tech policy

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.

US CTO Chopra on what’s next in tech: open government, spectrum policy, HIT, learning IT

“The single best thing we could do in open government is to get the American people engaged in the question of what high value data is,” said Aneesh Chopra, the first United States chief technology officer, speaking at this morning’s Politico “What’s Next in Tech” forum in Union Station. Video is below:

In an interview with Politico’s technology editor, Kim Hart, Chopra looked back at the lessons learned from his first two years on the job and ahead, appropriately, to what to expect in tech policy from the Obama administration. They covered a lot of ground, from open government successes to what’s next in Congress (hint: watch the push to open up spectrum for first responders) to supporting entrepreneurial growth.

Lessons learned

What were Chopra’s lessons learned? He offered up three examples.

First, with support from the President, Chopra said that they’ve been able to open up discussion and build trusted relationships across the federal government, which has been “critical” to improving the way technology could be used and the long term policy posture.

Second, with that support, he’s been surprised on seeing the pace of response become fast. There’s a “lesson on balance of getting long term balance, versus getting results in 90 days,” he said, referring to the turnaround on projects like HealthCare.gov.

Third, Chopra emphasized the role of “government as a convener,” where the administration can use its influence to bring people together to accomplish goals with technology without new regulations or legislation.

Working tech policy levers

What are the levers that the first US CTO has worked to try to galvanize action on the administration’s priorities?

First, a commitment to openness. From Manor, Texas, to inner cities, “people have found ways to tap into info in ways that helps them do something different,” said Chopra, speaking to the phenomenon of Gov 2.0 going local. “85 to 90% of that activity is happening in places we wouldn’t have imagined,” not gathering in Washington.

Second, Chopra cited the White House’s work towards “voluntary, consensus-driven standards,” noting that he was ” very proud of the work on NHIN Direct.”

Finally, Chopra noted that there’s some $150 billion spent on research and development every year, which offers a number of ways to push forward with innovation in priorities like healthcare IT, energy, smart grid or communications.

Making meaningful use modular

Given the new Congress coming in to Washington, Chopra’s description on the bipartisan agreement on tech policy from his time in Virginia under Republican leadership has to be more than a little strategic. He talked about “getting to the right answer,” referring back to an former manager, David Bradley, and his management strategy of “True North.”

That approach will be rested in the next Congress, on rulemaking. and in moving forward with the tech policy decisions. Outside of the healthcare bill that President Obama signed into law, which continues to meet with significant opposition in Congress, Chopra noted that “healthcare is signature part of President’s agenda,” specifically advanced by more than 20 billion dollars in Recovery Act spending on healthcare IT.

Chopra looked back at two decisions related to approaching technology policy a bit differently. “Rather than walking into Best Buy and buying software, we created more flexible standards for meaningful use,” he said. As a result, “entrepreneurs that never thought of themselves as EMR companies are entering the market.”

The decision to make meaningful use more modular was also significant, asserted Chopra. “We opened up the regulatory regime so you could certify each and every regulatory module.”

In aggregate, Chopra associated that R&D investment, work to convene conversations, open up data and create more flexible regulatory regimes with a better outcomes: venture capital investment in HIT going up by 39%, citing a statistic from the National Venture Capital Association.

Addressing the critics

Kim Hart brought up industry criticism of what the “first tech president” has delivered on, versus President Obama’s campaign promises. Halfway his term, the San Jose Mercury News reported this morning that on tech issues, Obama falls short of high expectations.

How did Chopra respond? He asked for more criticism, responding that you “must listen to people who are frustrated” and consider that much of the tech platform is in the space “where the plane is yet to land.” If you go through campaign promises, and look at executive ability to move the needle on different areas, Chopra asserted that the
biggest part of that – open government – has gone ahead. “It’s not ‘mom and apple pie perfect’,” he said, but they’re proud of delivering on 90 day deliverables like standards, or websites.

Part of the challenge of delivering on campaign promises is that budgetary or legislative action requires different stakeholders, observed Chopra, a reality that will become even more sharply defined in the next Congress. “The Recovery Act is a unique moment in time,” which, as he argued is “overwhelmingly the vehicle for campaign promises” in health IT and clean tech.

What’s next in United States technology policy?

First, it’s clear that Chopra and the Obama administration is thinking about online privacy, with the recently announced Internet privacy committee. There are open questions about how much portfolio, budget, subpoena power or other authority any new position would hold, but it’s an area to watch. Chopra said that he had met with Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and had found him supportive of privacy policy.

Chopra also met with Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), who is very supportive of increased government transparency through technology. Issa, a successful technology entrepreneur, is one of the most knowledgeable members of Congress when it comes to technology. Whatever comes out of his his legislative staff, or the new House Oversight committee, which he will chair, could represent a step forward for open government after the 2010 election.

Chopra also emphasized “modest but significant actions” that could improve the conditions for tech entrepreneurs in the United Stats, from open government data to regulatory action to smart grid or support for new learning technologies. On that count, Chopra offered up a “scoop” to Kim Hart, observing that the next area where he will focus on driving innovation will be into learning technologies, with more news coming at a Brookings Institute event in December.

The top opportunities that Chopra sees for entrepreneurs are in healthcare and energy, the former of which is already becoming hot with more healthcare apps provisioned with open healthcare data

“One policy lever is the role of public-private partnerships,” observed Chopra, highlighting the growth in STEM education, with over half a billion dollars in investment. “It’s not the money, it’s the platforms,” he said.

Chopra fielded a question Congressman Wu (D-OR), the current chairman of the House technology and innovation committee. After a discursion into what went wrong for the Democratic Party in the midterm, Wu asked what the next priority will be for Congress and Chopra to work together upon. His answer was simple: spectrum policy, emphasizing voluntary processes for formulating solution. The priority, he said, was to get a broadband network for public safety that’s interoperable for first responders.

Finally, Chopra talked about the story of the Alfred brothers, who founded Brightscope in California in 2008. The story of Brightscope is important: data driving the innovation economy. They knew about key data on 401(k) plan fees at the Department of Labor, worked hard to liberate it and now have a successful, growing startup as a result.

Look for video of the event on Politico’s multimedia section later today to tomorrow. For more on Chopra, open government and participatory platforms, read Radar or watch the interview below.