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First POST: Whiz Kids

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, February 27 2014

Whiz Kids

  • "It's just a website. We're not going to the moon." Steven Brill's cover story account in Time Magazine of how a relatively unheralded group of tech stars swooped in to save HealthCare.gov last fall is studded with such gems. That quote is from Google engineer Mikey Dickerson, one of the squad. As Brill cogently writes:

    "This is the story of a team of unknown--except in elite technology circles--coders and troubleshooters who dropped what they were doing in various enterprises across the country and came together in mid-October to save the website. In about a tenth of the time that a crew of usual-suspect, Washington contractors had spent over $300 million building a site that didn't work, this ad hoc team rescued it and, arguably, Obama's chance at a health-reform legacy. It is also a story of an Obama Administration obsessed with health care reform policy but above the nitty-gritty of implementing it. No one in the White House meetings leading up to the launch had any idea whether the technology worked….The key mistake made by President Obama and his team….is that they had turned only to the campaign's marketing whiz kids instead of the technologists who enabled them.

  • Brill correctly notes: "…one lesson of the fall and rise of HealthCare.gov has to be that the practice of awarding high-tech, high-stakes contracts to companies whose primary skill seems to be getting those contracts rather than delivering on them has to change. 'It was only when they were desperate that they turned to us,' says Dickerson. 'I have no history in government contracting and no future in it ... I don't wear a suit and tie ... They have no use for someone who looks and dresses like me. Maybe this will be a lesson for them. Maybe that will change.'"

  • And his story ends with a subtle but pointed dig at President Obama, who, Brill notes, never bothered to meet with the team that saved his signature policy initiative: "…in the end he was as aloof from the people and facts he needed to avoid this catastrophe as he was from the people who ended up fixing it."

  • Sasha Issenberg, author of the essential data-driven politics book The Victory Lab, has a feature story in Politico Magazine looking at why campaign volunteers are often more effective than professionals at engaging voters--and whether its possible to mimic that effect with money. Professional call center workers can be trained to sound like volunteers, he reports, but in face-to-face encounters outsiders are often far less convincing.

  • Among the nuggets in Issenberg's story: when 270 Strategies, the consulting firm launched by Obama 2012 organizing leads Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, went to New Jersey to work on Cory Booker's Senate bid, they found the candidate was struggling to mobilize volunteers--despite his Obama-like popularity.

  • This is kind of jaw-dropping: Using documents from Edward Snowden, Spencer Ackerman and James Ball report for the Guardian that Britian's GCHQ, with help from the NSA, collected webcam images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo accounts globally, "including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications." They note that "GCHQ does not have the technical means to make sure no images of UK or US citizens are collected and stored by the system, and there are no restrictions under UK law to prevent Americans' images being accessed by British analysts without an individual warrant."

  • Cory Doctorow nails the central problem with using algorithmic analysis of big data to, for example, try to predict who is likely to commit a violent crime in Chicago--as is now underway there. He writes, "without insight into how the system runs its numbers, we have no way of debating and validating the way it weighs different statistics….In an earlier era, we would have called this discrimination -- or even witchhunting."

  • The White House is considering handing the responsibility for bulk collection and storage of phone metadata to the FBI, an idea that is being criticized by the likes of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a longtime critic of the NSA, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), an original author of the Patriot Act and a co-author of the USA Freedom Act.

  • Politico's Tony Romm tallies up how various tech giants and leading figures are pouring more money into politics in 2014.

  • Dan Levine reports for Reuters that Google has lobbyists at work in at least three states hoping to head off restrictions on wearing Google Glass while driving.

  • The Verge's Ben Popper reports that Uber may have deliberately not activated additional drivers on Valentine's Day weekend to allow its controversial "surge-pricing" to take effect--potentially an unfair business practice.

  • Aminatou Sow, one of two founders of the members-only list-serv Tech Lady Mafia, is profiled in Elle Magazine.

  • Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a member of the banking committee, has asked federal regulators to ban Bitcoin.

  • Re/Code's Kara Swisher takes a hard look at the future of one-time political strategist Mark Penn, who is currently Microsoft's executive vice president for advertising and strategy, but whose aggressive tactics are viewed with suspicion by others inside the giant company.

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