Joho the Blog » egov

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, data.gov 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., data.gov 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 data.gov 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 data.gov. 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. Data.gov 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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December 21, 2011

Two more steps toward Open Governments

Two pieces of good news on the open government front.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a law requiring it to make information available in machine-readable formats, e.g. XML.

And Piedmont has become the first region of Italy to pass an open government law. This is from the Google translation of an Italian article:

Piedmont is the first Italian region to adopt a law on publication and reuse data of the public administration, the so-called “Open Data”. The text was unanimously approved of the voters in the session of December 20.

With this definition refers to a philosophy that is both a practice. It implies that some types of data are freely accessible to all, without copyright restrictions, patents or other forms of control to limit their reproduction.
“The law gives effect to the principle that data produced by public institutions belong to the community and, therefore, must be made available through the internet and reusable formats defined. This will increase the transparency of public bodies and the participation and collaboration between public and private sectors, “explained the speakers of the bill Roberto Placido (Pd) and Roberto De Magistris (Northern League).

The text consists of six articles. The regional government will be obliged to ensure the availability, management, access, transmission, storage and availability of data in digital mode. This is a significant contribution to the modernization and innovation, by transposing the provisions of the Digital Administration Code, provides citizens with an additional instrument of control and economic system to a new development opportunities.

The Piedmont Region in May 2010 had already achieved its regional portal of open data dati.piemonte.it. The site is currently the most successful national experience and structured on the theme of open data.
The law approved helps to keep the Piedmont in Italy at the forefront of open data and is a further reference point for other Italian public administrations, which have already appreciated and taken as an example portal, now flanked by the national portal www.dati.gov.it.

The bill is placed in a context of redefining and updating of the European directives contained in the policy document “Digital Agenda for Europe”.

The law is also particularly important at this time because it can provide many business opportunities to young professionals and innovative companies in a period of severe economic crisis.

(Via Juan Carlos de Martin, whose Nexa Center was involved in inspiring and drafting the law.)

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November 14, 2011

Revolution, politics, and the Internet

On November 11, I had the privilege of being on a panel with Slim Amamou (one of the leaders of the Tunisian revolution) and Rick Falkvinge (the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party). The panel was organized by Luca de Biase at the Italian Internet Governance Forum in Trento.

Here are my notes, taken while up on dais:

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.

SLIM AMAMOU

“I will tell you the story,” Slim Amamou begins in Italian, switching to English after about ten minutes. Slim begins his story in 2010. “At the time there was a wave of censorship in Tunisia. Hundreds of bloggers who criticized the government were censored.” All the critical web sites were censored. That was retaliation “because we had waged a campaign against Ben Ali in the 2009 election.” Blogs that had nothing to do with politics were censored. “We waged a campaign that was very successful. There was a group at the time that decided to take to the streets for freedom on the Internet. That was in 2010.”

“Now, we were organizing that protest publicly, in a public way, but we were under a dictatorship. The government tortured opponents and harassed opponents, and what we were doing was perceived as a night of courage. We had to apply for the permit to have this demonstration at the Ministry of the Interior,” which was called the Ministry of Fear “because it’s where people were tortured. We decided to submit the application and filmed the whole process.” That little video went viral on the Internet “and we got very famous.” “So we started making a serial. We removed the fear little bit by little. People were afraid to talk about Internet freedom. The regime was so tough that you could be harassed or beaten just for saying that Internet censorship exists in Tunisia.” “Eventually I got arrested, but we got released, which removed a little bit of fear at the time.”

These protests were aimed at change, but not revolution. Our diagnosis was that “even if we take Ben Ali out, people don’t know who would become president.” “The mainstream media were so corrupt” that people had no idea who could manage the country. It was not possible to reform the mainstream media “because it was the people themselves who were corrupt.” “But the Internet seemed easier.” It was a technical thing, so you could press a single button and remove the entire censorship. “So we were committed to making a change in Tunisia, but we never planned for revolution.” “The revolution happened in a moment we didn’t expect.” The protests were almost solely organized using the Internet, social networks. “We were not a hierarchy. We were loosely coupled and constantly connected, and that’s how it worked.” So when the demonstrations started in Sidi Bouzid, the media didn’t cover what was happening. So a friend filmed what was happening and blogged about it. Another guy had a network over there…We organized a lot of things to get the information out.” A “snowball effect” happened, “and in the end it was the whole Tunisia that rose up.”

“You could interpret it as an effect of fighting for a free Internet. Ironically, at that time the Internet was not free in Tunisia. We had very strong censorship. In the long run we learned to circumvent it.” If you wanted to watch YouTube, you had to know how to circumvent censorship. [cf. Ethan Zuckerman's Cute Cats theory!] “We had to change our circumvention tools constantly, and even build our own technology. We adapted to the system, and eventually, at the peak of the revolution, we overcame censorship. I met with the guy who was responsible for the infrastructure and censorship at the time, and he told me that during the last weeks of the revolution, the list of censored web sites doubled. That meant that the government could not cope with the amount of data that was shared. We also adopted techniques and processes so that if someone finds a video on YouTube or Facbook or whatever, before sharing it, it downloads it in case it gets censored so it can be uploaded again. The whole system was organized in that way.”

“I got arrested again on Jan 6 and got out of jail on Jan 13. and on Jan 17 I was Secretary of State for Youth and Sports.”

In response to a comment later on by Rick Falkvinge, Slim said: “The day I was arrested on Jan 6, in the morning I got SMS’s and news about people getting arrested — a rapper, a blogger — so I knew I’d be arrested, so I tweeted: ‘I’m raising my threat level to orange.’ So I get a tweet back saying ‘Why don’t you activate Google Latitude on your phone so we can track you.’ It saved my life. At the time, you don’t get arrested, you get kidnapped: Nobody knows where you are and don’t get news of you for a long time. So for a humanitarian organization to certify you, you need to be gone for 48 hours to prove you didn’t just sleep over. But the guys who arrested me took my phone like a weapon but kept it open, so my position was known, and the news got out quickly, which is part of why I didn’t get tortured physically. The trick is to give the power to the people. We don;t ask to remove those technologies; we just want the people to use them, not the government.”

After the event, I asked Slim whether he thought the Net functioned as more than an organizational tool during the revolution. Did the use of the Net itself encourage political activism and give an experience of liberty that altered political consciousness? Yes, he replied emphatically. he disaagrees.

RICK FALKVINGE

Rick says that when he speaks to sociologists about the Net, they divide in two. 1. Net is greatest invention since the printing press. 2. The Net is greatest invention since written language. The Net changes society that much, by giving everybody a voice. The Net is the greatest equalizer mankind has ever invented. It puts us all on equal footing.

The Swedish Pirate Party came on line Jan 1, 2006. “What sort of idiot thinks he can change the world by starting a political party.” But he figured they only need a few hundred thousand people to make a difference in Sweden. “If people had known just how dystopic a world we’re heading into, they’d be horrified.” E.g., German placing of computer activity recorders in personal computing devices. They can know all about your life. The only difference from the dystopic projections of the 1950s is that we’re buying the surveillance cameras ourselves. “Sharing is not a problem. People having a voice is not a problem. It’s the next generation of industries, of societies, of citizens.” So I took this web site on line. I went into file sharing mode and just typed two lines: Hey look, the Pirate PArty is online. I thought it’d grow gradually I got 3 million hits in the first two days. After three days there were sister parties in four countries. Now in 50 countries. There was a huge success in Berlin; the German Pirate Party is polling at 8-10%. The Italian Pirate Party is holding a meeting in Trento tomorrow.”

“We’re at a crossroads. The price of storing info has gone to zero. The Stassi were using typewriters and carbon paper. Imagine they had today’s tools…The potential for abuse is enormous.”

“At our core, we’re a civil liberties organization. We’re demanding that our children have the same civil liberties that our parents had. We’re demanding that when everyone has a voice, they get to use that voice without being forced to conform to the gov’t. Diversity is enormously positive…We have an example of this with Anonymous in which people have de-named themselves to let the best ideas work. It’s a meritocracy.”

We don’t have an office. People can organize at almost no cost. New tools give us the ability to by-pass governments, to make sure that we a utopic future.

ANDREA CAIROLA

[Because of some difficulties with the translation, and because I was thinking about how to reformulate my own remarks, I have done a terrible job capturing Andrea's comments. Sorry! ]

Just a few years ago, Arab countries were classified as enemies of the Internet. E.g., Tunisia didn’t give a visa to representatives of Internet freedom. But despite the censorship, the Internet became widespread. Even as the Internet was being subjected to more controls, the ballot movement and the Italian five star movement (started by a blogger) began. We are the country where a national newspaper was financed thanks to an online subscriptions. There are tv programs that are financed totally by the people. In this schizophrenic context, some antibodies were developed that now belong to our DNA as citizens and as readers.

Civil rights cannot be prioritized. They are interconnected. We need to defend these continuously. We are at the beginning of a great revolution. We are lagging behind other European countries, and society is divided into the digital and non-digital classes, but. We are at the beginning of a new change in which we can perhaps use what we’ve learned as citizens.

Q&A

Q: I read when someone was describing freenet: If society generally has a positive attitude, then joining people will bring about something even beter. But if humanity is negative, then nothing better will emerge. So my idea is that that could be a way of understanding the Net, hoping it can raise the best of feelings.

Q: Slim, you told us how you used technology during the revolution. How will you use the technology to build the new Tunisia? Same tools?

A: [slim] I’m very disappointed because the Islamists won the election, but they were fair elections and the majority is probably very happy that the won. But we can probably change the mind of the Islamists because we can make opinions on the Internet. If you want to really use the Net for democracy, you have to have direct democracy: people voting on the issues themselves. But in a representative democracy, the Net is not usable like the media. It’s of course very important as a tool for databases and campaigning, but not for making people choose one candidate over another. It can be used to build a community of volunteers. It is powerful for opinion-making.

A: [rick] There was a scientific report from Sweden finding a generational gap in how we use the Web. Above 35-40, if you have a problem, you identify one or two people who can help you, and you contact only them and expect a response. This is how we’ve cooperated as social creatures since we emerged as species. People below this age work entirely differently. When they identify a problem, they broadcast it to their entire circle of friends and friends of friends They don’t know who will respond, but they know they will be helped. The Net has changed how we cooperated a species. It has flipped a turbo switch we didn’t know we had. There’s a famous quote in Sweden: When I am cooperating on the Net, I am literally not aware where my own thoughts end and others’ start. The single genius has ceased to exist. I think that’s a phenomenon worth defending.

A: [slim] This is known as the hive, the collective mind. On the last day of the revolution, people were screaming “Ben Ali get out!” [in French]. Journalists asked me who created this buzz word. I said no one or everyone. Overnight, all the FB profiles changed their photos to “Ben Ali get out!”

A: [slim] The Internet is closest thing to connecting our brains together.

A: [me] I understand why we talk about the hive mind, and it captures something true about the Net. But in a hive, all bees think the same thing. The real power of the Net comes when those connected minds are thinking differently, and are in disagreement. Also, for me one of the most interesting things is not the direct connection of minds, but the connection of minds through rhetorical forms, new ways of talking to one another and thinking together.

A: [slim] My blog is about the relationship between society and the technology, and how to build society out of technology. I wrote a blog post called Y”et another article about why google should buy twitter.” Google and Twitter are very different because in Gogle you have to ask for the info. On Twitter you say “I’m doing that”; it’s very close to having your thoughts being realized. If you’re in a bus station saying you’re waiting for a bus, you’ll probably get a tweet from a taxi driver. This is like having your ideas realized. You say your state and you get options. Also: Social networks are very basic infrastructure for humanity, so we have to have better technology, tech that is not bent to private companies and are not localized on a server; it should be distributed, because it’s really important infrastructure.

A: [luca] For IGF that’s very important.

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June 24, 2011

Tagging the National Archives

The National Archives is going all tag-arrific on us:

The Online Public Access prototype (OPA) just got an exciting new feature — tagging! As you search the catalog, we now invite you to tag any archival description, as well as person and organization name records, with the keywords or labels that are meaningful to you. Our hope is that crowdsourcing tags will enhance the content of our online catalog and help you find the information you seek more quickly.

Nice! (Hat tip to Infodocket for the tip)

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May 27, 2011

A Declaration of Metadata Openness

Discovery, the metadata ecology for UK education and research, invites stakeholders to join us in adopting a set of principles to enhance the impact of our knowledge resources for the furtherance of scholarship and innovation…

What follows are a set of principles that are hard to disagree with.

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February 22, 2011

Eszter Hargittai and Aaron Shaw are giving a Berkman lunchtime talk titled “The Internet Young Adults, and Political Engagement around the 2008 Elections.” It’s a collaborative work between Northwestern U (where Eszter is) and Berkman (where Aaron is). What did the Obama campaign mean for the Internet’s effect on engagement of young people?

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.

Research generally summarizes the story of youth’s engagement as a sad one: A downward trend over the past 50 years. Most of the previous research has suggested that the Net is a “weapon of the strong”: those from higher income levels and more social capital tend to make more and better use of the Net. But does the Net impact political engagement directly? Uniformly? What factors and processes matter more than others. There is little agreement on these questions in the literature so far.

They looked at four outcomes or models: 1. Online political cognitive engagement: How much info-seeking on the Net do you do about politics? 2. Civic engagement: Do you volunteer in the community. 3. Voting. 4. Political action more broadly defined.

Eszter gathered data from the U of Illinois in Chicago. It’s one of the more racially diverse campuses. She went to the only course required everyone on campus. (There are 86 different sections, so it was a lot of work to gather the data.) It was a paper-pencil survey, not online, because she did not want to worry about who has access to the Net and who is comfortable donig things on line. Of the 1,115 students, the research focused on the 1,000 who were eligible to vote in the 2008 election. About half are first generation college students, 11% African-American, 25% Hispanic. About 60% voted, compared to 62% nationally. Eszter and Aaron are not claiming this is representative of the nation. the controlled for partisanship, political interest, and political knowledge, using “pretty standard” ways of measuring this. She presents the data on the extent of their Net usage; everyone had already been online. [You'll have to check the study for the actual data. I can't possibly type that fast!]

1. Online political cognitive engagement. They looked at whether the kids are reading blogs, commenting on them, involved in online discussions, forwarding info, etc. About 40% visited blogs (etc.) on political topics, and 16% commented on them. Women were less likely to participate. Race and ethnicity and parental education didn’t seem to matter. Political capital (= interest in politics) and your Net skills are positively correlated.

2. Civic engagement. 81% had engaged in some form, 54% talked to friends or family about current events a few times a week or more, 33% have organized the event of a club or organization. [Again, I can't keep up with all the data. I'm cherry-picking.] Gender doesn’t matter, but Asian Americans are more engaged, as are those who score higher on parental education, political capital, and online political engagement.

3. Voting. Race and ethnicity had a positive correlation with voting. Not parental education. Political capital and civic engagement both did. But online political cognitive measures did not. Neither did Net expertise/experience.

4. Political action, which includes everything from signing a petition to being a paid campaign worker. 65% had signed a petition. 22% had contacted a political official. 14% donated money. If you count any of those, 70% have engaged in political action. No correlation to gender, race/ethnicity, parental education But, there was a positive correlation with political capital, civic engagement, and Internet experiences (particularly the use of social networking sites, and skill).

Internet mattered for all of the outcomes, except for voting. Net skills seem to have enabled the social networking that is correlated with political action.

Conclusion: Simply being a Net user is not a direct factor; the relationships seems to be indirect and differential. And were there Obama effects? Only in the political action area, and there it was pretty minor and needs more investigation.

Q: Suppose you did a longitudinal study…?
A: That would be interesting. We actually have data on half of them about whether they voted in the gubernatorial election. I’d like to get funding to go back to the students.

Q: How can you get at what shifts in access have happened that might have spiked with the Obama effect providing an opportunity to engage? E.g., social media make it easier to send around petititions.
A: It’d be interesting to follow up on what’s going on at social network sites. We only asked if people checked other people’s status and updated their own.

Q: Net use doesn’t correlate to voting but not to political action?
A: Voting is a different type of political action. The people who vote tend to look slightly different than the people who engage in other forms of political action.

Q: How about people from out of state?
A: Almost all are from within Illinois.

Q: How active is the Deomcract Club at the U?
A: Good question.

Q: Did you look at local elections?
A: No.

Q: A study recently showed something like 85% of contributors to Wikipedia were male. Did you see anything similar with online political participation?
A: I (eszter) have been gathering nuanced data on Wikipedia participation, and it’s unbelievably gendered. Women are participating in political activity less, but the gap is much smaller than at Wikipedia. My research as shown that women contribute less content online [my phraseology — don't blame Eszter!], even with fan fiction.

A: [me] Did you break this down by ideology, as well as by partisanship?
Q: We haven’t broken it out yet.

A: I would have thought that political engagement and voting would be on the same trajectory, with the same determinants. Do you have a theory about they they’re not?
A: I do think they’re qualitatively different in American society.

Q: What data do you wish you had?
A: We’re proud of this data. We have a ton of it. It’d be good to have more data about Internet engagement/behavior. We also don’t have media consumption data.

Q: What is more important for a vibrant democracy for these young people, voting or activism?
A: It’s not an either/or. The literature suggests both are important. Cf. Talking Together. Their data suggests there are lots of people who are talking together.

[I missed some questions. Sorry. Don't forget these Tuesday lunch presentations are available online as webcasts.]

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February 14, 2011

The “Twitter doesn’t topple dictators” cliche undone, but leaderless networks don’t stay that way

Jay Rosen has a great post, full of links (because Jay practices what he preaches about transparency) on the popular article that keeps getting written that argues that Twitter does not topple dictators. By the time Jay is done exposing the predictable pattern those bogus articles take, you will not be able to take them seriously ever again. For which we should thank Prof. Rosen.

One extremely fruitful place the conversation can move to is Zeynep Tufecki’s fabulous post on why leaderless networks tend to develop leaders. “Preferential attachment” just tends to have that outcome, as much for political leaders as for bloggers (as per Clay Shirky’s famous “power law” argument). Zeynep writes, for instance:

It is not enough for the network to start out as relatively flat and it is not enough for the current high-influence people to wish it to remain flat, and it is certainly not enough to assume that widespread use of social media will somehow automatically support and sustain flat and diffuse networks.

On the contrary, influence in the online world can actually spontaneously exhibit even sharper all-or-nothing dynamics compared to the offline world, with everything below a certain threshold becoming increasingly weaker while those who first manage to cross the threshold becoming widely popular.

Zeynep’s analysis and presentation are brilliant. I come out of it only wondering if the almost-inevitable clustering around particular nodes is an indicator of leadership, and, if so, how much that itself changes the nature of leadership. That is, the fact that Wael Ghonim and Mohamed El-Baradei are likely to gain many, many Twitter followers, and to loom large in Web link maps makes them important social media personalities. But Ashton Kutcher by that measure is also important. Kutcher (because there is a God who loves us) is not a leader. But Ghonim and El-Baradei are. This seems to me to be a very different sense of leadership, indicating a serious change in the mechanics and semantics of leadership.

 


[The next day:] Paul Hartzog responds, criticizing Zeynep’s assumptions for presenting “one side of the evolution of networks, i.e. the growth phenomena, without presenting the other side, which are the constraining phenomena, such as carrying capacity.”

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