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This Week in Civic Tech: Twitter Brings Back Politwoops, 18F’s Web Tool Expands

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / January 7, 2016
Depicted at 2013 tech conference Gigaom Roadmap above, Twitter Co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey announced the comeback of the political tweet tracker Politwoops this week. Dorsey is working to revitalize the company so it's more useful and user friendly to citizens. Flickr/JD Lasica

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

Politwoops Returns

The site Politwoops is on its way back, and with it comes renewed power to keep politicians honest about deleted tweets. After negotiating new terms with Twitter, the Sunlight Foundation will relaunch the political tweet-tracking service in the U.S. while its parent organization, the Open State Foundation, reactivates Politwoops internationally in 25 countries.

The site has gained public notoriety since its 2012 launch for publishing deleted tweets using Twitter’s application programming interface (API). In 2014, Politwoops caught Arizona State Rep. Adam Kwasman (R) protesting a bus of YMCA children he confused for immigrants. Politwoops likewise caught six politicians backtracking after Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was freed by Taliban forces. The politicians had first praised Bergdahl’s return, but quickly quieted after learning it was due to the exchange of five Taliban fighters at Guantanamo Bay.

Despite these and many other significant callouts, Sunlight had an abrupt falling out with Twitter last June when it was told Politwoops violated Twitter’s terms of use agreement. The company cut the organization's access to its API in May and was emphatic about the decision — even going so far as to deny all appeals. In a response, Sunlight decried Twitter’s actions as “disturbing” for citizens and transparency itself. The position was supported internationally by 50 rights and transparency groups spread across five continents, including Access Now, the Human Rights Watch and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“We are truly mystified as to what prompted the change of heart, and it's deeply disappointing to see Twitter kill a project they had supported since 2012,” Sunlight said at the time.

The 180-degree turn this week is likely the result of Jack Dorsey’s October 2015 return as Twitter's CEO. Dorsey was brought on after Twitter began losing ground as a publicly traded company and has sought to revitalize the social media platform by making it more relevant to average consumers. At Twitter’s Flight conference, also last October, Dorsey publicly apologized to developers on behalf of Twitter for its murky relationship with developers and specifically credited Politwoops for realizing part of the company’s core mission — to be a messaging service "for the people" and "by the people." Talks with Sunlight and the Open State Foundation followed shortly thereafter.

“Somewhere along the lines, our relationships with developers got a little complicated, a little bit confusing …” Dorsey said in his Flight keynote. “And we want to come to you today and first and foremost apologize for our confusion. We want to reset our relationship, and we want to make sure that we are learning, that we are listening and that we are rebooting.”

With Politwoops back online, the Open State Foundation reported that under the agreement, it will scale the service to other countries and add non-elected government officials on the watch list.

“This agreement is great news for those who believe that the world needs more transparency," said Arjan El Fassed, Open State’s director of digital transparency. “Our next step is now to continue and expand our work to enable the public to hold public officials accountable for their public statements.”

Cities, States Use 18F’s Web Tracker

Philly; Boulder, Colo.; and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation are publishing new Web statistics for the public, thanks to the federal government’s Digital Analytics Program.

The initiative, which was led by the federal government’s 18F and U.S. Digital Services, published website data from all major U.S. agencies on the site Citizens visiting the site can  immediately see a dashboard identifying the most popular pages, the top downloads, anonymized user locations, and common devices and operating systems.

Since 18F created the site, it’s captured attention as a transparency measure that can be applied to any kind of government. Seeing this opportunity, the four jurisdictions copied — or in developer-speak, “forked” — the open source code and customized it for their own sites. In a blog post, 18F’s Melody Kramer interviewed officials from the jurisdictions to see how the process went. The general sentiment was that the process was relatively simple, and now provides staff with better metrics for citizen demand and communications strategies.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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