Joho the Blogfuture Archives - Joho the Blog

January 2, 2016

The future behind us

We’re pretty convinced that the future lies ahead of us. But according to Bernard Knox, the ancient Greeks were not. In Backing into the Future he writes:

“ The future, invisible, is behind us. ” the Greek word opiso, which literally means ‘behind’ or ‘back, refers not to the past but to the future. The early Greek imagination envisaged the past and the present as in front of us–we can see them. The future, invisible, is behind us. Only a few very wise men can see what is behind them. (p. 11)

G.W. Whitrow in Time in History quotes George Steiner in After Babel to make the same point about the ancient Hebrews:

…the future is preponderantly thought to lie before us, while in Hebrew future events are always expressed as coming after us. (p. 14)

Whitrow doesn’t note that Steiner’s quote (which Steiner puts in quotes) comes from Thorlief Borman’s Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. Borman writes:

…we Indo-Germanic peoples think of time as a line on which we ourselves stand at a point called now; then we have the future lying before us, and the past stretches out behind us. The [ancient] Israelites use the same expressions ‘before’ and ‘after’ but with opposite meanings. qedham means ‘what is before’ (Ps. 139.5) therefore, ‘remote antiquity’, past. ‘ahar means ‘back’, ‘behind’, and of the time ‘after; aharith means ‘hindermost side’, and then ‘end of an age’, future… (p. 149)

This is bewildering, and not just because the Borman’s writing is hard to parse.“we also sometimes switch the direction of future and past.”

He continues on to note that we modern Westerners also sometimes switch the direction of future and past. In particular, when we “appreciate time as the transcendental design of history,” we

think of ourselves as living men who are on a journey from the cradle to the grave and who stand in living association with humanity which is also journeying ceaselessly forward. . Then the generation of the past are our progenitors, at least our forebears, who have existed before us because they have gone on before us, and we follow after then. In that case we call the past foretime. According to this mode of thinking, the future generation are our descendants, at least our successors, who therefore come after us. (p. 149. Emphasis in the original.)

Yes, I find this incredibly difficult to wrap my brain around. I think the trick is the ambiguity of “before us.” The future lies before us, but our forebears were also before us.

Borman tries to encapsulate our contradictory ways of thinking about the future as follows: “the future lies before us but comes after us.” The problem in understanding this is that we hear “before us” as “ahead of us.” The word “before” means “ahead” when it comes to space.

Anyway.


Borman’s explanation of the ancient Hebrew way of thinking is related to Knox’s explanation of the Greek idiom:

From the psychological viewpoint it is absurd to say that we have the future before us and the past behind us, as though the future were visible to us and the past occluded. “…as though the future were visible to us and the past occluded. Quite the reverse is true.”Quite the reverse is true. What our forebears have accomplished lies before us as their completed works; the house we see, the meadows and fields, the cultural and political system are congealed expressions of the deeds of our fathers. The same is true of everything they have done, lived, or suffered; it lies before us as completed facts… The present and the future are, on the contrary still in the process of coming and becoming. (p. 150)

The nature of becoming is different for the Greeks and Hebrews, so the darkness of the future has different meanings. But both result in the future lying behind us.

1 Comment »

December 17, 2015

The Library in the Life of the User: An open platform use case

OCLC has posted an excellent report based on a recent conference, looking at how libraries can participate in the life of users, rather than thinking about the user’s life within the library.

I like this a lot. I’ve been talking about it in terms of libraries now being able to participate in the appropriation of culture that traditionally has occurred in private discussions outside the library: The user borrows a book, takes it home, and talks about it with her friends, etc. It is in those conversations that the reader makes the work her own.

Now that many of those conversations occur online, the library has the opportunity to offer services that facilitate these conversations, learn from them, and contribute to the act of cultural appropriation. That’s a big change and a big opportunity. (I’d say it’s huge, but I can’t use that word without hearing it in Trump’s voice, not to mention envisioning the shape of his mouth when he says it. So, nope, that word’s gone.)

One of the points of talking about libraries in the life of the user–Lorcan Dempsey‘s phrase from 1973 (I am a Lorcan fan) [LATER: In the comments below Merrilee Proffitt points out that the report says that while Lorcan popularized the phrase, it was coined by Douglas Zweizig. Sorry!] –is that user lives are much bigger than their lives in libraries. The library’s services therefore should not be confined to the relatively limited range of things that users do in libraries. In fact, users’ lives are so big and varied and unpredictable that libraries on their own can’t possible provide every service or address every opportunity for engaging in their users’ many acts of cultural appropriation.

Therefore, libraries ought to be adopting open platforms, i.e., public-facing APIs that let anyone with an idea build a new service or integrate into their own sites or apps the ideas being generated by networks of library users. Open platforms are ideal where needs and opportunities are unpredictable. Outside of cats trapped in physicists’ boxes, there is no more unpredictable domain than how people are going to make sense of their culture together.

Therefore: Open platforms for libraries!

2 Comments »

November 24, 2015

[berkman][liveblog] Robin Chase

Robin Chase is giving a lunchtime talk at the Berkman Center.

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.

There is a totally new organization paradigm that exists next to the Internet, she says. She calls it “Peers, Inc.” It changes how we shape the economy. It’s happening now. Her explanation will be in three parts:

Platforms

First, platforms for participation that leverage excess capacity. E.g., Facebook, Skype, Meetup, YouTube, MOOCs, open source, Blockchain, etc. For example, Skype is a telecoms company built on the excess capacity of its users systems. Working with excess capacity means sharing.

Bed-sharing (couchsurfing, AirBnB) uses excess beds. “It took four years for AirBnB to have more available beds than the largest hotel chain”It took four years for AirBnB to have more available beds than the largest hotel chain (InterContinental): 650,000. Couchsurfing has more than a couple of million.

We invented big institutions to do things that we can’t do as individuals. E.g., large investments, projects that require intelligence in lots of different areas, standardized contracts. And there are things that individuals do better: customization, specialization, creativity, trust.

These two coexist, and the Net enables them to collaborate. She calls this Peers, Inc. (“Institutions and governments are also Inc’s in this world view.”) The Inc’s provide a platform for participation, and the individual provides creativity and specialization.

Robin “adores excess capacity” because it’s green and efficient. Excess capacity is something that’s already been paid for but contains unused value. How do you harness it? 1. You can slice it so only pay for what they use (e.g., ZipCar); this lets you avoid buying more car than you need. 2. You can aggregate (e.g., AirBnB, Waze). 3. Open up these assets, e.g., data.gov and GPS.

The Inc side builds platforms for participation. They organize lots of small parts. “They “Platforms give the power of the large to the small”give the power of the large to the small.” They can scale. She points to a French car-sharing company: BlaBlaCar. Four million people use it every month.

Peers bring diversity. E.g., smartphones and apps. Smartphones are far harder to build than the apps they enable. Over 2M apps have been developed since smartphones were invented in the past seven years. “We’ve seen more innovation than throughout all of human history” because people can build apps that are relevant to their own situations. App creators are free-riders on top of the $600 people spend on their smartphones.

2. Peers Inc give us new powers, which she thinks of as miracles.

“The most depressing thing I know is climate change.” By 2100, we’ll see a 4-6°C increase unless we take dramatic action. What does that feel like? “The last time we were minus 7°F was the last ice age.” Warming the planet that amount transformed the planet. We should expect the same level of change if we boost it another 7°F. By 2060, it will be really awful. So we have to address this.

“Banny Bannerjee says: “You can’t solve exponential problems with linear solutions.””Banny Bannerjee says: “You can’t solve exponential problems with linear solutions.”

The “miracles” give her some optimism:

a. “We can defy the laws of physics” by leveraging excess capacity. If she had proposed building 640,000 rooms in four years she would have been told that that’s not possible. But AirBnb did it by leveraging existing excess capacity.

b. “We can tap exponential learning.” Platforms can get millions of iterations in and can do a lot of learning. E.g., learning a language. A semester is 130 hours. Rosetta Stone teaches the same in 54 hours. But it’s expensive. “My new favorite company is DuoLingo.” They do a lot of A/B testing. They now can teach you a semester in 34 hours. They have 90M people using it. A year and a half ago DuoLingo opened up its processes: Russians learning Balinese, etc. Now 45M of the 90M are learning language pairs DuoLingo did not create. (DuoLingo makes money because they have humans translating sentences from organizations that pay them incrementally.)

c. “The right person will appear.” E.g., Obama raised the prospect of normalizing relationships with Cuba. Six months later, AirBnB had 2,000 listings there, thanks to the Net.

Her only hope for climate change is creating platforms that will address climate “at scale, speed, and locally adapated.” E.g., a platform for a house will remember to turn off the light when there’s been no movement. We’ll get smart cities through the Internet of Things. Distributed energy. Autonomous vehicles, which will arrive in force in the next 5-12 years. We’ll only need 10% of the cars because we’ll be sharing them. “Public transportation will be at the cost of a bus but the speed of cars”Public transportation will be at the cost of a bus but the speed of cars, transforming job opportunities. (But the Internet of Things means that everything is tracked.)

All of these miracles only happen because of both sides of Peers Inc.

3. “Everything that can become a platform will become one.” Old-style industrial capitalism put thick boundaries around companies. Today, what’s inside and outside is blurred.

Four reasons Robin is convinced we’re moving into the collaborative economy:

1. Shared networked assets always provide more value than closed assets

2. More networked minds are smarter than fewer proprietary minds.

3. “The benefits of shared open assets are always larger than the problems associated with open assets.” E.g., yes, some people put scratches in ZipCars, but the company nevertheless is doing very well.

4. What I get is great than what I give.

We are in a time of instability. “Peers Inc is the only structure that can experiment, iterate, evolve and adapt at the pace required.”Peers Inc is the only structure that can experiment, iterate, evolve and adapt at the pace required.

So, how can we structure things so we give up the least privacy necessary? “What is the least privacy loss that delivers a habitable climate”

QA

Q: For me it’s not privacy loss but who we’re losing our privacy to. What about platform accountability? Aren’t we pushing out power into more abstract systems that we cannot see or address?

A: I was on a panel at the Platform Cooperativism conference. I pointed out that these platforms are incredibly expensive. ““He who finances the platforms creates the rules of engagement.”He who finances the platforms creates the rules of engagement.” “I want these platforms created by a distributed, autonomous us.” We don’t have time to just hope this happens. “I have real anxiety.”

Q: [me] Suppose we build protocol instead platforms…

A: I’ve put all of that into the same bucket.

Q: Shareable cars disrupt ZipCar. There will be user agreements. How do we disrupt that?

A: “He who creates the data owns the data.” Autonomous vehicles have a middle space, e.g., around safety and learning issues. It’s in the deep public interest to have this data. But we need to make the privacy issues understandable and parseable by ordinary users so they can choose.

Q: Isn’t privacy gone already?

A: We can still do some structuring.

Q: Why does trust work over the Web, which is mostly anonymous?

A: Ebay was the first to figure out you need ratings and commentaries. We use other people as our proxies for trust.

Q: iRobot’s Roombas currently don’t upload what they’ve learned about the layout of your house. But Nest knows everything. What should the rules be?

A: That’s what I’m asking you. We have to figure this out.

Q: It’d be great if we had more choice about which pieces of info we give to platforms. Is there any work on standard ways of parceling out pieces of our identity?

A: I know people are working on this. “It comes back to the amount of money, time, and marketing it takes to push great ideas into market.”

Q: What are we doing to educate the younger generation about privacy?

A: Maybe you can push Harvard to do appropriate role modeling. Maybe students here could push for an icon system that tells us what data you’re taking from us, etc.

Q: [me] What would you tell a student about the dangers? And would you consider addressing this by putting restrictions on how the data is used, rather than on its collection?

A: How about doing some pilots to see what works? You have to inform people about the dangers as well regulating the industry.

Q: How will we embed public safety concerns into software for self-driving cars?

A: Self-driving cars will always follow the rules. No speeding. No parking in no-parking zones. All the existing rules will be embedded. So we’ll embed the appropriate behavior for ambulances, etc. No siren required. Also: The auto industry always brings up autonomous cars having to decide which person to kill in an accident. But why would you bring up this stupid case? One in a million trips this might happen? There are more deaths than that now. “Right now, 80% of cars are single occupancy. We need to put a high price on that.”Right now, 80% of cars are single occupancy. We need to put a high price on that.

Q: It sounds like you’re describing a train: get somewhere, not park…Why not public transportation?

A: We’ll see how it plays out. It’ll be a complex ecosystem. It’ll be decided city by city. More important than who owns it are: Will they be electric? Will it be 10x more expensive for single occupancy? Will we have pharmacy cars or liquor cars that deliver their wares without having a storefront? Who will design the software?

Q: Practically, how do you combat zoning for selfishness, e.g., my own one-person gas guzzler?

A: I don’t spend a lot of time on local issues. When I have, logic and data haven’t had much effect.

Be the first to comment »

October 28, 2015

[liveblog] International Univ. Lib. conference: Afternoon panel

I’m at the International Conference on University Libraries (Conferencia Internacional sobre Bibliotecas Universitarias) in Mexico City.

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.

I am often relying on simultaneous translators, so the following is extra-specially unreliable.

Lynn Rudasill, U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The process of traditional Business-Based Strategic planning

  • Define the mission

  • Establish measurable goals

  • Implements strategies for those goals

  • Align resources to support these efforts

  • Employ the strategy as a large, iterative formalized process

The IFLA Trend Report reports on regional trends. It was developed by info people, not librarians. It reports on five trends

  • Increasing access to info

  • Online education

  • Privacy and data protection

  • Hyper-connected societies

  • New societies

Another report worth reading: The ALA Center for the Future of the Library Trends.

Her favorite: The Horizon Report series. The reports lay out timelines. The recent one has some topics shared between Higher Ed and Academic Libraries, including maker spaces.

These reports make clear the problems for strategic planning: “”We are no longer hierarchically based. We are networks.””“We are no longer hierarchically based. We are networks.” Not top down.

So we have to move from strategic plans (static, hierarchical) to strategic planning (dynamic, networked). Alternatives:

Strategic Framework: Identifies service objectives and their populations. Locates services that are no longer useful.

Grassroots Strategic Planning: Open engagement by all employees, often beginning with an all-=staff retreat. Ideas are broadly solicited, often anonymously. All ideas a discussed equally. There are brainstorming sessions. Decisions are made by buy-in from all quarters.

SOAR (was SWOT): Strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results. It’s an “appreciative inquiry to focus on best possible future.” It’s a much more positive approach.

Agile planning and scrum development: Flexible leadership, and overall leader and facilitator. Crosstraining. Teams focus on specific goals. The product owner is responsible for the final result.

Lourdes Epstein Cal y Mayor

[I missed the beginning. Sorry.] She thinks it important that research labs accept the ethical dimensions of what they’re doing. She quotes a tweet from @JGrobelny: “Libraries need to protect the culture of learning, not just its resources.” We have not done a good job measuring the impact of our work. What’s more important, our resources or our competencies? Even the distinction between hard and soft skills is suspect.

Ranganathan’s 5th Law of Library Science: “The Library is a Growing Organism.” We shouldn’t be surprised that libraries are changing. She cites Michael Gorman’s 1998 update of this.

We should pay attention to the growing number of Open Access scientific journals. This is crucial for libraries.

We need to be learning the lessons of Web 2.0. There is a profound change in the role of the social, in power relations. We need a broad view of what is happening.

The rise of VUCA: Volatility uncertainity, complexity, and ambiguity. We should match it with Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. We need to pay attention to those who we have written off or marginalized.

We should be doing more with predictive analysis to help our users. We need support from our institutions for this. For example, theDASH repository at Harvard (Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard). [Yay!] And “why aren’t we creating our own courses?”why aren’t we creating our own courses? We should be organizing info organiccally, with a virtuous circle of data, information and knowledge.

We live in amazing, amazing times. If we can join in the cycle of the generation of knowledge, we will succeed: user centered, open to society, and library-based…that’s how we create communities and networks of knowledge.

What do we do with information? Technologies of information set the emphasis. [Translation is fading out] Digital natives won’t be able to make sense of information unless we teach them the key competencies. The solutions are not technological. You can’t just hand out iPads.

We have to be mindful of our discourse. We get distracted by shiny tech. We have evolved from manuscripts constrained to the elite. But now with digital objects–not just digital books–there can be mass production of interconnected info, used by prosumers, some of whom may be kids coming up with worthy contributions. How do we assess all of these resources? That’s a major challenge for libraries.

But we’re learning. Bloom’s taxonomy is transforming into verbs: record, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create. Now the last step of learning is to create. If I’m not creating, I’m not fully learning. A library that does not understand this will turn into a museum or a warehouse. Creation and collaboration the keywords of our time. Our use of library space should reflect this.

We need to move from:

  • individual to collective

  • Consumer to producuer

  • Resources to rpocessors

  • Institutional to “out-stitution” [does not translate well]

Scott Bennett

Scott is Yale University Librarian Emeritus. His topic is “Library as Learning Space.”

He says there have been leitmotifs today, including the librarians ought to act more as educators. Librarians tell him that they want to build a space for learning, but then can’t say what they want to go on in the space. Scott is going to talk about what learning is.

Libraries have recently faced two revolutions. First, the self-empowerment revolution brought about by the presence of Internet browser. Second, pedagogical changes from the Sage on the Stage to a Guy on the Side. This changes the relationship between learner and teacher, and between novice and expert.

As a consequence of the first much of the print collection has disappeared from prime library space. Because of the second traditional services–reference services–are vanishing. Scott will focus on the second.

Two concepts help understand the revolution in learning. First, from learning about to learning to be. E.g., away “from learning facts of science and toward learning to think like a scientist.”from learning facts of science and toward learning to think like a scientist. Second, learning as a perpetual process of becoming.

We should think of ourselves first as educators. That will help us decide how to shape library space. “We must focus most fundamentally on the voluntary relationship between expert and novice, teacher and learner.”

The first question is: Who owns the learning space of libraries? Second: How do we shape the experience of becoming.

Wh owns library space? “Almost everyone on campus feels ownership. Yet we typically treat students as guests or visitors.”Almost everyone on campus feels ownership. Yet we typically treat students as guests or visitors. We’ve started creating student-owned commons, especially in science buildings. Students own their tutoring space as they occupy it.

“How does our presence shape our relationship with students?” Reference desks announce a relationship in which one person owns the desk and has authoritative knowledge. The desk also is designed for queueing. “”So designed, service desks reinforce a transactional, consumerist vision of what we do.””“So designed, service desks reinforce a transactional, consumerist vision of what we do.” We’ve tried re-designing them, but we rarely think about how we can present ourselves to learners, establish a relationship with them, without using the desk to define who we are and how we work.

Tutoring staff typically do not see themselves as Sages on Stages. This determines how they shape their tutoring spaces, which sends a distinct message to learners that is quite different from that of the typical library space. Librarians think of themselves as learning coaches, but the spaces and services send a very different message. That helps librarians sense of themselves as professionals, but does not engage in the new forms of learning.

To become educators, we have to rethink our presence in library space. Presence involves issues of ownership and pedagogy. Librarians understand themselves primarily in terms of learning and not service delivery. The goal is for us to be in learning spaces without dominating them. Presence in learning is the single most important issue in planning spaces.

Q&A

Q: Libraries are filled with people doing low-quality learning, sitting quietly. But we have spaces that can accommodate more engaged, embodied learning.

Q: What traits must a librarian have to become an educator in this learning speaes?
Scott: The librarian should shift his/her sense of primarily focus from the student to the faculty because that scales better. Mopping up after a bad teacher is not as effective as working with the teacher. “Librarians ought to have their offices with the educators in their disciplines.”Librarians ought to have their offices with the educators in their disciplines. The library building should not be their home.

Q: All organizations ought to have strategic planning.

Lynn: Sometimes we only the measure the things that are easy to measure. We don’t go beyond log analysis to see what the students are learning. Also our planning, we tend to be driven by the advances of techology. But why aren’t we driving technology instead of allowing it to drive us?

Lourdes: We’re moving to new processes but haven’t established ways to measure. Now we can automate much of the measurement. But we also need to carry out qualitative studies. But we also have to ask what we’re going to do with the data. We have done many studies but we do nothing with them. We don’t go to the Dean and ask for backing for new programs.

Q: I agree with Lourdes that the library ought to be seen as a lab. We have to adapt.

Be the first to comment »

October 26, 2015

[liveblog][act-tiac] A federal portal in the age of search?

Sarah Crane, Dir., Federal Citizen Information Center, GSA., is going to talk about USA.gov. “In a world where everyone can search and has apps, is a web portal relevant?,” she asks.

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.


When the US web portal (first.gov [archival copy]) was launched in 2000, it had an important role in aggregating and centralizing content. Now people arrive through search.


USA.gov is a platform that offers a full suite of bilingual products, built around a single structured API: information, contacts, social media, etc. All is built around a single API. The presentation layer is independent of the content. Thanks to the API, all the different outputs use the same consistent content.


It’s designed to integrate with other agency content. In fact, they don’t want to be writing any of the content; it should come from other agencies. Also, it’s built to so its modules and content can be reused. And it’s built to scale. It can support expansion or consolidation. E.g., if an initiative loses steam, its content can be pulled in and be kept available.


How people use govt services: They look online, they ask their friends, and they expect it to be easy. People are surprised when it’s complex. Some people prefer in-person help.


So, how does the portal remain relevant?


Customer experience is a core tenant. They recently launched a Customer Experience division. Constant measurement of performance. Fixing what doesn’t work. Clear lines of reporting up to the senior management. The lines of reporting also reach all the way to the devs.


Last year they re-did their personas, based on four different behaviors: 1. Someone who knows exactly what s/he’s looking for. 2. Someone has a general idea, but not informed enough to search. 3. Someone wants to complete a transaction. 4. Someone who wants to contact an elected official. They analyzed the experiences, and did “journey maps”: how someone gets to what she wants. These journeys often include travels into other agencies, which they also mapped.


What’s next for them now that info is cheap and easy to find? Sarah likes Mint.com‘s model:


  • Aggregated, personalized content collected from multiple agencies.

  • Pre-emptive service – alert, etc.

  • Relevant updates as you are in the task.

For further info, see Blog.USA.gov, and USA.gov/Explore


Q&A

Q: [me] Are people building on top of your API?


A: Some aspects, yes. Heavily used: the A-Z agency index – the only complete listing of every agency and their contact info. There’s a submission to build a machine-readable org chart of the govt that will build on top of our platform. [OMG! That would be incredible! And what is happening to me that I’m excited about a machine-readable org chart?]


Also if you use bit.ly to shorten a gov’t url, it creates one.usa.gov which you can use to track twitter activity, etc.


Certain aspects of the API are being used heavily, primarily the ones that show a larger perspective.


Q: Won’t people find personal notifications from the govt creepy, even though they like it when it’s Mint or Amazon?


A: The band-aid solution is to make it opt-in. Also being transparent about the data, where it’s stored, etc. This can never be mandatory. The UK’s e-verify effort aims at making the top 20 services digital through a single ID. We’d have to study that carefully We’d have to engage with the privacy groups (eg., EPIC) early on.


Q: Suppose it was a hybrid of automated and manual? E.g., I tell the site I’m turning 62 and then it gives me the relevant info, as opposed to it noting from its data that I’m turning 62.


Q: We’re losing some of the personal contact. And who are you leaving behind?


A: Yes, some people want to talk in person. Our agency actually started in 1972 supplying human-staffed kiosks where people could ask questions. Zappos is a model: You can shop fully online, but people call their customer service because it’s so much fun. We’re thinking about prompting people if they want to chat with a live person.


The earliest adopters are likely to be the millennials, and they’re not the ones who need the services generally. But they talk with their parents.

 


 

I briefly interviewed Sarah afterwards. Among other things, I learned:



  • The platform was launched in July


  • They are finding awesome benefits to the API approach as an internal architecture: consistent and efficiently-created content deployed across multiple sites and devices; freedom to innovate at both the front and back end; a far more resilient system that will allow them to swap in a new CMS with barely a hiccup.


  • I mentioned NPR’s experience with moving to an API architecture, and she jumped in with  COPE (create once, publish everywhere) and has been talking with Dan Jacobson, among others. (I wrote about that here.)


  • She’s certainly aware of the “government as platform” approach, but says that that phrase and model is more direclty influential over at 18F


  • Sarah is awesome.

Be the first to comment »

[liveblog][act-tiac] The nation's front door

Sarah Crane, Dir., Federal Citizen Information Center, GSA., is going to talk about USA.gov. “In a world where everyone can search and has apps, is a web portal relevant?,” she asks.

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.

When the US web portal (first.gov [archival copy]) was launched in 2000, it had an important role in aggregating and centralizing content. Now people arrive through search.

USA.gov is a platform that offers a full suite of bilingual products, built around a single structured API: information, contacts, social media, etc. All is built around a single API. The presentation layer is independent of the content. Thanks to the API, all the different outputs use the same consistent content.

It’s designed to integrate with other agency content. In fact, they don’t want to be writing any of the content; it should come from other agencies. Also, it’s built to so its modules and content can be reused. And it’s built to scale. It can support expansion or consolidation. E.g., if an initiative loses steam, its content can be pulled in and be kept available.

How people use govt services: They look online, they ask their friends, and they expect it to be easy. People are surprised when it’s complex. Some people prefer in-person help.

So, how does the portal remain relevant?

Customer experience is a core tenant. They recently launched a Customer Experience division. Constant measurement of performance. Fixing what doesn’t work. Clear lines of reporting up to the senior management. The lines of reporting also reach all the way to the devs.

Last year they re-did their personas, based on four different behaviors: 1. Someone who knows exactly what s/he’s looking for. 2. Someone has a general idea, but not informed enough to search. 3. Someone wants to complete a transaction. 4. Someone who wants to contact an elected official. They analyzed the experiences, and did “journey maps”: how someone gets to what she wants. These journeys often include travels into other agencies, which they also mapped.

What’s next for them now that info is cheap and easy to find? Sarah likes Mint.com‘s model:

  • Aggregated, personalized content collected from multiple agencies.

  • Pre-emptive service – alert, etc.

  • Relevant updates as you are in the task.

See Blog.USA.gov, and USA.gov/Explore

Q&A

Q: [me] Are people building on top of your API?

A: Some aspects, yes. Heavily used: the A-Z agency index – the only complete listing of every agency and their contact info. There’s a submission to build a machine-readable org chart of the govt that will build on top of our platform. [OMG! That would be incredible! And what is happening to me that I’m excited about a machine-readable org chart?]

Also if you use bit.ly to shorten a gov’t url, it creates one.usa.gov which you can use to track twitter activity, etc.

Certain aspects of the API are being used heavily, primarily the ones that show a larger perspective.

Q: Won’t people find personal notifications from the govt creepy, even though they like it when it’s Mint or Amazon?

A: The band-aid solution is to make it opt-in. Also being transparent about the data, where it’s stored, etc. This can never be mandatory. The UK’s e-verify effort aims at making the top 20 services digital through a single ID. We’d have to study that carefully We’d have to engage with the privacy groups (eg., EPIC) early on.

Q: Suppose it was a hybrid of automated and manual? E.g., I tell the site I’m turning 62 and then it gives me the relevant info, as opposed to it noting from its data that I’m turning 62.

Q: We’re losing some of the personal contact. And who are you leaving behind?

A: Yes, some people want to talk in person. Our agency actually started in 1972 supplying human-staffed kiosks where people could ask questions. Zappos is a model: You can shop fully online, but people call their customer service because it’s so much fun. We’re thinking about prompting people if they want to chat with a live person.

The earliest adopters are likely to be the millennials, and they’re not the ones who need the services generally. But they talk with their parents.

 


 

I briefly interviewed Sarah afterwards. Among other things, I learned:

  • The platform was launched in July.

  • The platform software is open source.

  • They are finding awesome benefits to the API approach as an internal architecture: consistent and efficiently-created content deployed across multiple sites and devices; freedom to innovate at both the front and back end; a far more resilient system that will allow them to swap in a new CMS with barely a hiccup.

  • I mentioned NPR’s experience with moving to an API architecture, and she jumped in with COPE (create once, publish everywhere) and has been talking with Dan Jacobson, among others. (I wrote about that here.)

  • She’s certainly aware of the “government as platform” approach, but says that that phrase and model is more directly influential over at 18F

  • Sarah is awesome. The people in government service these days!

Be the first to comment »

[liveblog][act-iac] Innovation in govt

Brian Nordmann (Senior Advisor, Arms Control, Verification and Compliance at U.S. Department of State) begins with the standard disclaimer that he’s not speaking for the Dept. of State. And here’s mine:

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.

Brian reminds us that “innovation” has become a tired term. There was a govt flurry to innovate, but no one said exactly what “innovation” means. The State Dept. built a structure so there could be quarterly reports on innovation. “If you want to guarantee that you don’t do anything innovative, create a structure for writing reports.” He says this was a shame because in the basement there was already the perfect place for innovation: The Foggy Bottom Cafe — Starbucks, ice cream parlor, etc.. Sect’y Colin Powell went down there every day because he knew in 45 minutes he’d get twenty-five innovative ideas. People sit there and share ideas. “This is how you get innovation done in the gov’t”: Give people the freedom to talk, and the freedom to fail.

A couple of years ago his group started doing public challenges. In the first one, they got 150 entries. They awarded $5K for ideas they would have had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for. But then the lawyers discovered they were doing this and wrote a EULA for the site — 28 pages, with buttons strewn throughout that you have to press. Twenty-seven people applied to that year’s challenge.

Brian’s job is simple: Get rid of all nuclear weapons in the world. His office’s job is to come up with ways to verify agreements. In the 1960s, the sensors were physically large: big, expensive, fragile, and now replacement parts don’t exist. A radar installation in the Aleutian Islands looking for nuclear missile launches uses vacuum tubes.

Now their challenge is to explore arms control in the information age. What can we learn from YouTube, Facebook, etc.? But the lawyers say that’s a privacy violation. So, instead they’re investigating the Internet of Things. People don’t mean the same thing by that phrase. Brian means by it: networks with sensors.

Are there things we can do to get the public involved in arms control? It’s a complex issue, but you can simplify it to: What can we do to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Brian holds up a small spectrometer that feeds into a laptop. It’s used to analyze water quality. Another instrument is a rolled-up piece of cardboard that attaches to your phone. And smartphones’ accelerometers can sense earthquakes…and nuclear explosions. They could alert agencies that they need to look at the explosion more closely.

Researchers in Hawaii bought 12 iPhone6’s to explore this, which tripped an alarm at Apple. Apple contacted the researchers. The researchers told Apple that their phones could be used as seismic detectors, and that the iPhone6 degraded that capability. The researchers are trying to broaden Apple’s sense that its phones can be used for more than app delivery.

For innovation, you want to talk to new people, not the same people all the time. By bringing in new people, you’ll get a lot of junk, but also some ideas worth exploring. Hobbyists and startups are generally better to talk with than large companies. Brian spoke with Tom Dolby, ex of MTV, who has a media lab at Johns Hopkins that is working with Baltimore youth. Brian works with a California group teaching Latino kids how to program. Imagine putting them together, along with people from around the world, and create a Teen Summit. Imagine they see what they have in common and what they do not.

Q: How are you communicating to device manufacturers that they are platforms for innovation?

A: People respond to a title that ends with “US Dept. of State.”

Be the first to comment »

August 18, 2015

Newton’s non-clockwork universe

The New Atlantis has just published five essays exploring “The Unknown Newton”. It is — bless its heart! — open access. Here’s the table of contents:

Rob Iliffe provides an overview of Newton’s religious thought, including his radically unorthodox theology.

William R. Newman examines the scientific ambitions in Newton’s alchemical labors, which are often written off as deviations from science.

Stephen D. Snobelen — who in the course of writing his essay discovered Newton’s personal, dog-eared copy of a book that had been lost — provides an in-depth look at the connection between Newton’s interpretation of biblical prophecy and his cosmological views.

Andrew Janiak explains how Newton reconciled the apparent tensions between the Bible and the new view of the world described by physics.

Finally, Sarah Dry describes the curious fate of Newton’s unpublished papers, showing what they mean for our understanding of the man and why they remained hidden for so long.


Stephen Snobelen’s article, “Cosmos and Apocalypse,” begins with a paper in the John Locke collection at the Bodelian: Newton’s hand-drawn timeline of the events in Revelations. Snobelen argues that we’ve read too much of The Enlightenment back into Newton.


In particular, the concept of the universe as a pure clockwork that forever operates according to mechanical laws comes from Laplace, not Newton, says Snobelen. He refers to David Kubrin’s 1967 paper “Newton and the Cyclical Cosmos“; it is not open access. (Sign up for free with Jstor and you get constrained access to its many riches.) Kubrin’s paper is a great piece of work. He makes the case — convincingly to an amateur like me — that Newton and many of his cohorts feared that a perfectly clockwork universe that did not need Divine intervention to operate would be seen as also not needing God to start up. Newton instead thought that without God’s intervention, the universe would wind down. He hypothesized that comets — newly discovered — were God’s way of refreshing the Universe.


The second half of the Kubrin article is about the extent to which Newton’s late cosmogeny was shaped by his Biblical commitments. Most of Snobelen’s article is about a discovery in 2004 of a new document that confirms this, and adds to it that God’s intervention heads the universe in a particular direction:

In sum, Newton’s universe winds down, but God also renews it and ensures that it is going somewhere. The analogy of the clockwork universe so often applied to Newton in popular science publications, some of them even written by scientists and scholars, turns out to be wholly unfitting for his biblically informed cosmology.

Snobelen attributes this to Newton’s recognition that the universe consists of forces all acting on one another at the same time:

Newton realized that universal gravity signaled the end of Kepler’s stable orbits along perfect ellipses. These regular geometric forms might work in theory and in a two-body system, but not in the real cosmos where many more bodies are involved.

To maintain the order represented by perfect ellipses required nudges and corrections that only a Deity could accomplish.


Snobelen points out that the idea of the universe as a clockwork was more Leibniz’s idea than Newton’s. Newton rejected it. Leibniz got God into the universe through a far odder idea than as the Pitcher of Comets: souls (“monads”) experience inhabiting a shared space in which causality obtains only because God coordinatis a string of experiences in perfect sync across all the monads.


“Newton’s so-called clockwork universe is hardly timeless, regular, and machine-like,” writes Snobelen. “[I]nstead, it acts more like an organism that is subject to ongoing growth, decay, and renewal.” I’m not sold on the “organism” metaphor based on Snobelen’s evidence, but that tiny point aside, this is a fascinating article.

1 Comment »

April 14, 2015

[shorenstein] Managing digital disruption in the newsroom

David Skok [twitter:dskok] is giving a Shorenstein Center lunchtime talk on managing digital disruption in the newsroom. He was the digital advisor to the editor of the Boston Globe. Today he was announced as the new managing editor of digital at the Globe. [Congrats!]

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 a Nieman fellow David audited a class at the Harvard Business School taught by Clay Christensen, of “creative destruction” fame. This gave him the sense that whether or not newspapers will survive, journalism will. Companies can be disrupted, but for journalism it means that for every legacy publisher that’s disrupted, there are new entrants that enter at the low end and move up market. E.g., Toyota started off at the low end and ended up making Lexuses. David wrote an article with Christensen [this one?] that said that you may start with aggregation and cute kittens, but as you move up market you need higher quality journalism that brings in higher-value advertising. “So I came out of the project doubly motivated as a journalist,” but also wanting to hold off the narrative that there is an inevitability to the demise of newspapers.


He helped started GlobalNews.ca and got recruited for the Globe. There he held to the RPP model: the Resources, Process, and Priorities you put in place to help frame an organizational culture. It’s important for legacy publishers to see that it isn’t just tech that’s bringing down newspapers; the culture and foundational structure of those organizations are also to blame.

Priorities:
If you take away the Internet, a traditional news organization is a print factory line. The Internet tasks were typically taken up by the equivalent groups with in the org. Ultimately, the publisher’s job is how to generate profit, so s/he picks the paths that lead most directly to short-term returns. But that means user experience gets shuffled down, as does the ability of the creators to do “frictionless journalism.” On the Internet, I can write the best lead but if you can’t read it on your phone in 0.1 seconds, it doesn’t exist. The human experience has to be the most important thing. The consumer is the most important person in this whole transaction. How are we making sure that person is pleased?


In the past 18 months David has done a restructuring of the Globe online. He’s been the general mgr of Boston.com. Every Monday he meets with all the group leads, including the sales team (which he does not manage for ethical journalism reasons). This lets them set priorities not at the publisher level where they are driven by profit, but by user and producer experience. The conceit is that if they produce good user and producer experiences, the journalism will be better, and that will ultimately drive more revenue in advertising and subscriptions.


The Globe had a free site (Boston.com) and a paywall site (bostonglobe.com). This was set up before his time. Boston.com relative to its size as a website business has a remarkable amount of revenue via advertising. BostonGlobe.com is a really healthy digital subscription business. It has more subscriptions in North America outside of the NYT and WSJ. These are separate businesses that had been smushed together. So David split them up.

Processes:

They’ve done a lot to change their newsroom processors. Engineers are now in the newsroom. They use agile processes. The newsroom is moving toward an 18-24 hour cycle as opposed to the print cycle.


We do three types of journalism on our sites:


1. Digital first — the “bloggy stuff.” How do we add something new to those conversations that provides the Globe’s unique perspective? We don’t want to be writing about things simply because everyone else is. We want to bring something new to it. We have three digital first writers.


2. The news of the day. We do a good job with this, as demonstrated during the Marathon bombing.


3. Enterprise stuff — long investigations, etc. Those stories get incredible engagement. “It’s heartening.” They’re experimenting with release schedules: how do you maximize the exposure of a piece?

Resources:
In terms of resources: We’re looking at our content management system (CMS). Ezra Klein went to Vox in part because of their CMS. You need a CMS that gives reporters what they need and want. We also need better realtime analytics.


Priorities, Processes + Resources = organizational culture.

Q&A
Q: You’re optimistic…?


A: We’re now entering the third generation of journalism on line. First: [missed it]. Second: SEO. Third: the social phase, the network effect. How are we engaging our readers so that they feel responsible to help us succeed? We’re not in the business of selling impressions [=page views, etc.] but experiences. E.g., we have a bracket competition (“Munch Madness“) for restaurant reviews. We tell advertisers that you’re getting not just views but experiences.


Q: [alex jones] And these revenues are enough to enable the Globe to continue…?


A: It would be foolish of me to say yes, but …


Q: [alex jones] How does the Globe attract an audience that’s excited but civil?


A: Part of it is thinking about new ways of doing journalism. E.g., for the Tsarnaev trial, we created cards that appear on every page that give you a synopsis of the day’s news and all the witnesses and evidence online. We made those cards available to any publisher who wanted them. They’re embeddable. We reached out to every publisher in New England that can’t cover it in the depth that the Globe can” and offered it to them for free. “We didn’t get as much uptake as we’d like,” perhaps because the competitive juices are still flowing.


Then there are the comments. When news orgs first put comments on their site, they thought about them as digital letters to the editor. Comments serve another purpose: they are a product and platform in and of themselves where your community can talk about your product. They’re not really tied to the article. Some comments “make me weep because they’re so beautiful.”


Q: As journalists are being asked to do much more, what do you think about the pay scale declining?


A: I can’t speak for the industry. The Globe pays competitively. We’re creating jobs now. And there are so many more outlets out there that didn’t exist five years ago. Journalists today aren’t just writers. They’re sw engineers, designers, etc.


I’m increasingly concerned about the lack of women engineers entering the field. Newspapers have as much responsibility as any other industry to address this issue.


Q: How to monetize aggregators?


A: If we were to try to go to every org that aggregates us, it’d be a fulltime job. We released a story online on a Feb. afternoon about Jeb Bush at Andover. [This one?] By Friday night, it was all over. I don’t view it as a threat. We have a meter. My job is to make sure that our reporting is good enough that you’ll use your credit card and sign up. I’m in awe in the number of people who sign up every day. We have churn issues as does everyone, but the meter business has been a success.


Q: [me] As you redo your CMS, have you thought about putting in an API? If so, would you consider opening it to the public?


A: When I’ve opened up API sets, there has been minimal takeup.


Q: What other newspapers are doing a good job addressing digital issues? And does the ownership structure matter?


A: The Washington Post, and they have a very similar ownership structure as the Globe.


Q: [alex] What’s Bezo’s effect on the WaPo?


A: Having the Post appear on every Kindle is something we’d all like for ourselves.


Q: Release schedule?


A: Our newsroom’s phenomenal editors are recognizing and believing that we are not a platform-specific business. We find only one in four of our print subscribers logged on to the web site with any frequency. We have two different audiences.We’ve had no evidence that releasing stories earlier on digital cannibalizes our print business. I love print. But when I get the Sunday edition, I feel guilty if I recycle it before I’ve read it all. So why not give people the opportunity to read it when they want? If it’s ready on a Wed., let them read it on Wed. Different platforms have different reader habits.

Q: What’s native to the print version?

A: Some of the enterprise reporting perhaps. But it’s more obvious in format issues. E.g., the print showed the 30 charges Tsarnaev was charged with. It had an emotional impact that digital did not.


Q: Is your print audience entirely over the age of 50?


A: No. It’s a little older than our overall numbers, but not that much.


Q: What are you doing to reduce the churn rate? What’s worked on getting print and digital folks to understand each other?


A: I’m a firm believer in data. We’re not pushing for digital change because we want to but because data backs up our claims. About frictionlessness: It’s so easy to buy goods. Uber. Even buying a necklace. We’re working with a backend database that is complex. We have to tie that into our digital product. The front end complexities on how users can pay come from the complexity of the back end.


Q: [nick sinai] I appreciate your comments about bringing designers, developers, UX into the newsroom. That’s what we’re trying to do in the govt. for digital services. How about data journalism.


A: Data journalism lets you tell stories you didn’t know where there. My one issue: We’ve reached a barrier: we’re reliant on what datasets are available.


Q: How many reporters work for print, Boston.com, and BostonGlobe.com


A: 250 journalists or so work for the Globe and they all work for all platforms.


Q: Are different devices attracting different stories? E.g., a long enterprise story may do better on particular devices. Where is contradiction, nuance, subtlety in this environment? How much is constrained by the device?


A: Yes, there are form-specific things. But there are also social-specific things. If you’re coming from Reddit, your behavior is different from your behavior coming from Facebook, etc. Each provides its own unique expectation of the reader. We’re trying to figure out how to be smarter in detecting where you’re coming from and what assets we should serve up to you. E.g., if you’re coming from Reddit and are going back to talk about the article, maybe you’re never going to subscribe, but could we provide a FB Like button, etc.?


Q: Analytics?


A: The most important metric for me is journalistic impact. That’s hard to measure. Sheer number? The three legislators who can change a law? More broadly: At the top of the funnel, it’s how to grow our audience: page views, shares, unique visitors, etc. As you get deeper into the funnel it’s about how much you engage with the site: bounce rate, path, page views per visit,time spent, etc. Third metric: return frequency. If you had a really good experience, did you come back: return visits, subscribers, etc.


[Really informative talk.]

2 Comments »

January 7, 2015

Harvard Library adopts LibraryCloud

According to a post by the Harvard Library, LibraryCloud is now officially a part of the Library toolset. It doesn’t even have the word “pilot” next to it. I’m very happy and a little proud about this.

LibraryCloud is two things at once. Internal to Harvard Library, it’s a metadata hub that lets lots of different data inputs be normalized, enriched, and distributed. As those inputs change, you can change LibraryCloud’s workflow process once, and all the apps and services that depend upon those data can continue to work without making any changes. That’s because LibraryCloud makes the data that’s been input available through an API which provides a stable interface to that data. (I am overstating the smoothness here. But that’s the idea.)

To the Harvard community and beyond, LibraryCloud provides open APIs to access tons of metadata gathered by Harvard Library. LibraryCloud already has metadata about 18M items in the Harvard Library collection — one of the great collections — including virtually all the books and other items in the catalog (nearly 13M), a couple of million of images in the VIA collection, and archives at the folder level in Harvard OASIS. New data can be added relatively easily, and because LibraryCloud is workflow based, that data can be updated, normalized and enriched automatically. (Note that we’re talking about metadata here, not the content. That’s a different kettle of copyrighted fish.)

LibraryCloud began as an idea of mine (yes, this is me taking credit for the idea) about 4.5 years ago. With the help of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, which I co-directed until a few months ago, we invited in local libraries and had a great conversation about what could be done if there were an open API to metadata from multiple libraries. Over time, the Lab built an initial version of LibraryCloud primarily with Harvard data, but with scads of data from non-Harvard sources. (Paul Deschner, take many many bows. Matt Phillips, too.) This version of LibraryCloud — now called lilCloud — is still available and is still awesome.

With the help of the Library Lab, a Harvard internal grant-giving group, we began a new version based on a workflow engine and hosted in the Amazon cloud. (Jeffrey Licht, Michael Vandermillen, Randy Stern, Paul Deschner, Tracey Robinson, Robin Wendler, Scott Wicks, Jim Borron, Mary Lee Kennedy, and many more, take bows as well. And we couldn’t have done it without you, Arcardia Foundation!) (Note that I suffer from Never Gets a List Right Syndrome, so if I left you out, blame my brain and let me know. Don’t be shy. I’m ashamed already.)

The Harvard version of LibraryCloud is a one-library implementation, although that one library comprises 73 libraries. Thus the LibraryCloud Harvard has adopted is a good distance from the initial vision of a single API for accessing multiple libraries. But it’s a big first step. It’s open source code [documentation]. Who knows?

I think it’s impressive that Harvard Library has taken this step toward adopting a platform architecture, and it’s cool beyond cool that this architecture is further opening up Harvard Library’s metadata riches to any developer or site that wants to use it. (This also would not have happened without Harvard Library’s enlightened Open Metadata policy.)

1 Comment »

Next Page »


Creative Commons License
Joho the Blog by David Weinberger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Creative Commons license: Share it freely, but attribute it to me, and don't use it commercially without my permission.

Joho the Blog gratefully uses WordPress blogging software.
Thank you, WordPress!