Monthly Archives: February 2010

A history lesson in disruptive innovation applied to modern government [#gov20LA]

When people talk about “government 2.o,” it’s often couched in terms of a new, shiny idea. Using a version number imbues the category with heady techno-futurism and taints discussions with the hype that surrounds social media and “Web 2.0″ technologies.

The morning of the first day of the Government 2.0 unconference in LA featured sessions and speakers devoted to something else entirely: history. Practical applications and an open forum on how to make the language used more approachable to citizens followed Cory Andrejka’s talk on  how government can adapt to exponential technological change. As he pointed out, however, analyzing open data sets to in ways that help citizens and commerce isn’t novel.

Driving Adoption of Disruptive Innovation

According to Andrejka, one area to improve lies in identifying technological innovation within the private sector and adopting it where it makes sense. In the present day, that may be digital tools and online platforms where citizens gather.

To put the challenge in content, for good or ill, adoption has often driven by crises or societal disruption. In the 1800s, the Civil War in the United States drove the development of new military technologies, often with far-reaching effect.

As Harvard’s Antonio Oftelie explained later in the morning, the Spencer repeating rifle was one such innovation.

That weapon could take seven shots for every one from traditional rifles. Unfortunately, the generals of the day within a conservative Department of War resisted its adoption for any number of logistical and tactical rationales. Spencer took the gun West, and, famously, to  a shooting match with the President himself. Lincoln, a fine shot, put 7 bullets into a board, which Spencer saved. Subsequently, Lincoln put the gun into production.

Gaining access to critical “influencers” or IT buyers is no less important today. The use of Facebook, Twitter or Drupal by the White House has given each additional legitimacy as a means to engage citizens, amplify a message or collect information.

According to a Gov 2.0 survey conducted by Oftelie, however, the most valuable use of technology in government is for “enterprise-wide, net-enabled guidance and collaboration.”

Oftelie outlined four broad areas where collaborative technology platforms can be useful and are being employed now:
  • Policy
  • Productivity
  • Equity
  • Legitimacy
“We want to know how things are being decided,” he said. “There’s unprecedented interest in transparency into policy, fairness.”
Oftelie observed that while the potential for collaboration technologies to create transformational change is substantial, the transition for most government agencies or other organization can be rocky.
Hierarchies of authority are disrupted, even while new models for remote, asynchronous service with fewer interruptions emerge. Citizens are increasingly expecting (and finding)  self-service options on government websites.
“All of the challenges that government faces cut across organizational boundaries,” said Oftelie. “Most technologies aren’t easy to learn, and they’re even tough to implement.”
Note: Security concerns about social media are also relevant. (See the Federal CIO Council’s Guidelines for Social Media [PDF], embedded below, for some best practices for agencies).

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If technological change is exponential, how can government adapt?

Can the agile development cycle be applied to government? Cory Ondrejka, c0-founder of Second Life, offered up a provocative paean for more flexible adaption to new online platforms for citizen engagement and empowerment. “Who will know first if the rules have changed: customers, partners, clients?”

Ondrejka drew a fascinating parallel between today’s open government movement and an open data case study from another age: the Era of Sail.

In the The Physical Geography of the Sea,” published in the mid-1800s, a disabled sailor who could no longer serve as crew found something to do from ashore: aggregate the logs of weather, winds and current.

As Matthew Fontaine Maury started aggregating that data, he found patterns. Maury saw great value in publishing this data “in such a manner that each may have before him, at a glance, the experience of all.”

Ondrejka suggested that government agencies and those creating applications that use open data “write less code, get more data.”

When it comes to resources, he asked, “who’s cheaper: a silicon or carbon employee?”

His observation that social computing platforms will “require different level of trust, support and information” is apt; citizens now have different expectations from a government that’s gone online than existed in an analog world.

As Ondrejka put it, online users represent the “largest focus group in the world.” And in that content, he says, there is a role for government innovation, and it should be occupied by both leaders and citizens.

Ondrejka provided one more “analog” example of how government data was used in the 1800s. By studying harpoon designs, Maury found that many whales in the Pacific has previously been harpooned in the Atlantic and vice versa. He used that as evidence of a Northwest Passage. While that didn’t go well for subsequent explorers who went north and ran up against a frozen ocean, the ’49ers were able to use the data to reduce the length of time it took to get around Cape Horn. In those days, it took more than 200 days to travel from New York City to San Francisco.

The Clipper Ship "Flying Cloud" off the Needles, Isle of Wight, by James E. Buttersworth, 1859-60

The Clipper Ship "Flying Cloud" off the Needles, Isle of Wight, by James E. Buttersworth, 1859-60

As the Gold Rush was on, time was at a premium, and for “extreme clipper ships” like Flying Cloud, any advantage that could be derived from patterns in the data had economic value.

A similar parallel to innovation using government data can be seen today in the use of the global positioning system (GPS) that the U.S. funded.

With any of these technologies, however, there’s a long-standing pattern in technology adoption, the data around which follows a “fairly predictable” curve, said Ondrejka. That “linear to exponential” is something that’s been true in multiple technologies, from email to the VCR to the DVD to social media platforms like Facebook.

In government, however, applying such technology has multiple considers, including regulations, transparency and cybersecurity.

“When you’re driving institutional change, you’re requiring people to be fearless,” said Ondrejka. “Experimental culture doesn’t mean just go try stuff.”

Measurement is key. “Stay out of the Church of Assumption,” he said. “The plural of anecdote is not evidence.”

Concerns about data ownership are also central, as are questions about vendor lock-in or the use proprietary formats. “We need to be careful about not releasing the data that taxpayers pay for,” said Ondrejka.

UPDATE: Ondrejka has posted his presentation online (embedded below), ” Cory Ondrejka Government 2.0 LA Opening Keynote” and blogged about government 2.0 at Ondrejka.net.

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Kicking off Government 2.0 Camp LA: 3 words [#gov20LA]

Another weekend, another unconference. I’ll be at the Government 2.0 Camp in LA this Saturday and Sunday.
As is the tradition at most unconferences, attendees went around the room and introduced themselves with a name, affiliation and “three words” to describe themselves.  Here’s the Wordle I created from them:

Here’s the list I used to generate the Wordle above:
Live with excellence
Creativity community action
Digital media law
Public services cost efficiently
Transforming canadien government
Fight organized corruption
Citizen engagement congress
I’m here to listen
Enabling government innovation
Crisis commons +1
Strategic communication technology
Relationships through technology
Missing the snowpocalypse
Awarenesss involvement persusian
Participation community engagement
Mahala for government
Tech empowerment
Government collaborate communication
Mobile government
Learn explore create
Global digital community
Excited about unconferences
Connect the dots
Self sufficient communities
Implementing efficiencuy engagement
Changing orange county
Disrupt for good
Pittsburgh pa
Advanced technology government
Respect empower include
Multicultural digital branding
Community engagement volunteerism
Culture jamming spy
Open source government
Make it happen
Making government responsive
Keep technology simple
Lead plan design
In between elections
Make congress fun
Communicating via neighbors
Forgiveness is faster than permission
Steep learning curve
Unaffiliated Local bus rider
You’e the change
Collision Impact transformation
International engagement through gameplay
Transparency society law
Long live Barack
Stories change the world
Collaborate engage grow
Engaging new paradigms
Open NASA open gov
Technology behind gov2.0
Cloud enables transparency
Geeks beer technology
People watch content not pipes
Information isn’t owned
Lover of life
Where’s your restroom
Diplomacy community engagement
Follow the conversation on Twitter by following #gov20LA at Twazzup or the livestream at Gov20LA.org.

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On Twitter, neither a Luddite nor Biltonite be. Simply be human.

The wrangling about whether Twitter is revolutionary, useful or mindless twaddle simply will not end. Given the continued interest in the microblogging platform in the media, that is perhaps to be expected.

Last month, David Carr wrote in the Sunday edition of the The New York Times that “Twitter will endure,” exploring how he’d initially dismissed the platform and then found it useful. In late January,  The New Yorker‘s George Packer responded to  Carr, deriding Twitter as “information hell” and comparing it to an addiction to crack in “Stop the world.” That brought a flood of attention from online media outlets, including Nick Bilton, lead writer for the excellent Bits blog at the Times, who wrote that “The Twitter train has left the station,” defending Twitter from the point of view of a journalist who has found utility amidst the stream.  On Thursday, Mr. Packer offered a rebuttal, positioning himself as neither a “Luddite or a Biltonite.” Jeffrey Goldberg has now weighed in at the Atlantic, consigning Bilton and others who might share his conviction to the arena of “info freaks.”

Well and good. (At least Goldberg tweets.) Two disclaimers:

1) I am a long-time reader of George Packer’s excellent work in the New Yorker. I found “The Assassin’s Gate” to be one of the best books written about the early stages of the war in Iraq.

2) I’ve found considerable utility in Twitter since I joined in March of 2007.

I don’t expect either truth to be degraded by the spat between Bilton and Packer.

I was, however, surprised that Packer had chosen to criticize a platform that he hadn’t used. Few serious technology journalists, book reviewers, movie or restaurant critics would consider rendering judgment without personal experience. Such considerations don’t hold back millions of Twitter users, bloggers or, I believe, any number of television pundits, but since I admire Mr. Packer’s professionalism, that approach surprised me.

When he wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged” six years ago, my sense was that, despite his misgivings and evident frustration with pajama-clad pundits, he’d read some blogs, even if he doubted their utility as serious platforms for commentary or criticism. Given the maturation of blogs in the years since (including, I might note, at New Yorker.com), I wonder if revisiting that analysis might have been more useful, rather than dismissing Twitter without first dipping into the ebb and flow of news there.

In his second pass, Packer wrote that he had, in fact, “sought out a Tweeter,” without linking to or identifying that person. Well and good, but perhaps a weak strawman. As a commenter at Packer’s blog reflected, much of the content produced there is ambient noise, or digital “phatics” as Kevin Marks has rightly described them.

Twitter is profoundly social. That’s is why, despite the mindless hype surrounding the phrase, “social media” has had staying power in describing Twitter, Facebook or other platforms that allow two way conversations.

Twitter, like so many other things, is what you make of it. Some might go to a cocktail party and talk about fashion, who kissed whom, where the next hot bar is or any number of other superficial topics. Others might hone in on politics, news, technology, media, art, philosophy or any of the other subjects that the New Yorker covers. If you search and listen, it’s not hard to find others sharing news and opinion that’s relevant to your own interests.

Using intelligent filters for information, it’s quite easy to subscribe and digest them at leisure. And it’s as easy as unfollowing someone to winnow out “babble” or a steady stream of mundanity. The impression that one is forced to listen to pabulum, as if obligated to sit through a dreary dinner party or interminable plane ride next to a boring boor, is far from the reality of the actual experience of Twitter or elsewhere.

There’s also genuine utility there for the journalists who choose to experiment. When stories break, we can use it for real-time news and information. In the case of Haiti, Twitter was relevant, immediate and helpful, given that phones went down and the Internet stayed up. NPR was able to use Twitter and Skype to find sources on the ground. Disaster relief agencies were able to coordinate with one another. And in one notable instance, Doctors Without Borders was able to call attention using Twitter at @MSF_USA to the fact that its plane was getting turned away. Ann Curry heard them and helped to amplify the issue:

“@usairforce find a way to let Doctors without Borders planes land in Haiti: http://bit.ly/8hYZOK THE most effective at this. 11:52 AM Jan 17th

Packer and others are right to caution against hype and techno-worshipers. On balance, however, Packer errs in tarring much of the online community with a broad brush.

One passage in particular stands out: “There’s no way for readers to be online, surfing, e-mailing, posting, tweeting, reading tweets, and soon enough doing the thing that will come after Twitter, without paying a high price in available time, attention span, reading comprehension, and experience of the immediately surrounding world.” As Marc Ambinder tweeted earlier today, “I read many, many books in 2009. Including yours. And I Tweet.”

The same is true for me, and for many others. I read much of the New Yorker, the Economist and the Atlantic each month, along with numerous newspapers and technology blogs or trade publications online. (I write for one of the latter.) I also read on average 2-3 books every month, depending upon the rigor of travel, conferences or other factors. I also dip in and out Twitter throughout the week. That may not be an ideal information diet for everyone but for this tech journalist, it works. Even if I miss a story, it’s extremely rare that my network of friends and sources won’t find it and share it.

That’s why this “social news” phenomenon has become of keen interest to Google, as evidenced by the inclusion of social search into its results.

I share Packer’s concern about how the use of the Internet is changing literacy, critical thinking and creativity. Well and good, if not exactly novel. I look forward to more research on how and where those effects are found. I find hypotheses that place high consumption rates video games, television and movies is at the heart of poor information literacy instead of the wired world more convincing.

As for another comment regarding the tweets that flew about Ann Curry being stuck in the elevator, I share the amusement from the perspective of the man who sat next to that remarkable woman for ninety minutes. (So did the folks at Gawker, who wrote about the elevator incident at length.) Ann and I talked about Haiti, changes in media, religion, the utility of the iPad and yes, Twitter, all gloriously offline and in depth. I enjoy that memory; there’s a lovely montage of images up at GeoGeller.com, whose camera took the excellent shot below.

The fact that the world knew we were all stuck in that elevator was merely amusing, however, as opposed to a critical message that would best be conveyed to a 911 operator. We all found the intercom more useful than our smartphones, given the awful reception.

Sharing our experience with our networks of friends, however, was a natural extension of life in 2010. It certainly wasn’t breaking news but the act of communicating about it offered me, at least, an opportunity to interact with a broader audience of other humans around globe. That’s an unalloyed good.

I agree that “cheerleading uncritically” is not useful, nor a mentality that any writer should adopt. I do not share Packer’s conviction, however, that the news landscape can’t be occupied by more technological platforms, including reporters tapping away on BlackBerrys. One important example of that is Mark Knoller, the CBS White House correspondent whose tweets read like a they’ve been adapted from a history book already written.

If Mr. Packer would like to meet over coffee in DC to talk further about how life has changed in the age of Twitter, consider this an open invitation. Given my experience with his writing, I am certain that @GeorgePacker would be worth following.

-Alexander B. Howard
@digiphile.

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Seattle: February photorun & walks

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Museum of Science in Seattle

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World War II Memorial in the National Mall under snow

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