MIT Civic Media conference examines the success and failures of open government in the U.S.

The 2012 Civic Media Conference featured two full days of conversations about (what else?) the future of civic media and democracy. One conversation is particularly worth calling out and sharing with the Govfresh audience: a panel assessing what’s gone wrong and what’s gone right with open government in the United States over the past three years. The discussion was moderated by Susan Crawford, currently of the Harvard Law School and Kennedy School (and formerly a special advisor at the White House) and featured Mike Norman of Wefunder.com, Mark Headd of Code for America and Chris Vein, Deputy United States Chief Technology Officer for Government Innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. I’ve embedded the video below:

Watch live streaming video from knightfoundation at livestream.com

You can read an excellent, comprehensive liveblog of the open gov panel at the Civic Media blog.

What is smart government?

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.

Startup Weekend DC kickoff highlights open data, startups and disruptive innovation

On Friday night, a packed room of eager potential entrepreneurs, developers and curious citizens watched US CTO Todd Park and Bill Eggers kick off Startup Weekend DC in Microsoft’s offices in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Park brought his customary energy and geeky humor to his short talk, pitching the assembled crowd on using open government data in their ideas.

 

Park wants to inject open data as a “fuel” into the economy. After talking about the success of the Health Data Initiative and the Health Datapalooza, he shared a series of websites were aspiring entrepreneurs could find data to use:

Park also made an “ask” of the attendees of Startup Weekend DC that I haven’t heard from many government officials: he requested that if they A) use the data and/or B) if they run into any trouble accessing it, to let him know.

“If you had a hard time or found a particular restful API moving, let me know,” he said. “It helps us improve our performance.” And then he gave out his email address at the White House Executive Office of the President, as he did at SXSW Interactive in Austin in March of this year. Asking the public for feedback on data quality — particularly entrepreneurs and developers — and providing contact information to do so is, to put it bluntly, something every city and state official that has stood up and open data platform could and should be doing. In this context, the US CTO has set a notable example for the country.

Examples of startups, gap filling and civic innovation

Following Park, author and Deloitte consultant Bill Eggers talked about innovative startups and the public sector. I’ve embedded video of his talk below:

Eggers cited three different startups in his talk: Recycle Bank, Avego and Kaggle.

1) The outcome of Recycle Bank‘s influence was a 19-fold increase in recycling in some cities from gamification, said Eggers. The startup now has 3 million members and is now setting its sights on New York City.

2) The real-time ridesharing provided by Avego holds the promise to hugely reduce traffic congestion, said Eggers. According to the stats he cited, 80% of people on the road are currently driving in cars by themselves. Avego has raised tens of millions of dollars to try to better optimize transportation.

3) Anthony Goldbloom found a hole in the big data market at Kaggle, said Eggers, where they’re matching data challenges with data scientists. There now some 19,000 registered data scientists in the Kaggle database.

Eggers cited the success of a competition to map dark matter on Kaggle, a problem that had had millions spent on it. The results of open innovation here were better than science had been able to achieve prior to the competition. Kaggle has created a market out of writing better algorithms.

After Eggers spoke, the organizers of Startup Weekend explained how the rest of the weekend would proceed and asked attendees to pitch their ideas. One particular idea, for this correspondent, stood out, primarily because of the young fellows pitching it:

What should be in a “Digital Citizen’s Bill of Rights?”

On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OK) introduced a proposal for a “Digital Bill of Rights” at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. You can watch a video of their conversation with Personal Democracy Media publisher Andrew Rasiej below:

Congressman Issa has posted the proposed Digital Bill of Rights on MADISON, the online legislation platform his staff built last December. The 10 proposed rights are the following:

The Digital Bill of Rights
1. Freedom – digital citizens have a right to a free, uncensored internet
2. Openness – digital citizens have a right to an open, unobstructed internet
3. Equality – all digital citizens are created equal on the internet
4. Participation – digital citizens have a right to peaceably participate where and how they choose on the internet
5. Creativity – digital citizens have a right to create, grow and collaborate on the internet, and be held accountable for what they create
6. Sharing – digital citizens have a right to freely share their ideas, lawful discoveries and opinions on the internet
7. Accessibility – digital citizens have a right to access the internet equally, regardless of who they are or where they are
8. Association – digital citizens have a right to freely associate on the internet
9. Privacy – digital citizens have a right to privacy on the internet
10. Property – digital citizens have a right to benefit from what they create, and be secure in their intellectual property on the internet

Congressman Issa made the following statement about the rights, which could well end up in a bill at some point, as with other proposals on the MADISON platform:

I believe that individuals possess certain fundamental rights. Government should exist to protect those rights against those who would violate them. That is the revolutionary principle at the heart of the American Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. No one should trample our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s why the Bill of Rights is an American citizen’s first line of defense against all forms of tyranny.

But where can a digital citizen turn for protection against the powerful? This question lay at the heart of the fight to stop SOPA and PIPA and keep the web open. While I do not have all the answers, the remarkable cooperation we witnessed in defense of an open Internet showed me three things. First, government is flying blind, interfering and regulating without understanding even the basics. Second, we have a rare opportunity to give government marching orders on how to treat the Internet, those who use it and the innovation it supports. And third, we must get to work immediately because our opponents are not giving up.

We need to frame a digital Bill of Rights. This is my first draft. I need your help to get this right, so I published it here in Madison for everyone to comment, criticize and collaborate. I look forward to hearing from you and continuing to work together to keep the web open.

-Congressman Darrell Issa

As of June 14th, the proposed rights have received 101 suggested edits and 35 community comments. Elsewhere on the Internet, they’ve generated considerably more attention. The proposed Digital Bill of Rights has received widespread news coverage, from the The Guardian to BoingBoing to Ars Technica to The Verge to CNET to The Hill.

A little online history

The idea of an online bill of rights isn’t a new one. Recently, as Evan Rodgers pointed out at the Verge, the Reddit community has been drafting its own digital bill of rights. Earlier this spring, the White House releases a consumer privacy bill of rights earlier this spring, albeit one focused on privacy.

The history of this idea goes back further, however, going back to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace to a 2007 proposal for a Internet bill of rights that came out of a meeting of the Internet Governance Forum to the iterations of a bill of rights in cyberspace that Jeff Jarvis went through in 2010. The idea of “Internet rights as the new frontier has, in other words, been around for a while.

And, for all of the interest around this week’s version, the proposal from Rep. Issa and Senator Wyden itself is relatively non-specific and does not officially recognize the iterations that have come before it. The Internet Bill of Rights that came out of Rio a few years ago, for instance, layered on a few additional (important) points:

“Privacy, data protection, freedom of expression, universal accessibility, network neutrability, interoperability, use of format and open standards, free access to information and knowledge, right to innovation and a fair and competitive market and consumers safeguard.”

There’s also a more fundamental question of how such rights would be enforced, by whom and in what context. In the United States, after all, there’s already a Bill of Rights, and one that’s held up rather well for over two centuries. Focusing on how and where the rights that citizens (digital or otherwise) already enjoy apply online would be a constructive and useful role for lawmakers to consider, particularly given the unprecedented capacity of both governments and private actors to search, surveil and censor humanity on the Internet.

All that being said, it’s significant that this pair of Congressmen introduced them and notable that the they’re taking comments from the online community using the Internet itself.

On Friday, I expect to have the opportunity to ask Rep. Issa about his thinking about a digital bill of rights, amongst other issues related to technology, data and open government. If you have questions or concerns about the proposals above that you’d like posed to the Congressman, please let me know at alex@oreilly.com.

UPDATE: Embedded below are the reactions on Twitter to the question posed in the headline of this post:

European Parliament posts draft open government declaration online, asks for feedback

Have ideas for improvement to the open government declaration I’ve embedded below? Edits to the document below should make their way back to the original draft.

White House announces 200m in funding for big data research and development, hosts forum at AAAS

In 2012, making sense of big data through narrative and context, particularly unstructured data, is now a strategic imperative for leaders around the world, whether they serve in Washington, run media companies or trading floors in New York City or guide tech titans in Silicon Valley.

While big data carries the baggage of huge hype, the institutions of federal government are getting serious about its genuine promise. On Thursday morning, the Obama Administration announced a “Big Data Research and Development Initiative,” with more than $200 million in new commitments. (See fact sheet provided by the White House Office of Science and technology policy at the bottom of this post.)

“In the same way that past Federal investments in information-technology R&D led to dramatic advances in supercomputing and the creation of the Internet, the initiative we are launching today promises to transform our ability to use Big Data for scientific discovery, environmental and biomedical research, education, and national security,” said Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a prepared statement.

The research and development effort will focus on advancing “state-of-the-art core technologies” need for big data, harnessing said technologies “to accelerate the pace of discovery in science and engineering, strengthen our national security, and transform teaching and learning,” and “expand the workforce needed to develop and use Big Data technologies.”

In other words, the nation’s major research institutions will focus on improving available technology to collect and use big data, apply them to science and national security, and look for ways to train more data scientists.

“IBM views Big Data as organizations’ most valuable natural resource, and the ability to use technology to understand it holds enormous promise for society at large,” said David McQueeney, vice president of software, IBM Research, in a statement. “The Administration’s work to advance research and funding of big data projects, in partnership with the private sector, will help federal agencies accelerate innovations in science, engineering, education, business and government.”

While $200 million dollars is a relatively small amount of funding, particularly in the context of the federal budget or as compared to investments that are (probably) being made by Google or other major tech players, specific support for training and subsequent application of big data within federal government is important and sorely needed. The job market for data scientists in the private sector is so hot that government may well need to build up its own internal expertise, much in the same way Living Social is training coders at the Hungry Academy.

Big data is a big deal,” blogged Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at White House OSTP, at the White House blog this morning.

We also want to challenge industry, research universities, and non-profits to join with the Administration to make the most of the opportunities created by Big Data. Clearly, the government can’t do this on its own. We need what the President calls an “all hands on deck” effort.

Some companies are already sponsoring Big Data-related competitions, and providing funding for university research. Universities are beginning to create new courses—and entire courses of study—to prepare the next generation of “data scientists.” Organizations like Data Without Borders are helping non-profits by providing pro bono data collection, analysis, and visualization. OSTP would be very interested in supporting the creation of a forum to highlight new public-private partnerships related to Big Data.

The White House is hosting a forum today in Washington to explore the challenges and opportunities of big data and discuss the investment. The event will be streamed online in live webcast from the headquarters of the AAAS in Washington, DC. I’ll be in attendance and sharing what I learn.

“Researchers in a growing number of fields are generating extremely large and complicated data sets, commonly referred to as ‘big data,'” reads the invitation to the event from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “A wealth of information may be found within these sets, with enormous potential to shed light on some of the toughest and most pressing challenges facing the nation. To capitalize on this unprecedented opportunity — to extract insights, discover new patterns and make new connections across disciplines — we need better tools to access, store, search, visualize, and analyze these data.”

Speakers:

  • John Holdren, Assistant to the President and Director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Subra Suresh, Director, National Science Foundation
  • Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health
  • William Brinkman, Director, Department of Energy Office of Science

Panel discussion:

  • Moderator: Steve Lohr, New York Times, author of “Big Data’s Impact in the World
  • Alex Szalay, Johns Hopkins University
  • Lucila Ohno-Machado, UC San Diego
  • Daphne Koller, Stanford
  • James Manyika, McKinsey

What is big data?

Anyone planning for big data to use data for public good — or profit — through applied data science must know first understand what big data is.

On that count, turn to my colleague Edd Dumbill, who posted a useful definition last year on the O’Reilly Radar in his introduction to the big data landscape:

Big data is data that exceeds the processing capacity of conventional database systems. The data is too big, moves too fast, or doesn’t fit the strictures of your database architectures. To gain value from this data, you must choose an alternative way to process it.

The hot IT buzzword of 2012, big data has become viable as cost-effective approaches have emerged to tame the volume, velocity and variability of massive data. Within this data lie valuable patterns and information, previously hidden because of the amount of work required to extract them. To leading corporations, such as Walmart or Google, this power has been in reach for some time, but at fantastic cost. Today’s commodity hardware, cloud architectures and open source software bring big data processing into the reach of the less well-resourced. Big data processing is eminently feasible for even the small garage startups, who can cheaply rent server time in the cloud.

Teams of data scientists are increasingly leveraging a powerful, growing set of common tools, whether they’re employed by government technologists opening cities, developers driving a revolution in healthcare or hacks and hackers defining the practice of data journalism.

To learn more about the growing ecosystem of big data tools, watch my interview with Cloudera architect Doug Cutting, embedded below. @Cutting created Lucerne and led the Hadoop project at Yahoo before he joined Cloudera. Apache Hadoop is an open source framework that allows distributed applications based upon the MapReduce paradigm to run on immense clusters of commodity hardware, which in turn enables the processing of massive amounts of big data.

Details on the administration’s big data investments

A fact sheet released by the White House OSTP follows, verbatim:

National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health – Core Techniques and Technologies for Advancing Big Data Science & Engineering

“Big Data” is a new joint solicitation supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that will advance the core scientific and technological means of managing, analyzing, visualizing, and extracting useful information from large and diverse data sets. This will accelerate scientific discovery and lead to new fields of inquiry that would otherwise not be possible. NIH is particularly interested in imaging, molecular, cellular, electrophysiological, chemical, behavioral, epidemiological, clinical, and other data sets related to health and disease.

National Science Foundation: In addition to funding the Big Data solicitation, and keeping with its focus on basic research, NSF is implementing a comprehensive, long-term strategy that includes new methods to derive knowledge from data; infrastructure to manage, curate, and serve data to communities; and new approaches to education and workforce development. Specifically, NSF is:

· Encouraging research universities to develop interdisciplinary graduate programs to prepare the next generation of data scientists and engineers;
· Funding a $10 million Expeditions in Computing project based at the University of California, Berkeley, that will integrate three powerful approaches for turning data into information – machine learning, cloud computing, and crowd sourcing;
· Providing the first round of grants to support “EarthCube” – a system that will allow geoscientists to access, analyze and share information about our planet;
Issuing a $2 million award for a research training group to support training for undergraduates to use graphical and visualization techniques for complex data.
Providing $1.4 million in support for a focused research group of statisticians and biologists to determine protein structures and biological pathways.
· Convening researchers across disciplines to determine how Big Data can transform teaching and learning.

Department of Defense – Data to Decisions: The Department of Defense (DoD) is “placing a big bet on big data” investing approximately $250 million annually (with $60 million available for new research projects) across the Military Departments in a series of programs that will:

*Harness and utilize massive data in new ways and bring together sensing, perception and decision support to make truly autonomous systems that can maneuver and make decisions on their own.
*Improve situational awareness to help warfighters and analysts and provide increased support to operations. The Department is seeking a 100-fold increase in the ability of analysts to extract information from texts in any language, and a similar increase in the number of objects, activities, and events that an analyst can observe.

To accelerate innovation in Big Data that meets these and other requirements, DoD will announce a series of open prize competitions over the next several months.

In addition, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is beginning the XDATA program, which intends to invest approximately $25 million annually for four years to develop computational techniques and software tools for analyzing large volumes of data, both semi-structured (e.g., tabular, relational, categorical, meta-data) and unstructured (e.g., text documents, message traffic). Central challenges to be addressed include:

· Developing scalable algorithms for processing imperfect data in distributed data stores; and
· Creating effective human-computer interaction tools for facilitating rapidly customizable visual reasoning for diverse missions.

The XDATA program will support open source software toolkits to enable flexible software development for users to process large volumes of data in timelines commensurate with mission workflows of targeted defense applications.

National Institutes of Health – 1000 Genomes Project Data Available on Cloud: The National Institutes of Health is announcing that the world’s largest set of data on human genetic variation – produced by the international 1000 Genomes Project – is now freely available on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. At 200 terabytes – the equivalent of 16 million file cabinets filled with text, or more than 30,000 standard DVDs – the current 1000 Genomes Project data set is a prime example of big data, where data sets become so massive that few researchers have the computing power to make best use of them. AWS is storing the 1000 Genomes Project as a publically available data set for free and researchers only will pay for the computing services that they use.

Department of Energy – Scientific Discovery Through Advanced Computing: The Department of Energy will provide $25 million in funding to establish the Scalable Data Management, Analysis and Visualization (SDAV) Institute. Led by the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the SDAV Institute will bring together the expertise of six national laboratories and seven universities to develop new tools to help scientists manage and visualize data on the Department’s supercomputers, which will further streamline the processes that lead to discoveries made by scientists using the Department’s research facilities. The need for these new tools has grown as the simulations running on the Department’s supercomputers have increased in size and complexity.

US Geological Survey – Big Data for Earth System Science: USGS is announcing the latest awardees for grants it issues through its John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis. The Center catalyzes innovative thinking in Earth system science by providing scientists a place and time for in-depth analysis, state-of-the-art computing capabilities, and collaborative tools invaluable for making sense of huge data sets. These Big Data projects will improve our understanding of issues such as species response to climate change, earthquake recurrence rates, and the next generation of ecological indicators.”

Further details about each department’s or agency’s commitments can be found at the following websites by 2 pm today:

NSF: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=123607
HHS/NIH: http://www.nih.gov/news/health/mar2012/nhgri-29.htm
DOE: http://science.energy.gov/news/
DOD: www.DefenseInnovationMarketplace.mil
DARPA: http://www.darpa.mil/NewsEvents/Releases/2012/03/29.aspx
USGS: http://powellcenter.usgs.gov

IBM infographic on big data

Big Data: The New Natural Resource

This post and headline have been updated as more information on the big data R&D initiative became available.

Coding for community: the story of an ideahack in Chicago

If you’re following the intersection of citizens, technology and cities in the United States in 2012, the story of Chicago is already on your radar, as are the efforts of Code for America. This month, Code for America rolled out its brigades to start coding across America, including the Windy City.

These “brigades” are an effort to empower civic hackers to make apps and services that help their own communities. In Chicago, they’re calling themselves “IdeaHack.”

Below, I’ve embedded a story of their second meeting.