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We tried out the first statewide vaccine passport

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We tried out the first statewide vaccine passport


So what is it like to use?

In anticipation of attending my first comedy show in years, at Union Hall in Brooklyn, I registered for the Excelsior Pass. Spoiler: It did not go smoothly. 

Downloading the app to my iPhone was simple enough. But like many users, I was greeted with an error message when I tried to register on the website. Many people have been unable to use the pass because it cannot verify their vaccination status. The system works by tapping into state immunization records, but database errors can cause problems, especially if there were data entry errors at vaccine sites. A misspelled name or wrong birthdate can mean that the Excelsior system can’t pull up your record. So when the pass couldn’t verify my identity, I followed the suggestions on the error page and dug up my paper vaccination card to ensure that I was entering vaccine site information correctly. After three attempts, in which I reentered the same information each time, it worked. 

After three attempts, in which I reentered the same information each time, it worked. 

Limited use

Although I found a use for the pass, it’s been essentially confined to sporting events, gyms, and other high-end leisure venues—which means the pool of users is limited. For working-class New Yorkers who lost low-wage jobs and remain unemployed in the face of mounting debt, entry to a pricey concert or basketball game is well out of reach.

That raises concerns about whether it’s a wise use of resources. The state has spent $2.5 million on the system so far, and under the contract signed with IBM, which developed the platform, it could cost anywhere from $10 to $17 million over the next three years in a scenario where driver’s license information, proof of age, and other data might be added to the pass. 

“This passport program feels like a continuation of all the state government’s and Governor Cuomo’s policies around the pandemic,” says Sumathy Kumar, campaign organizer at Housing Justice for All, a statewide coalition of organizations fighting for tenants. “They just want life to go back to normal for people with tons of disposable income.” 

And if the pass does get more widespread use—becoming a requirement to enter job sites or essential shops, for example—that raises questions about privacy. 

Experts question security 

Users must enter their name, date of birth, zip code, and phone number to verify their vaccination status or covid-19 test results. New York State’s website tells users that Excelsior data is safe and secure, while the privacy policy says it does not store the information sent via the app, or use location services to track people’s location. IBM assures users that their data is kept private and secure using blockchain and encryption technologies. 

But experts claim the privacy policy is woefully inadequate. Albert Cahn, executive director of the Stop Technology Oversight Project (STOP), which opposes local and state surveillance in New York, points out that businesses use a separate app to scan the pass; when he tested it, he found that a user’s location could potentially be tracked by those scanners. As a result, the comedy club I go to might have a log of my visits there—and to any bars I go to afterwards that require proof of vaccination. Neither New York State nor IBM responded to requests to clarify whether scanning information could be collected or tracked. 

The lack of transparency is a problem, says Cahn. “I have less information on how the Excelsior Pass data is used than the weather app on my phone,” he says. Because the pass is not open source, its privacy claims cannot easily be evaluated by third parties or experts. 

“If IBM’s proprietary health data standard catches on, they could make huge sums of money… Transparency can threaten their entire business plan.”

Albert Cahn, STOP

But there’s little incentive to be more transparent. In developing Excelsior, IBM used its existing Digital Health Pass, a system it could sell in customized forms to customers from state governments to private companies seeking to reopen their offices.

“If IBM’s proprietary health data standard catches on, they could make huge sums of money,” Cahn says. “Transparency can threaten their entire business plan.”

Privacy and security questions become more urgent if the pass becomes more widely used. The pass is intended to build trust, allowing people to feel comfortable in crowds, yet for many it instead evokes fears of how it could be used against them.

Vulnerable to surveillance

Many groups have genuine, well-founded concerns over tracking and government surveillance. Historical precedent shows that the use of such technologies, even if limited initially, tends to spread, with especially damaging results in Black and brown communities. For example, anti-terrorism legislation passed in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks expanded surveillance, detention, and deportation of undocumented Muslim and South Asian immigrants.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital civil liberties organization, has adopted a strong stance in opposition to vaccine passports. “Mostly these apps are a waste of time and money,” said Alexis Hancock, director of engineering at EFF. “Governments really need to consider the resources they have in place and allocate them toward getting the public to a better place after the pandemic, not putting people in a position of more paranoia and privacy concerns.” 

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A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry

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A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry


China has come to dominate the market in recent years, and by 2017 the country produced over 80% of the world’s supply. Beijing achieved this by pouring resources into the study and mining of rare-earth elements for decades, building up six big state-owned firms and relaxing environmental regulations to enable low-cost and high-pollution methods. The country then rapidly increased rare-earth exports in the 1990s, a sudden rush that bankrupted international rivals. Further development of rare-earth industries is a strategic goal under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 strategy.

The country has demonstrated its dominance several times, most notably by stopping all shipments of the resources to Japan in 2010 during a maritime dispute. State media have warned that China could do the same to the United States.

The US and other Western nations have seen this monopoly as a critical weakness for their side. As a result, they have spent billions in recent years to get better at finding, mining, and processing the minerals. 

In early June 2022, the Canadian mining company Appia announced it had found new resources in Saskatchewan. Within weeks, the American firm USA Rare Earth announced a new processing facility in Oklahoma. 

Dragonbridge engaged in similar activity in 2021, soon after the American military signed an agreement with the Australian mining firm Lynas, the largest rare-earths company outside China, to build a processing plant in Texas. 

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The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.

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The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.


The infrastructure bill that passed in November 2021 earmarked $7.5 billion for President Biden’s goal of having 500,000 chargers (individual plugs, not stations) around the nation. In the best case, Michalek envisions a public-private collaboration to build a robust national charging network. The Biden administration has pledged to install plugs throughout rural areas, while companies constructing charging stations across America will have a strong incentive to fill in the country’s biggest cities and most popular thoroughfares. After all, companies like Electrify America, EVgo, and ChargePoint charge customers per kilowatt-hour of energy they use, much like utilities.

Most new electric vehicles promise at least 250 miles on a full charge, and that number should keep ticking up. The farther cars can go without charging, the fewer anxious drivers will be stuck in lines waiting for a charging space to open. But make no mistake, Michalek says: an electric-car country needs a plethora of plugs, and soon.

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We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”

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We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”


The term “smart cities” originated as a marketing strategy for large IT vendors. It has now become synonymous with urban uses of technology, particularly advanced and emerging technologies. But cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress. They support those displaced by war and crisis and generate 80% of global GDP. More than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion more people than do now. And with over 90% of urban areas located on coasts, cities are on the front lines of climate change.

A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens. This also risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs. 

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there. 

This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.

Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor,  and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes. 

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”

However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.

In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit.

We continue to explore how digital technology might enhance cities—for example, we are collaborating with major e-commerce platforms across Africa that are transforming urban service delivery. But we are also shaping this broader tool kit to tackle the urban impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. 

The UrbanShift initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme in partnership with UNDP and many others, is working with cities to promote nature-based solutions, low-carbon public transport, low-emission zones, integrated waste management, and more. This approach focuses not just on implementation, but also on policies and guiderails. The UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook aims to help policymakers and urban innovators explore how they might embed “smartness” in any city.

Our work at the United Nations is driven by the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 essential, ambitious, and urgent global targets that aim to shape a better world by 2030. Truly smart cities would play a role in meeting all 17 SDGs, from tackling poverty and inequality to protecting and improving biodiversity. 

Coordinating and implementing the complex efforts required to reach these goals is far more difficult than deploying the latest app or installing another piece of smart street furniture. But we must move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development. The well-being of the billions who call the world’s cities home depends on it.

Riad Meddeb is interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. Calum Handforth is an advisor for digitalization, digital health, and smart cities at the UNDP Global Centre.

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