A future of cities fueled by citizens, open data and collaborative consumption

The future of cities was a hot topic this year at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, with two different panels devoted to thinking about what’s next. I moderated one of them, on “shaping cities with mobile data.” Megan Schumann, a consultant at Deloitte, was present at both sessions and storified them. Her curatorial should gives you a sense of the zeitgeist of ideas shared.

Going mobile and social at the USDA DigitalGov Open House

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.

Highlights:

  • 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

U.S. Government Accountability Office

U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Fish and Wildlife

How does the State Department practice public diplomacy in the age of social media?

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

Fauxpen data, open data and bridging the data divide

My Ignite talk from the Strata Conference in NYC is online.

Comments welcome, as ever.

Update: In the context of fauxpen data, beware “openwashing:” Simply opening up data is not a replacement for a Constitution that enforces a rule of law, free and fair elections, an effective judiciary, decent schools, basic regulatory bodies or civil society — particularly if the data does not relate to meaningful aspects of society. Adopting open data and digital government reforms is not quite the same thing as good government, although they certainly can be and are related, in some cases.

If a country launches an open data platform but deprecates freedom of the press or assembly, questions freedom of information laws or restricts the ability of government scientists to speak to the public, is it adopting “open government” — or doing something else?

This is the ambiguity of open government and open data that Harlan Yu and David Robinson wrote about in 2012. Expect it to be the subject of more “takedowns” in the 2013.

HouseLive.gov embraces open format to bring live video to mobile devices

Congress may be one of the most unpopular institutions in the land but some of its staffers are continuing to work towards bringing its communications infrastructure into the 21st century.

The United States House of Representatives has begun beta testing streaming video from the House floor directly to mobile devices via HouseLive.gov — and they’re doing it using an open format that will work on iPads, iPhones Android devices or whatever else a citizen is using.

“Streaming the House floor to mobile devices through HouseLive.gov is just one more way the House is innovating and keeping its pledge to make Congress more open and accessible to the American people,” wrote Don Seymour in a blog post on Speaker.gov.

“The Office of the Clerk began beta testing this new H.264 live streaming feed for mobile devices last week,” wrote Seymour.

At present, supported video resolution is 480×360 and the bit rate is 650 kbps, so you’ll need to have a fast mobile connection to tune in. The bottom line, however, is that the video stream should work across ALL platforms now, desktop or mobile.

Seymour explained a bit more via email “The site now works like this: 1) when someone visits HouseLive.gov, the site first defaults to Silverlight. If Silverlight is not installed, then, 2) it defaults to Flash. If Flash is not installed/available, then, 3) it defaults to HTML5.”

He also used a key term that’s familiar to the Web world: “beta,” referring to a feature that’s still not finalized. Given that open government is in beta, and looks set to remain in that phase for a long time to come, it feels apt. Seymour asks in his blog post that citizens send feedback to the Clerk’s office: “…since this feature is still in beta, please leave a comment below if you experience any difficulties. Be sure to note your device (iPhone? Blackberry?), operating system (iOS? Android?), and connection speed (Wi-fi? 3G?); we’ll pass your note along to the Clerk’s office.”

Radhika Marya covered the news about mobile video over at Mashable, adding a few bytes of context for the addition.

While we’re moving closer to House 2.0, there’s still a long way to go. Nick Judd suggests on direction at techPresident, this move puts the floor of the U.S. House in your hand:

The House Republicans have their share of tech-savvy staffers who have brought their side of the Hill out of the Stone Age when it comes to things like what a member’s website can do, for instance, encouraging lawmakers to adopt Drupal, a popular open-source content management system. They’ve also come up with new ways to interact with voters, such as YouCut and a project to solicit tales of regulatory woe from business owners. That said, in August, after Congress squeaked a debt-ceiling deal through both houses, Politifact reported that House Republicans have had trouble making good on another 21st-century promise: to post all legislation online 72 hours in advance of a vote.

Live video from the House floor on a mobile device isn’t likely to stimulate movement on the issues that matter to many citizens, including jobs, education, energy costs or healthcare, to name the hot buttons that will be discussed at tonight’s Republican primary debate. It will, however, give citizens a direct window to watch debates from wherever they are, however, and that’s a step forward. Speaking as someone who has suffered through abysmal streamed video of committee meetings many times — or not seen them online at all — here’s hoping that the next step for Congressional staff is to bring those proceedings into the 21st century soon too.

Update: Commenting on my post about this news on Google Plus, software architect David Bucci questions just how “open” the format in question is: “This gets an “interesting use of the word ‘open'” alert – first it tries SilverLight, then falls back to Flash, and then HTML5 using the patent-encumbered H.264. Umm … I’m looking for the “open” in there … ubiquitous != open. Instead of “open format”, it must mean “open access” (which I applaud).”

American University to host EPA Apps for the Environment hackathon

If you’d like to get your civic hacker on, American University is hosting a hackathon for the Apps for Environment on Saturday, September 3rd. Register to make green apps here.

The pitch for the hackathon includes a “green from the beginning” detail that may catch the eye of sustainable energy advocates:

The hack-a-thon will be located in the spacious new Graduate Research Center adjoining the School of International Service building, which is itself a certified LEED Gold marvel of green technology innovation. With a sustainable design and “cradle-to cradle” philosophy for recycling and reusing building materials, participants will even power their devices with solar and wind offset power so their Apps for the Environment will be green from the first idea until the last line of code.

Come one, come all

The hackathon’s organizers emphasize that this event isn’t just about the District’s local civic coders: “Whether you’re a student at any school in computer science, journalism, a professional in the field, or just have an idea to share (which you can post here http://blog.epa.gov/data/ideasforappscomments/) please join us at the hack-a-thonT”

American University journalism professor David Johnson left a comment on the event page that expands that idea:

…even if you can’t code, you can have ideas. even if you don’t have ideas, you can help spread the word. even if you can’t come to DC or AU, you can join us on twitter, ustream, IRC, GitHub, and other online hangouts… we’ll be all over it. everyone can be a part of this. spread the word to campuses and dev shops. come hack with us.

Open data webinar

Last week, I moderated an EPA webinar on open data and the Apps for the Environment challenge from the D.C. headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If you’d like to learn more about Apps for the Environment (and hear a robust conversation about open data and apps contests!) watch the webinar and presentation embedded below.

Apps for the Environment Developer Webinar

Hackathon coordinates

If you would like to participate in the AU hackathon, you can put your civic surplus to work from 9 AM to 6 PM at the location below:


View Larger Map

Head on over to the event page on Facebook for more details and register to make green apps at Eventbrite.

Pew: Search and email are nearly universal among adult Internet users

The results of a new survey from the Pew Internet and Life Project will come as no surprise to most: Internet users: search and email top the list of the things people do online. These two activities have been the most popular since Pew first started tracking online behavior over the last decade. The advent of broadband, mobile devices and social media has not changed that dynamic, though it’s a safe bet that adults under 30 are sending quite a lot of Facemail, IMs and tweets these days too.

That said, Pew did identify a difference. “The most significant change over that time is that both activities have become more habitual,” writes Kristen Purcell. “Today, roughly six in ten online adults engage in each of these activities on a typical day; in 2002, 49% of online adults used email each day, while just 29% used a search engine daily.”

Search and email demographics

According to Pew’s numbers, search is most popular among adult internet users aged age 18-29, 96% of whom use search engines to find information online.

There’s also some evidence of a continuing digital divide based upon education and race. According to Pew, online adults, college-educated, and those in the highest income categories are more likely than others to use email.

“These demographic differences are considerably more pronounced when one looks at email use on a typical day,” writes Purcell. “Moreover, while overall email use is comparable across white, African-American and Hispanic online adults, internet use on any given day is not. White online adults are significantly more likely than both African-American and Hispanic online adults to be email users on a typical day (63% v. 48% v. 53%, respectively).”

This new survey and its findings should be read in the context of last year’s report that citizens are turning to Internet for government data, policy and services and considering in the context of the ongoing federal .gov website review.

If open government is to be citizen-centric, it will clearly need to be search-centric. That means ensuring that government websites are available in search and evaluating how search-centric redesigns at Utah.gov perform over time.

These results also suggest that as exciting as the integration of social media into government may be, officials tasked with public engagement and consultation shouldn’t neglect using email to communicate with citizens, along with Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and the other apps available to them. The difference in demographics usage of social media and email, however, does highlight that social media offers an important complementary channel to reach mobile citizens that access the Internet primarily through their mobile phones.

Apps for the Environment: Can developers and government talk? [WEBINAR]

Over the past two years, entrepreneurs, developers and government agencies have collaboratively explored the power of open data to improve health or transit data as open government fuel for economic growth. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is looking to do the same with an Apps for the Environment challenge.

This Thursday at 4 PM EST, the EPA is hosting a webinar for developers to hear more from the community about what the government can do to make data more usable by developers. (Heads up, government folks: Socrata’s open data study found progress but a long road ahead, with clear need for improvement: only 30 percent of developers surveyed said that government data was available, and of that, 50 percent was unusable.)

I look forward to moderating the EPA webinar (register here) on Thursday. Listeners can expect to hear more about collaborative innovation in open government, crowdsourcing and challenges, and the sustainability of apps contests before we open up the discussion with Jeremy Carbaugh of Sunlight Labs and Michaela Hackner of ForumOne, the developers of DataMasher, the winner of Apps for America2.

If you’re interested in a different kind of public service through code, please tune in.

GSA’s McClure: Cloud computing and open data in federal government aren’t going away

To those in media, government or commentariot who think that cloud computing or open data might be going away in federal government after the departure of federal CIO Vivek Kundra next month, Dave McClure offered a simple message today: these trends are “inevitable.”

Cloud computing, for instance, will “survive if we change federal CIOs,” he said. “It’s here, and it’s not going away. McClure describes cloud computing as a worldwide global development in both business and government, where the economics and efficiencies created are “compelling.” The move to the cloud, for instance, is behind US plans to close or consolidate some 800 data centers,, including hundreds by the end of 2011.

Cloud computing was just one of five macro trends that McClure “listed at this year’s FOSE Conference in Washington, D.C. FOSE is one of the biggest annual government IT conferences.
inevitable. Here’s the breakdown:

1) Cloud computing

The GSA is the “engine behind the administration’s ‘cloud-first’ strategy,” said McClure, lining up the procurement details for government to adopt it. He said that he’s seen “maturity” in this area in the past 18-24 months. Two years ago, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was spending time at conferences and panels defining it. Now we have cloud deployments that are robust and scalable, said McClure, including infrastructure as a service and email-as-a-service.

Government cloud deployments now includes public facing websites, storage, disaster recovery andare beginning to move into financial apps.

2) Collaboration and engagement

The cloud is teaching us that once we free data, make it accessible, and make it usable, it’s
creating opportunities for effective collaboration with citizens, said McClure, noting that this trend is in its “early stages.”

3) Open data and big data

Data.gov has “treasure troves” of data that entrepreneurs and citizens are turning into hundreds of applications and innovations, said McClure. Inside of government, he said that access to data is creating a “thirst” for data mining and business intelligence that help public servants work more efficient.

4) Mobile

Mobile computing will be the next wave of innovation, said McClure, delivering value to ourselves and delivering value to citizens. Government is “entrenched in thinking about creation of data on websites or desktop PCs,” he said. That perspective is, in this context, dated. Most of the audience here has a smartphone, he pointed out, with most interactions occurring on the hip device. “That’s going to be the new platform,” a transition that’s “absolutely inevitable,” he said, “despite arguments about digital divide and broadband access.”

5) Security

As McClure noted, you have to include security at a government IT conference. The need for improved security on the Web, for critical infrastructure, on email and where ever else government has exposed attack surface is clear to all observers.