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The Technology 202: The government’s tech unit is trying to reduce wait times for asylum seekers

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Volunteer shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border say they are preparing for an expected surged of new immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. who will need temporary housing as the holidays approach. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

Technologists embedded within the federal government have quietly been rolling out a new tool designed to significantly reduce the amount of time refugees wait to receive a verdict on their asylum applications.

The streamlining comes as President Trump continues to pursue a harsh immigration policy, keeping Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States across the border in Mexico. U.S. immigration courts are now wrestling with a backlog of more than 750,000 pending asylum applications – even as denial of such claims reached a record high in 2018.

Members of the U.S. Digital Service, the elite technology unit that brings in private-sector workers to help the federal government innovate, have created a new tool that could reduce the time it takes for asylum officers to write up a key report in the application process from four hours to 30 minutes. The team’s new online assessment replaces the Microsoft Word documents asylum officers were using to write reports after interviews with asylum seekers. 

“This is a very weighty process and obviously a long pole in the tent in processing these applications,” said Stephanie Neill, the executive director of the Digital Service team at the Department of Homeland Security. These are the service’s first public comments about the endeavor, which is being used in a pilot program in San Francisco before it’s pushed nationwide early next year.

Yet the program — which brought in former product managers, designers and engineers from technology companies such as Google to embed alongside asylum officers — is especially striking at a time when immigration has been perhaps the single most contentious issue between the tech industry and President Trump’s White House. 

The USDS was created during the Obama administration to recruit tech hotshots solve the government’s worst technology problems, and the previous administration made significant inroads with the left-leaning Silicon Valley. As Trump’s immigration policies alienate many in the tech industry, USDS is in a challenging position as it makes the case that technologists should leave behind high-powered jobs, lofty salaries and California sunshine to work for the agencies whose very policies they rally against.

Since Trump’s election, USDS has largely steered clear of touting its work on immigration. 

When talking to potential USDS recruits, Neill says she tries to focus on the impact the private-sector workers can have within the federal government. “We have an opportunity to have a great impact with these vulnerable populations right now,” Neill said.

Technology executives have been some of the most vocal opponents of the administration’s travel ban on foreign nationals from Muslim-majority countries, Trump’s family separation policies and crackdown on H-1B visas. 

But Neill hopes that this latest asylum-focused project is something civic-minded tech workers will support. This specific project to identify inefficiencies in the asylum system began in 2017 to chip away at the massive backlog of applications. “With current trends, obviously the numbers will continue to rise,” Neill said. “Asylum seekers are essentially applying for asylum and then waiting four to six years before they can get an actual decision.”

As The Post’s Nick Miroff reported in November: “Soaring numbers of migrants have entered the United States taking this administrative path in recent years, often crossing illegally to turn themselves in to U.S. border agents. Since 2014, asylum claims at the border have increased fourfold, adding to a backlog of more than 750,000 pending cases in U.S. immigration courts.” Right now, thousands of migrants are living in tent cities in Tijuana following a weeks-long caravan journey through Central America to apply for asylum in the United States, according to the AP’s Marko Alvarez. He recently reported that some families are illegally crossing into San Diego, as the United States processes only 100 at most asylum applications per day.

And as backlash from the public and policymakers mounts against Big Tech over how they handled privacy issues and data breaches, Neill is hoping USDS can benefit from tech talent who might be second-guessing their ties to embattled tech titans. “I think more now than ever technologists are wondering why they’re building tech at Google and Facebook,” she said. “You know why you’re here.”

But that hasn’t stopped the numbers from going down. There are about 162 people are serving at USDS, an approximately 20 percent decline from the roughly 200 people who worked there at the end of the Obama administration. Neill said the group’s routine practice of having workers complete tours of duty that average 18 months — and federal hiring freezes — contributed to that decline.

USDS did not answer repeated requests for comment on whether the number of applications from tech workers or Silicon Valley had declined since the Obama administration. USDS did stress in a statement that it is recruiting from across America — not just Silicon Valley — from cities ranging from Phoenix to Austin to cultivate “diversity of thought.”

The service’s focus on the projects, not the politics, marks a stark contrast from the way the Obama administration leveraged the administration’s policy positions to inspire technologists to leave Silicon Valley for a stint in the government. The group, which launched in 2014 to institutionalize the practices that saved the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov, touted the role tech workers could play in helping the administration realize its priorities. That sense of unity on policy objectives was palpable, said a former Obama official who worked on immigration issues: “I think the people who came during the Obama administration believed in the things we were doing.”

USDS did other work on immigration services during the Obama administration, including an effort to overhaul the refugee admission process that was widely viewed as a success. Until 2016, DHS could only approve refugee registration forms using an ink approval stamp on a physical file. USDS created a system to approve the cases digitally, allowing the Obama administration to meet its goal of admitting 15,000 additional refugees that year. Other efforts to digitize immigration services that began during the Bush administration largely failed, and USDS has been working on modernizing other immigration systems since 2014.

Eleanor Acer, an advocate for refugees at Human Rights First, says she welcomes any changes that would make the asylum process more efficient and heard positive things about the work USDS did for refugees. But Acer said any changes made to the asylum process during the Trump administration should be scrutinized, especially because the administration has used the backlog to justify its decision to slash the number of refugees allowed in the country.

“It will be more important than ever to make sure whatever changes are made to improve efficiency do not undermine fairness of the decision-making process,” she said.

A passenger enters an Uber car at LaGuardia Airport in New York on March 15, 2017. (Seth Wenig/AP)

BITS:  New York just became the first U.S. city to set a minimum wage for ride-hailing drivers in a landmark decision for gig economy workers burdened with the steep expenses associated with driving for Uber or Lyft, The Washington Post’s Peter Holley reported.  The decision by New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission could set a precedent for other cities considering how they can support app-based drivers, who as contractors do not have many of the benefits or protections of standard employees. The rate is set at $17.22 per hour after expenses, and the Independent Drivers Guild said the hourly rate is the equivalent of the city’s employee minimum wage, which is $15 per hour. “The new pay rules, which apply to car services Uber, Lyft, Via and Juno, go into effect at the end of the year,” Peter writes.

But Uber, the largest ride-sharing company, criticized the move. “In a statement responding to the wage increase, Uber’s director of public affairs, Jason Post, said the new rules will lead to unnecessarily high fare increases for riders and fail to deal with traffic congestion in Manhattan’s central business district,” Peter wrote. “‘The TLC’s rules do not take into account incentives or bonuses forcing companies to raise rates even higher,’ the statement said. ‘Companies use incentives and bonuses as part of driver earnings to ensure reliability citywide by providing a monetary incentive to drivers to complete trips in areas that need them the most (such as outside of Manhattan).’ ”

NIBBLES: The Treasury recommended that the Postal Service review its pricing for e-commerce packages in a report that could impact a wide range of online retailers. However, it did not single out Amazon, one of Trump’s favorite targets. The task force is “recommending a slew of options” to make the Postal Service “more profitable,” as my colleague Rachel Siegel reported, “it did not go so far as to say the financially strapped Postal Service is losing money to Amazon.com, a company which contracts services from the Postal Service and that has consistently drawn Trump’s ire.” (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.)

“On Tuesday, that task force suggested steps the Postal Service can take to respond to the rise of e-commerce, but senior administration officials said the findings don’t apply to any particular Postal Service customer,” Rachel wrote. However, Trump’s “push for this review of the Post Office’s practices has been viewed as an official action taken to penalize the company,” according to my colleague.

The Federal Trade Commission building in Washington on Jan. 28, 2015. (Alex Brandon/AP) 

BYTES: Three tech giants wasted no time in  establishing contact with new officials at the Federal Trade Commission as pressure mounts for regulators to crack down on Silicon Valley tech giants. Google, Amazon and Snap “reached out to schmooze the four FTC commissioners appointed by [Trump] soon after [they] were sworn into office in May, according to 73 pages of email communications obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request,” Politico’s Margaret Harding McGill reported. “Google was particularly active, inviting commission staff to coffee, setting up a meeting with the new Republican chairman, Joe Simons, and touting a project it said would give users more control of their data.”

The emails that Politico obtained do not show communications from Facebook, which is under investigation by the FTC. “It was not immediately clear if Facebook simply didn’t communicate with the commission offices, or if the FTC is keeping such records under wraps as it investigates the company,” Harding McGill wrote. As part of Amazon’s correspondence with the FTC, a company executive offered to “help” a staffer at the commission, according to Politico. “Amazon’s head of policy in Washington, D.C., Brian Huseman, who previously worked for two Republican FTC chairs, also offered to assist Simons’ new chief of staff, writing, ‘And if I can help in any way with the job, just holler,’ ” Harding McGill reported.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai speaks at a New York Times DealBook conference on Nov. 1 in New York. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

— Lawmakers will still get a chance to grill Google chief executive Sundar Pichai even though his scheduled appearance on Capitol Hill this week was postponed. Pichai is now set to “testify to Congress on Dec. 11, after lawmakers rescheduled their original hearing in light of former president George H.W. Bush’s death,” The Post’s Tony Romm reported. “The new hearing — confirmed by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday — will see Pichai field questions from Congress for the first time in response to Republicans’ concerns that Google’s search algorithm, and services it owns including YouTube, unfairly censor conservative-leaning users. The session initially had been scheduled for this Wednesday.”

— Police drones are coming to New York, and so are concerns about surveillance. “The New York Police Department on Tuesday unveiled plans to deploy 14 of the unmanned fliers and to train 29 officers to operate them, opening an intense debate about whether an agency previously criticized for illegally surveilling citizens should possess such powerful technology,” the New York Times’s Ashley Southall and Ali Winston reported. “Senior police officials said the drones would be used for monitoring giant crowds, investigating hazardous waste spills, handling hostage situations and reaching remote areas in crime scenes, among other tasks. They will not be used for routine police patrols, unlawful surveillance or to enforce traffic laws, the officials said. Nor will they be equipped with weapons.” 

Yet critics are unconvinced. Southall and Winston wrote that “lawyers specializing in civil liberty cases who reviewed the department’s proposed drone policy said it did not go far enough in preventing the police from misusing the devices. Advocates for police reform expressed alarm about the department’s growing surveillance capacity.”

— More tech news from the public sector:

The Google logo at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., on July 19, 2016. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

— Facebook announced a policy change that should alleviate pressure on app developers. “Facebook will now freely allow developers to build competitors to its features upon its own platform,” TechCrunch’s Josh Constine wrote. The social network had used the policy to punish other companies, according to TechCrunch. “Facebook had previously enforced the policy selectively to hurt competitors that had used its Find Friends or viral distribution features,” according to Constine. “Apps like Vine, Voxer, MessageMe, Phhhoto and more had been cut off from Facebook’s platform for too closely replicating its video, messaging or GIF creation tools.”

— Google is cracking down on rogue apps, BuzzFeed News’s Craig Silverman reported. “Google removed two popular Cheetah Mobile and Kika Tech apps from its Play store today after finding ‘deceptive and malicious behavior’ that was first outlined in a BuzzFeed News report,” Silverman wrote. “Google said an internal investigation found that CM File Manager and the Kika Keyboard contain code used to execute ad fraud techniques known as click injection and/or click flooding. The activity was first documented in seven Cheetah apps and one from Kika Tech by Kochava, an app analytics and attribution company that shared its research with BuzzFeed News. A Google spokesperson said it continues to investigate the apps, and that it expects to take additional action.”

— More technology news from the private sector:

A car passes by Facebook’s corporate headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on March 21. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

— After a former Facebook employee wrote a memo criticizing how the company treats black people on its platform and within its ranks, Facebook blocked the post. And then it restored it. “Mark S Luckie, who recently stepped down as strategic partner manager, published the piece on Facebook last week detailing his experiences as a black employee at a tech corporation that largely excludes African Americans, saying the company has also unfairly censored black people on the platform,” the Guardian’s Sam Levin wrote. “Facebook appeared to prove Luckie’s point this week by removing the letter before eventually reinstating it.” Luckie is also a former Post employee.

— More news about technology workforce issues:

— Tech news generating buzz around the Web: 

 

Aaron Crowell, a longtime health insider, and Lyft’s Dan Trigub have joined Uber as the company pushes into medical transport, CNBC’s Chrissy Farr reports. 

Tomorrow

  • CEOs from Walmart, The Boeing Company, IBM , ATT Inc. and other top companies are speaking at a CEO Innovation Summit with Ivanka Trump and Senator Mark Warner at The Anthem in Washington.
  • Executives from Microsoft, Google, Qualcomm and Oracle visit the White House for a roundtable discussion on innovation.
  • Microsoft President Brad Smith participates in a discussion on facial recognition at the Brookings Institution.

Sen. Grassley’s Twitter advice for President Trump:

What you need to know about the possible government shutdown:

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