There’s no shortage of case studies to highlight, from the local town green right on up to the federal or international level. Just listen to the voices from the Gov2.0 LA unconference for a small sample of the perspectives on the issue.
O’Reilly’s goal in Washington D.C. is to “create a context in which people can think” differently about the role of technology in government, and the role of government in society. I look forward to helping to create that context.
In service of that goal, I’ll be blogging, conducting short interviews with government officials and industry participants, writing features and using the rest of the tools for digital curation I’ve been honing in the past several years.
I’m very excited to get started. I expect my new position to be challenging, engaging, rewarding, occasionally frustrating and never dull.
I also expect the process of writing about government 2.0 case studies to be a reciprocal process, as readers help me to understand more about what stories are important to them and which voices deserve to be heard.
I hope that in the days and months to come that you’ll share your perspectives, ideas and suggestions with me.
The story of government 2.0 is already being written every day by citizens, civic hackers, advocacy groups, government employees, researchers and technologists.
As a digital pilgrim, I look forward to chronicling that progress.
Finally, there’s a final Wordle for Transparency Camp 2010, with all capitals removed. Fittingly, I had to clean my data to get a good visualization that accurately represented the data I reported upon.
There’s a new .gov on the block: after years of a decidedly dated website, the Supreme Court has a new look — and address — at SupremeCourt.gov. The Supreme Court announced the new site without a great deal of fanfare, sending a release which SCOTUSblog.com posted as a PDF.
As Orin Kerr observes at the Volokh Conspiracy, the new site replaces the old supremecourtus.gov and drops “us” from the URL. Users still have to enter “www” in, however, which is less than ideal. C’est la vie.
My Supreme Court preview for 2009-2010 has been a constant source of traffic to this blog, demonstrating a continued interest from the online audience in the cases before the highest court in the land.
Despite the “updated and more user-friendly design,” that the release promised, some users may be frustrated.
There’s a separate concern for the rest of the Web, however: as clicking on the links that post show, SupremeCourt.gov webmasters have not forwarded many old URLs to new ones. Many links simply default to the home page. I suspect a few law librarians around the world may have a headache tomorrow.
It’s going to be a grimace-inducing issue for a few newspapers, too, if redirects aren’t rolled into place. The most-debated ruling of recent months, “Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission,” in which the Justices rejected campaign spending limits?
That’s now a default link to the SupremeCourt.gov home page from the New York Times SCOTUS story on it. (Google also hosts a PDF of the decision, if a searcher is clever enough to find the cached version.) “Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission” is up at SupremeCourt.gov. It’s just a new URL. SCOTUSblog.com has the same issue with links to opinions. These broken links are going to be a huge headache for organizations of all stripes if the redirects don’t get implemented.
Better calendar, decisions listed, external resources absent
On the positive side, an interactive “argument calendar” is now up on the front page. Clicking on a day brings up the cases to be argued. Another click brings the visitor to a page with a list of the actions that have been taken, along with a link to “Questions presented.”
For those who visit SupremeCourt.gov in search of recent decisions, one click will bring the searcher to a list of Supreme Court decisions from the current term, rendered in chronological order. If you want to go back further, search away – but good luck going very far back in time. A search for another famous case, “Bush v. Gore,” for instance, turns up very little on the new site. The case is just a click away elsewhere, at Supreme.Justia.com, for instance, or at Oyez.org, where audio of Bush v. Gore may be heard. Given the rich resources that exist elsewhere on the Web, it is unfortunate for information-seekers that internal search doesn’t point elsewhere. Even though legal concerns about endorsements of third-party commercial media concerns may pertain, stated website policies would appear to insulate the court against some of those concerns.
Searching for an individual case is improved over the previous function. The search field is clearly viewable on the top right. For those interested in visiting the court, that information is clearly presented and organized. And a FAQ provides a wealth of information for those “frequently asked questions.”
PDFs aplenty, no XML “in site”
It’s also worth observing that most documents on SupremeCourt.gov remain in .PDF format. On the one hand, that may allow it to be spidered by Google. On the other, PDF is definitely not a machine-readable format. Clay Johnson has made a strong case for why that PDFs are problematic for government. I’m not inclined to disagree, although I’d much rather see cases, briefs and other documents posted as PDFs than not at all. Given the continued reliance on PDFs, however, don’t expect enterprising “lawhackers” to create mashups like the ones surrounding data.gov.
Given the improvements to other federal websites, in particular WhiteHouse.gov and the launch of the FCC’s Reboot.gov, I can’t help feel disappointment. The fact that there is no video or audio of cases remains a standing frustration, given the careful questioning and deliberation the justices display and the long hours of preparation counsel undergo to argue cases before the Supreme Court.
The release regarding the new launch further reports the following
Tthe Supreme Court has now assumed management of its own website, retrieving it from the Government Printing Office.” The Court received funding in its FY20 10 appropriation to make the transition from GPO to in-house management. That transition will enable the Court to integrate the Web site with the Court’s other operations, improve the quality of the site, and expand services for the public’s benefit. The Court received funding in its FY20 10 appropriation to make the transition from GPO to in-house management. That transitionwill enable the Court to integrate the Web site with the Court’s other operations, improve thequality of the site, and expand services for the public’s benefit.
If the public is to benefit further by leveraging the Internet to gain insight into the Supreme Court’s operations, the webmasters of SupremeCourt.gov might do well to focus their efforts in the rest of the 2010 towards implementing further improved functions as well as that fresh design. If they can fix those broken links and supplement existing case pages with external resources, like the Supreme Court Database, perhaps that livestream of oral arguments can wait for a few more months.
UPDATE: For more coverage on the new SupremeCourt.gov, see:
“Politicians know they can use social media to talk to people. What they don’t know yet is how to listen.”
That was Anil Dash’s summary of a basicchallenges that lie ahead for many world’s representatives as they explore Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs and other online platforms that allow reciprocal communication. Last year, he wrote that “the most Interesting new tech startup of 2009” was government.
Dash knows a thing or two about tech startups as the first employee of Six Apart LLC, one of the world’s leading blogging companies. He understands online engagement too, after blogging at Dashes.com since 1999. Now, however, he’s set his sights on an even bigger goal: transforming the ways citizens relate to their government through social media using a startup mindset.
Speaking to a group of “digerati” at Baked and Wired, a chic purveyor of cupcakes and Internet in Washington’s tony Georgetown neighborhood, Dash laid out his vision for Expert Labs, “a new independent initiative to help policy makers in our government take advantage of the expertise of their fellow citizens.”
The first project at Expert Labs will be a “ThinkTank App,” an open source web application that aggregates and organizes replies to status updates on Twitter. ThinkTank App was developed by Lifehacker founder Gina Trapani, who has signed on with Expert Labs to develop the platform.
“We want to create a different space for participation that rewards good answers, said Dash. He cited several online websites with communities that allow meaningful exchange of information without the ugliness that pervades many comment boards, including stackoverflow.com, ask.metafilter.com and the site his wife manages, SeriousEats.com.
“We need to establish our priorities as a nation, with citizens as the think tank,” said Dash.” If we can go from six people in closed door room to sixty thousand addressing a problem, that will be a small win.” Dash asserted that the disruptive influence of online collaborative tools will cause “entire federal agencies will be transformed, just as newspapers have been.”
Given the immense economic, social and technological challenges that lie ahead for the United States and the world in this young 21st Century, that’s a vision worth keeping an eye on.
The FCC’s new apps will allow users to test the speed of mobile broadband service and report deadzones where mobile broadband is not available. The FCC iPhone app is a free download from iTunes or the Android marketplace.
“Transparency empowers consumers, promotes innovation and investment, and encourages competition,” said Chairman Julius Genachowski in a press release. “The FCC’s new digital tools will arm users with real-time information about their broadband connection and the agency with useful data about service across the country. By informing consumers about their broadband service quality, these tools help eliminate confusion and make the market work more effectively.”
The Consumer Broadband Test and the Broadband Dead Zone Report are also available as fixed applications at Broadband.gov. According to the FCC, the Ookla, Inc. Speed Test and the Network Diagnostic Tool (NDT) running on the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) platform are used to power the app.
In the future, the FCC says it will making additional broadband testing applications available for consumer use. Consumers can also submit availability information by e-mail to email@example.com. And, perhaps taking a page from Google’s playbook, this application is in beta. According to the Consumer Broadband Test information page, “this beta version is the FCC’s first attempt at providing Americans with real-time information about their broadband connection quality.”
I ran a quick test on my home cable Internet connection.
My downlink isn’t quite fiber optic speed, but I found it close to existing tools. The test depends upon Java, though many users are likely to have that installed at this point.
I tried out the mobile app as well, which used the GPS in my iPhone to discover my location. According to the FCC mobile broadband testing app, I’m getting 1.42 Mbps download speed from AT&T 3G here in Capitol Hill and .11 Mbps upload.
Beats GPRS, if not a Clearwire 4G connection — or my wifi.
The FCC states that it’s “committed to protecting the personal privacy of consumers utilizing these tools, and will not publicly release any individual personal information gathered.” It’s posted a privacy statement to that effect.
Crowdsourcing citizen reporting
The larger context of the release of the FCC mobile broadband testing app is worth noting. The FCC will release its National Broadband Plan next week.
Part of that plan will certainly incorporate assessing where broadband service is exists, how robust it is and, perhaps, how closely service matches advertised rates.
This kind of data could serve in much the same vein as the FTC’s consumer complaint assistant works at FTComplaintassistant.gov. The FCC has given citizens a tool to report service quality and availability around the country. Equipped with that data, commissioners may be able to make more informed policy decisions as they roll out the broadband plan.
Now it remains to be seen whether citizens use it or not.
UPDATE: On Saturday night, March 13th, the FCC tweeted that over 80,000 tests had been registered using the Broadband Speed Test. It was unclear how many tests were through Broadband.gov or the apps.
While I’m proud of those posts, one of the themes that emerged from the weekend was the importance of video for communication. I’m not at all on “video as the new text,” especially for countries with low Internet penetration or bandwidth, but there’s no denying that online video has extraordinary power in conveying messages. Just look at video of Iranian protesters on the streets of Tehran, reports from the earthquake in Haiti or the President of the United States on YouTube. Tune in to CitizenTube any minute of the day to witness that power in action.
Following are short videos from Gov2.0 LA organizers and attendees that share their takeways from the event.
Does the public need to know what Government 2.0 is?
One might ask Tim O’Reilly, who has written eloquently about the topic and emceed the Gov2.0 Summit last year. One might also ask Mark Drapeau, who asked the question above earlier tonight on his blog, or Laurel Ruma, his co-chair at the Gov2.0 Expo last year, which showcased software and online platforms that used government data in innovative ways.
Or one might ask the nation’s technology executives, like US CIO Vivek Kundra or CTO Aneesh Chopra, both of whom participated in the Summit in Washington last summer. The attendees of the summit were asked by the organizers to define the term themselves in an online contest, offering up a multitude of interpretations of the nebulous term. Unfortunately, tonight I didn’t seek comment, turning instead to Wikipedia for the crowd’s opinion. As of tonight’s version, Wikipedia’s entry for “Government 2.0” defines it as:
“a neologism for attempts to apply the social networking and integration advantages of Web 2.0 to the practice of government. William (Bill) Eggers claims to have coined the term in his 2005 book, Government 2.0: Using Technology to Improve Education, Cut Red Tape, Reduce Gridlock, and Enhance Democracy. Government 2.0 is an attempt to provide more effective processes for government service delivery to individuals and businesses. Integration of tools such as wikis, development of government-specific social networking sites and the use of blogs, RSS feeds and Google Maps are all helping governments provide information to people in a manner that is more immediately useful to the people concerned.“
Well and good. The line I find most compelling in the above explanation for the term is the “attempt to provide more effective processes for government service delivery to individuals and businesses.” If I had to explain the idea to my technophobic friends, that’s the tack I’d take. O’Reilly defined government 2.0 as a platform, which I also find to be a useful metaphor, if one that demands the explanation that O’Reilly himself provided at TechCrunch.
Getting technical with government
For those more technically inclined, it might be useful to talk about open data, mashups, Data.gov, the Open Government directive, XML, XBRL, virtualization, cloud computing, social media and a host of other terms that have meaning in context but without prior knowledge do little to inform the public about what, precisely, the “2.0” means. Most people have some sense of what “government” is, though there’s no shortage of opinion about how it should be constituted, run, regulated, managed or funded. Those discussions go back to the earliest days of humanity, well before organizing principles or rules emerged from Hammurabi or were enshrined on the Magna Carta or constitutions.
In all of that time, the body politic and its regulatory and enforcement arms have been equipped with increasingly sophisticated tools. In 2010, agencies and public servants have unprecedented abilities because of the rapid growth of online tools to both engage and inform both their constituencies, relevant markets and others within government. The question that confronts both citizens and public servants around the globe is how to turn all of that innovation to useful change. Savvy political campaigns have already found ways to leverage the Internet as a platform for both organizing and fundraising. Few observers failed to see the way that the Obama campaign leveraged email, text messaging, online donations and social networking in 2008.
One area that will be of intense interest to political observers in 2010 will be whether that same online savvy can be harnessed in the Congressional mid-terms. Micah Sifry wrote about an “Obama Disconnect” at length; I leave it to him to explore that question. What I find compelling is whether any of these technologies can be turned to making better policy or delivering improved services. In theory, good data can be aggregated to create information, which can then in turn be used to form knowledge. Whether the Open Government Directive dashboard at White House.gov reveals information or simply adherence to defined policy is on open question.
Where Web 2.0 matters to Government 2.0
Does the public need to know what Government 2.0 is, exactly? One might wonder if the public needed to know about what “Web 2.0” was? Judging by search traffic and years of Web 2.0 Conferences, my perception has been that there’s interest, if only to know what the next version of the World Wide Web might be, exactly. After all, the Web that Tim Berners-Lee’s fecund mind brought into being has been one of the most extraordinary innovations in humanity’s short history: what could be better? The short answer has often reflected the definition of Government 2.0 above: a combination of technologies that allows people to more easily publish information online, often with a social software or computing component that enables community between their online identities.
In 2010, the dominant platforms that represent Web 2.0 are well known: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Flickr, Delicious, Digg, Ning, StumbleUpon and a host of new mobile communities or platforms. In each case, the company is often defined by what it allows users to do: upload pictures or video, stay connected to friends, track and discover news, save bookmarks or create communities that do all of those things.
When it comes to government 2.0, I believe that’s precisely how any service be defined: by its utility to helping citizens or agencies solve problems, either for individuals or the commons. The 2.0 term provides an umbrellas term for the movement and the technologies.
Why explaining Government 2.0 matters
As a thought experiment, I asked five people in the lobby where I write if they knew what “government 2.0” was. I asked the same question of “Web 2.0.” In every circumstance, no one could explain the term.
And, in every circumstance, people knew what Facebook, Twitter or YouTube was, including the use of those technologies by government officials.
That’s one reason why Bill Grundfest’s talk at a “Government 2.0 Camp in Los Angeles was a useful balance this past weekend, not least because as the creator of “Mad About You” he’s part of the cultural and business fabric of Hollywood.
Grundfest sat through the morning’s sessions and took copious notes in a way that was novel, at least to this author, capturing the themes, memes and jargon shared in the talks on coffee cups.
As she captured there, the focus of Grundfest’s frequently entertaining talk was grounded in the entertainment business: communicate clearly, humanize what’s being offered and move away from jargon.
That message was delivered, by and large, to a room that knew and used the jargon. For that audience, getting advice from a true outsider held utility in both its clarity and lack of pretension. Grundfest may not have developed or managed government programs to deliver services but he has certainly learned how to tell stories.
Storytelling, as journalists and teachers know well, is one of the most powerful ways to share information. It’s an art form and human experience that goes back to our earliest days, as hunters and gatherers huddled around fires to share knowledge about the world, passing on the wisdom of generations.
The activity is scarcely limited to our species, as anyone who’s watched a honey bee shimmy and shake to pass on the details of a pollen gathering trip knows, but humanity’s language skills do tend to advance our ability to convey knowledge, along with the technologies we have at our disposal.
Grundfest recommended the use of video, testimonials and other narrative forms to provide an entrance point into the what, how, where and, especially, why of new government technologies or platforms for engagement.
Couched in humor, his audience responded with interest to the simplicity of the message. Embedded below is a video on the Gov2.o LA unconference from Govfresh that reflects that recommendation. (For others, visit YouTube.com/digiphile) By and large, I believe Grundfest’s message was delivered to a crowd of “goverati” for whom the message was valuable.
Instead of dwelling any further on what Government 2.0 might be or couching discussion or branding in jargon, explain what the technology or platform will do — and what problem it will solve. And at the end of the day, remember that on language, usage drives meaning.
When people talk about “government 2.o,” it’s often couched in terms of a new, shiny idea. Using a version number imbues the category with heady techno-futurism and taints discussions with the hype that surrounds social media and “Web 2.0” technologies.
According to Andrejka, one area to improve lies in identifying technological innovation within the private sector and adopting it where it makes sense. In the present day, that may be digital tools and online platforms where citizens gather.
To put the challenge in content, for good or ill, adoption has often driven by crises or societal disruption. In the 1800s, the Civil War in the United States drove the development of new military technologies, often with far-reaching effect.
That weapon could take seven shots for every one from traditional rifles. Unfortunately, the generals of the day within a conservative Department of War resisted its adoption for any number of logistical and tactical rationales. Spencer took the gun West, and, famously, to a shooting match with the President himself. Lincoln, a fine shot, put 7 bullets into a board, which Spencer saved. Subsequently, Lincoln put the gun into production.
Gaining access to critical “influencers” or IT buyers is no less important today. The use of Facebook, Twitter or Drupal by the White House has given each additional legitimacy as a means to engage citizens, amplify a message or collect information.
According to a Gov 2.0 survey conducted by Oftelie, however, the most valuable use of technology in government is for “enterprise-wide, net-enabled guidance and collaboration.”
Oftelie outlined four broad areas where collaborative technology platforms can be useful and are being employed now:
“We want to know how things are being decided,” he said. “There’s unprecedented interest in transparency into policy, fairness.”
Oftelie observed that while the potential for collaboration technologies to create transformational change is substantial, the transition for most government agencies or other organization can be rocky.
Hierarchies of authority are disrupted, even while new models for remote, asynchronous service with fewer interruptions emerge. Citizens are increasingly expecting (and finding) self-service options on government websites.
“All of the challenges that government faces cut across organizational boundaries,” said Oftelie. “Most technologies aren’t easy to learn, and they’re even tough to implement.”
Note: Security concerns about social media are also relevant. (See the Federal CIO Council’s Guidelines for Social Media [PDF], embedded below, for some best practices for agencies).
Can the agile development cycle be applied to government? Cory Ondrejka, c0-founder of Second Life, offered up a provocative paean for more flexible adaption to new online platforms for citizen engagement and empowerment. “Who will know first if the rules have changed: customers, partners, clients?”
Ondrejka drew a fascinating parallel between today’s open government movement and an open data case study from another age: the Era of Sail.
In the The Physical Geography of the Sea,” published in the mid-1800s, a disabled sailor who could no longer serve as crew found something to do from ashore: aggregate the logs of weather, winds and current.
As Matthew Fontaine Maury started aggregating that data, he found patterns. Maury saw great value in publishing this data “in such a manner that each may have before him, at a glance, the experience of all.”
Ondrejka suggested that government agencies and those creating applications that use open data “write less code, get more data.”
When it comes to resources, he asked, “who’s cheaper: a silicon or carbon employee?”
His observation that social computing platforms will “require different level of trust, support and information” is apt; citizens now have different expectations from a government that’s gone online than existed in an analog world.
As Ondrejka put it, online users represent the “largest focus group in the world.” And in that content, he says, there is a role for government innovation, and it should be occupied by both leaders and citizens.
Ondrejka provided one more “analog” example of how government data was used in the 1800s. By studying harpoon designs, Maury found that many whales in the Pacific has previously been harpooned in the Atlantic and vice versa. He used that as evidence of a Northwest Passage. While that didn’t go well for subsequent explorers who went north and ran up against a frozen ocean, the ’49ers were able to use the data to reduce the length of time it took to get around Cape Horn. In those days, it took more than 200 days to travel from New York City to San Francisco.
The Clipper Ship "Flying Cloud" off the Needles, Isle of Wight, by James E. Buttersworth, 1859-60
As the Gold Rush was on, time was at a premium, and for “extreme clipper ships” like Flying Cloud, any advantage that could be derived from patterns in the data had economic value.
A similar parallel to innovation using government data can be seen today in the use of the global positioning system (GPS) that the U.S. funded.
With any of these technologies, however, there’s a long-standing pattern in technology adoption, the data around which follows a “fairly predictable” curve, said Ondrejka. That “linear to exponential” is something that’s been true in multiple technologies, from email to the VCR to the DVD to social media platforms like Facebook.
In government, however, applying such technology has multiple considers, including regulations, transparency and cybersecurity.
“When you’re driving institutional change, you’re requiring people to be fearless,” said Ondrejka. “Experimental culture doesn’t mean just go try stuff.”
Measurement is key. “Stay out of the Church of Assumption,” he said. “The plural of anecdote is not evidence.”
Concerns about data ownership are also central, as are questions about vendor lock-in or the use proprietary formats. “We need to be careful about not releasing the data that taxpayers pay for,” said Ondrejka.
As is the tradition at most unconferences, attendees went around the room and introduced themselves with a name, affiliation and “three words” to describe themselves. Here’s the Wordle I created from them:
Here’s the list I used to generate the Wordle above:
Emerging technology has the power to make democracy stronger or weaker. Understanding where, when, and how is the hard part. Subscribe to Civic Texts to get insights about how technologies are changing our democracy in your inbox.