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Andria Krewson
Charlotte journalist.
Charlotte journalist.

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One of those "I have an idea but no time or money" posts:

Imagine the funding, structuring and staffing of an open-source mapping project that helps states and grassroots groups redraw their voting district lines. +Lisa Williams is sharing the tool learning that could help.

What I know: redistricting of voting lines has been primarily a partisan-shop task, funded by entrenched partisans on the left or right. I've read that one national shop has been the source for recent right-leaning redistricting work at the state level. I haven't researched to know whether that is really true. But the redrawing of voting lines is changing the political direction and voting power of people. Those power changes generally last for 10 years, based on 10-year census data and reapportionment. The recent Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act will make such moves more likely and more frequent in the South.

I know that some local-level governments have played with tools that allow people to try their own hand at redrawing local lines. +Brian Francis in Mecklenburg County has experimented with this idea. The interface was time intensive, not game-like enough and didn't attract lots of participants. I have doubts on whether this kind of work can be crowdsourced.

Generally, the work is so geeky and time-intensive that it requires experts. Many of the tools probably already exist - fast mapping software matched up with public voting databases. But those experts are high priced, out of the realm for groups like the League of Women Voters etc.

Certainly the data exists at most state levels - public voting registration records, especially in states that record and disseminate party registration. That party registration is a key factor in how the lines have been redrawn in North Carolina. Partisan shops probably/maybe match that data up with other databases.

Maybe one of the Knight programs or national political data shops already has the tools for this - I'm unsure. But I'd recommend a national shop, perhaps for profit, perhaps nonpartisan, that helps other organizations do this kind of work, instead of just holding on to the tools and knowledge itself to get contracts. It's like a Red Hat business model, for a niche civic problem.

The goal is to lower the price of this work and make it more accessible so viable, nonpartisan map alternatives can be done easier and faster and maybe offered up more frequently than every 10 years, at least in states like N.C. that need a fix. Texas partisans have the opposite problem right now - the left is continuing to fight redistricting plans that would entrench the right. As far as I know, they're not offering viable - or even nonpartisan - alternatives.

e.thepeople - - developed some tools in 2012 that allowed newspapers to tailor local questions for candidates and then presented mobile tools for voters to access the data - and for newspaper websites to present the data. They'd be the kind of shop I'm thinking of that could do this work. Or their model - providing tools developed nationally that empower experts on local issues - could be a template.

Just a thought. And yes, maybe I should've had it earlier. Sharing if anyone wants to run with it.

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...and also worth a read.

Internet Shattered: Spies, Spooks, and Disgust

I've spent literally my entire adult life (and even before) working on Internet technologies and policies, one way or another, reaching back to early ARPANET days at UCLA -- a project rooted in Department of Defense funding, it's worthwhile to remember.

Over that time, there have been many related high points and low points, events joyful or upsetting, but never -- not even close -- have I felt so completely, utterly disgusted with a situation associated with the Net as I am today.

The apparently true facts we're learning about our own government's spying abuses against its own citizens are bad enough (  But we also are faced with stomaching the incredibly hypocritical and disingenuous pronouncements of intelligence agencies, administration officials, and Congressional leaders, as they point fingers back and forth about who knew what when, who approved which program, and why we citizens shouldn't be at all concerned.

To make matters worse, mixed in with misinformation and purposeful obfuscations, these actions have played directly into the hands of conspiracy theorists who are now working overtime to damage the very parties most in a position to help hold back unacceptable government prying into our affairs.

It is in fact the major Web services providers like Google, Twitter, Facebook, and others, who have become the most effective holding lines against government overreaching.  Most smaller firms or individuals don't have the financial or legal resources to fight back against overly broad data demands and other government abuses.

Thanks to the damage done by distorted dribbling of information over the last few days about telephone metadata collection, PRISM, and now new stories and government generated gobbledygook explanations just today, people all over the world are confused and upset, wondering how deeply the USA is spying on the Internet and its users, the telephone system, and perhaps their supermarket loyalty cards.

Even though the major Web firms categorically denied providing "back door" en masse data access to NSA, and accurately asserted that all data requests are vetted by those firms (and sometimes pushed back against in court), the last few days' worth of false charges have led to a torrent of people flooding comments and postings (not to mention my inbox).  Their rants proclaim that the firms are lying, they're in bed with the government, this is proof you can't believe anything these companies say, and gigabytes of other assorted paranoid rot.  I won't even address these ravings here.  They generally demonstrate a profound lack of knowledge regarding both global-scale software engineering and the legal process.  They're illogical, irrational, and are most appropriately filed in Area 51, right next to the outer space aliens' rumpus room.  

The government has been feeding this conspiratorial mindset against these firms for years.  It has tried its best to scare the hell out Internet users, by attempting to falsely convince them that cookies are evil incarnate, open Wi-Fi access ports are somehow to be considered private, and that anonymous ad personalization systems will kill the family dog, if not your children.

All the while, we see now that the real abuses have been orchestrated and planned from within the Beltway for many years, by officials totally convinced that they are so much smarter, so much more worldly, so much more entitled than the rest of us, that they've evolved the art of political and bureaucratic hypocrisy and insanely exaggerated secrecy to a level unimagined by the most skillful con men and swindlers in history.

In this case, we're not just being swindled out of uncountable hundreds of billions of dollars being sucked into black budget "everything is called terrorism now!" ratholes, but we've been cheated by the politicians, spooks, and spies out of something even more important in the long run -- trust.

No matter how ostensibly laudable their motives, these officials and minions with their vast and secretive funding, are steadfast in their belief that the American people cannot be trusted -- after all, we're just the little people compared with the giant brains of Congress and the intelligence agencies.  Pat us on the head, tell us some scary stories (leave out the inconvenient details of course), and scoot us all back to our rooms.

Now hear this! 

We're on to you.  Not just here in the U.S. but other governments around the world who are playing the same games with their citizens.  We don't need any wacky conspiracy theories -- the facts that are demonstrable are sufficient.  

We know that you desperately fear an Internet that you can't control, where every byte of data and every activity log isn't unencrypted and available at your immediate beck and call.

We know you want to control what sites are available and what sites say, dictate the results search engines may show, and generally treat the Net as your own global intelligence fetish supreme.

How about this?  If you believe you can honestly make the case that you need to know everyone we call on the phone, have access on demand to virtually everything we do on our computers, and otherwise treat us with such suffocatingly, "loving" contempt -- get out here and convince us.

No more hiding behind vast secrecy that serves your own desire for agency empire building far more than actual national security needs.  No more smoke screens blown at Congress pressuring them to approve your schemes without details or debate on the theory that they're just too secret for Congress to really trouble itself about.

And enough of trying to turn us against the very Internet firms that have the ethical and legal stamina not to let us be flattened like worms under your national security steamroller.

While we're at it, oh spies, spooks, and affiliated politicos, one other piece of free advice.

Go grab or download yourself a copy of the Constitution of the United States.  It's widely available, at least for the moment.  Pay particular attention to the Bill of Rights.

Take it home.  Discuss it with your spouse and children -- your children in particular probably already understand it far better than you do.

Those documents were written by a bunch of rather ordinary men of extraordinary vision and resolve.  They knew that even a well-meaning government can easily descend into abuse and tyranny, and they knew that protecting fundamental rights requires not treating everyone as a potential suspect, or everything they do or say as subject to access and analysis by the King's representatives and sycophants.  

They knew what freedom meant, while your actions now -- regardless of your motives -- are treating their efforts with vast contempt.

We are proud to be Americans, but we are also enormously saddened and disgusted by your behavior.

And that's the truth.

-- Lauren --

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Worth a read.
Government's Secrets: A Discussion of Principles

America is supposed to be a nation governed by principles, which are undergirded by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and carried into law. The discussion about the government and its capture of our data should be held on the level of principles.

* Privacy: Our direct and personal communication in any medium and by any means — mail, email, phone, VOIP, Twitter DM, and any technology yet to be invented — should be considered private, as our physical mail is, and subject to government intervention only through lawful warrant. That is not the case. Thus it is quite reasonable to be disturbed at the news that government can demand and receive communication we believe to be private. Government may call itself the protector of our privacy but it is our privacy’s worst enemy.

* Transparency: The actions of government should be known to citizens. I argue in Public Parts that our institutions should be public by default, secret by necessity; now they are secret by default and open by force. There are necessary secrets. There is a need for intelligence. There I agree with David Simon. I saw people die before me on 9/11 and I fault intelligence or not stopping it.

But we are left out of the discussion of where the line of necessity should be. If President Obama believes in the transparency he talks about and if he now says he welcomes the debate about security and freedom then it should have occurred before government took the actions now being reported and not by force through leaks. There I agree with James Fallows that this leak is not harmful — what bad guys didn’t already realize that their phones could be tracked? — and will be beneficial for democracy.

* Balance of powers: The best protection of our nation’s principles is the balance of powers. Yes, Congress passed the Patriot Act and yes, a FISA court does approve the executive branch’s actions. But both our representatives and our justices are prevented from sharing anything with us, as are the companies that are forced to be their accomplices. The true balance of powers is the exercise of democracy by citizens, but without information we have no power and government has it all.

* Freedom of speech and of the press: Information comes to the public from the press, which is now anyone with information to share. And citizens exercise power through speech. But in its jihad against leaks… that is whistleblowers… that is reporting… that is journalism and the public’s right to know, the White House is chilling both the press and speech. I pray that Glenn Greenwald doesn’t have a Verizon phone.

This discussion is less about privacy and more about transparency and speech. The principles most offended here are those embedded in the First Amendment for those are the principles we rely upon to take part in the debate that is democracy.

I am asking for government to behave according to principles. I am also asking companies to do so. Twitter — whose behavior toward developers and users can sometimes mystify me — is apparently the platform most stalwart in standing for its users’ rights as a matter of principle. They apparently refused to make it easier for government to get data. Now one could argue that helping government thwart terrorists is also behaving according to principle. But again we and these companies aren’t allowed to have that debate. So I’d now advise following what is apparently Twitter’s route in only responding to demands, nothing more. And I’d advise following Google’s example in revealing government demands for information (though under FISA, once again, they’re not allowed to reveal — even by a count — them all).

There is much debate and sometimes conspiracy theorizing swirling around about what Google, Facebook, et al did and didn’t provide to government. I take Larry Page’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s statements at their literal word and agree with Declan McCullagh that I so far see no evidence that these companies handed the keys to their servers to the NSA. We know and they have long said that they comply with government orders, whether in the U.S. or China.

Though some are attacking him on this issue and though I often disagree with him on the state of the news business, I again say that I agree with David Simon on the unsophisticated and emotional interpretation of this news. Since the initial New York Times report on NSA “warrantless wiretapping,” I have understood that one of government’s goals is to use data to find anomalies but to do that it has to have a baseline of normal behavior. We’re the normal. This has been going on for sometime, as Simon says; we just haven’t known how.

Are we as a nation OK with allowing government to make such an analysis to find the terrorists’ anomalous behaviour or not? That’s a discussion that should occur according to principles, properly informed about the risks and benefits. Are we OK with government using that same data to fish for other crimes — like, say, leaking a PowerPoint to the Guardian? I am not. Are we OK with government treating whistleblowers and leakers as traitors — starting with Bradley Manning? I am not. I agree with Bruce Shneier: “We need whistleblowers.” Are we OK with government having access to our private communications without warrants? I say: most definitely not, as a matter of principle.

Under a regime of secrecy, assuming the worst becomes the default in the discussion. We assume the worst of government because they keep from us even activities they say are harmless and beneficial. We see people who want to be suspicious of technology and technology companies assuming the worst of them because, after all, we can’t know precisely what they are doing. I agree with Farhad Manjoo about the danger. People in other nations — I’m looking at you, EU — already distrust both the American government and American technology companies, often in the past for emotional reasons or with anti-American roots but now with more cause. You can bet we’ll hear governments across Europe and elsewhere push harder for legislation now in process to require that their citizens’ data be held outside the U.S. and to European standards because, well, they assume the worst. We’ll hear calls to boycott American-made platforms because — even if they try not to go along — their acquiescence to our government means they cannot be trusted. This is bad for the net and bad for the country. The fault lies with government.

This is a story about transparency and the lack of it. It is a story about secrecy and its damages. It is a story about principles that are being flouted. It should be a discussion about upholding principles.

This post with links -- which matter here -- on my blog: 

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Numbers, FTW.
The Need for Independent Redistricting in North Carolina: a blog post at WFAE's The Party Line. 

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So anyone want to build some sort of auto-import of the highlights from +Craig Silverman 's Spundge Data Journalism group? I can cutnpaste in the mean time.

Adrian Holovaty on updating data (which has the same problems as big story databases at websites have. Updating stories means old comments are blown away if it's not done right.)

The value chain of datajournalism. Promising headline, but must wait until after coffee and cleanup of the trash the raccoon strewed in the back yard:

Hey to my old pay +Charlie Lawing ! New here?

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I have two classes I need to focus on at the moment (biz and law). But a little code encouragement is always a good thing, and I'd love to experiment with some simple scraping just with Chrome plug-ins + Excel manipulation.

Specific project in mind: Scrape the following link for all of N.C. Sort it by cities (I'd rather have it by counties if I could match the addresses with another database that included counties, or get a more complete list from the source.) Split it up in various county groups. Turn it into clean .csv files and/or XML files (and I'm comfortable with basic XML.)

Document how long that takes, and the steps it takes.

(I'll be slow: Have other classwork. But thanks for any thoughts.)

One tiny question:
What kind of geotagged data are you not getting that you or your business would pay for?

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Finally getting around to Chrome, for the extensions.
But +google, I'm old school. I do not want you to save my passwords, ever.  I would appreciate an "always deny" button or at least a way to make this prompt stop asking, over and over.
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