Last week was “Social Media Week” here in DC. The week featured speakers, panels, workshops, events, and parties all across the District, celebrating tech and social media in the nation’s Capital, including a special edition of the DC Tech Meetup. I moderated four panels, participated in a fifth and attended what I could otherwise. I found the occasion to be a great way to meet new people around the District. Following is a storify of some of my personal highlights, as told in tweets and photographs. This is by no means representative of everyone’s experiences, which are as varied as the attendees. It’s solely what I saw and what lingered from the social media week that was.
Last week, the General Service Agency’s Center for Excellence in Digital Government, the USDA and the Federal Web Managers Social Media Sub-Committee hosted a social media open house at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Here’s what I learned, as told using social media — in this case, an iPhone, Twitter and Instagram.
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) February 16, 2012
- The USDA has a location-aware mobile app for farmers markets
- The GAO is going to officially launch an iPhone app soon
- The U.S. Department of Education is tweeting at @FAFSA, chronicling Twitter chats with Storify and collaborating internally with Yammer, a microblogging application
- The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife has an iOS app that lets citizens explore wildlife refuges.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) February 16, 2012
U.S. Government Accountability Office
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) February 16, 2012
U.S. Department of Education
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) February 16, 2012
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) February 16, 2012
U.S. Fish and Wildlife
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) February 16, 2012
Millions of people around the world are aware that the U.S. Department of State is using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Between them, the U.S. Department of State, U.S. embassies and consulates now collectively manage:
- 125 YouTube channels with 23,940 subscribers and 12,729,885 million video views
- 195 Twitter accounts with 1,403,322 followers;
- 288 Facebook pages with 7,530,095 fans.
The U.S. Department of State also maintains a presence on Flickr, Tumblr, and Google+, and an official blog, DipNote. Its embassies and consulates also maintain a presence on these social media platforms and produce their own blogs.
What many U.S. citizens may not realize is that U.S. foreign service officers are also practicing public diplomacy on China’s Weibo microblogging network or Russia’s vkontakte social network. The U.S. Department of State also publishes social media content in 11 languages: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu. Many embassies are also tweeting in local languages, including German, Indonesian, Korean, and Thai.
That’s a lot of talking, to be sure, but in the context of social media, a key question is whether the State Department is listening. After all, news about both human and natural crises often breaks first on Twitter, from the early rumblings of earthquakes to popular uprisings.
This morning, three representatives from the U.S. Department of State shared case studies and professional experiences gleaned directly from the virtual trenches about how does social media is changing how public diplomacy is practiced in the 21st century. In the video embedded below, you can watch an archive of the discussion from the New America Foundation on lessons learned from the pioneers who have logged on to share the State Department’s position, listen and, increasingly, engage with a real-time global dialogue.
Video streaming by UstreaPARTICIPANTS
- Suzanne Hall (@SuzKPH), Senior Advisor, Innovation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affair, U.S. Department of State
- Nick Namba (@nicholasnamba), Acting Deputy Coordinator for Content Development and Partnerships, U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Program
- Ed Dunn (@EdAndDunn), Acting Director, U.S. Department of State’s Digital Communications Center
On Thursday, I joined Edmonton-based social media consultant and digital strategist Walter Schwabe on “Gov 2.0 TV” to talk about what’s new in open government since our last interview.
Over the course of the show, we talked about the following stories:
- 2011 Gov 2.0 year in review: What Gov 2.0 issue mattered most in 2011? Disruption caused by an increasingly mobile and networked society certainly ranked high. Other key developments included a new Open Government Partnership, emerging civic media, open source adoption, new civic startups, the growth of open data, and fights over intellectual property and Internet freedom.
- The Week the Web changed Washington: Collective action halted SOPA and PIPA. Now we’re in unexplored territory.
- “The President of the United States is on the phone. Would you like to Hangout on Google+?”: Can a Google+ Hangout bring the president closer to the citizens he serves?
The C-SPAN coverage of the resignation of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and tributes to her in the United States House of Representatives included something new: the House-controlled cameras provided an unusual display of extra TV camera shots in the House chamber, including the Giffords family in the House gallery.
In general, the viewing public does not get to see what’s happening elsewhere in the House. “These additional angles added much to the public’s appreciation for this Congressional action,” said Howard Mortman, communications director for C-SPAN, “and might lead one to ask, why not permit such camera shots every day?”
Mortman also alerted me to another interesting development: According to a new Roll Call story, journalists now can bring their laptops into the press gallery and use them to report on what’s happening. Reporters have to ask to do it — and they’ll need to have fully charged laptop batteries — but Superintendent Jerry Gallegos told Roll Call that he will allow laptops in for special events.
“It won’t be something that at this point we’ll be doing on a daily basis, just because power is an issue out there,” he said. “But because the House changed their rules allowing BlackBerrys on the floor … it didn’t make sense for Members to be able to tweet and not be able to have reporters get the tweets.”
It’s not the first time computers have graced the gallery, Gallegos said. The decision to allow laptops goes back to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But the gallery staff tired of arguing with testy writers about why plugging multiple power cords into limited outlets and running wires across the floor is a fire hazard.
“Early on, they weren’t going to be able to operate without plugging in,” he said. “It was very obvious that was going to create a safety hazard.”
Thankfully, battery technology has evolved since the 1990s and the House Chief Administrative Office equipped the chamber with Wi-Fi in August. So, Gallegos said, “It just seemed like now was the time.”
Even if the laptops run out of battery power or have connectivity issues, however, reporters will now have another option: Mortman tells me that iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys and other smartphones will also be allowed into the press gallery of the U.S. House on a “trial basis.”
As a result, we should expect to see more livetweeting and Facebook updates from journalists on-site. That said, there’s a major caveat: Mortman said that the trial will be monitored to ensure that no photos or video are recorded.
Given the role that smartphones now play in the professional lives of journalists of all beats, political, tech or otherwise, the limitation on pictures and video is notable. There’s a good chance that the trial could be tested, as soon as a newsworthy event occurs off the C-SPAN camera. Late last year, during a debate over the payroll tax, House staff shut down C-SPAN cameras. Government staff acting to limit the capacity of a journalist to record a debate between elected representatives in the People’s House might raise valid First Amendment questions.
“One day, hopefully, the House (and U.S. Senate) will also allow in independent media TV cameras,” said Mortman.
Huge electronic privacy news out of Washington. In an historic unanimous decision on United States vs. Jones, the United States Supreme Court found that “the Government’s attachment of the GPS device to the vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.” That means that the federal government will now need a probable cause warrant to affix a GPS device to a car.
“The decision, in what is arguably the biggest Fourth Amendment case in the computer age, rejected the Obama administration’s position that American’s had no privacy in their public movements,” wrote David Kravets in Wired: “Warrant required for GPS tracking, Supreme Court rules.” Kravetz observed how long it’s been since a similar case made it to the nation’s highest court:
During oral arguments in the case in November, a number of justices invoked the specter of Big Brother if the police could secretly attach GPS devices on Americans’ cars without getting a probable-cause warrant.
The last time the high court considered the Fourth Amendment, technology and privacy in a big-ticket case was a decade ago, when the justices ruled that the authorities must obtain search warrants to employ thermal-imaging devices to detect indoor marijuana-growing operations, saying the imaging devices carry the potential to “shrink the realm of guaranteed privacy.”
“While the result was unanimous, the reasoning was not,” observes Timothy Lee in ArsTechnica: “Supreme Court holds warrantless wiretapping unconstitutional”
A five-judge majority led by Justice Scalia, and including most of the court’s conservatives, focused on the physical trespass involved in attaching the device to the car. Three of the court’s liberals signed a concurrence by Justice Alito, a conservative, that would have taken a stronger pro-privacy stance, holding that extended warrantless tracking itself violates the Fourth Amendment regardless of whether the government committed a trespass to accomplish it.
Justice Sotomayor straddled the line. She signed onto the majority opinion, but also filed a separate concurrence in which she endorsed both Scalia’s concerns about physical trespass and Justice Alito’s broader concerns about the dangers of warrantless GPS tracking.
“As Justice Alito incisively observes, the same technological advances that have made possible nontrespassory surveillance techniques will also affect the Katz test by shaping the evolution of societal privacy expectations,” Sotomayor wrote, referring to the famous case of Katz v. United States that established the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test for violations of the Fourth Amendment. “Under that rubric, I agree with Justice Alito that, at the very least, ‘longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy.'”
The Center for Democracy and Technology, which was an active participant in the jurisprudence surrounding the case, released the following statement on the ruling:
“The Supreme Court today made it clear that it will not allow advancing technology to erode the Constitutional right of privacy,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, Director of CDT’s Project on Freedom, Security and Technology.The Justice Department had argued that the GPS device, because it tracked the person’s movements only on the public streets, did not raise any concern under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which generally requires a warrant for searches and seizures. Not a single Justice agreed with the government on that issue.Instead, all nine agreed that, under the facts of the case, the Constitution required a warrant issued by a judge. Five Justices agreed that any use of GPS planted by the government was a search generally requiring a warrant, effectively settling that issue.The case also has implications for tracking individuals using cell phone tower data. Five Justices held that a warrant would have been required on the facts of this case even if the government tracking did not involve planting a GPS device. “Cell phone triangulation can be just as precise as GPS,” Nojeim said. “Congress should build on this opinion by writing a statute that draws a bright line requiring the government, except in emergencies, to get a warrant before turning your cell phone into a tracking device.”CDT has helped to coordinate a coalition of major Internet companies, think tanks and advocacy groups from across the political spectrum calling on Congress to require a warrant for cell phone tracking.CDT filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case, arguing that warrant is required for GPS tracking.
“Wow,” tweeted electronic privacy and security researcher Chris Soghoian. “Justice Sotomayor in Jones concurrence (pg 5): it may be necessary to reconsider the 3rd party doctrine,” he continued, which is that there is “no reasonable expectation of privacy for data held by ISPs & telcos.”
In the decision, Sotomayor wrote that it is ‘ill suited to the digital age.’
“So 4 supreme court judges embraced the mosaic theory (but not by name),” tweeted Soghoian. “4 weeks of GPS tracking by gov not OK, but a lesser amount might be. Also interesting to see Sotomayor cite last year’s OnStar privacy firestorm as evidence that the public is not cool with covert GPS tracking. Majority opinion by Sup Ct paves way for more gov tracking of cellphones, which gov still claims it can do (w/single tower data) w/o warrant.”
Expect more tech policy and privacy writers to be all over this one, all week.
Today in Washington, the “School without Walls was full of of civic energy around open data, tech, community, bikes, smart cities, systems, efficiency, sustainability, accessibility, trains, buses, hacking, social networking, research, policy, crowdsourcing and more. Transportation Camp, an “unconference” generated by its attendees, featured dozens of sessions on all of those topics and more. As I’ve reported before, transit data is open government fuel for economic growth.
Below, the stories told in the tweets from the people show how much more there is to the world of transit than data alone. Their enthusiasm and knowledge made the 2012 iteration of Transportation Camp in the District a success.
In a Fast Company post earlier this week, information architect and user experience consultant Hana Schank is skeptical of whether New York City takes digital seriously. The city’s approach to digital development” focuses on plenty of sizzle, not much steak,” writes Schank. “It’s time for the city to deeply explore what New York’s citizens actually need, and the ways in which those citizens are likely to behave.”
Schank is onto an important trend, although perhaps a bit late to the party: throughout 2011, there’s been a rising tide of opinion that apps contests and hackathons should make tech citizens need. People like Clay Johnson have been suggesting that government focus on building community, not apps contests for some time.
Schank may have touched a nerve in the NYC digital tech community, given that +Dave Winer shared her piece on Twitter earlier today. As I’ve alluded to, I’ve seen skepticism about apps contests as mechanisms for solving serious urban problems become widespread, far beyond Gotham City.
“I was discussing this just the other day. From what I know I’m drawn to @HanaSchank’s argument. But NYC not alone sadly,” tweeted Dominic Campbell, in response to my question on Twitter.
Mark Drapeau, Microsoft’s Director of Innovative Engagement, a long-time observer of Gov 2.0, agreed:
— Dr. Mark Drapeau (@cheeky_geeky) December 13, 2011
Earlier this week, Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell shared a similarly strong opinion about this issue about civic hackathons. “Too many civic hackathons focus on developer vanity projects that don’t address real technology issues governments face,” writes Fretwell. “Government must be proactive in organizing and sharing their needs and collaborate with civic-minded developers during hackathons like Education Hack Day to get these problems addressed. Developers need to focus on projects that make a difference and provide sustainable technology solutions.”
As 2011 comes to a close, the verdict is in. Government entities of all sizes need to think carefully about app contests and sponsoring hackathons. Simply put, the next wave of government app contests need to incorporate sustainability, community, and civic value.
That’s a point that the open government community has coalesced around, as the speakers in the EPA open data webinar embedded below make clear:
A fair assessment of NYC Big Apps 3.0?
If apps contests are going to endure in any form, they will need to evolve. On that could, it look likes that Schank simply missed that NYC BigApps 3.0 asked citizens for ideas about apps they needed. They’re explicitly trying to tie ideas to development, as ChallengePost founder Brandon Kessler pointed out in a comment on her post.
Did it matter that the NYC BigApps organizers asked for ideas on what citizens need? “As someone who does this for a living, doesn’t generally work quite like that,” replied Campbell. “Need facilitated conversation 2 get 2 nub of probs. Complex problems need far more nuanced, in-depth, long-term, facilitated approaches. Apps contests are lightweight. They work for some of the quick wins and easy solutions or to start a process. but what of the ppl who really need help?”
Kessler also commented, however, on the fact that the winner of the first NYC BigApps contest is now a VC-funded startup, MyCityWay. While $5 million in funding after an apps contest isn’t a common outcome (in fact, it’s unique as far as I know) it shows what can happen when civic entrepreneurs decide to solve a problem for citizens that hasn’t been addressed in the market. In this case, MyCityWay offers a good digital city guide that’s populated with open government data. There are a number of other ways that NYC open data has been useful to citizens, not least during Irene, where social, mapping and crisis data played a role in informing the public about the hurricane.
Chicago’s open government approach to an app contest, Apps for Metro Chicago, has focused explicitly on sustainability, requiring open source code, offering technical assistance and explicitly connecting communities with software developers.
“We’re using the Apps for Chicago to get a new kind of civic engagement and participation, which you can get involved in whether you write code or not,” said John Tolva, Chicago CTO, in our interview earlier this yera. “We’ve invited community leaders and groups to the table. The idea for a ‘Yelp for social services’ didn’t come from a technologist, for example. We’re curating ideas from non-technologists.”
Like Apps for Chicago, winners of Apps for Communities (from the FCC and Knight Foundation) are similarly open source and each are focused on problems that citizens actually have:
- Yakb.us, (www.yakb.us) “provides bus riders with arrival times in English and Spanish when a five-digit bus stop number displayed onsite is texted to the local transit agency.”
- Homeless SCC (http://homeless-scc.org) “connects homeless people and families with services according to their specific needs and eligibility.”
- Txt2wrk (http://www.txt2wrk.net) “helps parolees, the homeless and other job seekers compete on a more level playing field by allowing them to apply for jobs online thorugh a text-to-speech delivery of job postings on any mobile phone.”
It’s about the open data, not the apps
In her article, Schank is bearish on New York City’s digital prospects, holding up the relative failure of Roadify to burn rubber and asserting that the widely publicized “Re-Invent NYC.gov Hackathon” held over the summer is only going to encourage more Roadify-like ideas, rather than address what people really need out of the city’s website.”
Given that I’ve reported on New York’s digital open government efforts, I followed the progress of that hackathon closely. Frankly, I’m not convinced that Schank picked up the phone and talked to any of the participants or NYC chief digital officer Rachel Sterne: the redesigns of NYC.gov I saw were search-centric and focused on what citizens were likely to need.
Unfortunately, Schank seems to have missed the larger context of how data and open government are transforming New York City. For instance, read her description of the new MTA bus pilot:
“The new pilot program allowing bus riders to text for the location of their bus offers another example of what not to do. Bus riders who text a number posted at their bus stop are rewarded with a text back from the MTA that says something like “your bus is 0.8 miles away.”
I suppose in some city, somewhere, 0.8 miles might be a meaningful designation for the distance between two points, but in Brooklyn, where the program is being piloted, it leaves riders with exactly the same knowledge about their bus’s whereabouts they would have had before texting. Is 0.8 miles very far away? Is there traffic? Why not text back the location of the bus (“Your bus is at Atlantic and Court St.”), or an estimated arrival time, both of which should be easily calculable based on the user’s location and average bus travel times?”
That’s a valid critique and Schank offers good ideas for riders. And she’s clearly right about how fractured information is over 100 websites in NYC, along with the lack of citizen-centricity that’s often on display. (We’ll see if the recommendations from the NYC.gov hackathon bear fruit.)
The thing is, if she, as user experience consultant, wanted to team up with a developer and make a better bus app, I believe that there’s a road to creating such a thing precisely because of how NYC set up its bus tracking system as a platform.
If NYC can similarly open up application programming interfaces and data for traffic violations, lunches and e-cycling, apps for school lunch calendars, speeding ticket and paint thinner disposal locations could become available to citizens. Which all goes to say, if you scratch a little deeper about some of its thinking and actions, maybe NYC gets digital a bit more than Schank’s withering critique would suggest.
We live in interesting times. Last week, NPR listeners learned about “local Gov 2.0.” This weekend, civic applications and open data emerged further into the national consciousness with a widely syndicated new Associated Press story by Marcus Wohlsen, who reported that a “flood of government data fuels rise of city apps. Here’s how Wohlsen describes what’s happening:
Across the country, geeks are using mountains of data that city officials are dumping on the Web to create everything from smartphone tree identifiers and street sweeper alarms to neighborhood crime notifiers and apps that sound the alarm when customers enter a restaurant that got low marks on a recent inspection. The emergence of city apps comes as a result of the rise of the open data movement in U.S. cities, or what advocates like to call Government 2.0.”
The AP covered Gov 2.0 and the open government data movement in February, when they looked at how cities were crowdsourcing ideas from citizens, or “citizensourcing.”
It’s great to see what’s happening around the country get more mainstream attention. More awareness of what’s possible and available could lead to more use of the applications and thereby interest and demand for civic data. For instance, on the @AP’s Twitter feed, an editor asked more than 634 “Hundreds of new apps use public data from cities to improve services. Have you tried any?”
Wohlson captures the paradigm behind Gov 2.0 well at the end of his article:
“New York, San Francisco and other cities are now working together to develop data standards that will make it possible for apps to interact with data from any city. The idea, advocates of open data say, is to transform government from a centralized provider of services into a platform on which citizens can build their own tools to make government work better.
Open311 and GTFS are data standards of this sort. What lies ahead for Gov 2.0 in 2012 has the potential to improve civic life in any number of interesting ways. I look forward to sharing that journey.