Joho the Blog » egov

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.


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: 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 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.)


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 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 and 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 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.


February 9, 2012

[2b2k] The Federally-funded research should be open Act

The Federal Research Public Access Act has been reintroduced in the U.S. House. It would require federally-funded research to be made public within six months of publication (with security exceptions, natch). More here.

Go FRPAA! (Ok, not the catchiest slogan ever.)

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February 7, 2012

[berkman] From Freedom of Information to Open data … for open accountability

Filipe L. Heusser [pdf] is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk called “Open Data for Open Accountability.”

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.

How is the open Web been changing accountability and transparency? Filipe is going to share two ideas: 1. The Web is making the Freedom of Information Act (FOIOA) obsolete. 2. An open data policy is necessary to keep freedom of information up to date, and to move toward open accountability.

Lots of people praise transparency, he says. There are multiple systems that benefit from it. Felipe shows a map of the world that shows that most parts of the world have open government policies, although that doesn’t always correlate with actual openness. We continue to push for transparency. One of the cornerstones of transparency policy is freedom of information regulation. In fact, FOIA is part of a long story, going back at least back to 1667 when a Finnish priest introduced a bill into the Swedish parliament. [Entirely possible I heard this wrong.]

Modern FOI laws require governments to react to requests and to proactively provide information. (In response to a question, Filipe says that countries have different reasons for putting FOI laws in place: as a credential, to create a centralized info system (as in China), etc.), etc. Felipe’s study of 67 laws found five clusters, although overall they’re alike. One feature they share: They heavily rely on reactive transparency. This happens in part because FOI laws come out of an era when we thought about access to documents, not about access to data. That’s one big reason FOI laws are increasingly obsolete. In 2012, most of the info is not in docs, but is in data sets.

Another reason: It’s one-way information. There’s no two-way communication, and no sharing. Also, gatekeepers decide what you can know. If you disagree, you can go to court, which is expensive and slow.

In May 2009, launched. The US was the first country to support an open data policy. Sept. 2009 the UK site launched. Now many have, e.g., Kenya and the World Bank. These data are released in machine-readable formats. The open data community thinks this data should be available raw, online, complete, timely, accessible, machine processable, reusable, non-discriminatory and with open licenses.

So, why are these open data initiatives good news? For one thing, it keeps our right to FOI up to date: we can get at the data sets of neutral facts. For another, it enables multiway communication. There are fewer gatekeepers you have to ask permission of. It encourages cheap apps. Startups and NGOs are using it to provide public service delivery.

Finally, Felipe runs an NGO that uses information to promote transparency and accountability. He says that access to open data changes the rules of accountability, and improves them. Traditional gov’t accountability moves from instituational and informal to crowd-source and informal; from a scarcity of watchdogs to an abundance of watchdogs; and from an election every four years to a continuous benchmark. We are moving from accountability to open accountability.

Global Voices started a project called technology for transparency, mapping open govt apps. Also, MySociety, Ushahidi, Sunlight Foundation, andCuidadano Inteligente (Felipe’s NGO). One of CI’s recent apps is Inspector of Interests, which tries to identify potential conflicts of interest in the Chilean Congress. It relies on open data. The officials are required to release info about themselves, which CI built an alternative data set to contrast with the official one, using open data from the Tax and Rev service and the public register. This exposed the fact that nearly half of the officials were not publishing all their assets.

It is an example of open accountability: uses open data, machine readable, neutral data, the crowd helps, and provides ongoing accountability.

Now Felipe points to evidence about what’s going on with open data initiatives. There is a weird coalition pushing for open data policies. Gov’ts have been reacting. In three years, there are 118 open data catalogs from different countries, with over 700,000 data sets. But, although there’s a lot of hype, there’s lots to be done. Most of the catalogs are not driven at a national level. Most are local. Most of the data in the data catalogs isn’t very interesting or useful. Most are images. Very little info about medical, and the lowest category is banking and finance.

Q: [doc] Are you familiar with miData in the UK that makes personal data available? Might this be a model for gov’t.

Q: [jennifer] 1. There are no neutral facts. Data sets are designed and structured. 2. There are still gatekeepers. They act proactively, not reactively. E.g., has no guidelines for what should be supplied. FOIA meets demands. Open data is supplied according to what the gatekeepers want to share. 3. FOIA can be shared. 4. What’s the incentive to get useful open data out?
Q: [yochai] Is open data doing the job we want? Traffic and weather data is great, but the data we care about — are banks violating privacy, are we being spied on? — don’t come from open data but from FOIA requests.
A: (1) Yes, but FOI laws regulate the ability to access documents which are themselves a manipulation to create a report. By “neutral facts” I meant the data, although the creation of columns and files is not neutral. Current FOI laws don’t let you access that data in most countries. (2) Yes, there will still be gatekeepers, but they have less power. For one thing, they can’t foresee what might be derived from cross-referencing data sets.
Q: [jennifer] Open data doesn’t respond to a demand. FOI does.
A: FOI remains demand driven. And it may be that open data is creating new demand.

Q: [sascha] You’re getting pushback because you’re framing open data as the new FOI. But the state is not going to push into the open data sets the stuff that matters. Maybe you want to say that WikiLeaks is the new FOI, and open data is something new.
A: Yes, I don’t think open data replaces FOI. Open data is a complement. In most countries, you can’t get at data sets by filing a FOI request.

Q: [yochai] The political and emotional energy is being poured into open data. If an administration puts millions of bits of irrelevant data onto but brings more whistleblower suits than ever before,…to hold up that administration as the model of transparency is a real problem. It’d be more useful to make the FOI process more transparent and shareable. If you think the core is to make the govt reveal things it doesn’t want to do, then those are the interesting interventions, and open data is a really interesting complement. If you think that you can’t hide once the data is out there, then open data is the big thing. We need to focus our political energy on strengthening FOI. Your presentation represents the zeitgeist around open data, and that deserves thinking.
Q: [micah] Felipe is actually quite critical of I don’t know of anyone in the transparency movement who’s holding up the Obama gov’t as a positive model.
A: Our NGO built Access Inteligente which is like WhatDoTheyKnow. It publishes all the questions and responses to FOI requests, crowdsourcing knowledge about these requests. was the first one and was the model for others. But you’re right that there are core issues on the table. But there might be other, smaller, non-provocative actions, like the release of inoffensive data that lets us see that members of Congress have conflicts of interest. It is a new door of opportunity to help us move forward.

A: [juan carlos] Where are corporations in this mix? Are they not subject to social scrutiny?

Q: [micah] Can average citizens work with this data? Where are the intermediaries coming from?
A: Often the data are complex. The press often act as intermediaries.

Q: Instead of asking for an overflow of undifferentiated data, could we push for FOI to allow citizens’ demands for data, e.g., for info about banks?
A: We should push for more reactive transparency

Q: [me] But this suggests a reframing: FOI should be changed to enable citizens to demand access to open data sets.

Q: We want different types of data. We want open data in part to see how the govt as a machine operates. We need both. There are different motivations.

Q: I work at the community level. We assume that the intermediaries are going to be neutral bodies. But NGOs are not neutral. Also, anyone have examples of citizens being consulted about what types of data should be released to open data portals?
A: The Kenya open data platform is there but many Kenyans don’t know what to do with it. And local governments may not release info because they don’t trust what the intermediaries will do it.

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February 3, 2012

W. Craig Fugate is the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He’s giving a keynote.

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.

“Technology is not magic,” he says. “Cyberattacks might destroy our way of life? You mean we might be reading books that don’t have screens.” [He’s doing a light opening, but jeez that’s really not what’s at stake in cyberattacks.] The question is, he says, what does social media really do for us. “I’m in the business of trying to change outcomes. Disasters happen. I can’t stop ’em…I’m dealing in an environment where something has happened. If we do nothing, it will follow a predictable course: it’ll probably get better” because people aren’t going to wait around for us to save them. So, you have to ask what part of the outcome you’re going change. Will fewer people die? How quickly can we reestablish particular functions? Is it going to be safe and secure? Can we get to the injured or trapped? Can we create critical infrastructure fast enough to keep people alive long enough for recovery to begin?

He points to the dynamic between first responders who focus on saving individuals and the humanitarian organizations that take a more systematic view. It’s forests vs. trees. But that means you have to decide what outcomes you’re trying to change and what constitutes success.

Social media can be seen as a publishing activity: posting for anyone to see. If people are doing that, can we look at that info and get a better outcome? Well, what info do you need to get a better outcome? When Joplin was hit by a tornado what social media info could affect an outcome we’re trying to achieve? “No tweet stops bleeding.” The question is what info will help actual outcomes.

“All disasters are local,” Craig says. Local government generally has day-to-day responsibility for emergencies, e.g., 911. If the disaster gets bad enough, it goes to the state level, and then to the federal. FEMA looks initially primarily for reliable assessments. E.g., we screwed up the response to Katrina because we didn’t know how bad it was. It takes 12-24 hours to get someone into a disaster area. “Social media will only speed up the confusion cycle” [?] There’s a 24-hour window for changing the outcome of the seriously injured, generally. So, we have to assess far more rapidly. “Maybe we should assume that if something is bad has happened, it’s bad.” Get people in without waiting for an assessment. “Technology gives you a sense of precision” that is unwarranted. But isn’t over-responding wasteful? “Yes, but we’re looking at lives.”

During the Joplin tornado, tweets were coming in, then videos from storm chasers, indicating that there were more tornadoes happening. FEMA sent in aid before the official assessment. “We looked at social media as the public telling us enough info to suggest that this is worse than we thought, to enable us to make a decision to get moving without witing for a formal request or for formal assessments.” “All I need is enough info to hit my tipping point.” He doesn’t need screens filled with info. In emergency centers, the big screens are “entertainment.”

People panic. How can you trust their tweets, etc.? No, the public is a resource, he says. Is the public voice consistent and always right? No, but who is. It’s just a tool, and it can help change outcomes. “I don’ care about the tech. I care about what people use to communicate,” if it can help him make a decision faster, and not necessarily more accurately. The social media tools “are how people communicate.” It’s not a matter of listening and responding to every voice, but getting aggregate assessment real-time on the ground.

“Social media weren;t around for Hurricane Andrew. It was just scratching the surface in 2004. How will people communicate in 2016.” He holds up his mobile phone. “This is how. Mobile, geocoded, fast…” What matters is how people communicate; don’t get wedded to the tech.

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[tech@state] State Department conference on real-time data

I’m at a State Department conference at Georgetown U about real-time data. I’m unfortunately going to have to miss a chunk of the afternoon due to another obligation.)

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.

After a welcome by Dean Paul Schiff Berman, Ambassador Janice Jacobs — Ass’t Sect’y for Consular Affairs — talks about the importance of the Net and real-time awareness to State’s mission. She says she joined before email and Skype, when international phone calls were expensive. “Now we use Facebook, Twitter and blogs in ways we could not have imagined.” State uses the Net for internal communication and to communicate with us. In the old days, urgent messages were disseminated by “wardens,” designated residents who would spread the word to their neighbors. On Dec. 22 of this year, the American consulate in Mexico, urgent warnings about buses were posted on Twitter. Journalists have tweeted before being arrested in other countries, alerting the embassy. American passengers on the shipwrecked cruise liner updated their Facebook pages, and that info made its way to the embassy that could help them. When there’s an emergency, the Bureau of Consular Affairs creates a task force that sets up the appropriate social media, and has created databases of info for victims. She ends by quoting Steve Jobs: “We need to be willing to stay foolish.” [As always, my liveblogging is far choppier than her actual talk.]

(Check @travelgov to see how the bureau is using Twitter.)

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