Category: Tech

Morning Crank: An Even Bigger Table

1. At the inaugural meeting of her “innovation advisory council”—a group of local tech leaders brought together to suggest tech- and data-based approaches to addressing problems such as homelessness and traffic—Mayor Jenny Durkan lavished praise on Seattle’s tech community, calling them “some of the most brilliant talent anywhere,” and noted that there has already been “an outpouring of interest” among other tech leaders in joining the group. “As big as this table is, it’s going to get bigger,” Durkan said, before leaving leaving the group to their discussion about how to help the city address its most vexing issues.

Yesterday meeting was mostly introductory—officials from the city’s human services and transportation departments gave presentations and answered questions from the group, which included representatives from Amazon, Expedia, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, and Tableau—but it still revealed some of the challenges this very large group will face in coming up with “innovative” solutions. The first is precisely what Durkan highlighted—the “table” already includes dozens of people, with more, apparently, to come; One Table, the last “table” effort in which Durkan was involved, met a few times, fizzled for a while, and then came back with a tepid set of recommendations for addressing the root causes of homelessness that could be summarized, basically, as “build more housing, and also treatment.” Without a targeted mission in mind—say, creating a new system to give the city’s Navigation Team instant access to a list of available shelter beds so they don’t have to call around when removing people from encampments—it’s easy to see this council meeting a few times, releasing a list of half-conceived ideas, and disbanding without any commitment to spend more time and, importantly, money on actually implementing their own suggestions. Michael Schutzler, head of the Washington Technology Industry Association, alluded to this concern, noting that “we can’t boil the ocean.”

The other issue that was immediately apparent yesterday was the fact that the advisory council would have benefited from the inclusion of someone who works full-time on homelessness and can quickly get other members up to speed on basic facts about the issue. Like many such councils, members come to the table with varying levels of baseline knowledge; nonetheless, it was somewhat jarring to hear Steve McChesney, VP of global marketing for F5, say, “I don’t understand, personally, what the behaviors are leading up to” homelessness. The city and county have done numerous studies, surveys, and presentations on the causes of homelessness, and “behavior” (such as having a substance use disorder) falls far behind high housing costs on the list of the root causes of homelessness.

The group will hold two more meetings to come up with a list of ideas, which will then be narrowed down for further discussion. City council president Bruce Harrell suggested that future meetings might not be open to the public or the press, and should include a “strong facilitator,” noting that the negotiations that got the city a $15 minimum wage didn’t happen in the public eye.

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2. One data point that jumped out at me from the city’s latest report on race and gender equity in city employment was the fact that the overwhelming majority of city employees who took advantage of paid parental leave last year—73 percent—were men. (Meanwhile, 64 percent of those who took family leave, which is provided for employees to care for children and other family members, were women.) These numbers can be accounted for, in part, by what the report calls the “very imbalanced” nature of the city’s workforce: Just 38.6 percent of the city’s workers are women, so if men and women took parental leave at equal rates, you would expect men to make up about 61 percent of those taking parental leave. However, men have not historically been the ones taking parental leave, and even assuming that they do so at the same rate as women doesn’t account for the entire gender divide.

So what’s going on here? A deeper look at the numbers reveals that the departments where men are far more likely than women to take time off for a new baby are also the ones that are most heavily dominated by men—City Light (where 78 percent of those taking parental leave since a new 12-week leave policy went into effect were men, and men make up 70 percent of the workforce), Police (where 88 percent of leave-takers were men, and men make up 72 percent of the workforce), and Fire (where 94 percent of leave-takers were men, and men make up 88 percent of the workforce). Deborah Jaquith, a spokeswoman for the city’s human resources department, says, “We can’t say specifically why there’s a higher proportion of male PPL takers, but you can see how that figure isn’t so surprising in the context of the city’s overall gender imbalances and the imbalances in these departments specifically.”

Some additional theories: Perhaps men in mostly male environments feel that they are unlikely to suffer workplace penalties for taking time off; after all, everyone else is doing it. Conversely, perhaps women in those environments are less likely to take time off precisely because they fear they will be penalized for pregnancy and childbirth in a male-dominated environment. The data don’t say, and the report does not include a survey to find out the specific stories behind the demographics.

As for the fact that women are far more likely than men to take time off to take their kids to the doctor, stay home when a child is sick, or take care of an ailing family member?  Well, women have always borne most of the burden of household responsibilities, and—despite progress in other areas, such as men’s increasing willingness to take paternal leave, which is an important advance toward gender progress—they’re still doing so today.

The J Is for Judge: Trump Would Feel Right At Home In Anti-Amazon Seattle

If, as they say, the enemy of your enemy is your friend, Donald Trump is Seattle lefties’ besty.

Just as many Seattle progressives cast Amazon as a bogeyman during debates over affordability and the city’s “character,” Trump routinely directs his Twitter ire at Amazon and the company’s CEO Jeff Bezos.

Here’s a typical Trump tweet trashing Amazon from this spring:

Of course, like most of Trump’s Twitter testimony, these claims strain credulity.

But the crux of Trump’s sentiments are in sync with Seattle’s own animosity toward the the South Lake Union tech magnate. As the recent head tax debate showed, Seattle’s left—like Trump—doesn’t think Amazon pays enough in taxes. Seattle’s leftist City Council member Kshama Sawant has personally used Trumpian language to demonize Bezos, saying “Jeff Bezos is our enemy” at a city council meeting in June.  (That’s right—the Washington Post owner is an enemy of the people.) Activists in Seattle have taken up the anti-Amazon crusade. In fact ,the coffee shop where I’m writing this very column is currently selling anti-Bezos postcards that say “Rich Uncle Bezos” featuring a picture of the Amazon leader in a “Monopoly” top hat.

Echoing Trump’s line that the company is killing mom and pop businesses, conventional wisdom here in Seattle holds that Amazon, the engine of our hyper growth, is destroying Seattle’s homegrown culture and authenticity. For both Trump and Seattleites who believe the company is ruining the city, Amazon represents an existential threat. The fact that council member Sawant is now organizing rallies to save the Showbox from being replaced by a new housing and retail development is unmistakably part of the same reactionary sentiment that demonizes change, and Amazon transplants, as corrosive forces—these new Seattle residents aren’t neighbors but “Amazombies,” as I overheard someone quip at a bar last week.

I agree that Amazon should be a better corporate citizen; their resistance to paying higher taxes to help address the homelessness crisis displayed a callous lack of concern for a city that has invested heavily in their success. And their crass bad faith at the negotiating table during the head tax debate (turning around and making a $25,000 contribution to the campaign to kill the tax after apparently agreeing to a deal) was shameful. For the record, I supported the head tax. Without an income tax (something else I support), it’s our only option to mark the clear nexus that exists between Amazon’s growth and the housing crisis.

On the flip side: A report that Amazon pays an estimated $250 million in local and state taxes  highlights the real benefit of having a Top 10 Fortune 500 company (#8) based in downtown Seattle, with its 45,000 current Seattle employees, 50,000 new hires planned, and all the secondary and tertiary jobs they create.

The similarity between Seattle progressives who scapegoat Amazon as a corrupting influence and Trump’s populist tweet tantrums that accuse Amazon of cuckolding the feds (turning the Post Office into a mere “delivery boy” for the all-powerful Bezos) is worth calling out because it’s part a consistent, ugly defect we also see in Seattle populism.

As insightful Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson once pointed out: The intransigence of Seattle’s largely white, single-family homeowners who oppose allowing more access to their neighborhoods is similar to the heated provincialism of Trump’s pro-wall base. Johnson, an even-keeled mass transit and density advocate, is now on his heels against an onslaught from angry single-family neighborhood constituents. And so it goes in Seattle, where the current strain of parochial leftism isn’t out of place in Trump’s America.

Seattle Considers Free Wi-Fi Downtown, But at What Cost to Privacy?

Photo: Intersection

This story originally appeared at Seattle magazine

A Google-affiliated company called Intersection is in talks with the city of Seattle to provide free Wi-Fi service, phone charging ports, and real-time information about city services at bus stops throughout downtown Seattle — but there’s a catch.

According to New York-based Intersection, which has an office in Seattle, the kiosks provide steady revenue to cities through ad-sharing agreements while remaining “completely free for cities, taxpayers, and users.” The concept has its fans (New York and London have signed up), but also its critics, who have raised concerns about privacy, data sharing, and visual clutter on city streets.

The deal, proponents say, would provide the city with badly needed funding for transportation projects, promote digital equity for Seattle residents without access to the Internet at home or through their cell-phone provider, and enhance Seattle’s reputation as a “Smart City” that uses data to provide services more efficiently. But at a time when companies like Facebook are facing questions over their use of members’ private information, privacy advocates are cautioning cities to pump the brakes on partnerships with big-data companies that promise something for nothing.

Representatives for Intersection and LinkNYC, a division of New York City’s information technology department,  did not return multiple calls and emails for comment before press time.  According to the company’s website, the kiosks offer advertisers a “real-time, localized platform—fed by data-driven APIs—to connect with their audiences with more relevance, in the context of their journeys throughout the city.”

When reached after the initial publication of this story, Intersection spokesman Dan Levitan said the company does not collect browsing data or track users across the city. He did not deny that the technological capability for such data collection does exist, but stressed that the privacy policy for LinkNYC requires that this activity does not take place in any capacity. Intersection says that its privacy policy agreement in New York City protects users from data collection activity. Those agreements, however, are made on a city-to-city basis, and the issues now being raised by privacy advocates in Seattle draw comparisons to those raised by the New York Civil Liberties Union last year.

“Intersection takes user privacy seriously and works closely with our city partners to craft strong privacy policies for all our Link deployments. We do not track or record the browsing activity of our users,” Levitan said. “Advertising on Link displays is never targeted at any individual, and there is no advertising inserted on mobile devices that connect to Link Wi-Fi. Cameras are only used for monitoring and maintenance of the structures and cannot be used for advertising or any other purpose. Footage is only accessible by law enforcement with a court order or lawful request. We are proud of the LinkNYC program, our partnership with the City of New York, and the of the service we provide to over 3.7 million users.”

City council member Mike O’Brien says that when former mayor Ed Murray broached the kiosk proposal last year, the pitch was that the ad revenues could help pay for the downtown streetcar. Although the streetcar project has been put on hold because of cost overruns, the city is facing another imminent transportation funding challenge: Federal funding for the 2015 Move Seattle levy, which funds transportation projects across the city is falling short of expectations, which could lead the city to look for new revenues to offset some of the shortfall.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office declined to comment on the record about the Link Seattle plan, but is reportedly reviewing the latest version of Intersection’s privacy policy and could announce something publicly in the next few months. Mafara Hobson, communications director for the Seattle Department of Transportation, says SDOT “is conducting an initial research and feasibility study” on the plan, but adds that “the work remains a preliminary concept that would require executive approval and significant legislative review and requirements.” (SDOT is the lead agency on the proposal because the kiosks would be located in city rights-of-

O’Brien says he’s “skeptical” of Intersection’s proposal, both because it would require changing the city’s sign code to allows ads on city sidewalks—itself a major political lift—and because of a “growing concern about how companies are capturing our data and using it” without our knowledge. “When you’re realizing the stupid test you took on Facebook now is in the hands of some international conglomerate that’s trying to influence elections,” O’Brien says, it makes sense for cities to “be very careful” about authorizing companies to collect their residents’ private information.

Specifically, privacy advocates in other cities have raised alarms about how Intersection uses the data it collects. Although Intersection has said that it collects only “anonymous, aggregated” information about its users, digital privacy advocates say that “anonymous” information can be analyzed not only to extrapolate what type of ads a kiosk should display based on a user’s search history, but to identify and track specific people based on their “digital fingerprints”—a troubling capability in the hands of overzealous law enforcement, or immigration officials seeking to track down undocumented immigrants, or an employer who wants to know how many hours a perspective hire puts in at her current job.

“We hold government to a higher standard than businesses—they’re not supposed to be profiting at the expense of the people,” says David Robinson, a member of the Seattle Privacy Coalition who is skeptical of Intersection’s privacy claims. “If the data is being stored somewhere, then eventually someone will abuse it, no matter what the policy is. If you really don’t want people’s data to be misused, then you shouldn’t be be collecting it.”

Shankar Narayan, policy director for the ACLU of Washington, says “it sounds very much as though the price of free Wi-Fi is going to be Seattleites becoming the product—their movements, possibly the information on their cell phones, being downloaded and monetized by a company.”

Although proponents at the city argue that free Wi-Fi levels the playing field between people who have smartphones with unlimited data plans and those who don’t, Narayan says that’s a Faustian bargain. “Basically, we’re saying people who have the means to have an unlimited mobile plan don’t have to sacrifice their privacy to get Wi-Fi.”

Additionally, data collection opens up the possibility of data breaches, like the one at Facebook that allowed Cambridge Analytica to gather personal information on tens of millions of Facebook users.

Devin Glaser, the policy and political director of Upgrade Seattle, a group that advocates for municipally funded broadband service, says free Wi-Fi at bus stops does almost nothing to address the lack of digital equity in Seattle. “If you picture a 12-year-old child needing an internet connection to finish their homework, the fact that they can have access while at the bus stop doesn’t really cut it,” Glaser says. “We need to ensure that all of Seattle’s residents have a robust home connection, not an ad-driven boost to our Words with Friends games while we’re waiting for the 7.”

In New York City, where a consortium of companies, including Intersection, signed a 12-year contract with the city to install more than 1,000 kiosks under the brand name LinkNYC in 2016, the program has been a source of controversy. Touch-screen tablets had to be removed from the kiosks because passersby were using them to watch pornography, and privacy advocates raised questions about the company’s retention of personal data, including browser history. A spokeswoman for LinkNYC says that the city’s privacy policy prohibits Intersection from tracking user data or search history or targeting advertising based on personal information in New York City, although they have the technological ability to do so.

Although citizen activists convinced the city to revise Intersection’s privacy policy, which now says the company will not collect people’s private information, there are still cameras in every kiosk, which have raised concerns about how the video might be used. Intersection says it deletes that video every seven days unless it’s needed “to investigate an incident,” and a spokeswoman for LinkNYC, which operates out of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, says the city’s revised privacy agreement with Intersection does not allow the company to use its cameras to target individuals for advertising based on characteristics like gender or race. The spokeswoman, Kate Blumm, says only 37 of the cameras are currently operating, although she said the others could be turned on in the future.

Privacy advocates say Seattle has done a better job than most major cities, including New York, of protecting its residents from public and private surveillance. Last year, the city council passed an ordinance that gives the council some oversight over city departments’ use of surveillance technologies—things like the controversial “wireless mesh” system that gave Seattle police the ability to track people using wireless devices throughout the city, or the Acyclica system, which tracks travelers’ progress through downtown using a series of devices that detect and identify people with Wi-Fi-enabled devices. (A full list of the 28 city-operated surveillance technologies identified last year is available on the city’s website.)

Seattle could consider beefing up its privacy ordinance to make it harder for companies to track and misuse user data. But that would require leaders to educate themselves on emerging privacy concerns proactively, the ACLU’s Narayan says. “Cities are not often sophisticated actors in this space—they don’t know when they’re getting a bad deal.” Narayan says that before cities sign deals with companies like Intersection, they should take the time to understand how the technology operates and put the appropriate safeguards in place.

“When automobiles first came in, there were no speed limits and no red lights, and people were getting run over and killed all the time,” Narayan says. “The automobile didn’t die because we invented red lights and air bags and better brakes and put bumpers on cars. The technology better and everyone got a better deal out of it.”