Jan Miksovsky admits, like many people, to being very surprised by November’s presidential election result. In the days after Nov. 8, in foreseeing a Donald Trump presidency, he went through a period of shock, disbelief and sleepless nights before he eventually decided that he needed to get to work.
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A web designer and engineer in Seattle for 30 years, Miksovsky has decades of experience looking for problems to solve and then trying, with a team of people, to design solutions to those problems.
Miksovsky, 49, was a longtime Microsoft employee and he’s now the co-founder and CEO of Component Kitchen. He rallied a group of former Microsoft friends and others, all willing to volunteer their time away from normal day jobs. They sought to address what they considered a top priority when it came to Trump — information overload — and find a solution to manage it — a new project and website called Presterity (think “press” and “posterity”).
“Everyone who is involved with [the project] is doing something that we hadn’t planned to be doing. We were all kind of caught by surprise in November,” Miksovsky said this week, just a few days before Trump’s inauguration on Friday.
Presterity is a portal for anyone trying to sort through and make sense of the dizzying amount of information, disinformation, tweet storms, facts, fake news and more swirling around the new president and his incoming administration. A table of contents lists a range of topics including everything from “misogyny” to “Mexico wall” to “bankruptcies” and “Barron Trump.”
Clicking on a link sends users to a summary for the topic and assorted links to news reports from numerous outlets. Summaries and timelines help readers understand new developments and statements in the context of past events.
A description on the site’s “about” page says it hopes to limit the damage Trump can do as president:
The Trump campaign and emerging administration are in many ways unprecedented — and dangerously so — in American history. The volume of news and controversy generated is also unprecedented. Trump has often suggested “opening up” libel laws — a direct assault on the First Amendment and its protection for citizens. Presterity is a tool to be used in defense of those rights.
Presterity is a community project that grounds and orients citizens to the best available sources of information on a wide variety of related topics. Our mission is to document and inform, ideally limiting the damage Trump can do.
Presterity seeks contributions from across the political spectrum and is strengthened by information gathered by a range of observers. The only prerequisite is that a contributor be alarmed by Trump and his actions.
Miksovsky remembers during this past summer’s campaign season when he saw various Twitter feeds that were attempting to compile bulleted lists of alarming things that Trump had reportedly said just in the span of 24 hours.
“Every one of them seemed kind of remarkable, but taken as a collection just in 24 hours it was really stunning,” Miksovsky said. “I remember in the weeks after the election feeling despair trying to think about that person who’d been compiling that bullet list. That person can’t keep up. It was hard enough to keep up with Trump the candidate, but with Trump’s administration he’s putting in place a Cabinet and other appointees that can go off and do things on their own. It was going to be beyond the ability of any one person to try and document that all.”
So when many were still hiding under the covers or moaning on Facebook, Miksovsky waded into that problem of information overload, looking for a way to address the challenge facing anyone seeking facts and clear information online.
“Part of what is going to make the Trump administration so challenging for the average citizen is that there’s just so much surprising or bad news that it’s impossible to keep hold of any of it,” Miksovsky said. “I might be following the news one day and am alarmed by something and I want to think about it or just digest what the news even means and then here comes the next Twitter distraction. And suddenly that other thing is lost. I was worried that would just lead to people giving up — news would come and go and people would be so fatigued by being surprised or outraged that they couldn’t keep track of what was really important.”
Presterity works in part by leaning on crowdsourcing and allowing users to “bookmark” news of potential concern. When a user sees a news article or tweet that they think is worth documenting, it can be flagged and it goes into a “pipeline” that allows Presterity to review the item and consider it for posting on the site.
The site’s other component is its team of 35 or so volunteers — all former or current Seattle-area tech workers — who have signed on to be involved in a more direct way, doing everything from content aggregation, editing, proofreading, development of the site and tools, and offering support in various roles.
“That combination is, I think, going to let us scale up to accommodate this volume of news,” Miksovsky said.
While he thinks that Presterity has several audiences and should be of interest to any citizen, Miksovsky believes the site will be of particular interest to people who will be working on what he calls “the front lines of the resistance.” Those parties could include legislative staffs, watchdog groups like the ACLU or the Southern Poverty Law Center, activists and even journalists.
“Those groups need help,” Miksovsky said. “It’s beyond their ability to collect all the news that’s going on. And there may be news that’s of very real importance to the case they’re trying to make, whether it’s a bill that they’re trying to defeat or a protest that they’re trying to organize or a story they’re trying to follow.
“I look at our project as sort of a reference desk for the resistance.”
Craig Beilinson, another longtime Microsoft employee who has worked in corporate communications for the tech giant, is also part of the Presterity team and he said information comes at people so fast it can feel impossible to keep up, much less determine what is reliable.
“We have an administration that is playing fast and loose with the truth and with facts,” Beilinson said of Trump. “We still like to think that we live in a world where the truth matters and facts matter. That was a lot of the emotion and energy behind a number of the people who wanted to get involved.”
Presterity will use mainly off-the-shelf tools, but Miksovsky said there is a lot of work ahead to build a smooth workflow that allows the site to take information being submitted all the way through the review process and eventually make it live.
“That’s a problem we know how to solve,” Miksovsky said. “We’re not trying to invent something completely new here at the technology level.”
He said the goal is to collect information and organize it in a way that’s easy for people to search through and find, and he made a reference to Pinterest as a model for how a user can find categorized items that are worth keeping an eye on. He said the “collective” of Pinterest users all pinning items (cars, home decor, food, etc.) makes for a greater impact and Presterity users will get that effect, but with news reports.
Miksovsky said anyone can like a post on Facebook or sign a petition or contribute money to a cause — which are all fine and great and worthwhile — but he’s excited to work with people who also want to contribute their own skills as part of the effort.
“This project has been a way to give me something constructive to do, to make me feel hopeful,” Miksovsky said. “Now when I see alarming news, I think, ‘Oh, that would be a great article on the site.'”
And he’s not shy about spelling out the project’s ultimate goal, which is to somehow contribute to making sure Trump’s time in office is as short as possible. Pages on the site even offer a countdown for how many days are left to go in the Trump administration — 1,462, by the way.
“We’d like to help contain the damage that he and his administration have the potential to do to our democracy,” Miksovsky said. “To the extent that we’re anti-Trump we’ll be viewed as being extremely liberal. But I would think that there are a lot of conservatives who are just as alarmed and nervous. They should be. I think they’re out there. The project welcomes volunteers from across the political spectrum. I would love to have a range of voices.”
The new site is not alone online in its quest to keep tabs on Trump and company. Under the headline “Can Tech Make Democracy Great Again?”, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday on internet tools made to “help keep politicians of all stripes accountable.” One gem the Journal pointed out is the Trump Archive, a searchable database of everything the president-elect says on TV.
Miksovsky is spending about 15 hours a week working on Presterity. The father of three girls said that he’d rather be spending time with his family in the evening and on weekends than building a website like he does at during his day job. But he didn’t like the thought of explaining to his youngest daughter, who is 9 now, somewhere down the road of a Trump presidency, why he passed on his idea.
“It’s not about whether my candidate won or lost, it’s really which candidate won,” Miksovsky said. “If in an alternate universe, if Jeb Bush had made it or Mitt Romney or, I don’t know, some other candidate were in office, I wouldn’t be this alarmed. But in this particular case I didn’t feel like I could be comfortable just sitting by, and the moment I had this idea, that maybe we could approach this as a design and information management problem, then I felt kind of compelled to get the ball rolling.”