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07.24 A Day on the Bay: Creating Community Through Research

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019 | Mikayla Townsend

“There were a lot more wetlands and a really open and dynamic connection to the Atlantic Ocean,” said Adam Parris, referring to the biodiversity of the Jamaica Bay region over a century ago. His audience, a diverse set of residents and stakeholders from Canarsie and other parts of New York City, were listening to Parris’ presentation while touring the bay by boat. The educational boat trip is part of the Cycles of Resilience, a project “to identify issues, use science to refine ideas for action, and align emerging priorities with city, state, and federal efforts. ”

Parris is the former executive director at the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay. Parris and his team at SRIJB, along with Public Agenda and Billion Oyster Project, hosted the “Getting to Know the Bay” boat tour, on June 24, to give residents a close-up look at the biological history and current preservation of Jamaica Bay.

The vast and varied wetland of Jamaica Bay borders Brooklyn, Queens, and southern Long Island. Only 150 years ago, Jamaica Bay was a prime estuary, where freshwater and saltwater meet, making the lagoon a biodiverse location that provided an optimal environment for the organisms that live in and around the Bay. However, the rapid growth of New York since the 1900s has put Jamaica Bay at risk.

How is Jamaica Bay functioning now?

It’s “very urban [with] lots of people living there,” said Parris, “and all of the freshwater that was flowing across farmland in Brooklyn and Queens now gets funneled into the storm drains.”

Prior to the boat tour, local community members of Canarsie participated in Jamaica Bay Jeopardy, an interactive game that tested players’ historical, cultural, political, and environmental knowledge of the Bay. Jamaica Bay Jeopardy was the initial installment of the Cycles of Resilience project. SRIJB’s boat tour is the second installment of their Cycles of Resilience. This boat tour is the next step in cultivating community interest in Jamaica Bay. The boat tour travels around Jamaica Bay, passing along the bay’s distinct features like Paedergat Basin, the Marsh Islands, and the island of Canarsie Pol.

As people boarded the hospitable R/V CUNY I research vessel, the first thing they saw was a touch tank teeming with oysters and mussels, which gave them a small glimpse into Jamaica Bay’s marine life. Once a robust staple of the Bay, oyster reefs began to deplete with the introduction of foreign waste, a byproduct of the growing population of New York.

The oyster and mussel touch tank was an interactive effort with the Billion Oyster Project, an ongoing project to redistribute and expand oyster reefs. Oysters reefs filter water, house organisms, and protect land from erosion and storms. Some oysters in the touch tank had already begun to form reef-like clusters. Water from the bay had been pumped into the tank. Even small arthropods, bug-like creatures, could be seen in the tank, using the bigger oysters as shelter.

During the boat ride, there was a scavenger hunt: participants listened to a steady stream of commentary on the distinct features of Jamaica Bay - including animals and their habitats, wetland restoration sites, and upcoming features to be added to the bay in the coming years - and noted key facts on their scavenger hunt checklists. Children and adults alike explored Jamaica Bay while following the prompts of the SRIJB team. Many traveled to different areas of the boat to look out for features to complete the scavenger hunt. Some individuals immersed themselves in the experience from a comfortable seat on the boat.

Near the end of the ride, all the participants gathered together inside the CUNY I to discuss their experiences on the water. Participants eagerly handed back their scavenger hunt checklists to await the announcement of the highest score. Upon waiting for the answers, people reflected on their time on the boat. One young boy was fascinated by the clams, particularly how one in the touch tank expelled water when raised out of the tank. Tanasia Swift, regional manager at Billion Oyster Project, was able to share why that was possible.

“If they’re in water they’re absorbing a lot of the water that they’re standing in,” Swift said. “Some of that water is just expelled so that it has room to cycle more water through.”

The tour answered questions and dismissed myths people had about the conditions of Jamaica Bay. Some people believed Jamaica Bay was unsafe to swim in, due to contamination of the water by sewage or other hazardous wastes; they were pleasantly surprised to hear that the current water conditions in Jamaica Bay are perfectly safe for swimming. SRIJB advertised activities like kayaking, kite sailing, and boat riding, which all are available during the summer in neighborhoods along the Bay, often free of charge. The neighborhoods and eateries that line the Bay felt like new additions to the Brooklyn and Queens that residents already knew. The boat ride provided newfound knowledge surrounding the diverse opportunities that Jamaica Bay has to offer.

“Getting to Know Jamaica Bay” is a fresh and inclusive way to see New York City’s more overlooked communities. Participants learned about how the Bay houses and protects an abundance of organisms, playing an integral role in sustaining a complex ecosystem. The organizations involved - SRIJB, Public Agenda, and Billion Oyster Project - provided an intergenerational opportunity to celebrate Jamaica Bay within the Canarsie community. Along with Jamaica Bay Jeopardy and the other Cycles of Resilience activities, the boat tour develops a connection between Jamaica Bay and the families who acknowledge the Bay as part of their home. By connecting people with one another and with nearby environmental resources, this kind of engagement supports action and change that will keep the Bay at its best.

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05.20 Geo-Locating Protests and Tech's Role in Advancing Movements, Part II

Monday, May 20th, 2019 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

New from Public Agenda, Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement and the Future of Politics, explores how the latest technological trends may reshape our democracy, our politics, and our daily lives. In a series of blog posts, we are sharing some of the stories from the paper to illustrate some of the impacts on journalism, political advocacy, city planning, and other fields.

In this last installment of the Rewiring Democracy blog series, we’ll explore how technology can be used to create new opportunities for people to connect and work together. Take a look at “Geo-Locating Protests Part I,” which discusses how new technologies can be employed to organize movements and foster community engagement.


The technology of geo-location, or geo-fencing, relies on the fact that many smartphone applications track our physical locations, and many social media platforms recommend or require our mailing addresses. It is becoming difficult to hide where we are and where we live.

Meanwhile, more and more people are voluntarily connecting their digital lives and their residential locations in “hyperlocal online spaces”, because these platforms provide convenient ways to organize politically, build community, and solve daily-life problems. Some of these hyperlocal networks are easier for outsiders to access than others, but once you recruit a few people who are already inside a neighborhood network, you can more quickly reach many others.

This is a new asset for organizers, because it allows them to reach and mobilize people in ways that match up with the political process. “You can have a million people talking about something on Twitter, and Congress may not care,” says Keesha Gaskins-Nathan of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. “But if you can show a member of Congress that there are 1,000 people in their district talking about something, that representative will care.”

As people join hyperlocal networks or are identified by organizers according to their geographic location, they are bringing together two previously separate maps of how people connect and how power is distributed: the old map, based on physical geography, in which residents belong to jurisdictions according to where they live, and decisions are made by officials elected to represent those places; and the new map, based on digital connections and communities. The first map still matters, because it is the framework by which political representation is configured, public decisions are made, and public funding is allocated. Since many people live in communities that are economically, racially, and culturally homogeneous, and since people are increasingly distrustful of public officials and unwilling to go along with any compromises reached by those officials, the first map doesn’t provide many possibilities for avoiding political gridlock.

The second map matters because it shows other ways that people are connecting and communicating that both deepen and extend beyond geographic connections. The fact that these two maps are now joined in many locations could create new possibilities for organizers: neighbors can join together more easily to pressure elected officials, and elected officials can more easily reach citizens to get their input on policy questions. These networks may also present new ways of overcoming gridlock by fostering communication between people in different jurisdictions. Even without capitalizing on hyperlocal networks, examples like “On the Table” (see page 17) have been effective at bringing people of different backgrounds together to discuss common concerns. Notions of space and place are changing, and all of this will affect how we think about community and neighborhoods.


One key distinction about the second map – the one that depicts how people are connected online – is that most of the platforms and networks through which people communicate are owned by private corporations. Social media is dominated by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other tech giants, and the most extensive set of hyperlocal online networks is Nextdoor, another for-profit company. Google has received criticism for tracking the locations of its users; the company has denied that this information is used for targeting messages and advertisements.

For observers like Micah Sifry of Civic Hall, corporate ownership of the platforms for online communication is an enormous red flag. “Public life cannot be built on private servers. It’s that simple,” he writes.

Other observers point to silver linings in how tech corporations support online communication and networks. “The big platforms are attuned to the potential for manipulation now – they are monitoring trends in fake news and figuring out how to deal with them,” says Northeastern University’s David Lazer. “The companies see it in their business interest to not be manipulated.”

Corporate control of the public square may have an ominous ring to it, but there are certainly potential upsides and downsides, depending on the situation. Even when authoritarian regimes try to use social media for their own purposes, the people living under authoritarian regimes are probably better able to get unbiased information if they have access to Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, and other platforms than if they don’t. In the U.S., the role of for-profit companies seems more problematic: they may be relatively tolerant of citizens “colonizing” their platforms – especially since that may bring them more profit – but it is unclear how far they will go to define and protect individual rights.

Ultimately, the geo-location of protest, the proliferation of hyperlocal online spaces, and the influence of corporations in public life may produce even higher levels of polarization than we have witnessed so far. “Polarization is real,” says Lazer. “It’s not an academic argument anymore. The phenomenon of ‘affective polarization’ – for example, when you are concerned about your adult child getting married to someone of the opposite party – has become a real problem, which it wasn’t fifty years ago.” If you get political messages on your phone whenever you go near a clinic…if friends ask you to protest at a restaurant when a public official is inside… if neighbors want to engage you in political discussion online…then polarization may become even more present and personal.

The fact that these shifts will make it more common for people to engage each other face-to-face may also make it easier to actually address our differences in productive ways. But for now, Zuckerman feels that the negative aspects outweigh the positive: “Different groups of people now have totally different universes of fact. This is not unprecedented, but it is particularly bad now because social media amplifies the conflicts. We’re heading for a very loud nasty moment.”

Enjoyed the series? Be sure to look through the full report for more case studies on how technology impacts democracy and civic engagement.

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04.16 Geo-locating Protest: The changing role of tech in social movements Part I

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

New from Public Agenda, Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement and the Future of Politics, explores how the latest technological trends may reshape our democracy, our politics, and our daily lives. In a series of blog posts, we are sharing some of the stories from the paper to illustrate some of the impacts on journalism, political advocacy, city planning, and other fields.

In this latest installment of the Rewiring Democracy blog series, we explore technology’s role in mobilizing movements, while highlighting an example of how micro-targeting and messaging is being used in troubling ways.


In 2016, women in several cities began receiving pop-up ads on their smartphones whenever they went near or inside a clinic providing abortions. The ads, which had been sent by anti-choice/ pro-life organizers, offered advice to women who were contemplating abortion. These particular women had been targeted because they had previously looked for Planned Parenthood information online. This practice was ruled an illegal infringement of personal health care data by the attorney general of Massachusetts, but it is one of a number of examples that signal a new phase in the use of technology by activists.

From the Arab Spring to the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, protesters, organizers, and mobilizers of all political stripes and ideologies have been using the internet to connect and coordinate their movements. Their values and goals are obviously very different, but they all face new tactical opportunities for reaching supporters and achieving their political objectives. One major opportunity arises from the way in which the internet has become increasingly tied to geographic location. In addition to the geographic information system (GIS) capacity of smartphones, the number of people who have joined hyperlocal online spaces has risen exponentially. By connecting to people where they are and where they live, activists, officials and other leaders can advance their causes in ways that are more direct and “in your face” – and in ways that leverage political power because they fit the geography of political jurisdictions.


There are multiple factors that affect whether people are willing to join a protest or movement, but across many different societies and situations, the psychological reasons often seem to be the most influential. The mere fact that people are oppressed or discriminated against doesn’t necessarily mean that they will mobilize, rebel, or just speak up. They are more likely to act when they begin to feel that they are not alone, that their voices will be heard, and that their cause can achieve critical mass.

Some existing, widely-used digital technologies have helped organizers build a broader movement consciousness:

  • Photo-sharing, which is a core component of almost every major social media platform, allows people to see their movement in action. For example, many of the students who participated in “Text, Talk, Act” during the National Dialogue on Mental Health tweeted photos of their groups. By uploading, sharing, and tagging pictures and videos, people can provide visual evidence that they are part of something larger than themselves.
  • Participatory mapping, one of the first uses of geo-locating capacities of our devices, enabled people to see themselves in relation to a physical space. Protesters during the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the anti-austerity demonstrations in Spain were able to map their locations, producing visual proof that they could peacefully dominate the streets and plazas of their cities.
  • Posting and commenting through social media, in itself, has allowed people to contribute to or even dominate the narrative on a particular issue or cause. Recognizing this new threat, many governments and corporations have created “troll farms” and other sophisticated operations to try to retake control of the narrative, amplify their own messages, and even to target, harass, and intimidate protesters.
  • Instant polling, which can be accomplished through a wide array of tools, apps, and platforms, can also be used to gauge support for particular actions and to show that large numbers of people stand behind a given cause or movement.

Organizers are using these and other tools to compel people to consciously step forward and join causes and movements. Protesters used social media posts to rapidly gather and heckle Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about immigration policies as they dined in public restaurants. Increasingly, organizers have the capacity to use subconscious technologies, like the anti-abortion/pro-life protesters in Massachusetts, to target potential recruits and people they are trying to influence.

By bringing the revolution(s) to our doorstep, the capacity to make protest and mobilization hyperlocal and geo-locatable has the potential to make political conflict more extreme and more personal. It raises new questions about the rules of the game, the role of tech corporations in the public square, and whether these new conditions also present possibilities for bridge-building and compromise.

As notions of space and place change, can technology create new opportunities for people to connect and work together? We’ll explore this as well as who owns the public square in “Geo-locating Protest: Tech’s Role in Advancing Movements” Part 2 in the next installment of this blog series on Rewiring Democracy.

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04.03 Can We Handle the Truth? Trying to Re-establish a Working Infrastructure for News (Part II)

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

New from Public Agenda, Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement and the Future of Politics , explores how the latest technological trends may reshape our democracy, our politics, and our daily lives. In a series of blog posts, we are sharing some of the stories from the paper to illustrate some of the impacts on journalism, political advocacy, city planning, and other fields.

In this latest installment of the Rewiring Democracy blog series, we explore if, and how, technologies like blockchain can save journalism. We also examine whether Americans should have a voice in how media organizations collect and share news, and if so, how it can be done in an equitable fashion. Need a refresher on the previous post? Take a look through “Can We Handle the Truth? Trying to Re-establish a Working Infrastructure for News (Part I),”where we describe the challenges to journalism and how one organization is looking to address them.


Over the past decade, journalism has faced a number of challenges impacting the news industry’s viability and ability to grow. These challenges are in part due to digital innovations that have on one hand accelerated and modernized how information is shared, but on the other hand diminished the authority of news organizations and journalists. However, there have been attempts to save journalism that are trying to turn online technologies from a threat to an asset. For example, the leaders of Civil -- a blockchain-based journalism platform --turned to the blockchain because they felt it would enable a more meaningful, participatory relationship with their audience.

Through the use of CVL tokens, stakeholders have the opportunity to reward the newsrooms they feel are providing quality journalism, buy membership to certain publications, or even start their own newsroom. Not just anyone can buy CVL tokens – interested buyers have to register and pass a questionnaire in order to participate. Although newsrooms may make revenue from CVL tokens, Civil does not intend that newsrooms will stake their business model on the blockchain alone – most participating newsrooms draw on conventional funding models like subscriptions and donations, although Civil requires that newsrooms disclose any advertisers supporting their work.

Civil also has policies in place to protect against bad actors that try to compromise the integrity of news. If Civil users feel a certain news outlet is violating journalism standards, such as plagiarism, hate speech, or misinformation, they can use their tokens to challenge the newsroom.185 Once a newsroom has been challenged, other token holders can then use their tokens to vote on the issues, and if any violation is determined to be valid, the newsroom then owes a payout to both the challenger and any voters. News stories can’t be altered by large companies or wealthy individuals unless the majority of CVL stakeholders agree; Civil’s leaders argue that this prevents the possibility of any one entity exerting too much influence over their news operation.

Such practices help to incentivize token holders to participate in controversies and share their opinion, and also create pressure for news outlets to act ethically, since they face revenue loss for bad action. There is also a kind of Supreme Court for Civil: the Civil Council, made up of veteran journalists, journalism scholars, and attorneys, who can review community votes and overturn those they believe to be contrary to the Civil Constitution.

Civil is not the only attempt to use technologies to make newsrooms more transparent and accountable. For instance, a Twitter bot monitors anonymous editing of the Wikipedia pages of government officials, to protect against alteration or distortion of official information. Similarly, Facebook has partnered with CrowdTangle, a platform that uses artificial intelligence to monitor social media, to identify false news, photographs, or videos they see on Facebook.


In journalism and in other realms, the appeal of blockchain and its cryptocurrencies is that they make it easier to combine a financial transaction with an exchange of ideas. As consumers, people holding tokens can exert influence by choosing who to invest in, and as citizens, they can have a voice in how those organizations conduct journalism.

Along with other would-be reformers of journalism, Civil is trying to reverse the journalist H. L. Mencken’s famous quote, that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” Many journalists, entrepreneurs, and funders are banking on the proposition that if they allow audiences to contribute money and ideas, the money will be sufficient to support media organizations, and the input will be intelligent enough to be helpful. This approach has many skeptics. Some point out that there continue to be digital divides in access to the Internet and great disparities in online skills. Increased public engagement in journalism could exacerbate equity disparities, if people with access, wealth, and skills have more influence over the news than others. And if people don’t agree on what constitutes high-quality journalism, let alone the truth, they may simply demand stories that reaffirm their existing beliefs.

Blockchain itself raises many ethical and technological questions. By nature, it is unregulated and decentralized; if something goes wrong, it is difficult to see what will happened to all the sensitive information blockchain contains, or what the effects would be on world financial markets.

“I’m not a believer in blockchain,” says Ethan Zuckerman. “What fascinates me about it is that it is fundamentally about trust: people mistrust the governments that manage conventional currencies, and so they have created an alternative. This mistrust is really expensive – it costs vastly more to do Bitcoin than to run the US dollar, and so people are paying immensely. To me, blockchain is an interesting symptom, not an answer.”

When trying to handle the truth, and reinforce a shared sense of the dividing line between facts and fiction, it seems unwise to sidestep this problem of trust. Whether we turn to technologies like blockchain, employ more conscious strategies to connect journalists and citizens, or some combination of the two, we should focus on how these approaches create more interactive, trusting relationships between the people who generate the news and those who consume it.

Next week, we'll explore micro-targeting and messaging, technology’s role in mobilizing movements, and the value of citizen connections, in 'Geo-locating Protest: The Revolution Comes to Your Doorstep.' Meanwhile, you can download the full report here.


03.20 Can We Handle the Truth? Trying to Re-establish a Working Infrastructure for News (Part I)

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

New from Public Agenda, Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement and the Future of Politics , explores how the latest technological trends may reshape our democracy, our politics, and our daily lives. In a series of blog posts, we are sharing some of the stories from the paper to illustrate some of the impacts on journalism, political advocacy, city planning, and other fields.

In this first installment of the Rewiring Democracy series, we take a look at the challenges facing journalism, including decreasing trust in reporters as truth tellers, and the financial instability faced by media organizations.

In October 2018, one of the most ambitious and multi-faceted attempts to chart the future of journalism failed. When a blockchain-based journalism platform called Civil held its first public offering of tokens, very few investors bought them. This was the latest high-profile setback for the journalists, entrepreneurs, funders and other reformers who have been trying to save the news, either by restoring the financial model for journalism as a business or by resolving the objectivity crisis for journalism as a profession.

Unlike most of the other attempts to save journalism, Civil is trying to fix both the financial and objectivity problems at the same time. It was launched by former employees of the Denver Post who decided to form a blockchain-based news outlet called the Colorado Sun after allegations that the Post’s owners had interfered in the paper’s editorial process. Civil now encompasses 13 different media organizations in cities across the country. The basic idea is that investors can buy cryptocurrency tokens called CVLs that allow them to suggest stories for reporters to cover, challenge what they see as biased or inaccurate reporting, and serve as kind of a crowd-based conscience for the newsroom and editorial staff.

There were a number of basic reasons why Civil’s initial public offering failed, including the fact that many would-be investors couldn’t figure out how to actually buy tokens, or understand exactly how the tokens would help them influence the newsrooms. While the experiment isn’t dead, Civil and its parent company, ConsenSys, are being forced back to the drawing board. So far, their attempt illustrates both the ambitions and desperation of news media. The trends related to conscious engagement and subconscious technologies have destabilized journalism as a profession and an industry – and made it more difficult for Americans to agree on what is fact and what is fiction. In order to handle the truth, we will need to decide how to create a supportive new infrastructure for news.


For some time, it has been apparent that journalists have been losing their informal status as truth tellers. Citizens have been less deferential and more critical about the news, mirroring their changing attitudes toward other professions and institutions. Increasingly, people report and disseminate their own news. In some ways, the spread of fake news is nothing new; a recent New York Times article chronicled how Russia spread disinformation campaigns throughout the 1980s, including the widely-spread falsehood that the U.S. military created AIDS to kill African-Americans and gay people. However, technology allows inaccurate news to spread at a much more rapid pace. A recent study published in Science examined 126,000 news stories that were spread millions of times by millions of people. They found that false news stories spread much faster and more broadly than the truth, not necessarily because the news was false but because it was surprising (and people are more likely to forward information if it is surprising to them). Furthermore, the study found that humans, not bots, were more likely to spread misinformation.

RAND researchers call this phenomenon “truth decay,” arguing that a few trends have caused a decline in how we use factual information, including increased disagreement about facts, a blurring of the line between opinion and fact, declining trust in sources of facts (even ones that we used to respect), and more value placed on opinion and personal experience over facts. In another recent Science issue, a group of 16 political scientists and legal scholars expressed with urgency the need to “redesign our information ecosystem in the 21st century.”

To reverse truth decay and rebuild their relationship with their audience, newsrooms around the country are using public engagement, particularly dialogue and listening campaigns. The American Press Institute recently convened community-minded journalists, editors, and nonprofit leaders who are committed to listening and dialogue as a way to better serve their communities. This group of individuals defined listening as “the process of seeking out the information needs, feedback, and perspectives of the people in our areas of coverage” and placed a particular emphasis on “attention to people and communities who feel alienated or have traditionally been marginalized by news coverage.”

By engaging communities, these journalists believe they can get a better sense of which stories people want covered. For example, the Journal Star in Peoria, Illinois, uses a community advisory board as well as monthly meetings that are open to the community so that the community can contribute their perspectives about the Star’s coverage as well as priorities for future articles. At the height of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, locals questioned what the Journal Star was doing to cover #MeToo, and the newsroom ended up creating a series of podcasts where local women and men discussed their experiences with sexual assault.

The nonprofit organization Hearken consults with newsrooms to help them create “public-powered journalism.” In a Hearken initiative called “Curious Texas,” reporters in Texas asked the public to point them in the direction of stories they were interested in reading. Other news outlets are taking similar approaches. After the Bangor Daily News wrote an award-winning series covering the life and tragic death of a young man named Garrett Brown, who was addicted to opioids, the newspaper received feedback from all over the state of Maine that something needed to be done. The newspaper ended up hosting a series of forums called the One Life Project with community leaders, first responders, high school students, and even gubernatorial candidates to generate priorities from the community to address Maine’s opioid epidemic, which the newspaper then published.

Although more research needs to be done, initial studies of journalist engagement with the public seem to indicate that it can positively impact newsroom finances. One study found that readers who connected with their newsroom through Hearken are five times more likely to become subscribers. And if the public starts to see local news coverage as a common good, it may encourage small and large donations to sustain quality coverage. For instance, in Philadelphia, a newspaper owner donated the company that publishes three local newspapers to the Philadelphia Foundation in an attempt to allow public donations to support news media.

Can blockchain save journalism? Can Americans have more of a voice in how organizations conduct journalism and can it be done equitably? Stay tuned as we explore the future of journalism in 'Can We Handle the Truth?’ in the next installment of this blog series on Rewiring Democracy.


02.25 AI, Blockchain, VR, and the Complicated Future of Democracy

Monday, February 25th, 2019 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

Too often, the people working to strengthen democracy have been caught flat-footed by the pace of new trends and innovations. All kinds of changes, many of them driven by technology, affect how we live, work, vote, interact, and get information. It’s always been difficult to understand the implications of trends in the moment, but it’s even harder today because knowledge is so vast and specialized with experts on each trend often isolated from one another, without an overarching map for everyone to see.

Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement, and the Future of Politics is an attempt to anticipate how the next set of changes will affect democracy, map the intersections of different trends and inform how we should respond. It’s a sequel to the Infogagement report, published by Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement in 2014 and re-released with a new introduction, foreword, and commentaries in 2018. The original Infogagement described trends that later erupted into controversies over “fake news,” voter disenchantment with politics, and Facebook’s abuse of user privacy.

Like Infogagement, Rewiring Democracy is based on the assumption that transformative moments often happen when trends come together—when the wires of innovation cross. Think, for example, of how the combination of personal computers, credit cards, and the internet transformed how we shop, leading in turn to dramatic changes in fields like journalism, as newspapers lost the revenue that classified ads used to bring. Well known, slowly progressing changes like the rise in literacy rates or in economic inequality might interact with new developments like blockchain or the rapidly-growing capacities of artificial intelligence (AI).

There are great challenges and potential catastrophes at these intersections, but there can also be great benefits. The intent of the paper is to begin identifying how these trends present significant dangers, as well as opportunities, for democracy.

Many of these dangers and opportunities have to do with the interplay between two major forces. One is the growth of what we call “subconscious technologies,” driven by the new capacity of AI to make decisions and predictions, most of which are unknown to most of us, based on the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data we now generate every day. The other is the increasing determination among citizens to make their actions and opinions matter in public life, an impulse we are calling “conscious engagement.” These two forces are rampant, and the ways in which they conflict with or complement one another may be critical to the future of politics and democracy.

To explore these forces, we relied on expert interviews, conceptual mapping, and a broad-based systemic analysis to gauge the force of different trends, understand their potential implications, and show how they connect and build on one another. The experts we spoke with include:

  • Jaimie Boyd, Director of Open Government, Treasury Board Secretariat, Government of Canada
  • Peter Eckart, Data Across Sectors for Health, Illinois Public Health Institute
  • Allison Fine, author, Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age
  • Nigel Jacob, Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, City of Boston
  • David Lazer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science, Northeastern University
  • Josh Lerner, Participatory Budgeting Project
  • Peter Levine, Academic Dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University
  • Abhi Nemani, Ethos Labs
  • Darrell West, Vice President and Director, Governance Studies, Brookings
  • Ethan Zuckerman, Director, Center for Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

We also hope that this paper serves as an antidote for what seems to be the prevailing sentiment about the fate of democracy: deepening frustration and even resignation that our political system is ineffective and unpopular, without serious attention to how that system could be changed.

Collectively, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about democracy, as if we were standing at the bedside of a slowly declining patient. We know frustration with American politics is higher than ever before. Trust in government and other public institutions has been ebbing for decades, and it has now reached unprecedented lows. Election after election, voters of both parties are attracted to “outsider” candidates who promise to “change the system.” The trends we describe in Rewiring Democracy bring with them tremendous implications, and they should prompt us to think more carefully about how people interact with institutions and with one another. They can help us decide how we might redesign democracy so that it fits the new expectations and capacities of citizens.


02.22 ENGAGING IDEAS - 02/22/2019

Friday, February 22nd, 2019 | PUBLIC AGENDA


These Are the Americans Who Live in a Bubble (The Atlantic)
One of the many questions the Trump era has raised is whether Americans actually want a pluralistic society, where people are free to be themselves and still live side by side with others who aren't like them. Continue reading

The New Democratic Primary Calendar Emphasizes Nonwhite Voting Power (New York Magazine)
This decisive turn toward diversity, reinforced by California's decision to move up its primary to Super Tuesday, represents a potentially critical new wrinkle in the nomination process. Continue reading

OPINION - If news is dying, who will safeguard democracy? (The Guardian)
When the news industry began 200 years ago, it grounded the world in fact. Now faith, localism and entertainment rule
Continue reading


Why No One Talks About The High Unemployment Rate Among Women With Disabilities (Forbes)
It's not news that there is gender inequality when it comes to employment. Ever since the mid-1900s, if not earlier, women across the U.S. have been fighting for equal wages and equal treatment in the workforce. However, women with disabilities are too often left out of discussions about feminism and equal wage.
Continue reading

LA homeless advocates have a new tech tool for affordable housing (Marketplace)
LeaseUp is a website that makes it easier for landlords to list affordable housing units and for nonprofits to find those homes. Continue reading

Even at Top Colleges, Graduation Gaps Persist for Poor Students (Wall Street Journal)
As elite schools expand access for low-income students, graduation rates lag. Continue reading


What's New in Civic Tech: What Is Digital Distress? (Government Tech)
Honolulu launches a new performance dashboard; NYC city planning creates a digital platform for a lengthy zoning resolution; major jurisdictions prep for Open Data Day; a host of gov tech jobs are available; and more. Continue reading

How grassroots efforts are trying to solve the teacher shortage crisis (Hechinger Report)
One teacher at a time, nonprofit groups try to address the lack of teachers in the Mississippi Delta. After years of inaction, the state finally steps in to help them.
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OPINION - A Nation of Weavers (New York Times)
We're living with the excesses of 60 years of hyperindividualism. There's a lot of emphasis in our culture on personal freedom, self-interest, self-expression, the idea that life is an individual journey toward personal fulfillment. You do you. But Weavers share an ethos that puts relationship over self. We are born into relationships, and the measure of our life is in the quality of our relationships. We precedes me. Continue reading


This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn't, new study finds (Chalkbeat)
A program that Bill Gates once called "the future of math" didn't improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.
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The U.S. Teaching Population Is Getting Bigger, and More Female (The Atlantic)
Women now make up a larger share of educators than they have in decades. Continue reading

District eliminates extended school year, invests more in classroom technology (Washington Post)
Three years after launching an expensive education experiment, the District is eliminating extended school years at 13 campuses after city leaders said there was scant evidence of improved academic achievement, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced Thursday.
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Higher Ed/Workforce

As Students Struggle With Stress and Depression, Colleges Act as Counselors (New York Times)
Students and institutions are grappling with issues like the surge in school shootings and trauma from suicides and sexual assault. But it's not just the crises that have shaken this generation - it's the grinding, everyday stresses, from social media pressures to relationship problems to increased academic expectations.
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New Florida Study Shows Students Using State's Tax Credit Scholarship Program More Likely to Attend and Graduate College (The 74)
To the research on private school choice, add one more layer: The Urban Institute has released the results of a study that shows that students participating in Florida's tax credit scholarship program are more likely to enroll in college than their traditional-school peers, and somewhat more likely to earn a bachelor's degree.
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Why are tribal college students slow to ask for financial aid? (Hechinger Report)
A report about student experiences at tribal colleges and universities finds a lag in seeking aid, along with reluctance to take out loans. Continue reading

Health Care

From Common Frustrations, Some Common Ground on Health Care (
With many of us paying a larger share of our health care bills out of pocket, it's increasingly important to have clear and accurate information about health care prices. Continue reading

Hospitals now employ more than 40% of physicians, analysis finds
(Healthcare Dive)

Hospitals acquired 8,000 medical practices and 14,000 physicians left private practice and entered into employment arrangements with hospitals between July 2016 and January 2018, according to a new report by Avalere Health and the Physicians Advisory Institute (PAI). Continue reading

Hospital groups push for seat at table as lawmakers address 'surprise billing'
(Fierce Healthcare)

In a letter sent to Congressional leaders on Tuesday, the groups-which include the American Hospital Association and Federation of American Hospitals-laid out principles they want lawmakers to consider as they seek to address the problem over the next few months. Continue reading


01.18 ENGAGING IDEAS - 01/18/2019

Friday, January 18th, 2019 | PUBLIC AGENDA


The Populist Specter (The Nation)
Is the groundswell of popular discontent in Europe and the Americas what's really threatening democracy? Continue Reading

Waiting for a Shutdown to End in Disaster (The Atlantic)
Aides on Capitol Hill fear that a dramatic government failure may be the only thing to force President Trump and the Democrats back to the table. Continue Reading

It's time for think tanks and universities to take the democracy pledge (The Washington Post)
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has put the spotlight on think tanks and universities receiving funding from the Saudi regime. Under pressure by media reports, a few think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution, the Center for International Studies and the Middle East Institute, have decided to return Saudi money. Continue Reading


Why midsized metro areas deserve our attention (Brookings)
Consensus is forming that place matters for economic policy; and evidence is mounting that the largest places are succeeding while smaller ones are not. Continue Reading

How Educational Opportunity Programs graduate first-generation college students (Hechinger Report)
Nationally, only 11 percent of first-generation students typically graduate in six years; 55 percent of New Jersey's educational opportunity program students earn a degree in six years. Continue Reading

As Poll Shows Majority Back 70% Tax Rate for Ultra-Rich, Ocasio-Cortez's "Radical" Proposal Proves Extremely Mainstream (Common Dreams)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) sparked a flood of hysterical and error-filled responses from the right when she suggested in a recent "60 Minutes" interview that America's top marginal tax rate should be hiked to 70 percent to help pay for bold progressive programs, but a survey published on Tuesday found that the majority of Americans are on the freshman congresswoman's side. Continue Reading


New York's Democracy Reform Bill, and the Message It Sends (The American Prospect)
After decades in which all reforms were stymied, the new legislature enacted sweeping changes to voting laws on its second day in session. Continue Reading

Federal judge strikes down Wisconsin early-voting restrictions (The Hill)
U.S. District Judge James Peterson ruled Thursday that the early-voting limits were clearly similar to restrictions that were blocked two years ago, according to The Associated Press. Continue Reading


As government shutdown drags on, New York City vows to protect school food program (Chalkbeat)
The federal government provides about $43 million a month to pay for school meals in New York City, and right now the city has money on hand that would last until April. Continue Reading

At Los Angeles Teachers' Strike, a Rallying Cry: More Funding, Fewer Charters (The New York Times)
After more than a year of protracted negotiations, the district's 30,000 public schoolteachers walked out demanding higher pay, smaller class sizes and more support staff for students. But the union is also using the strike as a way to draw attention to what it sees as the growing problem of charter schools, saying that they siphon off students and money from traditional public schools. Continue Reading

Report: Online learning should 'supplement' - not replace - face-to-face instruction (Education Dive)
A new report takes a critical view of fully online courses and competency-based education (CBE) as regulators and stakeholders discuss the topics during the negotiated rulemaking session that kicked off this week. Continue Reading

Higher Ed/Workforce

No Tuition, but You Pay a Percentage of Your Income (The New York Times)
Income Sharing Agreements are gaining the attention of higher education and Wall Street. One early success story is getting a boost from venture capital. Continue Reading

City University of New York Struggles to Fill Top Job (Wall Street Journal)
The City University of New York is close to ending its search for a new chancellor after having difficulties filling the position atop one of the nation's pre-eminent public systems of higher education. Continue Reading

America's colleges struggle to envision the future of diversity on campus (Hechinger Report)
America's colleges struggle to define, let alone achieve, diverse campuses in today's identity-centric and socioeconomically divided climate. Continue Reading

Health Care

Nearly half of doctors feel burned out, Medscape survey shows (Healthcare Dive)
Nearly 44% of American physicians report feeling burned out - and it's especially a problem for female doctors, according to a new Medscape report on doctor burnout, depression and suicide. Continue Reading

What's next after the CMS price transparency "first step" (MedCity News)
A new price transparency rule from CMS requires hospitals to post their retail list prices online, but critics are saying it doesn't go nearly far enough. Continue Reading

Microsoft, Walgreens team up to develop new healthcare delivery models (Fierce Healthcare)
Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. (WBA) and Microsoft Corp. announced on Tuesday that they will team up to develop new healthcare delivery models, including technology and retail innovations to disrupt the healthcare delivery space. Continue Reading


01.11 ENGAGING IDEAS - 01/11/2019

Friday, January 11th, 2019 | PUBLIC AGENDA


A Jury of Peers (
How Ireland used a Citizens' Assembly to solve some of its toughest problems. Continue Reading

Competitive elections are good for democracy - just not every democracy (The Conversation)
Our study, published in the American Political Science Review, examined four decades of data from 164 countries to see how competitive elections effect policymaking and government services. Continue Reading

Democracies In Crisis: Has The West Given Up On Democracy? (
One of the key signs that people have not given up on democracy is public protest. Whether it's the Yellow Vests in Paris, or anti-Trump Woman's March protests, participatory democracy is thriving. Continue Reading


Top Colleges Are Enrolling More Students From Low-Income Homes (Washington Post)
A major push to increase enrollment of lower-income students at the nation's top colleges and universities is showing some early signs of success. Continue Reading

How wealth inequality in the US affects health inequality in the US: 4 essential reads (The Conversation)
If you have health insurance, a nice home and a decent job, why should you care about health inequality in the U.S.? This question was the underlying theme of several articles penned by health policy scholars in The Conversation in 2018. They explained such topics such as threats to the Affordable Care Act, insurance coverage, Medicaid expansion and the lack of access to health care for many people - the so-called health care gap. These experts argued that this gap is actually a threat to the system that serves all Americans. Continue Reading

How Fair Is American Society? (Yale Insights)
Americans tend to be overly optimistic about economic equality between white and black citizens, according to a new study by Yale researchers. SOM's Michael Kraus discusses why people systematically misperceive the reality of the wealth and income gap and what can be done to make the American dream more than a myth. Continue Reading


As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Steps Away From Public Life, Her Legacy, iCivics, Begins Broad Push for Increased Civics Education (The 74)
Only 23 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in civics education, meaning they can correctly answer questions about the three branches of government, the Constitution, and voting. Continue Reading

The new urban bullies: Tech companies need to learn public engagement (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Tech companies might have some great ideas, but they should spend more time consulting with the people who lives are going to be affected by them. Continue Reading


Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pushes 'free kindergarten now' in opening address (Chalkbeat)
Funding full-day kindergarten will give more Colorado kids a good start in life, put money back in the pockets of working families, and let school districts put resources into other areas, Gov. Jared Polis said in his first State of the State address. Continue Reading

As L.A. teachers threaten to strike, union leaders are fighting a controversial school reform strategy (Chalkbeat)
If Los Angeles teachers go on strike this week or next, it won't just be about dollars and cents - it will be part of a broader fight over the role of charter schools and an obscure but influential school reform idea. Continue Reading

Aldeman & Schmitz: D.C.'s High Teacher Turnover Rate Hurts Educators as Well as Students. Blame the District's Pension Plan (The 74)
A recent report from the State Board of Education of the District of Columbia found that D.C. schools of all types lose about one-quarter of their educators every year. These rates are much higher than in peer cities around the country, and they are exceptionally high for certain roles and schools. Continue Reading

Higher Ed/Workforce

Education Dept. steps up to help students stymied by financial aid application requirements (Wall Street Journal)
The U.S. Education Department will make it easier for families to provide proof of their income, clearing the way for some of the neediest college students to gain access to federal loans and grants. Continue Reading

Millions of College Students Are Going Hungry (The Atlantic)
As the costs of college have climbed, some students have gone hungry. When they've voiced frustration, they've often been ridiculed: "Ramen is cheap," or"Just eat cereal." Continue Reading

Worries Grow About Outsourcing of College Degrees (Inside Higher Ed)
Proposal to lift cap on college programs offered through unaccredited entities stirs concerns about giving companies back door to federal student aid. Continue Reading

Health Care

Verma: Chargemaster rule is 'first step' to price transparency (Modern Healthcare)
CMS Administrator Seema Verma said Thursday that the agency is working to improve a new rule requiring hospitals to post chargemaster prices on their websites after experts said the data wouldn't help consumers. Continue Reading

How AI could shape the health tech landscape in 2019 (Healthcare Dive)
Highlights include technologies seeking to cut costs and promote patient health, especially in imaging, diagnostic, predictive analytics and administration. Continue Reading

NYC Promises 'Guaranteed' Healthcare for All Residents (MedPage)
The city of New York is launching a program to guarantee that every resident has health insurance, as well as timely access to physicians and health services, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday. Continue Reading


12.21 ENGAGING IDEAS - 12/21/2018

Friday, December 21st, 2018 | PUBLIC AGENDA


Senate overwhelmingly backs overhaul of criminal justice system (Washington Post)
The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system, after a remarkable political shift from Republicans who voted in large numbers to save money by reducing prison sentences, handing a rare bipartisan victory to President Trump.
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Barack Obama Goes All In Politically to Fight Gerrymandering(The Atlantic)
The former president sees representative elections as the key to progress on global warming, gun control, and health care.
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How the Russians attacked America's democracy (USA Today)
Two new reports for the Senate Intelligence Committee describe how the Russians heavily targeted Americans with deceitful messages on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and other social media platforms.
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A new Trump rule could take food stamps away from 755,000 people (Vox)
The USDA wants to toughen SNAP work requirements, but there's little evidence the program discourages work.
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How we can encourage innovative solutions to poverty and inequality (Fast Company)
Despite so many advances in science and technology, we haven't seen many large-scale applications to problems of the poor.
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Eviction Lab examines the intersection of poverty and housing (Princeton University)
Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 bestseller "Evicted," and his team created a national database of eviction records, where visitors can see how their region stacks up against others, look at maps of eviction rates, and more.
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'Participatory budgeting' proposal could give Atlantans control of city funds (Curbed)
"Residents know better than City Hall what their neighborhood needs most," says councilman Amir Farokhi
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Data suggests voter turnout for midterms may not change much, despite political culture (The Slate)
Every other year, millions of Americans turn out to vote on the first Tuesday of the month of November. They come from every state and represent people of a variety of backgrounds. But what is one of the historically lowest-represented groups? Young adults.
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Los Angeles Teachers Threaten to Strike in January (Wall Street Journal)
Union on Wednesday rejected the district's offer of a 6% salary raise and said many of its demands remain unmet.
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What worked (and didn't) this year: 10 lessons from education research to take into 2019 (Chalkbeat)
We've synthesized what we learned from research in 2018, focusing on which policies seemed to work and which didn't. We're using "what worked" as a shorthand for policies that improved test scores or affected metrics like suspensions, attendance, and high school graduation rates.
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A New Push for Play-Based Learning: Why Districts Say It's Leading to More Engaged Students, Collaborative Classmates ... and Better Grades (The 74)
This child-directed learning has been shown to deliver the best results for academic outcomes, according to a study of three preschool programs in Washington, D.C. Students who had been in a formal, traditional academic environment during preschool earned lower grades after several years of schooling than their peers who had been in preschools where active, child-initiated learning was more common, the study found.
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Higher Ed/Workforce

Despite decades of pledging to hire more black faculty, most universities didn't (Hechinger Report)
The number of black faculty on college campuses has gone down during the last decade.
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US college completion rate climbs to 58% (Education Dive)
Student completion rates are up at two- and four-year U.S. colleges, regardless of gender, race and ethnicity, or age, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The organization analyzed six-year completion rates for first-time, degree-seeking students who enrolled in college in the fall of 2012.
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Law Schools Find a Way to Fill Seats (Wall Street Journal)
New offerings include master's programs for students not interested in practicing law, courses for foreign lawyers
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Health Care

What Is the Status of Women's Health and Health Care in the U.S. Compared to Ten Other Countries? (The Commonwealth Fund)
Women in the U.S. have the highest rate of maternal mortality because of complications from pregnancy or childbirth, as well as among the highest rates of caesarean sections. Women in Sweden and Norway have among the lowest rates of both.
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Texas still hasn't expanded Medicaid. That's leaving a gap in coverage for hundreds of thousands. (The Texas Tribune)
More and more states have decided to expand Medicaid, but Texas has not budged. With more than a half million Texans in the so-called health coverage gap, will the politics of the issue shift in next year's legislative session?
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Number of outpatient facilities surges as industry values more convenient, affordable care (Modern Healthcare)
The number of outpatient centers increased 51% from 2005 to 2016, a trend that shows no sign of slowing.
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