crowdsourcing

TechCrunch’s “CrunchGov” grades Congress on tech, pilots legislative crowdsourcing platform

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.

San Francisco experiments with citizensourcing better ideas

As significant as the revisions to San Francisco’s open data policy may prove to be, city officials and civic startups alike emphasize that it’s people are fundamental to sustained improvements in governance and city life.

“Open data would not exist without our community,” said Jay Nath, the city’s first chief innovation officer, this Monday at the Hatchery.

San Francisco’s approach to open innovation in the public sector — what businesses might describe as crowdsourcing, you might think of as citizensourcing for cities — involves a digital mix of hackathons, public engagement and a renewed focus on the city’s dynamic tech community, including the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, or SF.citi.

Cities have been asking their residents how government could work better for some time, of course — and residents have been telling city governments how they could work better for much longer than that. New technologies, however, have created new horizons for participatory platforms to engage citizens, including mobile apps and social media.

Open data and civic coders also represent a “new class of civic engagement focused on solving issues, not just sharing problems,” argues Nath. “We have dozens and dozens of apps in San Francisco. I think it’s such a rich community. We haven’t awarded prizes. It’s really about sustainability and creating community. We’ve six or seven events and more than 10,000 hours of civic engagement.”

San Francisco’s dedicated citizensourcing platform is called “ImproveSF.” The initiative had its genesis as an internal effort to allow employees to make government better, said Walton. The ideas that come out of both, he said, are typically about budget savings.

The explosion of social media in the past few years has created new challenges for San Francisco to take public comments digitally on Facebook or Twitter that officials haven’t fully surmounted yet.

“We don’t try to answer and have end-to-end dialog,” said Jon Walton, San Francisco’s CIO, in an interview earlier this year. Part of that choice is driven by the city’s staffing constraints.

“What’s important is that we store, archive and make comments available to policy makers so that they can see what the public input is,” he said.

Many priorities are generated by citizen ideas submitted digitally, emphasized Walton, which then can be put on a ballot that residents then vote on and become policy by public mandate.

“How do you get a more robust conversation going on with the public?” asked Walton. “In local government, what we’re trying to do is form better decisions on where we spend time and money. That means learning about other ideas and facilitating conversations.”

He pointed to the deployment of free public Wi-Fi this year as an example of how online public comments can help shape city decisions. “We had limited funds for the project,” he said. “Just $80,000. What can you do with that?”

Walton said that one of the first things they thought about doing was putting up a website to ask the public to suggest where the hotspots should be.

The city is taking that feedback into account as it plans future wifi deployments:


View Larger Map

green dot Completed sites

blue dot Sites in progress

Walton said they’re working with the mayor’s office to make the next generation of ImproveSF more public-facing.

“How do we take the same idea and expose it to the public?” he asked. “Any new ‘town hall’ should really involve the public in asking what the business of government should be? Where should sacrifices and investments be made? There’s so much energy around the annual ballot process. People haven’t really talked about expanding that. The thing that we’re focusing on is to make decision-making more interactive.”

At least some of San Francisco’s focus has gone into mobile development.

“If you look at the new social media app, we’re answering the question of ‘how do we make public meetings available to people on handhelds and tablets’?” said Walton.

“The next generation will focus on how do they not just watch a meeting but see it live, text in questions and have a dialog with policy makers about priorities, live, instead of coming in in person.”

Expert Labs data: How does the @WhiteHouse drive engagement on Twitter? [INFOGRAPHIC]

Over at ExpertLabs, Andy Baio created a snazzy infographic of engagement around the White House’s Twitter account using data collected through the ThinkUp App.

There are lots of views into engagement on Twitter, but we have the data to give a unique view into what it looks like from the @whitehouse perspective.

We’ve tracked their activity for the last couple years using ThinkUp to analyze and publicly release large datasets. We decided it might be nice show how the White House engaged their audience last year — without resorting to cheap gimmicks like linkbait infographics.

As Baio points out, if you want to work some mojo on this data set, you can download the .CSV file and have some fun. Kudos to the Expert Labs team for making both the open data and visualization available to all.

Obama: “I am absolutely convinced that your generation will help us solve these problems”

Last Friday, President Obama hosted a townhall at the University of Maryland in College Park. At the end of his time on stage, he offered words addressed to the young students gathered in Ritchie Coliseum and those listening around the country:

…we’ve got a lot of young people here, I know that sometimes things feel discouraging. We’ve gone through two wars. We’ve gone through the worst financial crisis in any of our memories. We’ve got challenges environmentally. We’ve got conflicts around the world that seem intractable. We’ve got politicians who only seem to argue. And so I know that there must be times where you kind of say to yourself, golly, can’t anybody get their act together around here? And what’s the world that I’m starting off in, and how do I get my career on a sound foundation? And you got debts you’ve got to worry about.

I just want all of you to remember, America has gone through tougher times before, and we have always come through. We’ve always emerged on the other side stronger, more unified. The trajectory of America has been to become more inclusive, more generous, more tolerant.

And so I want all of you to recognize that when I look out at each and every one of you, this diverse crowd that we have, you give me incredible hope. You inspire me. I am absolutely convinced that your generation will help us solve these problems.

Unfortunately, one of my tweets on Friday reporting out the president’s words was missing two important words: “help us.” And, as it happened, that was the one that the White House chose to retweet to its more than two million followers. I corrected the quote and deeply regret the error, given the amplification and entrance into the public record. The omission changed the message in the president’s words from one of collective responsibility to shifted responsibility.

During the 2008 election, then Senator Barack Obama said that “the challenges we face today — from saving our planet to ending poverty — are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.”

As president, finding solutions to grand challenges means that Obama is looking again to the larger community for answers. Whether he finds them will be a defining element in judging whether a young Senator from Illinois that leveraged Web 2.0 to become president can tap into that collective intelligence to govern in the Oval Office.

In 2011, there are more ways for the citizens of the United States to provide feedback to their federal government than perhaps there ever have been in its history. The open question is whether “We the people” will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better.

The evolution of these kinds of platforms isn’t U.S.-centric, either, nor limited to tech-savvy college students. Citizen engagement matters more now in every sense: crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, crowdmapping, collective intelligence, group translation, and human sensor networks. There’s a growth in “do it ourselves (DIO) government,” or as the folks at techPresident like to say, “We government.”

As institutions shift from eGov to WeGov, their leaders — including the incumbent of the White House — will be looking to students and all of us to help them in the transition.

Visualizing the future of programmable cities

Technology is fueling new visions for the future of cities. Today at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, a panel considered “Web Mashup Platforms and Future Programmable Cities. NYC chief digital officer Rachel Sterne (@RachelSterne) joined Christine Outram (@cityinnovation), Vlad Trifa (@vladounet) and Dominique Guinard (@domguinard) in exploring how open data, mobile platforms and citizen engagement will shape what comes next in urban life.

Below, visual notes by OgilvyNotes and ImageThink capture the conversation.

n Web Mashup Platforms and Future Programmable Cities

For more on how cities are embracing new platforms and technologies, learn about citizensourcing smarter government in New York City.

[Hat Tip: Rachel Sterne]

Crowdsourcing where to put QR codes in NYC

This February, New York City adopted QR codes in a significant way. “QR” stands for “quick response” codes. QR codes enable somebody with the appropriate software and hardware to quickly scan a code for information from any direction. As TechCrunch reported, NYC will put QR codes on all of its building permits.

The QR codes will link users to a mobile version of the Department of Buildings Information System, and will give them the option to click a link that will initiate a phone call to the city’s 311 phone service, where they can register a complaint about noise, safety or other concerns.

As permits at 975,000 building and construction sites that already have them are replaced, they will have QR codes added; all New York City permits are expected to have QR codes by roughly 2013.

QR Code on Love ArtPhoto illustration by Zachary M. Seward based on a photo by Chris Goldberg

QR codes can be scanned by smartphones equipped with relevant software in much the same way that a handheld scanner can scan the more familiar horizontal barcodes used globally in shipping and retail industries. Their use is hardly limited to building permits, however, as Zach Seward pointed out at the Wall Street Journal:

In 2011, you’re likely to see more QR codes on billboards, print publications, museum placards — anywhere with limited space and lots of information to convey. On city building permits, scanning the QR code will direct you to a website with more information about the construction project, if you’re into that.

But the New Yorkers who responded to Sterne are more excited about the prospect of applying QR codes to the city’s public-transit system. One  common suggestion: place them at bus stops, where schedules aren’t always displayed and are often out of date.

So where should New York City place QR codes? As Seward reported, New York City’s chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, is looking for ideas. Seward captured her questions and the responses of citizens (including this correspondent) using Storify:

AP covers Gov 2.0 and open government in US cities as citizensourcing grows

QR Codes on NYC building permits

Mayor Bloomberg, Deputy Mayor for Operations Goldsmith and Buildings Commissioner LiMandri announced the use of Quick Response (QR) codes on all Department of Buildings permits, providing New Yorkers with instant access to information related to buildings and construction sites throughout New York City.

As people who follow this blog know well, there’s a new movement afoot to make government work better through technology. This week, Samantha Gross covered the trend for the Associated Press, publishing a widely syndicated piece on how cities are using tech to cull ideas from citizens. In the private sector, leveraging collective intelligence is often called crowdsourcing. In open government, it’s citizensourcing — and in cities around the country, the approach is gaining traction:

Government officials tout such projects as money-savers that increase efficiency and improve transparency. Citizen advocates for the programs argue they offer something deeper — an opportunity to reignite civic responsibility and community participation.

In some ways, the new approach is simply a high-tech version of an old concept, says Ben Berkowitz, the CEO of SeeClickFix, which helps citizens post pothole-type complaints and track whether they’ve been addressed.

“It’s participatory democracy,” he says. “Open government … is something that was laid out by Thomas Jefferson pretty early on. This is just a way to realize that vision.”

Efforts towards open government in the United States remain in beta. It’s early days yet for all of these trends. On this day, however, it’s good news for the community that the AP reported a “Gov 2.0″ approach took off in Manor, Texas because of financial concerns.

As Gross reported, city officials in Manor “decided they wanted to engage residents and beef up services beyond the means of their modest budget.” The approaches they chose to tap into the local civic surplus, including ideation platforms, QR codes and open source publishing, have been widely documented. Over the past month, QR codes and citizensourcing have been adopted in New York City.

Below, one of the officials – former Manor CIO Dustin Haisler – talks about what Manor did to implement Gov 2.0, speaking from a business perspective:

There’s a long road ahead for citizens, government and technology. This story in the Associated Press, however, will means that a few more citizens will be aware that change is afoot.

For #AskObama on YouTube, a RT is a vote on Google Moderator

Designing digital democracy is hard. The structures and conventions that have evolved for deliberative democracy, as messy as it can be offline, don’t transfer perfectly into machine code. Many different companies, civic entrepreneurs, nonprofits and public servants are working to create better online forums for discussion that make better use of technology. This morning, New York City’s new chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, asked how NYC could use technology to serve citizens. In 2011, the White House is using an unprecedented mix of Web 2.0 platforms at its new State of the Union page for tonight’s speech, integrating graphs and other elements to the WhiteHouse.gov livestream.

Tonight, a new alpha feature in Google Moderator is adding some social signals to help identify the questions that citizens want President Obama to answer in his YouTube interview on Thursday night. Every tweet with an #askObama hashtag will be added to the Google Moderator instance at YouTube.com/AskObama. And every retweet of an #AskObama tweet will count as vote in the Moderator instance. (For the uninitiated, a retweet on Twitter is when a user reshares another user’s tweet. To count as a vote on Moderator, the retweet has to be a “native RT,” not the older manual version where text is copied.)

It’s a simple tweak but it’s one that could make the tool more useful for people who wish to crowdsource questions. “There’s a lot of experimentation going on with Gov 2.0,” said Ginny Hunt, product manager for Google Moderator. “There’s a lot of people on all sides trying to figure out how to involve people in a more useful, participatory, exciting way.”

Hunt looks at Moderator as a way to aggregate and rank answers from many different places across the Web. “We don’t see Moderator as a Q&A platform in quite the same way that you might look at Yahoo Answers or Quora,” she said. “We see it as a way to have an ongoing conversation with constituents in a way that’s efficiently organized. That’s why it fits so naturally with YouTube, because there’s a very clear connection with engaging content.”

Hunt emphasized that what people will see on Moderator tonight “is really alpha” and isn’t available on the standard module on YouTube. “It’s a small step in the evolution of social engagement,” she said. “The more we can simplify the process for government and partners, the better. What you’ll see with Twitter tonight is just the first step. Tweets will get integrated into Moderator with your Twitter identity. It’s just a tiptoe into how we can aggregate ideas in a smarter way and is highly experimental, which is why it’s in Google Labs.”

Part of that process is in making the Google Moderator API available to developers. For instance, Google Moderator powers 10 Questions, which the Personal Democracy Forum relaunched in an effort to reboot citizen to candidate engagement.

“We’ve now used the API to kick of something called YouTube World View, which will be a monthly interview with a world leader,” said Hunt. “You can use the API to plug into anything you want to socialize to allow ranking. We made it open because we expect people to be more innovative than we can anticipate in terms of easily crowdsourcing within a community.”

The content from a Moderator series can also be exported as comma-separated values (CSV) files, which allows developers and designers to take the information and do analysis with the raw data.

There are many challenges in creating platforms for civic discourse, including building in incentives for participation, mitigating identity or privacy issues, addressing vocal minorities overwhelming the system, or ensuring systems scale under heavy traffic. (On that last count, Google’s servers have had little trouble keeping up the load: the Google Moderator instance for last year’s YouTube interview on the CitizenTube channel received over 11,600 questions and over 660,000 votes.)

Even as the role of the Internet as a platform for collective action is growing, however, the technical challenges of getting this right include numerous design, community and cultural challenges. The ways that connection technologies can be turned to governance, versus campaigning, will become increasingly critical as more people go online. Many of the social platforms that are in current use give their users substantial ability to personalize what information or conversations they receive.

Clay Shirky, speaking at this year’s State of the Internet Conference, said that government and technologists have systematically undersigned social spaces where hard choices are addressed. “We have, thanks to James Madison, lots of well designed systems to do that [offline]” he said. “We don’t have as many online. The tendency to rant or opt out prevents the kind of bargaining or horsetrading that’s important.”

The Google Moderator team has made an effort to address some of those issues. “We’ve tried to address that by giving everyone a way to let their voices be heard and to weigh in on the process. Ideally, a small, loud, organized group wouldn’t block the virtual room for others,” said Hunt. “The online systems haven’t caught up to the checks and balances that exist in an in-person town hall. Sometimes, they can be more disruptive. We’re still figuring that out. We do care that people have fair space to have their voice heard.”

Hunt posits that when you ask community about not just what they want to say but what they care about, you’ll get more useful results. “We’re not just inviting people here to post something. We’re asking them to contribute and then vote on something they care about. Freedom of speech in a representative democracy can be messy but that’s part of the process that makes it what it is. The challenge is getting closer to giving people who are busy, with a lot on their minds, a way to get involved.”

The real time Web needs to become the right time Web for most of those citizens to find it relevant in their everyday lives, as it did today when a new geolocation app launched that connected trained citizens with heart attack victims. People need actionable intelligence. Geeks hacking smarter government to make asking questions and gathering feedback simpler can and will make a difference. “If we can make it simpler for folks to plug in, that’s a good thing for everyone,” said Hunt. For those that want to #askObama a question about his plans for 2011, that Moderator instance closes at midnight on Wednesday.

Leveraging technology to stand up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Can technology be used to create a “21st Century regulator?” Keep an eye on Elizabeth Warren as she works to stand up the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection over the next months. As Bill Swindell reported for NextGov, the new consumer protection agency plans to use crowdsourcing to detect issues in the market earlier. In a world where studios can use tweets to estimate movie profits or researchers can use Twitter to predict the stock market, it makes sense for government to seriously examine data mining blogs and social networks to pick up the weak signals that predate real problems. Choosing to use such a methodology is applying a lesson from Web 2.0 for Gov 2.0.

This isn’t the first time the federal government has tried to use crowdsourcing for collaborative innovation in open government, certainly, but detecting consumer fraud in a networked world is such a massive challenge that the effort deserves special attention and scrutiny. What’s the thinking here? As Warren told Swindell:

“It’s also about how we will receive information about how the world works,” she said. “It’s about how people will tell us about what is happening. I want you to think about this more like ‘heat maps’ for targeted zip codes where problems are emerging, or among certain demographic groups, or among certain issuers,” Warren said in her still-not-decorated office.

How will crowdsourcing be focused? Swindell’s article provides more insight:

“The power of enforcement will be partly about the agency. But it will be partly, in the future, be about how people crowdsource around identified problems,” Warren said. “The idea that people can talk to each other, whether it’s through the agency or from other platforms. In a sense, the whole notion of how markets work will change.”

“In the old world, it would be up for the agency to come in, and you look very slowly through a sample of the banks to see what products they mailed out. And did they add a lot of fine print, nonsense by regulation that was not supposed to be there?[Now] all of the sudden you got information, and you got it much faster, and you have it more pinpointed and that becomes relevant for purposes of where you spend enforcement resources.”

Warren elaborated further this morning on her thinking about how technology can be used to stand up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at the White House blog:

I think the tools that can be at the new agency’s disposal will have at least three kinds of implications. First, information technology can help ensure that the new agency remains a steady and reliable voice for American families. The kinds of monitoring and transparency that technology make possible can help this agency ward off industry capture.

Second, technology can be used to help the agency become an effective, high-performance institution that is able to update information, spot trends, and deliver government services twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If we set it up right from the beginning, the agency can collect and analyze data faster and get on top of problems as they occur, not years later. Think about how much sooner attention could have turned to foreclosure documentation (robo-signers and fake notaries) if, back in 2007 and 2008, the consumer agency had been in place to gather information and to act before the problem became a national scandal.

And third, technology can be used to expand publicly available data so that more people can analyze information, spot problems, and craft solutions. When these data are made available – while also, of course, protecting consumer privacy, shielding personal information and protecting proprietary business information – a shared opportunity arises between the agency and people outside government to have a hand in shaping the consumer credit world.

When Elizabeth Warren meets with Silicon Valley executives, certain technologies are likely to be of particular interest. As reported, she’ll be talking with Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist. Varian is behind a “Google price index” created through online shopping data that measures inflation. For some perspective on his thinking and why leveraging big data is one of the most important trends in IT, watch the video from last year’s Gov 2.0 Summit below:

For more perspective on how big data is being put to work across government, academia and big business, check out the excellent Strata Week series at O’Reilly Radar. Data science is shaping up to be one of the key disciplines of the 21st Century. Whether it can be put to good use by government regulators is a question that will be fascinating to see answered.

UPDATE: Warren delivered a speech to the University of California at Berkeley during her trip where she elaborated further on her vision for the new consumer protection agency. Full text of the speech is embedded below. Selected quotes on data follow.

Technology may provide new tools for the media and government to determine what’s happening – but they can and are used against consumers. As is so often the case, technology is agnostic to the purpose it is bent towards.

Today,  information  is  king—but  information  is  not  evenly  accessed  by  all.  Repeat  players  can  understand   a  complicated  financial  product  that  the  rest  of  us  have  difficulty  parsing  in  full.  Lenders  can  hire  teams   of  lawyers  to  work  out  every  detail  of  a  contract,  then  replicate  it  millions  of  times;  a  consumer  doesn’t   have  the  same  option.  And  with  technology  to  keep  track  of  every  purchase,  to  watch  every  payment   choice,  to  observe  and  record  the  rhythms  of  our  lives,  a  sophisticated  seller  can  harvest  that   information—sometimes  in  ways  that  provide  value,  but  sometimes  in  ways  that  manipulate  customers   who  will  never  see  what  happened  to  them.

Warren also talked about how technology can be used to connect the new regulator with consumers, with respect to a “virtual shingle.” We’ll all see how big those ears can be.

When  an  agency  loses  sight  of  the  public  it  is  designed  to  serve,  academics  say  it  has  been  captured.     The  new  consumer  agency  can  develop  tools  to  help  level  the  playing  field  and  discourage    capture.  The   American  people  can  have  not  just  one,  but  thousands  of  seats  at  the  table.  Even  before  the  agency   officially  opens  its  doors,  it  can  solicit  information  from  the  American  people  about  the  challenges  and   frustrations  that  they  face  with  consumer  financial  products  day  in  and  day  out—and  it  can  organize   that  information  and  put  it  to  good  use.  Data  from  the  public  can  inform  priorities,  and  it  can  signal   problems  both  to  consumers  and  businesses.         Information  technology  can  allow  us  to  hang  out  a  virtual  shingle  in  front  the  Agency  and  to  declare  our   intent  to  the  world.  It’s  a  lot  harder  to  let  yourself  fail  –  and  a  lot  easier  for  the  public  to  hold  you   accountable  –  when  you’ve  transparently  declared  your  mission  and  shared  information  the  public  can   use  to  measure  your  success  in  meeting  it.  Technology  can  force  this  agency  to  remain  true  to  its  goals.

Warren also articulated her thoughts on a “data-driven agency” and empowering citizens  “to help  expose,  early  on,  consumer  financial  tricks,” acting as a kind of collective digital neighborhood watch. It’s an interesting vision.

In  a  world  of  experts,  it’s  the  experts  that  frame  the  questions  to  be  asked,  isolate  the  problems,  sort   through  the  data  (if  there  are  any),  and  try  to  design  solutions—always  with  the  industry  looking  on  and   chiming  in.  But  we  can  do  this  differently.    

A  data  driven  agency  won’t  be  about  conventional  wisdom.  It  will  be  about  data.  And  those  data  should   come  from  many  sources—from  financial  institutions,  from  academic  studies  and  from  our  own   independent  research.  We  can  reinforce  that  approach  by  making  sure  that  our  analysts  come  from  a   diversity  of  backgrounds—finance,  law,  economics,  sociology,  housing.      

But  we  can  also  gather  data  directly  from  the  American  people  by  asking  them  to  volunteer  to  share   with  us  the  experiences  they  have  with  consumer  credit  products.  We  can  open  up  our  platform  to   families  across  the  country  who  want  to  tell  us  what  has  happened  to  them  as  they  have  used  credit   cards,  tried  to  pay  off  student  loans,  or  worked  to  correct  errors  in  a  credit  report.  We  can  learn  more   about  the  loan  application  process,  about  what  people  see  on  the  front  end  and  what  happens  on  the   back  end.  We  can  learn  about  good  practices,  bad  practices  and  downright  dangerous  practices,  and  we   can  report  on  the  good,  the  bad  and  the  ugly  to  increase  transparency  and  to  push  markets  in  the  right   direction.      

Normally,  agencies  use  supervision  and  lawsuits  to  enforce  the  law.  This  agency  will  do  that  as  the  cop   on  the  beat  watching  huge  credit  card  companies,  local  payday  lenders,  and  others  in  between.   Technology  can  help  us  do  that  better,  by  making  sure  our  enforcement  priorities  are  tightly  connected   to  the  financial  market  realities  as  experienced  by  customers  every  day.      

New  technology  can  help  us  supplement  the  cop  on  the  beat  by  building  a  neighborhood  watch.  The   agency  can  empower  a  well-­‐informed  population  to  help  expose,  early  on,  consumer  financial  tricks.  If   rules  are  being  broken,  we  don’t  need  to  wait  for  an  expert  in  Washington  to  wake  up.  If  we  set  it  up   right  from  the  beginning,  the  agency  can  collect  and  analyze  data  faster  and  get  on  top  of  problems  as   they  occur,  not  years  later.    Think  about  how  much  sooner  attention  could  have  turned  to  foreclosure   documentation  (robo-­‐signers  and  fake  notaries)  if,  back  in  2007  and  2008,  the  consumer  agency  had   been  in  place  to  blow  the  whistle  before  the  problem  became  a  national  scandal.        
The  agency  may  also  be  able  to  demonstrate  how  incentives  can  change  when  people  are  connected  not   only  to  the  government,  but  also  to  each  other.  Through  crowd-­‐sourcing  technology,  consumers  can   deal  collectively  with  those  who  would  take  advantage  of  them—and  can  reward  those  who  provide   excellent  products  and  services.  Imagine  scanning  a  credit  agreement  and  uploading  to  a  website  where   software  can  analyze  the  text  of  the  agreement.  A  consumer  could  help  the  agency  spot  new   agreements  on  the  market  and  customers  could  get  more  information  as  they  make  decisions.    The  new   CARD  Act  requires  credit  card  issuers  to  submit  their  agreements  to  the  Federal  Reserve  for  posting.     That’s  a  model  we  can  build  on.     Information  –  fast,  accurate  information  from  a  variety  of  sources  –  has  the  power  to  transform  the  old   measures  of  agency  effectiveness.    

Warren was also thoughtful about the risks and opportunities of using government data. She also alluded to the potential for entrepreneurs to develop apps to create something of value, an aspect of Gov 2.0 that has been widely articulated through the Obama administration’s IT officials.

As  a  researcher,  I  understand  that  data  must  always  be  handled  carefully,  and  protection  of  personal   data  and  proprietary  models  is  paramount.  But  I  also  believe  that  better  data,  made  available  to  the   media,  private  investors,  scholars  and  others,  will,  over  time,  produce  better  results.  When  data  are   widely  shared,  others  can  use  those  data  to  uncover  new  problems,  to  frame  those  problems  in   different  ways,  to  propose  their  own  public  policy  solutions,  and,  for  the  entrepreneurs  in  the  group,  to   develop  their  own  private  apps  to  create  something  of  value.  I’ve  seen  some  good  ideas  in  my  time,  and   I’ve  learned  that  those  ideas  can  come  from  unlikely  places.  I’m  hopeful  that,  as  we  drive  consumer   credit  markets  toward  working  better  for  families,  the  new  consumer  agency  will  be  smart  enough  to   encourage  –  and  then  to  build  upon  –  good  ideas  that  come  from  far  outside  the  government  sphere.

The entire speech is below.

Elizabeth Warren’s lecture at Berkeley [10/28/2010]

What will challenges and crowdsourcing mean for open government?

Yesterday, I reported on how the United States federal government plans to approach crowdsourcing national challenges with the new Challenge.gov at ReadWriteWeb. As I wrote there, Challenge.gov is the latest effort in the evolution of collaborative innovation in open government.

Should the approach succeed, challenges and contests have the potential to leverage the collective expertise of citizens, just as apps contests have been used to drive innovation in D.C. and beyond.

In the interview below, Bev Godwin and Brandon Kessler explain what Challenge.gov is and what it might do. Kessler is the founder of ChallengePost, the platform that Challenge.gov is built upon.

I interviewed Godwin and Kessler in August, when senior government officials and private sector enjoyed a preview of Challenge.gov at the Newseum at the second annual Fedscoop forum on reducing the cost of government. The following excerpts from their panels offer more insight into how challenges work, how they’ve been used in the private sector and what results citizens might anticipate as this approach to open government moves forward.

What is a Challenge?

Kessler defines a challenge.

The Value of Challenges to the Government

Bev Godwin discusses the importance and value of challenges to the government.

Results from Challenges

Brandon Kessler discusses the results he has seen from challenges.

Different Classifications of Challenges

Michael Donovan, Chief Technologist, Strategic Capabilities, HP, explains how he would classify different types of challenges.

Dean Halstead, collaboration architect at Microsoft, discusses how he would classify different types of challenges.

ROI from Challenges at NASA

Dr. Jeffrey Davis, director of space life sciences at NASA, talks about the return on investment shown by some of the challenges he has run or been involved with.

What Makes a Good Challenge?

Dr. Jeffrey Davis explores the characteristics of a good challenge.

Challenges in the Private Sector

Dean Halstead explains how Microsoft leverages challenges.

Michael Donovan explains how HP leverages challenges.

Will Crowdsourcing and Challenges Enable More Open Government?

Challenge.gov “is the next form of citizen engagement, beyond participation to co-creation,” said Godwin at the Newseum. Many questions remain about how the effort will be received. Will citizens show up? Will challenges see participation from industry leaders and the innovators in the private sector? Will intellectual property rights be clearly and fairly addressed up front and afterwards, in a sustainable way? Will Congress pass legislation enshrining this approach to open government?

The answers to most of those questions, in other words, will often not be driven by legal or technological challenges. Instead, the results will have to be used to drive acquisition, civic empowerment or even more data-driven policy. Opening the doors of government to innovation will not be easy. Whether these efforts can spur the evolution of a more efficient, innovative government in the 21st Century may be the most difficult challenge to win of all.