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October 7, 2014

Library as a platform: Chattanooga

I finally got to see the Chattanooga Library. It was even better than I’d expected. In fact, you can see the future of libraries emerging there.

That’s not to say that you can simply list what it’s doing and do the same things and declare yourself the Library of the Future. Rather, Chattanooga Library has turned itself into a platform. That’s where the future is, not in the particular programs and practices that happen to emerge from that platform.

I got to visit, albeit all too briefly, because my friend Nate Hill, assistant director of the Library, invited me to speak at the kickoff of Chattanooga Startup Week. Nate runs the fourth floor space. It had been the Library’s attic, but now has been turned into an open space lab that works in both software and hardware. The place is a pleasing shambles (still neater than my office), open to the public every afternoon. It is the sort of place that invites you to try something out — a laser cutter, the inevitable 3D printer, an arduino board … or to talk with one of the people at work there creating apps or liberating data.

The Library has a remarkable open data platform, but that’s not what makes this Library itself into a platform. It goes deeper than that.

Go down to the second floor and you’ll see the youth area under the direction/inspiration of Justin Hoenke. It’s got lots of things that kids like to do, including reading books, of course. But also playing video games, building things with Legos, trying out some cool homebrew tech (e.g., this augmented reality sandbox by 17-year-old Library innovator, Jake Brown (github)), and soon recording in audio studios. But what makes this space a platform is its visible openness to new ideas that invites the community to participate in the perpetual construction of the Library’s future.

This is physically manifested in the presence of unfinished structures, including some built by a team of high school students. What will they be used for? No one is sure yet. The presence of lumber assembled by users for purposes to be devised by users and librarians together makes clear that this is a library that one way or another is always under construction, and that that construction is a collaborative, inventive, and playful process put in place by the Library, but not entirely owned by the Library.

As conversations with the Library Director, Corinne Hill (LibraryJournal’s Librarian of the Year, 2014), and Mike Bradshaw of Colab — sort of a Chattanooga entrepreneurial ecosystem incubator — made clear, this is all about culture, not tech. Open space without a culture of innovation and collaboration is just an attic. Chattanooga has a strong community dedicated to establishing this culture. It is further along than most cities. But it’s lots of work: lots of networking, lots of patient explanations, and lots and lots of walking the walk.

The Library itself is one outstanding example. It is serving its community’s needs in part by anticipating those needs (of course), but also by letting the community discover and develop its own interests. That’s what a platform is about.

It’s also what the future is about.


Here are two relevant things I’ve written about this topic: Libraries as Platforms and Libraries won’t create their own futures.


September 22, 2014

The future of libraries won’t be created by libraries

Library Journal has posted an op-ed of mine that begins:

The future of libraries won’t be created by libraries. That’s a good thing. That future is too big and too integral to the infrastructure of knowledge for any one group to invent it. Still, that doesn’t mean that libraries can wait passively for this new future. Rather, we must create the conditions by which libraries will be pulled out of themselves and into everything else.


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: 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’s code, and 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 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: 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 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”] 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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June 20, 2014

[platform] Denmark recreated in Minecraft

According to an article in PC Games (August 2014, Ben Griffin, p. 12), two people from the Danish Ministry of the Environment “have recreated Denmark on 1:1 scale” in Minecraft. Although the idea came from observing their children playing the game, the construction required non-child-like automation. “By using standard open-source components, it was possible to break this down into a few thousand lines of code, most of which remaps various geospatial objects into Minecraft blocks…In total it took less than a week to calculate all 6437 files,” they said.

Yes, griefers have come, in tanks, blowing up landmarks, and planting their own country’s flags. But, the creators (Simon Kokkendorff and Thorbjørn Nielsen) point out that the vandals only destroyed “a few hectares.”


June 11, 2012

DPLA West meeting online

The sessions from the DPLA Plenary meeting on April 27 in SF are now online. Here’s the official announcement:

…all media and work outputs from the two day-long events that made up DPLA West–the DPLA workstream meetings held on April 26, 2012 at the San Francisco Public Library, and the public plenary held on April 27, 2012 at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, CA–are now available online on the “DPLA West: Media and Outputs” page:

There you will find:

  • Key takeaways from the April 26, 2012 workstream meetings;

  • Notes from the April 27, 2012 Steering Committee meeting;

  • Complete video of the April 27, 2012 public plenary;

  • Photographs and graphic notes from the public plenary;

  • Video interviews with DPLA West participants;

  • And audio interviews with DPLA West scholarship recipients.

More information about DPLA West can be found online at

Folks from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab and the Berkman Center worked long and hard to create a prototype software platform for the DPLA in time for this event. The platform is up and gives live access to about 20M books and thousands of images and other items from various online collections. The session at which we introduced, explained, and demo’ed it is now available for your viewing pleasure. (I was interim head of the project.)

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January 19, 2010

[berkman] Tarleton Gillespie: The Politics of Online Media Platforms

Tarleton Gillespie of Cornell is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk on the politics of online media. He’s been interested in how we are shaping cultural discourse through the confluence of tech, policy, economics, etc. Today he wants to look at how social platforms are shaping social discourse.

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 begins with YouTube’s announcement in Dec. 2008 that they’re going to become more conservative in blocking offensive videos: removing some, moving some behind an age firewall, and algorithmically demoting some so they won’t appear on the most popular lists. This combines traditional tactics with newfangled technical management of where things appear. We don’t really have a language for how these sorts of innovations work.

He asks: How do we take the tradition of asking questions about how commercial providers shape the public discourse … with the basis that these providers, especially the most prominent ones, are playing a role in determining what ends up online, viewed and possible? How do we apply this to new media? Three differences in how online media work: 1. Emphasis on user-generated content. 2. Gatekeeping or comprehensiveness? E.g., Google wants comprehensiveness for Google Books. That changes why they would include or exclude. 3. They cater “to active niche communities, trying to produce a coherent site, consistent brand, and commodifiable audience.”

“How do these sites promise to be everything and not everything at the same time?” How have they cultivated the notion that they provide everything in a neutral manner? How do they intervene in what they provide? “What obligations are we willing to impose, to protect free speech and ensure a healthy public discourse?”

What about the promises they make that makes them appear neutral? How do they articulate their services and sell themselves to the various stakeholders, setting the terms for how they’re judged? Part of the answer: They use the term “platform.” “The role this term plays is indicative of the type of positioning a youtube, facebook or flickr would like to establish.” These terms are carefully chosen and are carefully massaged. Why has this term fit so comfortable in these sites’ characterizations and why have we accepted it? E.g., before being bought by Google, Youtube referred to itself as a service and a community. Afterward, it became a “platform.” The term draws on the computational meme: an infrastructure on which tools can be built. Marc Andreesen disagrees because you can’t build tools for it. [This is the original geeky meaning, but its meaning has shifted, IMO – dw] It also has a political meaning. And architectural. All these meanings help the term resonate. There are a series of connotations that are powerful in this tool: An open space, egalitarian, wide, limitless, facilitating something of value.

The term “platform” manages the conflicts among stakeholders for youtube. For users, it’s a platform from which to be heard. For advertisers, it’s a platform of opportunity. For media partners, it’s a distribution platform. For lawmakers, it’s a fragile, valuable platform that enables free speech. When they are talking about liability, they are merely a platform. Structurally, “platform” is not unlike “conduit.” [Hmm. I think that for advertisers, YT is a platform in that it’s an open space where millions of users come together. – dw]

So, how do you begin to find a language for the technique and justifications online media make about what belongs on their site and what doesn’t. Facebook, youtube, and flickr adopt different strategies. Youtube maintains that it doesn’t look at content proactively but only when their users flag it. But they do look for spam and are obliged to look for child porn [actually, I think they are not required to proactively search out child porn — dw]. Youtube has a figure 8 model of community governance: Users flag content. Users can comment on the guidelines. Users can game the system, but Youtube can decide which flags to ignore. Users can complain about being flagged. So, while Youtube positions itself as non-interventionist, it actually isn’t. It says it’s defending the community according to the community’s norms, but those norms have been crafted by YT in accordance with its legal and economic interests.

YT’s algorithmic demotion of videos manages their front page. They don’t want it to look like a soft core porn site; those videos are there, but it’s not their image. Flickr does this carefully as well. Their front page tells you that this is a site for landscape photos, and birds, and arty shots. Amazon’s best seller list excludes “adult” literature. Not to mention (he says) Amazon’s removing from the Kindle a copy of 1984 that was posted in violation of copyright; what seems like ours isn’t really.

[I’m doing a terrible job capturing the questions. Basically, I just couldn’t hear the first couple. Sorry!]

Q: [wendy] Platforms vs. intermediaries. “The lawyers tend to talk about intermediary liability or immunity, whereas economists talk more about platforms.”
A: Intermediaries such as ISPs have a different set of protections. YouTube wants the protections but doesn’t fit neatly into that definition. Viacom calls YTY a “distributor.”

Q: Couldn’t these platforms get out of the dilemma by providing curated and uncurated versions?
A: Flickr comes closer to that. It tries to have it all but not be visible about having it all. They have a “Porn is in the back” approach.

[me] We’re in a confusing time. We’ve invented new things that don’t fit the old vocabulary perfectly. What should we do about the lack of a vocab. Invent a new one? Be vigilant about understand how people use terms?
A: All vocabularies are strategic. We should unpack the terms and recognize that they’re doing work, and that the connotations matter. E.g., issues of liability depends on whether we see them as intermediaries or distributors. Is it about imposing a new vocab? Or maintaining vigilance? I’m torn about the impulses in those directions.

Q: We had a system that had user ratings. We a “text jockey” looking at msgs 24/7. We call them global ratings vs. contextual ratings. It’s gotten very very complex. E.g., cleavage photos have to have a head included.

Q: [jodi] How has the near real time feedback influenced accountability/exposure of algorithms and decisions? The Twitter/#amazonfail incident, for instance. Amazon was faced with a decision to respond or not, and then further faced with a decision of what to do about the allegation.
A: The Amazon FAIL revealed what was going on all along. Now the reaction can be faster, is more public.

[Missed some more questions because my hearing is getting worse.]

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