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Seven and a half great reads
What broke through this week’s second-shot haze
Happy Friday and welcome to Slow Build, a newsletter on tech & society by Nancy Scola.
I got my second shot on Wednesday (Pfizer, thanks for asking), and while I’m enormously grateful it also knocked me on my behind a bit. So this week we’ll have a round-up of reads on the topics we’re weaving together here, from the latest federal IT debate to Congress’s grappling with algorithms to Biden allies’ digital push to sell his first 100 days.
We’ll be back at it next week, and look forward in coming weeks to Q&As and a lot more exciting stuff.
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FEDERAL COMPUTER WEEK, JUSTIN KATZ
The U.S.’s Technology Modernization Fund created in 2017 has generally been thought of — when thought of at all — as a clever mechanism giving federal agencies a way of replacing legacy IT systems to better serve the public. But the billion dollars now pouring into it from the American Rescue Plan is triggering debate over how exactly this thing should work.
One major sticking point: whether agencies should have to reimburse the fund. Some advocates are pushing Congress to do away with repayment, arguing that otherwise all that money’s just going to mold.
Government agencies stand to benefit from the Technology Modernization Fund's massive capital influx this year, but lawmakers would do well to adjust the repayment and cost savings requirements, a former agency CIO told lawmakers on Tuesday.
"I spent a lot of time browbeating people and I know people who -- they were simply afraid of the oversight, afraid of the visibility and they were also afraid of the repayment which is why I think that has to be looked at," Max Everett, former CIO at the Department of Energy, told a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.
FORBES, NINA WOLPOW
“Smart cities” might be out of fashion but the tech lives on. Replica is a spin-off of Sidewalk, which itself spun off from Google’s parent Alphabet, and was developed as part of the aborted Sidewalk Toronto project. It’s a data platform meant to equip urban planners to make informed decisions by modeling a “synthetic population” from de-identified mobile location data.
That it relies on that sort of cell-phone tracking isn’t dissuading local governments — New York City used it to stop subway service between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. — or investors, who just wrapped a new round lead by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company accelerate government revenue at the speed that they have,” says Founders Fund Partner Trae Stephens, who is leading the deal, and will join Replica’s board as an observer…
[I]n deciding how to make operational or infrastructural changes, institutions like the MTA, the New Jersey Transit, the Chicago Transit Authority and others of Replica’s customers have relied on the data they could glean from sources like censuses and household surveys, which have significant lag-times. When Replica produces its models, it doesn’t discount these data sets, or any others that its customers provide, but it does incorporate new, of-the-moment information, like that which is collected by digital resources like cell-phone apps.
COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW, MATTHEW INGRAM
A Senate hearing this week revealed the moment we’re really in when it comes to Washington’s grappling with algorithms: a lot of outrage, little understanding of the problem, and even less in the way of next steps.
Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, warned about both rushing solutions and ignoring dangers: “I’m sort of a heterodox tweener on this, in that I don’t have clarity on what the regulatory fixes would be, but I think society wide we should admit there’s a problem.” In that vacuum, companies are free to stay mum about how they function.
Congress faces a number of challenges when it comes to dealing with the algorithms that power Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Very little is known about how they work, and how and why they are tweaked. Facebook routinely talks about changes it has made to its News Feed algorithms and describes in very general terms what it is trying to do (highlight more personal content, for example) but the specifics are always kept secret. Twitter rarely says anything about the algorithms it uses, and Google never does.
NEW YORK TIMES, JONATHAN MARTIN
The trick for President Biden now is to sell the merits of the big swings he’s taken, like his COVID-19 work and his proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure push — and to do while leveraging his, well, boringness.
A group called Building Back Better, which doesn’t disclose its donors, says it’s putting $3 million over the next month to do just that in key states like Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia, and Wisconsin via both offline and online ads.
Both spots differentiate Mr. Biden’s approach from that of former President Donald J. Trump.
“You won’t hear him yelling or sending angry tweets, because for Joe Biden, actions speak louder,” says a narrator in the television commercial.
The shorter digital advertisement concludes, “No drama, just results.”
WALL STREET JOURNAL, JEFF HORWITZ
With India dealing with a surge in COVID-19 cases, the Modi government’s been leaning on social networks to take down critical content. But when Facebook did that this week — telling users that posts encouraging the PM to step down violated its “community standards” — it said it had done so by mistake, “not because the Indian government asked us to.”
Facebook meant that to be reassuring. But that such slip-ups keep happening in the highest-stakes, highest-profile situations has to make you wonder what’s happening in places where people aren’t paying as much attention.
Facebook Inc. temporarily blocked posts containing hashtags calling on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to resign, then reinstated them on Wednesday, saying the action had been taken in error.
The #ResignModi hashtag was blocked on Facebook for several hours amid national controversy over India’s response to an escalating Covid-19 crisis and the government’s efforts to curb public dissent.
CHARLIE WARZEL, GALAXY BRAIN
With Facebook’s Oversight Board deciding annnnny minute now whether to keep alive the company’s ban on President Trump, some people are wondering whether the simple binary on the table — you’re either on Facebook or shut out completely — is the only option.
Aviv Ovadya of the Thoughtful Technology Project has a proposal: “unbundle” the different powers Facebook gives a user, and restrict access by problematic users to just some of them under some conditions — the way you might let little kids in the kitchen run wild with the spatula, use the strainer under supervision, but under no circumstances turn on the stove.
Ovadya thinks that the Oversight Board and Facebook should [sic] at the functions of the platform — and then figure out which features, in the hands of Donald Trump, are likely to result in real harm for users, and which are largely unimportant. Perhaps, he argues, there’s a way to separate them out.
POLITICO MAGAZINE, GORDON CROVITZ
Crovitz is a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal and co-founder of NewsGuard, an ambitious attempt to label the quality of information on digital platforms to protect against misinformation. He argues it might take Congress forcing social platforms to allow in “middleware” that gives users instant access to that sort of third-party assessment.
Even if it’s a good idea, it is, frankly, a long-shot in the U.S. But it’s an approach that, says Crovitz, is getting some traction in the UK.
In anticipation of British regulations, a cottage industry of safety tools the platforms could offer to meet this new duty of care has grown in the U.K. The British government published a list of more than 80 “safety tech providers” that Silicon Valley could tap as a layer of protection between the platforms and their consumers. SafetoNet, for example, tracks the keystrokes children and teenagers make online for signs of stress and to prevent bullying.
This one’s just for the picture:
Thanks for reading, have a lovely weekend, and see you next week.