The 2012-2013 influenza season has been a bad one, with flu reaching epidemic levels in the United States.
Pollwatch, a mobile application that enabled crowdsourced poll monitoring, has launched a final version at pollwatch.us, just in time for Election Day 2012. The initial iteration of the app was conceived, developed and demonstrated at the hackathon at the 2012 Personal Democracy Forum in New York City.
In general, connecting more citizens with their legislators and create more resources for Congress to understand where their constituents and tech community stands on proposed legislation is a good thing. Last year’s Congressional hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act made it pretty darn clear that many technologists felt that it was no longer ok to not know how the Internet works. Conversely, however, if the tech world cares about what happens in DC, it’s no longer ok to not know how Congress works.
In that context, the launch of a policy platform by one of the biggest tech blogs on the planet could definitely be a positive development. TechCrunch contributor Greg Ferenstein writes that the effort is aimed at “helping policymakers become better listeners, and technologists to be more effective citizens.”
The problem with the initial set of tools is that they’re an incomplete picture of what’s online, at best. CrunchGov won’t satisfy the needs of tech journalists, staffers or analysts, who need deeper dives into expert opinion, policy briefings and data. (Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, OpenSecrets.org, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation already offer those resources.)
Will “grading” Members of the House of Representatives on TechCrunch’s new Congressional leaderboard lead to them being better listeners? Color me, well, unconvinced. Will an “F” from TechCrunch result in Reps. Smith, Grassley, or Blackburn changing the bills they introduce, support or vote for or against?
Hard to know. True, it’s the sort of symbol that a political opponent could use in an election — but if Reddit’s community couldn’t defeat SOPA’s chief sponsor in a primary, will a bad grade do it? Ferenstein says the leaderboard provides a “a quantified opinion” of the alignment of Reps with the consensus of the tech industry.
Update: as reported by Adrian Jeffries at The Verge, this quantified opinion is based upon TechCrunch editorial and “data and guidance from four tech lobbies.”
Engine Advocacy, which represents startups; TechNet, which represents CEOs in areas from finance and ecommerce to biotech and clean tech; the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents major Silicon Valley employers; and the powerhouse conglomerate The Internet Association, which represents Amazon, Google, and Facebook, among others.
Ferenstein told Hamish McKenzie at PandoDaily that “We’re saying this is generally the view of many people who read our site.” If that’s the case, it would be useful to transparently see the data that shows how TechCrunch readers feel about proposed or passed bills — much in the same way that POPVOX or OpenCongress allow users to express support or opposition to legislation. At the moment, readers are stuck taking their word for it.
McKenzie also highlighted some problems with the rankings and the proposition of rankings themselves:
On three major issues – net neutrality, privacy, and cyber security – TechCrunch’s surveys found no consensus, which somewhat undermines the leaderboard rankings. After all, those rankings appear to be based mainly on three data points: a Congressperson’s position on SOPA, and his or her votes on the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. It might be true that CrunchGov takes a data-driven approach to its rankings, but when three data points out a possible set of six are omitted, it’s fair to question just how useful the measure is.
As much as anything else, that speaks to the complicated definition of “those in the technology industry.” The industry is so broad and varied, from solo developers creating social games in their basements to hardware executives wanting to drive profits on their devices, that trying to establish consensus on political issues across a broad section of a relatively amorphous community is probably an impossible task. It also overemphasizes tech issues among the myriad of policy concerns that people working in the industry hold, some of which might seem tangential but are actually inextricably tied to the industry. What of climate change? What of taxes? What of puppies?
Also, applying grades to legislators puts TechCrunch in the same camp as the NRA, Americans For Tax Reform, and the Sierra Club in terms of assessing representatives based on narrow, and politically loaded, interests. It’s a headline-oriented approach that provides low-information people with a low-information look at a process and system that is actually very complicated.
More effective citizenship through the Internet?
I’m not unconvinced these limited bill summaries or leaderboard will help “technologists” become “more effective citizens,” though I plan to keep an open mind: this new policy platform is in beta, from the copy to the design to the number of bills in the legislative database or the data around them.
Helping readers to be “more effective” citizens is a bigger challenge than educating them just about how legislators are graded on tech-related bills. The scope of that knowing who your Representative, Senators or where they stand on issues, what bills are up for a vote or introduced, how they voted, The new Congress.gov will connect you to many of the above needs, at the federal level. It might mean following the money, communicating your support or opposition to your elected officials, registering to vote, and participating the democratic processes of state and local government, from schools to . Oh, and voting: tens of millions of American citizens will head to the polls in under two weeks.
To be fair, CrunchGov does do some of these things, linking out to existing open government ecosystem online. Clicking “more info” shows positions Representatives have taken on the tech issues CrunchGov editors have determined that the industry has a “consensus” around, including votes, and links to their profiles in OpenCongress and Influence Explorer. Bill summaries link to maplight.org.
When it comes to the initial set of issues in the legislative database, there’s an overly heavy editorial thumb on the till of what’s deemed important to the tech community.
For one, “cybersecurity” is a poor choice for a Silicon Valley blog. It’s a Washington word, used often in the context of national defense and wars, accompanied by fears of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Network security, mobile device security or Web application security are all more specific issues, and ones that startups and huge enterprises all have to deal with in their operations. The security experts I trust see Capitol Hill rhetoric taking aim at the wrong cybersecurity threats.
CrunchGov has only one bill selection for the issue — the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) (H.R. 3523). The summary explains that CISPA proposes more information sharing, has a pie chart showing that “tech-friendly legislators” are split 50/50 on it, shows endorsements and opposition, links to 3 articles about the bill, including TechCrunch’s own coverage.
What’s left unclear? For one, that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) – an “A-lister” who TechCrunch writes “has received numerous awards and accolades from the industry,” supported CISPA. Or that organizations and advocates concerned about its implications for privacy and civil rights strongly opposed it. If you’re a technologist, legislator or citizen, honestly, you’re better off reading ProPublica’s explainer or the Center for Democracy and Technology’s CISPA resource page.
There’s also framing choices that meant a number of bills aren’t listed — and that the Senate is left out entirely. Why? According to Ferenstein, “the “do-nothing” congress made it impossible to rank the Senate, because they didn’t pass enough bills related to technology policy.”
It’s true that the Senate hasn’t passed many bills — but the 51 laws that did go through the Senate in the 112th Congress include more tech policy issues than that statement might lead you to believe, from e-verify to online leak prevention. It’s also moved laws that every citizens should know about, like the extension of the PATRIOT Act, given that provisions affect the tech industry. (Yes, digital due process matters in the age of the cloud: your email isn’t as private as you might think it is.)
Putting a legislative crowdsourcing platform to re-use
Congressional leaderboard and limited legislative dashboard aside, CrunchGov is trying to crowdsource legislation using a local installation of MADISON, the software Congressman Issa’s office developed and rolled out last December during the first Congressional hackathon. MADISON was subsequently open sourced, which made the code available to TechCrunch.
It’s in this context that CrunchGov’s aspirations for technology to “democratize democracy itself” may be the most tested. The first test case will be a bill from Congressman Issa to reform government IT procurement. For this experiment to matter, the blog’s readership will need to participate, do so meaningfully, and see that their edits are given weight by bill authors in Washington. Rep. Issa’s office, which has distinguished itself in its use of the Internet to engage the public, may well do so. If proposals from the initial pilot aren’t put into bills, that may be the end of reader interest.
Will other Congressmen and staffers do the same, should their bills be posted? It’s hard to say. As with so many efforts to engage citizens online, this effort is in beta.
This post has been updated, including links to coverage from Pando Daily and the Verge.
On January 9th, I wondered whether 2012 would be “the year of the open map.” I started reporting on digital maps made with powerful new software and open data last winter, in the context of open government.
In the months since, I’ve seen many more maps emerge from the work of data journalists and government, including a beautiful one made with TileMill and open data from aid agencies at SahelResponse.org. You can explore the map in the embed below:
Nate Smith, who works at DevelopmentSeed, the makers of MapBox and TileMill, blogged about SahelReponse.org at PBS Mediashift.
To bring key aid agencies together and help drive international response, the SahelResponse.org data-sharing initiative maps information about the ongoing food crisis in the Sahel region of West Africa. More than 18 million people across the Sahel are at risk and in need of food assistance in the coming months, according to the United Nations. Recent drought, population movements, and conflict have created a rapidly changing emergency situation. As in any crisis, multiple agencies need to respond and ramp up their coordination, and access to data is critical for effective collaboration. In a large region like the Sahel, the band of mostly arid land below the Sahara Desert stretching across the continent, effective coordination and collaboration are critical for responding effectively.
Thanks to new technologies like TileMill, and an increased adoption of open data, it was possible to put all the key data about the crisis — from relief access routes to drought conditions and population movements — in one place, openly available and mapped to give it further context.
More than half a year later, on other words, I think the prediction that 2012 will be the year of the open map is being born out. The adoption of OpenStreetMap by Foursquare was a notable data point, as was StreetEast moving to OpenStreetMap from Google Maps. In response to the challenge, Google slashed its price for using the Google Maps API by 88%. In an ideal world, the new competition will result in better products and more informed citizens.
Last month, I traveled to Moldova to speak at a “smart society” summit hosted by the Moldovan national e-government center and the World Bank. I talked about what I’ve been seeing and reporting on around the world and some broad principles for “smart government.” It was one of the first keynote talks I’ve ever given and, from what I gather, it went well: the Moldovan government asked me to give a reprise to their cabinet and prime minister the next day.
I’ve embedded the entirety of the morning session above, including my talk (which is about half an hour long). I was preceded by professor Beth Noveck, the former deputy CTO for open government at The White House. If you watch the entire program, you’ll hear from:
- Victor Bodiu, General Secretary, Government of the Republic of Moldova, National Coordinator, Governance e-Transformation Agenda
- Dona Scola, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Information Technology and Communication
- Andrew Stott, UK Transparency Board, former UK Government Director for Transparency and Digital Engagement
- Victor Bodiu, General Secretary, Government of the Republic of Moldova
- Arcadie Barbarosie, Executive Director, Institute of Public Policy, Moldova
Without planning on it, I managed to deliver a one-liner that morning that’s worth rephrasing and reiterating here: Smart government should not just serve citizens with smartphones.
I look forward to your thoughts and comments, for those of you who make it through the whole keynote.
This week, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman launched NYOpenGovernment.com, a new website that his office touts as a means for “voters, the media and government watchdogs hold state government accountable” by providing the public online access to government data on campaign contributions, lobbying, and state contracts.
“Secrecy breeds corruption, while transparency generates confidence,” Attorney General Schneiderman said, in a prepared statement. “New York Open Government will help the public keep an eye on what their government is doing in order to deter corruption and increase confidence in the public sector. This site is a one-stop-shop for New Yorkers demanding up-to-date and comprehensive information about their government.”
The launch of the new site fulfills a commitment that Schneiderman made as a candidate for Attorney General. NYOpenGovernment.com is an expansion of Project Sunlight, which went online in 2007 under then NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
The citizens of New York could use a boost to confidence about their state government. According to a release from the NY AG’s office, at least 20 current or former elected members of the legislative and executive branches of the New York State government were either accused or convicted of crimes per the last decade.
“It’s hard not to be enthusiastic about this launch,” said Laurenellen McCann, national policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation, when asked for comment. “NYOpenGovernment.com demonstrates a genuine commitment to public oversight that more states should seek to emulate. Without the online release of information about campaign contributions, lobbying, state contracts, and other “influence data”, no government can really claim to be fulfilling its promise to be open or to provide open data.”
The data on the new website is sourced directly from the relevant state agencies. Campaign finance data come from the Board of Elections, lobbyist data from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, state contract data from the Comptroller’s office, state corporation data from the Department of State, and bill information from the legislature. According to the attorney general’s office, the AG receives raw data, in different formats, from the agencies when they update their own respective websites.
“What’s worth noting about New York’s new platform is that it not only releases this important accountability data, it also provides contextualization for it, allowing citizens to access the info through centralized searches,” said McCann. In fact, this is the primary approach behind sites like Ethics.gov, or Sunlight’s Influence Explorer.com and one that we consider a best practice.”
It’s also worth noting that the site’s Web design is clean, uncluttered and loads quickly on a mobile device, if not in a mobile-optimized version.
If media and citizens have requests for data or questions about quality or accuracy, the AG’s office established a primary point of contact: Jason Ortiz, the director of special projects, and provided an official phone number (212-416-8743) and email address: Jason.Ortiz@ag.ny.gov.
The introduction of site was parsed by numerous members of New York’s good government community:
“With New York Open Government, Attorney General Schneiderman is showing clear leadership in making to government more transparent and accountable,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media and Chairman of the NY Tech Meetup, in a prepared statement. “By updating New York Open Government online tools and features A.G. Schneiderman is demonstrating that in the 21st century, the public’s access to information regarding how their government officials act must be easily searchable and accessible online.”
“We’re excited by Attorney General Schneiderman’s New York Open Government website,” said John Kaehny, Executive Director of Reinvent Albany, in a prepared statement. “We applaud the attorney general’s efforts to harness the immense power of the internet to increase government transparency and accountability. We look forward to working with A.G. Schneiderman to help New York Open Government achieve its full potential as a potent tool for restoring trust and confidence in our state government.”
“New York Open Government is an important resource for New Yorkers who want to know how their government works,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director, Common Cause/NY, in a prepared statement. “We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for helping to bring New York’s information services into the 21st century, and significantly improving access to publicly available data. Government transparency is essential to an engaged electorate.”
“In the information age, New Yorkers want and expect access to the hard data that shows what their government is up to,” said Russ Haven, legislative counsel for NYPIRG. “Attorney General Schneiderman’s New York Open Government website provides a ‘one-stop shopping’ place for average New Yorkers as well as sophisticated researchers to find information about elected officials and those seeking to influence them. The features will make it easier to access, organize and ultimately make sense of information as never before. This is an important resource for New Yorkers trying to keep tabs on government.”
There’s an additional bright spot here, with respect to cost to taxpayers: no expensive contract to a systems integrator was involved. The office of the Attorney General built the site in house, with no consultants. According to the NY attorney general’s office, hat they’re committed to sustaining and enhancing the site, including adding more datasets, improved search and a trackers for the most viewed data.
If, in the future, it may be possible for citizens to share information about government programs, practices or officials into the their social networks, it will a step ahead for networked accountability. “We’ve seen the power of social media for democracy movements around the world,” said NY Attorney General Schneiderman, in a prepared statement. “By making this tool compatible with multiple media platforms, we hope to empower our own citizens to hold their government accountable.”
The AG’s office looks at the website like an example of “living, breathing and evolving public accountability,” and emphasized that they will listen to its users and implement their suggestions “when it makes sense” to do so.
Here’s one suggestion, from this native of upstate New York: set up a data.nyopengovernment.com so that citizens, media, developers, advocates and state employees can see, browse and download the data in bulk. Currently, a user can search for an individual and then view all the relevant records, as for Mario Cuomo, with the capacity to download the data as a .CSV, Excel file or XML.
While New York should and is being lauded for this step forward to make open government data available in open, structured form only, its public officers could help to enable an ecosystem of networked accountability through enabling the creation of Web services, not just new websites. The next evolution in open government is not to encourage citizens to visit a website but to release the data that site is built upon so that it finds them, when they use search engines, social networks, media websites or civic applications like OpenStates.
“I think that government is always going to need help, and that’s part of the message that we’re trying to spread… government not only will need help but will become an institution that lets people help, that encourages people to help out, and has a strong connection to the citizens its supposed to serve.”-Jennifer Pahlka, talking in a new interview with CNN on geeks helping open government.
That talk and her SXSWi keynote — which was nearly three times as long and perhaps that much better — aren’t just about Code for America or civic coding or the impact of the Internet on society. It was about how we think about government and citizenship in the 21st century.
Jen’s voice is bringing the idea of civic coding as another kind of public service to an entire nation now. If America’s developer community really wakes up to help, city and state government IT could get better, quickly, as a network effect catalyze by the “Code for America effect takes off.
As Paul M. Davis wrote at Shareable Magazine, however, if the open government and open data movement is to help cities and citizens, it will need more than just “civic hackers.”
“To build resilient, peer-to-peer cities these precarious economic times demand, these conversations and collaborations need to be facilitated top-down, ground-up, and between every other decentralized community node that can contribute to weaving a diverse tapestry of a city’s political, cultural, historical, and socioeconomic data. …
To those of us who don’t think of ourselves as hackers but find ourselves applying that ethos to other trades—journalists, community organizers, field researchers, social justice activists, lawyers and policy wonks, and many more groups—let’s join the conversation, contribute our skills to the civic hacker community, and see what we can build together for our cities.”
If millions of non-coders collaborate with the geeks amongst us, learning from one another in the process, it could transform “hacking as a civic duty” from a geeky pursuit into something more existential and powerful:
21st century citizenship in which an ongoing digital relationship with government, services, smarter cities and fellow citizens is improved, negotiated and delivered through mobile devices, social media and open data.
We live in interesting times.
The Internet will be a core component of the 2012 election cycle. Of course, you follow technology and politics, you know that’s been increasingly true for years. Last week, speaking at a briefing in Google’s DC offices, Google’s Rob Saliterman cited a 3/10/2011 op-ed by Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal, where he wrote that The impact of the Internet on elections has only begun to be felt:
The Internet makes it likely that more campaigns will be self-directed from the grass roots. The tea party movement, for example, would have been impossible to organize and coordinate without email and the Web. Thus campaign managers will have to rely less on activity in centralized headquarters and more on volunteers—working at their pace and in their way—to reach voters on their laptops, tablets and smart phones.
Cutting-edge campaigns have quickly grasped how the Web makes it easier and less expensive to transmit information. But campaigns are only starting to understand how to use the Web and social-networking tools to make video and other data go viral—moving not just to those on a campaign’s email list but to the broader public.
It took decades for the changes inaugurated by the “We Like Ike” TV ads to fully take hold. It will likewise take time for political practitioners to figure out what works and what doesn’t work on the Internet. But we are seeing a version of Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” fundamentally alter the landscape of American politics. It will have huge implications on how campaigns are run, who we elect, and what kind of country we become.
A year later, we’re seeing that reality writ large upon the canvas of the 2012 elections. The portrait of the impact of the Internet and mobile devices upon the decisions that Saliterman painted through statistics offers a glimpse at where the future is trending. (Sources noted where provided.)
- 83% of mobile phone owners are registered voters. (Nielsen Mobile)
- One third of voters learn from online-only sources. (Pew).
- 33% of likely voters don’t watch live TV. (Accenture)
- 70% of likely Republican voters in South Carolina went online before the primary.
- 2012 Primary voters viewed 14-20 sources before voting.
- 49% of people compared different candidates online.
In that context, Saliterman shared out to the room of Washington politicos and media three ways that campaigns are using the Internet — or, more specifically, Google products — to reach voters and influence the political conversation:
- Google search advertising, used for rapid response to the political news cycle, anticipating what people are searching for and putting a campaign or media’s story where it will be found.
- Geotargeted advertising, where likely voters in a primary, municipal election or state election can be served contextual messages based upon the location from which they’re accessing a webpage
- Promoted video ads on YouTube, the world’s biggest video platform
There’s also a directory of public data that contains information on countries far beyond the borders of the U.S. that will be of interest to journalists and researchers who are not engaged in electoral politics.
Postscript: For an excellent discussion of where campaigns are going in search of the digital voter, read Amy Schatz in the Wall Street Journal.
Correction: A statistic provided by Google about the percentage of smartphone/tablet owners that are registered to vote was removed from this post after it could not be confirmed.