How Much Are Your Volunteer Hours Worth? Social Capital Scrip & the Financial-Tech Experiments with New Forms of Precarious Employment

Reposted with permission from Wrench in the Gears. Original Title: “Social capital” scrip? Fin-tech experiments with new forms of precarious “employment

scrap yard

If you consider most activities are awarded 200 points, the per-hour rate of compensation is at most $2 (presuming the volunteer activity is only an hour) for the $25 gift card. The system is constructed so that the number of points needed to obtain a larger gift card is much, much higher. To receive a $200 gift card, a person must volunteer 750 hours, which equates to a payment of twenty-six CENTS per hour.

I write this piece as a follow up to my post on self sovereign identity on Blockchain, the distributed ledger system designed to capture flows of data, and information about our lives. Supporters of Blockchain tout its ability to secure “transactions” into permanent, immutable records of activities, earnings, payments, and debt. As we shift to a cashless society dominated by dynamic online payment systems, I see new forms of draconian labor compensation practices starting to emerge.

To set the stage for my examination of Union Capital Boston, I want to give you a bit of personal background. I work at a botanic garden surrounded by a mostly post-industrial landscape. It’s on the way to the airport, a stone’s throw from trash transfer plants. Residents live with terrible air quality due to the refineries across the river. For a number of years we were hopeful they’d be shut down, but then fracking revitalized the petroleum industry and they’re still going strong.

When I started my job fifteen years ago, an adjacent parking lot held hundreds of school buses. Most students in Philadelphia don’t take yellow buses to school, but the company must have serviced the field trip market and perhaps charter schools and private schools. About seven years ago, as standardized testing ramped up and education funding decreased, the era of field trips drew to a close. The bus company closed up shop, and within a year or so that lot was taken over by a scrap metal company.

Today sidewalks outside the scrap yard are littered with wrecked cars. There’s a constant flow of people in pick up trucks, with shopping carts, and grocery dollies carrying in old appliances, rebar and junk to make ends meet. We are on a trajectory of intentional scarcity and economic instability that has been picking up speed as technology and financialization take hold of our lives. It’s brutal. The image of a frail elderly gentleman attempting to navigate a top-heavy shopping cart across the treacherous trolley tracks remains indelibly printed on my mind and my heart.

Jobs with pensions, with regular hours, with benefits, with stability have been slipping away for decades. First there was temp work and consulting, later gigs and now micro-work. Some try to cobble together part time jobs, but barbarous algorithms, striving for leaner deployment of human labor, make it nearly impossible to piece together a workable schedule. Meanwhile, tech has stepped up to design platforms that meet industry’s need for “just in time” labor.

mTurk matches developers and businesses with “human intelligence” at a “lower cost than was previously possible.” Discrete tasks like identifying objects in photos or transcribing audio recordings are a poor substitute for a regular job. Now we have Uber, Insta-cart shoppers, Task Rabbits who vie to assemble Ikea bookshelves at the lowest possible wage. While this work may be less dangerous than scrap collection or being driven to exhaustion or death in an Amazon warehouse, it is still not a viable option for anyone who desires a stable life and to raise a family. The Fourth Industrial Revolution isn’t even in full swing, but we’re pushing kids into “career connected” pathways even though we have no earthly idea what the future of “labor” will be other than that all signs indicate it won’t be good for most people.

Now I’d like to introduce you to Union Capital Boston, a new economic model that, were it ever to become widely adopted, would grossly undermine authentic, citizen-driven, grassroots community engagement. The non-profit organization based in Roxbury, MA was founded in 2014 by siblings Eric and Anna Leslie. The premise is that what the poor REALLY need is a system of rewards points that allow them to acquire small cash gift cards in exchange for volunteering in their communities. They also promote helping participants build resumes of volunteerism and activism, well-suited to being badged on Blockchain.

 

The Leslie’s system isn’t on Blockhain, but it does have ties to the impact investment community, is located in greater Boston where all of this is being incubated, is promoting interventions tied to established behavioral economic “nudging” strategies, and seems to be an experiment in activity tracking and alternate payment systems using  “virtual bank accounts.” In a sense, it is creating digital scrip where “good citizenship” is structured and rewarded by corporate-driven philanthropic interests and their complicit non-profit partners, all imposed upon the poor under the guise of benevolence. Membership fees that participating non-profit groups pay to become members of the program underwrite the cash payouts.

Prior to obtaining his Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Eric worked for nine years in education, first as a Teach for America Fellow and later as a teacher and school leader at KIPP charter schools in Philadelphia (note Jay Coen Gilbert, co-founder of B-Lab, the entity that establishes social impact metrics, serves on the KIPP Philadelphia board). Anna has a Masters in Public Health, worked as an outreach coordinator for Americorps (an initiative of the Corporation for National and Community Service along with the Pay for Success Social Innovation Fund), did a short stint at KIPP and then went on do to research at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In 2015, the Knight Foundation granted Union Capital Boston $35,000 to “prototype a program and tools to reward citizens for getting civically involved, as part of an effort to accelerate and learn from early-stage media and information projects.” They received another $7,500 from the Boston Foundation. In 2016 they were granted $60,000 by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Inc. (Rockefeller, the force behind the Global Impact Investment Network).

The Knight Foundation is doing a lot of “civic” work in Philadelphia. I didn’t end up incorporating this plot line into my “Building Sanctuary” story, but in the back of my mind I had entertained the idea that all of these philanthropically-directed civic projects could be a means to identify possible change agents in advance and neutralize them. Maybe that’s too dark. I don’t know, but Knight is also funding Internet of Things grants for “smart” cities…

What Eric and Anna developed was an app and a system for earning “points” that could be exchanged monthly for cash gift cards in denominations from $25 to $200. Only certain activities earn points. They’ve had to scale back on compensation, so options that used to be rewarded are now just “celebrated.” See the image of the UCB Selfie guidelines below:

If you consider most activities are awarded 200 points, the per-hour rate of compensation is at most $2 (presuming the volunteer activity is only an hour) for the $25 gift card. The system is constructed so that the number of points needed to obtain a larger gift card is much, much higher. To receive a $200 gift card, a person must volunteer 750 hours, which equates to a payment of twenty-six CENTS per hour.

All of this activity, including geolocation data about the “volunteer,” is logged via the UCB app where it is aggregated in dashboards so communities can compete with one another for “civic engagement.” I’m sure all of this data will be associated with Rates of Return on Pay for Success contracting tied to education, healthcare, housing and financial inclusion. It is important to note that one of the activities rewarded is voter registration and participating in political activities.

Note their funders below:

I want to share an excerpt taken from Union Capital Boston’s Facebook page in March. It has since been removed. It describes the plight of a single mother who works full time in the Boston area, but cannot make ends meet due to the high cost of living and her low wages. How they proposes to solve her problem? With an app of course! With the help of UCB, this mother will spend whatever open hours she has outside of her work and family time “volunteering” to earn rewards so that she can buy a transit pass to get to work. Rather than addressing income inequality, which would be the radical solution, impact investors like the Leslies propose surveillance apps that proffer “assistance” with many, many strings attached. It is a solution that completely undermines the true spirit of community support and mutual aid. This “solution” is one structured around the financial motivations of impact-oriented non-profits and their investors.

Do I think Union Capital Boston is a program that is going to take off soon? No, I actually don’t. They have about a thousand members now. What I think is that this program is an incubator for bigger projects down the road. I wouldn’t be surprised if the policy folks at Harvard and the digital economy folks at MIT are getting regular updates from Eric and Anna. The end game with digital identity and payment systems is a bit farther out on the horizon. But global financial tech needs these test cases, and they need to start normalizing new and ever more abusive alternate labor payment systems. They need to lay the groundwork for the successor to “micro-work.” It appears some are betting on “social capital scrip” being the next big thing, maybe with a side of Sesame Credit factored into dynamic pricing just to keep things interesting.

Excerpt pulled from the UCB Facebook Page March 2018:

“In every low-income community there are vast amounts of human and social capital, and wonderful organizations trying to utilize those resources to make improvements. These resources and organizations are often disorganized, disconnected, and inefficient. Union Capital Boston (UCB) aims to connect people with these resources in low-income communities and provide rewards in order to overcome the poverty trap.

“I’m stuck!” laments Nadia, who lives in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury with her three children. Although she works full time, Nadia’s $28,000 annual salary is barely more than half of the median family income in Boston ($52,000), and more importantly, insufficient to meet the city’s high cost of living. Like many in her community, she does not want to depend on government assistance but has to use SNAP benefits and Section 8 housing to make ends meet.

By joining UCB, Nadia will earn points-tracked by swiping a QR code on her smartphone or keychain-for doing things that benefit both her her family and her community. For example, Nadia picks up her children from school on a Friday and earns 100 UCB points by volunteer at their afterschool program. On the way home, Nadia shops at the local grocery store and received 50 UCB points for her purchase. On Saturday, Nadia takes her children to the neighborhood playground and joins in a clean up earning another 100 UCB points. Nadia now has earned 250 points in her UCB Virtual Bank account. She logs into the UCB Virtual Store and uses her points to purchase a monthly MBTA pass that she needs to commute to work-all from giving back and being loyal to her community.

UCB plans to partner with schools, businesses, and civic groups that will benefit from increased participation and business. Ultimately, these institutions will pay fees to UCB in exchange for increased patronage from and improved outcomes for UCB members. UCB will use capital garnered from these fees to purchase and distribute rewards, including public transportation passes, health care coverage, home loan assistance, and college tuition payments.

The concept of customer rewards is not new, but the goal of organizing loyalty in a low-income community is a new endeavor that we believe will yield important benefits based on recent academic studies. According to research by Canada’s Knowledge Development Centre, key motivations for low-income volunteers like Nadia include desire for personal and professional development, and contribution to one’s community. Furthermore, Mark Rosenbaum in the Journal of Services Marketing (Vol. 19, Iss: 4, 2005) demonstrates that participation greatly increased when customer loyalty programs were communally-based, rather than just financially motivated, because individuals highly valued connecting with their community. Robert Putnam’s research demonstrates that this community loyalty improves social capital, which is a key component for breaking out of poverty. The benefit of a low-income community rewards program is therefore two-fold: create opportunities for individuals and families, while simultaneously improve the surrounding community.”

Below is a screen shot of their May 2018 community participation dashboard. The behavioral economists sure do love their leader boards. So much better to have people pitted against against one in competition than organizing together, eh?

-Alison McDowell

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Data Mining Life on the Ledger: Building Sanctuary Part 4

Reposted with permission from Wrench in the Gears.

Data Mining Life on the Ledger

The future is uncertain and unlikely to play out exactly as described. Nevertheless, we must begin to comprehend how technological developments combined with concentrated power and extreme income inequality are leading us to increasingly automated forms of oppression. My hope is that communities will begin to incorporate an understanding of this bigger picture into resistance efforts for public education and beyond. Let us join together, embracing our humanity, to fight the forces that would bring us to “lockdown.” How can we preserve our lives and those of our loved ones outside the data stream? How can we nurture community in a world where alienation is becoming normalized? What do we owe one another? What are we willing to risk? I have divided my story into seven parts. I hope you’ll read along and consider sharing it with others.

This installment of Building Sanctuary features digital identity and social credit scoring as it relates to purchasing and access to life opportunities for citizens living under authoritarian power structures. This is the fourth in a seven-part series that follows the digitally-quantified lives of sisters Cam and Li in a a near-future “Smart” City dystopia. If you wish to start reading from the beginning, follow this link to the introduction and Part One: Plugging In.

Part Two: A World Without (Much) Work

Part Three: Smart and Surveilled

Solutionists maintain control over society largely through the ledger. The ledger evolved from Blockchain, a technology first used to process digital-currency transactions like Bitcoin, Global Coin’s predecessor. But corporate and government interests saw it had far greater potential. It started out as a decentralized online system through which transactions of all sorts (purchases, education credentials, marriages, property transfers etc.) could be permanently recorded in blocks that were secured by elaborate cryptographic protocols. Over time, private blockchains came to dominate the system. These were gradually consolidated by those allied with the Solutionist agenda.

Now there is one ledger that keeps track of everything and everyone: inputs and outputs; ownership and debt; locations, activities, functions, and compliance. The ledger is the master accountant that is everywhere and nowhere. It lives on a distributed system of computers. It’s promoted as infallible, untouchable. The Solutionists suppress any information that might undermine public faith in it. In a world of uncertainty, the ledger is a held up as a symbol of unquestioning trust.

In addition to facilitating and recording transactions, the ledger also calculates citizen scores, something no one with a Citi Badge can escape. These scores rise and fall based the data each person generates within the Solutionists’ “smart systems.” People are constantly evaluated against the norms set by the authorities. If your behavior, or that of your family or even friends or acquaintances, deviates from these standards, your score drops.

People who question the system have low scores. People with extensive social networks have low scores. People who travel widely have low scores. People who access “the wrong” online materials have low scores. People who are financially unstable have low scores. Your score can be lowered for being too educated or not educated enough. People who use public services have low scores. If you have a low score, you become a target of social impact interventions, programs underwritten by private investors designed to bring your score up and reorient you to the values Solutionist society demands.

Citizen scores determine access to jobs, housing, leisure opportunities, and social relationships. They affect the prices people pay for goods and services and even the type of education and medical treatment they get. At birth Cam and Li, like everyone born outside a sanctuary zone, were assigned unique identity numbers linked to retinal scans and were each issued a Citi Badge. Their Citi Badges are connected to the ledger and hold funds from their Global Coin government stipend, student vouchers, and data currency transactions.

Both badges are tied to Talia’s, so the family’s citizen scores rise and fall together. When Talia or the girls make purchases in the real world or in a virtual world the cost is directly debited from their Global Coin balance after biometric authentication. This can be accomplished via facial recognition, retinal scan, thumbprint or heartbeat/ECG signature. Prices and fees paid are dynamic and influenced by their scores. Low score? You can expect to pay more for food, rent, and medical care. High score? You get across the board discounts and special perks like invitations to official receptions and preferential treatment when filing government paperwork.

The ledger asserted its influence slowly but insistently as people’s quantified lives were integrated into the data stream, and the real world melded with the virtual. At first, people eagerly adopted wearable technologies that augmented reality through data overlays. Phones, devices, headsets, and smart contact lenses created blended experiences that could be both innovative and disturbing. Today, wearables are no longer a novelty. People are expected to use them to manage their existence and document it through data. For instance there is now an understanding that everyone will regularly monitor their brain waves, heartbeats, sleep patterns, and other bodily functions. It calls to mind the antiquated practice of documenting oil changes and maintenance on one’s car to keep the warranty valid. Gaps in one’s health data profile could be grounds for being denied medical treatment.

As the economy was digitized, transportation and movement became increasingly circumscribed. No one has personal vehicles anymore, so unless you are walking or have a bicycle, you have to use DigiGo, the autonomous ride sharing system. The system requires you to have a Citi Badge. Access to different sectors of the city varies depending on your citizen score. Each sector has a digital border. Many opt to get implanted Citi Badge chips, which allow you to travel between sectors without manually checking in at each crossing. Citi Badge interfaces are cumbersome, and many of the newer operating systems no longer process device-based transactions.

People without chips spend a lot of time waiting; but Talia still wasn’t going down that path. The girls IoT pathways tattoos are as far as she is willing to go. They are, in theory, temporary and can be removed. She scrupulously limits the data shared about her family to the bare minimum. She kept their outdated devices, even though they are on their last legs and barely hold a charge. Whenever possible they walk, restricting their use of DigiGo to situations that absolutely demand it. They hope one day their budget will allow them to get their hands on a few refurbished bicycles. If you have a worthwhile barter, you can often find an off liner with one to trade. They are sensor free, and if outfitted properly allow flexible travel well beyond the authorized network of corridors used by self-driving vehicles.

The planet’s resources had been all but exhausted, and eventually oil and mineral mining yielded to data mining. Enormous energy demands created by the transition to Blockchain depleted the last of the petroleum reserves, forcing a rush into alternative energy infrastructure projects that could support the mining operations demanded by the ledger. Authorities had not planned ahead. Energy needs were so pressing that the systems being rolled out were not well tested, and installations often failed or created dangerous conditions for the installers and those who lived nearby.

In short order, bio-capitalist data-mining operations became nearly as profitable for investors as the extractive industries they had replaced. The automation of huge swaths of labor markets initially posed a serious problem for global capitalists. With a majority of people now jobless, what good were they to the economic system? Sure, they could still consume some products since Citi Badge provided a basic income, but how else could value be extracted? Consumption on a basic income would have to go down.

Alphadata, the world’s most powerful cloud-based computing company, had anticipated the answer. The company deftly maneuvered to a spot at the top of the extraction pyramid by providing “free” online services: communications, software, and data storage. Data would be the new oil, and the convenience the company prudently offered the world built a level of corporate wealth in data that was unsurpassed.

The complete privatization of public sector services combined with outcomes-based government contracting created a windfall for the data-mining industry. To expand these programs, success would have to conform to specific metrics that could only be cheaply aggregated via digital platforms. As global poverty rose, prospects for the data-mining sector seemed rosy indeed. Looking back, people realized how false the narrative of “free” services had been. They had given away their most valuable assets, their identity, without blinking an eye. Their online lives, their digital shadows, were now contained within the Alphadata cloud. It was a parallel universe of millions of digital lives pooled to fuel machine learning. It was these storehouses of data that powered the company’s research in artificial intelligence and led to innovations that put so many out of work.

People had been handing off their data to more companies than Alphadata, of course. All the social media platforms and e-commerce sites mined data, too. More and more people clamored for data control and ownership, which was eventually granted through digital sovereign identities stored in the ledger. Essentially, Citi Badges now serve this function. The datasets they hold are private, but people have the option of making them available for a price.

Progressive interests pitched digital identities as a way for people to monetize their data, perhaps enhance their meager Global Coin stipends. In the Global North, digital sovereign identity was ushered in through adoption of municipal identification programs associated with Smart City improvements, the precursor to Citi Badge. The technology had been beta-tested on the Global South and refugee populations years prior. Perpetual war and displacement created an ideal laboratory in which to refine these new technologies.

Data banks replaced blood banks. In a pinch, the poor could sell themselves to get by, while the rich could sit on their personal data treasure and maintain their anonymity. Even for those for who lived comfortably, data sharing was still a tricky matter. In the abstract you could attempt to keep your data from ending up on the ledger, but practically speaking no public services were accessible if you refused to participate in the biometric data system. Everything was tied to outcomes-based Pay for Success contracts, including public education. If you or your children wanted access to services, the price was entering the ledger’s data stream.

Talia hated to relinquish the family’s data, but found it necessary at times. For example when Li broke her arm in the maker space loose parts play area, Talia initiated a data currency transaction that released two years worth of the family’s purchase data to cover the unexpected medical costs. And Cam and Li’s educational data is, by default, part of the stream. The Solutionists have full access to it for the purposes of evaluating Cam and Li’s citizen scores and pay-for-success contracts with their education providers.

Talia hopes she never has to sell that to a third party; because she knows it could impact the girls’ ability to access income sharing agreements in the future. But many parents in her sector have to make hard choices to pay the rent. The Citi Badge stipend only goes so far each month, and selling educational data is a common way to make ends meet. Selling that data can lead to problems for children down the line. Data that implies academic or behavioral weaknesses can lead to students being excluded from learning opportunities; being denied opportunities to secure loans to cover tuition; being relegated to the lowest paying jobs. Nevertheless, people have to eat and keep a roof over their heads, and data currency transactions are the most common fallback they have.

The only way to leave the data stream is to go offline, which means disconnecting from the Global Coin economy entirely and losing access to all public service supports, housing, and employment. It also means finding ways to be fully human outside a digital platform, to relearn how to simply be with others without a buffer, without data, to embrace speech and touch and even the written word. People are understandably fearful of off-liners. Their rebellious insistence to exist, even in such dire conditions, outside the structured confines of Solutionist society, is a fact that has the potential to destabilize the whole enterprise.

Most try to ignore them, but a few harbor quiet hopes that a new non-digital economy might somehow, miraculously emerge from the lives they live. Such hope flickers in the hearts of a handful of hardy souls who hold fast to the possibility of a future built on trust in one another rather than trust in the ledger. Though she only admits it to herself, Talia is one who still thinks another world may be possible. How could she not? She has young children whose futures are yet unwritten. Falling into despair would hurt not only herself, but her entire family, too.

Continue to Part 5: Automated Education

Supplemental Links

Blockchain: Link

Blockchain Universal Basic Income: Link

Smartphone Augmented Reality: Link

Sesame Credit: Link and (long read but worth it) Link

Entrepreneurial Finance Lab Harvard: Link

MIT Digital Currency Lab: Link

Aadhar National Identity System India: Link

Aadhar Biometric Payments: Link

Biometric Bitcoin Wallet: Link

Heartbeat / ECG Biometrics: Link

Retinal Scan Payments: Link

Biometric Capitalism Talk Keith Breckinridge: Link

Black Mirror Episode Nosedive: Link

Cambridge Analytica: Link

Blockchain Technology of Trust / Goldman Sachs: Link

Blockchain Economy: Link

Blockchain Energy Consumption: Link

Dynamic / Personalized Pricing: Link and Link

Lucyd AR Glasses: Link

AR Contact Lenses: Link

Transference VR Horror Game/Film Experience: Link

IoT Digital Health Monitoring: Link

Implantable Chips for Access: Link and Payment Link

Biocapitalism: Link

Google’s Eric Schmidt Data is the New Oil: Link

Google AI Awakening: Link

Self Sovereign Identity: Link and Link and Link

Decode Digital Identity: Link

UN ID2020: Link and Link

Blockchain Data Monetizing Platforms: Link

Municipal ID Card / Payment Programs: Link and Link

Digital Colonialism: Link and Link

-Alison McDowell