2668 Anderdon Street, Detroit foreclosed in 2010. Unsold. Now owned by the City of Detroit.
These are some not yet fully formed thoughts that have been kicking around in my head about the possibility a surveillance system of government could be enabled by open and public data. Call it, The People’s PRISM.
“Cell phones, laptops, Facebook, Skype, chat-rooms: all allow the NSA to build what it calls ‘a pattern of life,’ a detailed profile of a target and anyone associated with them.” - The Guardian
What if a surveillance program based on the same principles as the NSA’s PRISM could be used to monitor government activity in deep detail?
Could such a platform be enabled by the push for open data?
To what extent was PRISM possible because data the NSA absorbed was already well organized by private companies — Google, Facebook, Apple, among others — that housed it, and whose commercial success depended on it being well organized?
Could equally well organized public information spur the development of a “People’s PRISM”?
As someone who works with government data every day in Detroit — an environment where data systems are predictably messy and antiquated — I see firsthand the vast world of data produced by government.
This data is dirty, housed in clunky and inaccessible databases siloed off from one another with no history of cross-referencing. But once it is organized, formatted, and built into interfaces, correlations can be examined and conclusions drawn.
I suspect that if the vast world of public information, nationally, were as efficiently organized as the “private” data we pour into the web’s for-profit companies, it could enable a system that produces a very revealing picture of what even top secret parts of our government are up to.
Don’t get me wrong — I have no expectation that open data policies will pry open classified caches, but for a People’s PRISM to work, they don’t need to. PRISM was built on the premise that you can deduce a target’s actions by analyzing aggregated content about their activities rather than trying to observe discrete steps.
As the immovable object of swollen government bureaucracy rushes to slap “Top Secret” on as many documents as possible, it collides with unstoppable forces both inside government and out who advocate fervently for open data as a salve for inefficiency and a stimulant for economic development.
As data becomes available, companies rush to organize it, index it, and make it available for use in myriad platforms. As they do, the potential for someone to build a system that draws from these companies’ efforts, using multiple data sources to triangulate even secretive government activity, increases.
Perhaps we’ll look back on WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden as potent, but crude, beginnings in this story. With a data dump, time marches on and data goes stale. You need regular updates — regular leakers — to keep a relevant lens on the subject. But a system that enables analysis of government activity based on aggregating conduct, rather than relying on the unveiling of discrete steps… that’s a powerful thing.
(This is a cross-post from another blog of mine. It seemed relevant to repost it today after news of Detroit joining a national initiative to create immigrant-friendly environments.)
Prove Up Detroit
What if Detroit were the Ellis Island of the 21st century? A landing spot, and proving ground, for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who want to move to the United States. What if the city served as a model for dozens of other American cities that have shrunk over the last fifty years? What if we could repopulate American cities, starting with Detroit, in one whizz-bang epic move? Here’s how it might work:
1.) Immigrants are granted a residential city or state owned property in Detroit. We have 100,000 of them, and no clue what to do with them. Why not engage in some quid pro quo? Millions of people want to move to the United States, and we need people to help us invest time and energy in rebuilding the city.
2.) Immigrants have five years to “prove up” the land. The old Homestead Acts granted government owned land to Americans on the condition they improved, or “proved up,” the land within five years. At the time, there was no good mechanism for verifying homesteaders’ claims that they had indeed made improvements to the land, and widespread fraud undermined the various Homestead Acts. But these days, it would be easy to survey, track, and verify the progress immigrants made on their property.
3.) Welcome to America! Here’s your Green Card. At the end of five years, immigrant property, standing (employment, background checks, etc.), are evaluated. If everything checks out, you get a Green Card. Welcome!
What would Detroit look like if we threw open the doors like this? Well, Gallup recently found that 138 million people worldwide would like to move to the United States — about three times as many people as the second highest rated emigration destination, the United Kingdom. From big countries and small, people want to move to the USA; millions from China, Nigeria, Brazil, and India, alongside high percentages of the population from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and the Dominican Republic.
There are all kinds of variations on a theme you could include in this idea — incentives for those who want to open a business, or relocate a business, in Detroit. Or including a quota of Americans in the offering (for the homestead, not the Green Card, of course).
The fact that people from around the world want to live here is, to my mind, the most valuable thing America has going for it. It’s the reason the country achieved so much in the 20th century, and probably our greatest hope for remaining an interesting and profitable country into the 21st.
40 major cities across the United States, from Chicago to Philadelphia, Pittsburg and Cleveland, have lost a collective 7.5 million people over the last 50 years. A model that works in Detroit could be applied beyond our borders, and bring diversity of experience, background, culture, and capacity to cities across the country.
As with everything good from the last century, though, it should start in Detroit.
The few posts in this collection represent, incredibly, about 2 days worth of fires in Detroit. The city averages about 14 fires per day; around 4,000 - 5,000 per year.
The photography represents the contributions of a dedicated Motor City Mapping contributor who has made it a point to document arsons and fires across Detroit.
(Post 1 of 3)
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This property was purchased in 2005 for $92,000. Today, it is in the Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction after accruing $13,994 in unpaid property taxes at an assessed value of about $30,000. That’s quite a property value collapse.
In the next few days the first round of the annual Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction will begin. During the auction, 23,000 properties in Detroit will go on sale for an opening bid of $500 <— (Explore them all at Why Don’t We Own This?)
Thousands of these properties are occupied by unsuspecting renters whose unscrupulous landlords do not pay property taxes, allow the homes to be foreclosed and then sold to speculators who may evict the tenants.
Thousands more properties are vacant, blighted, and attractive only to speculators looking to sit on a property that is scrapped and burned repeatedly, in the hopes of an eventual payout.
Starting today, LOVELAND Technologies will have surveyors in Detroit updating survey information for all 23,000 properties headed to this year’s auction. The data will update results from the winter survey, and be presented on Motor City Mapping.
If you are in Detroit, you can contribute too by downloading Blexting from the Play Store and surveying properties headed to auction.
With the information collected, we can better direct resources to occupied homes, and target blighted properties that the city could control, demolish, and sell off as clean, vacant land.