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iCitizen: How one app got a huge room of millennials talking about the presidential debates

We millennials are, rightfully, stereotyped as to have our phones glued to our hands 24/7. So, it would only make sense that there is a potential for this generation to become involved if given a quick and savvy way to do so. Enter iCitizen

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It’s not as hard as you might think

President Obama’s final State of the Union address has instigated a great deal of buzz throughout the country. As we say goodbye to his presidency and look toward the 45th, a recurring topic of conversation is how to get millennials involved in the voting process.

Now, to get us to do virtually anything, there has to be some sort of technological aspect involved. We millennials are, rightfully, stereotyped as to have our phones glued to our hands 24/7. So, it would only make sense that there is a potential for this generation to become involved if given a quick and savvy way to do so.

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icitizen: “A hub for your civic life”

This is the mission of icitizen. Launched over two years ago, and rebranded and re-released less than a week ago, icitizen is working to bridge the gap between millennials and politics. With the slogan “A hub for your civic life”, icitizen works hard to provide politicians with information curated from the app.

The app is simple to utilize, as users can swipe right (if they care about a topic) or left (if they don’t care about a topic). Topics include everything from arts and culture, to parks and recreation, to voting and taxes.

The app was put to the test the night of the State of the Union, as representatives and members of icitizen came to Illinois State University in Normal, IL for a live-stream watch party.

Potential to make a change

While some students were incentivized by extra credit and free pizza, many students came for the opportunity to be civically engaged. Organizers and sponsors were astounded by the turnout, over 600 people, and we able to spread the word about the importance of being involved in politics and the community.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the members of icitizen following the address. Their mission is one of importance and their execution has the potential to make a change in how younger generations engage with politics.

TL: How did you come up with the idea?
Beth Huth [VP Marketing and Business Development]: icitizen has been around for about two and a half years. And it started from an idea from an entrepreneur in Nashville who thought about making the idea of communication between the citizen and politics an easier process.

He was flipping through channels and he would see polling results on one channel reporting ‘this’ and polling results on another channel reporting something completely different. And he thought, ‘what if we created a place that centralized voice for citizens to come and gain information on politics as well as express their voice on what they do and do not support.’

TL: Are you local to the area (Chicago/Southern Illinois)?
BH: we’re headquartered in Nashville and our CEO, Russ Reeder, was originally based in California and he just recently relocated to headquarters in Nashville. He is also now a co-founder with a company in rebranding and re-visioning icitizen. And, just four days ago, we launched version two of our app.

So, we’re excited about this partnership because this is the first time that we have had polling as well a relationship with AASCU, and our 400 different universities put to the test.

TL: And how has that been going so far?
Alex Schreiner [Partnerships & Outreach Manager]: well, three or four days into it, I could not believe how many students that we got to come to this event. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen so many students gathered in one place for something political that’s not a rally or protest. This was a nonpartisan event, and we packed this house with students from Illinois State University, from Heartland Community College.

I was blown away by the attendance and the participation, and the buy-in that we got from the schools that were involved in it.

So, I think that for us this was really encouraging that there is so much enthusiasm about our vision for what these events can look like, and changing the way that we ask students to participate in politics. [Because] the old way just isn’t working anymore.

icitizen app using

Illinois State University communication majors Adamm Isabelli and Alex Cesich put in their two cents using the icitizen app.

TL: Was that the big motivator for the rebrand and redesign? So that it could be targeted toward a younger audience?
BH: Absolutely.

You know, when I think about the future generations of our country, the people who are really going to make a difference, it’s the millennial generation.

In two years, over 36 percent of our voting population will be millennials.

So, when I think about voting, and I think about calling people to action to have a say in what is going on in policy and community, the old way, where you basically just find a voting place, is broken. Allowing millennials to engage with politics, such as any form of legislation or bills, or just issues that are driven in their world – having it on a mobile device is a huge motivation for us.

TL: Can you tell me a little about the role of polling in politics?
Mark Keida [Director of Polling]: The reason we include polling is because polling is a way that you can make your voice count. So, when you put a poll out there, and there’s no answer to it, we don’t know how you feel. When you think of the electors, and there are over 300 million in the country, we have 535 members of Congress, senators, and the House, plus our president. How do they know [what citizens are feeling]? Polling is one of the ways that we get the intelligence of what the people think. And so, we developed in our app a polling capability.

We did this for the event, we put out 30 different poll questions, and we will continue doing that all of the time as a part of our app, so that we can hear what people think. And then what we do is, with the issues that are most popular, share that data anonymously with elected officials. Alex mentioned that this world is real-time and ongoing, and everything is on the super-computer or smartphone. This is the way the world is moving. And, when you think of polling, it’s very old types of technology, but we’re putting it on an app so that this way you can do it in real-time.

Giving these elected officials a way of putting a finger on the pulse of seeing what people really think and what they really want, is democracy in action. It’s something that is done between elections.

So, it isn’t just voting every two years. The president talked about that tonight, you know, get involved between elections – don’t just vote during the election time. And, what icitizen is really trying to do, is help people: they’re passionate, they’re interested in getting involved, and they are on their phones all the time. So, we’re putting those two together and saying, “well how can we get people involved?” And the phone helps us do this.

icitizen app iphone

TL: How did you become involved with Illinois State?
AS: When I started working for icitizen, I was in D.C., and we were just starting the process of identifying really who were the most important markets for us to try and launch this to. And universities and schools are such an obvious choice. There’s been a tremendous need amongst these institutions for the type of information and data that we are able to provide and knowing what your students’ political sentiment is, and social sentiment of different issues.

So, we actually got an email from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities which said, “hey, somebody in our office just downloaded your app. Can we talk?” And then we found out that we were, basically, within a couple of miles from each other in D.C. So, I went into the office and sat down with members of AASCU, and, as we started talking, I think both sides realized at the same time that there is so much potential here for what this relationship can transform to in the next couple of years. We basically started talking about this event two years ago, and asked how we could make it a student-oriented State of the Union event.

Jen Domagal-Goldman [AASCU member] said, “you’ve got to meet these people from Illinois State. They are so motivated”. And she said, “if you want to do a live watch party and live-stream this across the country from the university – let’s have a giant gathering at one school and broadcast it to other schools that are interested. We think we have the perfect place, and it’s Illinois State”.

And, they were so right. They have connected us to Heartland Community College and the folks over there were incredible at working with us. And what we saw were ripple effects from one very small group of people at Illinois State University faculty, and it rippled across the entire school. I mean, they got everybody involved. We wound up having 600 people and we ran out of chairs. I never hoped, in my wildest dreams, that this would be the case in the first year that we’ve ever really tried anything on this scale. It’s amazing.

Staff Writer, Taylor Leddin is a publicist and freelance writer for a number of national outlets. She was featured on Thrive Global as a successful woman in journalism, and is the editor-in-chief of The Tidbit. Taylor resides in Chicago and has a Bachelor in Communication Studies from Illinois State University.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Joyce Malle

    January 13, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    I use I citizen and love it. They have quit sending me polls. I complained once and now I haven’t received any polls in months. Censorship.?

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Airbnb has blocked 50K+ bookings for being too big during COVID-19

(NEWS) Airbnb has cancelled a huge number of reservations as a security precaution during COVID-19 in the past year or so.

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In the last year or so, Airbnb has purposefully prevented at least 50,000 people from making irresponsible reservations on their properties, in many cases blocking those people from the platform itself. This prevention, at least in theory, helped cut down on the number of COVID parties during the pandemic.

According to The Verge, Airbnb’s head of trust and safety communication, Ben Breit, acknowledged blocked reservations in several cities across the United States, including Dallas, San Diego, and New Orleans. Breit confirmed that this response was an attempt to prevent large gatherings and parties during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic during which many areas banned group activities involving more than a few people.

While some requests for reservations were simply denied or “redirected”, many users were blocked from using Airbnb entirely. Airbnb noted that the number of blocked requests outpaced the number of people who were blocked, signifying that some accounts attempted to make more than one reservation before being removed from the platform.
Airbnb reportedly stated that “Instituting a global ban on parties and events is in the best interest of public health” prior to enacting a total ban on rentals at the beginning of 2020, a decision that gave way to the blocks and redirections in the last 12 months.

The evaluation system used to flag problematic reservations is relatively simple, according to Breit: “If you are under the age of 25 and you don’t have a history of positive reviews, we will not allow you to book an entire home listing local to where you live.”

But Airbnb didn’t entirely remove multiple-body listings or large rentals. The Verge reports that flagged users with the aforementioned criteria were still able to book both small rentals in local locations and larger rentals in reasonably distant locations.

Regardless of the optics here, Airbnb’s policy efficacy can’t be ignored. Multiple cities reported comparatively “quiet” holiday seasons–something that may contribute to Airbnb’s decision to extend their policy through the end of this summer.

The hosting company is also offering increased security measures, such as noise detection and a 24-hour hotline, at a discounted rate to property owners.

As both the vaccine gap and the proliferation of the Delta variant of COVID-19 continue to contribute to outbreaks, one can reasonably expect Airbnb to hold to this policy.

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TL;DV summarizes video meetings so folks can catch up in quickly *with* context

(TECHNOLOGY) TL;DV makes catching up on video team meetings slightly more tolerable and easily digestable.

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2021 was the year of virtual meetings, and while there are some perks associated with remote collaboration (I’m looking at you, pair of work pants that I didn’t have to wear once this year), these meetings often feel exponentially more arduous than their dressed-up counterparts. TL;DV, a consolidation app for Google Meet, looks to give back a bit of your time.

TL;DV (an acronym for “Too Long; Didn’t View”) is a Google Chrome recording extension that helps users specify important sections of meetings for anyone who needs to view them asynchronously. Users can tag specific segments in Google Meet sessions, transcribe audio, and leave notes above tagged sections for timestamp purposes, and the subsequent file can be shared via a host of both Google and third-party apps.

While the extension is only available for Google Meet at the time of writing, the TL;DV team has included a link to a survey for Zoom and MS Teams users on their site, thus implying that the team is looking into expanding into those platforms in the future.

The mission behind TL;DV is, according to the website, to empower users to “control how we spend our precious time” in the interest of combatting FOMO and meeting fatigue. By dramatically shortening the amount of time one must spend perusing a meeting recording, they seem well on their way to doing so.

Of course, the issue of human oversight remains. It seems likely that meeting facilitators will drop the ball here and there while tagging sections of the recording, and employees who miss crucial information in a recorded session are sure to be frustrated in the process–just not as frustrated as they might be if they attended the entire meeting live.

The current (free) version of TL;DV is in Beta, so users will have a three-hour cap on their videos. The development team promises a professional version by the end of 2021, with the added bonus of leaving prior recordings available for free for anyone who used the Beta. This is certainly an extension to keep an eye on–whether or not you’re remaining remote in 2022, virtual conferencing is no doubt here to stay.

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Hiding from facial recognition is a booming business

(TECH NEWS) ‘Cloaking’ is the new way to hide your face. Companies are making big money designing cloaking apps that thwart your features by adding a layer of make up, clothing, blurring, and even transforming you into your favorite celebrity.

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Facial recognition companies and those who seek to thwart them are currently locked in a grand game of cat and mouse. Though it’s been relentlessly pursued by police, politicians, and technocrats alike, the increasing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, workplaces, and housing complexes remains a widely unpopular phenomenon.

So it’s no surprise that there is big money to be made in the field of “cloaking,” or dodging facial recognition tech – particularly during COVID times while facial coverings are, literally, in fashion.

Take Fawkes, a cloaking app designed by researchers at the University of Chicago. It is named for Guy Fawkes, the 17th century English revolutionary whose likeness was popularized as a symbol of anonymity, and solidarity in V For Vendetta.

Fawkes works by subtly overlaying a celebrity’s facial information over your selfies at the pixel level. To your friends, the changes will go completely unnoticed, but to an artificial intelligence trying to identify your face, you’d theoretically look just like Beyonce.

Fawkes isn’t available to the general public yet, but if you’re looking for strategies to fly under the radar of facial recognition, don’t fret; it is just one example of the ways in which cloaking has entered the mainstream.

Other forms of cloaking have emerged in the forms of Tik Tok makeup trends, clothes that confuse recognition algorithms, tools that automatically blur identifying features on the face, and much more. Since effective facial recognition relies on having as much information about human faces as possible, cloaking enthusiasts like Ben Zhao, Professor of computer science at the University of Chicago and co-developer of Fawkes, hope to make facial recognition less effective against the rest of the population too. In an interview with The New York Times, Zhao asserts, “our [team’s] goal is to make Clearview [AI] go away.”

For the uninitiated, Clearview AI is a start-up that recently became infamous for scraping billions of public photos from the internet and privately using them to build the database for a law enforcement facial recognition tool.

The CEO of Clearview, Hoan Ton-That, claimed that the tool would only be improved by these workarounds and that in long run, cloaking is futile. If that sounds like supervillain talk, you might see why he’s earned himself a reputation similar to the likes of Martin Shkreli or Ajit Pai with his company’s uniquely aggressive approach to data harvesting.

It all feels like the beginning of a cyberpunk western: a story of man vs. machine. The deck is stacked, the rules are undecided, and the world is watching. But so far, you can rest assured that no algorithm has completely outsmarted our own eyeballs… yet.

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