Testimony to the Council of DC on improving school health and safety in a pandemic

My name is Alexander Howard: I’m a good governance advocate and digital democracy analyst. Today, I’m testifying as a DC Public Schools parent: my daughter is a third grader. Thank you for the opportunity to testify again before the council — and for your service and attention to these issues, which I know affects you and your families and neighbors.

Let’s step back.

Imagine if there were a dire airborne virus that left kids and adults sick and incapacitated. Parents and kids were afraid, but there was no Internet to work from home or do school learning.

With no virtual option, schools had to adapt differently to tuberculosis & the flu pandemic of 1918: kids moved to ferries, parks, roofs, & were bundled into classrooms with windows wide open to the cold with radiators.

How did a generation a century ago do so much more with so much less? How could we do the same, or better?

Let’s imagine DC classrooms had been full of bad air from gas or mold or fire in July. Would the council have stayed in recess in August and hoped DC government would fix it?

What would we as a city and community have done?

Here are 8 ideas for the days and months ahead: please adopt, adapt, improvise, & overcome!

1. Call on the DC National Guard to build field hospitals, but for learning. They have tents, strength, and motivation: the guard are our neighbors. Treat it like a barn raising for every school in national parks, & invite parents. If safety is an issue for outdoor field schools, keep the Guard on site, or bring park rangers & DC police in to watch over our kids as they do construction sites & national monuments. Don’t forget sanitation: DCDPW will have to support this frequently.

2. Engage the White House & Department of Education to make hybrid DC schools a model for the nation by using national parks and gardens. Presidential praise without public school progress isn’t moral. Use their praise for DCPS for access to federal spaces, support, and cover from rain & cold: winter is coming.

3. Issue all teachers and staff special permits for dedicated street parking, & accelerate permitting for parking lots, playgrounds, & roofs. Tap into libraries, grounds too!

4. Close side streets and sidewalks to expand outdoor space! How can restaurants possibly be higher priorities while our kids eat unmasked indoors? Other cities have done this. Why not DC? Ask for help from parents to supervise & take kids for walks. We will help if it means safer schools! Surge teams for permitting! No excuses: this could & should all have been in place in fall of 2020.

5. Over 1000 kids are quarantined as we speak. Support remote learning! Why wasn’t there virtual learning set to scale for kids in quarantine or sickened to begin! Why aren’t we ready to do this for sick days? Everyone had to know this would happen. Dedicate capacity to support them: devices, MiFi cards, paramedics to help & visit to make sure students have what they need.

6. Adopt test to stay! Rapid, on-site tests administered by school nurses should be a norm.

7. Hard vaccine mandate: get all staff & teachers vaccinated ASAP & disclose percentage. Hold DCPS accountable to keep our kids & communities safe.

8. What YOU can do as a council is mandate (and enforce) transparency, & hold agencies & the Mayor accountable for fixing infrastructure! Do performance issues suggest it’s time to make DC schools much more independent from the Mayor’s office?

There should be a DC pandemic dashboard for schools, full of open data on testing, quarantine, cases, outdoor space & HEPA filter status. Build it with OCTO, Code for DC & the open government advisory committee. Make that Salesforce data on work orders open and put it online! Hold weekly press conferences with the chancellor updating us all on status of outstanding issues. Make social media responsive, not broadcast press releases. Stop spending money to advertise propaganda to frustrated parents & ignoring our replies: work with us.

What’s missing is not resources or ideas in September 2021: it’s leadership, action, transparency, and accountability. Higher risk environments persist because we allow it.

Let’s fix it, together, & keep everyone as safe & healthy as possible.

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The pandemic showed us why the USA needs paid family leave and child care

A girl and her puppy attend virtual class

After March 13, 2020, I started counting backwards from the inflection point caused by our school going virtual. Just over a year later, I’m still counting the Days of “pandemic time” based upon the status whether my child is back in school, her family vaccinated, & this novel coronavirus has been suppressed — the Holy Grail of no new cases for a week here in DC. (It’s now Day 370.)

That light at the end of the tunnel is now in sight and plausible, born upon vaccination, but I do not expect my daughter to be back inside that school this term.

Screens were already ubiquitous in her life in March 2020, but over the past year they’ve become present and relevant in a way our smartphones, tablets, and laptops were not before, windows onto the rest of the world, from FaceTiming with grandparents do virtual classes and recitals to hanging out with friends.

We are far from alone, as this Washington Post story relates. We’re rolling with it, as we must, but I’ve been reflective today about what has been lost or gained for millions of kids & their families, particularly those who were left behind by lack of access or computing devices.

Heather Kelly, author of the Post story, encapsulates the dynamic: “Since U.S. schools began closing down roughly a year ago, the country’s children have been adapting, learning and getting creative with how they use technology. The realities of their day-to-day lives vary wildly, as have their relationships with screens. For some, technology is a savior — the lifeline keeping them in touch with friends and helping them maintain social skills; a welcome alternative to in-person school. For others, it’s a failed promise — unable to make up for the gaps in their education, their parents’ lost wages and their own mental health.”

Kelly’s reporting distilled a truth about this moment: a “year of everyone turning to screens has shown us the worth, or danger, of devices has less to do with screens themselves & more to do with how they’re used. What appears to matter most is the support systems children & their parents have”

The gross inequities and inequalities laid bare by the last year show that the digital divide isn’t the fundamental driver here. It is not just about the tech, though Internet accesss and modern computing devices are obviously essential to remote learning and virtual classes: it’s the missing social safety net for families.

The USA is the only country in our peer group of developed nations without paid family leave and child care.

As former OECD ambassador Karen Kornbluh said in February, “the US is off the charts among OECD countries in our social insurance, labor & family support funding. Other countries’ education systems counter socioeconomic differences. Ours exacerbate them.”

Whatever else can be said about its strengths and deficiencies, the American Rescue Act is the most significant legislation for children’s poverty in generations.

It will come too late to prevent generational harms for many of the innocent kids and teens who endured unprecedented stresses when their schools closed, borne disproportionately by those who had the least.

The USA should catch up with our peer nations and invest in paid family leave & child care. These social safety nets will unlock a LOT of talent & help tens of millions of Americans survive the next pandemic.

We cannot bring back those we have lost nor make up the time with family, friends, and teachers, but we can ensure there are more lifelines, life jackets, boats, & supplies to aid those caught up in the endless tides of disruption from wars, disasters, and climate change.

If we do not build in more resiliency, more will drown in the swift, rising waters ahead.

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Now is the winter of our discontent

I composed an homage to Shakespeare’s “Richard III” on a dark, chilly December night, using a famous network anchor’s quote as my muse to extend an earlier thought exercise on Twitter.

Image Credit: Katherine Streeter, Chronicle of Higher Education

I thought it would be worth pulling together the tweets and editing them into single document of bowdlerized verse after Dan Rather and other folks on Twitter praised it.

My timing feels apt.

As Peter Baker observed in the New York Times, President Trump’s final days “railing-against-his-fate outbursts seem like a story straight out of William Shakespeare, part tragedy, part farce, full of sound and fury.” Just so.

Jeffrey R. Wilson, a Shakespearean scholar at Harvard, told Baker that “this is classic Act V behavior.”

“The forces are being picked off and the tyrant is holed up in his castle and he’s growing increasingly anxious and he feels insecure and he starts blustering about his legitimate sovereignty and he starts accusing the opposition of treason.

If there are these analogies between classic literature and society as it’s operating right now, then that should give us some big cause for concern this December. We’re approaching the end of the play here and that’s where catastrophe always comes.”

And now, the final act begins.


Now is the winter of our discontent
Made inglorious bummer by this son of Queens;
And all his tweets that low’r’d upon the House
Impeachment charges by the Senate buried
Now are our brows bent to funeral wreaths
Our bruised hearts debate traitorous monuments;
Our schools and work changed to virtual meetings
Our protests and marches to indoor pleasures.
Grim-visaged Death hath smooth’d his dark shroud
And now, instead of heart attacks & cancers
To fright the souls of fearful Americans
He capers nimbly indoors
Borne by the promiscuous breathing of our youth
But we, that are not used to pandemic restrictions,
Nor bade to mask our plagued breaths;
We, that are rudely cramped, and in want of love’s tragedy
To dance before a wanton ambling nymph;
We, that felt curtail’d of our fair proportion,
Cheated of life by a dissembling cretin
Sickened, uninformed, sent before our time
Into this breathing world, alternative facts made up,
And so lame and irrational
That dogs bark as they halt by them;
Why, we, in this bleak time of plague,
Have tried to vote away the crimes,
Hoping to drive away shadows with the sun
And return our union to normalcy:
Therefore, since he cannot prove widespread fraud
We must not entertain these baseless lies
He is determined to invent villains & rages against the displeasures of his days
Plots has he laid, inductions dangerous
By conspiracies, libels & dreams
To overturn the election & become king
In deadly hate set one against the other
And if our union be as true and just
As he is subtle, false, and treacherous
This day should he be mew’d up
About a conspiracy, which says that ‘Q’
One of his heirs shall be fascistic
Dive, tweets, down here
Winter comes

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Practice good information hygiene by “sifting” social media

Offline, we wash our hands so we don’t catch or pass on a disease. We emphasize physical hygiene to our kids.

Online, we need to practice information hygiene and teach everyone how to use social media responsibly, just as we do cars, guns, water, & fire.

It takes 20 seconds to wash your hands properly.
It takes 30 seconds to check info before you share an update.

How? “SIFT” the content: https://infodemic.blog/

Stop.
Investigate the source.
Find better coverage.
Trace claims, quotes, & media to original context.

Whether we wash our hands or scrub our feed of viral misinformation, we can stop the spread to our friends, families, & communities as others become vectors for infection.

The more social interactions someone has, the more responsibility they have not to pass on a disease.

The bigger a platform someone has, the more responsibility they hold. (Mark Zuckerberg, for example.)

But this isn’t just about media in 2020: every politician & member of the public has to help.

Always verify before you trust or amplify.

Deny lies oyxgen.

Attention & trust are 2 of the most precious commodities today.

Whether it’s algorithms suggesting politicians & content, taking $ for ads, running op-eds, or broadcasting a tsunami of lies or a protest live, tech companies, media, & the public all give speech reach.

What we amplify or damp shows our ethics.

Please don’t pass on disinformation or 🦠

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Politicizing masks cost American lives and jobs

If everyone had worn a mask since March, tens of thousands of Americans might be alive.

President Donald J. Trump bears direct responsibility for that, as well as the absence of the testing and contact tracing capacity we must have to reopen safely.

Why have European and Asian counties been able to suppress this pandemic while the USA has not?

The public health playbook for a pandemic is not a secret: universal masks, robust, rapid testing, contact tracing, & supported isolation & treatment — quarantine — for infections.

It’s the *only strategy* that will help us reopen in a safe way until we develop an effective vaccine, vaccinate 70%+, and have effective antivirals and therapeutics.

Masks are about protecting other people, & them protecting you, while scientists work on a safe, viable vaccine.

The key exception is someone who needs to gear up with a N95 as a healthcare worker or first responder to treat infected patients, in which case they’ll need that respirator, face shield, gloves & gown.

But that better mask would help on a subway or bus or plane or office. If we had manufactured tens of millions of N95 masks & distributed them this spring, Americans would be safer — like South Koreans, who did exactly that, distributing inexpensive masks around their nation.

We should have them, and all be wearing them.

Republicans seem to have realized they are on the wrong side of public opinion, the global health consensus, and history, shifting to saying everyone should mask up, with Speaker McConnell, Leader McCarthy and Rep. Cheney all speaking out in favor of wearing them last week.

But President Trump hasn’t just refused to wear a mask himself or tweet his *own administration’s guidance” on people wearing a mask: He has used his bully pulpit on Twitter and White House events to mock people who mask up & cast doubt on their effectiveness.

After months of anti-mask messaging, he finally reversed himself last week.

Why?

Republicans in Congress and Governors finally decided to support this crucial public health intervention — like their peers in the rest of the world’s developed nations and democracies — to stop the spread of COVID19.

“‘I’m all for masks,’ Trump lied, adding that he would wear one himself if he were in a crowded room (he hasn’t) and noting that he had a black one on recently. “I sort of liked the way I looked.’”

And then he hosted two large public events where people close together were not required to wear masks.

His defenders should ask why that didn’t happen in March, April, May, or June, and how many lives were lost as a result.

Every preventable death is a tragedy and I’m not willing to lose my parents or friends or neighbors to malign negligence.

President Trump is the first President in modern US history that has not tried to extend beyond his political base, governing all Americans.

His example carries outsize importance for his supporters — which goes to the importance of him wearing one and supporting their use — and negative valence with anyone else.

The public record shows that President Trump holds significant responsibility for the politicization of masks in the USA and thereby actively undermined a basic public health intervention that would have made a huge difference in the R value (infection rate) of a deadly disease.

God may have mercy on his soul, but historians will not be kind.

Americans will keep dying on his watch until our nation masks up, tests, traces, isolates & treats every case.

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548,000+ coronavirus deaths across America are a failure of presidential leadership, not intelligence

They were warned. They were staffed. They were trained. They were given a playbook.
They were asked to prepare.

U.S, intelligence agencies raised the alarm of the novel coronavirus threat beginning in early January in presidential daily briefs, including China’s coverup.

But for weeks in January, Trump either didn’t read or listen — or perhaps rejected the intelligence and the agencies he doesn’t trust.

For 70 fateful days, he tried to control the growing crisis with spin and bluster, applying the playbook he learned from Roy Cohn, but lethal viruses don’t care about lies or get distracted by blaming the media, immigrants, or your political opponents.

Coronavirus_tracked__the_latest_figures_as_the_pandemic_spreads___Free_to_read___Financial_Times-urban

[Editor’s Note: The headline of this post was updated throughout 2020 as the death toll rose.]

In April 2020, there are nearly a million cases of COVID19 across the USA. Tens of thousands Americans are dead, with many more to come. More than 26 million people are now unemployed. We will be living in a different world for many, many months to come, even after we develop a vaccine.

This was not an intelligence failure. It is a leadership failure. History will show that Trump was warned of a threat to the health of the public, but failed to act.

No amount of White House press spectacles and tweets will change those facts, though we should expect a tidal wave of disinformation from his campaign and hostile foreign nations to try to do so in the minds of Americans.

“This tragedy teaches us many things about preparedness & public health, but it also warns us about the dangers of presidents who are manifestly unprepared to govern.”

President Trump should abjectly apologize and resign, but he won’t. He is not going to change who he is: a “micromanaging meddler and can’t-be-bothered, broad-brush, big-picture thinker.”

Trump’s character and capacity have been on vivid display since he became a national figure in the 1980s. His racism, cruelty, ignorance, xenophobia, lack of empathy, and corruption have continued in office. His grandiose narcissism makes it “impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires.”

He’s tried to run the US government like a family business, replete with nepotism and patronage, and produce a daily reality TV show about it. It’s what Trump knew how to do. But it doesn’t work on this scale of public health crisis.

He won’t become competent.
He won’t stop being corrupt.
He won’t stop lying, deflecting, being divisive, and shifting blame to others.
Pundits, press and politicians who report otherwise aren’t being responsible.

A Fortune 500 board would remove a CEO who behaved this way, failed this badly, and refused to take responsibility. The Senate could have done so this spring by removing Trump from office; we’d have Vice President Pence leading the response, without Trump’s narcissism and ignorance getting in the way.

But here we are.

Every President will be tested in an unexpected way in office, by war or natural disaster or pandemic, and judged based on how they reacted when they learned, and what happened as a result — or didn’t.

Leadership matters. Competence matters. Intelligence matters. Integrity matters. Character matters. Decency matters.

Never forget that the pain we are enduring now didn’t have to be this way: a series of bad decisions, incompetence, and malignant neglect add up to catastrophic leadership failures that literally have meant the difference between life and death for our friends, families and neighbors, and the employment and education of many more.

[Graphic Credit: Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, CDC. This headline and post has been updated with new data.]

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Help contain the viral “infodemic” with good information hygiene

trump lies
When the President of the United States leads a hate movement targeting journalists, seeking to inoculate his partisan supporters against unfavorable reporting or events, he acts as a cancer within our body politic, further eroding the shared facts necessary for collective action to address systemic ills.

Our union is now reaping the whirlwind of years his systematic delegitimization of journalism, government institutions, and the calculated pollution of our public discourse with misinformation & lies.

We need to inject guidance from governors, mayors, doctors and scientists into our feeds to have any hope of inoculating the American people against viral disinformation.

That starts with our press changing its practices: put lies into epistemic quarantine. Switch to an emergency setting.

But it’s going to to rely on politicians, tech companies, and the public to practice good information hygiene, too.

Offline, we wash our hands so we don’t catch or pass on a disease. We emphasize physical hygiene to our kids.

Online, we need to teach them how to use technology and social media responsibly.

It takes 20 seconds to wash your hands properly.
It takes 30 seconds to check info before you share.
How?
“SIFT” it.
Stop.
Investigate the source.
Find better coverage.
Trace claims, quotes, & media to original context.

The more social interactions we have, online or offline, the more responsibility we have not to pass on a virus. Help contain the infodemic.

 

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On March 12 at the US Capitol, an Open Government “State Of The Union” Honoring Sunshine Week 2020

swlogo2-1024x601

I’m going to be on a panel on open government at the U.S. Capitol on March 12 to kick off Sunshine Week.

Full details here: Come to the U.S. Capitol for an Open Government “State of the Union” during Sunshine Week 2020

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February 28, 2020 · 3:18 pm

New Facebook Beta shows the company’s pivotal priorities are Stories, Video, Commerce, Groups, and Messaging

Facebook beta

On September 22, Facebook nudged me to try its beta. (I asked on Twitter if anyone else got a nudge. So far, no confirmations.) When I finally got around to it, today, the white space and minimalism in the redesign reminded me a bit of new Twitter!

Facebook-fresh

That aside, Facebook’s pivotal priorities are clear in this beta: user-generated interactive stories, video, commerce, groups, and messaging.

Facebook - fresh - home

There’s still a big display ad on the top right, with Birthdays & Contacts below. New “Stories” from your friends are shown across the top of the newsfeed, as before.

Banners_and_Alerts_and_Groups___Facebook-new

But the key changes are in the elements shifted from the old vertical menu in “Facebook Classic” to the new horizontal one in the Facebook Beta: marketplace, messenger, watch, & groups.

Banners_and_Alerts_and_Alexander_B__Howard___Facebook-beta-home

The Pages and Groups the world’s largest social networking company knows you use most remain on the top left in the beta, below the Facebook logo and search field. Below those fields, the Facebook Beta has Friends, Events, Memories, Saved, and See More.

Facebook-side-menu

Tapping or clicking “See More” opens up a lonnnnng menu of options which reflect how many areas Facebook has moved into over a decade of expansion, acquisition, and adaptation: Ad Manager, Buy & Sell Groups, Crisis Response, Fundraisers, Games, Gaming Video, Jobs, Messenger Kids, Most Recent, Movies Notes, Oculus, Offers, Pages, Recent Ad Activity, Recommendations, Town Hall, Weather, Help & Support, Settings & Privacy.

Facebook-menu-left-2

At the very bottom of this menu is a footer with a tiny font with links to Privacy, Terms, Advertising, Ad Choices, Cookies, and More, which opens up About, Careers, Development, and Help.

Facebook-left-menu-bottom

(“Privacy” notably links to Data Policy, which isn’t “redesigned for Facebook Beta yet”)

Facebook-data_policy_not_for-beta

I saw no sign of the much-ballyhooed News tab in this Facebook Beta. (I suspect whether Facebook puts that tab in the top menu or the (long!) vertical menu (likely?) will have an impact on adoption and repeat use.)

I also saw no sign of Facebook Dating in the Facebook Beta on desktop, which rolled out in the US two weeks ago on the newest version of its mobile apps. (It may be that Facebook, taking a queue from competing dating apps, considers that solely mobile app experience, but it’s a notable absence.)

The choice to put Video, Groups, Marketplace and Messaging in the core user interface of this Facebook Beta graphically shows Facebook’s priorities after its “pivot to privacy, which close observers have had good reason to maintain some healthy skepticism about this year.

What this Facebook Beta means, and why it matters

What it pushes to consumers in our newsfeeds will also show those priorities, whether it’s nudges to register to vote and donate to disaster relief, key life updates from the friends and family closest to us, or updates on its own features or products, news and entertainment from the outlets and creators we “like,” or town halls hosted our elected representatives or debates between candidates in this year’s campaigns.

What the world’s largest social networking company shows and to whom can literally reshape the course of human events, which is why transparency matters so much for civic features, particularly around democratic processes.

Introducing “FaceRank” for authors?

Whenever that News tab rolls out, expect which stories are prominent and which outlets are featured to be the subject of extreme scrutiny, along with how and when layers of friction are added to disinformation eleswhere across Facebook’s platform. There will be bogus cries of ideological bias mixed in with legitimate criticism of which stories get prominent placement, resulting the attention and traffic relevant to ad revenues and more subscriptions.

Banners_and_Alerts_and_Settings___Privacy___Facebook-linked-publications

On that count, I found something that Facebook called new: a linked publications section in settings. Facebook is urging folks who publish articles to build our readership by adding publications and encouraging them to add us so that our bylines are associated. Despite reports that Facebook Authorship has been deprecated over the years, this could be  a big deal for several reasons.

First, a news tab could indeed build readership, which means socially connecting writing to our profiles or pages could build followers and Likes. That’s a big carrot.

Second, if Facebook gives different publications or authors weight in the Tab or newsfeed for different areas or search, watch for how it weights validated contributions from verified authors who have added publications and displays them. There may important cues for readers that are directly relevant to trust.

Publication_Linking-no-sunlight

On that count, I found that it was only possible to add a publication if it has a Facebook Page and if Facebok recognized it as one: no options pre-populated for TechPresident or the Sunlight Foundation. (Old gatekeepers, meet the new boss?)

Everything I wrote about why journalists need to pay attention to Google Author Rank applies here, albeit within the universe of Facebook’s walled garden instead of Google’s search results of the Web.

Keep an eye on this space.

In the meantime, there’s a Facebook Beta to keep kicking the tires on.

If you’ve used it, please weigh in using the comments below, find my profile or Page on Facebook, or contact me directly.

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Unwiring in upstate

Here in upstate NY, driving miles of country roads to go hiking in an ancient gorge and plunge into the cool depths of the natural swimming pool is well worth the trip.

Visiting Stony Brook takes me back nearly 4 decades, to looking for fossils in the ancient walls, waterfalls, and the indelible memory of chilly, clear waters dappled with sun.

As forest baths go, this was restorative.

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