Could COVID-19 Kickstart Surveillance Culture?

Several months ago, saying that the “cure” that facial recognition offers is worse than the ills it solves would have seemed hyperbolic. But now, the metaphor has become all too literal — and the medicine it promises isn’t quite so easy to reject when sickness is sweeping the globe.

Even as it depresses economies across the world, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked a new period of growth and development for facial recognition technology. Creators pitch their tools as a means to identify sick individuals without risking close-contact investigation.

In China, the biometrics company Telpo has launched non-contact body temperature measurement terminals that — they claim — can identify users even if they wear a face mask. Telpo is near-evangelical about how useful its technology could be during the coronavirus crisis, writing that “this technology can not only reduce the risk of cross infection but also improve traffic efficiency by more than 10 times […] It is suitable for government, customs, airports, railway stations, enterprises, schools, communities, and other crowded public places.”

COVID-19: A Push Towards Dystopia?

At a surface glance, Telpo’s offerings seem…good. Of course we want to limit the spread of infection across public spaces; of course we want to protect our health workers by using contactless diagnostic tools. Wouldn’t we be remiss if we didn’t at least consider the opportunity?

And this is the heart of the problem. The marketing pitch is tempting in these anxious, fearful times. But in practice, using facial recognition to track the coronavirus can be downright terrifying. Take Russia as an example — according to reports from BBC, city officials in Moscow have begun leveraging the city’s massive network of cameras to keep track of residents during the pandemic lockdown.

In desperate times like these, the knee-jerk suspicion that we typically hold towards invasive technology wavers. We think that maybe, just this once, it might be okay to accept facial recognition surveillance — provided, of course, that we can slam the door on it when the world returns to normal. But can we? Once we open Pandora’s box, can we force it shut again?

In March, the New York Times reported that the White House had opened talks with major tech companies, including Facebook and Google, to assess whether using aggregated location data sourced from our mobile phones would facilitate better containment of the virus. Several lawmakers immediately pushed back on the idea; however, the discussion does force us to wonder — would we turn to more desperate measures, like facial surveillance? How much privacy would we sacrifice in exchange for better perceived control over the pandemic?

Understanding America’s Surveillance Culture Risk

I’ve been thinking about this idea ever since January, when an expose published by the New York Times revealed that a startup called Clearview AI had quietly developed a facial recognition app capable of matching unknown subjects to their online images and profiles — and promptly peddled it to over 600 law enforcement agencies without any public scrutiny or oversight. Clearview stands as a precursor; a budding example of what surveillance culture in America could look like, if left unregulated. One quote in particular sticks in my head.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that because information constantly increases, there’s never going to be privacy,” David Scalzo, the founder of a private equity firm currently investing in Clearview commented for the Times. “Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology. Sure, that might lead to a dystopian future or something, but you can’t ban it.”

Scalzo’s offhand, almost dismissive tone strikes an odd, chilling contrast to the gravity of his statement. If facial recognition technology will lead to a surveillance-state dystopia, shouldn’t we at least try to slow its forward momentum? Shouldn’t we at least consider the dangers that a dystopia might pose — especially during times like these, when privacy-eroding technology feels like a viable weapon against global pandemic?

I’m not the only one to ask these questions. Since January’s expose, Clearview AI has come under fire from no fewer than four lawsuits. The first castigated the company’s app for being an “insidious encroachment” on civil liberties; the second took aim both at Clearview’s tool and the IT products provider CDW for its licensing of the app for law enforcement use, alleging that “The [Chicago Police Department] […] gave approximately 30 [Crime Prevention and Information Center] officials full access to Clearview’s technology, effectively unleashing this vast, Orwellian surveillance tool on the citizens of Illinois.” The company was also recently sued in Virginia and Vermont.

All that said, it is worth noting that dozens of police departments across the country already use products with facial recognition capabilities. One report on the United States’ facial recognition market found that the industry is expected to grow from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $7.0 billion by 2024. The Washington Post further reports that the FBI alone has conducted over 390,000 facial-recognition searches across federal and local databases since 2011.

Unlike DNA evidence, facial recognition technology is usually relatively cheap and quick to use, lending itself easily to everyday use. It stands to reason that if better technology is made available, usage by public agencies will become even more commonplace. We need to keep this slippery slope in mind. During a pandemic, we might welcome tools that allow us to track and slow the spread of disease and overlook the dangerous precedent they set in the long-term.

Given all of this, it seems that we should, at the very least, avoid panic-prompted decisions to allow facial recognition — and instead, consider what we can do to avoid the slippery slope that facial recognition technology poses.

Are Bans Protection? Considering San Francisco

In the spring of 2019, San Francisco passed legislation that outright forbade government agencies from using tools capable of facial surveillance — although the ruling was amended to allow for equipped devices if there was no viable alternative. The lawmakers behind the new ordinance stated their reasoning clearly, writing that “the propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits.”

They have a point. Facial recognition software is notorious for its inaccuracy. One new federal study also found that people of color, women, older subjects, and children faced higher misidentification rates than white men.

“One false match can lead to missed flights, lengthy interrogations, tense police encounters, false arrests, or worse,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told the Washington Post. “But the technology’s flaws are only one concern. Face recognition technology — accurate or not — can enable undetectable, persistent, and suspicionless surveillance on an unprecedented scale.”

While it’s still too early to have a clear gauge on the ban’s efficacy, it is worth noting that the new legislation sparked a few significant and immediate changes to the city’s police department. In December, Wired reported that “When the surveillance law and facial recognition ban were proposed in late January, San Francisco police officials told Ars Technica that the department stopped testing facial recognition in 2017. The department didn’t publicly mention that it had contracted with DataWorks that same year to maintain a mug shot database and facial recognition software as well as a facial recognition server through summer 2020.”

The department scrambled to dismantle the software after the ban, but the department’s secretive approach remains problematic. The very fact that the San Francisco police department was able to acquire and apply facial recognition technology without public oversight is troubling.The city’s current restrictions offer a stumbling block by limiting acceptance of surveillance culture as a normal part of everyday life — and prevent us from automatically reaching for it as a solution during times of panic.

A stumbling block, however, is not an outright barricade. Currently, San Francisco is under a shelter-in-place mandate; as of April 6, it had a reported 583 confirmed cases and nine deaths. If the situation worsens, could organizers suggest that the city make an exception and use facial recognition tracking to flatten the curve, just this once? It’s a long-shot hypothetical, but it does lead us to wonder what could happen if we allow circumstances to convince us into surveillance culture, one small step at a time.

Bans can only do so much. While the San Francisco ruling proves that Scalzo’s claim that “Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology” isn’t strictly speaking correct, the sentiment behind it remains. Circumstances can compel us into considering privacy-eroding tech even as those explorations lead us down a path to dystopia.

So, in a way, Scalzo is right; the proliferation of facial recognition technology is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on bans and protective measures. Instead, we should pursue them further and slow the momentum as much as we can — if only to give ourselves time to establish regulations, rules, and protections. We can’t give in to short-term thinking; we can’t start down the slippery slope towards surveillance culture without considering the potential consequences. Otherwise, we may well find that the “cure” that facial recognition promises is, in the long term, far worse than any short-term panic.

Originally published on Hackernoon.com

By |2020-06-12T21:03:05+00:00June 12th, 2020|Business, Current Events, Technology|

NYC Welcomes Tech, But Only If It Helps New Yorkers

New York City is a leading hub for technology and innovation — but you wouldn’t guess it by its most-hyped headlines. Ironically, some of the most eye-catching recent news in the tech sector centers around how the city prevented one of the most influential tech titans from setting the foundation for a Big Tech colony in Long Island City. 

For the short span of a few months, it seemed as though New York was teetering on the verge of supplanting Silicon Valley as a home base for major tech companies. The city had a plan — and a provisional agreement — to host Amazon’s much-courted HQ2 within its borders that many in the tech industry heralded as the start of a new era of innovation and prosperity. During a press conference shortly after the announcement of the agreement, Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated, saying: “This is the largest economic development initiative that has ever been done by the city or the state or the city and the state, together.”

The agreement certainly had some startling numbers to back it; analysts projects that the deal would generate no less than $27.5 billion in state and city revenue over 25 years with a 9:1 ratio of revenue to subsidies. HQ2 was expected to create roughly 25,000 jobs in its first decade, in addition to the 1,300 construction jobs and 107,000 direct and indirect jobs the building initiative would require. Amazon further promised to launch a tech startup incubator and a new school on its campus, as well as allocate as much as $5 million to workforce development efforts. 

On the surface, the partnership between New York and Amazon was a tech proponent’s dream come true; however, the proposed HQ2 deal faced vehement opposition almost immediately after its announcement. Several protests against the initiative were held in Long Island City in the fall of 2018. By February of 2019, the deal was off. 

Now, New York’s highly-publicized divorce from Amazon’s HQ2 plans could be interpreted as a sign that the city wasn’t interested in supplanting Silicon Valley as a home for Big Tech. However, I would argue that the issue the city had with Amazon isn’t based in bias against Big Tech or tech as a whole, but in concern that Amazon’s presence would come at too high a cost to the people of New York. The city courted the tech giant, perhaps to the point of overreach; all told, the public funds and kickbacks given to Amazon would have totaled close to $3 billion, with the city and state paying the e-retailer as much as $48,000 per job. With that cost, opponents argued, were the “benefits” Amazon offered even worth their price?  

Rejecting Amazon doesn’t mean that New York City is hostile to the tech sector — quite the opposite. The city wants a tech sector, but it wants it on terms that suit the people who call it home, rather than those who run Big Tech’s boardrooms. It seems to be relatively successful in its pursuit of that goal, too: Startup Genome reports that NYC ranks first globally in funding availability and quality in NYC, and the metro region alone received $13 billion in funding in 2018. In 2018, New York’s tech sector represented 333,000 jobs in 2018 and encompassed a full 10% of the nation’s developers

Moreover, it seems probable that the city will continue to serve as fertile ground for tech-center development, given that it currently supports over 120 universities and is ranked first globally for the number of STEM-field graduates produced annually. Those students are likely to stay and contribute, too; tech firms in New York City have the fastest average hiring time for engineers across all U.S. tech ecosystems and offer wages that are, on average, 49% higher than private-sector rates elsewhere. 

Amazon’s failed HQ2 deal notwithstanding, even Big Tech is expanding its presence in the city. This past spring, Netflix put down $100 million for a production hub in Williamsburg and promised to create over 100 new jobs in Manhattan. In late 2018 — around the same time that Amazon was fielding controversy over HQ2 — Google committed $1 billion to create a new Lower Manhattan campus and double its local workforce. Facebook wants to open up shop in Hudson Yard; Apple is reportedly looking for more office space in the city. 

The signs are clear that, despite what the failed HQ2 deal might indicate, New York City wants tech, big and small alike. The city will continue to keep pace, if not ultimately overtake, the Silicon Valley tech scene. Provided, of course, that the tech investment it facilitates supports — and is in turn supported by — its people. 

By |2019-09-23T16:55:59+00:00September 23rd, 2019|Current Events, Technology|

Getting Real About HQ2

The much-hyped HQ2 sweepstakes has finally come to a close, but many in the winning cities aren’t feeling so triumphant. Two major metros, New York and DC, will play host to the currently-Seattle-based tech behemoth’s newest nerve centers. Here at the upper end of the Northeast Corridor, Amazon’s announced Queens-based plans have come with a great deal of controversy, with local politicos and opinion makers alike voicing real concerns about effects-economic, social, and more-of this new development.  

As a New Yorker who follows the tech scene closely, I’ve heard a lot about HQ2 that doesn’t quite sit right with me. In the interest of lending a street-level perspective to the proceedings, here are 3 facts about the deal that are getting lost in the clamor.

 

Over 12,000 non-tech jobs will be created

Fears of a new Amazon-bolstered NYC tech elite were fed by the reported 25,000 new jobs that the company expects to create with HQ2. In truth, only half of those jobs (still an admittedly large number) will be in tech-influenced positions where salaries can hit the higher six figures. The other half will be in the same support positions you’d find at any large organization: administrative, custodial, and other jobs that can better draw on the diverse talent pool of Queens and the rest of the city. Don’t forget, too, that the city’s minimum wage will be hitting $15/hour by the end of 2018. It seems likely that working New Yorkers of all ages and levels of experience will have a chance to find new professional fulfillment in HQ2.

 

In a city of 8 million, 25,000 is a drop in the bucket

25,000 open jobs is a big number to see on paper, but in a city as big as New York, 25,000 is a pittance. It’s likely that the vast majority of us who don’t normally pass through LIC will see no changes whatsoever. Even if every single job is taken by someone who currently doesn’t live here, that’s hardly an invasion. The announced number is about the equivalent of the enrollment of the city’s six biggest high schools (there are over 120 in Queens alone). Do we stress every year about new graduates flooding the city? This is New York, not Cedar Rapids. We’ve benefitted from a constant influx of talented and smart people since the 1600s, and HQ2’s changes will amount to just one more round of newcomers.

 

Long Island City will change, but that’s nothing new

Make no mistake, if the majority of Amazon-inspired arrivals choose to take up residence close to their new place of employment, Long Island City will see the brunt of the cultural changes. But for a neighborhood that was little more than a courthouse and a few commercial strips (and one lonely skyscraper) only a couple decades ago, Amazon’s move is the cherry on top of a long process of evolution. Few neighborhoods have exploded in popularity like LIC in the past decade-plus, and this was underway well before Bezos and company set their sights on the locale. A tech campus is perhaps befitting the scores of new bars, restaurants and other hotspots in this part of town.

Any worries about Amazon affecting culture ought to be assuaged by the fact that this city always has and always will be changing, tech companies or no tech companies. It’s the people, not the corporations, that make New York City what it is, and I know I’m not alone in saying that no company is big enough to change the Big Apple itself.

By |2019-05-30T19:12:15+00:00December 12th, 2018|Current Events, Technology|

The Major Problem with New York’s Cyberbullying Bill

The Major Problem With New York’s Cyberbullying Bill

What would you do if you found out your child might face time in juvenile detention for a few mean comments posted online? The question itself seems shocking; parents and non-parents alike would agree that the punishment seems a little extreme. And yet, in early June, the New York State Senate officially put just that into law. Here excerpted, it reads:

“Any person who knowingly engages in a repeated course of cyberbullying of a minor shall be guilty of an unclassified misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or by a period of imprisonment not to exceed one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”

Despite outlining startling consequences for cyberbullies, the legislation doesn’t specify what offenders would need to do to become criminally liable. Most people get the gist: cyberbullying occurs when one or more people harass or abuse another person using electronic means. But what does that mean from a prosecutor’s standpoint? Is a “repeated course of cyberbullying” two mean texts, four malicious Facebook posts, or an all-out campaign across multiple social platforms? Where do we draw the line — and how do we determine when someone crosses it?

Moreover, the sole point the legislation makes clear — the protection of minors — only raises more questions. It’s simple enough to make a swift and severe judgment call when an adult bullies a minor online, but the situation is less cut-and-dried when both parties are young. Does an accused minor’s age make a difference? Would we prosecute a twelve-year-old with the same severity we would a seventeen-year-old? The answers to these questions remain unanswered.

My aim here isn’t to undermine the legislature’s noble intentions, but simply to point out that this bill’s pervasive vagueness renders it ineffective as a legal deterrent.

In 2014, a similarly unclear anti-cyberbullying law in Albany County fell under scrutiny from the New York State Supreme Court. The published rationale behind limiting the 2014 language argued that the wording was undefined to the point of making it difficult to enforce; a child’s prank call to an adult could constitute — and legally face severe punishment for — cyberbullying. As a result of this case, the current definition for the term includes “only three types of electronic communications sent with the intent to inflict emotional harm on a child: (1) sexually explicit photographs; (2) private or personal sexual information; and (3) false sexual information with no legitimate public, personal or private purpose.” Given that the 2018 bill does not define cyberbullying beyond the referenced text here, it’s unlikely to hold up any more sustainably or effectively than its predecessor.

Now, this definition works well enough in cases where sexually explicit content is a factor — but what if it isn’t? How do we protect the children who have to handle endless texted cruelty, social media hate, and online harassment?

These questions are what make the vagueness of Senate Bill S2318A so frustrating. Bullying, both online and in-person, is an epidemic in our schools. A 2016 study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that a full 34% of students in a nationally-representative sample reported experiencing repeated and intentional harassment and mistreatment via cell phones or other electronic devices. That’s a horrifying number, especially once you consider that kids who experience cyberbullying often struggle with depression, anxiety, and loneliness as a result — typically for long after they leave school. Kids who bully don’t get away scot-free either; many carry the abusive behaviors they develop during school into their adult relationships and fall into substance abuse patterns.

Cyberbullying is a destructive force in today’s schools, and our kids deserve more than a vague half-measure that, despite providing severe consequences, falls short of defining what “cyberbullying” is in the eyes of the law. The intention behind this recent legislation was good-hearted and well-meant, but we can do better.

By |2019-05-30T19:14:38+00:00July 9th, 2018|Current Events|

The Ethics of Bitcoin: Is the Cryptocurrency Better for Banking?

If you’re anything like me, you’re equal parts fascinated and befuddled by the evolving world of cryptocurrency, and Bitcoin in particular.

For those of us used to paper and plastic, the idea of a decentralized, digital payment can seem pretty pie in the sky. But many are quick to call it the currency of the future, and if the buzz is any indication, it could be. According to Realtime Bitcoin there are more than 16.5 million Bitcoins in circulation. The current exchange rate is one Bitcoin to US $3,917.83. That puts the total amount in circulation at almost US $65 trillion.

Created sometime between 2008 and 2009, Bitcoin only took off in 2013 when it hit an all-time high––at the time––of US$1,100. Over the next few years, the price fluctuated. Recently, however, the virtual coin has garnered resurgent interest, skyrocketing to an all-time high of US $4,522.13 in August.

But what caused the newfound appreciation for the cryptocurrency? And what concerns should we have regarding the ethics of Bitcoin? Technology that seems amazing often poses ethical quandaries we need to engage with, as I’ve talked about in regards to AI.

Here’s a look at the current state of Bitcoin and what it means for banking, both today and in the future.

Bitcoin’s Surge

There are a few clear reasons for the recent surge in Bitcoin stock. First, its blockchain technology has been of special interest to some major players in finance. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan believe that this technology may improve the trading of loans, securities, and derivatives.

Second, Japan and China have begun to embrace the cryptocurrency. In April, regulators in Japan introduced certain rules to integrate Bitcoin into the regular banking system (rather than peg it as an outlaw currency). This change has caused many investors to swap their Yen for Bitcoin.

In addition, Chinese authorities who have been critical of Bitcoin in the past have recently gained more tolerance for the currency. This has made Bitcoin-related investments in the region far less risky and far more attractive.

Thanks to these developments, Bitcoin has taken a step forward in legitimacy. People will be less likely to hold it for speculative purposes and start buying actual things with it.

But this begs an important question: Will Bitcoin, blockchain, and other cryptocurrencies bring us to a more ethical level of banking? Or will the challenges of these new systems create an equally murky financial system?

A Case for Bitcoin

Trust plays a key role in finance today. But what if we eliminated the need for trust in conducting business transactions? A successful transaction would be guaranteed, no matter who you were dealing with.

Garrick Hileman, an economic historian at the London School of Economics and University of Cambridge, points out, “A big part of the problem with Lehman Brothers in 2008 came from counterparty risk and the fact that settlement could not be counted on.”

With the advent of blockchain technology and smart contracts (computer programs set to execute a transaction once certain criteria are met), it could be possible to take trust out of the equation entirely. Transactions are conducted on the basis of guarantee because collateral is posted instead of withheld. Potentially, this could avoid a Lehman situation in the future.

Bitcoin also offers the advantage of cutting costs. Right now, banks put a lot of money into the transaction process. Part of the reason is that much of banking is still done manually and saturated with paperwork. This occupies both time and resources. With an automated system, verified by blockchain technology and smart contracts, we would save billions in capital, conduct transactions more quickly, and achieve it at zero marginal cost.

While the engineering behind this technology is still not yet ready to be rolled out for use in banks and other financial institutions, the promises of automated settlements, a higher level of transparency, and an overall reduction of overheads promise a more stable financial sector.

The Challenges

Cryptocurrency doesn’t come without its challenges. Though it has its proponents, some go as far as to call it “evil”. And this isn’t without reason. Those who argue against cryptocurrency have posed concerns on the anonymity of how transactions are conducted. Case in point: Bitcoin has long been associated with shady business transactions and entities such as Silk Road (which was shut down late 2014).

This anonymity, they say, allows the currency to be used for criminal activity in ways that other currencies cannot. It could be argued that this actually encourages unethical transactions.

However, it’s important to note that the anonymity isn’t absolute. Transactions conducted using Bitcoin are made public on the blockchain. That means that parties involved can be found linked to their Bitcoin addresses, although they are often difficult to find. A good example of this is the Silk Road founder, Ross Ulbricht. We were ultimately able to break the anonymity and discover his identity, but it took both time and resources.

In short, we don’t want to create a lawless market. That means there need to be additional measures put in place to ensure that the government, the technology, and the banks are in close contact. We must protect the ethics of cryptocurrency.

What it all means

Finance often falls into ethically questionable territory. That’s why banking needs an ethical solution that’s available to all parties, that is affordable and verifiable, so that there is accountability across the board.

On the other hand, the structure of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology allows for scalable ethical banking. This would be achieved by first combining the digital efficiency of the currency and the scalability of computers and networks. Existing rules and regulations would ensure that the consumer is adequately protected.

We’ll just have to wait and see on which side the Bitcoin lands.

By |2020-02-11T16:45:11+00:00March 12th, 2018|Culture, Current Events, Technology|

Tech’s Growing Role in the Wake of Natural Disasters

Technology has brought us countless conveniences. Order an Uber with a few clicks. Tell Alexa you want a pizza. Let Google Assistant direct you to the nearest coffee shop.

All that’s nice, isn’t it? But tech can (and is) doing much more important things.

One crucial achievement technological tools have given us is the ability to respond to natural disasters more quickly and effectively. Indeed, tech has the potential to save countless lives and greatly reduce the damage when nature strikes.

Social media and mobile improve preparedness and response

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,833 victims and caused $108 billion in damages. Many experts argue social media and mobile technology could have saved lives, only if Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms were available like they are today.

Jason Samenow, a meteorologist and weather journalist, attests that, with social media, “messages about how severe the storm was and the importance of preparedness would have permeated society.” Decision-makers, politicians, celebrities and others would’ve been motivated to spread information across their networks and call others to do the same.

Additionally, responders could have accurately identified where help was needed. Timo Luege, a humanitarian communications and innovation consultant, wrote in a personal blog post about how FEMA director Michael Brown hadn’t known evacuees were stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center without food and water until news reporters got there. Surely this information could’ve reached FEMA much more quickly with social media — and folks could’ve been saved.

Now, compare this to 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit. More than 3.2 million Tweets using the hashtag #Sandy were published on the first day. During the height of the storm, people posted 10 pictures of what was happening on Instagram every second. This enabled anyone with a mobile device or internet access to see the latest information, and helped responders work more effectively. Mobile and social media undoubtedly saved lives.

Big data and IoT create predictions and accurate real-time info

Big — and open — data and the internet of things (IoT) showed its power to be used for good during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Thanks to gauges that had been installed inside Harris County’s intricate bayou system, which is used to collect and drain water, residents and rescuers could see in real time where flooding was most severe. FEMA and other responders were then able to quickly mobilize resources to help areas in danger.

Even before a natural disaster hits, technology can save lives by pinpointing what areas will be hit hardest and identifying the best evacuation routes. This data gives rescuers actionable insights about how to best allocate and deploy resources as well.

For instance, NASA and NOAA, along with municipalities, are now utilizing sensor data, satellite imagery, and other surveillance to give first responders and volunteers valuable information into potential problems — before they happen. As more data is collected and mined, machine learning algorithms will continually improve. And that will improve the effectiveness of all rescue operations during natural disasters.

This is truly a noteworthy development. Everyone must be aware of how technology can aid us during natural disasters. As Chris Wilder, an IoT expert, says, “Although the severity of the disasters might increase, the loss of life has been greatly reduced by improvements in communications and the distribution of information.”

Autonomous technology delivers supplies, finds survivors, and assesses damage

Victims in the midst of natural disasters require food, water, clothes, medical equipment, life jackets, and other supplies to survive. In both rural and urban areas, it can be difficult to reach everyone. New technologies not only help us locate where people in need are, but also actually deliver life-saving supplies.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (that is, drones) can serve an especially important role during natural disasters, specifically when survivors are cut off from evacuation routes. For example, in China, the National Earthquake Response Support Service is using drones to find survivors, deliver food and supplies, and coordinate rescue attempts.

In the aftermath of disasters, drones provide assistance as well. Once Hurricane Irma in 2017 had passed, drones flew over areas in Florida, assessing the damage to buildings, roads, tunnels, bridges, and more. This has made relief efforts more effective, rebuilding more efficient, and insurance claims less time-consuming.

Beyond autonomous vehicles, boats, and aircraft, even autonomous balloons are proving to be very helpful when natural disasters strike. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico so hard in late 2017, Google’s Project Loon sent balloons to the island, and beamed internet connectivity to more than 100,000 people.

Technology: The Key to Drastically Improving Disaster Response

I’ve been amazed by how we’ve come together during natural disasters. Major advancements in technology, especially social media, mobile, and AI, have equipped us with tools to do an even better job. We must be sure to use these tools to the fullest extent when a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or other disaster hits. It’s the key to saving lives.

By |2018-01-02T20:36:18+00:00January 2nd, 2018|Culture, Current Events, Technology, Urban Planning|

Dancers, Rejoice: NYC’s Antiquated Cabaret Law is Dead

New York City’s bizarre Cabaret Law was finally laid to rest on Halloween, at the ripe old age of 91.

Cause of death? Common sense.

The law, enacted in 1926 (i.e., at the height of Prohibition, as well as the Harlem Renaissance), infamously prohibited dancing in bars and clubs that had not obtained a cabaret license. It was unevenly enforced and often amended over the years, but nonetheless remained on the books until city council repealed it by a resounding 44-1 vote at its Oct. 31 meeting.

At different points during its long (and in many eyes, troubling) history, the law effectively muzzled jazz luminaries like Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Thelonius Monk, and turned Frank Sinatra into an activist. Rudy Giuliani weaponized the statute. Others have bristled over it, but until this year it survived many repeal attempts.

Finally Rafael Espinal, a councilman from Brooklyn, introduced a bill quashing it, pending the approval of mayor Bill de Blasio.

“It’s great to see how excited the city is,” the 33-year-old Espinal told the New York Times. “We have shown that there’s an appetite for expanding dancing around the city.”

The law applies only to clubs located in areas zoned for commercial manufacturing; as the Times reported, zoning laws will have to be altered for dancing to be permitted in other parts of the city.

The repeal is in some ways academic. Because of the Byzantine (and costly) application process, few establishments even bothered to obtain a cabaret license. The Times reported that only 97 of some 25,000 spots had one, while a 2016 anti-Cabaret Law petition put that number at 118.

And as mentioned, enforcement has been spotty, though as recently as 2013 club owner Andrew Muchmore was assessed a Cabaret violation when some of his patrons engaged in what was described as “unlawful swaying” during a rock show at his night spot. He responded by filing suit against the city, dropping it only when the law was repealed.

The law was originally enacted to regulate the speakeasies that cropped up during Prohibition, though it is widely suspected that the real purpose was to crack down on jazz clubs, where mixed-race crowds often congregated.

A 1940 amendment also required musicians to obtain cabaret cards, a process that called for fingerprinting, interrogation, and renewal every two years. Parker, Monk, and Holiday were denied cards for one reason or another, and thus barred from performing. Sinatra, citing the demeaning nature of the application process, declined to appear as well, in a show of solidarity; that led to the repeal of the cabaret-card system, albeit after it had been in place for 27 years.

Other permutations of the law prohibited wind, percussion and brass instruments (i.e., the type of instruments used by jazz bands) or barred musical groups numbering more than three from appearing on stage. Those restrictions were eased in 1986 and 1988, respectively.

During Giuliani’s term as mayor (1994-2001), he used the Cabaret Law to crack down on so-called nuisance clubs. One club owner went so far as to say Giuliani’s tactics were reminiscent of a “Gestapo state,” but Giuliani, amid his “quality of life” initiative, argued that he was dealing as best he could with establishments that dealt in illegal activities (particularly drug-dealing), as well as those that had become a nuisance to their neighborhoods because of noise, unruly behavior, littering, etc.

The law has also been used in recent years to ensure that clubs were up to snuff in regards to fire safety and security, though its critics have argued that other regulations (and regulatory boards) were in place to deal with those issues.

So the law died a peaceful death. And everyone was only too happy to dance on its grave.

By |2020-02-11T16:51:35+00:00November 16th, 2017|Culture, Current Events|

How Real Estate Developers Can Help Alleviate Food Deserts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as a part of the country where it’s difficult to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods. An area is considered a food desert if 500 people or more, or 33% of the population in the area live at least one mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store. If that distance is 10 miles or more, the area is described as a rural food desert.

According to a recent report by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, about 2.1 million households i.e. 1.8% all households live at least a mile away from a supermarket and don’t have a car, making accessibility harder.

Food deserts are common in impoverished areas. This means that, for these people, buying that nutritious fresh fruit takes a lot of careful consideration and money management. One is faced with the task of either taking the exhausting ride in a bus (which also costs money) or paying a significant proportion of the grocery bill to have the purchase delivered. With the budget constraints, neither of these choices makes sense.

The dilemma too often ends residents foregoing the healthy eating entirely. They substitute the healthy food they can’t get with the available unhealthy food. Yes, it’s a big irony that the available shops stock processed, sugary and fatty foods instead of healthy foods––leading to another epidemic: Obesity.

As a side note, studies have been conducted suggesting that the distance from a supermarket or large grocery store has very little to do with the unhealthy eating habits. The studies say that the healthy foods just don’t sell in those food desert areas and it wouldn’t make a difference if stores were opened.

But we can pursue the little difference such a change would make.

It’s encouraging to see that there’s a wide range of models such as non-profit, corporate, charitable, and governmental programs that have been employed in trying to tackle the problem.

Working together with the communities, I believe there are a couple of measures that real estate developers can also help alleviate the problem.

1. Community Gardens

 

A community garden is a piece of land gardened or cultivated by a group of people in the same locality, usually for domestic consumption.

In the past, many developers have less than championed community projects that looked to turn vacant lots into food production areas. Rather, they have been more for house development.

To encourage growth of food in these communities, developers need to take the center stage by not just allowing people to farm in their communities but also designing those spaces and even funding them.

Community gardens can also be set on hydroponic rooftops, freeing up more space for housing developments.

2. Farmer’s Markets

 

Very much like a community garden, a farmer’s market is a retail market that features foods that are sold by farmers directly to consumers.

Instead of developing a whole area, one could decide to leave out sufficient space for the development of a farmer’s market where farmers can easily sell their produce and consumers can access foods without having to travel for miles.

3. Employment Opportunities

As mentioned, food deserts are often found in impoverished areas. Hiring local skills provides employment and a source of income to the people. With that, they can actually start thinking about eating healthy.

Also, the employees get to learn from the masters, especially where the project is about sustainable food production in the community. They can then use the skills learned to grow their own food back home.

4. “Giving Up” Land

As the situation escalates, developers need to start giving up more land to set up of community gardens, farmers markets, and even stores.

Giving up land isn’t a new thing. Developers have been giving up land to the city during new housing developments.

This time, instead of constructing parks and public structures on that land, it should be turned into a food production area.

Besides, giving up land for food production raises the value of the project in the long run.

As retailers and the government continue looking for ways to address the situation, real estate developers must also chip in and do their best to utilize their knowledge, access, and tools to ensure that even the low-income residents are able to eat healthy through convenient access to supermarkets and grocery stores.

By |2018-10-31T19:10:19+00:00September 9th, 2017|Culture, Current Events, Urban Planning|

Urban Diaries: Documenting Cities as they Evolve

All cities have a life of their own. Buildings are the bones, streets and rivers and sidewalks the veins and arteries, weather changes, wind blows, papers fly–the breath.

But the soul is the people who live in the city, and perhaps nowhere more so than in New York City.

New Yorkers love their city to an almost unhealthy degree, which means that New York is an ideal place for urban diaries — photographic documentation of the city as it evolves, changes, and keeps on living.

The concept of an urban diary, which can certainly include notes, and written observations, traces back to artist Eugène Atget. Atget was a photographer who lived in Paris and who began documenting the city, through photographs, in the 1880s. He is considered, also, to be a flâneur, or stroller, which he certainly was given his apparent desire to document all of the architecture and street scenes in Paris, to capture a living culture and history.

It takes true love of a city to dedicate oneself to keeping an urban diary. With camera, and perhaps notebook (or a tablet that is both!), in hand the diarist must, as Atget did, walk the streets and sidewalks, noticing change, recording the unique, the quirky and the mundane in turn.

Atget did exactly that until his death in 1927, and the images that endure tell a story of a city-always-changing, evolving, alive with shopkeepers and schoolchildren.

New York is exactly that sort of city, and worthy of the efforts of the urban diarists. Not because New York is in any danger of disappearing, but because of the constant cycle of growth, renewal, decay and revitalization that part and parcel of the city.

Noted writer, and native New Yorker, Pete Hamill, says this about his city:

“We New Yorkers know that we live in a dynamic city, always changing, evolving, building. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The city’s enduring slogan could be: Get on with it, my friend.”

Artists and writers seem to know this instinctively, that New York is, at any and every moment, worthy of noticing, describing, depicting.

For instance, Camilo José Vergara, a Chilean-born, New York City transplant and street photographer spent the seventies photographing the grit and joy of the South Bronx and Lower East Side.

But what about other New Yorkers? The recent transplants and the third generationers? This is where keeping an urban diary is more than whimsy, and not an artistic endeavor. There are actual individual and practical implications.

Author Chuck Wolfe argues in his book “Urbanism Without Effort” that urban diaries can translate into practical use and cause city dwellers to engage with their space in a more deliberate, interactive way. In the Crosscut article (linked above) he says, “Documenting and contemplating the journey from place to space — crossing and intersecting and embracing the edges of the public and private realms — may be the best way to understand where we live, the choices we make and the choices that are made for us.

Wolfe also says that urban diaries can take many forms, from scrapbook to notebook to journal to photography. With the technology available today, combining the written and the visual is simpler than it’s been at any other time in history. If New Yorkers take advantage of their electronic devices, what an amazing body of work could result.

On the practical side, Wolfe notes that documenting city space allows the diarist to track:

  • The intersection of constructed and natural environments;
  • The evolution of transportation
  • The application of associated and applicable land use plans and regulations; and
  • The continuation and/or evolution of surrounding land uses.

Whether for artistic, whimsical, or practical purpose, the act of deliberately keeping an urban diary is a worthy way for any New Yorker to engage with the living city they love.

By |2019-05-30T19:22:11+00:00September 6th, 2017|Culture, Current Events|

Don’t Fear the Fearless Girl

Whether you consider it “a powerful beacon” or “incredibly stupid,” “corporate feminism” or “revolutionary art,” Kirsten Visbal’s “Fearless Girl” statue has been impossible to ignore since it popped up overnight this past March. Placed in a defiant stance before the furious charge of the iconic “Charging Bull” near Wall St. in Lower Manhattan, in a short amount of time the girl has come to represent a spectrum of opinions on feminism, capitalism, art and commerce. Especially since the events of last fall, these issues have been at the forefront of public conversation, and the Girl is the latest iteration of such.

One opinion that’s garnered a great deal of attention (for obvious reasons) is that of Arturo Di Modica, sculptor of “Charging Bull.” Modica considers the girl an “attack” on his piece, and has even retained a lawyer in order to have her removed from the public square. His counsel has said “‘Charging Bull’ no longer carries a positive, optimistic message,” declaring that the original statue “has been transformed into a negative force and a threat.”

To discuss in such concrete terms, through a lawyer or on his own, the meaning of this piece of art is certainly Mr. Di Modica’s right as it’s creator. One can consider the opinion of the maker of a public artwork to be the essential stance. After all, who would know better what a piece of art is supposed to mean?

Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it ends up working. Art, especially visual art, doesn’t carry a proscribed meaning. It’s not a textbook or instruction manual. Every viewer brings to it their own unique set of experiences and ways to understand the world. That’s the beauty of it. A painting as plain as the Mona Lisa, or as busy as a Jackson Pollock, becomes an endlessly fascinating set of questions when one considers all the ways to look at it.

The 20th Century French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote a great deal on this subject in his essay Death of the Author, published in 1967. Barthes found popular reception of art to be too frequently “tyrannically centered” on the opinions and experiences (whether inferred or stated outright) of the creator. He felt that meaning of art is created in the mind of the person experiencing it, not by the person who brought it into being.

Consider the great statues of Greek and Roman antiquity that populate the world’s most prestigious museums. Few would question their value in the context of art and global history. Originally created as exultations of the glory of gods and other mythical figures, so many of them now stand headless and limbless, stunning visual representations of the ravages of time. Should a modern viewer take away from these statues a new found appreciation of the greatness of Athena or Zeus, as they were possibly intended? Even if that’s what this hypothetical viewer does, are they “incorrect?”

Mr. Di Modica, while naturally defensive about the perception of his creation, needs to come to terms with the fact that people’s reaction to the Bull was never up to him. For years before the Fearless Girl arrived, his work was in the public sphere, standing for whatever each individual viewing it believed it stood for.

The origin story of Mr. Di Modica’s “Bull” is an illuminating one. Much like the Fearless Girl, it was placed overnight without notice, smack dab in the middle of the nation’s financial capital. It lasted only a day in its original spot before calls to the police led to it being trucked to an impound lot in Queens. Eventually, public outcry led the New York City Parks Department to find it a permanent home a few blocks south of Wall St. on Bowling Green. Those in charge of keeping order on Wall St. were aghast at the Bull, despite Di Modica’s intentions that it be a tribute to them. Although they were to be exalted by it, they were in fact repulsed. Surely this wasn’t part of his idea of it, either.

Consider the “Charging Bull” on its own face. It’s a fierce, massive creature in the midst of a potentially deadly strike. The statue weighs over 7000 lbs and looks it. It’s rippling muscles and kinetic pose imbue the chunk of bronze with the fearsome quality of the real thing. Considering the damage done in 2008 (not to mention 1929) by the denizens of the area, does this symbol of Wall Street really carry such a “positive, optimistic message?” Maybe you think so. Maybe you don’t. One group of you, according to Mr. Di Modica, is correct.

Which is a ludicrous premise. Especially for a piece of art that sits on public land, which by definition belongs to the citizenry. But even if the Bull were in a museum, it would be served well by being confronted by the Fearless Girl. Any viewer is well served by the interaction between the two pieces. Perhaps Mr. Di Modica himself could see the benefit of it, if he let go of his own fears.

By |2018-10-31T18:56:52+00:00July 18th, 2017|Culture, Current Events, Urban Planning|