Joho the Blogliveblog Archives - Joho the Blog

June 3, 2015

[liveblog] Walter Bender

Walter Bender of SugarLabs begins by saying “What I’m all about is tools.” “The character of tools shapes what you can do.” He’s an advocate of “software libre” that lets the user be the shaper. That brings responsibility, which Walter wants to celebrate.

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.

He’s going to talk about http://turtle.sugarlabs.com

He goes back to Papert and Cynthia Solomon who in the late 1960s invented Logo. Fifty years ago. Then Jobs and Gates gave us babysitting: sw was there to be used, not an environment for creating ideas. You have to be given the tools and the knowledge.

In 1971, Papert and Solomon wrote “Twenty things you can do with software.” Walter today is going to give us a sense of the breadth of things you can do with software:


  • Using Turtle Blocks to draw interesting shapes, or create a paint program or paint with noise or attach pen size to time. “Once it belongs to you, you’re responsible for it it. And then it has to be cool, because who wants to be responsible for something that’s not cool?”


  • Challenges and puzzles


  • Add sensors, cameras, etc., create aa burglar alarm that photos the burglar


  • measure gravitational acceleration


  • Continent game written by a third grader


  • Build a robot


  • Model math


  • Collaborate across the network in a multimedia chat program


You can even extend the language. You can export your program into another programming language. A child wrote an extension to the language to download maps.

Turtle Blocks tries to make the learning visible to the learner — statistics about what the learner is doing, etc.

It’s got to be easy enough that you’ll try it, but it has to be hard if you’re going to learn. Many tools have low floors to enable easy entry but they also have low ceilings.

“Debugging is the greatest oppportunity for learning in the 21st century.” (Walter ties this idea to Cynthia Solomon.)

What motivates people: autonomy, a sense of mastery, and having a sense of purpose.

1 Comment »

[liveblog] Ronen Sofer from Intel

Ronen Sofer from Intel shows a video that is in favor of education.

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. Listening through a translator. You are warned, people.

How do we connect tech and people? [He gives a post-ironic spiel, mocking typical industry pitches.] But the real challenge in “going beyond the screen.”

So far, the screen has been an interactive text book. Very structured. Visually rich. How to get closer to personal tutoring.

Barriers: 1. Sensing, recognizing and understanding me; 2. Reacting and reasoning

What Intel can offer:


  • Perceptual computing


  • RealSense enable detection of faces, expressions, sentiment, etc.


  • PerC Avatars: avatars that mimic your expressions


  • Physical activity context – fitbit-ish


  • understanding of time: when is the optimal time for studying


  • Makerspace stuff


  • Natural language, cognitive computing, connected classroom, KNO content management for ed


  • RealSense + Scratch (RealScratch)

  • Comments Off on [liveblog] Ronen Sofer from Intel

[liveblog] Yoram Yaacovi on Hololens

Yoram Yaacovi from Microsoft talks about Hololens and shows an awesome video. Maybe this one.

Imagine, he says, being at home but seeing the people next to you in the classroom. Also: collaboratie prototyping. Interactive whiteboards. Expanded user interfaces. Design for Reparability.

He shows a supercool video of an educational use.

He doesn’t know when it will be available.

1 Comment »

[liveblog] Todd Revolt on AR

Todd Revolt is worth Meta. It has 70 people. It’s shipping a Meta 1 developer kit. You use common hand gestures to manipulate virtual things.

He shows a video of people wearing Oculus Rifts in the real world and failing to navigate. Instead, Meta wants you to be together with people in the real world.

With augmented reality, he says, people know how to work it without training. Examples:

Fourth largest cause of death in the US: medical error. But with AR we can do more useful simulations. You can see the vital signs and the next steps in the procedures.

Princess Leia standing on your clipboard.

1 Comment »

[liveblog] Miriam Reiner on VR for learning

Miriam Reiner is giving a talk on virtual reality. Her lab collects info about brain activity under VR to create a model of optimal learning.

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.

Her lab lets them provide sensory experiences virtually: you can feel water, etc. New haptic interfaces. There’s a kickstarter project for an Oculus Rift that lets you smell and feel a breeze and temperature.

They also do augmented reality, overlaying the virtual onto the real.

A robot she worked with last year suffers from the uncanny valley. Face to face is important. “Only 10% of information is conveyed through words.”

In an experiment, they re-created a student virtually and had her teach another student how to use a blood pressure machine.

VR can help us understand what learning is. And enhance it.

Exxample: A human wears electrodes. As she plays a VR game, her brain activity is recorded. They measured response times to light, auditory, and haptic signals, Auditory was fastest. But if you put all three together, the response time goes down dramatically. What does this mean for learning? We should find out. It looks like multi-modal sensation increases learning.

If you learn something in the morning, and they test you over the next few days, your memory of it will be best after sleep. Sleep consolidates memory. If you can use neuro-feedback perhaps we can teach people to do that consolidation immediately after learning. Her research suggests this is possible.

“The advantage of vVR is not just in creating worlds that do not exist. For the first time we have a mthod to organize and enhance learning.”

1 Comment »

[livebog] Avi Warshavski

Avi Warshavski begins with a stock image of young people smiling at a computer screen. He points out that they’re all smiling, as if in an ad. There’s racial and gender balance. And they’re all looking at a screen. Having one object on whih we all focus is an old idea. He shows an old Roman frieze. Everyone is looking at a scroll.

Now we are in physical spaces, he says, not just brains that sit and learn: Maker movement, Internet of Things, Oculus Rift (which isn’t physical space, of course)…

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. And I’m getting this through a translator. You are warned, people.

He cites HD Thoreau saying that it’s great that everyone in the country can now communicate “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” We now have forms of communication that go beyond text on a screen. E.g., drones began with DIY makers who created open source software. Mary Meeker last week showed the incredibly steep growth in the drone market.

During the two day hackathon, a producer created a video of it, using one of the drones. (He shows a video of the hackathon — impressive job, especially given that it was done overnight.)

1 Comment »

[liveblog] Shaping the future: Minister of Ed

I am at an event in Tel Aviv called “Shaping the Future,” put on by the Center for Educational Technology; I’m on the advisory board. (I missed the ed tech hackathon that was held over the past two days because of a commitment to another event. I was very sorry to miss it. From all reports it was a great success. No surprise. I’m a big fan of Avi Warshavski, the head of MindCET, CET’s ed tech incubator.)

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. And I’m hearing this through a translator. You are warned, people.

The minister of ed, Naftali Bennett, is speaking. He’s a tech entrepreneur ( and also a right winger).

He begins by saying his son helped him fix his home wifi. A hundred years ago, that wouldnt have been possible because here was a monopoly on info, and it didn’t move from child to parent. We are in a time of radical change of reality. The changes in tech go beyond the changes in tech. E.g., the invention of the car also created suburbs.

Tech is not a spice for ed, a nice addition. There’s a transformative possibility. Israel went from 30K grads of a math exam to 9K. This is a threat to Israel, to develop Iron Domes, to win nobel prizes. We’re analyzing the issue. There are many hundreds of schools that don’t allow math ed sufficient for passing this test at the highest level. Few make it through MOOCs. It’s not going to work on its own.

The answer? I don’t know. Trial and error. We’ll fail and succeed.

Take a school with no qualified math teacher. What if we have a MOOC, online courses? The class will teach itself. The teacher will be a coach, facilitator, a motivator. But you need a self assurance on the part of the teacher. The teacher does not know the material. It’s a bungie jump for the teacher. The chain will be measured not by the weakest link but the strongest link. Success will be measured by the average. The 2-4% will get the material through the online materials. Then, just like butterflies, they will teah the other students. The students just has to connect the students. You don’t come to the teacher to ask what is the solution. The teacher says, “I don’t know. Let’s work on this together.” In Judaism, we call this “havruta”[1]: sitting together in a group studying Talmud. We can join online courses with the Jewish idea of studying in a group. Connect the two and who knows what the outcome will be?

We now need teachers who are willing to dare. In the next year we’ll have all sorts of experimentation. No one knows if we’ll succeed .Wherever it’s success we’ll carry on with this.


[1] Thanks to Jay Hurvitz for correcting the Hebrew word. He adds: “Some of us prefer to write it – “khavrutah” – ?????? – from the root for both friendship and joining.”

1 Comment »

April 2, 2015

[shorenstein][liveblog] Juliette Kayyem on communicating about security

Juliette Kayyem, a former Boston Globe columnist, a commentator, Homeland Security advisor to Gov. Deval Patrick, and a former candidate for governor of Massachusetts, is giving a Shorenstein Center talk about how to talk with the public about security issues.

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.

Juliette oversaw the local Homeland Security response to the Marathon Bombing and had participated in the security planning. After the bombing, she became a CNN commentator on terrorism. She stresses her personal connection to the event: “It’s my home.” After she left the Obama administration, the Boston Globe asked her to be a columnist. She did not see herself as a professional writer. In her twice-weekly columns she tried to show how global events affect Boston locally. She took on topics she didn’t feel comfortable with, which she attributes to “woman insecurity.” [Do I need to mention that she is insanely qualified?]

In her column and on CNN her rules are: 1. Bring it home. 2. Don’t create strawmen. 3. Tell it to them as if you’re sitting with them at the kitchen table. She learned that last lesson from her security experience. Journalists and security experts have a common goal of engaging the public in ownership of something that matters to them and their children. “The security apparatus is to blame” for the failure to engage the public. “Stuff happens.” There’s no such thing as perfect security.

The security apparatus created with the media “a total lose-lose situation.” Two lessons about communications:

1. She got an email from her cousin on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. “Juliette, I am a little nervous now. Can you help?” Her daughter was heading to NYC, and had heard rumors about a planned attack. “Would you send your kids?” She wanted Juliette to just talk to her without jargon or defensiveness.

2. Juliette was director of the BP Oil Spill team, overseeing 70 people. There were two narratives, she says. First, the narrative we all heard. Second, we saved an ocean. That second narrative was not a foregone conclusion: “Much of our slowness at the start was due to our fear that the well would explode.” [Yikes!] The administration failed to “bring it home,” i.e., make it understandable and relatable.

“Never again!” about disasters is not possible. It’s delusional. E.g., we focused on never again letting 19 terrorists on planes, but we were hit by Katrina. Also, we tended to spend money on things — e.g., tanks — far more readily than on training, support, etc. Worse, the govt said “Never again!” but failed to involved the public. Worse still, it makes a narrative that says “Only 20 people died instead of 200″ very difficult to sell.

Here’s some of what she’s learned:

First, There are black swans — freakish events that cannot be predicted or stopped. But we should be able to learn lessons.

Second, you have to define success. During the BP Spill, the President should have said early on that oil will hit the shore so when some did, it didn’t look like failure. We should not define success or failure as binary.

Third, we need resilient, layered defenses and redundancy. We as a nation thankfully are getting away from “Never again!” to “Stuff happens.” The question is how these layered defenses are being built. And not just for terrorism but for pandemics, climate change…

Fourth, public engagement is an operational requirement. E.g., Occupy Sandy did great work, but it was reported in a binary way as a failure of FEMA.

Fifth, we need to tell these stories as you would tell your best friend at the kitchen table. There’s no such thing as no risk. Stuff happens. There are things we can do prepare ourselves at home.

Q & A

Q: [alex jones] Are you speaking for yourself or are you reporting on the lessons learned by the security establishment?

A: The apparatus is headed in this direction. The response agencies are better than the intelligence apparatus in this regard. It matters to have a separate director of resiliency. We can’t stop everything. Politically it’s incredibly hard. Obama has tried talking about resiliency. It goes better with governors and mayors. We’re starting to see political leadership saying that there’s a limit to what they can do for us. The public needs not to be asses, e.g., surfing during Sandy, so the public safety apparatus can be used to help people who really need it. The agencies need to acknowledge their own limits and errors. “Are you safe? Now, of course not? What world do you live in? We can make you a little safer, but …”

Q: [alex] If there’s a series of bombings at malls, what will happen?

A: We can’t prevent everything. We’re in a world of whack-a-mole. Part of the grip you saw during the manhunt in Boston was laid out in a series of prior decisions? Why did people in Boston feel “We got this”? That’s because of decisions that were made, planned out. The police immediately moved people off the street and began the process of family unification, which is really important. Also, the public health apparatus kicked in. Six hundred emergency patients and not one of them died. [I.e., if you made it to emergency care, you didn’t die.] You have to prepare for the disasters that will happen.

Q: [alex] At the Marathon the emergency apparatus was there already. But longer term, what would a mall bombing do to the economy?

A: It comes down to how political leadership communicates. And it’s important to prepare people so they’re not surprised.

Q: Where do you see some of the vulnerabilities? Are there plans underway?

A: The Boston Globe today has a story that the failure of the T during the snowstorms was not inevitable. We have an infinite number of vulnerabilities because we have infinite soft targets. We have them because we chose to make them soft, which is a totally reasonable choice. E.g., no security gates in the MBTA. Terrorism is a threat, but in my lifetime climate change will change the way we live in ways we’re not addressing. It’s about zoning, planning, getting people to live in particular ways. I’ve advocated changing how we compensate those who are harmed by disasters. They used to be rare and random. Not any more. We keep bailing out people who build on shorelines and are flooded out. We shouldn’t pay for the same behavior but should pay for altered behavior, e.g., building a sea wall.

Q: ?

A: Security apparatuses are inherently conservative. We can’t have systems that have single points of failure. Also, there’s something to closure to families that have suffered in disasters. Also, why can’t black boxes beam their info to someone on the ground.

Q: [nick sinai] People in OSTP in the White House worked on disaster relief, etc. From your point of view, what was working and what wasn’t?

A: It’s important to engage people, not for feel-good reasons but to help relieve the burden on the official apparatus. FEMA has only 3,700 employees. It’s a coordination agency. The shared economy is very exciting. E.g., AirBnB is helpful about housing in an emergency. Could Uber move first responders to centers? Also, using social media to communicate info. FEMA is doing a good job with this.

Q: [alex] JournalistResource.org was helpful during the BP crisis.

Q: Does Boston have the capacity to hold the Olympics? There’s no security in the transportation system.

A: I’m the senior security advisor to the Boston Olympics committee. Security in a complex system is about risk reduction but also being welcome. You can’t have an unwelcoming Olympics. The Olympics are one of the last forums on the globe in which people come together and don’t fight. Four major pieces of security for Boston: 1. Intelligence. Feds will run that. 2. Response. If something bad happens, can we minimize the harm? 3. Cyber attacks. London suffered 27K cyber attacks during the 2 wks of the Olympics. 4. It sucks to come into this country if you’re not an American. Can we have a safe and secure immigration system? And we’ll increase the security for the transportation system without creating a police state. BTW, it’s looking good for Boston getting the nod, although a growing majority of Bostonians are against it. If the populace favors it, it’s ours to lose. (She favors a referendum.)

Q: How successful were those 27,000 cyber attacks in London? And what about our infrastructure?

A: Cyber defenses for the Olympics were strong. Our infrastructure is at risk. We’re going to have to make a major commitment to, e.g., putting our wires underground. But we seem unwilling to make the investment.

Q: How about the Massachusetts infrastructure?

A: It’s not in great shape. We have to prioritize. Everyone has an equal voice but not all bridges are equal.

1 Comment »

March 3, 2015

[liveblog] David Sanger on cybersecurity. And Netanyahu

David Sanger of the NY Times is giving a Shorenstein Center lunchtime talk about covering security.

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.

David begins by honoring Alex Jones, the retiring head of the Shorenstein Center with whom he worked at the Times.

David tells us that he wrote his news analysis of the Netanyahu speech to Congress last night, before the talk, because people now wake up and expect it to read about it. His articles says that a semantic difference has turned into a strategic chasm: we’ve gone from preventing Iran from having the capability of building a weapon to preventing Iran from building a weapon. Pres. Obama dodged this question when David asked him about it in 2010. If the Iran deal goes through, says David, it will be the biggest diplomatic step since Nixon went to China.

Probably six years ago David had just come back from writing The Inheritance, which disclosed that GW Bush had engaged in the first computer attacks on Iran. He came back to the newsroom saying that we need to start thinking about the strategic uses of cyber as a weapon, beyond worrying about kids in a basement hacking into your bank account. This was an uphill struggle because it’s extremely difficult to get editors to think about a nontraditional form of warfare. Drones we understand: it’s an unmanned aircraft with familiar consquences when it goes wrong. We all understand nuclear weapons because we saw Hiroshima. Cyber is much harder to get people to understand. To make matters worse, there are so many different kinds of cyber attacks.

When you think about cyber you have to think about three elements, he says. 1. Cyber for espionage, by states or by thieves. 2. Cyber for economic advantage, on the cusp between business and govt. E.g., Chinese steal IP via operations run out of the Chinese Army. The US thinks that’s out of bounds but the Chinese think “What’s more important to our national interest than our economy? Of course we’ll steal IP!” 3. Cyber for political coercion, e.g. Stuxnet. This tech is spreading faster than ever, and it’s not just in the hands of states. We have no early concept of how we’re going to control this. We now claim Iran was behind cyberattacks on Las Vegas casinos. And, of course, the Sony hack. [He recounts the story.] “This was not a little drive-by attack.”

He says he would have predicted that if we got into a cyber war with another country, it would be an attack on the grid or some such, not an attempt to stop the release of a “terrible” commercial movie. “We’re in a new era of somewhat constant conflict.” Only now is the govt starting to think about how this affects how we interact with other companies. Also, it’s widened the divide Snowden has opened between Silicon Valley and the govt. Post-Snowden, companies are racing to show that they’re not going to cooperate with the US govt for fear that it will kill their ability to sell overseas. E.g., iPhone software throws away the keys that would have enabled Apple to turn over your decrypted data if the FBI comes along with a warrant. The head of the FBI has objected to this for fear that we’re entering a new era in which we cannot get data needed to keep us secure.

The govt itself can’t decide how to deal with the secrecy around its own development of cyber weapons. The Administration won’t talk about our offensive capabilities, even though we’re spending billions on this. “We can’t have a conversation about how to control them until you admit that you have them and describe the circumstances under which you might use them.”

Q&A

Q: [alex jones] Laypeople assume that there are no secrets and no privacy any more. True?

A: By and large. There’s no system that can’t be defeated. (Hillary Clinton must have come to be so suspicious of the State Dept. email system that she decided to entrust it to gmail.) There’s no guaranteed system. We’d have to completely redesign the Internet to make it secure.

Q: [alex] What’s the state of forensics in this situation?

A: It’s not a sure thing. All govts and law enforcement agencies are putting a lot of money into cyber forensics. In the nuclear age, you could see where the missiles are coming from. Cybercrime is more like terrorism: you don’t know who’s responsibile. It’s easy to route a cyberattack through many computers to mask where it’s coming from. When the NYT was hacked by the Chinese govt, the last hop came from a university in the South. It wouldn’t have been so nice to have assumed that that little university was actually the source.

The best way to make forensics work is to have implants in foreign computing systems that are like little radar stations. This is what the NSA spends a lot of its time doing. You can use the same implant for espionage, to explore the computer, or to launch an attack. The US govt is very sensitive about our questions about implants. E.g., suppose the NSA tells the president that they’ve seen a major attack massing. The president has to decide about reacting proactively. If you cyber-attack a foreign computer, it looks like you struck first. In the Sony case, the President blamed North Korea but the intelligence agencies wouldn’t let him say what the evidence was. Eventually they let out a little info and we ran a story on the inserts in NK. An agency head called and officially complained about this info being published but said more personally that releasing the fact that the govt can track attacks back to the source has probably helped the cause of cybersecurity.

Q: Are there stories that you’re not prepared to publish yet?

A: We’ve held some stuff back. E.g., e were wondering how we attacked Iran computers that were disconnected from the Net (“air gap”). If you can insert some tech onto the motherboard before the product has been shipped you can get access to it. A Snowden document shows the packaging of computers going to Syria being intercepted, opened, and modified. Der Spiegel showed that this would enable you to control an off-line computer from 7 miles away. I withheld that from the book, and a year or two later all that info was in the Snowden docs.

Q: [nick sinai] Why haven’t the attacks on the White House and State Dept. been a bigger story?

A: Because they were mainly on the unclassified side. We think it was a Russian attack, but we don’t know if was state-sponsored.

Q: How does the Times make tradeoffs between security and openness?

A: I’m not sure we get it right. We have a set of standards. If it would threaten a life or an imminent military or intelligence operation we’re likely not to publish it. Every case is individual. An editor I know says that in every case he’s withheld info, he’s sorry that he did. “I don’t blame the government” for this, says David. They’re working hard to prevent an attack, and along comes a newspaper article, and a program they’ve been working on for years blows up. On the other hand, we can’t debate the use of this tech until we know what it can do. As James Clapper said recently, maybe we’re not headed toward a cyber Pearl Harbor but toward a corrosive series of attacks, institution by institution.

Q: At what point do cyberattacks turn into cyberwarfare?

“Cyberwarfare” is often an overstated term. It implies that it might turn into a real-world war, and usually they don’t. Newspapers have to decide which ones to cover, because if you tried to cover them all, that’s all you’d cover. So the threshold keeps going up. It’s got to be more than stealing money or standard espionage.

Q: Will companies have to create cyber militias? And how will that affect your coverage?

A: Most companies don’t like to report cyber attacks because it drives down their stock market valuation. There’s a proposed law that would require a company to report cyber attacks within a month. The federal govt wants cybersecurity to come from private companies. E.g., JP Morgan spends half a billion dollars on cyber security. But there are some state-sponsored attacks that no private company could protect itself against.

Q: How does US compare with our enemies? And in 30 yrs how will we remember Snowden?

A: The usual ranking puts US on top, the British, the Israelis. The Chinese are very good; their method seems to be: attack everyone and see what you get. The Russians are stealthier. The Iranians and North Koreans are further down the list. A year ago if you’d told me that the NKs would have done something as sophisticated as the Sony attack, I would have said you’re crazy.

I have no problem believing both that Snowden violated every oath he took and multiple laws, and that the debates started by the docs that he released is a healthy one to have. E.g., Obama had authorized the re-upping of the collection of metadata. After Snowden, the burden has been put on private companies, none of which have taken it up. Also, Obama didn’t know we were listening in on Angela Merkel. Now all those programs are being reviewed. I think that’s a healthy kind of tradeoff.

Q: What enduring damage has Snowden done?

A: The damage lies between immediate to enduring. Immediately, there were lots of intelligence programs that had to be redone. I don’t see any real damage outside of a 5 year frame.

Q: Might there be a deal that lets Snowden come home?

A: A year ago there was interest in this in order to find out what Snowden knows. But now the intelligence services feel they have a handle on this.

Q: Netanyahu speech?

A: Politically he probably did a little more damage to his cause than good. Some Dems feel coerced. On the substance of it, I think he made the best case you can make for the two biggest weaknesses in the deal: 1. It doesn’t dismantle very much equipment, so when the deal’s term is over, they’ll be up and running. 2. We’re taking a bet that the Iranian govt will be much easier to deal with in 10-15 yrs, and we have no idea if that’s true. But Netanyahu has not put forward a strategy that does not take you down the road to military confrontation.

2 Comments »

February 26, 2015

[liveblog] Data & Technology in Government

I’m at a discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School listening to an awesome panel of Obama administration technologists. Part of the importance of this is that students at the Kennedy School are agitating for a much strong technology component to their education on the grounds that these days policy makers need to be deeply cognizant of the possibilities technology offers, and of the culture of our new technology development environment. Tomorrow there is an afternoon of discussions sponsored by the student-led Technology for Change group. I believe that tonight’s panel is a coincidence, but it is extraordinarily well-timed.

Here are the participants:

  • Aneesh Chopra, the first federal CTO (and a current Shorenstein Center fellow)

  • Todd Park, White House Technology Advisory

  • DJ Patil, the first US Chief Data Science, five days into his tenure

  • Lynn Overmann – Deputy Chief Data Officer, US Dept. of Commerce

  • Nick Sinai – former US Deputy Chief Technology Officer (and a current Shorenstein Center fellow)


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. PARTICULARLY LOOSE PARAPHRASING even when within quotes; these are geeks speaking quickly.
You are warned, people.

Todd Park: I’m now deeply involved in recruiting. The fundamental rule: “If you get the best people, you win.” E.g., the US Digital Service: “A network of elite technology development teams.” They want to address problems like improving veteran’s care, helping immigrants, etc. “If you go to the best talent in the country and ask them to serve, they will,” he says, pointing to DJ and Lynn.

DJ Patil: We’re building on the work of giants. I think of this as “mass times velocity.” The velocity is the support of the President who deeply believes in open data and technology. But we need more mass, more people. “The opportunity to have real world impact is massive.” Only a government could assemble such a talented set of people. And when people already in the govt are given the opportunity to act and grow, you get awesome results. Data scientists are force multipliers.

Lynn Overmann: “I’m a serial public servant.” She was a public defender at first. “There is literally no serious problem you’re concerned about that you can’t tackle from within the federal government.” The Commerce Dept. has huge amounts of data and needs help unlocking it. [In a previous session, Lynn explained that Commerce offers almost no public-facing servies except gathering and releasing data.]

Nick Sinai: Todd, you were the brains behind the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program

Todd: The government is not a lean start up but that approach applied to may problems work much better than if you apply traditional the waterfall approach to computing. Round 1 went well. In Round 2, they brought in about 40 people. There was a subset of the Round 2 who found the program “addictive.” So the Whitehouse used 18F, a digital consulting service provided by the GSA. Demand has now gone off the chart for these new style of consultants. Some of those folks then helped grow the new US Digital Sesrvice. It all started with the Innovation Fellows and grew organically. “The more people we attract people who are amazing into government, the more we energize amazing people already in government, the more air cover we give them” the more awesomeness there will be. Let them create results at 10x what anyone expected. “That methodology is the only replicable, reliable way to change government at scale, at speed, in a way that’s permanent.” “I can’t tell you how much fun this is.”

DJ Patil: My first encounters with the CIOs of existing agencies and departments have been amazing. They’re so open, so eager for disruption.

Aneesh Chopra: The line between public and private sector is becoming very porous. That means that the products of the teams being described are a new form of information that in the hands of entrepreneurs and innovators can be transformative. E.g., Uber wanted their drivers to make better healthcare choices. There’s now a hose of data about the healthcare signups. A startup — Stride Health — took that hose and customized it for Uber drivers; maybe drivers want better back care options. There’s an increasing portfolio of institutions extending these services. A handshake makes more and more of this datea interoperable, and there’s a hand off to entrepreneurs and innovators. “They may not be stamped .gov” but they’ll powered by data from the govt.

Nick: We have an opportunity to do smart wholesaling of data, as well as retailing it: Great services, but also enabling non-governmental groups to build great end-user services.

Lynn: At Commerce we’re trying to do Open Data 2.0. How do we get our data experts out into the world to talk with users ? How do we share data better? How do we create partnerships with the public sector? E.g., Uber shared its data on traffic patterns with the city of Boston.

Lynn: In the departments Todd has led, he has worked on the gender balance. Women were in the majority by the end of his HHS appointment. [I couldn’t hear all of this.]

Todd: I’ve learned that the more diverse the team is, the better the team is. We made it a real priority for the US Digital Service to have a team that looks like America. It’s also our hope that we’ll be minting people who become superstars in the tech world and will encourage more youths to enter STEM.

Aneesh: There were a few places we thought we could have done better. 1. Rethinking the role and nature of the infrastructure. Human capital is the infrastructure for the digital economy. 2. We make rules of the road — e.g., Net Neutrality today — that give people a more fair shot to compete. There are foundational investments to be made in the infrastructure and creating rules of the road. That’s part of how we affect policy.

Nick: What about the President’s new precision medicine initiative?

Todd: It’s a new way of thinking about how you get medical service. Increasingly Web sites provide tailored experiences. Why not with science? Should your aspirin dose be the same for someone with a different genetics, exposed to different things in your environment, etc.? Where it gets really phenomenal: The cost of genetic sequencing is dropping quickly. And tons of data are coming from sensors (e.g., FitBit). How do you start getting a handle on that to start getting better treatment? Another side of it: Bioinfomatics has been amazing at understanding genes. Combine that with clinical knowledge and we can begin to see that maybe that people who live near docks with diesel fumes have particular symptoms. We’ll be able to provide cohorts for test studies that look like America.

Nick: Aneesh and Todd, you both quote Joy’s Law: Most of the smartest people in the world work for someone else.

Aneesh: In many ways, the lessons learned from the innovation philosophy have had great effect in the public sector. The CEO of P&G said 50% of ideas will come from outside of P&G. This liberated him to find innovations in the military that resulted in $1B in cash flow for P&G. Also, we’ve learned from platform effects and what the team at Facebook has done. Sheryl Sandberg: There are 3,000 developers at FB, but a query at Google found 35,000 people with the title “FB developer,” because other companies were using the FB platform.

Todd: It’s important to remember Joy’s Law, and the more you can get those people in the world to care about what you do, the more successful you’ll be. I was asked what I would do with the vast amount of data that the govt has. My first thought was to build some services. But about 17 seconds later I realized that’s entirely the wrong approach. Rather, open it up in machine readable form. We invited four innovators into a room. At first they were highly skeptical. But then we showed them the data, and they got excited. Ninety days later we had a health care datapalooza, and it caught fire. Data owners were there who thought that opening up their data could only result in terribleness. At the end of the datapalooza they flipped. Within two years, the Health Datapalooza became a 2,000 person event, with thousands of people who couldn’t get tickets. Hundreds of new applications that could help individuals, hospitals, healthcare providers were created. But you have to have the humility to acknowledge that you don’t know the answer. And you have to embrace the principle that the answer is likely to come from someone who aren’t you. That’s the recipe for awesomeness to be released.

Aneesh: When Secty Sibelius saw the very first presentation, her jaw dropped. The question was what are the worst communities in the America for obesity and who can they talk to about improving it. In seven minutes they had an answer. She said that when she was Governor, it would have taken her staff seven months to come up with that answer.

Q: [a self-identified Republican technologist] President Obama got the right team together. What you do is awesome. How can we make sure what you’ve built stays a permanent part of the government?

Aneesh: Eric Cantor was doing much the same in Congress. These ideas of opening up data and engaging entrepreneurs, lean startups, open innovation have been genuinely bipartisan.

Todd: Mike Bracken from the UK Digital service says: The strategy is delivery. What will change govt is a growing set of precedents about how govt really should work. I could write an essay, but it’s more effective if I point to datapalooza and show the apps that were written for free. We have to create more and more examples. These examples are done in partnership with career civil servants who are now empowered to kick butt.

DJ: We can’t meet the demand for data scientists. Every agency needs them. We have to not only train those people up, but also slot them into the whole stack. A large part of our effort will be how to train them, find them great homes at work, and give them ways to progress.

Nick: It’s really hard to roll back transparency. There are constituencies for it, whether it’s accountability orgs, the press, etc.

Lynn: Civil servants are the most mission driven people I’ve met. They won’t stop.

Q: Everyone has talked about the need for common approaches. We need identities that are confidential and interoperable. I see lots of activities, but not a plan. You could do a moonshot here in the time you have left. It’d be a key part of the infrastructure.

Aneesh: When the precision medical provision was launched, a critical provision was that they’ll use every regulatory tool they have to connect consumers to their own data. In 2010 there was a report recommending that we move to healthcare APIs. This led to a privately funded initiative called Project Argonaut. Two days ago we held a discussion here at Harvard and got commitments for public-private efforts to create an open source solution in healthcare. Under Nick, the same went on for connecting consumers to their energy info. [I couldn’t capture all this. I’m not sure the above is right. And Aneesh was clear that he was speaking “as an outsider.”]

DJ: If you check the update to the Podesta Big Data report, it outlines the privacy aspects that we’ll be pushing on. Energy is going into these issues. These are thorny problems.

Q: Cybersecurity has become a high profile issue. How is the govt helping the private sector?

Aneesh: Early on the President offered a framework for a private-public partnership for recognigizing digital fingerprints, etc. This was the subject of a bipartisan effort. Healthcare has uniform data-breach standards. (The most common cause of breaches: bad passwords.) We need an act of Congress to [he went too fast … sorry].

Lynn: Cybersecurity requires an international framework for privacy and data security. That’s a major challenge.

Q: You talked about the importance of STEM. Students in astronomy and astrophysicists worry about getting jobs. What can I say to them?

DJ: I was one of those people. I lot of people I went to school with went on to Wall Street. If you look at the programs that train data scientists, the ones who are super successful in it are people who worked with a lot of messy data: astrophysicists, oceanographers, etc. They’re used to the ambiguity that the data starts with. But there’s a difference in the vocabulary so it’s hard for people to hit the ground running. With 4-6 weeks of training, these people crush it. Tell your students that there are great opportunities and they shouldn’t be dissuaded by having to pound the pavement and knock on doors. Tell them that they have the ability to be game changers.

Q: How many of us are from the college? [surprisingly few hands go up] Your msg about joining the govt sounds like it’s tailored for young professional, not for students. The students I know talk about working for Google or FB, but not for the govt.

Todd: You’re right. The US Digital Service people are young professionals who have had some experience. We will get to recruiting in college. We just haven’t gotten there yet.

Lynn: If you’re interested in really hard problems and having a direct impact on people’s lives, govt service is the best thing you can do.

Q: When you hire young tech people, what skills do they typically not have that they need?

Lynn: Problem solving. Understanding the problems and having the tech skills to solve them. Understanding how people are navigating our systems now and asking how we can leverage tech to make that process much much easier.

DJ: In Sillicon Valley, we’re training people via internships, teaching them what they don’t learn from an academic environment. We have to figure out how govt can do this, and how to develop the groups that can move you forward when you don’t know how to do something.

Aneesh: There is a mindset of product development, which is a muscle that we haven’t worked enough in the policy arena. Policy makers too often specify what goal they want and allocate money for it. But they don’t think about the product that would achieve that goal. (Nice shout out to Karim Lakhani. “He’s in the mind set.”)

Q: [leaders of the Kennedy School Tech for Change] Tech for Change has met with administrators, surveyed students, etc. Students care about this. There’s a summit tomorrow. [I’m going!] What are the three most important things a policy school could do to train students for this new ecosystem. How can HKS be the best in this field?

DJ: Arts and humanities, ethics, and humility.

Todd: One expression of humility is to learn the basics of lean startup innovation. These principles apply broadly

DJ: There’s nothing more humbling than putting your first product out there and watching what people say on Twitter.

Lynn: We should be moving to a world in which technology and policy aren’t separate. It’s a problem when the technologists are not at the table. E.g., we need to be able to track the data we need to measure the results of programs. This is not a separate thing. This is a critical thing that everyone in the school should learn about.

Todd: It’s encouraging that the geeks are being invited into the rooms, even into rooms where no one can imagine why tech would be possibly relevant. But that’s a short term hack. The whole idea that policy makers don’t need to know about tech is incredibly dangerous. Just like policy makers need a basic understanding of economics; they don’t have to be economists.If you don’t have that tech knowledge, you don’t graduate. There will be a direct correlation between the geek quotient and the efficiency of policy.

Nick: Panel, whats your quick actionable request of the Harvard JFK community?

Lynn: We need to make our laws easier to understand.

Todd: If you are an incredibly gifted, patriortic, high EQ designer, dev, devops, data scientists, or you know someone who is, go to whitehouse.gov/usds where you can learn about the Digital Service and apply to join this amazing band.

DJ: Step up by stepping in. And that doesn’t have to be at the federal level. Share ideas. Contribute. Help rally people to the cause.

1 Comment »

Next Page »