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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 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 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.

News Briefs

RSS Feed thursday >

Civic Hackers Call on de Blasio to Fill Technology Vacancies

New York City technology advocates on Wednesday called on the de Blasio administration to fill vacancies in top technology policy positions, expressing some frustration at the lack of a leadership team to implement a cohesive technology strategy for the city. GO

China's Porn Purge Has Only Just Begun, And Already Sina Is Stripped of Publication License

It seems that China is taking spring cleaning pretty seriously. On April 13 they launched their most recent online purge, “Cleaning the Web 2014,” which will run until November. The goal is to rid China's Internet of pornographic text, pictures, video, and ads in order to “create a healthy cyberspace.” More than 100 websites and thousands of social media accounts have already been closed, after less than a month. Today the official Xinhua news agency reported that the authorities have stripped the Internet giant Sina (of Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging site) of its online publication license. This crackdown on porn comes on the heels of a crackdown on “rumors.” Clearly, this spring cleaning isn't about pornography, it's about censorship and control.


wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.


tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.