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[liveblog][act-iac] Innovation in govt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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