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June 29, 2014

[aif] Government as platform

I’m at a Government as Platform session at Aspen Ideas Festival. Tim O’Reilly is moderating it with Jen Pahlka (Code for America and US Deputy Chief Technology Officer ) and Mike Bracken who heads the UK Government Digital Service.

Mike Backen begins with a short presentation. The Digital Service he heads sits at the center of govt. In 2011, they consolidated govt web sites that presented inconsistent policy explanations. The DS provides a central place that gives canonical answers. He says:

  • “Our strategy is delivery.” They created a platform for govt services: gov.uk. By having a unified platform, users know that they’re dealing with the govt. They won the Design of the Year award in 2013.

  • The DS also gives govt workers tools they can use.

  • They put measurements and analytics at the heart of what they do.

  • They are working on transforming the top 25 govt services.

They’re part of a group that saved 14.3B pounds last year.

Their vision goes back to James Brindley, who created a system of canals that transformed the economy. [Mike refers to “small pieces loosely joined.”] Also Joseph Bazalgette created the London sewers and made them beautiful.


(cc) James Pegrum

Here are five lessons that could be transferred to govt, he says:

1. Forget about the old structures. “Policy-led hierarchies make delivery impossible.” The future of govt will emerge from the places govt exists, i.e., where it is used. The drip drip drip of inadequate services undermine democracy more than does the failure of ideas.

2. Forget the old binaries. It’s not about public or private. It’s about focusing on your users.

3. No more Big IT. It’s no longer true that a big problems requires big system solutions.

4. This is a global idea. Sharing makes it stronger. New Zealand used gov.uk’s code, and gov.uk can then take advantage of their improvements.

5. It should always have a local flavour. They have the GovStack: hw, sw, apps. Anyone can use it, adapt it to their own situation, etc.

A provocation: “Govt as platform” is a fantastic idea, but when applied to govt without a public service ethos it becomes a mere buzzword. Public servants don’t “pivot.”

Jen Pahlka makes some remarks. “We need to realize that if we can’t implement our policies, we can’t govern.” She was running Code for America. She and the federal CTO, Todd Park, were visiting Mike in the UK “which was like Disneyland for a govt tech geek like me.” Todd asked her to help with the Presidential Innovation Fellows, but she replied that she really wanted to work on the sort of issues that Mike had been addressing. Fix publishing. Fix transactions. Go wholesale.

“We have 30-40,000 federal web sites,” she says. Tim adds, “Some of them have zero users.”

Todd wanted to make the data available so people could build services, but the iPhone ships with apps already in place. A platform without services is unlikely to take off. “We think $172B is being spent on govt IT in this country, including all levels.” Yet people aren’t feeling like they’re getting the services they need.

E.g., if we get immigration reform, there are lots of systems that would have to scale.

Tim: Mike, you have top-level support. You report directly to a cabinet member. You also have a native delivery system — you can shut down failed services, which is much harder in the US.

Mike: I asked for very little money — 50M pounds — a building, and the ability to hire who we want. People want to work on stuff that matters with stellar people. We tried to figure out what are the most important services. We asked people in a structured way which was more important, a drivers license or fishing license? Drivers license or passport? This gave us important data. And ?e retired about 40% of govt content. There was content that no one ever read. There’s never any feedback.

Tim: You have to be actually measuring things.

Jen: There are lots of boxes you have to check, but none of them are “Is it up? Do people like it?”

Mike: Govts think of themselves as big. But digital govt isn’t that big. Twelve people could make a good health care service. Govt needs to get over itself. Most of what govt does digitally is about the size of the average dating site. The site doesn’t have to get big for the usage of it to scale.

Jen: Steven Levy wrote recently about how the Health Care site got built. [Great article -dw] It was a small team. Also, at Code for America, we’ve seen that the experience middle class people had with HealthCare.gov is what poor people experience every day. [my emphasis – such an important point!]

Tim: Tell us about Code for America’s work in SF on food stamps.

Jen: We get folks from the tech world to work on civic projects. Last year they worked on the California food stamps program. One of our fellows enrolled in the program. Two months later, he got dropped off the roles. This happens frequently. Then you have to re-enroll, which is expensive. People get dropped because they get letters from the program that are incomprehensible. Our fellows couldn’t understand the language. And the Fellows weren’t allowed to change the language in the letter. So now people get text messages if there’s a problem with their account, expressed in simple clear language.

Q&A

Q: You’ve talked about services, but not about opening up data. Are UK policies changing about open data?

Mike: We’ve opened up a lot of data, but that’s just the first step. You don’t just open it up and expect great things to open. A couple of problems: We don’t have a good grip on our data. It’s not consistent, it lives in macros and spreadsheets, and contractually it’s often in the hands of the people giving the service. Recently we wanted to added an organ donation checkbox and six words on the drivers license online page. We were told it would cost $50K and take 100 days. It took us about 15 mins. But the data itself isn’t the stimulus for new services.

Q: How can we avoid this in the future?

Mike: One thing: Require the govt ministers to use the services.

Jen: People were watching HealthCare.gov but were asking the wrong questions. And the environment is very hierarchical. We have to change the conversation from tellling people what to do, to “Here’s what we think is going to work, can you try it?” We have to put policy people and geeks in conversation so they can say, no that isn’t going to work.

Q: The social security site worked well, except when I tried to change my address. It should be as easy as Yahoo. Is there any plan for post offices or voting?

Mike: In the UK, the post offices were spun out. And we just created a register-to-vote service. It took 20 people.

Q: Can you talk about the online to offline impact on public service, and measuring performance, and how this will affect govt? Where does the transformation start?

Jen: It starts with delivery. You deliver services and you’re a long way there. That’s what Code for America has done: show up and build something. In terms of the power dynamics, that’s hard to change. CGI [the contractor that “did” HealthCare.gov] called Mike’s Govt Digital Service “an impediment to innovation,” which I found laughable.

Tim: You make small advances, and get your foot in the door and it starts to spread.

Mike: I have a massive poster in my office: “Show the thing.” If you can’t create version of what you want to build, even just html pages, then your project shouldn’t go forward.

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July 13, 2013

Presidential Innovation Fellows

Yesterday I got to spend the afternoon with friends from the Department of State’s eDiplomacy group and people from the General Services Administration. I was leading a whiteboarding session for a project — a task marketplace — they have underway. The project development work is being done primarily by two Presidential Innovation FellowsJoe Polastre and Dain Miller — which made clear to me just how cool that program is.

The official description is:

The Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program pairs top innovators from the private sector, non-profits, and academia with top innovators in government to collaborate during focused 6-13 month “tours of duty” to develop solutions that can save lives, save taxpayer money, and fuel job creation.

There are 30+ Fellows, whose terms run from 6-13 months, working on projects [github] that benefit the country.

I like everything about this program. I like that it enables development of useful software. I like that it announces the White House’s recognition of the importance of tech innovation. I like that it gets geeks into various branches of the government. I like that it gives some incredible developers real-world experience with the federal government — the admirable people who work there, as well as the constraints they work within.

The one thing I don’t like is the acronym. Pfft.

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February 10, 2012

Power politics in the age of Google

[live-blogged yesterday] I’ve come in 30 minutes late (Sorry! I had it marked wrong on my schedule) to a panel at the Kennedy School about politics and the Net. The panel is outstanding: Susan Crawford, Micah Sifry, Nicco Mele, Alexis Ohanian [reddit] and Elaine Kamarck, moderated by Alex Jones.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

As I enter, Susan is saying that SOPA was put forward to make PIPA [Senate version] look reasonable, but it obviously backfired. But, she warns, the type of concerted effort that defeated SOPA is special and rare; we can’t count on it happening again.

Nicco says that Google has doubled its lobbying budget, spending $10M this past year. But it hasn’t made much of a dent against the tight relationships among the entertainment industry lobbyists and Congress. “This is not the end of this issue,” he says, referring to the battle over Hollywood content. “It’s more like a battle in the middle of the opening third.” He adds, “The power of the grassroots to shape and drive the debate…was a shock to the insular world inside the Beltway.”

Alex: Suppose there had been the outcry but not the going dark? Was it going dark that did it?

Nicco: It was an expression of the intensity of the situation. It might have had the same outcome. Google didn’t go dark and drove a huge amount of traffic to anti-SOPA sites.

Susan: Google joined a parade smaller sites like Reddit.com had started.

Alex: Is this a watershed moment?

Elaine: No. Sometimes DC gets things wrong. E.g., a Medicare bill was repealed after 16 months because the seniors went nuts about it. This was pre-Internet. “Old ladies were throwing rotten eggs at Dan Rostenkowski.” Also, in 2006 there were local protests against a bipartisan immigration reform law. SOPA was a perfect example of a bunch of old guys — Chris Dodd et al. — not understanding that they were playing with fire. They didn’t take into account the intensity the Net citizens felt. There’s nothing fundamentally different from what we’ve seen before: Sometimes the folks in Washington just don’t get it.

Alex: We tried to get people on the other side to join us, but I’ll take their side. An op-ed yesterday said that the anti-SOPA digital tsunami was an abuse of democracy.

Micah: That was a frustrating op-ed because he doesn’t imagine that the citizens who were linking and faxing had agency. He assumes they were all duped by Google etc. Citizens can inform themselves, make up their minds, and take action. That said, I think it’s worth noting that some of these companies have immense power. It’s fair to ask how far can they responsibly use that power? I’d argue that most of these companies are in a more responsive relationship to their users than much of old media, especially not Hollywood and the recording industry. They are far more likely to listen to their customers and respond to them. Also, anyone who raises the issue of abusive media power needs to be asked how Fox News helped create the Tea Party Movement, cheerleading people to go to the first rallies. The media coverage on Fox took place before the manifestation of what it was “covering.” For me the fact that the anti-SOPA movement was a civic-commercial hybrid is fascinating.

Alex: Truman ordered the Army to bust up a train strike. Google and the Web overall have become the nervous system of the world. At what point does the power of a privately owned nervous system becomes so great that its even considering withholding services becomes inappropriate?

Alexis: The op-ed was malarkey. All sites are made equal, so if Wikipedia closed down for a week, there would be a new instance of it almost immediately. Likewise if the search engines went down. It is such a frictionless market.

Susan: Legally, infrastructure like transportation and physical access lines is different from the content. When it comes to train line or someone providing cable access to your home, there are extraordinarily high start-up costs. They can be natural monopolies since it may not make sense to have more than one. Google is not a natural monopoly.

Elaine: Laying a transatlantic cable is a big, expensive undertaking. Those infrastructure companies are governed like utilities. The Net access providers claim that they should be able to charge Google more for carrying their content, and that battle will play out over the next decade. So, there are clashes, but the SOPA battle isn’t like that. The US federal govt is not prepared to think about governing the Net. You can see this in its approach to cybersecurity. There’s a nasty cycle: cybercrime is one of those crimes you can pretty much guarantee you’re never going to be caught at. We’re not ready as a country to think about regulating the Net to prevent it. The MPAA and RIAA are really not ready to deal with this. They’re playing an old game. They and a lot of people in Washington don’t understand the issues.

Alex: What are the issues where the govt ought to be thinking about regulation?

Nicco: I don’t think we have a handle on these issues yet. Our leaders lack a fundamental understanding. One way to deal with this would be to introduce a mandatory retirement age for Congress. [it’s a joke, sort of.] They’re fundamentally out of touch with how most Americans are living their lives.

Alex: How seriously should we take Anonymous? The nihilistic impulse and incredible skill?

Micah: It’s hard to generalize about Anonymous. It’s a shape shifter. I asked someone researching them if she could assure me that they’re not the Russian Mafia. She said she couldn’t; you just don’t know. And it’s not just Anonymous: the Arabs and Israelis are going after each other. We should also keep in mind that on sites like Reddit.com and CraigsList.com you get daily acts of altruism.

Susan: User empowerment/agency is almost always the right reaction to bad acts and bad speech.

Alex: How about identifying malefactors?

Micah: It’s a good thing you can’t. If we reengineered the Net so you could, the people who would be hunted down would mainly by dissidents. It’s a double-sided sword.

Elaine: You’ve expressed the Zeitgeist of the Net. At some point, criminals will get smarter and will steal billions of dollars from people on Facebook. There’s a crisis point for the Net coming. It won’t be shut down, but it will fundamentally change. It’s not inconceivable that in 20 yrs will have a different Net because people will demand it because someone will have stolen thousands of dollars from us all, or they will withdraw from the one Net and instead will form cloistered nets.

Susan: I agree. There will be a meltdown and people will react with fear. We need to train our reps to understand what the Net is so that they can have an intelligent response.

Alexis: People are afraid of hackers. But the problem is that security is terrible. Banks need to take online security much more seriously.

Alex: Has Wikileaks changed the way people share info?

Susan: The State Dept. no longer shares cables with the Defense Dept.

Alexis: The weak point is always human.

Micah: When I hear you talking about criminals attacking the banks, I think the criminals are running the banks. We’re moving away from trust in centralized institutions and more trust in ourselves. I mentioned Kickstarter.com at the start of this panel [missed it!], and it’s taking off to the extent that in Detroit they’re starting to refer to it as a grassroots WPA. Nicco and I think that the anti-SOPA moment was different because it wasn’t just a shout, but it was when a large community began to realize its own power to shift how things work.

Elaine: Seniors aren’t an interest group?

Micah: Yes, but they worked through a single lobbying group.

Susan: Now they have network.

Alex: But you said we can’t do this too many times…

Suan: But now that the Internet community can see itself, it is forming new associations and networks…

Alex: Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in working together…

Alexis: Hollywood should see the Net as another channel to make money. 10% of the entries at Sundance this year were funded by fans via Kickstarter.

Alex: The anti-SOPA group spanned politics. Matt Drudge was part of it. Are either the Dems or the Repubs better at this?

Alexis: It’s become a political issue.

[And just under the wire, Micah gets in a Google-Santorum joke.]

Q: The Net can be brought down any time…
Susan: It would be extremely difficult to bring it down. The root servers are echoed all over the world. The real risk is that physical cables between companies can be cut. We have too few Internet providers. The great thing about the Net is that it works just well enough — a best-effort network. The NSA has a tremendous amount of info about the threats and attacks. That info should be shared with the operators of the networks and banks in ways that are safe for them so they can cooperate. But you don’t want to burn the village to save it.

Q: What are the lessons from SOPA for citizens and for smaller sites?
Alexis: It’s easy to put up a one-off site to help organize and get attention. That just takes some html and a good idea.
Nicco: How much do you think of Reddit as a political force?
Alexis: It’s not. The people there are. The SOPA protest bubbled up from subreddits. At that point it got the attention of the staff. For us, it was 12 hours of lost revenues, but traffic was up the next day. We built Reddit as a meritocracy. We strive to make sure that if something comes to the front page, it’s genuinely popular.

Nicco: The point of the Constitution is to regulate lunatic populism.

Elaine: No, you take populism into account when governing.

Nicco: Someday Reddit’s mgt may be faced with a decision about going against the community’s preferences.

Alex: The huge anti-SOPA outpouring was only about 10M, which is less than a plebiscite.

Elaine: This is an issue with no clear answer. They heard the outcry, and the reps who had signed on without reading the bill pulled back. This happens not just with Net issues. E.g., Cap and Trade.

Q: [me] Is there a Net constituency, Net values, and does the Net shape political consciousness?
Micah: We’re seeing a change in consciousness: a willingness to dig and share. The Net is conducive to those values, although not everyone who uses it will share those values. But many of these sites have constituencies. This is a sharing economy. The Net is enabling something that was always there in American culture: barn raisings, rent sharing. And some of the things you can do are organically natural: I don’t think you can convince 75M American teens that they’re all thieves. And they’re going to be voters. They’re going to ask what sorts of businesses they can build on top of that sharing.

Q: Alexis, how have you been tweeting during this panel?
A: Katrina has been tweeting in my name. That’s trust!

Q: Tim Wu has made a compelling argument that historically information empires start out open and then become monopolies. Google is young and it’s already finishing our sentences [auto-complete], which is a powerful way of shaping consciousness. The more people are searching, the easier it is to improve your service, so there are economies of scale in search. Hence, monopolies could emerge that have serious barriers to entry.
Nicco: The history of personal computers + connectivity is about empowering individuals and making it easier for small things to destroy big things. I’m not convinced that Google’s advantage is large enough to make it a monopoly.
Micah: I worry that Google can manipulate search results in undisclosed ways. If they favor results that favor their own products, which they’re starting to do now, they’re taking a risk. Their value is that they give us the best results, and if they don’t do that, other sites may get traction. And if they start favoring their own products they can be accused of antitrust violations. They have immense power and I don’t see how to get them to be more transparent without giving up trade secrets.
Alexis: We’re allies with Google as a matter of convenience. If they started lobbying in DC against Net interests, everyone would abandon them. And we think when it comes to building products, we could beat ‘em.

Q: Google is becoming a content producer. Might they switch to pro-SOPA?
Alexis: I don’t know, but if they did, we’d line up against them.

Q: People in this room could switch search engines, but for many people, it’d be harder.
Susan: There’s something about the Google logo that’s like the clown in a horror movie. They haven’t broadened their model beyond targeting ads. Antitrust authorities look at Google very hard. The FTC and DoJ are watching.

Q: Why didn’t Facebook protest SOPA?
Micah: FB is one of the more serious monsters. They signed onto some of the letters but there was no serious activity by the leaders. They want to get into China and don’t want the Chinese govt to think they’re a platform for dissension. Interpret all their actions in that context.
Susa: They see themselves like a media property. They’re the ESPN of the network. Watch FB’s relationship with the carriers. They’re going to want special treatment so that FB becomes the Internet for you. AOL tried it and Americans loved it.

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September 19, 2008

[irmc] Government 2.0 and beyond

I’m at the 20th anniversary celebation of the Information Resources Management College of the National Defense University in DC. David Wennergren (Deputy asst secty of defense for info mgt, and DoD deputy chief info officer) is leading a panel on Gov’t 2.0, with Anthony Williams (nGenera, and coauthor of Wikinomics), Bruce Klein (Cisco, US public sector) and Mike Bradshaw (Google, federal sector). [I’m live blogging, making mistakes, being incomplete, mishearing …]

The moderator and the panelists each take a turn at the podium.

David says that Web 2.0 (etc.) is a powerful opportunity “for us to change differently.” Agencies don’t have to be isolated. Mashups, mass collaboration, etc., enable rapid innovation. “We’ve grown up in a world of systems,” big systems. In the new world, we need to be able to “focus and converge.” [David is citing someone else, but I didn’t catch the name.] He refers to the book “Polarity Management.” We have to get both security and sharing right. E.g., focus on secure networks and you create a “self-inflicted denial of service attack” on yourself. [Nice] If you don’t get sharing right, we lose our edge as a nation of innovators.

Anthony Williams (Wikinomics) says he’s been working with governments on e-gov ideas. If we can do Wikipedia, Galaxyzoo, Curriki, there’s no telling what we can do as citizens. The five big ideas: 1. Rethink public service. We still treat citizens as passive recipients. 2. Make sure the information flows horizontally and through all the governmental layers. 3. Open up the boundaries of government, inviting input from citizens, non-profits, private e, etc. 4. New models of democracy, especially interactive models of political communication. 5. Rethink our core institutions, redraw the division of labor. Can we source government services globally?

Bruce (Cisco) talks about how Cisco is using tech to transfer its business. Web 2.0 is about collaboration. Collaboration accelerates productivity, mission success (or growth), and innovation. But it’s more about the culture and the processes than the technology. He shows a crowded slide of how Cisco is using Web 2.0. Their Directory 3.0 includes profiles and areas of expertise. Ciscopedia is an internal wiki. And they have a portal for employees that includes info and apps. Wiki use went up 5x over a year, blogs up 3x, and video up 12x. Cisco is changing from command and control to collaboration and teamwork.

Mike (Google) begins with a title slide that has Google in one corner but that shares the space equally with Skype, Wikipedia, the iPhone, Facebook, AOL, YouTube, the iPod, Second Life, and Bebo. 98% of Google’s revenues come from its free products. Only 2% comes from Mike’s federal group. The cost of switching is zero, he says, so companies have to constantly work on providing good features that are usable without training. “We take that philosophy now to the workplace.” 89% people say they use at least one “unsanctioned” technology at work (Yankee Group). 49% say the tech they have at home is more advanced than what they have at work. He gives some examples of government embracing Web 2.0 tech. E.g., Homeland Security in Alabama used Google Earth as a platform for satellite imagery. Then firefighters started populating it with info about buildings and equipment. Then students started adding info. Etc. He ends by talking about the importance of cloud computing. He compares it to the early corporate resistance to PCs because they were insecure, etc. In addition to providing applications and infrastructure, cloud computing can be a platform (as with Google aps and Salesforce.com). In its own data centers, Google assumes things will fail. They buy commodity hardware and hold the drives in with velcro. Every minute, 13 hrs of video are uploaded to YouTube. The search engine gets a billion queries a day. Google has had to build a huge infrastructure, which they now make available to the public for free.

Q: How do we reconcile the rapidity of innovation and the slowness of the gov’t acquisition process?
A: (david) It’s changing. We’re becoming beter about using what’s on the Web. And we’re learning to move incrementally rather than building the big honking system.

Q: What kind of test did Cisco do to weed about the execs who are not ready to move from the command and control structure?
A: At Cisco, we measure everything. John Chambers put together boards and councils to run the company. The councils are cross-functional. You quickly see who collaborates and who doesn’t. Cisco changed the compensation so that for some, 70% of their compensation comes from how the company overall does.

Q: The DoD blocks many social networking sites. The younger employees want to collaborate all the time. How do we bring them in, let them live in their culture, and modify the environment to meet their needs?
A: (david) Blocking access is a non-sustainable policy. These government institutions do change when leaders stand up.
A: (anthony) We interviewed 10,000 youths globally. The public sector is the least desirable place to work in the US, UK and Canada. I agree with Dave on the blocking of sites. Canada banned Facebook for gov’t empoloyees, so everyone moved to MySpace. Canada is now looking at rolling out a Facebook-like product for the entire government.
A: (mike) Google has “20% time”: Spend 20% of your week doing something of great interest to you. That’s how Gmail was created. It includes community service, solar energy, etc. That helps retention. The federal gov’t attracts very smart people, but they get frustrated when tools they’re using — Facebook, for example — gets shut down. The first thing that has to be addressed are the security issues. We open our data centers to let federal folks see how secure we are. The old certification process takes too long.

Q: In the new model of gov’t how do you make sure the voice of all the people, even those without cmputers, is heard?
A: Yes, we don’t want simply to amplify the traditional values. But we hope some of the gaps will close. This needs political attention.

Q: The Toffflers [who are in the audience] point to the variance of rates of change. What’s Google doing to help accelerate change in education and law, to keep it up with the speed at which business changes?
A: (mike) We do try to influence policy. And we try to get info out to the gov’t. My 20% time is spent in bringing tech to charitable orgs.
A: (bruce) Cisco thinks there has to be a major transformation in education: Change in curriculum, in how teachers teach, how students can use tech to learn. We have bunches of pilots in place.

Q: We don’t have standards. Should there be government regulation of the Net to produce standards? And how would this work internationally?
A: (anthony) Regulating the Internet is not so good. But having the government using open standards is important.
A: (bruce) You stifle innovation if you over regulate.
A: (mike) Disruptive tech disrupts cost structures as well. We like open source and open standards because if you use our stuff, you’ll also be using other stuff as well.

Last thoughts? What do you see coming down the road?
A: (mike) Watch for Android. Open source.
A: (bruce) Work on culture to take advantage of what’s out there.
A: (anthony) How does the gov’t source expertise? How does it tap into the collaborative intelligence?
A: (david) We have to work on trust. It’s the single biggest inhibitor to making this shift. [Tags: ]

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June 29, 2008

Government by these people

Matthew Burton on working with the people who are our government…

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June 18, 2008

Taking Congress at its word

The Sunlight Foundation has released its latest tool in the struggle for governmental transparency: CapitolWords.org. It scrapes the records and highlights the word used most often that day. For example, “tax” was used 23 times today. Of course, a calendar view is also available,

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