Open government means calling all hands on deck, not just civic developers

“I think that government is always going to need help, and that’s part of the message that we’re trying to spread… government not only will need help but will become an institution that lets people help, that encourages people to help out, and has a strong connection to the citizens its supposed to serve.”-Jennifer Pahlka, talking in a new interview with CNN on geeks helping open government.

Earlier this winter, Pahlka (aka @pahlkadot) delivered a TED Talk, “Coding a Better Government,” that now has over 300,000 views at TED.com and another 40,000+ at YouTube:

That talk and her SXSWi keynote — which was nearly three times as long and perhaps that much better — aren’t just about Code for America or civic coding or the impact of the Internet on society. It was about how we think about government and citizenship in the 21st century.

Jen’s voice is bringing the idea of civic coding as another kind of public service to an entire nation now. If America’s developer community really wakes up to help, city and state government IT could get better, quickly, as a network effect catalyze by the “Code for America effect takes off.

As Paul M. Davis wrote at Shareable Magazine, however, if the open government and open data movement is to help cities and citizens, it will need more than just “civic hackers.”

“To build resilient, peer-to-peer cities these precarious economic times demand, these conversations and collaborations need to be facilitated top-down, ground-up, and between every other decentralized community node that can contribute to weaving a diverse tapestry of a city’s political, cultural, historical, and socioeconomic data. …

To those of us who don’t think of ourselves as hackers but find ourselves applying that ethos to other trades—journalists, community organizers, field researchers, social justice activists, lawyers and policy wonks, and many more groups—let’s join the conversation, contribute our skills to the civic hacker community, and see what we can build together for our cities.”

If millions of non-coders collaborate with the geeks amongst us, learning from one another in the process, it could transform “hacking as a civic duty” from a geeky pursuit into something more existential and powerful:

21st century citizenship in which an ongoing digital relationship with government, services, smarter cities and fellow citizens is improved, negotiated and delivered through mobile devices, social media and open data.

We live in interesting times.

Googling the 2012 election

Lunch with @stiles @ethanklapper @ginnyhunt et al to hear about new elections tech http://google.com/elections

The Internet will be a core component of the 2012 election cycle. Of course, you follow technology and politics, you know that’s been increasingly true for years. Last week, speaking at a briefing in Google’s DC offices, Google’s Rob Saliterman cited a 3/10/2011 op-ed by Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal, where he wrote that The impact of the Internet on elections has only begun to be felt:

The Internet makes it likely that more campaigns will be self-directed from the grass roots. The tea party movement, for example, would have been impossible to organize and coordinate without email and the Web. Thus campaign managers will have to rely less on activity in centralized headquarters and more on volunteers—working at their pace and in their way—to reach voters on their laptops, tablets and smart phones.

Cutting-edge campaigns have quickly grasped how the Web makes it easier and less expensive to transmit information. But campaigns are only starting to understand how to use the Web and social-networking tools to make video and other data go viral—moving not just to those on a campaign’s email list but to the broader public.

It took decades for the changes inaugurated by the “We Like Ike” TV ads to fully take hold. It will likewise take time for political practitioners to figure out what works and what doesn’t work on the Internet. But we are seeing a version of Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” fundamentally alter the landscape of American politics. It will have huge implications on how campaigns are run, who we elect, and what kind of country we become.

A year later, we’re seeing that reality writ large upon the canvas of the 2012 elections. The portrait of the impact of the Internet and mobile devices upon the decisions that Saliterman painted through statistics offers a glimpse at where the future is trending. (Sources noted where provided.)

  • 83% of mobile phone owners are registered voters. (Nielsen Mobile)
  • One third of voters learn from online-only sources. (Pew).
  • 33% of likely voters don’t watch live TV. (Accenture)
  • 70% of likely Republican voters in South Carolina went online before the primary.
  • 2012 Primary voters viewed 14-20 sources before voting.
  • 49% of people compared different candidates online.

Political campaigns using geotargeted, contextual search ads for rapid response in primaries, says @robsaliterman

In that context, Saliterman shared out to the room of Washington politicos and media three ways that campaigns are using the Internet — or, more specifically, Google products — to reach voters and influence the political conversation:

  1. Google search advertising, used for rapid response to the political news cycle, anticipating what people are searching for and putting a campaign or media’s story where it will be found.
  2. Geotargeted advertising, where likely voters in a primary, municipal election or state election can be served contextual messages based upon the location from which they’re accessing a webpage
  3. Promoted video ads on YouTube, the world’s biggest video platform

More information on Google Elections is, naturally, available online, along with a toolkit.

There’s also a directory of public data that contains information on countries far beyond the borders of the U.S. that will be of interest to journalists and researchers who are not engaged in electoral politics.

Googling "unemployment" using public data http://www.google.com/publicdata/directory

Postscript: For an excellent discussion of where campaigns are going in search of the digital voter, read Amy Schatz in the Wall Street Journal.

Correction: A statistic provided by Google about the percentage of smartphone/tablet owners that are registered to vote was removed from this post after it could not be confirmed.

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.

A Conversation About Social Media, Open Government and eDemocracy [VIDEO]

If the town square now includes public discourse online, democratic governments in the 21st century are finding that part of civic life now includes listening there. Given what we’ve seen in this young century, how governments deal with social media is now part of how they deal with civil liberties, press freedom, privacy and freedom of expression in general.

At the end of Social Media Week 2012, I moderated a discussion with Matt Lira, Lorelei Kelly our Clay Johnson at the U.S. National Archives. This conversation explored more than how social media is changing politics in Washington: we looked at its potential to can help elected officials and other public servants make better policy decisions in the 21st century.

I hope you find it of interest; all three of the panelists gave thoughtful answers to the questions that I and the audience posed.

The expanding world of open data journalism

From healthcare to finance to emergency response, data holds immense potential to help citizens and government. Putting data to work for the public good, however, will require data journalists to apply the powerful emerging tools in the newsroom stack to the explosion of information from government, business and their fellow citizens. The promise of data journalism has been a strong theme throughout the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting’s (NICAR) 2012 conference.

It was in that context that I presented upon “Open Data Journalism” this morning, which, to paraphrase Jonathan Stray, I’d define as obtaining, reporting upon, curating and publishing open data in the public interest. My slides, which broadly describe what I’m seeing in the world of open government today, are embedded below.

Regulations.gov relaunches with APIs, integrates social media, hopes for public participation

President Barack Obama signs H.R. 2751, the “FDA Food Safety Modernization Act,” in the Oval Office, Jan. 4, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Jan. 4, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

On January 18, 2011, President Obama issued an executive order directing that regulations shall be adopted through a process that involves participation. 13 months later, the nation’s primary online regulatory website received an overdue redesign and, significantly, a commitment from the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to make regulatory data available to the public.

Today, the White House announced the relaunch of Regulations.gov in a post on remaking public participation by Cass Sunstein, the administrator of the OIRA:

…the President issues Executive Order 13563, in which he directed regulatory agencies to base regulations on an “open exchange of information and perspectives” and to promote public participation in Federal rulemaking.  The President identified Regulations.gov as the centralized portal for timely public access to regulatory content online.

In response to the President’s direction, Regulations.gov has launched a major redesign, including innovative new search tools, social media connections, and better access to regulatory data.  The result is a significantly improved website that will help members of the public to engage with agencies and ultimately to improve the content of rules.

The redesign of Regulations.gov also fulfills the President’s commitment in The Open Government Partnership National Action Plan to “improve public services,” including to “expand public participation in the development of regulations.” This step is just one of many, consistent with the National Action Plan, designed to make our Federal Government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.

I’ve embedded the video that Regulations.gov released about the launch below:

The relaunch includes the following changes:

  • New Regulations.gov and Web design.
  • A new “Browse” tab that groups regulations into 10 categories, sorted by industry
  • A new “Learn” tab that describes the regulatory process
  • Improved search
  • Integrated social media tools (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Regulations.gov Exchange)
  • New Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and standard, Federal Register-specific URLs.

That last detail will be of particular interest to the open government and open data community. Sunstein explained the thinking behind the role of APIs at the WhiteHouse.gov blog:

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are technical interfaces/tools that allow people to pull regulatory content from Regulations.gov. For most of us, the addition of “APIs” on Regulations.gov doesn’t mean much, but for web managers and experts in the applications community, providing APIs will fundamentally change the way people will be able to interact with public federal regulatory data and content.

The initial APIs will enable developers to pull data out of Regulations.gov, and in future releases, the site will include APIs for receiving comment submissions from other sites. With the addition of APIs, other web sites – ranging from other Government sites to industry associations to public interest groups – will now be able to repurpose publicly-available regulatory information on Regulations.gov, and format this information in unique ways such as mobile apps, analytical tools, “widgets” and “mashups.” We don’t know exactly where this will lead us – technological advances are full of surprises – but we are likely to see major improvements in public understanding and participation in rulemaking.

While the APIs will need to be explored and the data behind them assessed for quality, releasing regulatory data through APIs could in theory underpin a wide variety of new consumer-facing services. If you’re interested in the APIs, click on “Developers – Beta” at Regulations.gov to download a PDF with that contains API directions, URLs and information about an API Key.

A time for e-rulemaking

This move comes as part of a larger effort towards e-rulemaking by this White House that will almost certainly be carried over into future administrations, regardless of the political persuasion of the incumbent of the Oval Office. In the 21st century, the country desperately needs a smarter approach to regulations.

As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, the ongoing regulatory review by OIRA is a nod to serious, long-standing concerns in the business community about excessive regulation hampering investment and job creation as citizens struggle to recover from the effects of the Great Recession.

As the cover story of this month’s issue of The Economist highlights, concerns about an over-regulated America are cresting in this election year, with headlines from that same magazine decrying “excessive environmental regulation” and calling for more accurate measurement of the cost of regulations. Deleting regulations is far from easy to do but there does appear to be a political tailwind behind doing so.

We’ll see if an upgraded online portal that is being touted as a means to include the public in participating in rulemaking makes any difference in regulatory outcomes. Rulemaking and regulatory review are, virtually by their nature, wonky and involve esoteric processes that rely upon knowledge of existing laws and regulations.

While the Internet could involve many more people in the process, improved outcomes will depend upon an digitally literate populace that’s willing to spend some of its civic surplus on public participation.

To put it another way, getting to “Regulations 2.0” will require “Citizen 2.0” — and we’ll need the combined efforts of all our schools, universities, libraries, non-profits and open government advocates to have a hope of successfully making that upgrade.

How do you build online community and moderate social media?

Last month, I wrote a popular post on the value of blog comments. My take: Whether you choose to have comments or not speaks to whether you want to create an online community, which requires a human’s touch to manage and moderate, or to simply publish your thoughts publicly online, without making the necessary commitment of time and patience.

As is often the case, I agree with Mathew Ingram: blog comments are worth the effort. Last week, I had the opportunity to expand upon what I meant in a public forum here in the District of Columbia during Social Media Week.

Creating and managing high quality online conversations isn’t easy but I strongly believe that it’s worth it. Following is a storify of the online conversation that emerged on the Twitter “backchannel” during the panel discussion and some rules of the road that explain how I’m approaching moderation on Facebook and Google+, where I now have over 50,000 circlers/subscribers combined.

On moderating Facebook and Google+ public pages

Over the past year, I’ve seen a lot of spam and pornography links pop up on the blogs I moderate, on Facebook and on the Google+. Fortunately, Google and Facebook both give us the ability to moderate comments and, if we wish, to block other people who do not respect the opinions or character of others. Last month, I saw a lack of clarity about my approach to online community, so here’s how I think about it, with a nod to Dan Gillmor’s example:

I can and do block spammers and people posting links to pornography.

I generally leave comments on my blogs, precisely because I value conversations, despite the issues that persist online. I have been moderating discussion in online forums and blogs for many years, including those of my publishers.

Insulting me, slandering my employer or my professional work won’t help your case. Insulting others will ruin it.
I was a teacher in my twenties. I would not tolerate disrespectful behavior in my classroom, either to me or to other students. If you can’t be civil and continue to insult others, much less the person hosting the forum, you were asked to leave and see the principal.

If the behavior persists, you will lose the privilege of participating in the class at all.
Eventually, you get expelled. On Google+ or blogs, that takes the form of being defriended, banned or blocked from my public updates. I prefer not to block users but I will do so. I respect your right to speak freely on your own blog, Twitter, Facebook or Google+ account, whether that involves cursing or ignorance.

I strongly believe in the First Amendment, with respect to government not censoring citizens. That said, I do not feel obligated to host such speech on my own blog, particularly if it is directed towards other commenters. I believe that building and maintaining healthy communities, online of offline, requires that the people hosting them enforce standards for participation that encourage civil dialogue.

I hope that makes sense to folks here. If not, you are welcome to let me know in the comments.

A tale of 42 tweets: Highlights from my first Social Media Week in DC

Last week was “Social Media Week” here in DC. The week featured speakers, panels, workshops, events, and parties all across the District, celebrating tech and social media in the nation’s Capital, including a special edition of the DC Tech Meetup. I moderated four panels, participated in a fifth and attended what I could otherwise. I found the occasion to be a great way to meet new people around the District. Following is a storify of some of my personal highlights, as told in tweets and photographs. This is by no means representative of everyone’s experiences, which are as varied as the attendees. It’s solely what I saw and what lingered from the social media week that was.

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