An Open Letter From Civic Hackers to Puerto Rico & USVI in the Wake of Hurricane Maria

We are a group of civic developers committed to supporting Hurricane victims for relief & recovery who have helped with the software development and data analysis of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma primarily in Texas and Florida. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, we want to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the same way. Devastation has already occurred in Puerto Rico and the USVI, and we’re here to help in the response and recovery pending from Maria.

But, we won’t jump in without your permission. These places have a long history of imperialism, and we refuse to add tech colonialism on top of that.

Here’s how we might be able to help:


Sometimes emergency services are overloaded fielding calls and deploying assistance. Remote grassroots groups help take in additional requests through social media and apps like Zello and then help to dispatch local people who are offering to perform rescue services (like the Cajun Navy in Houston after Hurricane Harvey).

Shelter updates

As people seek shelter while communication infrastructure remains spotty, having a way to text or call to findt the nearest shelter accepting people becomes useful. We can remotely keep track of what shelters are open and accepting people by calling them and scraping websites, along with extra information such as if they accept pets and if they check identification.

Needs matching

As people settle into shelters or return to their homes, they start needing things like first aid supplies and building materials. Shelter managers or community leaders seek ways to pair those offering material support with those in need of the support. We help with the technology and data related to taking and fulfilling these requests, although we don’t fulfill the requests directly ourselves.

If you are interested in this, please let us know by emailing me (willow dot bl00 at gmail) or finding us on Twitter at @irmaresponse and @sketchcityhou.

Here are other groups lending aid already (maintained by someone else).
If you’re looking to jump in an an existing task, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team already has a tasker active for helping to map the area for responders and coordination.

Parameters of Social Interaction

What does equality look like? How do we know if we are getting there?

This is the question I asked to open my talk at SHA 2017. It is also the question carried with me as I walked into CtK.Campfire. Both aimed to look at how to mitigate the polarization of human interaction in a digital age. The talk looked at the infrastructure of human interaction, and the retreat embodied some of the best ideals towards action. I’ve written two blog posts – one about each event – but they occurred temporally and intellectually adjacent. You can find the post about CtK.Campfire here.

The talk at SHA2017 (the Dutch hacker camp) was called “Weaponized Social.” WeapSoc is a project in which Meredith and I invested heavily through 2014 and 2015. She has gone on to write for Status451 on an extension of the topic area. I’ve continued to frame bits of my work in this context but have generally not kept up. It’s some of the most intellectually stimulating and emotionally draining work I’ve ever done, and that includes disaster response in the field.

A background assumption for this talk is that the effects of violence become less and less apparent to an observer of a single instance as we push the edges of “acceptable behavior” into being more aligned with human rights.

Violence is defined by the World Health Organization as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”, although the group acknowledges that the inclusion of “the use of power” in its definition expands on the conventional understanding of the word.

Example: seeing one person hit a non-consenting person is (pretty) easily defined as violence. Seeing one person say “your a dumb bitch” online to another non-consenting person isn’t as easily defined as violence (it’s often instead categorized as “conflict“). We have to zoom out to see that the receiver isn’t able to be online any longer due to thousands of similar messages in order to see it as the violence (in the form of depravation to opportunity or psychological harm) it is. Here’s just one example:

I don’t want to limit what this person says, but I also have a right not to experience him saying it, if it detracts from my ability to be online. As the quote says, “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” How can we bridge this sort of contention at scale?

To zoom out like this, and to take action at a systemic level, we luckily have Lessig’s four forces for social change. As the infosec crew which was the audience at SHA is largely skeptical of law (excepting the EFF), of social norms (“don’t tell me how to act”), and that I’m skeptical of markets being able to solve problems of inequality, we are left with architecture/code.

In the talk, I asked this question:

“Do we want to take a scientific approach to equality, where we tweak our infrastructure in explicit ways to see if it changes how people are interacting?”

We, as the creators and maintainers of online spaces have a responsibility to strive towards equality in the ways available to us. How can we do this without surveillance and control of speech? We change the architecture of the spaces. The crew of Weaponized Social (namely, TQ at the SF event in May 2015) started to lay out what the different parameters of social interaction are. Such as, how many people can one account be connected to, how far a message can travel (through timeouts or limits to re-broadcasts), of if an element of serendipity is introduced. These are toggles which can be changed, sliders which can be moved.

If we change these things, we can see how/if architecture changes the way we interact. The social sciences point to us being deeply (tho not solely) affected by our environments. By changing the architecture of online spaces, we could see how it changes how we interact. Who feels safe to speak by taking part in the act of speaking. We can then make better choices about our individual instances and realities based on those results. We now have one more set of tools by which to examine if we are progressing towards equality, without impinging on the individual right to speak. I hope you make use of these tools.

Cultivate the Karass

I came away from CtK.Campfire thinking about how anarchists might be aligned with Republicans in more ways than expected… and possibly more so than to Democrats.1

I was invited to Cultivate the Karass: Campfire based on two previous friendships and a workshop at Personal Democracy Forum. After seeing Lori talk at PDF about her son, Jake, and about carrying his work forward in cultivating relationships between “loyal antagonists,” I had to go to their workshop session later in the conference. One of the few truly interactive sessions (and that includes the one I was a part of called “Apocalyptic Civics”), I loved the use of spectrograms and deeper political discourse. Also, Seamus and Clarence were there! My friendship with both of them has been forged out of somewhat oppositional circumstances (one documented here). So when they suggested I attend the CtK.Campfire event, I listened.
5 people prioritize breakout session topics by applying stickers to post-it notes with topics listed.22 people – Republicans, Libertarians, Democrats, and one Anarchist (hey that’s me!) – gathered over three days to bond, to engage in facilitated civil discourse, and to learn to see each other as humans.

It worked.

After we had built trust over our life stories, and Not Talking About Politics, and some amount of beverages, we were able to move into more in-depth conversations. “Is our Democracy broken?” “Race relations and white people” “Equipping institutions for a VUCA world.” We did a spectrogram around whether or not statues of Confederate leaders should be removed. After much discussion, we came to a shared view – we should have to face our terrible history2, and that ideally some sort of process would be available to remove or relocate to museums the current glorification of those who wished to continue dehumanizing others. There was acknowledgement that democratic processes exist for this but has been ignored.

I want to tell you about one conversation in particular. Of all these conversations, the one that I both gave and received the most from was “What if it all goes wrong?” As in, what if we do put removal of statues to a vote, and the vote is to leave them where they are? What if Trump gets a second term? What if…

The conversation was posited by Cameron (Republican) and attended by Kyla (Democrat), Sarah (Republican), and me (Anarchist). We agreed that we shared a concern about a consolidation of power, and that respecting the systems we’ve built when power is imbalanced would lead to greater and greater oscillations of “now it’s my turn” from one party to the next. We agreed that a polarization in civil society could lead to increasing violences, and with diminishing ability to recover from imbalance. We had an interesting conversation around the vacuum of power currently occurring in leadership positions meaning a loss of infrastructure maintenance (let alone creation). We agreed government had been bulky, but that the current rate of displacement was dangerous.
7 people sit around a campfire in the sun. The image is taken through some trees from above.We even agreed about what “what if it all goes wrong?” might look like – our leaders becoming more radical, a continued shift in the Overton Window towards less and less civil/human-rights behavior, a validation of lack of leadership also leading to a lack of social cohesion, an increasing lack of faith in our electoral process and the census. I brought up that the world had already gone wrong for many people. I talked about cops not intervening in fights at protests in Berkeley. This was considered too specific by some folk in the group, but it did lead into a conversation about what “antifa” was.

“‘Antifa’ means ‘anti-fascist,’” I said. “I’m anti-fascist, but I don’t agree with destroying things.” “Ah. That is the ‘black bloc.’ They also identify as anti-fascist, but view meeting violence with violence and occasional destruction of property as a necessary component of fighting fascism. There was ‘civil discourse’ in pre-Nazi Germany, but the movement was still successful. As much as we’ve talked about how well Germany has done about monuments honoring the dead rather than the killers, there are still many Neo-Nazi groups there, which are often kept at bay by antifa/black bloc folk who are willing to literally fight them back. Some folk in the US think this is also necessary.” “So I’m antifa but not black bloc.”3

Then we got into problem solving. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, “this is where it will all go wrong.” But I was wrong. We agreed that America’s strength is in its plurality4. We agreed that Obama had normalized the use of executive orders which Trump is now running with even more. “Obama built the weapon that Trump is using,” as Cameron said. Since Republicans are invested in diminishing the size of big government, did they have a plan to reduce the run-away power of the executive branch that Democrats might be able to sign onto? Why yes, yes they do. It’s called the REINS Act and it limits what an executive order can do. It would be a huge step if Democrats were to pick this up (it’s already passed the House, but needs the Senate) as an act of good faith and self-awareness that it’s the amount of power someone has, not just how they use it which is at the core of the problem. Of course I need to read more – here’s a writeup from a “liberal” source, and one from a “conservative” source5.
We also talked about having open primaries, if the American people are smart enough to handle ranked voting (I think we are), and the problems of gerrymandering.
The Cultivate the Karass cohort stands and sits around a fire at night.But here’s what I walked away with: a new knowledge that my new conservative friends have been fighting for the same thing I’ve been fighting for as an anarchist in crisis response – getting more decision-making power into the hands of local populations. That although I align more with the rhetoric of liberals and radicals… the people doing the work within government to actually devolve power are those I never considered myself to be aligned with. I still think there are more responsible ways to care take the newest and most vulnerable in that process, but now I know I have some loyal antagonists with whom to debate the best path forward.


  1. *cough* Horseshoe Theory */cough*
  2. Facing History And Ourselves, anyone?
  3. I recognize I didn’t get into the more blurry lines of how Antifa is a movement which is often more comfortable with violence as a tool than explicitly nonviolent groups. But that was not the topic of the session, so I didn’t want to detract too much. For more information, start here.
  4. I’d of course argue that the human race’s strength is in its plurality, but America is currently considered a subset of that, so sure.
  5. Which has me thinking about anarchist reviews of policy as a useful project, as if I didn’t have enough projects on my plate…Anyone want to adopt this one?

Algorithms for Enforcement or for Data-Driven Introspection?

Many organizations (official or grassroots) have objectives which exceed their capacity, i.e., they have fewer resources than they think they need. In order to either better place limited resources, or to improve processes generally, some of these organizations have taken to collecting data about their objectives and use of resources. For a drought management agency in the Horn of Africa, this might have to do with the location of agripastoral communities and their access to water. For a school district in Michigan, this might be test scores or (better yet) teacher attendance. By documenting historical data and changes linked to actions taken, an understanding of whether or not a goal (equal representation, access to resources, etc) is being reached is more grounded in reality. Data, like all things, is political. What data is collected, how it is collected, where it is stored, to whom it is visible, and who gets to act on it can re-centralize power or become mechanisms of accountability and community empowerment.

This post explores how police departments have been collecting data about the location and types of arrests made as a way to track how much crime is happening in a certain place, as a way of placing their limited resources (cops and their weapons) more accurately (to their eyes). But of course their data has to do with arrests, not crime, and their definition of crime is still based on enforcement of law. This use of force, already untenable, can be seen by some as “unbiased” when based on data. Here we explore why this is not only inaccurate but will further embed systemic racial bias, while maintaining that data collection and subsequent action can be a useful thing when led by the communities themselves. Here, we specifically address questions of large sets of data against which algorithms can be run, and how we can make choices to maximize benefit and mitigate damage of these operations while transitioning from the world we’re in to the world we want.

I anticipate the audience for this blog is more acutely aware of things like state-sponsored surveillance, malware used by abusers to further control others, or circumvention tools than the usual crowd. But there is more to the technology and abilities of networks than just these components. Let’s talk about the data that networks generate, the algorithms by which that data is navigated, and how data is acted upon. One end of the arbitrary spectrum of action is enforcement – an external party exerting force in order to maintain the rule of law. The other end is data-driven introspection – an individual or group of people generating data for tracking changes within their own control. This article explores how to understand and increase the likelihood of just actions taken based on data and algorithms. Continue reading

Remembering Normal

Most of my corners of the internet are currently filled with rage. One of the ongoing cries is “this is not normal.” It’s true, it’s not. So let’s take a moment to remember what normal has been for the past bit. This is to both balance out the past blog post, and in light of great blog posts like this one about mental health and long fights. Much of my “normal” has to do with where I live and what I look like. I still find it important to talk about them because these levels of freedom are something I actively fight to make available for others on a daily basis in my own flawed and insufficient ways.

  • Normal has been a high likelihood that overhead helicopters etc are for traffic reporting.
  • Normal has been walking in my neighborhood safely.
  • Normal has been making aggressively questioning remarks about government, governance, and other systems of power in public and having lively debate and no concern for my long-term well-being.
  • Normal has been visiting nearly every continent in 5 years and only getting heavy scrutiny thrice, including when soft-packing through TSA.
  • Normal has been asking friends to move to encrypted channels and no one being targeted for those moves.
  • Normal has been holding hands with a girlfriend and a boyfriend on a street corner and only getting occasional side-eye.
  • Normal has been openly attending talks from activists in other countries.
  • Normal has been experiencing shock when I see enforcement agents with semi-automatic weapons in other countries (because they don’t where I live).
  • Normal has been publishing under my own name.
  • Normal has been making an appointment for, and then getting, an IUD from my doctor, and it being covered by insurance.
  • Normal has been, and will always be, a slow fight towards more justice and more equality.

And so much more. Remember what is normal.

Same as it ever was

Hi, friends.

I’ve gotten into a few conversations recently with friends for whom this election has deeply shaken their world view. They wonder how — how — this could have happened. And how I can be so damn calm?! Instead of talking through this over and over again, I’m documenting it here.

I am not surprised by Trump winning the election.

A bee once flew into my motorcycle helmet while I was at speed on the highway and I was able to calmly and safely pull over and get it out without either of us losing our lives. My being calm and unsurprised is not an indicator of how terrified I am for my friends, for humanity, and for the planet in this slide towards fascism all over.

I know Trump supporters

People I have cared about for much of my life – and continue to care for – find promise in Trump. I think this is due to their feelings of disempowerment, but they have their own reasons as well. They are just as racist and sexist as anyone in a racist and sexist culture is. Which is to say, at least a little bit. They also, like most/all of my radical and liberal friends, feel disconnected from our governance systems. Sorry to go all Steven Universe on y’all, but I see these folk as potential allies in a very long fight, not as The Enemy. We’re all people, and anything I fight to achieve for my friends (legal recognition of love, freedom of speech, safety from harm) I also fight to achieve for these folk, because human rights apply to everyone.

Our systems are set up for this

Friends are under threat of violence. Our planet is under threat of no longer supporting human life. Friends of mine are under threat of funding being yanked, at an organizational or personal level. These are not new challenges, it is simply that we were mildly comfortable with who was at the helm in a haphazard and ineffective attempt to avoid these issues. Until a system can truly have any person in a role without the output of the system changing, it isn’t stable and maybe shouldn’t be relied upon. And unless a government is fulfilling its basic role to provide baseline human needs through collective action and resource management, it ain’t a government I’m much into. I say in a nominally self-aware way as a white lady in SF who has tons of privilege.

These are long standing issues

There are many social justice organizations which have been long working on problems of systemic violence such as racism and sexism through the means available to them. Those who understand the above point likely haven’t shifted what it is they’re up to all that much based on this election, although we may be working with more urgency than before.

What’s to be done?

When the Snowden revelations came out, some corners of the infosec community shrugged and said “yeah, and?” It was a huge lost opportunity. Suddenly, people care about your cause. This is, as they say, a “teachable moment.” Use this time to onboard people to your cause. Use it to teach and embrace and build solidarity.

Live your life

I don’t believe in needing the external morality of religion to guide my actions (though religion is just fine), and I don’t believe I need a government to tell me how to behave, either. I will continue looking out for my fellow humans, performing small acts of human decency, and wading into fights if needed. I hope you’ll do the same, or be even more present than you have been before. This everyday action thing is also the only way I’ve found to be sustainable in my long years of action.

Join the fight

We’re glad you’re here. Hello. Welcome. There are tons of groups already doing excellent work. Please find and contribute to one of them.

Step outside of your comfort zone

Try listening first, and then acting. Try understanding someone you dislike. Try seeing someone you’ve never looked at before. We’re in this together, regardless of how it shakes out.

And most of all: <3

Acting Together

Regardless of how or if you voted, if the past few days have inspired you to take action but aren’t sure how, here is a template to get started.

Not loading for you? It’s likely due to the chat on the riseup pad. Here‘s a direct link to the pad.

We’ll be hosting one this upcoming Tuesday evening in San Francisco. Let me know if you’d like to know details.

Politics and Death

This was co-written with Fin

When Mihi died, we had some problems beyond just the holes in our chests and the salt in our eyes. 0) He was part of many communities – the medical community, the hacker community, the data journalism community, and many more. We wanted to create a site where these communities could come together, which was complicated as we are 1) activists of one flavor or another, and so most of us aren’t on facebook, 2) facebook memorial pages squick us the fuck out anyway1 2, and 3) there aren’t other accessible options out there for collaborative memorial pages3. Continue reading

Politicized Humanitarianism

This post is a collaboration between Margaret Killjoy and yours truly. If you find yourself in need of a co-author or ghostwriter, or just generally like to be challenged and your hopes dashed and lifted at the same time, please reach out to them.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Desmond Tutu

Four years into the Syrian Civil War, with no end in sight, the Syrian refugee crisis is just getting worse and worse. More than four million people have fled their homes and sought refuge in Turkey, Europe, and throughout the world.

There are wonderful grassroots initiatives (most too informal to even call “organizations”) who are on the ground in Europe helping Syrian refugees navigate the nightmare they’ve been thrust into (bureaucracy and xenophobia) after the nightmare they’ve escaped (the Syrian civil war). But as crucial as it is to meet these people’s immediate needs, it will take more than emergency aid to solve the source of this crisis and ones like it. It will take radical, political solutions.

Relief organizations and related nonprofits could position themselves to advocate and act towards / in alignment with those solutions. Which is to say: we need humanitarianism, yes, but if we’re going to find long-term solutions, we also need politicized humanitarianism.

When we speak of people and groups being politicized, we don’t mean campaigning and/or voting for elected officials every few years. Instead, to be political means to do work that addresses the very way our society—and its decision-making—is structured. For many of us, to be political also means to embrace the feminist concept that the personal is political—that the way we interact with one another one-on-one cannot be divorced from the broader structures of social control. Continue reading

…and yet…

At Cascadia.JS in 2014, I picked up a tshirt from the freebie pile. It’s pink. I know — I was also shocked about this, but the quote on the front was so good I had to go for it. “We don’t know what we’re doing either.” On the back is a subtle “&yet” which I learned was an open source consulting company (ish). Neat! — humility, a culture that accepts shirts which are both pink and comfortable, and a nuanced logo. I especially love wearing this shirt in academic and tech-centric situations.

A few months ago, Case asked my consent to be put in touch with someone on the &yet team — they had a conference coming up, and had suggested I speak. Our phone conversation was brief, but it sounded both fun and values-based, so I said yes (a rarer and rarer thing for me these days), and so I spent Wed/Thurs/Fri of last week in Richland, Washington. If interested, here are my drawings of others’ talks, my slide deck, and the paper I referenced.

It is now easily one of my favorite large social experiences. Music, art, and story were woven throughout the conference, all evoking self-reflection on our role in the path the world takes. It was already populated by some of my favorite people in this space (the aforementioned case, plus ben, jden, kawandeep, etc), and the textcapade starting weeks in advance, recieving letters from another character in the story by mail, all playing through these struggles, had me jazzed up long before the event.

The talks were a beautiful mix of art demonstrations, hopeful distribution structures, empathy arcs, and design philosophies. Inclusion was constantly present, and never for its own sake, but rather from a deep understanding that these are the voices that make up the world. The care &yet took of attendees (and encouraged us to take for each other) opened space for some rather heart-wrenching moments. Please, check out the talks when they go up.

While all of this is amazing, I want to talk about the trust and responsibility that &yet placed in the attendees. The storyline was a surprisingly nuanced version of one of my own ongoing internal battles — burn it all down, or patch to save what we can. (The mixed-mode system work is my attempt at making these transitions graceful, by the by). At no point was a clear value judgement imposed upon the story, or implied to the players. The textcapade transitioned into a sort of backchannel for actors in the parts of those sending the messages at points during the conference, and this archetypical internal battle continued to be played out there as well as by stage actors between talks.
Continue reading