Oakland

Marchers Call Out CMU, Pitt for Developing Harmful Technologies

Protesters march down Forbes Avenue at Craig Street. Photo by Ray Gerard

On September 26, Against Carceral Tech held a “Tour of Harm” that wound through the campuses of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. About 60 people carried signs and chanted, stopping at sites with ties to research that aids development of technology used for policing and military applications.

ACT organized the march to raise awareness of the relationship between local academic institutions and state violence. Speakers called on the City of Pittsburgh and CMU to ban the use of facial recognition. Some shared their experiences of the universities mistreating students in tech fields.

This technology has the potential to harm communities near Hazelwood Green, where both CMU and Pitt have a growing presence.

Facial recognition is a “perpetual lineup

In July, CMU drafted a policy that would have allowed the university to use facial recognition during criminal investigations. Civil liberties advocates and researchers have warned that this technology threatens privacy and contributes to mass incarceration.

For example, as Brandi Fisher of Alliance for Police Accountability (APA) shared during her speech: “17 people died in the past 18 months—not years—in Allegheny County Jail.”

The danger does not affect communities equally. According to “Reimagining Public Safety in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County,” a report released by APA, “67% of people currently incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail are Black despite Black people only making up 13% of the county’s population.”

“We are supposedly a welcoming city, but this technology is not welcoming,” said Laura Perkins of Casa San Jose, an organization that works with the immigrant community. “Facial recognition has much higher levels of inaccuracy with people with darker skin—that is a fact. In Pennsylvania, many immigrants don’t have access to driver’s licenses. When they are targeted by the software, they won’t be able to even prove their identity.”

CMU quickly shelved its facial recognition policy after community pushback. In 2020, Pittsburgh City Council passed legislation that requires city council approval of such technologies before the city acquires or uses them, except in “an emergency situation.” The legislation does not cover JNET, a system with facial recognition capabilities that any Pennsylvania law enforcement agency can use.

Predictive policing targets Pittsburgh communities

Another form of surveillance technology, predictive policing, has a hyperlocal connection. In 2015, CMU’s Metro21 initiative received a $600,000 grant from The Richard King Mellon Foundation, one of Hazelwood Green’s owners. According to the foundation’s annual report that year, the grant funded two Metro21 projects, one of which covered two years of support for a predictive policing model based on CrimeScan. A pilot program using data to identify people at risk of committing or being victimized by crime was ultimately scrapped in Chicago.

Rather than targeting individuals, Pittsburgh’s system uses algorithms to target locations based on large amounts of data that predict high-crime areas. CrimeScan relies on a “broken windows” approach, which holds that small crimes like disorderly conduct or damaging property encourage more serious crimes.

Proponents of the technology, including the city’s former police chief Cameron McLay, say it improves quality of life and removes human biases from the equation. But critics argue it can actually reinforce the biases of its creators. And they point to a lack of accountability for harmful decisions that can be blamed on a computer.

CMU researchers developed Pittsburgh’s CrimeScan program in partnership with Police Chief McLay. In August 2016, they quietly began a pilot in Homewood, then expanded it citywide in May 2017.

If that process does not sound transparent to the public, it wasn’t meant to be. A Memorandum of Understanding between the City of Pittsburgh and CMU (the first such agreement between a city and a university) allowed them to bypass city procurement processes for joint projects. In a 2018 interview, then-Mayor Bill Peduto boasted, “I don’t have to put out an RFP. I can just pick up the phone, call the university, and say, ‘I need your team to develop this for me.’”

State violence begins at home—and it doesn’t end there

In other parts of the world, governments and corporations are moving full steam ahead with surveillance technology. This has human rights watchers and some of the corporations’ own employees sounding an alarm.

Ian Hoppes of No Tech for Apartheid spoke about Project Nimbus, a $1.2 billion contract secured by Google and Amazon to provide cloud services to the Israeli government and military. Mr. Hoppes said Project Nimbus allows more surveillance of Palestinians and expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Both Google and Amazon have sought contracts with the US. Department of Defense, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and state and local police departments.

“This technology and other forms of oppression will likely come home to roost in the U.S.,” Mr. Hoppes said. But employees and students at affiliated universities fear speaking out because they face retaliation from their institutions.

University students silenced by bureaucracy and poverty

Pat Healy, an information science PhD student at Pitt, said it wasn’t obvious to him when he first started out, but his work “could be purposed for military applications.”

“My funding came with strings—from DARPA,” Mr. Healy said.

Franky Spektor, a CMU graduate student, told the crowd, “CMU is so deeply entrenched in bureaucracy we barely have a voice as it is, so we need to speak up and be loud, and make sure they hear us, before the city and CMU use this technology even more and take away our voices and our rights.”

Ms. Spektor said she knows of students who, while working many hours in their fields, also sell their plasma just to cover their basic needs. Their financial dependence makes it especially hard to challenge questionable university projects or policies and risk losing funding.

Bonnie Fan, a CMU graduate and Against Carceral Tech organizer, emphasized the importance of solidarity to protect both students and broader communities.

“I learned that [CMU] does not care about me or you or any of its workers or students and learned that instead it was my fellow students and community members organizing outside of campus to show up for me and show up for all of us,” Ms. Fan said.

A condensed version of this article originally appeared in The Homepage.

New Mayor Delays Oakland Crossings Hearing

Map of the “OPR-E subdistrict” proposed for Oakland Crossings development

Controversial rezoning process could set “dangerous precedent” for Pittsburgh development

On January 10, Mayor Ed Gainey requested a 30-day continuance on a controversial proposed zoning ordinance. This delayed the City Planning Commission hearing on a development called Oakland Crossings.

The Planning Commission was scheduled to host a public hearing on the matter January 11, but at Mayor Gainey’s request delayed the hearing until its February 8 meeting. After the hearing and a review of the legislation, the nine-member panel will give its recommendation to City Council.

“I look forward to discussions on this development and those across Pittsburgh and how they can promote equity and affordable housing,” Mayor Gainey said in a statement. “I am hopeful we will find a solution that prioritizes equitable development, aligns with the priorities raised by residents in the Oakland Plan process, and delivers on much needed affordable housing prospects for the people of Pittsburgh.”

A major change to Oakland’s landscape

Developer Walnut Capital seeks changes to zoning regulations that would create a new subdistrict in Central and South Oakland. The 17+-acre area stretches between Forbes Avenue (near UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital) and Boulevard of the Allies. Many of its stately brick houses have been subdivided to accommodate student renters. Notable landmarks include the former Howard Johnson’s, the former Isaly’s building, and a large open green space between the two. The rezoning would allow new uses for this land such as parking garages, utility-generating plants, wastewater treatment plants, university campus facilities, and educational classroom spaces.

Map of the proposed new subdistrict divided into three areas of
South/Central Oakland (A, B, C)

Fast-tracked bill worries Pittsburgh residents, community groups

Janice Markowitz, a board member of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC), welcomed the continuance. She commented, “We’re confident that Mayor Gainey has made a thoughtful decision and will be inclusive and respectful of the process as we move forward.”

OPDC has been a vocal opponent of Oakland Crossings, citing potential displacement of low-income residents and special considerations for the project that have subverted the normal rezoning process.

“The Department of City Planning handles public engagement and considers competing interests before the Planning Commission reviews. Then City Council would review after the Planning Commission,” OPDC assistant director Andrea Boykowycz said at an October 5, 2021, City Council public hearing about Oakland Crossings. “The bill before you has skipped that process entirely and started from the wrong end of the line.”

Former Mayor Bill Peduto introduced the bill to City Council on September 17. Since the zoning amendment originated in the Mayor’s office, Mayor Gainey is now acting as the applicant. Ms. Boykowycz requested the October 5 meeting on behalf of OPDC and asked City Council to refrain from taking action on the bill—at least until Oakland community groups have had a chance to finalize their forthcoming Oakland Plan.

City Council heard about an hour and a half of public testimony from residents and community groups across Pittsburgh, the vast majority of whom shared Ms. Boykowycz’s concerns about what she called the “dangerous precedent” Oakland Crossings’ fast-tracked acceptance would set.

“I believe the handling of this request for zoning change will affect the outlook of all neighborhoods regarding community planning … Neighborhood groups have an expectation that the whole reason for completing a plan is to then have conversations with developers and others about how the market might fit into various community needs,” April Clisura said at the October 5 hearing. Ms. Clisura lives in Greenfield and volunteers for community organizations in Greenfield and Hazelwood. “We community residents need to call for clarification and stand up for what constitutes public participation.” Ms. Clisura also suggested creating a community planning bill of rights for Pittsburgh.

Run resident Barb Warwick, who spoke next, is also active in Greenfield and Hazelwood and shares these concerns. “From where I stand in The Run, OPDC is a powerhouse when it comes to sway in this city,” she told council members. “So if you’re going to brush them aside, if you’re going to tell them that their neighborhood plan doesn’t matter, that big-money developers can just do what they will—what hope is there for the rest of us?”

City Council approved the bill and forwarded it to the Planning Commission on October 12. On January 25, OPDC hosted a community meeting on Zoom about Oakland Crossings. More than 100 participants, including Mayor Gainey, attended. The Department of City Planning will host another meeting on February 2 at 6 p.m.

Right-to-Know Request Documents Provide Answers

bad governance and good governance

And Some Answers Raise More Questions

Since 2018, residents of Four Mile Run (The Run) have filed several Right To Know requests with the City of Pittsburgh regarding the proposed Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) project. City government eventually gave residents documents that were inadequate in fulfilling the RTK requests. Missing information includes up-to-date engineering documents and large portions of City departments’ correspondence with all private partners in the project. In the city’s response to the requests, they stated that they are not required to share any information, but would do so selectively. Furthermore, they added, “We are prohibited from forwarding records that reflect the attorney-client privilege or the attorney work product privilege.”

But a section of the PA office of Open Records Right–to-Know Law states:

Section 708 of the RTKL places the burden of proof on the public body to demonstrate that a record is exempt. In pertinent part, Section 708(a) states: “The burden of proving that a record of a Commonwealth agency or local agency is exempt from public access shall be on the Commonwealth agency or local agency receiving a request by a preponderance of the evidence.” Preponderance of the evidence has been defined as “such proof as leads the fact-finder … to find that the existence of a contested fact is more probable than its nonexistence.”

The City’s position raises the question: Who is the attorney and who is the client in this case? This is the very same claim that city government made while conducting its infamous secret Amazon deal. The details of that plan, now available after Amazon turned down the bid, reveal the reasons for the secrecy. Pittsburgh promised the world’s richest man one of the most generous corporate welfare giveaways of land and taxpayer money of any city in the U.S. Those promises included the MOC.

At the suggestion of the City of Pittsburgh, residents also filed RTK requests with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), the agency tasked with constructing the Four Mile Run Watershed Plan. The scope of this crucial and technically challenging project was to include fixing The Run’s worsening chronic flooding. But the City is forcing the merger of the MOC with PWSA’s plan. PWSA failed to respond to a resident appeal and the Office of Open Records in Harrisburg ordered PWSA to hand over all documents requested. Those documents contained crucial information including:

A portion of Mayor’s office meeting document listing who attended and Mayor Chief of Staff Dan Gillman’s remarks about the MOC project.

There is more evidence of non-transparency and duplicity by city government regarding the MOC project. Throughout the process, residents have demanded they be informed of what DOMI was planning and when DOMI would be filing grant proposals or other requests for funding. DOMI has refused to do so. They applied for a 1 million dollar grant for the MOC through the Southwestern PA Commission in 2018—while DOMI was holding a series of public meetings about the project. The money was approved, but DOMI failed to notify residents beforehand and afterward. Only dogged research and policing of the project by opponents flushed out the information.

Residents more recently received another document: a 2018 request from DOMI to the City Budget office for funding. That document is mostly blank, but DOMI was nonetheless given 9 million dollars of taxpayer money. One section of the document DOMI did fill out was the section reading: Please identify the source of external funding and how the project adheres to the funding source’s rules and regulations. “Demonstrated support of the public” was a question within that section. DOMI’s response: Depends on which community!

 A section of the City Budget form shows DOMI’s response to whether the project has community support. 

What else are city officials hiding and why? Why are they so determined to bulldoze through two vibrant neighborhoods and Schenley Park when they admit their proposed shuttle road is not a transportation solution and does not serve the affected communities? University expansion through a slow-motion land grab could be the answer.

Opponents of the MOC recognize this issue as much bigger than any individual neighborhood. Our growing coalition of residents, park protectors, neighborhood organizations and other concerned citizens is committed to protecting Pittsburgh’s communities from erasure.

(This article was previously published on February 1, 2020 in the Hazelwood Homepage)