The language of “human infrastructure” versus human rights

President Joe Biden was in the Chicago suburbs yesterday and talked about his proposal for infrastructure improvements in the United States:

Photo by Lisa on

President Joe Biden promised jobs and better access to education in an appeal that may resonate with suburban swing voters during a historic trip to McHenry County College.

“America is back,” Biden said Wednesday, promising to fund transportation through an infrastructure package that faces opposition in Congress…

During his remarks, the president touted the infrastructure program and the American Families Plan, which includes checks of up to $300 for eligible families starting this month.

“That’s good for families and is good for the economy and it will create more jobs,” said Biden, who repeated the word “jobs” several times during his speech.

Infrastructure often refers to physical structures operating in the background of society. Electricity, gas pipelines, power plants, roadways and mass transit lines. I would guess many people do not think about these much until there is a problem or it becomes very visible. As a recent example, I drove down a highway that had a pipeline pass over the roadway. While I know that pipelines are essential, I do not think about them much until I hear about them on the news (the recent pipeline ransomware, the Keystone Pipeline, etc.).

The Biden administration is pushing to include more human capital elements in its infrastructure plan. In terms of the essential pieces for society to function, jobs, health care, and other benefits are indeed important. Particularly in the era of the knowledge economy and more attention paid to inequality, including a more human element to infrastructure would hold some appeal.

At the same time, I wonder if the goals of the Biden administration fall more into the category of human rights. Should people have a right to a job, which provides income and worthwhile activity? Should there be a right to good affordable housing? A right to Internet access?

Perhaps the political calculation is that moving toward a conversation of human rights is a bridge too far. Americans have resisted the right to housing or public housing. But, call it infrastructure and housing is not guaranteed but rather an important foundation for society. On the other hand, electric lines and gas lines are essential for everyday living yet are they a right? Is the difference that infrastructure might require a cost while rights are supposed to be free or really cheap?

Given the current public conversations, this may be the way societies are headed: people should have more rights. Universal basic income might be the next area where this occurs: jobs are not enough and people should be able to have a guaranteed income source to have a decent life.

For now, American political leaders will debate exactly what infrastructure means. At the least, there will be acknowledgement that numerous building blocks of social life must be in place for desired outcomes.

Jimmy Carter: housing is a human right

Given its influence on the rest of life, it is a little surprising that there isn’t at least more conversation in the United States about seeing housing as a human right:

“To have a decent place to live is a basic human right. And also to have a chance to live in peace and to have adequate health care and adequate education, so you can take advantage of your talents,” he added.

Carter’s belief in housing as a fundamental right is rare in the United States, which provides so little support for affordable housing compared to other advanced industrialized nations. Analogous to the political rights of freedom of speech or religion, the notion of an economic right to housing is not recognized in the U.S. Constitution, but it is by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants.

I asked the former President why he sees housing as a human right when so many today think of it as a commodity or investment to be bought, sold, and traded for profit. “I don’t see how a family can enjoy other human rights like freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to vote, if they live in a disreputable place of which they are ashamed and makes their family lower their standard of ethical and moral values,” he said from Edmonton.

This is an interesting way to think about it: can you easily practice the basic freedoms afforded all Americans if you are homeless or don’t have stable housing? At the least, I’m guessing it is much more difficult.

What would be the arguments against housing as a human right today? Earlier debates about this, such as at the start of public housing in the United States (roughly the 1930s-1950s), included charges that government involvement in housing was akin to communism. But, the government has been heavily involved in housing such as helping make single-family homes in the suburbs more accessible after World War Two and there is still a mortgage interest deduction. The real issue is not whether the government should be involved in housing or not but who should be helped. I wonder if the biggest fear about housing as a right today is an issue that has plagued the conversation for decades: if the government guarantees housing for people, this may mean that I will soon live next door to or near government housing. Few middle-class or higher Americans want anything like that.

Gentrification as violating UN Human Rights

Some opponents of gentrification argue the process is a human rights violation:

It is the resulting displacement of people who can’t afford increased rents that, in the eyes of these activists, amounts to a human-rights violation. (Homeowners, at least economically, stand to gain from the changes, since their property values often rise as a result.) Drawing on Le droit à la ville, a 1968 work by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre whose title translates to “The Right to the City,” the organization argues that all people, including the disenfranchised, have the right to remain in their apartments and homes and shape the political and cultural landscapes of their communities. The UN Declaration of Human Rights already asserts that everyone has the right to be protected against “interference with his… home.” Lenina Nadal, the communications director for Right to the City, says the group hopes to build on this idea. “It is an ideal time to  expand the idea that inhabitants not only have a right to their home, a decent, sustainable home,” she said, “but also to the community they created in their city.”

This is an interesting argument that suggests people are being moved from their homes and communities against their will. Americans generally don’t like the idea of others dictating where they can live; see the emphasis on local control, property rights, and opposition to eminent domain. Yet, social factors push and pull people to leave their homes and communities all the time as well as limit people from leaving their communities.

How exactly would this work out in a court of law or as an argument at the United Nations? I suspect there could be a lot of argument about what exactly the right to a home and community is. Could a suburbanite who doesn’t like that a big box store is being built nearby make a similar argument? What about residents who are moved through eminent domain or urban renewal?

“New Apps Instantly Convert Spreadsheets Into Something Actually Readable”

Several new apps transform spreadsheet data into a chart or graph without having to spend much or any time with the raw data:

It’s called Project Elastic, and he unveiled the thing this fall at a conference run by his company, Tableau. The Seattle-based company has been massively successful selling software that helps big businesses “visualize” the massive amount of online data they generate—transform all those words and numbers into charts and graphics their data scientists can more readily digest—but Project Elastic is something different. It’s not meant for big businesses. It’s meant for everyone.

The idea is that, when someone emails a spreadsheet to your iPad, the app will open it up—but not as a series of rows and columns. It will open the thing as chart or graph, and with a swipe of the finger, you can reformat the data into a new chart or graph. The hope is that this will make is easier for anyone to read a digital spreadsheet—an age-old computer creation that’s still looks like Greek to so many people. “We think that seeing and understanding your data is a human right,” says Story, the Tableau vice president in charge of the project.

And Story isn’t the only one. A startup called ChartCube has developed a similar tool that can turn raw data into easy-to-understand charts and graphs, and just this week, the new-age publishing outfit Medium released a tool called Charted that can visualize data in similar ways. So many companies aim to democratize access to online data, but for all the different data analysis tool out on the market, this is still the domain of experts—people schooled in the art of data analysis. These projects aim to put the democracy in democratize.

Two quick thoughts:

1. I understand the impulse to create charts and graphs that communicate patterns. Yet, such devices are not infallible in themselves. I would suggest we need more education in interpreting and using the information from infographics. Additionally, this might be a temporary solution but wouldn’t it be better in the long run if more people know how to read and use a spreadsheet?

2. Interesting quote: “We think that seeing and understanding your data is a human right.” I have a right to data or to the graphing and charting of my data? This adds to a collection of voices arguing for a human right to information and data.

Why do 15% of Americans “shun” the Internet?

Pew finds that 15% of Americans don’t use the Internet.

The report by the Pew Research Center found a whopping 92 percent of these “offline adults” with no interest in using the Internet or email in the near future…

The survey found 34 percent of the offline Americans said the Internet is not relevant to them, that they are not interested, do not want to use it, or have no need for it.

Another 32 percent in this group said they believe using the Internet is difficult or frustrating to use, or cite issues such as spam, spyware, and hackers.

Pew found 19 percent of non-Internet users cited the expense of owning a computer or online connections, and just seven percent said the Internet was not available to them…

Age was a major factor in Internet usage: 44 percent of those 65 and older said they do not use the Internet, compared with 17 percent of the next-youngest age group, 50 to 64.

In the 18-29 age group, 87 percent use the Internet and just 13 percent do not, Pew found.

Those with lower incomes or less education, and Hispanics were also less likely to go online.

Some 41 percent who failed to finish high school were not using the Internet, as were 24 percent of Hispanics and 24 percent of those in households earning less than $30,000 per year, according to the researchers.

The next question to ask is what do these 15% lose by not using the Internet. Knowledge? Reading enlightening comment sections? Shopping deals? Getting a job or taking a MOOC? The ability to participate in a modern democracy? This data suggests they don’t think the benefits outweigh the hassles (learning curve, cost, etc.).

I’ve suggested the idea before of Internet access becoming a basic human right. But what if not everyone wants such a right? Or, a different twist on this is a world where everyone has to be connected to the Internet. In other words, it is not really a right but more of a necessity to survive. Or, being fully human means participating in the Internet. I suspect some would find these required options much more sinister.

Sociologist: lower rates of poverty the result of “robust social policy”

A profile of sociologist David Brady summarizes his arguments about how a larger welfare state limits poverty:

Brady’s 2009 book Rich Democracies, Poor People: How Politics Explain Poverty, offers an analysis of social inequality that is counter to the prevailing notion that it is an inescapable outcome of individual failings – known as the “culture of poverty” – or the result of rising unemployment. It shows that among affluent western societies there are immense variations in poverty: from almost 20% of the population in the US at one end of a scale, followed by Canada, Australia, Spain and Italy, to less than 10% at the other end – where the Scandinavian countries sit – with the UK and Germany somewhere in between.

The reason for such stark differences lies not with the numbers of single mums or jobless people but with whether a country has made larger investments in the welfare state, argues Brady. For those countries that have spent proportionately more on pensions, healthcare, family assistance and unemployment compensation – what we in Britain call the welfare state and Brady refers to as “social policy” – poverty levels will be lower…

British attitude surveys have shown a marked decline in support for redistribution since the mid-1980s, and opinion polls suggest a majority of the British public believes that the government pays out too much in benefits and that welfare levels overall should be reduced…

He challenges poverty campaigns in the UK to address head-on politicians’ concerns around benefit dependency and the so-called something for nothing culture. “Spending on social policy is something for something,” he asserts. “[It is] a social investment in the next generation – on good schools and childcare – that manages against risk by preventing people from falling into poverty. And, above all, it is a citizen’s right.”

While this profile talks about how Brady’s work fits with current British politics and government cost-cutting, I imagine he would have some commentary about the current situation in the United States.

I would be interested to hear Brady discuss whether there are trade-offs for this kind of welfare state spending or whether it really is more good than not. For example, if you spend all of that money fighting poverty, does it limit a country’s abilities to spend in other important areas?

This gets more complicated when Brady introduces the ideas of rights. In America, we often have costs-benefits arguments about government spending – can we afford it or is it worth the money spent? If we spend money in one direction, say, promoting job creation, will we get money on the other end, say less paid out in unemployment? The idea of rights shifts the discussion away from just the finances and suggests it is more about values than money.

Maybe I should just track down the book…

Argument in Ottawa, Canada for parking as a human right

Here is an overview of an argument made in Ottawa, Canada for the human right for a parking spot:

In a novel case before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario in Ottawa Monday, Ms. Howson argued that the city discriminated against her on the grounds of family status by not letting her build a parking pad in front of her house.

But city lawyers argued that Ms. Howson has never applied for a minor variance from the city’s committee of adjustment — the body legally able to consider her request — so she actually has never been denied anything…

Ms. Howson shares with a neighbour a narrow driveway that varies in width from 2.6 to 2.78 metres. It’s technically possible for her car — a 2.25-metre-wide Mazda 5 — to squeeze through the laneway.

But such manoeuvring is difficult at the best of times and impossible in winter because of snow and ice buildup, she said.

Under the current zoning, front-yard parking isn’t permitted on her street, which is in a heritage preservation district.

However, exceptions can be granted under certain circumstances.

Two years ago, Ms. Howson — a former investigator with the Ontario Human Rights Commission — approached the city to see if it would grant an exemption based of her family’s “special circumstances.”

The city’s refusal “constitutes discrimination on the grounds of family status,” she said.

While some might dismiss this quickly because it is a trivial application of the idea of human rights, this does seem like a bigger issue of zoning and who can grant exceptions. This woman may not win by casting this as a human rights issue but her argument does highlight how zoning and preservation districts can conflict with modern wants. Zoning may be an helpful tool for governments on a broad scale, but it also can lead to a large number of requests for variances and changes for specific properties and political accusations about who gets awarded variances and how long the process takes.

Also, this is a reminder of how important the car is in today’s society. In order to get around in many communities, a car is required and one needs a place to park a car. How much one should have to be inconvenienced or have to pay to park their car is another story but it does have to be factored into discussions about having and promoting an automobile society.

Required for political participation: “digital skills”

Here is an argument that African-Americans and Latinos could participate more in American politics if they had more “digital skills”:

Could the key to increasing civic engagement among Latinos and African Americans be computer classes?   A growing body of research is linking Internet use, particularly social network use, and increased social capital and civic engagement.  A new reportfrom the MaCarthur foundation finds that Facebook use is correlated with increased interest in and participation in politics. Scholars like Northwestern Sociologist Esther Hargatti [sic] speak eloquently about the information gap between rich and poor online.  This gap is less about access to technology and more about developing the skills to harness the technology for political and social gain.  The ability to do information searches, send text messages, tweet, share content and other on-line skills is a central element in becoming what Evegny Morozov calls a “digital renegade” rather than a “digital captive.”

The key to using the Web in democracy-enhancing ways is acquiring digital skills.  While this concept has been measured in lots of ways, the presence of digital skills can be measured by the level of autonomy the user has, the number of access points a user has to get online, the amount of experience a user has with different types of online tools, etc.

This should be an area of interest to a lot of people: how social factors, such as race, education levels, location, and other forces affect online use. “Digital skills” are not simply traits that everyone picks up on their own. It requires a certain level of exposure, time, and resources that not all have. See a video clip of Hargittai talking about this.

I wonder how much arguments like this are behind recent government efforts to provide cheap or free broadband to poorer US residents. Here is part of the statement from the head of the FCC:

“There is a growing divide between the digital-haves and have-nots. No Less than one-third of the poorest Americans have adopted broadband, while 90%+ of the richest have adopted it. Low-income Americans, rural Americans, seniors, and minorities disproportionately find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide and excluded from the $8 trillion dollar global Internet economy.”

As I’ve asked before, how close are we to declaring Internet access an essential human right?

Ten ways to bring about more open/park space to Chicago

After a report last week that Chicago was lacking in open space compared to other major American cities, architecture critic Blair Kamin proposes ten ways that Chicago could help rectify the problem:

The open space shortage is pervasive, with 32 of 77 community areas, home to half of Chicago’s 2.7 million people, failing to meet the city’s own modest requirement of two acres of open space for every 1,000 residents. And the stakes associated with relieving it are huge. Parks can help the city’s neighborhoods attract and retain residents, promote public health, boost real estate values and draw together people from different walks of life…

Although Emanuel has thrown his support behind a grab bag of open space initiatives, such as boathouses on the Chicago River and a new park in an unused area of Rosehill Cemetery, he has yet to produce the visionary plan he promised in his transition report.

In the absence of such a vision, here are 10 ideas that show what architects and the architects of public policy can do to relieve Chicago’s chronic open space shortage.

There are some interesting ideas here and many sounds relatively simply to institute.

When I saw the earlier story, I had a thought: should people have a right to public space? In the suburbs, perhaps this doesn’t matter as much as the common American goal is to purchase your own land. But in the city, where the population density increases and residents expect to be outside of their dwelling, should people have a guaranteed amount of public space? Do people have a human right to parks, to open land?

This question also is pertinent in light of the Occupy Wall Street protestors in Zuccotti Park in New York City. This is a weird sort of public space: it is privately owned but the owners have an agreement with the city to operate it as public space. This sort of arrangement is spreading to other cities: San Francisco has a number “privately owned public spaces” (POPOS) that few residents or tourists would ever know are actually privately owned. This might be helpful in that cities don’t have to do all the maintenance for these spaces but what happens when the private owners don’t like what is taking place on supposedly public property?

Social inequalities in accessing open government data

Some governments are providing more open data. But, this may not be enough as citizens don’t necessarily have equal access to the data or abilities to interpret the information:

At least 16 nations have major open data initiatives; in many more, pressure is building for them to follow suit. The US has posted nearly 400,000 data sets at, and organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and are finding compelling ways to use public data—like linking political contributions to political actions. It’s the kind of thing that seems to prove Louis Brandeis’ famous comment: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But transparency alone is not a panacea, and it may even have a few nasty side effects. Take the case of the Bhoomi Project, an ambitious effort by the southern Indian state of Karnataka to digitize some 20 million land titles, making them more accessible. It was supposed to be a shining example of e-governance: open data that would benefit everyone and bring new efficiencies to the world’s largest democracy. Instead, the portal proved a boon to corporations and the wealthy, who hired lawyers and predatory land agents to challenge titles, hunt for errors in documentation, exploit gaps in records, identify targets for bribery, and snap up property. An initiative that was intended to level the playing field for small landholders ended up penalizing them; bribery costs and processing time actually increased.

A level playing field doesn’t mean much if you don’t know the rules or have the right sporting equipment. Uploading a million documents to the Internet doesn’t help people who don’t know how to sift through them. Michael Gurstein, a community informatics expert in Vancouver, British Columbia, has dubbed this problem the data divide. Indeed, a recent study on the use of open government data in Great Britain points out that most of the people using the information are already data sophisticates. The less sophisticated often don’t even know it’s there.

This touches on two issues of social inequality that are not discussed as much as they might be. First, not everyone has consistent access to the internet. It may be a necessity for the younger generations but for example, there are still problems in doing web surveys because internet users are not a representative cross-sample of the US population. Making the data available on the internet would make it available to more users but not necessarily all users. This ties in with some earlier thoughts I’ve had about whether internet access will become a de facto or defined human right in the future.

Second, not everyone knows where the open data is or how to go through it. Government information dumps require sorting through and some time to figure out what is going on. There may or may not be a guide through the information. As someone who has worked with some large sociological datasets, it always takes some time to become acclimated with the files and data before one can begin an analysis. This should legitimately become part of a college education: some training in how to sort through information and common databases. If we get to a point where the average informed citizen needs to be able to sort through government information online, wouldn’t this be a basic skill that all need to be taught? As the commentator suggests, the trained and sophisticated can take advantage of this data while the average citizen may be left behind.

The idea of having more open government information should cause us to think about how the internet might help close the gap between people (though I don’t hold any utopian expectations about this) rather than sustain or exacerbate social inequalities.