Civicist: Loveland’s Labor’s Lost: Detroit’s Dubious Civic Tech Champions

Even after the foreclosure notices began appearing on the door in late 2014, Jonathan Spikes’ landlord insisted on collecting $450 in rent every month—and Spikes continued to pay. It wasn’t until the furnace broke and Spikes asked for a replacement that the landlord said he didn’t own the house anymore so it wasn’t his problem.

Spikes’ home in Hamtramck, Michigan—a small city almost entirely encircled by the City of Detroit—was one of more than 8,000 occupied houses that went into the 2015 Wayne County tax foreclosure auction. The auction is an annual affair in which properties with three years of delinquent taxes are sold off online for a starting bid of $500. In theory it shifts tax-delinquent properties into the hands of tax-paying owners, but many houses are purchased by speculators or not bid on at all. These properties are often abandoned and set on the fast track to blight, as once-occupied homes are stripped, burned, or otherwise rendered unlivable. The auction forces thousands of residents, many of them blameless renters like Spikes or homeowners struggling under the burden of improperly assessed property taxes, out of their homes.

With help from the United Community Housing Coalition, an organization that proxy bids on houses for low-income Detroiters, Spikes tried to buy his house in the auction. He put a sign in his yard that read: “This is a home, please do not bid.” He lost to a small-time speculator who won the house for only $2,500, and bought five other properties on the same street, too. Seven months later, the new owner evicted Spikes, his girlfriend, and their infant son.

Tax foreclosure and the attendant problems of displacement and blight are among Detroit’s persistent problems—and a civic tech company called Loveland Technologies’ raison d’être. Founders Jerry Paffendorf, Mary Carter, and Larry Sheradon believe that if residents, city officials, nonprofits, and developers have access to better information on property ownership, occupancy, and structural conditions, that solutions to foreclosure and blight will follow.

Loveland’s work has attracted national media attention; Paffendorf has even appeared on the main stage of Personal Democracy Forum to talk about how Loveland is solving Detroit’s information crisis. But stories about how the company is “saving” Detroit and its residents—a narrative that Paffendorf says he rejects but has been propagated anyway—rely on a number of assumptions: that the root of Detroit’s problems is a lack of information; that data and technology are an essential part of the solution; and that the solution will be to the benefit of all Detroiters.

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Civicist: Democratizing the Legal System One Crowdfunding Campaign at a Time

CrowdJustice was founded on the idea that the rich shouldn’t be the only ones with access to the legal system. The crowdfunding platform launched in the United States yesterday with a campaign to raise funds for two Yemeni brothers caught in the crosshairs of President Trump’s executive order on immigration.

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Civicist: How Civic Activists Counter Fake News in Taiwan

In 2014, the Daily Mail published a story about a dystopian Beijing in which the smog is so bad that residents flock to outdoor screens to watch digital sunrises. Time, CBS, and the Huffington Post picked up the story. Only, as a Tech in Asia reporter wrote several days later, the story wasn’t true.

Stories like these run rampant on Taiwanese social media, and in 2013 several members of the online-offline civic movement g0v.tw built a browser extension called News Helper for crowdsourcing the identification of fake news. As of December, more than 17,000 people currently have installed the extension on either Chrome or Firefox.

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Civicist: Participation in NYC Public Libraries’ Tech Trainings Soars

A new report by the Center for an Urban Future has found that participation in the technology training programs offered by New York City’s public libraries increased 81 percent in just three years. The classes on offer cover everything from basic computer literacy to coding. In some cases demand far outstrips supply; for example, one program currently serves 400 people but has a waitlist of 5,000. The report concludes that public libraries could and should play an important role in increasing digital literacy and shrinking the “tech talent gap.”

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TechPresident: The Uncertain Future of India’s Plan to Biometrically Identify Everyone

Last Sunday an 11-year-old boy in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeast India, hung himself from a ceiling fan as his family slept. He was allegedly driven to this act after being denied an Aadhaar card—formally known as Unique Identification (UID)—which he was told he needed to attend school. The card is one arm of India’s sprawling scheme to collect the biometric data, including fingerprints and iris scans, of its 1.2 billion citizens and residents, and is quickly becoming practically, if not legally, mandatory, for nearly every aspect of life, from getting married to buying cooking gas to opening a bank account. More than 630 million residents have already enrolled and received their unique 12-digit identification number.

Since its launch in 2010, people have raised a number of questions and concerns about Aadhaar, citing its effects on privacy rights, potential security flaws, and failures in functionality. India’s poor, who were supposed to be the biggest beneficiaries of the program, are actually most at risk of being excluded from UID, and there is no evidence that biometric identification has curtailed corruption. The newly-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi lambasted the UID program as a candidate but in July did an about-face, calling for the enrollment process to be expedited and supporting a UID-linked social assistance program. In all likelihood, the world’s largest experiment in biometric identification will continue. Read more…