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June 29, 2014

[aif] Government as platform

I’m at a Government as Platform session at Aspen Ideas Festival. Tim O’Reilly is moderating it with Jen Pahlka (Code for America and US Deputy Chief Technology Officer ) and Mike Bracken who heads the UK Government Digital Service.

Mike Backen begins with a short presentation. The Digital Service he heads sits at the center of govt. In 2011, they consolidated govt web sites that presented inconsistent policy explanations. The DS provides a central place that gives canonical answers. He says:

  • “Our strategy is delivery.” They created a platform for govt services: gov.uk. By having a unified platform, users know that they’re dealing with the govt. They won the Design of the Year award in 2013.

  • The DS also gives govt workers tools they can use.

  • They put measurements and analytics at the heart of what they do.

  • They are working on transforming the top 25 govt services.

They’re part of a group that saved 14.3B pounds last year.

Their vision goes back to James Brindley, who created a system of canals that transformed the economy. [Mike refers to “small pieces loosely joined.”] Also Joseph Bazalgette created the London sewers and made them beautiful.


(cc) James Pegrum

Here are five lessons that could be transferred to govt, he says:

1. Forget about the old structures. “Policy-led hierarchies make delivery impossible.” The future of govt will emerge from the places govt exists, i.e., where it is used. The drip drip drip of inadequate services undermine democracy more than does the failure of ideas.

2. Forget the old binaries. It’s not about public or private. It’s about focusing on your users.

3. No more Big IT. It’s no longer true that a big problems requires big system solutions.

4. This is a global idea. Sharing makes it stronger. New Zealand used gov.uk’s code, and gov.uk can then take advantage of their improvements.

5. It should always have a local flavour. They have the GovStack: hw, sw, apps. Anyone can use it, adapt it to their own situation, etc.

A provocation: “Govt as platform” is a fantastic idea, but when applied to govt without a public service ethos it becomes a mere buzzword. Public servants don’t “pivot.”

Jen Pahlka makes some remarks. “We need to realize that if we can’t implement our policies, we can’t govern.” She was running Code for America. She and the federal CTO, Todd Park, were visiting Mike in the UK “which was like Disneyland for a govt tech geek like me.” Todd asked her to help with the Presidential Innovation Fellows, but she replied that she really wanted to work on the sort of issues that Mike had been addressing. Fix publishing. Fix transactions. Go wholesale.

“We have 30-40,000 federal web sites,” she says. Tim adds, “Some of them have zero users.”

Todd wanted to make the data available so people could build services, but the iPhone ships with apps already in place. A platform without services is unlikely to take off. “We think $172B is being spent on govt IT in this country, including all levels.” Yet people aren’t feeling like they’re getting the services they need.

E.g., if we get immigration reform, there are lots of systems that would have to scale.

Tim: Mike, you have top-level support. You report directly to a cabinet member. You also have a native delivery system — you can shut down failed services, which is much harder in the US.

Mike: I asked for very little money — 50M pounds — a building, and the ability to hire who we want. People want to work on stuff that matters with stellar people. We tried to figure out what are the most important services. We asked people in a structured way which was more important, a drivers license or fishing license? Drivers license or passport? This gave us important data. And ?e retired about 40% of govt content. There was content that no one ever read. There’s never any feedback.

Tim: You have to be actually measuring things.

Jen: There are lots of boxes you have to check, but none of them are “Is it up? Do people like it?”

Mike: Govts think of themselves as big. But digital govt isn’t that big. Twelve people could make a good health care service. Govt needs to get over itself. Most of what govt does digitally is about the size of the average dating site. The site doesn’t have to get big for the usage of it to scale.

Jen: Steven Levy wrote recently about how the Health Care site got built. [Great article -dw] It was a small team. Also, at Code for America, we’ve seen that the experience middle class people had with HealthCare.gov is what poor people experience every day. [my emphasis – such an important point!]

Tim: Tell us about Code for America’s work in SF on food stamps.

Jen: We get folks from the tech world to work on civic projects. Last year they worked on the California food stamps program. One of our fellows enrolled in the program. Two months later, he got dropped off the roles. This happens frequently. Then you have to re-enroll, which is expensive. People get dropped because they get letters from the program that are incomprehensible. Our fellows couldn’t understand the language. And the Fellows weren’t allowed to change the language in the letter. So now people get text messages if there’s a problem with their account, expressed in simple clear language.

Q&A

Q: You’ve talked about services, but not about opening up data. Are UK policies changing about open data?

Mike: We’ve opened up a lot of data, but that’s just the first step. You don’t just open it up and expect great things to open. A couple of problems: We don’t have a good grip on our data. It’s not consistent, it lives in macros and spreadsheets, and contractually it’s often in the hands of the people giving the service. Recently we wanted to added an organ donation checkbox and six words on the drivers license online page. We were told it would cost $50K and take 100 days. It took us about 15 mins. But the data itself isn’t the stimulus for new services.

Q: How can we avoid this in the future?

Mike: One thing: Require the govt ministers to use the services.

Jen: People were watching HealthCare.gov but were asking the wrong questions. And the environment is very hierarchical. We have to change the conversation from tellling people what to do, to “Here’s what we think is going to work, can you try it?” We have to put policy people and geeks in conversation so they can say, no that isn’t going to work.

Q: The social security site worked well, except when I tried to change my address. It should be as easy as Yahoo. Is there any plan for post offices or voting?

Mike: In the UK, the post offices were spun out. And we just created a register-to-vote service. It took 20 people.

Q: Can you talk about the online to offline impact on public service, and measuring performance, and how this will affect govt? Where does the transformation start?

Jen: It starts with delivery. You deliver services and you’re a long way there. That’s what Code for America has done: show up and build something. In terms of the power dynamics, that’s hard to change. CGI [the contractor that “did” HealthCare.gov] called Mike’s Govt Digital Service “an impediment to innovation,” which I found laughable.

Tim: You make small advances, and get your foot in the door and it starts to spread.

Mike: I have a massive poster in my office: “Show the thing.” If you can’t create version of what you want to build, even just html pages, then your project shouldn’t go forward.

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November 15, 2013

[liveblog] Noam Chomsky and Bart Gellman at Engaging Data

I’m at the Engaging Data 2013conference where Noam Chomsky and Pulitzer Prize winner (twice!) Barton Gellman are going to talk about Big Data in the Snowden Age, moderated by Ludwig Siegele of the Economist. (Gellman is one of the three people Snowden vouchsafed his documents with.) The conference aims at having us rethink how we use Big Data and how it’s used.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

LS: Prof. Chomsky, what’s your next book about?

NC: Philosophy of mind and language. I’ve been writing articles that are pretty skeptical about Big Data. [Please read the orange disclaimer: I’m paraphrasing and making errors of every sort.]

LS: You’ve said that Big Data is for people who want to do the easy stuff. But shouldn’t you be thrilled as a linguist?

NC: When I got to MIT at 1955, I was hired to work on a machine translation program. But I refused to work on it. “The only way to deal with machine translation at the current stage of understanding was by brute force, which after 30-40 years is how it’s being done.” A principled understanding based on human cognition is far off. Machine translation is useful but you learn precisely nothing about human thought, cognition, language, anything else from it. I use the Internet. Glad to have it. It’s easier to push some buttons on your desk than to walk across the street to use the library. But the transition from no libraries to libraries was vastly greater than the transition from librarites to Internet. [Cool idea and great phrase! But I think I disagree. It depends.] We can find lots of data; the problem is understanding it. And a lot of data around us go through a filter so it doesn’t reach us. E.g., the foreign press reports that Wikileaks released a chapter about the secret TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership). It was front page news in Australia and Europe. You can learn about it on the Net but it’s not news. The chapter was on Intellectual Property rights, which means higher prices for less access to pharmaceuticals, and rams through what SOPA tried to do, restricting use of the Net and access to data.

LS: For you Big Data is useless?

NC: Big data is very useful. If you want to find out about biology, e.g. But why no news about TPP? As Sam Huntington said, power remains strongest in the dark. [approximate] We should be aware of the long history of surveillance.

LS: Bart, as a journalist what do you make of Big Data?

BG: It’s extraordinarily valuable, especially in combination with shoe-leather, person-to-person reporting. E.g., a colleague used traditional reporting skills to get the entire data set of applicants for presidential pardons. Took a sample. More reporting. Used standard analytics techniques to find that white people are 4x more likely to get pardons, that campaign contributors are also more likely. It would be likely in urban planning [which is Senseable City Labs’ remit]. But all this leads to more surveillance. E.g., I could make the case that if I had full data about everyone’s calls, I could do some significant reporting, but that wouldn’t justify it. We’ve failed to have the debate we need because of the claim of secrecy by the institutions in power. We become more transparent to the gov’t and to commercial entities while they become more opaque to us.

LS: Does the availability of Big Data and the Internet automatically mean we’ll get surveillance? Were you surprised by the Snowden revelations>

NC: I was surprised at the scale, but it’s been going on for 100 years. We need to read history. E.g., the counter-insurgency “pacification” of the Philippines by the US. See the book by McCoy [maybe this. The operation used the most sophisticated tech at the time to get info about the population to control and undermine them. That tech was immediately used by the US and Britain to control their own populations, .g., Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare. Any system of power — the state, Google, Amazon — will use the best available tech to control, dominate, and maximize their power. And they’ll want to do it in secret. Assange, Snowden and Manning, and Ellsberg before them, are doing the duty of citizens.

BG: I’m surprised how far you can get into this discussion without assuming bad faith on the part of the government. For the most part what’s happening is that these security institutions genuinely believe most of the time that what they’re doing is protecting us from big threats that we don’t understand. The opposition comes when they don’t want you to know what they’re doing because they’re afraid you’d call it off if you knew. Keith Alexander said that he wishes that he could bring all Americans into this huddle, but then all the bad guys would know. True, but he’s also worried that we won’t like the plays he’s calling.

LS: Bruce Schneier says that the NSA is copying what Google and Yahoo, etc. are doing. If the tech leads to snooping, what can we do about it?

NC: Govts have been doing this for a century, using the best tech they had. I’m sure Gen. Alexander believes what he’s saying, but if you interviewed the Stasi, they would have said the same thing. Russian archives show that these monstrous thugs were talking very passionately to one another about defending democracy in Eastern Europe from the fascist threat coming from the West. Forty years ago, RAND released Japanese docs about the invasion of China, showing that the Japanese had heavenly intentions. They believed everything they were saying. I believe these are universals. We’d probably find it for Genghis Khan as well. I have yet to find any system of power that thought it was doing the wrong thing. They justify what they’re doing for the noblest of objectives, and they believe it. The CEOs of corporations as well. People find ways of justifying things. That’s why you should be extremely cautious when you hear an appeal to security. It literally carries no information, even in the technical sense: it’s completely predictable and thus carries no info. I don’t doubt that the US security folks believe it, but it is without meaning. The Nazis had their own internal justifications.

BG: The capacity to rationalize may be universal, but you’ll take the conversation off track if you compare what’s happening here to the Stasi. The Stasi were blackmailing people, jailing them, preventing dissent. As a journalist I’d be very happy to find that our govt is spying on NGOs or using this power for corrupt self-enriching purposes.

NC: I completely agree with that, but that’s not the point: The same appeal is made in the most monstrous of circumstances. The freedom we’ve won sharply restricts state power to control and dominate, but they’ll do whatever they can, and they’ll use the same appeals that monstrous systems do.

LS: Aren’t we all complicit? We use the same tech. E.g., Prof. Chomsky, you’re the father of natural language processing, which is used by the NSA.

NC: We’re more complicit because we let them do it. In this country we’re very free, so we have more responsibility to try to control our govt. If we do not expose the plea of security and separate out the parts that might be valid from the vast amount that’s not valid, then we’re complicit because we have the oppty and the freedom.

LS: Does it bug you that the NSA uses your research?

NC: To some extent, but you can’t control that. Systems of power will use whatever is available to them. E.g., they use the Internet, much of which was developed right here at MIT by scientists who wanted to communicate freely. You can’t prevent the powers from using it for bad goals.

BG: Yes, if you use a free online service, you’re the product. But if you use a for-pay service, you’re still the product. My phone tracks me and my social network. I’m paying Verizon about $1,000/year for the service, and VZ is now collecting and selling my info. The NSA couldn’t do its job as well if the commercial entities weren’t collecting and selling personal data. The NSA has been tapping into the links between their data centers. Google is racing to fix this, but a cynical way of putting this is that Google is saying “No one gets to spy on our customers except us.”

LS: Is there a way to solve this?

BG: I have great faith that transparency will enable the development of good policy. The more we know, the more we can design policies to keep power in place. Before this, you couldn’t shop for privacy. Now a free market for privacy is developing as the providers now are telling us more about what they’re doing. Transparency allows legislation and regulation to be debated. The House Repubs came within 8 votes of prohibiting call data collection, which would have been unthinkable before Snowden. And there’s hope in the judiciary.

NC: We can do much more than transparency. We can make use of the available info to prevent surveillance. E.g., we can demand the defeat of TPP. And now hardware in computers is being designed to detect your every keystroke, leading some Americans to be wary of Chinese-made computers, but the US manufacturers are probably doing it better. And manufacturers for years have been trying to dsign fly-sized drones to collect info; that’ll be around soon. Drones are a perfect device for terrorists. We can learn about this and do something about it. We don’t have to wait until it’s exposed by Wikileaks. It’s right there in mainstream journals.

LS: Are you calling for a political movement?

NC: Yes. We’re going to need mass action.

BG: A few months ago I noticed a small gray box with an EPA logo on it outside my apartment in NYC. It monitors energy usage, useful to preventing brown outs. But it measures down to the apartment level, which could be useful to the police trying to establish your personal patterns. There’s no legislation or judicial review of the use of this data. We can’t turn back the clock. We can try to draw boundaries, and then have sufficient openness so that we can tell if they’ve crossed those boundaries.

LS: Bart, how do you manage the flow of info from Snowden?

BG: Snowden does not manage the release of the data. He gave it to three journalists and asked us to use your best judgment — he asked us to correct for his bias about what the most important stories are — and to avoid direct damage to security. The documents are difficult. They’re often incomplete and can be hard to interpret.

Q&A

Q: What would be a first step in forming a popular movement?

NC: Same as always. E.g., the women’s movement began in the 1960s (at least in the modern movement) with consciousness-raising groups.

Q: Where do we draw the line between transparency and privacy, given that we have real enemies?

BG: First you have to acknowledge that there is a line. There are dangerous people who want to do dangerous things, and some of these tools are helpful in preventing that. I’ve been looking for stories that elucidate big policy decisions without giving away specifics that would harm legitimate action.

Q: Have you changed the tools you use?

BG: Yes. I keep notes encrypted. I’ve learn to use the tools for anonymous communication. But I can’t go off the grid and be a journalist, so I’ve accepted certain trade-offs. I’m working much less efficiently than I used to. E.g., I sometimes use computers that have never touched the Net.

Q: In the women’s movement, at least 50% of the population stood to benefit. But probably a large majority of today’s population would exchange their freedom for convenience.

NC: The trade-off is presented as being for security. But if you read the documents, the security issue is how to keep the govt secure from its citizens. E.g., Ellsberg kept a volume of the Pentagon Papers secret to avoid affecting the Vietnam negotiations, although I thought the volume really only would have embarrassed the govt. Security is in fact not a high priority for govts. The US govt is now involved in the greatest global terrorist campaign that has ever been carried out: the drone campaign. Large regions of the world are now being terrorized. If you don’t know if the guy across the street is about to be blown away, along with everyone around, you’re terrorized. Every time you kill an Al Qaeda terrorist, you create 40 more. It’s just not a concern to the govt. In 1950, the US had incomparable security; there was only one potential threat: the creation of ICBM’s with nuclear warheads. We could have entered into a treaty with Russia to ban them. See McGeorge Bundy’s history. It says that he was unable to find a single paper, even a draft, suggesting that we do something to try to ban this threat of total instantaneous destruction. E.g., Reagan tested Russian nuclear defenses that could have led to horrible consequences. Those are the real security threats. And it’s true not just of the United States.

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July 13, 2013

Presidential Innovation Fellows

Yesterday I got to spend the afternoon with friends from the Department of State’s eDiplomacy group and people from the General Services Administration. I was leading a whiteboarding session for a project — a task marketplace — they have underway. The project development work is being done primarily by two Presidential Innovation FellowsJoe Polastre and Dain Miller — which made clear to me just how cool that program is.

The official description is:

The Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program pairs top innovators from the private sector, non-profits, and academia with top innovators in government to collaborate during focused 6-13 month “tours of duty” to develop solutions that can save lives, save taxpayer money, and fuel job creation.

There are 30+ Fellows, whose terms run from 6-13 months, working on projects [github] that benefit the country.

I like everything about this program. I like that it enables development of useful software. I like that it announces the White House’s recognition of the importance of tech innovation. I like that it gets geeks into various branches of the government. I like that it gives some incredible developers real-world experience with the federal government — the admirable people who work there, as well as the constraints they work within.

The one thing I don’t like is the acronym. Pfft.

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October 10, 2012

Obama and Romney make their cases to techies. Guess who fails to mention the Internet?

New York Tech Meetup asked the Obama and Romney camps to write letters explaining how their policies would help the NY tech community. NYTM has just posted their replies.


Without the prefatory comments, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that Romney’s letter is about tech policy. Not only does Romney miss any mention of Internet or its synonyms, he fails to reiterate his opposition to Net Neutrality.


Obama on the other hand lays out his policies and accomplishments, starting with creating a federal CTO on his first day in office, opening up government data (at data.gov and elsewhere), creating Presidential Innovation Fellows, and protecting the open Internet.


(PS: I’ve posted the link to the letters at Reddit. Feel free to upvote…)



Related to this, the Australian radio show has posted an episode on whether the Obama administration has fulfilled the promise of Government 2.0. It interviews Ethan Zuckerman, Micah Sifry, Michael Turk, Bill Adair, and me.

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September 5, 2012

Innovation at the State Dept.

I just read Revolution@State, a pretty amazing report by the Lowy Institute, an independent policy think tank, about the extent and depth of e-diplomacy initiatives at the State Department.

I came away with several impressions:

  • The Internet and social networking are central to how State does its business

  • The Net and social networking are transforming how State does its business

  • The Net is bringing about cultural changes at State

That third point is for me the most striking. The State Department has been hypersensitive about security. While that of course remains part of State’s DNA, the Department is also becoming realistic about the gains that can be made by not reflexively shutting down every proposal. For example, the Lowry report writes:

At a Twitter training course for State Department employees attended by the author, the 50 or so officers present — some of whom admitted to never having used social media — were exhorted to give it a go, you can’t go wrong. Policy guidane was barely mentioned.

Closer edamination reveals why this has not led to disaster. To begin with you are dealing with highly educated employees with a strong desire to keep their jobs…

Likewise, the report cites a new willingness to experiment and fail, which is essential for innovation but anathema to State’s traditional culture. Implicit in many of the initiatives, there is new emphasis on Need to Share rather than Need to Know; the latter policy optimizes for security at the cost of intelligence.

The report goes through the many offices directly involved in e-diplomacy, but singles out the 80-person E-Diplomacy group for special focus and praise, lauding its entrepreneurial spirit. That’s the group I’m proud to have been attached to that group for two years as a State Department Franklin Fellow, and, as they say at Reddit, I can confirm.

If you’ve had any interaction with the State Department — where in my limited experience I have met true patriots — you know that it is one of the least likely institutions to hop on the Internet train. I’d give credit to the transformation to three factors:

First, starting with Colin Powell, continued by Condaleeza Rice, and especially with Secretary Clinton (and her choice of Alec Ross (twitter) and until recently Ben Scott), the leadership has embraced these changes.

Second, groups like E-Diplomacy have served State by building tools that serve State’s needs, and have at the same time modeled the webby way of doing business. One great example is Corridor, State’s new professional networking environment, specially tuned to the needs and norms of State Dept. employees.

Third, the State Department’s 80,000 employees are on the ground around the world. This means that the organization is fundamentally reality-based, even when the leadership gets warped by politics. These Net-based initiatives are being embraced because they work. Likewise for the Net-based culture that is infusing State as more of the world and more State Dept. employees go online. Leaders of the e-initiatives such as E-Diplomacy’s Richard Boly combine a drive to achieve pragmatic results with an entrepreneurial appreciation of failure as a key tool for success.

I acknowledge that my personal experience of the State Department is warped by the amount of time I’ve gotten to spend with its webbiest elements. But I’ve also seen tangible evidence that a belief in openness, innovation, and connection is taking root there. The Lowy report confirms that. Worth reading.

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August 22, 2012

White House Innovation Fellows

The White House is announcing the White House Innovation Fellows who are going to work on five projects.

Here are the projects:

1. RFP-EZ – twitter: @ProjectRFPEZ

Building a prototype process for federal agencies to source low-cost, high-impact solutions from innovative tech companies and startups.

2. My Gov – twitter: @ProjectMyGov #gov

Building a prototype that streamlines the 1,2000+ government/service websites, with more intuitive interfaces and the ability to accept feedback.

3. Open Data – Twitter: @ProjectOpenData #opengov

Open Data will continue the path set by NOAA’s release of data by further scaling the Health Data Initiative and releasing new databases in the energy, education, public safety, and nonprofit sectors

4. 20% Initiative – twitter: @ProjectTwenty

USAID-led project to transition from cash to electronic payments across public and private sectors. Aims: reducing corruption, improving safety, further opening the door to entrepreneurial innovation. (The name comes from the aim of getting 20% more bang per buck.)

5. Blue Button For America – twitter: @ProjectBlueBtn

Developing tools that enable individuals to utilize their own health records – current medications and drug allergies, claims and treatment data, and lab reports, etc. – to empower them to improve their own health and healthcare.

700 people have applied for the Fellowships. They’ll be announced on Thursday. The fellowships last for six months. The projects will combine the private and public sectors, and will be done in full public, with as much crowd participation as possible. (TechPresident has a good post about it.)

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June 29, 2012

[aspen] Eric Schmidt on the Net and Democracy

Eric Schmidt is being interviewed by Jeff Goldberg about the Net and Democracy. I’ll do some intermittent, incomplete liveblogging…

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

NOTE: Posted without having even been re-read. Note note (a few hours later): I’ve done some basic cleanup.

After some amusing banter, Jeff asks Eric about how responsible he felt Google was for Arab Spring. Jeff in passing uses the phrase “Internet revolution.”

ES: Arab Spring was enabled by a failure to censure the Internet. Google enabled people to organize themselves. Especially in Libya, five different militias were able to organize their armed revolt by using the Net. It’s unfair to the people who died to call it an “Internet revolution.” But there were fewer people who died, in part because of the incessant media coverage. And we’ve seen that it’s very easy to start what some call an Internet revolution, but very hard to finish it.

JG: These were leaderless revolutions, crowdsourced revolution. But in Egypt the crowd’s leaders were easily pushed aside after Mubarek fell.

ES: True leaders are very hard to find. In Libya, there are 80 militias, armed to the teeth. In most of the countries there were repressed Muslim groups that have emerged as leaders because they organized while repressed. Whoever takes over inherits financial and social problems, and will be thrown out if they fail.

JG: Talk about Google’s tumultuous relationship with China…

ES: There are lots of reasons to think that China works because its citizens like its hierarchical structure. But I think you can’t build a knowledge society without freedom. China wants to be a knowledge society. It’s unclear if China’s current model gets them past a middle income GDP. Google thought that if we gave them free access to info, the Chinese people would revolt. We were wrong, and we moved Google to Hong Kong, on the open side of the Great Firewall. (We had to because that’s the Chinese law.) Now when you enter a forbidden query, we tell the user that it’s likely to be blocked. We are forbidden from announcing what the forbidden terms are because we don’t want employees put in jail.

JG: Could Arab Spring happen in China? Could students organize Tianamen Square now?

ES: They could use the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. But if someone organizes a protest, two people show up, plus 30 media, and 50 police.

JG: Google’s always argued that democratization of info erodes authoritarian control. Do you still believe that?

ES: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how hard it is to learn about the differences among people in and within countries. I continue to believe that this device [mobile phone] will change the world. The way to solve most of the world’s problems is by educating people. Because these devices will become ubiquitous, it’ll be possible to see how far we humans can get. With access to the Net, you can sue for justice. In the worst case you can actually shame people.

JG: And these devices can be used to track people.

ES: Get people to understand they have choices, and they will eventually organize. Mobiles tend to record info just by their nature. The phone company knows where you are right now. You’re not worried about that because a law says the phone company can’t come harass you where you’re sitting. In a culture where there isn’t agreement about basic rights…

JG: Is there evidence that our democracy is better off for having the Internet?

ES: When we built the Net, that wasn’t the problem we were solving. But more speech is better. There’s a lack of deliberative time in our political process. Our leaders will learn that they’ll make better decisions if they take a week to think about things. Things will get bad enough that eventually reason will prevail. We complain about our democracy, but we’re doing quite well. The US is the beacon of innovation, not just in tech, but in energy. “In God we trust … all others have to bring data.” Politicians should just start with some facts.

JG: It’s easier to be crazy and wrong on the Net.

ES: 0.5% of Americans are literally crazy. Two years ago, their moms got them broadband connections. And they have a lot of free time. Google is going to learn how to rank them. Google should enable us to hear all these voices, including the crazy people, and if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job.

JG: I googled “Syria massacre” this morning, and the first story was from Russia Today that spun it…

ES: It’s good that you have a choice. We have to educate ourselves and our children. Not everything written is true, and very powerful forces want to convince you of lies. The Net allows that, and we rank against it, but you have to do your own investigation.

JG: Google is hitting PR problems. Talk about privacy…

ES: There’s no delete button on the Net. When you’re a baby, no one knows anything about you. As you move through life, inevitably more people know more about you. We’re going to have to learn about that. The wifi info gathering by StreetView was an error, a mistake, and we’ve apologized for it.

JG: The future of journalism?

ES: A number of institutions are figuring out workable models. The Atlantic [our host]. Politico. HuffingtonPost. Clever entrepreneurs are figuring out how to make money. The traditional incumbents have been reduced in scale, but there are plenty of new voices. BTW, we just announced a tablet with interactive, dynamic magazines. To really worry about: We grew up with the bargain that newspapers had enough cash flow to fund long term investigative research. That’s a loss to democracy. The problem hasn’t been fully solved. Google has debated how to solve it, but we don’t want to cross the content line because then we’d be accused of bias in our rankings.

JG: Will search engines search for accuracy rather than popularity?

ES: Google’s algorithms are not about popularity. They’re about link structures, and we start from well-known sources. So we’re already there. We just have to get better.

JG: In 5 yrs what will the tech landscape look like?

ES: Moore’s Law says that in 5 yrs there will be more power for less money. We forget how much better our hw is now than even 5 years. And it’s faster than Moore’s Law for disks and fiber optic connections. Google is doing a testbed optical installation. At that bandwidth all media are just bits. We anticipate a lot of specialty devices.

JG: How do you expect an ordinary, competent politician to manage the info flow? Are we inventing tech that is past our ability to process info?

ES: The evidence is that the tech is bringing more human contact. The tech lets us express our humanity. We need a way of sorting politicians better. I’d suggest looking for leaders who work from facts.

JG: Why are you supporting Obama?

ES: I like having a smart president.

JG: Is Romney not smart?

ES: I know him. He’s a good man. I like Obama’s policies better.

Q&A

Q: Our connectivity is 3rd world. Why haven’t we been able to upgrade?

A: The wireless networks are running out of bandwidth. The prediction is they’ll be saturated in 2016. Maybe 2017. That’s understandable: Before, we were just typing online and now we’re watching movies. The White House in a few weeks is releasing a report that says that we can share bandwidth to get almost infinite bandwidth. Rather than allocating a whole chunk that leaves most of it unused, using interference databases we think we can fix this problem. [I think but please correct me: A database of frequency usages so that unused frequencies in particular geographic areas can be used for new signals.]

A: The digital can enhance our physical connections. E.g., a grandmother skyping with a grandchild.

JG: You said you can use the Net to shame govts. But there are plenty of videos of Syria doing horrible things, but it’s done no good.

ES: There are always particularly evil people. Syria is the exception. Most countries, even autocratic ones, are susceptible to public embarrassment.

Q: Saying “phones by their nature collect data” evades responsibility.

ES: I meant that in order to their work, they collect info. What we allow to be done with that info is a legal, cultural issue.

Q: Are we inherently critical thinkers? If not, putting info out there may not lead to good decisions.

ES: There’s evidence that we’re born to react quickly. Our brains can be taught reasoning. But it requires strong family and education.

Q: Should there be a bill of rights to simplify the legalese that express your privacy rules?

ES: It’s a fight between your reasonable point of view, and the lawyers and govt that regulate us. Let me reassure you: If you follow the goal of Google to have you as a customer, the quickest way to lose you is to misuse your information. We are one click away from competitors who are well run and smart. [unless there was money in it, or unless they could get away with it, or…]

Q: Could we get rid of representative democracy?

ES: It’ll become even more important to have democratic processes because it’s all getting more complicated. For direct democracy we’d have to spend all day learning about the issues and couldn’t do our jobs.

JG: David Brooks, could you comment? Eric is an enormous optimist…

ES: …The evidence is on my side!

JG: David, are you as sanguine that our politicians will learn to slow their thinking down, and that Americans have the skills to discern the crap from the true.

David Brooks: It’s not Google’s job to discern what’s true. There are aggregators to do this, including the NYT and TheBrowser. I think there’s been a flight to quality. I’m less sanguine about attention span. I’m less sanguine about confirmation bias, which the Web makes easier.

ES: I generally agree with that. There’s evidence that we tend to believe the first thing we hear, and we judge plus and minus against that. The answer is always for me culture, education.

Q: Will there be a breakthrough in education?

ES: Education changes much more slowly than the world does. Sometimes it seems to me that education is run for the benefit of the teachers. They should do measurable outcomes, A-B testing. There’s evidence that physics can be taught better by setting a problem and then do a collaborative effort, then another problem…

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April 10, 2012

CFPB.gov goes open source

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — AKA “The Agency Elizabeth Warren Was Born to Lead” — has announced that its software will be open source, with rare exceptions for security, although “… we believe that, in general, hiding source code does not make the software safer”.

The CFPB’s explanation of why it’s going the open source route hits all the right notes: It’s easy to acquire, it keeps its data open, and it lets the agency tap into the enormous libraries of available code. Plus:

Open-source software works because it enables people from around the world to share their contributions with each other. The CFPB has benefited tremendously from other people’s efforts, so it’s only right that we give back to the community by sharing our work with others.

I like it when government talks — and acts! — this way.

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March 12, 2012

Time for the Patent Office to move off of TIFF?

Look up a patent at the US Patent Office site, click on “Images” to see the image, and the chances are very good that you’ll get the sense that people are patenting white paper over and over and over again. The images generally do not show up. (Example)

A little exploration (which you shouldn’t have to do) explains that this is knowingly broken:

These full-page images are not directly viewable using most Web browsers.They are in 300 d.p.i. Tagged Image File Format (TIFF). However, there are many variants — or “flavors” — of TIFF, including different ways of compressing the image data within the TIFF file. The TIFF flavor used by PTO and other countries’ intellectual property offices is international standard ITU T.6 or CCITT Group 4 (G4) compression. Displaying them requires either a TIFF G4 plug-in for your browser, or a properly installed and configured application to which your browser sends G4 TIFF images for display. Note that relatively few image viewers and plug-ins handle G4 compression.

So, here’s an idea: Convert the images to a format that browsers can handle. Post those. Make TIFF the format you have to ask for specially.

Would a business post links to images that they know won’t show up, and make you go to a Help page to discover why? (Thanks to Greg Cavanagh for the alert.)

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February 10, 2012

Power politics in the age of Google

[live-blogged yesterday] I’ve come in 30 minutes late (Sorry! I had it marked wrong on my schedule) to a panel at the Kennedy School about politics and the Net. The panel is outstanding: Susan Crawford, Micah Sifry, Nicco Mele, Alexis Ohanian [reddit] and Elaine Kamarck, moderated by Alex Jones.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

As I enter, Susan is saying that SOPA was put forward to make PIPA [Senate version] look reasonable, but it obviously backfired. But, she warns, the type of concerted effort that defeated SOPA is special and rare; we can’t count on it happening again.

Nicco says that Google has doubled its lobbying budget, spending $10M this past year. But it hasn’t made much of a dent against the tight relationships among the entertainment industry lobbyists and Congress. “This is not the end of this issue,” he says, referring to the battle over Hollywood content. “It’s more like a battle in the middle of the opening third.” He adds, “The power of the grassroots to shape and drive the debate…was a shock to the insular world inside the Beltway.”

Alex: Suppose there had been the outcry but not the going dark? Was it going dark that did it?

Nicco: It was an expression of the intensity of the situation. It might have had the same outcome. Google didn’t go dark and drove a huge amount of traffic to anti-SOPA sites.

Susan: Google joined a parade smaller sites like Reddit.com had started.

Alex: Is this a watershed moment?

Elaine: No. Sometimes DC gets things wrong. E.g., a Medicare bill was repealed after 16 months because the seniors went nuts about it. This was pre-Internet. “Old ladies were throwing rotten eggs at Dan Rostenkowski.” Also, in 2006 there were local protests against a bipartisan immigration reform law. SOPA was a perfect example of a bunch of old guys — Chris Dodd et al. — not understanding that they were playing with fire. They didn’t take into account the intensity the Net citizens felt. There’s nothing fundamentally different from what we’ve seen before: Sometimes the folks in Washington just don’t get it.

Alex: We tried to get people on the other side to join us, but I’ll take their side. An op-ed yesterday said that the anti-SOPA digital tsunami was an abuse of democracy.

Micah: That was a frustrating op-ed because he doesn’t imagine that the citizens who were linking and faxing had agency. He assumes they were all duped by Google etc. Citizens can inform themselves, make up their minds, and take action. That said, I think it’s worth noting that some of these companies have immense power. It’s fair to ask how far can they responsibly use that power? I’d argue that most of these companies are in a more responsive relationship to their users than much of old media, especially not Hollywood and the recording industry. They are far more likely to listen to their customers and respond to them. Also, anyone who raises the issue of abusive media power needs to be asked how Fox News helped create the Tea Party Movement, cheerleading people to go to the first rallies. The media coverage on Fox took place before the manifestation of what it was “covering.” For me the fact that the anti-SOPA movement was a civic-commercial hybrid is fascinating.

Alex: Truman ordered the Army to bust up a train strike. Google and the Web overall have become the nervous system of the world. At what point does the power of a privately owned nervous system becomes so great that its even considering withholding services becomes inappropriate?

Alexis: The op-ed was malarkey. All sites are made equal, so if Wikipedia closed down for a week, there would be a new instance of it almost immediately. Likewise if the search engines went down. It is such a frictionless market.

Susan: Legally, infrastructure like transportation and physical access lines is different from the content. When it comes to train line or someone providing cable access to your home, there are extraordinarily high start-up costs. They can be natural monopolies since it may not make sense to have more than one. Google is not a natural monopoly.

Elaine: Laying a transatlantic cable is a big, expensive undertaking. Those infrastructure companies are governed like utilities. The Net access providers claim that they should be able to charge Google more for carrying their content, and that battle will play out over the next decade. So, there are clashes, but the SOPA battle isn’t like that. The US federal govt is not prepared to think about governing the Net. You can see this in its approach to cybersecurity. There’s a nasty cycle: cybercrime is one of those crimes you can pretty much guarantee you’re never going to be caught at. We’re not ready as a country to think about regulating the Net to prevent it. The MPAA and RIAA are really not ready to deal with this. They’re playing an old game. They and a lot of people in Washington don’t understand the issues.

Alex: What are the issues where the govt ought to be thinking about regulation?

Nicco: I don’t think we have a handle on these issues yet. Our leaders lack a fundamental understanding. One way to deal with this would be to introduce a mandatory retirement age for Congress. [it’s a joke, sort of.] They’re fundamentally out of touch with how most Americans are living their lives.

Alex: How seriously should we take Anonymous? The nihilistic impulse and incredible skill?

Micah: It’s hard to generalize about Anonymous. It’s a shape shifter. I asked someone researching them if she could assure me that they’re not the Russian Mafia. She said she couldn’t; you just don’t know. And it’s not just Anonymous: the Arabs and Israelis are going after each other. We should also keep in mind that on sites like Reddit.com and CraigsList.com you get daily acts of altruism.

Susan: User empowerment/agency is almost always the right reaction to bad acts and bad speech.

Alex: How about identifying malefactors?

Micah: It’s a good thing you can’t. If we reengineered the Net so you could, the people who would be hunted down would mainly by dissidents. It’s a double-sided sword.

Elaine: You’ve expressed the Zeitgeist of the Net. At some point, criminals will get smarter and will steal billions of dollars from people on Facebook. There’s a crisis point for the Net coming. It won’t be shut down, but it will fundamentally change. It’s not inconceivable that in 20 yrs will have a different Net because people will demand it because someone will have stolen thousands of dollars from us all, or they will withdraw from the one Net and instead will form cloistered nets.

Susan: I agree. There will be a meltdown and people will react with fear. We need to train our reps to understand what the Net is so that they can have an intelligent response.

Alexis: People are afraid of hackers. But the problem is that security is terrible. Banks need to take online security much more seriously.

Alex: Has Wikileaks changed the way people share info?

Susan: The State Dept. no longer shares cables with the Defense Dept.

Alexis: The weak point is always human.

Micah: When I hear you talking about criminals attacking the banks, I think the criminals are running the banks. We’re moving away from trust in centralized institutions and more trust in ourselves. I mentioned Kickstarter.com at the start of this panel [missed it!], and it’s taking off to the extent that in Detroit they’re starting to refer to it as a grassroots WPA. Nicco and I think that the anti-SOPA moment was different because it wasn’t just a shout, but it was when a large community began to realize its own power to shift how things work.

Elaine: Seniors aren’t an interest group?

Micah: Yes, but they worked through a single lobbying group.

Susan: Now they have network.

Alex: But you said we can’t do this too many times…

Suan: But now that the Internet community can see itself, it is forming new associations and networks…

Alex: Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in working together…

Alexis: Hollywood should see the Net as another channel to make money. 10% of the entries at Sundance this year were funded by fans via Kickstarter.

Alex: The anti-SOPA group spanned politics. Matt Drudge was part of it. Are either the Dems or the Repubs better at this?

Alexis: It’s become a political issue.

[And just under the wire, Micah gets in a Google-Santorum joke.]

Q: The Net can be brought down any time…
Susan: It would be extremely difficult to bring it down. The root servers are echoed all over the world. The real risk is that physical cables between companies can be cut. We have too few Internet providers. The great thing about the Net is that it works just well enough — a best-effort network. The NSA has a tremendous amount of info about the threats and attacks. That info should be shared with the operators of the networks and banks in ways that are safe for them so they can cooperate. But you don’t want to burn the village to save it.

Q: What are the lessons from SOPA for citizens and for smaller sites?
Alexis: It’s easy to put up a one-off site to help organize and get attention. That just takes some html and a good idea.
Nicco: How much do you think of Reddit as a political force?
Alexis: It’s not. The people there are. The SOPA protest bubbled up from subreddits. At that point it got the attention of the staff. For us, it was 12 hours of lost revenues, but traffic was up the next day. We built Reddit as a meritocracy. We strive to make sure that if something comes to the front page, it’s genuinely popular.

Nicco: The point of the Constitution is to regulate lunatic populism.

Elaine: No, you take populism into account when governing.

Nicco: Someday Reddit’s mgt may be faced with a decision about going against the community’s preferences.

Alex: The huge anti-SOPA outpouring was only about 10M, which is less than a plebiscite.

Elaine: This is an issue with no clear answer. They heard the outcry, and the reps who had signed on without reading the bill pulled back. This happens not just with Net issues. E.g., Cap and Trade.

Q: [me] Is there a Net constituency, Net values, and does the Net shape political consciousness?
Micah: We’re seeing a change in consciousness: a willingness to dig and share. The Net is conducive to those values, although not everyone who uses it will share those values. But many of these sites have constituencies. This is a sharing economy. The Net is enabling something that was always there in American culture: barn raisings, rent sharing. And some of the things you can do are organically natural: I don’t think you can convince 75M American teens that they’re all thieves. And they’re going to be voters. They’re going to ask what sorts of businesses they can build on top of that sharing.

Q: Alexis, how have you been tweeting during this panel?
A: Katrina has been tweeting in my name. That’s trust!

Q: Tim Wu has made a compelling argument that historically information empires start out open and then become monopolies. Google is young and it’s already finishing our sentences [auto-complete], which is a powerful way of shaping consciousness. The more people are searching, the easier it is to improve your service, so there are economies of scale in search. Hence, monopolies could emerge that have serious barriers to entry.
Nicco: The history of personal computers + connectivity is about empowering individuals and making it easier for small things to destroy big things. I’m not convinced that Google’s advantage is large enough to make it a monopoly.
Micah: I worry that Google can manipulate search results in undisclosed ways. If they favor results that favor their own products, which they’re starting to do now, they’re taking a risk. Their value is that they give us the best results, and if they don’t do that, other sites may get traction. And if they start favoring their own products they can be accused of antitrust violations. They have immense power and I don’t see how to get them to be more transparent without giving up trade secrets.
Alexis: We’re allies with Google as a matter of convenience. If they started lobbying in DC against Net interests, everyone would abandon them. And we think when it comes to building products, we could beat ‘em.

Q: Google is becoming a content producer. Might they switch to pro-SOPA?
Alexis: I don’t know, but if they did, we’d line up against them.

Q: People in this room could switch search engines, but for many people, it’d be harder.
Susan: There’s something about the Google logo that’s like the clown in a horror movie. They haven’t broadened their model beyond targeting ads. Antitrust authorities look at Google very hard. The FTC and DoJ are watching.

Q: Why didn’t Facebook protest SOPA?
Micah: FB is one of the more serious monsters. They signed onto some of the letters but there was no serious activity by the leaders. They want to get into China and don’t want the Chinese govt to think they’re a platform for dissension. Interpret all their actions in that context.
Susa: They see themselves like a media property. They’re the ESPN of the network. Watch FB’s relationship with the carriers. They’re going to want special treatment so that FB becomes the Internet for you. AOL tried it and Americans loved it.

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