In the nearly 7 years I’ve lived and worked in Washington, finding working wifi has been a constant battle around the District. Yesterday, I was astonished and elated to find a working, robust wireless network operating in the basement of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House.
This shouldn’t be that exciting in 2016, but it was, and remains so, particularly in the basement theater that’s a deadzone for cell phones. I’ve gotten online there in past years but rarely without difficulty or disruption.
Functional White House wifi enabled the people at the forum I attended to get online to share what they were experiencing, including participating in the online backchannel on Twitter and uploading selfies. This was the first time I’ve been asked to take a selfie with strangers at the White House. As precedents go, it’s not earthshaking, but it’s an interesting reflection of our wired moment.
It’s taken the Obama administration most of two terms to upgrade this aspect of White House’s IT infrastructure — when staff showed up in 2009, they found computers still running Windows 98 — but they’re leaving the place better than they found it.
My favorite public place to log onto a public wireless network, however, still remains the House Public network in “the People’s House” in the Rayburn Office Building.
Tomorrow, President Barack Obama will be answering questions about housing during a live event with Zillow. Today, President Obama went directly to Instagram to ask the American people for questions about housing.
In some ways, this is old hat. The source for the questions, after all, is the same as it has been many times over the past five years: social media. As I commented on Tumblr, five years into this administration, it would be easy to let these sorts of new media milestones at the White House go unremarked. That would be a mistake.
The novelty in the event tomorrow lies in two factors:
As for Tuesday at 5:50 PM ET, there were only around a dozen videos tagged with #AskObamaHousing on Instagram, so if you have a good one, the odds are (relatively) decent for it to be posed. (Twitter, by contrast, is much livelier.)
Such informal, atomized mobile videos are now a growing part of the landscape for government and technology, particularly in an age when the people formerly known as the audience have more options to tune in or tune out of broadcast programming. If the White House is looking to engage younger Americans in a conversation about, Instagram is an obvious place to turn.
Today, politicians and government officials need to go where the People are. Delivering effective answers to their questions regarding affordable housing in a tough economy will be harder, however, than filming a 15 second short.
At noon today, I’m going to be on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU, DC’s local NPR station, to talk about the power of online petitions.
What do you think of them, in general? Have you signed one or more? Why? What outcomes have petitions created at Avaaz or Change.org had? What about White House e-petitions? What about e-petitions in the UK or in other countries? If you have comments on these questions or relevant research, please let me know in the comments or email me at alex [at] oreilly.com.
On one of those counts, I’ve linked up some relevant reading below on the White House e-petitions platform, “We The People,” which has been getting much more mainstream media attention in recent months. (The response to an e-petition to build a Death Star, at least, was epic.)
By turns geeky, funny, informative about U.S. space programs, and unabashedly supportive of science and technology education, the response to a popular petition on the “We The People” e-petition platform instantly entered the annals of online government history this Friday night.
“The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon,” wrote Paul Shawcross, Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“Here are a few reasons:
The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?”
However, look carefully (here’s how) and you’ll notice something already floating in the sky — that’s no Moon, it’s a Space Station! Yes, we already have a giant, football field-sized International Space Station in orbit around the Earth that’s helping us learn how humans can live and thrive in space for long durations. The Space Station has six astronauts — American, Russian, and Canadian — living in it right now, conducting research, learning how to live and work in space over long periods of time, routinely welcoming visiting spacecraft and repairing onboard garbage mashers, etc. We’ve also got two robot science labs — one wielding a laser— roving around Mars, looking at whether life ever existed on the Red Planet.
We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field. The President has held the first-ever White House science fairs and Astronomy Night on the South Lawn because he knows these domains are critical to our country’s future, and to ensuring the United States continues leading the world in doing big things.
If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star’s power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.
Paul Shawcross is Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget
When White House director of digital strategy Macon Phillips replied to a tweeted question about an outstanding petition on open access, he proved his Star Wars bonafides with a echo of Yoda’s unusual grammar.
Earlier in the afternoon, I joined Google’s Daniel Sieberg on our own Google+ Hangout to talk about the potential impact that online video, hangouts, and live broadcasts between citizens and their elected officials could have on the political landscape.
The moderator, Google’s Steve Grove, gave the participants (2 men, 2 women and one classroom of young people) the opportunity to follow up on their questions to the president. There will be much more analysis of the questions asked and the president’s answers tonight, as there should be.
Here’s a quick recap, distilled from my notes: The forum began with a video question to the president about promoting a living wage for students working their way through college. The second question came from the Hangout, on why the White House doesn’t expand expanded H1B visas for foreign workers at the expense of skilled labor with the U.S. President Obama told the wife of a semiconductor engineer (who asked the latter question and, critically, got to follow up in the Hangout) if she sent him her husband’s resume, he’d be happy to find what’s happening.
One could dismiss it as pandering — or celebrate it as a citizen cutting through the morass of bureaucracy to tell the nation’s chief executive that the system wasn’t working as he said it should. Such followups in the Hangout are what made this different than the past YouTube and White House interviewed. Politico talked to Jennifer Wedel, of Forth Worth, Texas, who asked the question during the presidential Hangout:
“I’ll have to take you up on that,” Wedel said of the president’s offer to help her husband, Darin, who lost his job at Texas Instruments three years ago.
Later, Wedel told POLITICO that she and the president had a “pretty crazy interaction” that she hadn’t expected when she asked about the federal government granting H-1B visas to skilled foreign workers while U.S. citizens such as her husband are out of work.
“I don’t think he was trying to be condescending or anything,” said Wedel, who never completed college and was a stay-at-home mom before her husband was laid off, but now has a full-time job at State Farm to help make ends meet. “I just think I stumped him a little and he wanted me to hush about it.”
“I think he knows pretty well that the H-1B is an issue because — it’s kind of like the Occupy movement — big corporations are putting up the money to get the visas” and choosing lower-paid foreign workers over domestic ones, Wedel said. “I don’t think what he was telling me was true, and I think he knew it, and that’s why he offered to take my husband’s resume,” she said, adding that her husband has kept it updated.
Another question from YouTube featured a video taken from an #Occupy protester in Portland. A question taken from within the White House Hangout asked about the president’s plans to help small business and to restructure government, which the Washington Post covered this month.
Another question posed within the Hangout about a lack of dialogue with children about the financial crisis offered the president a human moment, where he said that he tries to explain what’s happened with economy to his daughters over the dinner table.
There were incontrovertibly tough questions asked tonight, including one from a homeless veteran who asked why the U.S. is sending money to Pakistan and places that are known to give money to terrorism. In answer, the president said that the U.S. only spends 1% of its budget on foreign aid, and that it pays off in a lot of ways as part of the country’s national security strategy. What we don’t want is countries to collapse, have to send in our guys at huge potential risk and cost to taxpayers, he said.
The President was asked a video question from YouTube that cited a New York Times story on the use of drones in Iraq, which the president called “overwritten. The drones have not caused an unusual number of civilian casualties, he said, stating that it was a targeted focused effort aimed at Al Queda, not for other purposes.
I was personally glad to see that Grove asked a question on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), noting that both were hot within the YouTube community. Needless to say, that part of the transcript will be carefully analyzed by the people whose collective online action changed Washington.
We need to use tools we have, he said, noting recent takedown action by the Justice Department. At the same time, when SOPA came up on the hill, said the President, “we expressed some concerns about the way the legislation had been written.” Now, he said, the content and server sides need to come together for strong IP protections that preserve basic architecture of the Internet.
While the top-rated question was asked, concerning the extradition of a British national, there were no questions posted about legalizing marijuana, which once again rose to the top of CitizenTube (perhaps Grove and his colleagues at YouTube felt it had been asked enough?) nor any question was asked about the National Defense Reauthorization Act, which many other users on YouTube wanted to see addressed.
UPDATE: When I followed up with Grove on Google+ about the process behind the questions, he made the following comment:
We chose the questions from among the top-voted questions on YouTube… it’s always a fun challenge to ensure you get a broad range of issues and perspectives into these discussions from amongst the top-voted questions, but I hope people feel that we did a good job of listening to community votes. We asked several of the top-voted questions, including the #1 voted question on YouTube. Some people asked why we didn’t ask about marijuana legalization… as an FYI, we asked the President about it last year (see here: Drug Policy – President Obama’s YouTube Interview 2011).
As far as the hangout participants, we also selected them based off of the questions they had submitted to YouTube — again looking for a range of Americans… that part had to happen a little earlier during the submission process, so we could prepare for the Hangout today.
President Barack Obama participates in an interview with YouTube and Google+ to discuss his State of the Union Address, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 30, 2012. The interview was held through a Google+ Hangout, making it the first completely virtual interview from the White House. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Overall, I can honestly say that we saw something new in the intersection of government, technology and society. From where I sat, plugged in within the Sunlight Foundation, it felt like a good thing, not just for the White House or the president’s campaign or Google (although all certainly benefitted) but for the promise of the Internet to more directly connect public officials to those that they serve, with all of their real problems, concerns, doubts and fears.
At the end of the event, there was a moment of unexpected human connection, when one of the women on the hangout invited her three children to come meet the president.
They stared and smiled, left a bit wide eyed by the President of the United States smiling out of the computer screen and bidding them to obey their mother and do their homework. We could do with more wonder in the world, where such unexpected encounters occur online.
Viewership estimate via Google’s Steve Grove, who said at the end of the netcast that a quarter of a million people were watching on YouTube. Given the White House’s own livestream, the number could be higher.
Esperanza Spalding won a Grammy for Best New Artist tonight. She’s an extraordinary talent. Moments after her win, White House new media director Macon Phillips congratulated her on Twitter and linked to a video of her performance at the White House Poetry Jam on YouTube:
Shortly after that, the White House account shared the same video, along with a link to all of the performances on the White House YouTube channel.
It’s good to know there are some music fans down the road at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Congratulations to Spalding for the well-deserved recognition.
How much has the online world changed in the past quarter of a century? In the years since Synbolics.com was registered, hundreds of millions of websites have followed that first domain name. According to the VeriSign Domain Name Industry Report, at the end of 2009 there were 192 million domain name registrations across all of the Top Level Domain Names (TLDs).
Of those, .com continues to have the highest base. “The world we live in today is the most interdependent in history,” said former President Bill Clinton, speaking within the Reagan building in Washington D.C. last week at the Policy Impact Forum. “The real question is what can we do through the present state of the Internet to improve the path we’re on.”
Clinton was introduced by VeriSign president Mark McLaughlin as the “first Internet President,” a reasonable contention given the explosive growth of the online world during his terms in office. As McLaughlin pointed out, under Mr. Clinton Internet governance passed to ICANN and the first White House website. (For those interested, you can still hear Socks meow.) McLaughlin and others blogged about 25 years of .com on Facebook.
Clinton made his comments on the day that the FCC’s National Broadband Plan was released, putting the question of how connectivity, innovation and speech should be stimulated (or regulated) into clear relief. Clinton suggested that access framework proposed by the FCC might be needed.
“In America, we opted for a degulation approach in the Internet and cellphone business,” he said, “but a lot of our competitorsnow have better cell phone coverage than we do because they had some regulation to guarantee a framework of universal access.”
In the present, “I’m worried about unequal access,” Clinton said. “We devoted 870 million a year to education technology. We developed the E-Rate so that information could be more publicly shared.”
“In general, our entrepreneurial approach is the best one,” said Clinton, but “there are limits to it and sometimes we need a framework to make sure the markets can continue to grow by having more universal access. So I’m hoping the FCC proposals will do that.”
Clinton talked about how the Internet has been indispensable to the work of his foundation. He also focused on the importance of information technology to his administration.
In 1996, then-President Clinton issued Executive Order 13011 on federal information technology, which ordered the heads of all federal agencies to “refocus information technology management to support directly their strategic missions,” create agency CIOs and “cooperate in the use of information technology to improve the productivity of Federal programs.”
When the decision came to support as a medium, said Clinton, “the Internet was either going to be to the private reserve of a few or to the positive good of all. All the decisions that came were a result of seeing in its infancy the staggering potential we see today.” Clinton also gave credit to Al Gore, who “took unmerciful abuse about a claim he never made.”
Clinton chose to highlight a proposal from President Obama and the Secretary of State for a global health initiative that will leverage information technology. “There has to be a limit to ability to wealthy countries helping poor countries by treating discrete health problems,” he said. “Sooner or later, they have to have [functioning] health systems. In the end, you have to give people the ability to support themselves.”
When considering potential answers to that immense challenge, does the Internet have anything to do with solutions? One area where the Internet has proven its utility is enabling distributed fundraising. Clinton himself said that over half of donations made to victims of the Indonesian tsunami were made online.
In 2010, Clinton said that MassiveGood.com, could a micropayment fundraising model where every time a consumer buys a plane ticket, reserves a hotel room or rents a car, they can choose to donate a small amount to AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria or childrens’ healthcare. “None of this would be conceivable without the Internet,” said Clinton.
“We’re going to have instantaneous posting of all donations and expenditures,” he said. “That’s what we did after the tsunami, with stunning effects in reducing corruption and increasing transparency.”
Clinton took some time to talk about both healthcare, the issue of the day, and climate change, perhaps the issue of the decade. “There are four countries which signed the Kyoto protocoal,” said Clinton: Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the UK. Clinton asserted that was because of the way that they consume and produce energy. ” A wealthy country has to have a new source of jobs every 5-8 years, he said. “The only way can be distributed is through the adequate use of IT. In the years ahead, we ought to do whatever we can increase access, compress time, improve connectivity.” ABC News’ Julie Percha reported more on Clinton’s talk at the Tech Forum, focusing on his remarks on healthcare.
Clinton also issued a challenge to those in the audience that work in technology: “What is the role of IT in dealing with the capacity problems of the poor and the rigidity problems of the wealthy?”
What is necessary to ensure open global access? “First of all, you can’t if nations disagree,” he said. “If they decide to control access, they have some ability to do it. Look at the role tech played at bringing to light what happened in the Iranian election.” Clinton suggested too that the audience consider the impact of cell phones in poor countries. “For every 10% increase of cellphone usage in poor countries, they gain .6% to GDP,” said Clinton, citing a recent mobile research report.
In looking back at the importance of the Internet, Clinton said that “the potential for impact has gone far beyond what I expected. On balance, it’s an instrument of freedom, not repression.”
The former President offered some insight into his use of technology during a question and answer with McLaughlin after his keynote. When asked what his three favorite websites were, Clinton chose political ones: Politico, the Huffington Post and FireDogLake. Clinton affirmed the substantive contributions that websites can make, although “don’t have to do what newspapers have to do every day,” as “some only have to have three serious articles a week.” Clinton said that he’s “worried about the ability to maintain any newspaper” in the years ahead.
Clinton also fessed up to his favorite device: an iPhone, “because I can get everything on it.” He said he tried to stay away from the BlackBerry “because I’m still obsessive,” sharing in the process that former President George H. W. Bush was “constantly doing email.”
Kara Swisher from All Things Digital was also on hand at the 25 Years of .Com Tech Impact Forum, where she moderated a panel on the future of Web technology. She recorded a video of the Q&A after the keynote that can be viewed at Boomtown, in “Bill Clinton talks about his Internet legacy.”
After I caught wind of a bill that was going to be introduced by Senator Karper this week during RSA, I followed up on the information I saw presented there by Erik Hopkins and Alan Paller. I reported on its introduction Monday night, posting “ICE Act would restructure cybersecurity rule, create White House post” before any other news organization had covered the story.
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