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March 26, 2015

Searching for news media that support Schema.org

Let’s say you have the weird desire to see if a particular online news site is producing news articles that support the Schema.org standard. I just posted a tiny little site — even uglier than usual — that lets you search for a particular news media site. It will return the items on that site that have been classified by that site as newsArticles in the Schema.org standard.

Thanks to a suggestion from Dan Brickley, it’s using a custom search engine from Google. One of the parameters permitted by custom search engines is to only return items that are one of Schema.org’s types. (I’m sure I’m messing up the standards lingo.) All I’ve done is specify newsArticle as the type, and prepended “site:” to whatever search you’re doing, saving you five keystrokes. You’re welcome!

If you get back a bunch of articles, then presumably the site is supporting Schema.org. I think.

2 Comments »

March 25, 2015

[shorenstein] Farnaz Fassihi on Reporting from the Middle East

I’m at a Shorenstein lunchtime talk where Farnaz Fassihi is giving a talk titled “Reporting from the Middle East.” Farnaz writes for the Wall Street Journal. Among other achievements (and there are a lot), she is the author of an email in 2004 that was at the time a shockingly frank and dire assessment of how things were going in Iraq.

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.

She was a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger on 9/11. She insisted that her editor assign her to the Afghan war. “I always wanted to cover wars. I don’t know why.” She thinks that she wanted to make sense of events in her own life, including the revolution in Iran when she was 8. She was sent to Afghanistan, covered the second Intifada, the Iraq invasion, became WSJ’s Beirut bureau chief, covered Arab Spring, etc. She has only recently returned to the US.

“How we approach reporting has significantly changed” since she first went to Afghanistan she says. In part this is because journalists are more at risk than ever. Before 9/11, it would have been fine for her to pack a backpack and a satellite phone, and head off into Afghanistan. Now journalists have security guards, and there are zones into which journalists simply don’t go. “That’s taken some of the serendipity” out of the coverage and has made it harder to cover what’s happening on the ground. You have to rely on sources “and most of them have an agenda.” Also, now it’s visual first and mobile first, “putting even more pressure on journalists to turn things around quickly.” As a result, reporting is less original than before: when all the journalists are covering Syria from Beirut, they’re using the same Youtube feeds, tweets, etc. It makes it harder to make readers care by “putting a human face” on the tragedies and horrors. As a result, readers in the US have grown tired of reading about these events.

On the other hand, “the invasion of Iraq has gotten the US to where it is today.” There’s thus even more of an obligation to have reporters on the ground. E.g., Al Qaeda didn’t have a presence in Iraq until the invasion. “We no longer have an isolated crisis in Syria but an entire region up in arms.” We need journalists in place because, e.g., Yemen is a very tribal society that is difficult to understand. “When I started out, even in Iraq, I’d get in a car with translator, go out and talk to people. Much of my coverage in the past 13 yrs has been to put a human face on war.” She’s written a book about this. “I have a very hard time now replicating that when it comes to Syria or Yemen because I’m not there. It can be extremely frustrating as a reporter. Not just for me but for all my colleagues.”

As the result of not being on the ground, journalists sometimes miss where things are heading. “We all missed the takeover of Mosul.” “I think that was because of our lack of access.”

“In terms of where the Middle East is going, I’m not optimistic at all.” “The same forces seem to be going in cycles.” “I don’t have an answer about the right way out of this, but I do feel there is some level of responsibility that the US has.”

Q&A

Q: [alex jones] If you were advising the US President about what to do, what would you suggest, if only to have the least worst path?

A: We missed the window when we could have had real influence on the Syrian rebels. We were so traumatized by Iraq that we didn’t want to be blamed for another Arab state’s disintegration. At this point I don’t know what we can do. America’s involvement is always a double-edged sword. If you don’t go in, you get blamed for letting the radicals win. If you do, you get blamed for radicalizing moderates.

Q: [alex] If we do nothing, what happens?

A: Countries in the Middle East will turn into what Afghanistan was before the US invasion: institutional breakdown of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya. The conflict might spread. And that’s a region the US has a lot of interests in in: oil, Israel. And we’ll have to accept that the Islamic Republic will become a major power player. It already is one. If we do nothing, our influence will even further diminish.

Q: [alex] Why aren’t other Arab states as fearful of ISIS as we are?

A: They are.

Q: [alex] Why aren’t they fighting ISIS?

A: Many Saudi and Kuwaiti businessmen have funded ISIS. A lot of private donations. But local countries are fighting in different ways. Iran is fearful and leading the show. Saudi Arabia knows that now it has a very real rival.

Q: [alex] Why do the Saudis allow their citizens to support ISIS?

A: The Saudis are fearful of Shia dominance, and Iran gaining power, as well as of ISIS. After the US invasion we saw a Shia revival which was a real threat to Sunni dominance of the Middle East. These are rivalries that are thousands of years old.

Q: [alex] Why do these Shia and Sunni cultures have such incredible animosity? If you’re a Moslem do you feel a primary identity to Shia or Sunni instead of to Islam?

A: Sectarian identity is very important in the Middle East. And the Shia were oppressed for many many years. It’s a political and social organization as well as religious; it rebuilds the villages that Israel bombs when the government does not. “I don’t think we can necessarily crush” ISIS. With all of the effort in Iraq we were unable to keep Al Qaeda in check. The question is: what are we trying to accomplish? Will aerial bombardment turn it around? I don’t think so.

Q: [alex] So we’re just headed to genocide?

A: We’re already seeing that. 100,000 killed in Syria. Chemical weapons.

Q: [alex] So there’s nothing to be done.

Q: I was with the Yemen Times. How do you maintain your sanity as a reporter in a war zone. And how do your own balance your own agenda?

A: I don’t think we have an agenda. But we are human beings. It depends on the info we’re getting. Sometimes our sources are unbalanced, and that can reflect in the story. I write about Yemen with a Yemeni stringer, and we have a trust relationship. But if I’m talking with a source, I have to be very aware of what their agenda is, which can be hard when you’re on deadline.

A: 9/11 created a new generation of war correspondents. There are maybe 40 of us and we go from zone to zone. We’ve formed intense bonds. Those friendships are the most important thing. But if you spend that much time in the Middle East, you have scars. It’s difficult to continuously put yourself at risk and hear the stories of what people are going through.

Q: Covering ISIS reflects the problems of journalistic cutbacks. How do we cover these issues given the cutbacks and the dangers?

A: Security comes first. I discourage new journalists from going to rebel-controlled territory. But people do. If our paper is not sending staff, we don’t send freelancers. The idea is that no story is worth your life. We try to fill the gap by having more experienced regional reporters who understand the context. So you mainly have seasoned reporters writing the analytic pieces. But the unique and amazing reporting usually comes from freelancers who take those risks.

Q: Charlie Sennott‘s GroundTruth project tries to set up guidelines for coverage. Is it having an effect?

A: Too soon to tell. But no matter how much security you have, if you’re surrounded by militants who are determined to behead you, you can’t really protect yourself. When I went to Afghanistan I didn’t get any training. Now journalists are trained. The more training the better, but nothing can fully protect you.

Q: Talk about Iranian domestic politics?

A: Grand policies in Iran such as nuclear negotiations or its goals in Syria are determined by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. From everything we can gather, he’s given the green light for a deal. I think the reality of sanctions and falling oil prices is making it very difficult for the Iranian regime to sustain itself. They also know that there’s real dissent in the country. The regime is trying to hold off by the working class. Getting a nuclear deal is essential for that. It seems that for the first time Iran genuinely wants a deal. But just like in the US there are hardliners that don’t. As Pres. Obama said, it’s very odd that those 47 US Senators have such much in common with the Iranian hardliners.

Q: When you were 4 yrs old, I was a guest of the empress of Iran for two weeks. At this Meeting of 100 Leaders, no one anticipated that the change would come from the right. Now my source is Anthony Bourdain. His program on Iran is spectacular and says that the public is nowhere near the leaders.

A: You’d be very surprised if you went to Iran now. It’s become very urban — 70%. 60% of university students are women. Women are big part of the workforce. The Iranian Republic has pushed to modernize rural areas, with healthcare, and modern roles for women. Women are a force of change from within. Iran is also very connected: one of the top users of the Internet. The young generation is very eager to be in touch. It’s probably the most pro-American population in the Middle East. Iranians are not extremists by nature. Change will not occur there the way it’s occurred in Syria. They want change through moderate means.

Q: The bombing in Yemen and Tunisia?

A: Tunisia was the one example of where Arab Spring worked. I don’t want to rush to judgment and say Tunisia is a failed enterprise, but it does make one worry that ISIS is gaining momentum there. The conflicts are no longer localized.

Q: Couldn’t the US help bolster Tunisia. Are we?

A: I don’t know.

Q: It’s ironic that the French Defense Minister lost her job at the beginning of the revolution by suggesting France could help. Tunisia is tiny and unable to defend itself. But back to Iran: the Supreme Leader is apparently ill. Could Pres. Rouhani become the Supreme Leader?

A: He’s lacking the right credentials, although exceptions can be made. But the council that picks the next Leader just appointed a very conservative council head.

Q: Anything positive?

A: Some of the most gratifying moments have been encountering the resilience of human beings in war zones. Even in those circumstances, people still try to find a way to live a dignified life. E.g., a wedding in Baghdad was made enormously difficult because of security. Car bombs were going off but people were dancing. Or the women in Afghanistan. I interviewed a teacher who had been banned because women were not allowed in the workforce. She turned her basement into a classroom for neighborhood girls, staggering their hours so the Taliban wouldn’t notice the stream of children.

Q: In addition to all of the dangers there’s the incredible apparatus of the US military’s PR machine. What’s it like dealing with the US military?

A: If you embed you have to follow guidelines: your PR person stays with you, if you’re in an attack you can’t send photos of injured or dead soldiers, etc. If you violate the rules, you’re kicked off the embed. Because they take you on the embed and protect you, they expect you to write something positive. Sometimes you don’t. And then you and your organization are in the doghouse. They didn’t like what I wrote about the capturing Saddam Hussein and for three months the WSJ couldn’t get an embed.

Q: [me] A few times in my life I’ve seen an about-face in coverage of villified countries. Are we likely to see this with Iran?

A: I think we’re already seeing it. Since Ahmadinejad left, it’s been quite positive coverage.

Q: Why are there no gay people in Iran? (laughter)

A: [audience member] It’s a world leader in sex change operations.

A: I know many gay Iranians.

Q: What is Iran’s real attitude toward Israel?

A: Despite the rhetoric, I don’t think Iran has any plans to eradicate Israel. But they do support the Palestinian cause, and arm Hezbollah and Hamas. So I don’t think those tensions will go away. Netanyahu would like to derail the talks because then Israel loses its puppet enemy.

Q: If there’s no deal?

A: I think Iran will open up their centrifuges and continue with the program.

Q: A Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian has been jailed in Iran. Why? Also: The former head of Mossad said that Iranians are the most well-educated, brilliant people in the the world.

A: Journalists are arrested all the time in Iran. He mostly wrote features, not investigative reports that would anger the govt. But reports, especially Americans, are always at risk. Sometimes Iran wants a bargaining chip, or a prisoner exchange, or domestic politics. It’s very seldom because the person is a real threat.

2 Comments »

March 24, 2015

In praise of Starbucks’ #racetogether

There are a lot of things wrong with how Starbucks implemented its “Race Together” program for which it deserves the mockery it’s been getting. Whether it was intended to stimulate discussions with busy baristas (“So, you want that with nonfat milk and we shouldn’t fill it to the brim. Right? What’s it like being white? Did you say ‘Nicky’ or ‘Mickey’?”) or among customers who in my experience have never struck up a conversation with another customer that was not met by a cold stare or a faked incoming text, it was unlikely to achieve its intended result. (Schultz seems to indicate it was to be a barista-to-customer conversation; see 0:20 in the John Oliver clip linked to “mockery” above.) Likewise, the overwhelming male whiteness of the Starbuck’s leadership team was an embarrassment waiting to happen. The apparent use of only white hands holding cups in the marketing campaign was inconceivably stupid (and yet still better than this).

Yet there’s much that Starbucks deserves praise for more than just its recognition that racial issues permeate our American culture and yet are more often papered over than discussed frankly.

  • They trusted their on-the-line employees to speak for themselves, and inevitably for the corporation as well, rather than relying on a handful of tightly constrained and highly compensated mouthpieces.

  • They have held a series of open forums for their employees at corporate events, encouraging honest conversation.

  • They did not supply talking points for their employees to mouth. That’s pretty awesome. On the other hand, they seem also to have provided no preparation for their baristas, as if anyone can figure out how to open up a productive conversation about race in America. The made-up phrase “racetogether” really isn’t enough to get a conversation going and off to a good start. (Michelle Norris’ Race Card Project might have provided a better way of opening conversations.)

Starbucks got lots wrong. Too bad. But not only was it trying to do something right, it did so in some admirable ways. Starbucks deserves the sarcasm but not just sarcasm.

[Disclosure: No, Starbucks isn’t paying me to say any of this. Plus I hate their coffee. (The fact that I feel the need to put in this disclaimer is evidence of the systemic damage wrought by “native ads” and unscrupulous marketers.)]

1 Comment »

March 22, 2015

New definition of “cringeworthy”

The House Judiciary Committee has posted a page with ten gifs to explain to the nation’s youth the folly of President Obama’s immigration actions. (Hat tip to Peter Kaminski.)

6 Comments »

March 14, 2015

Pres. Obama’s speech songified

5 Comments »

March 12, 2015

Corrections metadata

It’s certain that this has already been suggested many times, and it’s highly likely it’s been implemented at least several times. But here goes:

Currently the convention for correcting an online mistake is to strikethrough the errant text and then put in the correct text. Showing one’s errors is a wonderful norm, for it honors the links others have made to the piece; it’s at best confusing when you post criticism of someone else’s work, but when the reader goes there the errant remarks have been totally excised. It’s also a visible display of humility.

But strikethrough text is a visual cue of a structural meaning. And it conveys only the fact that the text is wrong, not why it’s wrong.

So, why isn’t there Schema.org markup for corrections?

Schema.org is the set of simple markup for adding semantics to plain old Web pages. The reader can’t see the markup, but computers can. The major search engines are behind Schema.org, which means that if you mark up your page with the metadata they’ve specified, the search engines will understand your page better and are likely to up its ranking. (Here’s another post of mine about Schema.org.)

So, imagine there were simple markup you could put into your HTML that would let you note that some bit of text is errant, and let you express (in hidden text):

  • When the correction was made

  • Who made it

  • Who suggested the correction, if anyone.

  • When it was made

  • What was wrong with the text

  • A bit of further explanation

The corrected text might include the same sort of information. Plus, you’d want a way to indicate that these two pieces of text refer to one another; you wouldn’t want a computer getting confused about which correction corrects which errant text.

If this became standard, browsers could choose to display errant texts and their corrections however they’d like. Add-ons could be written to let users interact with corrections in different ways. For example, maybe you like seeing strikethroughs but I’d prefer to be able to hover to see the errant text. Maybe we can sign up to be notified of any corrections to an article, but not corrections that are just grammatical. Maybe we want to be able to do research about the frequency and type of corrections across sources, areas, languages, genders….

Schema.org could drive this through. Unless, of course, it already has.

 


Be sure to read the comment from Dan Brickley. Dan is deeply involved in Schema.org. (The prior comment is from my former college roommate.)

5 Comments »

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.

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Literature and Medicine: The syllabus

The superb novelist and teacher Meredith Sue Willis, who is also my sister-in-law, is teaching a course at a local Veterans Administration hospital on literature and medicine. It’s taught to hospital staff after work in the hospital.

Here’s the syllabus, which Sue has put under a Creative Commons license (which is where all syllabi belong, amirite?). It looks like a great set of readings organized around important topics. Isn’t it awesome that we can get curated collections like these from which we can learn and explore?

In fact, it prompted me to start reading The Young Lions, which so far I’m glad I’m doing. Thanks, Sue!

(Ack. I forgot that Sue told me about this because she’s using in the course something I wrote. So I am inadvertently logrolling. But sincerely!)

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February 25, 2015

Seriously? Who would donate to this?

pancake day

In the booths there’s a small notice that the money will be donated to Children’s Miracle Network. But there’s nothing about that on the freestanding kiosk.

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