What’s New in Civic Tech: Civic Experts Urge Facebook, Google to Protect Election Integrity

Plus, experts emphasize importance of tech in rebuilding Puerto Rico, Bloomberg’s What Works Cities initiative now includes 95 jurisdictions, and Charlotte, N.C., releases digital inclusion playbook to help other cities with equity efforts.

by Zack Quaintance / November 2, 2017
An illustration of Facebook logo, on May 9, 2016. The discovery that a Russian company bought election-related Facebook ads in last year's presidential race opens new avenues for Justice Department and congressional investigators. (Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Sipa USA) TNS

Organizations within the civic tech and open data communities have launched a strong response after U.S. senators questioned tech executives at a hearing in Washington, D.C., this week about divisive political advertisements purchased on social media by shell firms funded with Russian money to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared at the hearings on Capitol Hill, where they were grilled by members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. During the proceedings, lawyers from Facebook disclosed that as many as 126 million users may have seen election-related content from Russia. Twitter reported that it found 2,752 accounts linked to Russia and more than 36,000 bots that spread similar propaganda. That company’s lawyers reported that those accounts tweeted about the election more than 1.4 million times, generating as they did 288 million views. Google, which owns YouTube, reported that that platform had 18 channels with 1,100 videos uploaded by users suspected to be related to this effort.

The response from the open data, civic tech and digital activists communities has been swift and strong. A number of organizations in the space — including the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Digital Democracy, among others — signed letters to Facebook and Google urging executives to protect the integrity of American elections by working with Congress on new laws, as well as to support the bipartisan Honest Ads Act, which is aimed at increasing transparency for online political advertising and thus preventing foreign interference in the future. The Information Technology and Innovation Fund also released a statement. Both Facebook and Google have since vowed to hold themselves to higher standards of transparency.

Civic technologists have also created a platform aimed at illustrating who might have been affected by the ads and how their experience was changed. Users click on boxes that describe their views, and the site lists the Russian propaganda they likely saw. Investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election remain ongoing.

EXPERTS TO SPEAK ABOUT IMPORTANCE OF TECH IN REBUILDING PUERTO RICO

A panel of tech and government experts will soon speak about the value of a coherent digital strategy in order to effectively and efficiently rebuild Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

This event, dubbed Rebuilding Puerto Rico Requires a Digital Strategy, will take place Nov. 16, at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and it is the third installment of the Dear Fiscal Board series, which seeks to discuss and promote tech-based solutions for improving the lives of residents of Puerto Rico overall, not just after natural disasters. It is being organized by Piloto 151 and Giancarlo Gonzalez, who was Puerto Rico’s CIO from 2013 until 2015.

The events speakers include Cecilia Muñoz, who served as senior staff in the Obama administration; Bill Cooper, the lead drafter of the 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act; and members of the Maria Tech Brigade, a group of civic technologists formed in the wake of the hurricane.  

A central question will be posited at the event: What are the necessary building blocks of digital policy and infrastructure required to rebuild Puerto Rico? The event will also address how to best sustain Puerto Rico’s tech ecosystem, which had made progress despite the financial crisis that was facing the island when the storm arrived. The event will also raise money for ConPRmetidos, an organization that seeks to develop public and private partnerships to accelerate economic development in Puerto Rico.

BLOOMBERG'S WHAT WORKS CITIES INITIATIVE NOW INCLUDES 95 JURISDICTIONS

Bloomberg Philanthropies has added five new participants to its What Works Cities initiative — a program that helps local governments use data-driven strategies to improve life for residents — bringing the number of total jurisdictions to 95.

The new additions are Athens, Ga.; Chula Vista, Calif.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Gainesville, Fla.; and Palmdale, Calif. With that list, the initiative now includes 29 million people throughout 37 states, and the local governments it seeks to help have combined annual budgets of more than $98 billion.

“Moving the needle on city challenges requires knowing what to measure and how — then acting on what you find,” said Simone Brody, executive director of WWC at Results for America, in a press release. “By teaching cities how to put data at the core of their decision-making, we’re equipping them with the tools to best solve local challenges and serve their communities.”

The program’s scope is broad, helping the cities do better work in areas that range from public safety to the reduction of poverty. The program gives the cities access to WWC’s expert partners, who help them develop and enhance their use of performance analytics, data management, randomized control trials, results-driven contracting and more. Planned projects for the five new cities vary.

  • Athens, Ga., will use performance analytics to measure and communicate progress on economic prosperity goals.

  • Chula Vista, Calif., will use data to improve public safety outcomes and increase transparency by sharing key public safety data with residents.

  • Colorado Springs, Colo., will use performance analytics to measure progress on its strategic plan goals, beginning with local infrastructure investments. The city will also develop an open data policy and explore opportunities for residents to use municipal data.

  • Gainesville, Fla., will apply best practices in data management and performance analytics toward transportation and business life cycle improvements, part of a partnership announced earlier this year with the University of Florida that aims to transform Gainesville into a “new American city.”

  • Palmdale, Calif., will use data to further its recreation and culture goals and create an open data policy to target sharing data with the public.

The program last added new participants at the end of September.

CHARLOTTE, N.C., RELEASES DIGITAL INCLUSION PLAYBOOK TO HELP OTHER CITIES WITH EQUITY EFFORTS

Charlotte, N.C., has emerged as a leading municipality in its region for its work in digital inclusion, and, as such, public officials and others involved with efforts there have started to share their methods for fostering digital equity.

To this end, the Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance, which is made up of local governments and other public and nonprofit agencies in the area, recently released its digital inclusion playbook. The alliance has set a goal of reducing the number of residents who do not have access to the Internet from 19 percent to 9 percent by 2026, and the document contains a comprehensive roadmap of key strategies for accomplishing this. Essentially, the document is a report about the state of digital inclusion in Charlotte, one that also details why the problem matters as well as what can and should be done to solve it.

Digital inclusion has become an area of increasing focus for local governments across the country, as more jurisdictions begin to realize that things like poor computer skills and not having access to a high-speed Internet connection can lead to problems with employment, public safety, housing and even public health. This year marked the first for Digital Inclusion Week, an effort aimed at raising awareness for both digital inequities and the ongoing nationwide efforts to bridge such gaps.

Charlotte is far from the only municipality to be focusing on digital inclusion and subsequently sharing its plans and success. Chicago has done so, as have many other cities.