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30 October 2020 #51

Hello and welcome. 👋🏽👋🏻👋🏾

Tomorrow is All Hallows Eve and this issue marks the occasion by including stories on terrifying tech, creepy surveillance, and questionable ethics. They’re balanced with tales about tech for good and the teams working tirelessly to make the world better, fairer and more joyful.

Prepare to be both uplifted and appalled.


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Death in the Digital age

Death is certain. It makes sense then that organisations exist to help with our preparations for it.

▪️ Farewill is redesigning how society deals with death promising a ‘meaningful funeral at an affordable price’. As a digital-first business they can ditch traditional service fees and encourage customers to use their 20 minutes at a crematorium to shun a Victorian-style send-off.
▪️ Practical advice for designing for emotion: Helen Lawson leads content design at Co-op Funeralcare, the UK’s largest funeral director. Her talk ‘Death and other difficult words’ should be required viewing for digital teams working in this area ❤️
▪️ This software helps document funeral wishes and offers will writing templates but they also do some more unconventional stuff like prompting customers to create a social media will to control what happens to their accounts after death and make goodbye video messages for loved ones (it’s all a bit PS. I love you). 
▪️ Related: this Digital death, online afterlife event on 31 October explores who might be hurt or helped by someone's online legacy, and who is ultimately in charge of it. 
▪️ Ever feel like a gravestone just might not be big enough? This man added a QR code to his and this man got excited about uncovering a super-deluxe extended version of a stranger. Spoiler: anticlimactic on this occasion, but this memorial QR code story is much more comforting. Perhaps digital shrines will become part of the history of cemeteries [links to animated TED Talk].

😱Horror shows

🇧🇾 News site Coda is an anthology of modern tech horror stories. Recent example: a court in Minsk has ruled that one particular Telegram channel is ‘extremist’ after its coverage of post-election demonstrations in response to President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s disputed victory in August. Around 2 million of Belarus’s 9 million citizens signed up to the channel and Telegram could arguably claim to be the country’s main and most accurate news platform. Coda has a section dedicated to ‘disinformation’, another for ‘authoritarian tech’ which has the tagline ‘modern technology was supposed to end dictatorship. But will it end democracy instead?’ 

🇺🇸 And speaking of which, democracy activist Yael Eisenstat’s TED Talk from August Dear Facebook, this is how you're breaking democracy seems especially relevant in light of the US election next week. 

💰 The UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (in charge of social security) is apparently planning to make it easier to spy on claimants’ bank accounts. Brief analysis and concerns highlighted here, but note this quote from the Permanent Secretary: “we probably need new legislation to enable us to get the bulk transfer of data, to enable us to do this at a reasonable scale to make a big difference.” Surveillance on a scary scale.

🇬🇧 A BBC investigation shows the UK’s passport photo checker shows bias against dark-skinned women. In the piece, black student Elaine Owusu flags the lack of inclusive design: "It should be the norm for these systems to work well for everyone. I shouldn't have to celebrate overriding a system that wasn't built for me." Not new news but we’re a year on from when Home Office launched despite knowing the checker would fail. Still a long way to go.

⚔️ Fighting baddies

A round-up of some good work that’s aiming to overcome the evil, the unethical and the annoying.   

❌ Who targets me is an organisation that aims to make political adverts transparent. It uses data from the Facebook Ad Library and the Illuminating Project and has pulled apart 300,000+ presidential campaign Facebook ads to show the spend, the goal, the target audience and interestingly how much is known to the political party about that target audience based on previous interaction. Loads of juicy stuff to dig around in. You can search for an ad you’ve seen or put the URL directly into the decoder tool. Here’s a browser extension you can install and find out ‘Who targets me’ (Facebook only).

🔑 (Ex) software engineer Tracy Chou’s post details years of online intimidation. She’s now working on Block Party – a tool to shield you from unwanted content. Tracy re-lived her trauma when she was advised to trawl back through each piece of abuse and document it as ‘evidence’ – Block Party’s response is to save certain content in a ‘lockout folder’. There’s also the option for trusted friends to review the folder and take action on your behalf. Useful. Unfortunately. 

✅ Related: Global Privacy Control can communicate your privacy preferences in one go (to all sites that adopt it). 

📙 Attack Surface is a sci-fi ‘technothriller’ novel by tech activist Cory Doctorow with a protagonist who helps a repressive regime spy on its citizens by day and helps those same citizens evade detection by night. Good interview here on the state of tech, Silicon Valley and Netflix’s Social Dilemma documentary.

💥🍬 Trick or treat (a mixed bag)

🇲🇬 The Public services digital transformation unit in Madagascar created software to help deliver an emergency food and cash transfer program in less than a week. Read about the triumph here. They also just joined GitHub.

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 This blog post from NHS Education for Scotland is a really thorough, step-by-step explanation of the concept of service patterns and how they can be used to support good health and care technology as well as good experience for clinicians and patients.  

🇬🇧 Excellent post from the GOV.UK team about how they’ve been accessing data to help them analyse a user’s end-to-end journey rather than just their 2-step, page-to-page journey. 

🌍 A study of the digital economies in Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone benchmarks the digital transformation journey of each country against a digital economy blueprint for Africa.

🇹🇼 Always a treat: an interview with Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang on How Taiwan is using technology to foster democracy

😈 And let’s end on something tricky – the ‘dangerous animals’ in product management.

News from Public Digital

Public Digital has joined the kyu Collective. kyu has taken a minority stake, leaving the majority in the hands of the founders. Fundamentally, Public Digital – our people, our work, our positions – remains the same.

We also have a new website. Thank you to everyone involved.

👏 Earlier this month our CEO Ben Terrett was lined up to become President of D&AD. However, he wrote here that “I see too many people who look like me, middle-aged white men, in positions like this” and he decided to stand aside and make space for others. We are proud of Ben’s gesture. Twitter says others are too


We can help ⭐
We have many years of experience helping teams and their wider orgs reorganise, innovate and deliver quickly so they can look forward with more confidence. Drop a line if you’d like some support.

On the Public Digital blog

At FWD50 on 9 November, Code for Canada fellows will showcase some of the public services they’ve built in collaboration with government partners. This is what’s possible when we bring tech and government together. Register here. Andrew Greenway will be taking part in a panel on digital standards later in the day at the same event.

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