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Delivering Government 2.0 at GOV.UK

Mike Bracken, U.K. government’s executive director of digital, talks with the Wall Street Journal about how new technologies and approaches can reduce one of the biggest issues in government IT: expensive government IT projects that run long.

For more perspective on what Bracken is talking about, read about how GOV.UK is redefining the online government platform.

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


Laptops, smartphones and social media allowed in U.S. House press gallery

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.

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.

Chicagobuildings.org maps vacant and abandoned buildings using open government data

One of the minds behind the Look at Cook open government data visualization app is at it again. Derek Eder wrote in this week to share another Web app he just launched (ChicagoBuildings.org) and a reminder about what’s happening in Chicago in this space.

This Web app takes 311 reports about vacant and abandoned buildings from the Chicago and visualizes them onto a searchable map. “It’s specifically set up to pull data from Chicago’s data portal,” said Eder, linking to the 311 service requests of vacant and abandoned buildings dataset.

Eder shared more about how mapping Chicago’s vacant buildings in a blog post earlier this week. The results are unsurprising: there are many more vacant buildings in areas with high poverty rates.

Eder said that the app could be used by other cities, depending on how they store or format their data. The code for
Chicago Buildings is on Github. On that front, he says that Chicago “isn’t using Open 311 yet, so this site isn’t either. That being said, it wouldn’t be too hard to hook up the same interface to a different data source.” Code for America will help Chicago to implement Open311 in 2012. Eder shared that he wrote a script that converts Socrata to Google Fusion Tables that could be modified for this purpose.

ChicagoBuildings.org is one of a growing number of civic applications that have come out of Chicago’s open government initiative. As Eder made sure to point out, his app is a finalist in the Apps for Metro Chicago contest, along with 9 other apps, including iFindItChicago and Techno Finder.

In the video below, Elizabeth Park, the creator of IFindit Chicago, talks about how she was inspired to build the team that created an Android app to help homeless and lower income citizens find resources like as shelters, medical clinics,and food pantries.

Voting for the winners ends this Friday, October 14th, so check out the community round entries and weigh in.

As a reminder: If you have open government news to share, you can always find me at @digiphile on Twitter, where I share my email address, alex@oreilly.com.

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).”

NASA to launch inexpensive Android ‘phonesats’ into space

Android….in….space! This morning, Will Marshall of NASA showed the Android Open Conference plans for a sub-$10,000 Nexus One “phonesat.” Given that the cost of satellites usually measure in the tens or hundreds of millions or so, that’s a rather spectacular cost savings.

Marshall says that this will be the fastest processor to govern a satellite. For reference, Mars Explorer used a 33MHz processor. It sends signals back via amateur radio packet system, rather than ground tracking. The launch video is embedded below:

Great anecdote: when a launch failed, the entire payload fell without parachute into desert. The data was left intact.

William launching 3 Android phonesats in December, in space for 3 weeks. As O’Reilly Media’s Gina Blaber pointed out, they’re “iterating Silicon Valley-style.”

For more, check out the short documentary below about the PhoneSat suborbital test launch in the Black Rock desert:

PhoneSat Rocket Launch Documentary from Ben Howard on Vimeo.

You can follow @NASA_Phonesat on Twitter — there’s no official website yet – and, according to Marshall, eventually check out code on Github, where NASA is open sourcing some software behind it. (And yes, that’s a big deal.)

The Internet will ask (some of) the questions in the Fox News/Google Republican debate

On September 22, the Republican candidates for president will be in Orlando, Florida for the next debate. Unlike the last debate, where moderators from NBC and Politico chose the questions, Google-Fox News debate will use Google Moderator and YouTube to bubble up questions from the Internet. Questions can be submitted as text or video through the Fox News YouTube channel. The deadline is September 21st. The video embedded below introduces the concept:

Fox News anchor Brett Baer explains the process below and encourages people to submit questions “creatively” — which means that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney could potentially be confronted by a YouTube snowman of the sort he didn’t care much for in 2007.

For good or ill, that kind of question in that kind of costume is likely to be part of the warp and weft of presidential politics in the 21st century. President Obama’s Twitter townhall” featured several questions from people with quirky account names or avatars. Bringing YouTube into the discussion will allow even more self expression and, while Fox News has the ability not to broadcast a video, millions of connected Americans can go watch the videos themselves if they choose. At the moment, the top-rated questions are substantive ones:

  • How do you intend to shift some of the power and influence of large corporations in Washington DC back to the average American and small business owner?
  • Would you support term limits for Congress?
  • As president, would you support the elimination of government agencies or departments as a means to reduce our government’s size and spending? If so, which agencies or departments would you eliminate or substantially downsize?
  • We’ll see if the question about marijuana legalization that has so frequently bubbled up to the top of Moderator instances for the president ends up in this one.

    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. Last week, ASU journalism professor and author Dan Gillmor commented in the Guardian that is was past time for “presidential primary debate 2.0, where the Internet would a much bigger role in the structure, format and substance of these events. As Gillmor observes, “truly using the web would mean creating a much more ambitious project.”

    Imagine, for example, a debate that unfolds online over the course of days, or even weeks and months. While they’d include audio, video and other media, these debates would necessarily exist, for the most part, in the more traditional form of text, which is still by far the best for exploring serious issues in serious ways. Questions would be posed by candidates to each other, as well as by journalists and the public. But an answer would not be the end of that round; in fact, it would only be the beginning.

    We’re not there yet. In less than two weeks, however, we’ll see if the hybrid Fox News-Google Moderator approach comes any closer to bringing the Internet into the debate in any sort of meaningful way than it has in the past.

    You can learn more about how Google Moderator is being used for civic discourse in this article on #AskObama on YouTube.

Al Gore, Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee on Internet freedom and democracy [VIDEO]

Last month, Cory Doctorow talked with Al Gore, Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee in Mexico City about privacy, freedom, neutrality and democracy in the context of the Internet and the Web. Shaky handheld video is embedded below — the audio is worth tuning in, however, even if the video is a bit jumpy.

Hat tip to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, who writes:

We had a wide-ranging discussion, but kept circling back to the threats and promises for the net — copyright wars, privacy wars, government and grassroots. It was a lot of fun, and quite an honor, and I’m happy to see they’ve got the video online.