Why Journalism Matters More Today Than Ever

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One of the oldest and most protected institutions of our country is at a cross-roads. The role of a free press in holding accountable those in powerful positions remains as important as ever, but the industry’s ability to do so is getting more and more difficult.

According to Pew Research, 126 daily newspapers that existed in 2004 are no longer in operation in the U.S., and the number of people working for newspapers have shrunk by 20,000 in the past two decades. Despite the newspaper publishing industry’s efforts to implement new revenue models as circulation continues to shrink, even digital advertising revenues continue to shrink, dropping another 2% in 2015.

But unlike many industries which shrink and disappear as they are replaced by newer inventions or industries, none of us can afford for the newspaper industry to disappear.

One of the most serious consequences of the faltering newspaper industry is the loss of one of our nation’s most important tools of democracy — the free press — and the role of the investigative journalist who digs below the surface to uncover the truth, questions the carefully crafted statements of those in the public eye and follow the trail of data and information to reveal dishonest, unethical and even criminal behavior.

Times When Journalists Exposed the Truth

The U.S. has a long history of reporters uncovering scandal, exposing criminals, and holding the government accountable.

Meatpacking Industry Exposed
In 1906, the meatpacking industry was exposed for its unsafe, unsanitary conditions for their immigrant workers thanks to the courage of a writer who went undercover inside a meat packing plant for seven weeks.

McCarthy’s False Allegations Refuted
It was because the Washington Post assigned a reporter to cover then-Senator McCarthy full time that the reporter was able to thoroughly investigate McCarthy’s claims against Army personnel and prove that they were false. It was also a Washington Post reporter who noticed that one of seven men arrested for breaking into the Watergate Hotel happened to be on the payroll of the President’s reelection committee and gained the support of his editors to investigate further. The newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the Watergate scandal which led to the indictments of 40 administration officials and resignation of President Nixon.

When NYT Refused to Stop Covering Vietnam
One U.S. President actually requested that The New York Times transfer their reporter stationed in Vietnam. The newspaper refused the request of John F. Kennedy, and their reporter continued to provide American readers with a different perspective than the one presented by the government.

These are only a few of the more memorable times when the value of having a free press was quite evident to the American public.

As the industry continues to shrink, it isn’t just that there are fewer reporters to investigate that is of concern. It is also that fewer of them work for powerful enough newspapers to be able to rely on their employers to protect them from financial and legal retribution when they do uncover and report on major scandals.

My Own POV as a Former Freelance Journalist

As citizens, we need to be concerned that there is often no one to question what is offered up as facts or even “alternative facts” by corporations and government officials, and with the limited bandwidth of many local papers, far too often the government’s and local businesses’ press releases are published verbatim without any due diligence, and there is no one available to question whether what is written is actually true.

And, just as we want the free press to hold accountable those in powerful positions, the press also needs to be held accountable for what they report. While the industry has always policed itself, in today’s world of real time, digital access to news, fact-checking and verification of sources can fall to the wayside in the rush to keep up with information, especially within emerging or ongoing situations.

Before launching a company, I spent ten years working as a freelance writer. During that entire time, I only had one editor who asked me to go out and find different people to interview when the ones I interviewed did not give quotes that aligned with this editor’s agenda for the story she wanted me to write. (I refused and never wrote for that publication again). But she was the only one out of ten years of writing for editors at the local, regional, state and national level.

The rest of my editors pushed me to dig deeper and held me to a very high standard of ethics — requiring more than one source as standard fact-checking and expecting me to research the claims made by the people I interviewed. I wasn’t allowed to write something as fact simply because the person I interviewed said it was true. I could quote them saying it was a fact, but I was still required to verify for myself whether it was or was not true — and to report the findings if they conflicted with the statements made.

What We Can Do

There is absolutely no place in government, in corporations or in journalism for “alternative facts”, and if we, as citizens, don’t push back and speak up about any attempt to control the message or limit access to information that is constitutionally protected, we will lose one of the most important tenets of our freedom — our right to question and hold accountable those who hold office, who hold wealth and who report the news.

If you are looking to support organizations who are working to fill the gaps in vetting the overload of information and data to protect our access to facts and not spin, I would highly recommend you consider the following:

Propublica:

“an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

Sunlight Foundation

The Sunlight Foundation is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses technology, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all. Our vision is for technology to enable more complete, equitable and effective democratic participation. Our overarching goal is to achieve changes in the law to require real-time, online transparency for all government information. And, while our work began in 2006 with only a focus on the U.S. Congress, our open government work now takes place at the local, state, federal and international levels.

Originally published on Medium.

The Future of Civic Technology

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In the coming weeks, we will see a flurry of post-election opinions and predicted changes resulting from the recent U.S. election. I will leave that to those with far more experience and insight into this year’s voting data.

As someone who has spent the past few years working closely with government leaders throughout the U.S. in order to harness emerging technologies and data to make civic services and support more accessible to more people, my own mission and vision remain clear .

We must continue to develop and share the technology and tools that can deliver better self-service access to the information and services we need within our own communities, urban or rural, that empower us to make informed decisions, interact with our government, and improve our own economic mobility.

Today, people living in cities are still accessing civic technology for instant information about their transit systems to make decisions about their commute to work. Parents are still launching mobile applications to access information about the schedules, lunch menus, and even notices of frightening lock-downs at their children’s public schools. And business owners are still using today’s technology to not only serve their customers but to interact with the government entities which regulate their companies.

Cities all over the country are continuing to open up more data and to deploy more automated tools which allow citizens self-service options to apply for permits, pay fees, and report issues to their government leaders.

The industries of Civic Tech and Gov Tech were barely getting started only a decade ago, and thanks to the rapid expansion of technology and data, these industries are now mature enough to step up and address the bigger challenges of resolving the rural and poverty gaps in access to reliable, affordable internet and to scale existing user-friendly technology platforms which can empower more ordinary citizens to create their own solutions which address their unique barriers to economic growth, stability and security.

Through our work at APPCityLife we have already helped cities deploy mobile apps and integrated smart technologies to make services more available to citizens. We have worked with the youth and mayor of Albuquerque to deploy a mobile app to track one million acts of kindness.

And by collaborating with organizations including the Living Cities Foundation, the McCune Foundation and the City of Albuquerque, we are nearing the launch of a new integrated technology solution and mobile app, TrepConnect, which will empower small business owners and entrepreneurs to independently learn about and access the wide variety of available services within their own community so that more business owners can achieve their own economic stability and mobility.

I am especially thrilled that this solution has been designed to scale and to be shared with other cities and rural communities, so that the efforts and funding into this pilot project can allow other regions to now use the same solution to support their own economic growth through small businesses and entrepreneurship.

I am encouraged to know that with the continued support of foundations and investors focused on using technology to improve the operations of government and access to information and services, those of us working within Civic Tech and Government Tech can continue to use the tools at hand and to invent new technologies which can continue to improve the lives of Americans wherever we live.

This post originally appeared on Broad Insights via Inc

How Urban Tech is Disruptive Government Procurement

(originally published on What’s APPening)
IMG_6565I spent the past few days with our COO at the Smart City Startups Festival in Miami, Florida, interacting with some of today’s most visionary, innovative urban tech startup founders who are disrupting almost every facet of the urban landscape. All of the startups showcased at the summit have the potential of changing the future of our cities. Some are implementing solutions which are quite ingenious in their simplicity, like Loveland Technologies, which makes ownership of land parcels transparent (and raised funds through creative sales of inches of Detroit land parcels through “inchvestors”, and Vizalytics, which filters through the cacophony of data to help small businesses quickly understand what policies, work orders, or inspections will directly affect their business. Other showcased teams are immersed in big ideas like those of, BRCK, whose rugged tech is bringing internet access to remote regions of the globe. It was an incredible honor to have the opportunity to demonstrate how our own company, APPCityLife, is helping deliver powerful mobile apps in cities which can change the way people interact with their city, from being able to get to a job on time by using a real-time tracking app for transit to finding out about distributions of fresh fruits and vegetables at a local food bank.

IMG_3988But the invention of cool urban tech doesn’t mean it’s going to be available to you, the citizen, any time soon. One of the biggest barriers to getting this tech into the real world remains the challenge of navigating archaic government procurement policies. If you think waiting in the customer service line of a Department of Motor Vehicles is a practice in frustration, try pushing a single contract through almost any city government. But there is good news. Because the clamor for better tech is now coming from within and without government agencies, some civic leaders, organizations and entrepreneurs are exploring alternative paths to engage with urban tech startups.

Nonprofits like the Knight Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Living Cities, Bloomberg PhilanthropiesNew Cities Foundation as well as many others funding programs aimed at disrupting solutions for select issues such as education, entrepreneurship and economic development. In addition, organizations like Code for America have also helped to disrupt through advocacy, by forming brigades of volunteers within communities to address local issues, and by deploying carefully selected fellows into select cities each year to address a particular need. Other organizations, like Citymart, are focused on disrupting the procurement process itself. With several successes under their belt within the European community, the Barcelona-based company has opened an office in New York City’s Civic Hall and signed on several initial cities to participate in a series of challenges which invite innovative urban tech startups to submit solutions with the chance to move forward with a larger contract should an initial pilot prove successful.

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

And then there are the city administrators who are choosing to disrupt the way they work with urban tech startups. One nugget of advice often shared by government administrators is for startups to work for free. I have to admit that the advice that startup founders should work for cities for free can be a bit disconcerting, if only because it is almost always given by someone who not only stands to benefit from free tech but is certainly not working for their own government agency for free. While this model does have its benefits, there are also drawbacks that must be taken into account. When a startup is delivering a service for free, they are far more likely to run out of cash and leave a government agency adrift with a non-working technology – and no one to hold accountable. Additionally, entering the market with a free model may help startups determine the willingness to use a technology, but that is not the same a willingness to pay for that same technology. When founders give away services to any customer, government or otherwise, it is very difficult to begin charging at some later date. We’ve seen this free-first model pay off in very big ways, but it takes setting up clear boundaries ahead of time as to what parts of service will be free, how long the free model will last, what next steps will be possible if initial free phase is a success, etc. When a free-first model can prove a startup’s ability to deliver and the city’s ability to save money or deliver services better, it can be an excellent opportunity to get a foot in the door and disrupt the status-quo. But when it is not set up with clear expectations and end dates, it can eat a startup’s budget with nothing to show for it.

Here are a few additional ways we’ve found to be successful in disrupting current procurement policies to get new urban tech into the hands of the people who need it. When startups devise business models which generate revenue from sources outside of government, it becomes a win-win for everyone around. In addition, proving future savings to a government agency can be a good way for urban tech founders to gain early customers. If new tech will streamline processes, improve efficiencies, or encourage citizens to embrace more affordable options – and if the startup can track the data needed to prove those cost savings, every sale after the initial pilot will be easier. And lastly, when founders take the time to understand the problems a city department is facing – what their biggest headache is within a specific task or as an agency – and when a startup can show that their tech will solve that problem, founders can gain the buy-in and willingness from the government to find money or babysit a contract through procurement processes to gain access to that pain-reliving solution.

Of course, the bigger issue is the procurement policies themselves. Most have not kept up with emerging civic tech. But we cannot afford to wait for politicians and legislators hash out the nuance of new policies. Working at the slow pace of policy change is not an acceptable solution for anyone. Until better procedures manage to gain enough votes to become law, those of us within the urban tech community must continue to disrupt not only the way cities interact with the people who live there but the way cities work with urban tech startups. As a society, we cannot wait for legislators to get up to speed and pass laws that make sense for this new world of smart cities – there is too much at stake. When we have the power to lift entire communities out of poverty by delivering better city services like reliable transit or helping deliver needed supports like food-finding apps to food banks, there is a moral imperative to find new ways to foster urban tech startups and deliver the successful solutions throughout the world.