Category Archives: photography

Frager’s Hardware fire leaves burn scar in the heart of Capitol Hill

Frager’s Hardware, a Capitol Hill landmark beloved by generations of Washingtonians, was ravaged by a fire last night. Across my neighborhood, people are waking up to the reality of a devastated community hub. Mike Debonis captured the intensity of last night’s events on a liveblog at the Washington Post.

The Capitol Hill institution has been part of the fabric of residential life for generations of Washingtonians. For many residents, Frager’s was part of home. Thankfully, no one was killed in the blaze, although two of the dozens of DC firefighters to responded to the 4-alarm fire were slightly injured bringing it under control.

As the fire burned last night, people already began calling for Frager’s to be rebuilt, just as Eastern Market and the Tune Inn were after fires swept through them. Frager’s general manager Nick Kapalanis vowed to rebuild Fragers and DC Mayor Vincent C. Gray said the city would support him in the effort.

What was inside of the scorched walls of those buildings is gone forever. While the owners, city and community of Fragers’s can — and many hope, will — build a beautiful new hardware store to serve the community between the U.S. Capitol and the Anacostia River, the contents and character of the 93-year old institutions are reduced to smoldering rubble. Something irreplaceable lies in ruins.

Walking around those crowded, claustrophobic aisles and basement felt like shopping in an unfamiliar city center preserved from a previous century, similar to the medieval city centers of Europe or Boston’s North End. I loved it. I spent years in renovating old houses in greater Boston and instantly appreciated how special this neighborhood hardware store was.

Over years, you might learn what was where and how to navigate to it, but you were always better off asking one of Frager’s employees, who always knew where anything a given need for a given weekend project or months-long remodeling effort might be. In many ways, Frager’s staff acted much like London cab drivers, using “the knowledge” to help residents get from Point A to Point B in their journey.

Frager’s was one of the best examples of an iconic American institution that in many ways exemplifies our national character: the neighborhood hardware store. We’re a nation of tinkerers and fixers, backyard hobbyists and garage mechanics. Our basements, barns and workshops hold multitudes of weekend projects, finished and unfinished, with boxes and cans of the extra parts and fasteners that we might need in the future.

Tom Bridge, writing for “We Love DC,” captured this sentiment well this morning:

I can only think of one thing to do today: appreciate your neighborhood and city institutions. By fire or by tragedy, they may leave before we’re ready. This city is full of many beautiful, incredible places like Frager’s, places that can’t easily be replaced or rebuilt, that are unique to our place and our time, special threads that hold together neighborhoods and communities. Our communities need places like Frager’s the same way they need schools and fire stations and hospitals. They’re just not the same without them.

Help Frager’s rebuild if you can, or help make sure your own institutions stay healthy in your community, it’s doing DC a good deed, and that truly matters.

In recent years, Home Depot and Lowes have offered a bigger, brighter options to consumers, standardizing and automating the sale of building supplies. As any long-time customer has learned, however, it’s a rare “big box” retailer that achieves the service, function, feeling and forum of a local hardware store like Frager’s, embedded within a community.

Fragers, down on Pennsylvania Avenue, has provided all of those bits, bolts and much more to thousands upon thousands of DC residents for nearly a century.

This morning, Frager’s is closed. It may be rebuilt, bigger, brighter and more beautiful, but it’s going to be many months before this burn scar in the heart of Capitol Hill heals. Our mental maps are left to trace the contours of a landscape that now only persists in our collective memory.

Postscript: a reader emailed and shared a link to donate to the Frager’s Fund. To make a contribution, just click the “Donate” button and write “Frager’s” in the dedication section. The fund is administered by the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF), a registered 501(c)(3) that helped rebuild Eastern Market after it burned in 2007. CHCF will also use the funds to support the 65 Fragers employees displaced by the fire. Contributions are tax-deductible.

For more on the morning after, read “Fire at landmark hardware store prompts DC to remember Fragers.”

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On unwiring


For the last decade, I’ve thought about going offline like Paul Miller. Turn off, drop off, tune in to life offline.

I’ve never done it. Thinking back, I don’t think I’ve been fully offline more than a month since 1999. I do periodically unwire. A night out here, a long bike ride there, a long weekend in the woods.

The last time it truly happened for more than 24 hours was in January in Anguilla, where I took long hikes, paddles, swims or went sailing without a connection. (I didn’t attempt a tweet during my kite boarding lesson.) Or last August, up in Cape Cod. Vacation is now virtually defined for me as being offline, without commitments. Before that trip, the last truly offline time was my honeymoon, in Greece, where, again, there was (often) no connection to be had.

I may still choose to share my experience and stay connected while I’m on vacation, or “paid time off,” as my former employer calls it, but doing so was always on my own time, at my own choosing. Each time I disconnect, I’ve learned something valuable about myself, both in terms of the person I’ve always been and the man I’ve become.

I’m glad Paul Miller did this and shared his experience. I think such reflection is important and the insight derived from it has always helped to shape and guide my subsequent choices about using technology.

In particular, his shift to finding other distractions, from games to television, was a reminder that we have agency in our own lives. We can choose whether and how to maintain our relationships, our minds, our bodies and our professional, intellectual or recreational pursuits, whether we’re connected or not.

It’s tempting to blame “the Internet” for poor choices or bad habits — and there are reasons to be cautious about how games or social networks tap into certain innate aspects of human behavior — but my personal experience with the network of networks has been enormously empowering and uplifting.

Your mileage, of course, may vary.

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Tweaser: noun — a movie teaser cut into a 6 second Vine video and tweet

I never expected to associate a “tweaser” with The Wolverine. (I assumed Wolverine’s healing powers would always extrude any splinter.)

That changed yesterday, when James Mangold, the director of the most recent cinematic treatment of the comic book hero’s adventures, tweeted the first “tweaser” of the new century. He used Twitter’s new Vine app to share the short clip, a tightly edited 6 seconds of  footage from the upcoming film. You can watch Vine’s big moment in tweet embedded below.

Twitter certainly has come a long way from txt messages. As Lily Rothman quipped at Time, the emergence of a 6 second tweaser that can be retweeted, tumbled and embedded gives “new meaning to the intersection of Hollywood and Vine.”

Jen Yamato has the backstory behind 20th Century Fox’s debut of a 21st century tweaser over at Deadline, including credit to Fox executive Tony Sella for the coinage:

Last week FilmDistrict was the first studio to use Twitter’s new looping app as a marketing tool. Here’s an even buzzier use of Vine: A 6-second “tweaser” (that’s Twitter teaser, or “TWZZR”) previewing Fox’s July 26 superhero pic Wolverine.

I suspect that at least a few of the tweasers that go flickering by on Twitter, Vine and blog posts will lead people to do what I did: become aware of the upcoming and film and look for a longer version of the teaser trailer elsewhere online. If a tweaser comes with a custom short URL, so much the easier.

To that point, If you want to watch a higher quality “full-length” version of the teaser, there’s now a teaser trailer available on the iTunes Store and a YouTube version:
… which, it’s worth pointing out, can also be embedded in tweets.

Hopefully, history remember will remember “The Wolverine for more than being the subject of the world’s first “tweaser.” Then again, our attention spans may not be up to it, particularly if the length of the interactive media we consume continues to shorten at this rate.

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I Heard It Through The App Vine

After surfing around a bit tonight, I’m not sure yet whether the new Vine App will be to video what Instagram is for pictures. (Vine went live last Friday, when I was on vacation in Anguilla.) The amount of buzz I’ve found upon returning from vacation suggests at least a few of the people I follow and read think it’s possible.

It sounds like the initial launch was a bit buggy for some users, though I had no issues when I downloaded and installed Vine tonight. I found it quite easy to join, find friends from Twitter and my address book (if not Facebook) and then to create and share a 6 second spot using the app, which I promptly deleted.

Vine is Twitter’s first standalone app, like Facebook’s Poke or Messenger. As is the case with tweets, vines have their own permalink and play in embedded tweets, like Twitter CEO Dick Costolo’s tweet that shows how to make steak tartare:

A mobile social network that’s built around mobile sharing of videos from iOS devices and integrated into other media, particularly tweets and blog posts, could have legs online — along with many other body parts. Tonight, posts on multiple outlets suggested that Vine has a “porn problem.”

I’m not sure if this revelation will not shock many long-time observers of people’s behavior online, when faced with webcams. Exhibit A: Chatroulette. I instantly thought of Avenue Q’s classic assessment of what the Internet is for.

(With a little help from Twitter, I was able to source the quote to Ethan Zuckerman’s 2008 talk at ETech on the cute cat theory.)

I tend to agree with Joshua Topolsky’s assessment at The Verge: it’s Apple that has the porn problem, not Twitter or Vine. We’ll see how Apple responds. Steve Jobs was clear in 2010 when he wrote that Apple has a “moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone.” Apple does not, however, censor the websites or, critically, user-generated content (UGC) on them when users access them through the Safari mobile Web browser. Treating UGC platforms like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google+ like Web browsers might make more sense to users. (I don’t know how that approach would sit in Cupertino or the Federal Trade Commission.)

Regardless of the larger issues surrounding Apple’s policies as a powerful gatekeeper for app makers, parents take note: letting young children search raw Twitter feeds or Vine apps for #porn is going to turn up media that’s NSFW, much less NSFK(ids).

While there’s certainly porn to be found, I didn’t see any when I watched the automagically randomized selection of vines at Vinepeek, which I found thanks to a tweet from Mitch Kapor. Despite inevitable flashes of crudity and banality, I found many of these glimpses of shared humanity endearing, just as YouTube can be at its best.

There are many other ways Vine can be used for business or other less salacious purposes, however, as Chris Brogan pointed out on Friday. Given my interest in cooking, I think creative spots that show how to make different recipes, like the one Costolo filmed, could be particularly interesting. While there are plenty of possibilities for media creation, for I’m not sure whether journalists will wholeheartedly move to quickly adopt Vine professionally, although there were certainly plenty of early adopters on Instagram.

I remember the idea of a social network of video shorts when it first floated to the top of my social stream: it was called Seesmic, and Loic Le Meur shuttered it in 2009. That said, the context for Vine is different, given the tens of millions of iPhones and iPads in people’s hands today.

I think Vine will be worth watching, so to speak. If Vine does catch on, expect “vining” and “vines” to become part of the tech vernacular.

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Morning in Maine

I’m working on the front porch this morning, sipping from a hot cup of coffee while the rain beats on the roof above, falling in fat, heavy drops along the drip line in front of me. A hundred yards out, a loon quietly paddles by, immune to the rain cascading down all around it, cocking its head when I move too quickly from the door to the sofa along the house’s outer wall.

The sky and bay are nearly the same color of grey this morning. The demarcation between the two is barely visible along the horizon line, called out by the dark shapes of islands crowned with pine trees and ringed with granite and knotted wrack.

It’s these quiet early morning moments in Maine that I tend to remember most when I’m surrounded by people, planes and tumult over the course of the year, immersed not in the sound of thousands of rain drops hitting leaves and weathered shingles but rather machines and men, their voices raised in anger, happiness, frustration and joy on the course of whatever task or journey that day’s course sets before them.

For now, it’s enough to simply be, disappearing into the words of a past interview, drinking deep of the cool, clean air and thinking of an older world that has long ago disappeared into the annals of a quieter age.

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Collecting stories

On his personal blog, New York Times technology journalist Nick Bilton mused about “collecting air” in his travels around the globe. He closes his post with this thought, drawn from a recent conversation on a flight:

The man looked at me and asked, “Do you collect anything?”

At first I didn’t know how to respond, I hadn’t thought about it in some time. And then I instinctively told him that I actually collect stories —about people, or events, or places, or companies, or moments in time. That I collect these stories and keep them as words and photos.

I looked out of the plane window for a while as we zipped above the clouds at 35,000 feet, and then I looked back at the man and said, “I guess you could say I collect air.”

I felt the same instinct over the holidays, when asked to describe what I do or what a day in my life is like now. The photostream I’ve shared to Twitter or Tumblr over the past two weeks offers vignettes of a mobile life:

public Instagram photostream shared to Twitter

My Instagram photostream on Twitter

Those windows on my worlds, reflected as they are in a growing multitude of glowing screens, are a collection that I value much in the same way that a philatelist or numismatist in a previous generation might adore her stamps or her coins. I hope that some of the stories they represent are at least as enduring.

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Awesome Foundation DC Launch Party warmly welcomed in District

Over the past year, the Awesome Foundation has been growing globally, providing micro-grants for creative genius in multiple continents. Last night, hundreds of people bought “Tickets to Awesome” and joined the DC chapter of the Awesome Foundation at a launch party in One Lounge in Dupont Circle.

Party goers mixed and mingled with the DC chapter’s microtrustees, including this correspondent, and checked out exhibits and demonstrations from the first four recipients of awesome grants. DC FabLab, Ward 8, Petworth and Counterpoint were in attendance for awards ceremony. Bonnie Shaw (@Bon_Zai), DC’s “Dean of Awesome,” gave a brief speech at the launch party ceremony:

Curious folks also checked out exhibits from My Dream of Jeanne, ExAparatus and ScrapAction, donating to the projects they liked the most using the awesome tokens that came with their tickets. Counterpoint even performed upstairs in front of a packed lounge.

You can follow the Awesome Foundation DC on Twitter for updates on new grants, performances, installations and other awesome events at @AFdnDC.

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28 Tweets about #Newsfoo: Data Journalism, Wikileaks and the Long Form

Last weekend, I was proud to join a fascinating group of people in the first News Foo out in Phoenix, Arizona. I’m still thinking through what it all meant to me. Covering events in Washington has kept me extremely busy from the moment I returned.

Almost by definition, you can’t go to everything at an unconference. And by definition, an unconference is what you make of it, meaning that if you to a session to happen, you need to propose it. If you don’t like the one you’re in, vote with your feet. The open structure means that everyone will have a different experience, a reality that was reflected in the tweets, blogposts and feedback that have emerged in the days since the first News Foo concluded in Phoenix.

Newsfoo is a variant of Tim O’Reilly’s famed Foo camps, which have a wiki unconference format. People create the sessions as they go, and they camp out together. The social + intellectual experience is a bonding opportunity. There is also, for example, a Sci Foo camp which is consponsored by O’Reilly, Nature mag and Google. Now there is a push to do a Newsfoo, which would bring technologists and journalists together in a high-level discussion, that looks forward rather than back. It would tackle cool problems, both content side and business side.

To expand on that concept, posted before the event, News Foo was a collaboration between O’Reilly Media, Google and the Knight Foundation. Each hour or so, four or five sessions frequently competed for attention, along with freewheeling conversations in hallways, tables and in the open spaces of Arizona State University’s beautiful journalism center. As with every unconference, the attendees created the program and decided which sessions to attend, aggregating or disaggregating themselves.

If you’re interested in other reactions to News Foo, several excellent posts have made their way online since Sunday. I’ll be posting more thoughts on Newsfoo soon, along with book recommendations from the science fiction session.

For those who were not present, a post by Steve Buttry is particularly worth reading, along with the lively dialogue in the comments: “News Foo Camp: Not fully open, but certainly secret.” Buttry reached out to Sarah Winge, who provided a lengthy, informative comment about what Foos are about and how “Friend D.A.” works. If you’re not familiar with either, go check out Steve’s excellent post.

As he notes there, heavy tweeting was discouraged by the organizers, a request supported by the thinking that being “fully present,” freed of the necessary attention that documenting an event accurately requires of a writer, will result in a richer in-person experience for all involved.

Over the course of the weekend, I certainly tweeted much less than I would at the average conference or unconference. But then foo isn’t either.

I did take a few moments to share resources or stories I heard about at newsfoo with my distributed audience online. Following are 28 tweets, slightly edited (I took out the #Newsfoo hashtag and replies in a few) that did just that, rather like I’d microblogged it. If you’re confused about the “twitterese” below, consult my explainer on the top 50 Twitter acronyms and abbreviations and my thinking on how #hashtags on Twitter are like channels on cable TV. For many more tweets from other attendees, check out “Newsfoo at a Distance,” a Storify curation.

1. #Newsfoo is an unconference in Phoenix, AZ this weekend. Technologists & journalists talking about “what’s next.”

2. Foo Camp is about “making new synapses in the global brain,” says @TimOReilly. And being present. Here.  http://twitpic.com/3cnxcl

3. ASU Cronkite School of Journalism. Beautiful. http://instagr.am/p/dLie/

4. Loving session on context with @mthomps @adamdangelo & @tristanharris. Some context: http://futureofcontext.com #meta

On the long form

5. In #longform discussion. Love this topic: http://longform.org | http://longreads.com | @NiemanLab: http://j.mp/9X9Php

6. More on #longform at @Guardian: http://j.mp/d5lhF5 @longreads @TheAwl @somethingtoread @longformorg @thelonggoodread

7. “Final Salute” http://j.mp/px3Vk Pulitzer Prize-winning story by @jimsheeler. @TheRocky closed last October.

8. Readability changed how I read #longform journalism online: http://readability.com @Pogue: http://nyti.ms/3Yu9KD

9. Learned about @audiopress from @wroush. Roll your own podcast playlists. @Xconomy: http://bit.ly/cuBm1G #longform

Data Journalism

10. Good ooVoo test with @kmcurry. Virtual session with @jeanneholm& @davidherzog on data journalism at 1:45 MST http://bit.ly/etWw7R

11. Data tools at http://opendataday.org being used at #rhok & #odhd hackathons: http://oreil.ly/g4ibiF #opengov #gov20

12. There’s someone from http://scraperwiki.com at #newsfoo.

Wikileaks

13. Moved to #Wikileaks session. Wonderfully deep. Useful take on #cablegate at @TheEconomist: http://econ.st/hyD7kM

14. “Former #WikiLeaks activists to launch new whistleblowing site”-Der Spiegel http://bit.ly/f4iP6Q #cablegate

15. Talking about #COICA: http://act.ly/S3804 http://eff.org/coica #ACTA & DNS issues. Important: http://nyti.ms/evvl6u

Trust and the media

16. Thinking about trust in institutions & the media. See: http://reportanerror.org & @ChangeTracker: http://j.mp/dEzAQw

17. RT @acarvin Same at NPR RT @drcarp Journalist participation in comments leads to reduced moderation and improved tone http://bit.ly/ex9FUx

Newsfoo Ignite

18. Inspired again by @acarvin at Ignite. http://crisiscommons.org http://twitpic.com/3d15em http://twitpic.com/3d15q2

19. You can watch @acarvin do an Ignite on the same topic/preso here now: http://oreil.ly/9ZIEMs

20. Great Ignite on Twitter metrics by @zseward. Bad: http://twitpic.com/3d1qtz Better: http://twitpic.com/3d1qzz

21. Interesting Ignite from the CEO of @peoplebrowsr. Another tool to try: http://research.ly http://twitpic.com/3d1w93

22. “Curiousity is the cartography that allows you to see more finely grained maps of the world”-@tristanharris

Sunday sessions

23. Good morning! Talking how media biz models might work in with FTC #DNTrack. Context: http://oreil.ly/igZJso

24. Reminded of how ugly black hat SEO spammers & fraudsters act online after disasters. http://usat.ly/88pYMk

25. Absolutely geeking out in this #scifi news session. @GreatDismal & Douglas Adams would dig. Geektastic: http://looxcie.com

26. Wonderful moment: “Let me plug a book: “The Victorian Internet'”-@sbma44 “I wrote it”-@tomstandage http://j.mp/QX4tS

27. Yes. @NiemanLab: http://bit.ly/9xFLft RT @tomstandage: Anyone else at #newsfoo interested in the Gutenberg Parenthesis?

28. Bit hard to leave the warm sun of Phoenix & brilliance of the #newsfoo community for DC. Good to debrief with @jsb @rbole @Hari & @pergam.

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Transparency Camp 2010: Government, Transparency, Open Data and Coffee

Some unconferences are codathons. Others focus on citizen engagement and Congress.

This weekend’s Transparency Camp in Washington, D.C. brought together technologists, journalists, developers, advocates for open data, open government and open data for discussions, case studies, workshops and even, as Micah Sifry put it, some secular colloquy.

Transparency Camp came at a time of immense foment in Washington and the country beyond. A historic healthcare reform had just been signed into law, including an overhaul of student loans. Midterm elections in Congress loom at the end of the year. And the nation’s economy continues towards an uncertain future, perhaps of  jobless recovery, after the Great Recession.

The Sunlight Foundation’s engagement director, Jake Brewer, kicked off the morning by asking how much had changed around government transparency since the last Transparency Camp. Make sure to read David “Oso” Sasaki’s notes from Transparency Camp for a superb narrative of his Saturday. (Sasaki is the Director of Rising Voices, a global citizen media outreach initiative of Global Voices Online.)

There have been no shortage of transparency wins over that time, as the video embedded below attests. Projects like Earmarkwatch.org,  OpenCongress.org or Punch Clock Map all show the potential for the Web to enable government transparency.

In 2010, there are more reasons to believe government transparency and open government will see more rapid advancement. As the co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation, Ellen Miller, pointed out in her introduction, there are more significant legislative efforts underway around transparency. The The Public Online Information Act (POIA), HR 4858, introduced by Rep. Steve Israel, would embraces a new formula for transparency: “public equals online.” And an omnibus ethics bill, HR 4983, would “amend the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the Rules of the House of Representatives, the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, and the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 to improve access to information in the legislative and executive branches.”

In looking at the role of this unconference in that context, the Director of Sunlight Labs, Clay Johnson, posed three big challenges for Transparency Camp:

  1. An Open Data Playbook. Clay described that as “an instruction manual for people inside government to teach them how to open their data
  2. A list of all jurisdictions and elected officials around the country
  3. A data exchange format for data catalogs, in a model like Google did with GTFS.

The success or failure of Transparency Camp can’t be measured by those metrics alone, however, although whether Johnson’s challenges are met by the community are absolutely part of the story of this weekend.


Identity and Government

Another excellent session at Transparency Camp came from Heather West and Kaliya Hamlin, aka @IdentityWoman. I had considerable context for their talk, given my coverage of OpenID and the Open Identity Exchange (OIX) and trust frameworks, specifically regarding the OIX trust framework as used for citizen-to-government authentication.

A key element of OIX, as Hamlin pointed out, was the standardization of online privacy principles promulgated though IDManagement.gov. Another important part of the identity picture is Microsoft’s release of part of the intellectual property for its U-Prove ID tokens under Open Specifcation, as detailed at credentica.com.

The Open Government Directive, Datasets and Data.gov

When the “three words” from the unconference were synthesized into a “Wordle” for Transparency Camp, four words emerged as the most powerful themes:

Open, government, transparency and, most of all, data.

The Open Government Directive (OGI) was a significant moment in American history, in terms of putting the data of operations into a format and venue where developers could access and parse it: data.gov.

Now that the resource is up, however, there are outstanding concerns about data quality, frequency and, most pertinently, utility. Andrew McLaughlin, the “Deputy Chief Nerd @ the White House” (aka deputy US chief technology officer), suggested that “to get reluctant agencies to embrace data sharing, focus on “high-reward”, not “high-value”, datasets.”

When asked if new guidance was needed, since “high-value datasets” for Data.gov are written into the OGI, McLaughlin responded that “some agencies will use a citizen-utility metric for prioritizing scarce resources. Others will focus on datasets that will are rapidly doable, to help overcome resistance and ease culture change. Both ways of defining “high-value” make sense.” The Venn diagram above illustrates how that might look.

McLaughlin also acknowledged a feature request for data.gov and apps.gov from the Transparency Camp community: more and better metadata, like data quality qualifiers or FISMA compliance status.

At the In Code We Trust: Open Government in New York

My favorite session for the day was a case study of open government featuring the New York Senate. With a nod to Lawrence Lessig, Noel Hidalgo, Sheldon Rampton and Mark Head showed precisely how law could be turned to code. I livestreamed “In Code We Trust” on uStream. After poor transparency ratings, a broad swath of changes to the New York state senate websites was implemented over the past year. New York was the first state senate to adopt Creative Commons for its intellectual property.

Photo Credit: Sheldon Rampton by Noel Hidalgo.]

The New York state senate is integrating open government with social media (see @NYSenate), live video, YouTube and code, at Github.com/NYSenateCIO. I saw Mark Heead, a developer, looked up a bill using the New York Senate API with an application on his smartphone. That API is behind a law browser for New York state legislation. The In Code We Trust Transparency Camp session is archived at uStream.

Health Information Technology

One of the basic principles of an unconference is the “law of two feet.” If you don’t like a session, you move. You own your own experience. Given that livestreamed parts of Transperency Camp, I also “voted with my feed,” moving my window to the Internet along with my body. After a session on the relationship of open government descended into somewhat unproductive discussion about open policy, I moved over to the healthcare information technology (HIT) session, which I recorded in part. Given the billions of dollars that will be flowing into healthcare IT over the next few years, as provisions of the Recovery Act are implemented, this was an important discussion.

Brian Behlendorf, a notable open source technologist, led the session. There’s now an Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT to direct action, available on the Web at HealthIT.gov or on Twitter at @ONC_HealthIT. As Andrew McLaughlin noted, Brian Ahier maintains a great blog on health IT, including details on how the healthcare reform bill affects HIT.

Local Government and the Digital Divide

Another excellent session featured discussions about how transparency is coming to people closer to home.

Literally.

OpenMuni.org provides some perspective on that effort. The Ideascale model of crowdsourced recommendations for better efficiency and governance has been applied to local government, at least in beta, at Localocracy. The first pilot has been put into action at Amherst, Massachusetts.

The local government session at Transparency Camp was also fortunate to have the D.C. CTO, Bryan Sivek, and staff from @octolabs present.

Sivek defined his role as integral to both enabling better services online, like the city resource request center at 311.dc.gov, finding efficiencies for government through IT, and in bringing more citizens the benefit of connectivity. He illuminated a yawning gap in Internet use, observing that “DC has a huge issue with the digital divide. In Wards 5, 7 and 8, 36% of the people are connected.”

One of the stories of the digital divide in D.C. is told at InternetForEveryone.com. The importance of offering technological resources to those without access at home was evidenced by recent research showing that nearly one third of the United States population uses public library computers for Internet access.

Bryan Sivek is  now looking for feedback on how to use technology better in the District, elements of which are evidenced at track.dc.gov.

Odds, Ends, Resources and Takeaways

I was reminded of a great travel resource, FlyOnTime.us, and learned about a new one for Washington, ParkItDC.com.

I wish the former existed for Amtrak.

I learned about data and visualizations of local campaign spending at FollowTheMoney.org and government transparency at OpenSecrets.org.

Most of all, I was reminded by how many brilliant, passionate and engaged people are working to improve government transparency and efficiency through technology, collaboration and advocacy.

The Flickr pool features many of the faces.

I look forward to learning more from others about what happened on day two of Transparency Camp.

Update: The Sunlight Foundation posted a video of Transparency Camp attendees on April 1.

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Tech delegation explores Siberia, looks for connection through digital diplomacy [#RusTechDel]

Delegations from the State Department to Russia haven’t generally been accompanied by  great fanfare. In an information age where a growing social layer for the Internet provides unprecedented means for people to share their experiences online, the progress of the “innovation delegation” through Moscow and Siberia has been marked by a steady progression of tweets, online video and photos.

This is, after all,  a group of “geek luminaries” that has considerable reach online and into popular culture. Unsurprisingly, the member of the tech delegation that’s attracted both the attention of mainstream media in the US and fans abroad is Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher brought with him more than 4.5 million followers as Twitter’s most-followed user (@aplusk) and, perhaps even more crucially, an iPhone equipped with a video camera and a uStream account.

The delegation is led by Jared Cohen of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning and Howard Solomon of the National Security Council. US Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra joined them in Moscow. They  are also traveling with:

“We’re trying to look at how Russia can utilize its population as a health resource, as an education resource, as an anti-corruption resource, as an anti-trafficking resource,” said Cohen, as quoted at Wired’s Epicenter blog.

According to Wired:

“the group hopes to emerge with clear deliverables. Women in remote areas could receive information — either online or using the SMS feature on their cellphones — on how to have healthy pregnancies. And in order to prevent Russian cellphone companies from being pressured into divulging the names and locations of those who report human-trafficking violations by SMS, the complaints could be cleaned and anonymized outside of the country, according to Cohen.

“The State Department is not bringing these people over as CEOs,” Cohen added. “John Donahoe is the CEO of eBay, but he’s also an expert on e-commerce and building platforms that move large sums of money in ways that aren’t corrupt, so he’s an expert on ‘e-anti-corruption.’”

The success of the mission hit at least one roadblock: Moscow traffic.

Despite tweeting about people, the ballet, the Kremlin, food and one another, the tech delegation was quiet about missing a meeting with Russia’s communications minister — and six Russian tech companies.

Other visits, at least viewed from through Kutcher’s livestream and Cohen’s able narration, have been more productive. Twitter gained another high profile user, after Jack helped Donahoe sign up on Twitter.


[http://www.flickr.com/photos/edyson/ / CC BY-NC 2.0]

Sometimes the best record of an event is in pictures of the delegation’s progress. Three of the pictures in this post  are from Esther Dyson’s Flickr photostream. While the tweets of delegation tell a tale, as do reactions from Russian students and the rest of the online audience, her pictures and captions is the most eloquent storytelling I’ve encountered to date.

Search engines and science

What’s the fastest growing search engine in the world? Apparently  Yandex.ru, as the delegates learned when they visited Yandex.ru headquarters. The Russian search engine has the fastest rate of growth in the world, according to Comscore. After we met on Twitter, Nick Wilsdon also shared statistics on Russia’s top social networksVKontakte.ru & Odnoklassniki.ru.

Students and social media

As with students elsewhere,  Russian students are using phones and social networking to exchange information. Warrior shared a picture of the students gathered at Novosibirsk on Twitter, tweeting about an “energizing chat w/ univ students, topics ranged from talent, innov., corruptin, beer pong.”

Given the return of state control of domestic television networks in Russia, the Internet’s role as a vital means of communication and global news has perhaps never been as acute.


What else will come of the “innovation delegation?”

Veterans of the Cold War might wonder why the U.S. or its entrepreneurs are offering advice or a forum to a former opponent. Even if the “missile gap” is a remnant of the past, Russian and U.S. relations haven’t been exactly sunny over the decades.

It may be that this delegation is a physical expression of the hopes that Hillary Clinton expressed in her speech on Internet freedom. And, in fact,  Jared Cohen tweeted the State Department’s  innovation delegation is  “an example of 21st century statecraft driven by Hillary Clinton.”

But putting concerns about aiding Russian industry aside, creating the conditions that make Silicon Valley or NYC fertile grounds for tech entrepreneurship won’t be easy. “We’re developing joint projects w/Russia on education, anti-trafficking, health, e-gov, anti-corruption using tech,” Cohen tweeted earlier today.

“Novosibirsk is Russia’s 4th largest city,” tweeted Cohen, “less than 100yrs old, Russia’s hub of innovation, & just northeast of India in middle of Siberia. [The] challenge in Siberia is not lack of innovation, but rather avenues for entrepreneurs to attract start-up capital.”

Giving young Russian entrepreneurs confidence about both patents and ownership of intellectual property would help, as would mentors. “I’ve been interested in Russia, working in computer science, engineering, mathematics for a long time,” said Dorsey in Novosibirsk. “Russia has been a major part of the story. I’ve found that there’s a real desire to create projects and an entrepreneurial spirit but not enough face to face discussion.”

Dorsey pointed out that the U.S. tech community regularly has meetups in Silicon Valley and New York City where the largest companies constantly invite people to come in. “When you have that supportive culture, it’s very easy to take risks,” he said. In Russia, Dorsey observed, “There’s not this desire, or a structure, or momentum, to get together and talk about what we want to create together. If you bring people who can fund this from the beginning, you start building angel networks, which are the basis for all innovation in the US these days.”

Desire, control of intellectual property and a tech community would be an incremental change on a larger continuum. As Fraser Cameron wrote in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has called for a number of reforms, including a return to elections and freedom.

Cameron points out that Putin “failed to encourage investment in new industries, technologies or infrastructure.” In that context, will access to Western angel investors or social media matter?

Or, to reiterate the questions I asked to the delegation last night:

What uses of tech do Russians admire in the US? Where could new ICT help there now? How important is free, open speech to stimulating a culture of innovation? What about the use of open source tech? (Listen in for answers in Kutcher’s archived streams.)

Kutcher (above, in his own Twitpic) evidently has gained some perspective, at least on the impact of state involvement. “My perception of Russia and Russian technologists was always based on Russia’s ability and interest in scientific achievement,” he said. “The one thing I’ve found since we’ve been here, without Russian government controlling the room, is that it becomes a much more vibrant, expressive room. My perception of control levels and the reality were two different things.”

Donahoe, former head of Bain & Company, had different considerations. He said that while he saw potential to expand eBay into Russia, it would be on the condition: that law enforcement and the Russian government cooperate on anti-cybercrime.

Donahoe was impressed by a number of experiences, particularly in a new view of Siberia. “There’s a wealth of talent, real opportunity to build on a tech center,” he said. “I’m truck by the talent of Russian engineers. They should continue to play a leadership role in the World Wide Web, as they have continued to do with Google, Paypal and  Skype.”

On techno-utopianism and digital diplomacy


[Photo Credit: Jarod Liebman]

The ability of social media platforms to provide a platform for conversations was repeatedly shown in 2009, particularly in Iran’s elections. As Jack said to ABC News, “when you can see more of what’s happening you can really see more of the opposition is arguing about and take those arguments head on and have a conversation about them.”

The same communication tools can and have, however, been used in “digital dictatorships,” as Evgeny Morosov wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. Rita J. King’s considered rebuttal in the “The Evolution of Revolution,” pointing out where digital diplomacy has had effect.

Cohen’s own involvement in the Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) conferences would seem to extend from a similar belief in the potential for 21st Century statecraft.

Some of the most important interactions, after all, are likely to always be in person. As Jack tweeted, “having lunch together is so much more important to creating something than a business meeting -@edyson.”

The role of ICT



[Yuri Marin of Samizdal.ru, a self-publishing/printing site in Novosibirsk. Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/edyson/ / CC BY-NC 2.0]

As I listened to the discussions with Russian technologists about what could be done to improve innovation, particularly for civic gain, I thought of a long post that MIT Professor Andrew McAfee posted earlier this month on information and communication technologies (ICT).

As he wrote in “The Oxygen of Bandwidth, or How I Spent My Winter Vacation,” “researchers report that people in the developing world are willing to skip meals in order to buy more bandwidth.”

McAfee’s advice for helping the people of the developing world is simple: “Help them acquire technology that lets them help themselves, and that lets others help them. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: give them the ICT tools, and they will finish the job.”

Mitigating the dangers of journalism in Russia isn’t likely any time soon., but given Russia’s technological base, many of its engineers, students and scientists are equipped with the ability to create such tools already.

Whether this trip will create avenues for better communication, investment in startups or anti-corruption is an open question. It’s one of many that the delegates themselves will no doubt continue to answer in the days ahead.

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