Uncertain Future for Civic Tech


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Under Barack Obama, many idealistic tech-industry types — virtuosi of code, data wizards, interface gurus, and project pros — decamped to D.C. to put their skills to work for the government. What will happen to these efforts to improve the public sector’s use of information technology with the onset of the Trump administration?

“Massive IT failures do not have a party preference,” writes open-government activist David Eaves (NewCo Shift), in a plea to technologists on both sides of the partisan fence to work together and not “blow up” progress that’s already taken place.

Eaves is right, but the fate of the Obama-era civic tech project looks grim. Some of the people at organizations like the U.S. Data Service and 18F will leave, unwilling to put their shoulder to the wheel for a president and party they don’t support. Others will stay, believing that an efficient system of civic technology serves the republic and its citizens regardless of who’s in power.

Whether they stay or go, the larger question is: Will Trump and the ascendant Republicans see any value in sustaining a gov-tech effort so closely associated with Obama? They almost certainly want to pull the plug, but won’t rush to do it because they have so many other priorities. They may also see government IT contracts as lucrative terrain for patronage deals — which they will want to make with their own people. When the dust settles, the federal government’s loss may turn out to be wins for (some) states, as talented D.C. refugees go where they’re more likely to have an impact.

Is the iPhone Possible Without China?

President-elect Trump is threatening a trade war with China, and China is hinting that the iPhone — which Apple has always manufactured there — might be held hostage in such a conflict. In such an event, could the iPhone be built in the U.S.? Technology Review laid out a few scenarios earlier this year.

In a future where the components for the phone are still produced where they are today but then shipped to the U.S. for assembly here, iPhone prices might rise 5 percent. A modest amount of new domestic jobs would be created, but nothing world-changing.

If the parts were built in the U.S., too, that might add some more jobs but tack another $30 or $40 on to the iPhone tab — plus some supply disruption, because factories would take time to gear up. An “all-American iPhone,” made not just from American components but U.S.-sourced materials, is almost impossible, since the devices rely on rare-earth metals, and China has 85 percent of that market.

In other words: At some cost, you could move much of the iPhone-building process back to the U.S. The money would have to come from somewhere — either Apple’s profits or customers’ pockets. You’d create some jobs — hard to say how many, or how good, or whether American workers would want them. But whatever you tried, you couldn’t withdraw from the larger web of trade that makes the iPhone, and every other tech wonder of our era, possible in the first place.

Diversity Makes Us Smarter

Putting together a “non-homogeneous team” isn’t simply about fairness or justice. Diverse teams are smarter teams (Harvard Business Review), a variety of studies show. One study of jury processes found that more racially diverse groups relied more fully on facts and made fewer factual errors than panels that were less diverse.

In the workplace, employees in diverse teams are more likely to be conscious of their own biases — and therefore more able to correct for them. Cultural and gender diversity also promotes the emergence of innovative ideas on a team. Study after study, research keeps confirming the case for the virtue of diversity as a pragmatic competitive advantage as well as a social good.

Cellphone Numbers Are the New Universal ID

American democracy is allergic to the idea of a national ID number. Yet Big Data needs a way to identify people. The Social Security number, which was never intended for the purpose, has been doing reluctant service in this role for decades. But it’s always been insecure and has enabled a rash of identity-theft problems.

Enter the mobile phone number (The New York Times). It’s no more secure than the SSN, but it’s tied to a smart device, and it is becoming increasingly central to the way businesses and arms of government communicate with us. As a unique identifier, the phone number becomes a key to a trove of personalized information about our buying habits, credit record, health information, financial situation, and more. That’s why, as the smartphone number becomes our ID card, we may become more wary of sharing it too widely — making it less useful as a means of communication even as it becomes more useful in other ways.

How Moderate Vegans Broke Through

Vegans were once the hard-core absolutists of the animal welfare and food reform world. Two decades ago, the movement split, and a splinter group of pragmatists came to the fore (Quartz). They adopted a new strategy, focusing on making factory farming more humane and teaching people that if they weren’t ready to give up meat, eating less meat was a good thing, too. They got through to people, mainstreaming the concept of veganism while dissociating it from some of its strongest beliefs.

On the one side, PETA, and on the other, the Humane Society — it’s a divergence that’s relevant far beyond the food issue. Every time you set out to change some aspect of the world, you have to figure out which will get you farthest — the stirring call to a strong principle or the reasonable invitation toward an achievable end. Most successful movements feature healthy versions fboth wings, the true believers and the accommodationists.


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