Welcome to the summer of 2020, where hot dogs, beach balls, and road trips are joined by protests, oximeters, and arguments about section 230(c). And, every week, your Plaintext newsletter.
The Plain View
I have become a Citizen addict. Citizen is an app, currently active in 18 cities, that’s sort of a supercharged police scanner—its home screen is a map of the area around your location that pinpoints disturbances. These include user-contributed videos of fires, police activity, and lately, major protests. Since my New York City neighborhood has become a hot spot for social upheaval in recent weeks, the baseline of nearby incidents and emergencies has dramatically elevated, and the distance to various conflagrations and marches is often reported not in miles but feet. Accompanied by the unrelenting soundtrack of overhead helicopters, my use of Citizen has been both inspiring (the uprising is long overdue!) and alarming (already fragile Covid-affected businesses in my neighborhood have been hit hard by vandalism and looting).
Citizen’s founder and CEO is Andrew Frame, a hacker turned entrepreneur who was behind the VoIP app Ooma. “The original foundation for Citizen was really ‘What does the future of public safety look like?’” he tells me, while heading to the airport for his first plane trip since the virus hit. “Step one is opening up the 911 system. So, it’s a shared system, and everybody has access to the same information in real time.” Frame says that in recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of new users have flocked to the app. (Though Frame wouldn’t share actual numbers, he didn’t dispute a recent report in Forbes that estimated 600,000 new users, for a total of around 5 million overall.) Once people get that information, he says, it’s up to them to figure out what to do with it—whether to rush out and document an incident, join a protest, or cower in their apartments. (In some cases, he says, people have left their apartments after learning through Citizen that the building was on fire.) “We try to stay as neutral as possible politically—we create the transparency,” he says.
But as other platforms have learned, staying neutral is a difficult balance to strike when your decidedly nonneutral users express themselves within the app. Each incident reported on Citizen invites comments, and in our politically fractured environment, these often break out into political discussion. That’s fine, but not when commenters complain about the protests with hate speech and racism, and I’ve been taken aback at some of the intolerance displayed by my supposedly liberal NYC neighbors, including some comments expressing unbridled venom towards people of color. App store reviewers have noted it too—a recent user talked of deleting the app, because “there’s a ton of racist comments.”
Frame says that hate speech is definitely against policy, admitting that in the recent surge of new users, the company’s content moderators might have been temporarily overwhelmed. “This is not built as a free-speech platform—there are plenty of platforms where you can go and share your opinions and argue with people.” In contrast to big platforms like Facebook and YouTube, he says, Citizen’s moderators are full-time employees. I suggest hiring more.
Citizen has long been discreet about its business plan, though Frame hints that he will soon reveal a clear monetization scheme. He vows that it will not hinge on selling or exploiting the data of his users. As for other future plans, he says that Citizen will broadly interpret its mission of safety through transparency. “Since the mission is safety, it gives us license to do things like Covid and contagious diseases. Anything we can do by using technology to keep our user base safe.”
Safe, maybe, but not necessarily reassured, as I can attest, based on my late-night swipes through Citizen. “There’s two things that make people nervous,” says Frame. “Number one, not knowing what’s going on. And number two, knowing what’s going on.”
Citizen would not be possible without the digital-geo revolution, which transformed paper maps into the dynamic tools that power many of our best apps. Sixteen years ago, I wrote about the emergence of digital maps in Newsweek:
Just over the azimuth is the holy grail of mapping, where every imaginable form of location-based information is layered onto an aggregate construct that mirrors the whole world. “I call it the Virtual Globe,” says Jack Dangermond, founder of Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), a Redlands, Calif., company that pioneered what’s known as Geographical Information Systems. “It combines the World Wide Web with geographical information like satellite images, roads, demographic information, sensors … and then you’re modeling the planet as a living system” … Think of these supermaps as the equivalent of Web browsers yielding the world’s knowledge through the lens of location. They’ll spur companies and governments to make better-informed decisions and enrich the experience of just plain people as they take a walk through the city, hook up with their friends and hunt for Chinese food. These will be maps that change the territory.
Ask Me One Thing
Michael asks, “Do you think we’ll be able to enjoy self-driving cars in our lifetime?”
That’s a matter for the actuarial tables, Michael. I assume you are talking about Level 5 autonomy, when cars don’t need us and the steering wheel goes the way of the phone dial. Some of the lower levels, which include a lot of the tasks of driving—steering, braking, navigating, and singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” really loud—are already here, assuming your car has Spotify. Within a few years, most new cars will have options that allow them to do most of that work. But I realized a few years ago, when working on a story on what is now Waymo’s test-driving training, that there are endless scenarios in motoring that AI has difficulty with. It’s kind of a Zeno’s paradox thing—engineers can whittle down those situations, but a percentage still always seems to remain. At some point those will become so rare that we’ll just declare victory and say we’re at Level 5 with an asterisk, and the car you buy will drive off the lot by itself. If you’re alive in 10 or 15 years—certainly 20—you may be one of those buyers who meets the car when it shows up sans driver. So keep washing your hands.
You can submit questions to email@example.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
For those worried about the apocalypse, at least we had the comfort of knowing that the ancient Mayans were wrong in pinpointing the world’s end to December 21, 2012. Now it turns out that they simply made an error in calculating the calendar date—it’s this year, folks! So don’t bother with Christmas shopping.