Long Term Info-structure

Long Now Foundation Seminar by Juan Benet: “We live in a spectacular time,”…”We’re a century into our computing phase transition. The latest stages have created astonishing powers for individuals, groups, and our species as a whole. We are also faced with accumulating dangers — the capabilities to end the whole humanity experiment are growing and are ever more accessible. In light of the promethean fire that is computing, we must prevent bad outcomes and lock in good ones to build robust foundations for our knowledge, and a safe future. There is much we can do in the short-term to secure the long-term.”

“I come from the front lines of computing platform design to share a number of new super-powers at our disposal, some old challenges that are now soluble, and some new open problems. In this next decade, we’ll need to leverage peer-to-peer networks, crypto-economics, blockchains, Open Source, Open Services, decentralization, incentive-structure engineering, and so much more to ensure short-term safety and the long-term flourishing of humanity.”

Juan Benet is the inventor of the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS)—a new protocol which uses content-addressing to make the web faster, safer, and more open—and the creator of Filecoin, a cryptocurrency-incentivized storage market….(More + Video)”

Technology, Activism, and Social Justice in a Digital Age

Book edited by John G. McNutt: “…offers a close look at both the present nature and future prospects for social change. In particular, the text explores the cutting edge of technology and social change, while discussing developments in social media, civic technology, and leaderless organizations — as well as more traditional approaches to social change.

It effectively assembles a rich variety of perspectives to the issue of technology and social change; the featured authors are academics and practitioners (representing both new voices and experienced researchers) who share a common devotion to a future that is just, fair, and supportive of human potential.

They come from the fields of social work, public administration, journalism, law, philanthropy, urban affairs, planning, and education, and their work builds upon 30-plus years of research. The authors’ efforts to examine changing nature of social change organizations and the issues they face will help readers reflect upon modern advocacy, social change, and the potential to utilize technology in making a difference….(More)”

Civic Tech: Making Technology Work for People

Book by Andrew Schrock: “The term “Civic Tech” has gained international recognition as a way to unite communities and government through technology design. But what does it mean for our shared future? In this book, Andrew Schrock cuts through the hype by telling stories of the people and ideas driving the movement. He argues that Civic Tech emerged in response to inequality and persistent social problems. The collaborative approaches and early successes of “techies” may not be easy solutions, but they exemplify a powerful political alternative. Civic Tech draws our attention to the challenges of public ownership and democratizing technology design—vital goals for the years ahead….(More)”.

If, When and How Blockchain Technologies Can Provide Civic Change

By Stefaan G. Verhulst and Andrew Young

The hype surrounding the potential of blockchain technologies– the distributed ledger technology (DLT) undergirding cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin – to transform the way industries and sectors operate and exchange records is reaching a fever pitch.

Gartner Hype Cycle

Source: Top Trends in the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2017

Governments and civil society have now also joined the quest and are actively exploring the potential of DLTs to create transformative social change. Experiments are underway to leverage blockchain technologies to address major societal challenges – from homelessness in New York City to the Rohyingya crisis in Myanmar to government corruption around the world. At the same time, a growing backlash to the newest ‘shiny object’ in the technology for good space is gaining ground.   

At this year’s The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC), organized by mySociety in Lisbon, the GovLab’s Stefaan Verhulst and Andrew Young joined the Engine Room’s Nicole Anand, the Natural Resource Governance Institute’s Anders Pedersen, and ITS-Rio’s Marco Konopacki to consider whether or not Blockchain can truly deliver on its promise for creating civic change.

For the GovLab’s contribution to the panel, we shared early findings from our Blockchange: Blockchain for Social Change initiative. Blockchange, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, seeks to develop a deeper understanding of the promise and practice of DLTs tin addressing public problems – with a particular focus on the lack, the role and the establishment of trusted identities – through a set of detailed case-studies. Such insights may help us develop operational guidelines on when blockchain technology may be appropriate and what design principles should guide the future use of DLTs for good.

Our presentation covered four key areas (Full presentation here):

  1. The evolving package of attributes present in Blockchain technologies: on-going experimentation, development and investment has lead to the realization that there is no one blockchain technology. Rather there are several variations of attributes that provide for different technological scenarios. Some of these attributes remain foundational -– such as immutability, (guaranteed) integrity, and distributed resilience – while others have evolved as optional including disintermediation, transparency, and accessibility. By focusing on the attributes we can transcend the noise that is emerging from having too many well funded start-ups that seek to pitch their package of attributes as the solution;Attributes of DLT
  2. The three varieties of Blockchain for social change use cases: Most of the pilots and use cases where DLTs are being used to improve society and people’s lives can be categorized along three varieties of applications:
    • Track and Trace applications. For instance: 
      1. Versiart creates verifiable, digital certificates for art and collectibles which helps buyers ensure each piece’s provenance.
      2. Grassroots Cooperative along with Heifer USA created a blockchain-powered app that allows every package of chicken marketed and sold by Grassroots to be traced on the Ethereum blockchain.
      3. Everledger works with stakeholders across the diamond supply chain to track diamonds from mine to store.
      4. Ripe is working with Sweetgreen to use blockchain and IoT sensors to track crop growth, yielding higher-quality produce and providing better information for farmers, food distributors, restaurants, and consumers.    
    • Smart Contracting applications. For instance:
      1. In Indonesia, Carbon Conservation and Dappbase have created smart contracts that will distribute rewards to villages that can prove the successful reduction of incidences of forest fires.
      2. Alice has built Ethereum-based smart contracts for a donation project that supports 15 homeless people in London. The smart contracts ensure donations are released only when pre-determined project goals are met.
      3. Bext360 utilizes smart contracts to pay coffee farmers fairly and immediately based on a price determined through weighing and analyzing beans by the Bext360 machine at the source.  
    • Identity applications. For instance:
      1. The State of Illinois is working with Evernym to digitize birth certificates, thus giving individuals a digital identity from birth.
      2. BanQu creates an economic passport for previously unbanked populations by using blockchain to record economic and financial transactions, purchase goods, and prove their existence in global supply chains.
      3. In 2015, AID:Tech piloted a project working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon to distribute over 500 donor aid cards that were tied to non-forgeable identities.
      4. uPort provides digital identities for residents of Zug, Switzerland to use for governmental services.

Three Blockchange applications

  1. The promise of trusted Identity: the potential to establish a trusted identity turns out to be foundational for using blockchain technologies for social change. At the same time identity emerges from a process (involving, for instance, provisioning, authentication, administration, authorization and auditing) and it is key to assess at what stage of the ID lifecycle DLTs provide an advantage vis-a-vis other ID technologies; and how the maturity of the blockchain technology toward addressing the ID challenge. 

ID Lifecycle and DLT

  1. Finally, we seek to translate current findings into
    • Operational conditions that can enable the public and civic sector at-large to determine when “to blockchain” including:
      • The need for a clear problem definition (as opposed to certain situations where DLT solutions are in search of a problem);
      • The presence of information asymmetries and high transaction costs incentivize change. (“The Market of Lemons” problem);
      • The availability of (high quality) digital records;
      • The lack of availability of credible and alternative disclosure technologies;
      • Deficiency (or efficiency) of (trusted) intermediaries in the space.
    • Design principles that can increase the likelihood of societal benefit when using Blockchain for identity projects (see picture) .

Design Principles

In the coming months, we will continue to share our findings from the Blockchange project in a number of forms – including a series of case studies, additional presentations and infographics, and an operational field guide for designing and implementing Blockchain projects to address challenges across the identity lifecycle.

The GovLab, in collaboration with the National Resource Governance Institute, is also delighted to announce a new initiative aimed at taking stock of the promise, practice and challenge of the use of Blockchain in the extractives sector. The project is focused in particular on DLTs as they relate to beneficial ownership, licensing and contracting transparency, and commodity trading transparency. This fall, we will share a collection of Blockchain for extractives case studies, as well as a report summarizing if, when, and how Blockchain can provide value across the extractives decision chain.

If you are interested in collaborating on our work to increase our understanding of Blockchain’s real potential for social change, or if you have any feedback on this presentation of early findings, please contact blockchange@thegovlab.org.


What Is Human-Centric Design?

Zack Quaintance at GovTech: “…Government services, like all services, have historically used some form of design to deploy user-facing components. The design portion of this equation is nothing new. What Olesund says is new, however, is the human-centric component.

“In the past, government services were often designed from the perspective and need of the government institution, not necessarily with the needs or desires of residents or constituents in mind,” said Olesund. “This might lead, for example, to an accumulation of stats and requirements for residents, or utilization of outdated technology because the government institution is locked into a contract.”

Basically, government has never set out to design its services to be clunky or hard to use. These qualities have, however, grown out of the legally complex frameworks that governments must adhere to, which can subsequently result in a failure to prioritize the needs of the people using the services rather than the institution.

Change, however, is underway. Human-centric design is one of the main priorities of the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and 18F, a pair of organizations created under the Obama administration with missions that largely involve making government services more accessible to the citizenry through efficient use of tech.

Although the needs of state and municipal governments are more localized, the gov tech work done at the federal level by the USDS and 18F has at times served as a benchmark or guidepost for smaller government agencies.

“They both redesign services to make them digital and user-friendly,” Olesund said. “But they also do a lot of work creating frameworks and best practices for other government agencies to adopt in order to achieve some of the broader systemic change.”

One of the most tangible examples of human-centered design at the state or local level can be found at Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, which recently worked with the Detroit-based design studio Civillato reduce its paper services application from 40 pages, 18,000-some words and 1,000 questions, down to 18 pages, 3,904 words and 213 questions. Currently, Civilla is working with the nonprofit civic tech group Code for America to help bring the same massive level of human-centered design progress to the state’s digital services.

Other work is underway in San Francisco’s City Hall and within the state of California. A number of cities also have iTeams funded through Bloomberg Philanthropies, and their missions are to innovate in ways that solve ongoing municipal problems, a mission that often requires use of human-centric design….(More)”.

Civic tech: Where is the impact?

Ramy Ghorayeb: “When it comes to civic tech, there is a clear opposition between the fans, who view the young sector as a key foundation that will change democracy for good, and the haters, who think it is simply a gadget that doesn’t have any weight on political decisions considering its position towards the existing powers/counter-powers.
I view this conflict of opinions as a general misunderstanding on what value civic tech is supposed to bring. There is a huge bias towards civic tech ecosystem. It is commonly presented as a challenger more than a partner for the public sector, because projects are overhyped by the legacy of disruption of tech. But there is no analogy.

Civic tech is failing only when viewed as an ordinary tech disruptor

Taking what French deputy Paula Forteza said last December, after its rebirth ten years ago with the Obama administration, the civic tech ecosystem has reached a dead end compared to its initial expectations as a challenger of the existing institutions. There is indeed a lack of political, economic and social impact:

  • Lack of political impact because citizens are becoming very exigent towards democratic initiatives and are less willing to participate without being sure that their contribution will have weight in the final decision. This is amplified by the fact that currently, even with all the collective power in the world, leveraging civic tech still depends on the good will of the elected administrations.
  • Lack of economic impact because after few years of overexcitement by investors, believing civic tech was the next big thing, everybody has realized how difficult it is to build a company with both financial and social objectives.
  • Lack of social impact because with this new digital tools is emerging a technological elite that can have much more influence than the rest of the population. This representation problem is of course not specific to civic tech but still undermines the positive outcomes.

People want civic tech to disrupt traditional political institutions, like tech did in all the other industries. But many specific issues refrain this ambition, and I already written a lot about it [1][2]. Furthermore, there is too much competition today for civic startups and organizations. The existing actors are continually improving and annihilating any chance civic tech has to become a serious opposed challenger:

  • Public administrations are recruiting the best disruptors to help them embracing digital.
  • Medias are keeping their counter-power role by being always more scattered and diversified.
  • Tech giants are developing their own tools to address civic needs.

So if civic tech failed as disruptors of the existing institutions, the question becomes: What do we want to do with civic tech?…(More)”.

Governments are not startups

Ramy Ghorayeb at Medium: “…Why can’t governments move fast like the private industry? We have seen the rise of big corporations and startups adapting and evolve with the needs of their customers. Why can’t the governments adapt to the needs of their population? Why is it so slow?

Truth is, innovating in the public sector cannot and should not be like in the private one. Startups and corporations are about maximizing their internalities while public administrations are also about minimizing the externalities.

Straight-forward example: Let’s imagine the US authorize online voting in addition to physical for the next presidential elections. Obviously, it is a good way to incentivize people to vote. You will be able to vote from anywhere at any time, and more importantly, the cost to make one hundred people vote will be the same as one thousand or one million.

But on the other side, you are favoring the population with easy access to the Internet, meaning the middle and upper classes. And more, you are also favoring the younger generations over the older.
These populations have different known political opinions. Ultimately, you are deliberately modifying the voting repartition power in the country. It is not necessarily a bad or a good thing (keeping only physical voting is also favoriting a specific demographic segment) but there are a lot of issues that need to be worked on thoroughly before making any change on the democratic balance. I’d like to call this the participatory bias.

This participatory bias is the reason why the public side will always have a latency to adopt technology.

On the private side, when a business wants to work on a new product, it will only focus on its customer. The goal of a startup is even to find a specific segment of the population with its own needs and problems, a niche, to test innovative solutions in order to improve their experience and optimize the acquisition and retention of this population. In other words, he will maximize the internalities.
But the public side needs to look at the externalities that its new products can create. It cannot isolate a population, but has to look at what are the negative effects on the others. And more, like a big corporation, it cannot experiment and fail like a startup does, because it has to preserve its reputation and trust legacy.

Now the situation isn’t locked. Thanks to the civic tech ecosystem, governments have found a way to externalize innovation and learn from experimentations, failure and successes without doing it themselves. Startups and labs are handling the difficult role of inventor, and are showing the good way to use tech for citizens, iteration by iteration. More interesting, they are also showing that they are not threaten by public side replications. In fact, they are finding their complementarity….(More)”

Can Civic Tech Save Democracy?

Study by L’Aterlier BNP Paribas: “In the US, only 57% of the total voting population voted during the last American presidential elections. Nowadays, 1.57 million civic organizations encourage the American people to express their concerns to the government and public authorities outside of ballot boxes. The internet has indeed created other ways to mobilize people. And Barack Obama’s presidency (January 2009 – January 2017) made open-government a high priority with three initiatives aimed to promote transparency, participation, and collaboration with the government.

Thus, Civic tech are more and more efficient to improve citizen engagement. But what are the issues, impact and remaining challenges of this new ecosystem? How is technology actually empowering the citizen? You will find answers to these questions (and to many more) in our study!…(More)”.

A Guide to Chicago’s Array of Things Initiative

Sean Thornton at Data-Smart City Solutions: “The 606, Chicago’s rails-to-trails project that stretches for 4.2 miles on the city’s northwest side, has been popular with residents and visitors ever since its launch last year.  The trail recently added a new art installationBlue Sky, that will greet visitors over the next five years with an array of lights and colors. Less noticed, but no less important, will be another array on display near the trail: a sensor node from Chicago’s Array of Things initiative.

If you’re a frequent reader of all things civic tech, then you may have already come across the Array of Things (AoT).  Launched in 2016, the project, which consists of a network of sensor boxes mounted on light posts, has now begun collecting a host of real-time data on Chicago’s environmental surroundings and urban activity.   After installing a small number of sensors downtown and elsewhere in 2016, Chicago is now adding additional sensors across the city and the city’s data portal currently lists locations for all of AoT’s active and yet-to-be installed sensors.  This year, data collected from AoT will be accessible online, providing valuable information for researchers, urban planners, and the general public.

AoT’s public engagement campaign has been picking up steam as well, with a recent community event held this fall. As a non-proprietary project, AoT is being implemented as a tool to improve not just urban planning and sustainability efforts, but quality of life for residents and communities. To engage with the public, project leaders have held meetings and workshops to build relationships with residents and identify community priorities. Those priorities, which vary from community to community, could range from monitoring traffic congestion around specific intersections to addressing air quality concerns at local parks and schoolyards.

The AoT project is a leading example of how new technology—and the Internet of Things (IoT) in particular—is transforming efforts for sustainable urban growth and “smart” city planning.  AoT’s truly multi-dimensional character sets it apart from other smart city efforts: complementing environmental sensor data collection, the initiative includes educational programming, community outreach, and R&D opportunities for academics, startups, corporations, and other organizations that could stand to benefit.

Launching a project like AoT, of course, isn’t as simple as installing sensor nodes and flipping on a switch. AoT has been in the works for years, and its recent launch marks a milestone event for its developers, the City of Chicago, and smart city technologies.  AoT has frequently appeared in the press  – yet often, coverage loses sight of the many facets of this unique project. How did AoT get to where it is today?  What is the project’s significance outside of Chicago? What are AoT’s implications for cities? Consider this article as your primer for all things AoT….(More)”.

Civic Technology: Open Data and Citizen Volunteers as a Resource for North Carolina Local Governments

Report by John B. Stephens: “Civic technology is an emergent area of practice where IT experts and citizens without specialized IT skills volunteer their time using government-provided open data to improve government services or otherwise create public benefit. Civic tech, as it is often referred to, draws on longer-standing practices, particularly e-government and civic engagement. It is also a new form of citizen–government co-production, building on the trend of greater government transparency.

This report is designed to help North Carolina local government leaders:

  • Define civic technology practices and describing North Carolina civic tech resources
  • Highlight accomplishments and ongoing projects in civic tech (in North Carolina and beyond)
  • Identify opportunities and challenges for North Carolina local governments in civic tech
  • Provide a set of resources for education and involvement in civic tech….(More)”.