything like liberals criteria. They don’t believe he is going to solve their problems, which complicates attempts at bipartisan discourse.   Public Opinion Often during elections, we are interested in how people are going to vote. Generally speaking, this refers to people’s preferences. However, Cramer argues that their perspectives are also important. The lenses they put on the world matter so much, and public opinion polls don’t capture them well. Perspectives can help you understand why people make the preferences they make. When you hear people’s conversations, see where they live, and notice how they think about their options and choices, it makes it more understandable.   Cramer asks, "Where does public opinion occur?" Is what someone says to a pollster the same as what they would say in private? What expression is more real: pollster response or what they say to their group of pals in the morning. These are different expressions of public opinion. It’s worth our while to consider where else public opinion is expressed and the venues that aren’t reliant on polls.   So what does understanding public opinion look like? Cramer's book is not about causality, it’s descriptive of how the people she talked to think about their political lives. That said, she admits that it has been helpful to put the 2016 election in context. Generally, you want to understand what X set of attitudes predicts Y vote. But she notes that maybe it’s about how Z lens makes X relevant to Y vote.   Building Bridges Cramer isn’t sure exactly what will work to address this problem of resentment in rural consciousness. She believes that it’s important to have authentic conversations like she did during her research. And any solutions will require that rural folks enjoy a sense of agency and respect in the process. The case of the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin is illustrative. Those state employees live in the community and work alongside locals trying to make a positive connection, and yet they are widely despised—their work seen as regulating how average people carry out their jobs or even spend their leisure times. Rural folks feel like the department is in their face all the time.   Since the book came out, Cramer has received emails from people across the country trying to build bridges, with some creative approaches emerging. One person wrote that she is driving classic cars across the country, since they tend to invite interesting conversations with more conservative residents. 
Categories: Blog