White House turns to Twitter to discuss President Obama’s Middle East speech

The role of mobile phones, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in the revolutions that have swept the Middle East in 2011’s historic “Arab Spring” has been the subject of much debate for months. While connection technologies helped to accelerate and amplify the news coming out of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and the rest of the region, it’s the incredible bravery of the young people who have stood up for their freedom in the streets that made change happen.

Tomorrow, President Obama will deliver a speech that many experts expect to reshape the Middle East policy debate. The speech will be live-streamed from the State Department and available to anyone online  at WhiteHouse.gov/live. In conjunction with the speech, the foremost curator of online media about the Arab Spring, Andy Carvin (@acarvin), will join with Foreign Policy’s Mark Lynch (@abuaardvark) in hosting a Twitter chat on the Middle East that will include an interview White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes after the president concludes his remarks.

Earlier today, White House new media director Macon Phillips (@macon44) explained how the White House will continue the conversation on Twitter over at WhiteHouse.gov:

Immediately afterwards, the live-stream will switch to a follow-up Twitter chat with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, where anyone will be able to pose questions and reactions via Twitter.

NPR’s Andy Carvin (@acarvin) and Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark), two experts who bring both a deep understanding of foreign policy and extensive online networks, will facilitate a world-wide conversation that will include participants from the Middle East and North Africa.  As Andy explains:

Rather than come up with all the questions ourselves, we’d like to invite you to help us craft the questions. If you’re on Twitter and want to submit a question, please post a tweet with your question and include the hashtag #MEspeech in the tweet. You can pose your question before or during the speech. We won’t be able to get to every question, of course, so we encourage everyone to follow the #MEspeech hashtag and join the broader conversation about the speech on Twitter.

Folks at the White House (@whitehouse) will be keeping an eye on the #MESpeech hashtag as well, so be sure to use that to share thoughts before, during and after the speech.

Keep an eye on that hashtag tomorrow: this will get interesting.

UPDATE: I’ve embedded the archive from today’s Twitter chat at the end of the post along with video from the White House. Quick thoughts on the outcome of today’s “Twitter chat.”

1) I thought Carvin and Lynch did a phenomenal job, and that this was well worth their considerable effort. Carvin described the experience of a Twitter interview as akin to “juggling and riding a unicycle simultaneously, all the while trying to interview a senior administration official.” The two men asked tough questions from a global audience, starting with fundamental issues of trust and policy towards Bahrain, shared the questions and answers as they went on Twitter, often including the @ handle of the person who asked them. The result was a fascinating window into one future of new media, geopolitics and journalism. The considerable trust that they were given to find and ask the best questions was, in my eyes, paid back with interest. Well done.

2) It was also hard not to see a marked contrast between the recent “Facebook townhall” where founder Mark Zuckerberg asked President Obama all of the questions and Andy Carvin bringing questions culled from a real time global conversation to Ben Rhodes.

3) On a week when the executive editor of the New York Times offered considerable skepticism about Twitter’s value, this event serves as a quiet, powerful reminder of the platform’s global reach in the hands of those willing to fully engage the public there.

4) Poynter has an excellent background post regarding why NPR’s Andy Carvin is moderating the White House Middle East speech Twitter chat. NPR’s managing editor for digital news explained:

“Andy has cultivated a unique audience and following around the world and is the right person to carry on a conversation and channel a wide range of questions from around the world. He’s been doing it for months.”

If the interview were being conducted another way, Stencel said, perhaps a program host or a beat reporter would’ve done it.

Carvin “has the talent in this format that our hosts have in commanding the air. Andy is in essence the Neal Conan [host of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”] of social media. He understands the format and he can conduct the interview in a way that takes a combination of smarts and skills that’s rare in media.”

That’s about right. In May 2011, there is no one using Twitter in this way more effectively than Andy Carvin. He has been more actively and deeply engaged in finding, validating and distributing the digital documentary evidence emerging from the Middle East on social networks and video sharing sites over the past six months than anyone else on the planet. He’s been storytelling using what Zenyep Tufecki aptly called “Twitter’s oral history” in a way that brings the voices and vision of millions of people crying out for freedom to the rest of the world. Today, he brought their questions into the State Department and White House. Pairing him with a foreign policy expert in Lynch brought significant weight and contextual experience to interviewing Rhodes. Well done.

For more, Nancy Scola wrote up Carvin and Lynch’s ‘Twitter interview’ with Rhodes over at techPresident. As always, she’s worth reading on it.

WhiteHouse.gov puts data to use in its new federal property map.

As I reported at the O’Reilly Radar, The White House used interactive mapping and open data illustrate excess federal property around the United States. Check out the White House excess property map to see what that means in practice. I’ve embedded a similar map from MapBox below.

Selling excess federal property will be challenging. In contrast, open source mapping tools are making storytelling with data easier – and cheaper.

A little sweat never hurt nobody

The White House partnered with superstar musician Beyoncé Knowles and the National Association of Broadcasters on a “flash workout” that’s actually fun. First Lady Michelle Obama is using it as part of her Lets Move! campaign against child obesity.

The official dance video with Beyoncé and wide selection of teens is, in this thirtysomething correspondent’s opinion, both fun and well edited.

It says something about 2011 that the First Lady of the United States went out and danced around a bit herself.

My favorite video, by far, however, is when Beyoncé showed up and surprised students at PS/MS 161 Don Pedro Albizu Campus in New York City.

I can’t help but wish more celebrities donated their time, passion and interest to inspiring kids to get up and move more. Well played.

Can open government be embedded?

This morning, the White House posted President Obama’s long form birth certificate to the public. Now that the White House has released the president’s long form birth certificate to the media (and directly over Twitter to everyone) I hope that the country can move on to the much greater issues that confront the country and humanity as a whole.

Honestly, it was much cooler to watch Mr. Obama speak live using the White House iPhone application than to see the President of the United States take time to debunk the issue that has been settled for years. His remarks are embedded below:

It’s also worth noting the evolution of the White House’s new media strategy, where a government document was not only released directly to the American people as a PDF over social networks but was uploaded to Slideshare where it can be embedded on other webpages to be spread even further, as I have done below.

The White House is not alone in using SlideShare to create embeddable documents. The Congressional Budget OfficeDepartment of EnergyU.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. National Library of Medicine are sharing information there as well. The military has created channels there too, including the Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy.

To be clear, releasing documents online in of itself is not nor will ever be a full measure of government transparency. Open government is a mindset, not just a matter of adopting new tools. For open government to endure in an era of budget austerity, it will need to be baked in to how government operates, with a clear connection to how it helps deliver on the mission of agencies and officials.

That said, creating online channels with embeddable content is taking more than a few steps forward from paper memos dropped into file cabinets or proclamation read over the radio.

Here’s to moving forward to work on the stuff that matters.

Plain writing is “indispensable” for open government

Obama confers with advisors before the Cairo speech
President Barack Obama confers about the Cairo speech with Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough, right, and speechwriter Ben Rhodes on Air Force One en route to Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Open government is not expressly defined as embracing technology, although it can and is be empowered by smart use of it. Last year, Cass Sunstein made plain language an essential part of open government.

Last week, Sunstein, who serves as the administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, finalized his guidance for the use of plain language in government communication a core part of open government.

For those who have tried to make sense of complex rulemaking, regulations, official announcements or directives, the change will be welcome. For the average citizen trying to comply with them, it’s essential.

“Plain writing is indispensable” to achieving the goals of establishing “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration,” wrote Sunstein on the White House blog. “…far too often, agencies use confusing, technical, and acronym-filled language. Such language can cost consumers and small business owners precious time in their efforts to play by the rules.”

By July 13, 2011, federal agencies must:

  • designate a senior official oversee plain language
  • create and maintain a “plain writing section” of the agency website that is
    accessible from the agency homepage
  • train employees to use plain language

“Whenever officials provide information about Federal benefits and services, produce documents that are necessary for filing taxes, or offer notices or instructions to the public, they must now write clearly and concisely,” wrote Sunstein.

Will it matter? In measuring the progress of the Open Government Directive, implementation matters. It will be no different here, as changing the culture of government to plain language will never be a matter of installing “a better app for that.”

It was clear back in September that in the United States, open government remains in beta. A year after federal government agencies published their open government plans, the projects are starting to roll out, like the rebooted FCC.gov or NASA’s Open Source Summit. Compiling an Open Government Week in Review this month served as a useful reminder of how much is happening in this space.

As agencies update their progress on open government, however, the focus has often been upon new digital initiatives. Now they have a mission that has very little to do with technology and everything to do with better communicating the activities of government to citizens: adopt the Elements of Gov 2.0 Style.

Below is the full, finalized guidance. More information is available at PlainLanguage.gov.
Final Guidance on Implementing the Plain Writing Act of 2010

Samantha Power: Transparency has gone global

Innovations in democratic governance have been and likely always will be a global phenomenon. Samantha Power, senior director and special assistant for multilateral affairs and human rights at the White house, highlighted the ways in which platforms and initiatives for transparency in other countries are growing on the White House blog yesterday.

While “Sunshine Week” may be an American invention, the momentum for greater transparency and accountability in government is a global phenomenon. In countries around the world, governments and civil society groups are taking new and creative steps to ensure that government delivers for citizens and to strengthen democratic accountability.

From Kenya to Brazil to France to Australia, new laws and platforms are giving citizens new means to ask for, demand or simply create greater government transparency. As Power observed, open government is taking root in India, where the passage of India’s Right to Information Act and new digital platforms have the potential to change the dynamic between citizens and the immense bureaucracy.

Power listed a series of global transparency efforts, often empowered by technology, that serve as other useful examples of “innovations in democratic governance” on every continent

  • El Salvador and Liberia recently passed progressive freedom of information laws, joining more than 80 countries with legislation in place, up from only 13 in 1990;
  • A few weeks ago in Paris, six new countries from Europe, Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East met the high standards of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), empowering citizens with unprecedented information about payments made for the extraction of natural resources;
  • Brazil and South Africa are pioneering innovative tools to promote budget transparency and foster citizen engagement in budget decision-making, along with tens of other countries that are making budget proposals and processes open to public input and scrutiny;
  • Civil society groups are developing mechanisms to enable citizens to keep track of what happens in legislatures and parliaments, including impressive web portals such as votainteligente.cl in Chile and mzalendo.com in Kenya; and
  • Experiments in citizen engagement in Tanzania, Indonesia, and the Philippines, are demonstrating that citizen efforts to monitor the disbursement of government funds for education, health, and other basic services, actually decrease the likelihood of corruption and drive better performance in service delivery.

There’s a long road ahead for open government here in the United States. While improving collaboration and transparency through open government will continue to be difficult nuts to crack, it looks like “Uncle Sam” could stand to learn a thing or two from the efforts and successes of other countries on transparency. Addressing FOIA reform and better mobile access to information are two places to start.

For more on how open government can have a global impact, click on over to this exclusive interview with Samantha Power on national security, transparency and open government.

The US CIO goes to the white board to describe good government

Earlier this week, United States CIO Vivek Kundra turned to the White House whiteboard to talk about sunshine, savings and service. If you’re unfamiliar with Kundra, he’s the man who has proposed and now is entrusted with implementing sweeping federal IT reform. One of the tools he’s been applying to the task is the so-called IT dashboard, which helps the White House Office of Management and Budget, where he serves to track IT spending. He claims to have reduced federal IT spending by some $3 billion dollars over the past two years with increased tracking and scrutiny.The federal CIO explains more about the results from that work, below.

UPDATE: As open data consultant Dan Morgan pointed out, however, the Government Accountability Office reported that while OMB has made improvements to its dashboard, “further work is needed by agencies and OMB to ensure data accuracy.”

…inaccuracies can be attributed to weaknesses in how agencies report data to the Dashboard, such as providing erroneous data submissions, as well as limitations in how OMB calculates the ratings. Until the selected agencies and OMB resolve these issues, ratings will continue to often be inaccurate and may not reflect current program performance. GAO is recommending that selected agencies take steps to improve the accuracy and reliability of Dashboard information and OMB improve how it rates investments relative to current performance and schedule variance. Agencies generally concurred with the recommendations; OMB did not concur with the first recommendation but concurred with the second. GAO maintains that until OMB implements both, performance may continue to be inaccurately represented on the Dashboard.

One question left unanswered: Is /good the new /open? Decide for yourself at the newGood Government” section at WhiteHouse.gov.

Daniel Weitzner is the new White House deputy CTO for Internet policy

Image by Elon University via Flickr

There’s a new deputy chief technology officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy: Danny Weitzner. He’ll be taking over the policy portfolio that Andrew McLaughlin held. The appointment appears to have been reported first by Julia Angwin in her story on a proposed bill for an online privacy bill of rights drafted by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Rick Weiss, director of communications at OSTP confirmed the appointment and said that they anticipate that Weitzner will start work “very soon.”

With the appointment, the OSTP staff has three deputy CTOs again working under federal CTO Aneesh Chopra: Chris Vein for innovation, Weitzner for Internet policy and Scott Deutchman for telecommunications policy.

Weitzner has a deep and interesting background when it comes to Internet policy. He was serving as associate administrator for policy at the United States Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the principal adviser to the President on telecommunications and information policy. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Weitzner created the MIT CSAIL Decentralized Information Group and was used to be the policy director for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) before he joined . Here’s his bio from his time there:

Daniel Weitzner is Policy Director of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Technology and Society activities. As such, he is responsible for development of technology standards that enable the web to address social, legal, and public policy concerns such as privacy, free speech, security, protection of minors, authentication, intellectual property and identification. Weitzner holds an appointment as Principal Research Scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, co-directs MIT’s Decentralized Information Group with Tim Berners-Lee, and teaches Internet public policy at MIT.

As one of the leading figures in the Internet public policy community, he was the first to advocate user control technologies such as content filtering and rating to protect children and avoid government censorship of the Intenet. These arguments played a critical role in the 1997 US Supreme Court case, Reno v. ACLU, awarding the highest free speech protections to the Internet. He successfully advocated for adoption of amendments to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act creating new privacy protections for online transactional information such as Web site access logs.

Before joining the W3C, Mr. Weitzner was co-founder and Deputy Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a leading Internet civil liberties organization in Washington, DC. He was also Deputy Policy Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He serves on the Boards of Directors of the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Software Freedom Law Center, the Web Science Research Initiative. and the Internet Education Foundation.

His publications on technical and public policy aspects of the Internet have appeared in the Yale Law Review, Science magazine, Communications of the ACM, Computerworld, Wired Magazine, and The Whole Earth Review. He is also a commentator for NPR’s Marketplace Radio.

Mr. Weitzner has a degree in law from Buffalo Law School, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Swarthmore College.

As Angwin reported, Weitzner pushed for creation of the Commerce Department new privacy office while he was at NTIA. In his new role, he’s likely to be working closely with the FTC, Congress and a new privacy office at the Commerce that, according to Angwin, is likely to be run by Jules Polonetsky, currently head of the Future of Privacy Forum.

Weitzner’s appointment is good news for those who believe that ECPA reform matters and for advocates of free speech online. Given the recent role of the Internet as a platform for collective action, that support is worth acknowledging.

For those interested, Weitzner can be found on Twitter at @djweitzner. While he has not sent out a tweet since last November, his link to open government in the United Kingdom last July bodes well for his support for open data and Gov 2.0: “Proposed Government Data Transparency principles from UK gov’t via Shadbolt & Berners-Lee http://bit.ly/b1WyYs #opendata #gov20.”


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Beth Noveck testifies in Canadian Parliament on why open government matters

Today, Beth Noveck testified before the Canadian Parliament. She posted her testimony before the information privacy and ethics committee on her personal blog, including a statement on why open government matters:

Open government goes far beyond transparency. Opening up how institutions work to enable greater collaboration – open innovation – affords the opportunity to use network technology to discover creative solutions to challenges that a handful of people in Ottawa or Washington might not necessarily devise. By itself, government doesn’t have all the answers.

In the network age, twenty-first-century institutions are not bigger or smaller ones: they are smarter hybrids that leverage somewhat anarchic technologies within tightly controlled bureaucracies to connect the organization to a network of people in order to devise new approaches that would never come from within the bureaucracy itself. By using technology to build connections between institutions and networks, we can open up new, manageable and useful ways for government and citizens to solve problems together. Everyone is an expert in something and so many would be willing to participate if given the opportunity to bring our talents, skills, expertise and enthusiasm to bring to bear for the public good.

Noveck offered 10 principles for open government::

1. Go Open – Government should work in the open. Its contracts, grants, legislation, regulation and policies should be transparent. Openness gives people the information they need to know how their democracy works and to participate.

2. Open Gov Includes Open Access – Work created by and at the behest of the taxpayer whether through grants or contracts should be freely available. After the public has paid once, it shouldn’t have to pay again.

3. Make Open Gov Productive Not Adversarial – Given the time-consuming nature of responding to information requests today, Government should invest its human and financial capital in providing the data that people really want and will use. Officials should articulate what they hope people will do with the data provided (ie. design a new Federal Register) and also be open to the unexpected contributions that improve the workings of the organization and help the public.

4. Be Collaborative – It isn’t enough just to be transparent; officials need to take the next step of actively soliciting engagement from those with the incentives and expertise to help. Legislation and regulatory rulemaking should be open to public as early as possible in the process to afford people an opportunity – not simply to comment — but to submit constructive alternative proposals. Legislation should also mandate that agencies undertake public engagement during implementation.

5. Love Data – Design policies informed by real-time data. With data, we can measure performance, figure out what’s working, and change what’s not. Publishing the data generated in connection with new policies as well as “crowdsourcing” data gathered by those outside government enables innovation in policymaking. As an added bonus, open data also has the potential to create economic opportunity.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency in the United States has a ~$5 billion dollar annual budget. Through the open release of data, NOAA is catalyzing at least 100 times that value in the private sector market of weather and climate services when including market and non-market valuations. [15] The ~$1 billion it spends on the National Weather Service helps enable weather.com, which has since been sold for $3.5 billion. Hidden within the troves of public data is information that can translate into the next GPS or genomics industry.

6. Be Nimble – Where possible, invite innovations that can be implemented in 90 days or less. Forcing organizations to act more quickly discourages bureaucracy and encourages creative brainstorming and innovation. The need for speed encourages a willingness to reach out to others, including across the public sector.

7. Do More, Spend Less – Design solutions that do more with less. Instead of cutting a service to save money, ask if there is another way such as a prize or challenge to address people’s problems that both serves their needs and cuts costs. In this era of scientific and technological advances, we have amazing new ways of addressing problems if we can only recognize and implement them. Innovation may ultimately bring the win-win of more cost-effectiveness and greater engagement.

8. Invest in Platforms – So long as Freedom of Information, declassification and records management processes are entirely manual and data is created in analog instead of digital formats, open government will be very hard. Further, without tools to engage the public in brainstorming, drafting, policy reviews, and the other activities of government, collaboration will elude us. Focus on going forward practices of creating raw data and real engagement.

9. Invest in People – Changing the culture of government will not happen through statements of policy alone. It is important to ensure that policy empowers people to seek democratic alternatives and pursue open innovation. Consider appointing Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Democracy Officers, Chief Technology Officers.

10. Design for Democracy – Always ask if the legislation enables active and constructive engagement that uses people’s abilities and enthusiasm for the collective good. It is not enough to simply “throw” Facebook or Twitter at a problem. A process must be designed to complement the tool that ensures meaningful and manageable participation for both officials and the public.

Open government is not only an American endeavor, although aspects of the philosophy espoused by Thomas Jefferson can be found in the architectures of participation being built today. There are reasons to be by turns cynical, hopeful, concerned or inspired by the transitions taking place around the world, from Brazil to the Middle East to Europe to China. Noveck testified to that reality today:

“Transparency, participation, collaboration” is, by no means, an exclusively American mantra. Ten countries have launched national data portals to make public information transparent and accessible in raw formats. The British Parliament is debating amending its Freedom of Information Act to provide that, when so requested, the government must “provide the information to the applicant in an electronic form which is capable of re-use.”[10] Poland and Brazil are also working on open access legislation. Ten Downing Street like the White House has invited the citizenry and civil servants to brainstorm ideas for how to cut spending. They both publish government contracting data.[11a][11b] Australia launched a national Government 2.0 taskforce to explore opportunities for citizen engagement. The United Nations and the World Bank are jumping on the open-data and collaboration bandwagon. India and the United States have an open government partnership. Local governments from Amsterdam to Vladivostok are implementing tools bring citizens into governance processes to help with everything from policing to public works in manageable and relevant ways

These recommendations will be useful to other government officials or countries considering open government programs.
They should be also weighed against the analysis that John Foley recently posted at Information Week Government, where he published 10 steps to open government. Foley acknowledged the success of the open government efforts of the current administration, including the accomplishments that Noveck described in her testimony, and offered a critical list of the ways that those entrusted with carrying policy forward will need to grow and improve in implementation.

Of these, perhaps the most important is awareness: without public participation, many of the initiatives and platforms that Noveck helped to start are not likely gain the critical mass, scrutiny or traction that they require to succeed.

With that aim of raising more awareness about what open government means in practice, here’s Noveck’s talk on “10 ways to change the world” from last year’s Gov 2.0 Summit is embedded below:

President of Free World meets President of Facebook World

President Barack Obama talks with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg before a dinner with Technology Business Leaders in Woodside, California, Feb. 17, 2011. Also pictured, left to right, are Carol Bartz, Yahoo! President and CEO; Art Levinson, Genentech Chairman and former CEO; Steve Westly, Founder and Managing Partner, The Westly Group; and Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman and CEO of Google. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama talks with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg before a dinner with Technology Business Leaders in Woodside, California, Feb. 17, 2011. Also pictured, left to right, are Carol Bartz, Yahoo! President and CEO; Art Levinson, Genentech Chairman and former CEO; Steve Westly, Founder and Managing Partner, The Westly Group; and Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman and CEO of Google. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Amazingly, the White House Flickr feed hasn’t turned into a caption contest for this picture. In the absence of press coverage, Marshall Kirkpatrick had some fun speculating about the topic of conversation at Obama’s meeting with other Silicon Valley leaders over at ReadWriteWeb.

No word on whether the president talked with Zuckerberg about what it was like to act as POTUS on Facebook using the upgraded Pages feature. (As of this morning, President Barack Obama’s Facebook page has 18,368,666 likes. The WhiteHouse has 903,252. )