Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon is shaped like a mechanical claw, or the open jaws of a craggy, prehistoric reptile. It grasps in its mouth roughly half of the land titled to the Waorani, one of the country’s indigenous nationalities. Peering down at the Google Earth view it’s impossible to tell where one might begin and the other might end. Dark green tree cover obscures a web of settlements, hunting paths, fishing holes, and water sources, making the area appear nearly empty. The Waorani describe the government maps of the area as similarly empty or “dead.” Using low-connectivity tools, they have begun mapping their territory as they see it, both for their own edification, and in case they need to defend their land rights.
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.
CityLab: Detroit’s Foreclosure Crisis and the Need for ‘Information Justice’
An open data project sought to battle tax foreclosures by arming residents with information. It may have empowered property speculators more than anyone.
Nfr Esters knew she couldn’t save the family house through conventional means. She had inherited the duplex on the East Side of Detroit from her great-grandfather in 2010, but a pipe burst before she moved back to the city, flooding the basement and racking up a $4,000 water bill that the city added to her property taxes. Esters would surely lose the house to tax foreclosure—but there was still hope.
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.
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.