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First Post: Coronation | Civicist

Crowdsourcing vs COVID-19? Stopping the infodemic; tech vs democracy; and much more.

This is civic tech: The University of Washington is trying to crowdsource a solution to the spread of coronavirus, posting a new puzzle game on Foldit challenging scientists and the public to build a protein that could block the virus from infiltrating human cells, Geekwire’s Nat Levy reports.

Members of Taiwan’s g0v.tw civic tech community have built a trilingual website that matches government information on the recent movements of confirmed coronavirus patients with users’ location history based on Google Maps Timeline to check whether or not they may have had contact with the patients, Sophia Yang reports for Taiwan News. You have to turn on your Google Maps location history to make this work, and one wonders as well how the government is collecting and sharing the location history of ill people.

March and April are busy months on the civic tech conference calendar. So far, coronavirus has claimed one major event: the International Journalism Festival which was going to be April 1-5 in Perugia, Italy, has been canceled. Still on tap: BetaNYC’s School of Data here in New York City March 7; Code for Canada Summit March 10-11 in Toronto; Code for America Summit in Washington, DC March 11-13; the Civic Tech Innovation Forum in Johannesburg March 18-20; TICTeC 2020 March 24-25 in Reykjavik; and the Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia, Spain, April 20-24.

Apply: ioby, the civic crowdfunding platform, and leadership development hub are looking to hire a lead engineer.

Apply: The National Domestic Worker Alliance’s Labs is looking to hire three technologists to join its team, a research and analytics director, a content director (Spanish language) and a product designer.

Dealing with the Infodemic: NewsGuard has a list of nearly 100 US-based websites spreading misinformation about coronavirus, among them ZeroHedge.com, RushLimbaugh.com and 54 domains associated with the NaturalNews.com network. On Statnews, NewsGuard editor John Gregory explains that “Much of the misinformation centers on the unfounded claim that the virus was created in a laboratory.” He reports that “Zero Hedge, a politics and finance blog, had 2.1 million engagements — shares, likes, comments, etc. — on social media over the past 90 days. In contrast, the CDC’s website had only 175,000 social media engagements during that same period, even though CDC.gov is the top result in any Facebook search for the term “coronavirus.” The WHO’s website had only 25,000 engagements.”

In Scientific American, technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci counsels that taking precautions like stocking up on food isn’t doomsday prepper behavior but our civic responsibility, because “if we can slow the transmission of the disease—flatten its curve—there will be many lives saved even if the same number of people eventually get sick because everyone won’t show up at the hospital all at once.”

Tech and democracy: Nearly half of 979 technology innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers, and activists non-scientifically and non-randomly surveyed by the Pew Research Center last summer say they believe the use of technology will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation in the next decade, while 33% say the use of technology will mostly strengthen core aspects of democracy and democratic representation. The fears of the non-scientific, non-random majority in the sample are centered on the ways tech is seen to be empowering the already powerful as well as weakening shared information systems. The hopes of the non-scientific, non-random minority are centered on their sense that human adaptive abilities will lead to positive innovation and that leadership and activism will create positive change. (For the amount of attention this “study” has gotten, it’s really nothing more than an aggregation of what you might get if you somehow followed this particular group of 979 people online; people have opinions, after all!)

Not explained by Pew: What exactly are “core aspects of democracy and democratic representation”? One implicit answer given by report authors Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie is the notion that the government responds “in the best interest of citizens.” Unfortunately, in the United States, large majorities of the public have told pollsters for decades that they do not believe the political system is responsive to them, but rather that it is mainly responsive to a few big interests. This deficit is a core aspect of democracy predates the rise of the Internet and all the other technologies at issue in Pew’s survey.

Fast Company is running a series of pieces called “Hacking Democracy” looking at whether tech can save democracy. First up, a piece by Steven Melendez reporting on Redditors who are trying to combat online disinformation. One vibrant example of their work: Web of Lies, an interactive graphic that shows many connections between different actors in the world of information warfare.

Reinforcing past studies showing that Americans don’t like the idea of political ads being microtargeted to them based on their personal characteristics, a new Gallup poll funded by the Knight Foundation finds that 72% of Americans prefer that online political ads not be targeted at all, and another 20% are only comfortable with such ads using limited, broad information such as a person’s gender, age or zip code.

End times: Alphabet’s X Division has announced a new moonshot project aimed at helping conserve the world’s oceans that utilizing a technology that might best be called “fishal recognition.” <ducks>

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