Tag Archives: open government

Are online petitions the next step in e-democracy or an e-exercise in futility?

At noon today, I’m going to be on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU, DC’s local NPR station, to talk about the power of online petitions.

What do you think of them, in general? Have you signed one or more? Why? What outcomes have petitions created at Avaaz or Change.org had? What about White House e-petitions? What about e-petitions in the UK or in other countries? If you have comments on these questions or relevant research, please let me know in the comments or email me at alex [at] oreilly.com.

On one of those counts, I’ve linked up some relevant reading below on the White House e-petitions platform, “We The People,” which has been getting much more mainstream media attention in recent months. (The response to an e-petition to build a Death Star, at least, was epic.)

1. Jim Snider, White House’s ‘We The People’ Petitions Find Mixed Success, NPR’s All Things Considered, January 3, 2013.

2. Micah Sifry: How We The People could help form a more perfect union, TechPresident, 2012

3. Jim Snider: The White House’s We The People Petition Website: First Year Report Card, Huffington Post, September 23, 2012.

4. Jim Snider: The Case of the Missing White House Petitions, Huffington Post, October 31, 2011.

5. Nick Judd: Is the White House doing enough for We The People?, TechPresident, November 2, 2011.

6. Jim Snider: What Is the Democratic Function of the White House’s We The People Petition Website?, Huffington Post, October 20, 2011

7. Jim Snider: The White House’s New We the People Petition Website, Huffington Post, October 31, 2011

8. Alex Howard: White House launches e-petitions, National Journal, September 10, 2011

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“This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For”

The official response from The White House to the epetition to create a Death Star is, in Internet terms, epic.

By turns geeky, funny, informative about U.S. space programs, and unabashedly supportive of science and technology education, the response to a popular petition on the “We The People” e-petition platform instantly entered the annals of online government history this Friday night.

“The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon,” wrote Paul Shawcross, Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“Here are a few reasons:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it. 
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets. 
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?” 

However, look carefully (here’s how) and you’ll notice something already floating in the sky — that’s no Moon, it’s a Space Station! Yes, we already have a giant, football field-sized International Space Station in orbit around the Earth that’s helping us learn how humans can live and thrive in space for long durations. The Space Station has six astronauts — American, Russian, and Canadian — living in it right now, conducting research, learning how to live and work in space over long periods of time, routinely welcoming visiting spacecraft and repairing onboard garbage mashers, etc. We’ve also got two robot science labs — one wielding a laser– roving around Mars, looking at whether life ever existed on the Red Planet.

Keep in mind, space is no longer just government-only. Private American companies, through NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO), are ferrying cargo — and soon, crew — to space for NASA, and are pursuing human missions to the Moon this decade.

Even though the United States doesn’t have anything that can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, we’ve got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we’re building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun. We are discovering hundreds of new planets in other star systems and building a much more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that will see back to the early days of the universe.

We don’t have a Death Star, but we do have floating robot assistants on the Space Station, a President who knows his way around a light saber and advanced (marshmallow) cannon, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is supporting research on building Luke’s arm, floating droids, and quadruped walkers.

We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field. The President has held the first-ever White House science fairs and Astronomy Night on the South Lawn because he knows these domains are critical to our country’s future, and to ensuring the United States continues leading the world in doing big things.

If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star’s power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

Paul Shawcross is Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget

When White House director of digital strategy Macon Phillips replied to a tweeted question about an outstanding petition on open access, he proved his Star Wars bonafides with a echo of Yoda’s unusual grammar.

This Star Wars fan is glad to have hilarity to share on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on the power of online epetitions on WAMU next Tuesday.

Photo Credit: Noel Dickover, Carving the Death Star Pumpkin

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INTERVIEW: What is Government 2.0? Why does it matter?

I sat down for an interview with the “Don’t Worry About The Government” folks earlier today to talk about government as a platform, open data and more. (Bonus: I’m still sporting my summer beard from Maine.)

The interview request was triggered by my post on whether government innovation can rise above partisan politics. In an ideal world — which we of course do not live in — this presidential election would focus more upon what role government should or should play in our society, at the city, state and federal level, and whether and how we the people should finance it.

Over the last century in the United States, the size of the federal government has grown immensely, from entitlement programs (Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security) to the immense defense budget. Technology provides new opportunities to both save taxpayers dollars and detect and prevent corruption and fraud, but the larger question of the role government itself should play in society is one that should occupy more of the national conversation, frankly, than Representatives skinny dipping on foreign trips, campaign trail gaffes or the latest celebrity foibles.

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Less TV, more Internet: First White House Google Plus Hangout features real questions from citizens

Today, more than a quarter of a million people* watched the first Presidential Google Hangout with President +Barack Obama from +The White House.  The archived video, below, comes courtesy of  Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa, whose shared his review of President Obama’s first Hangout at Reuters.com. For the best reporting I’ve seen on the participants and questions, read Sarah Lai Stirland on President Obama’s Hangout.

My immediate takeaway? The forum featured real questions on significant issues, with genuine citizen-president interactions, with back and forth conversation. That was precisely the promise of the platform that I considered ahead of time, when I asked whether a Google+ Hangout could bring the president closer to the citizens he serves.

Earlier in the afternoon, I joined Google’s Daniel Sieberg on our own Google+ Hangout to talk about the potential impact that online video, hangouts, and live broadcasts between citizens and their elected officials could have on the political landscape.

The moderator, Google’s Steve Grove, gave the participants (2 men, 2 women and one classroom of young people) the opportunity to follow up on their questions to the president. There will be much more analysis of the questions asked and the president’s answers tonight, as there should be.

Here’s a quick recap, distilled from my notes: The forum began with a video question to the president about promoting a living wage for students working their way through college. The second question came from the Hangout, on why the White House doesn’t expand expanded H1B visas for foreign workers at the expense of skilled labor with the U.S. President Obama told the wife of a semiconductor engineer (who asked the latter question and, critically, got to follow up in the Hangout) if she sent him her husband’s resume, he’d be happy to find what’s happening.

One could dismiss it as pandering — or celebrate it as a citizen cutting through the morass of bureaucracy to tell the nation’s chief executive that the system wasn’t working as he said it should. Such followups in the Hangout are what made this different than the past YouTube and White House interviewed. Politico talked to Jennifer Wedel, of Forth Worth, Texas, who asked the question during the presidential Hangout:

“I’ll have to take you up on that,” Wedel said of the president’s offer to help her husband, Darin, who lost his job at Texas Instruments three years ago.

Later, Wedel told POLITICO that she and the president had a “pretty crazy interaction” that she hadn’t expected when she asked about the federal government granting H-1B visas to skilled foreign workers while U.S. citizens such as her husband are out of work.

“I don’t think he was trying to be condescending or anything,” said Wedel, who never completed college and was a stay-at-home mom before her husband was laid off, but now has a full-time job at State Farm to help make ends meet. “I just think I stumped him a little and he wanted me to hush about it.”

“I think he knows pretty well that the H-1B is an issue because — it’s kind of like the Occupy movement — big corporations are putting up the money to get the visas” and choosing lower-paid foreign workers over domestic ones, Wedel said. “I don’t think what he was telling me was true, and I think he knew it, and that’s why he offered to take my husband’s resume,” she said, adding that her husband has kept it updated.

Another question from YouTube featured a video taken from an #Occupy protester in Portland. A question taken from within the White House Hangout asked about the president’s plans to help small business and to restructure government, which the Washington Post covered this month.

Another question posed within the Hangout about a lack of dialogue with children about the financial crisis offered the president a human moment, where he said that he tries to explain what’s happened with economy to his daughters over the dinner table.

There were incontrovertibly tough questions asked tonight, including one from a homeless veteran who asked why the U.S. is sending money to Pakistan and places that are known to give money to terrorism. In answer, the president said that the U.S. only spends 1% of its budget on foreign aid, and that it pays off in a lot of ways as part of the country’s national security strategy. What we don’t want is countries to collapse, have to send in our guys at huge potential risk and cost to taxpayers, he said.

The President was asked a video question from YouTube that cited a New York Times story on the use of drones in Iraq, which the president called “overwritten. The drones have not caused an unusual number of civilian casualties, he said, stating that it was a targeted focused effort aimed at Al Queda, not for other purposes.

I was personally glad to see that Grove asked a question on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), noting that both were hot within the YouTube community. Needless to say, that part of the transcript will be carefully analyzed by the people whose collective online action changed Washington.

We need to use tools we have, he said, noting recent takedown action by the Justice Department. At the same time, when SOPA came up on the hill, said the President, “we expressed some concerns about the way the legislation had been written.”  Now, he said, the content and server sides need to come together for strong IP protections that preserve basic architecture of the Internet.

While the top-rated question was asked, concerning the extradition of a British national, there were no questions posted about legalizing marijuana, which once again rose to the top of CitizenTube (perhaps Grove and his colleagues at YouTube felt it had been asked enough?) nor any question was asked about the National Defense Reauthorization Act, which many other users on YouTube wanted to see addressed.

UPDATE: When I followed up with Grove on Google+ about the process behind the questions, he made the following comment:

We chose the questions from among the top-voted questions on YouTube… it’s always a fun challenge to ensure you get a broad range of issues and perspectives into these discussions from amongst the top-voted questions, but I hope people feel that we did a good job of listening to community votes. We asked several of the top-voted questions, including the #1 voted question on YouTube. Some people asked why we didn’t ask about marijuana legalization… as an FYI, we asked the President about it last year (see here: Drug Policy – President Obama’s YouTube Interview 2011).

As far as the hangout participants, we also selected them based off of the questions they had submitted to YouTube — again looking for a range of Americans… that part had to happen a little earlier during the submission process, so we could prepare for the Hangout today.

President Barack Obama participates in an interview with YouTube and Google+ to discuss his State of the Union Address, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 30, 2012. The interview was held through a Google+ Hangout, making it the first completely virtual interview from the White House. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama participates in an interview with YouTube and Google+ to discuss his State of the Union Address, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 30, 2012. The interview was held through a Google+ Hangout, making it the first completely virtual interview from the White House. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Overall, I can honestly say that we saw something new in the intersection of government, technology and society. From where I sat, plugged in within the Sunlight Foundation, it felt like a good thing, not just for the White House or the president’s campaign or Google (although all certainly benefitted) but for the promise of the Internet to more directly connect public officials to those that they serve, with all of their real problems, concerns, doubts and fears.

At the end of the event, there was a moment of unexpected human connection, when one of the women on the hangout invited her three children to come meet the president.

They stared and smiled, left a bit wide eyed by the President of the United States smiling out of the computer screen and bidding them to obey their mother and do their homework. We could do with more wonder in the world, where such unexpected encounters occur online.

Viewership estimate via Google’s Steve Grove, who said at the end of the netcast that a quarter of a million people were watching on YouTube. Given the White House’s own livestream, the number could be higher.

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Senator Reid postpones vote on PROTECT IP Act, Romney and Gingrich come out against SOPA

This morning, Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said in a statement today that he will postpone next week’s vote on the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). Update: Rep. Lamar Smith followed with a statement that he would also halt consideration of SOPA. This is a historic victory for the Internet community. Collectively, millions of people rose up and told Washington that these bills shall not pass.

An unprecedented day of online protests over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives and the PIPA in the U.S. Senate and the resulting coverage on cable and broadcast news networks had an effect.

“Senator Reid made the right decision in postponing next week’s vote on PIPA,” said Center for Democracy and Technology president Leslie Harris. “It’s time for a hard reset on this issue. We need a thoughtful and substantive process that includes all Internet stakeholders. We need to take a hard look at the facts and find solutions that honor the Internet’s openness and its unique capacity for innovation and free expression. We are thankful for the efforts of Senator Ron Wyden who from the beginning stood against this bill; his early opposition and leadership gave voice to the important concerns of the Internet community.”

Wikipedia, Google, BoingBoing, Reddit, O’Reilly Media and thousands of other blogs asked their communities to take a stand and contact Washington.

“The amazing thing is that the power of these networks delivered,” wrote David Binetti in TechCrunch. “By the end of the day, 25 Senators — including at least 5 former co-sponsors of the bill — had announced their opposition to SOPA. Think about that for just a second: A well-organized, well-funded, well-connected, well-experienced lobbying effort on Capitol Hill was outflanked by an ad-hoc group of rank amateurs, most of whom were operating independent of one another and on their spare time. Regardless where you stand on the issue — and effective copyright protection is an important issue — this is very good news for the future of civic engagement.”

I concur with that last point. Last night, we finally saw one of the most important questions about the future of the Internet and society asked in a presidential debate: all four GOP candidates for the presidential nomination came out against SOPA at the CNN debate.

As shown by ProPublica’s excellent SOPA Tracker, SOPA and PIPA now have 122 opponents in the House and Senate, four times as many as on Monday.

These bills are not “dead,” no matter what headlines you read today, although I can now say with some confidence that they will not pass in their current form. There are ongoing negotiations to redraft them, cutting DNS filtering provisions or search engine blocks in an effort to make them acceptable to technology companies like Google.

While the Internet mattered this week, it’s important to recognize that but for the efforts of Senator Ron Wyden, Rep. Darrell Issa, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Rep. Jared Polis and Rep. Zoe Logren, I believe SOPA and PIPA would likely have passed. Senator Wyden put a critical hold on the PROTECT IP Act after it sailed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Those representatives proposed dozens of amendments to SOPA in a marathon, days-long markup session that effectively filibustered the bill, delayed it until the House came back into session in January. That delay enabled hundreds of organizations and individuals, including newspaper editors, human rights advocates, academics, engineers and public interest groups, to rally to save the Internet as we know it.

“Supporters of the Internet deserve credit for pressing advocates of SOPA and PIPA to back away from an effort to ram through controversial legislation,” Issa said in an emailed statement. “Over the last two months, the intense popular effort to stop SOPA and PIPA has defeated an effort that once looked unstoppable but lacked a fundamental understanding of how Internet technologies work.

“Postponing the Senate vote on PIPA removes the imminent threat to the Internet, but it’s not over yet. Copyright infringement remains a serious problem and any solution must be targeted, effective, and consistent with how the Internet works. After inviting all stakeholders to help improve American intellectual property protections, I have introduced the bipartisan OPEN Act with Senator Rob Wyden which can be read and commented on at KeepTheWebOPEN.com. It is clear that Congress needs to have more discussion and education about the workings of the Internet before it moves forward on sweeping legislation to address intellectual property theft on the Internet. I look forward to working with my colleagues and stakeholders to achieve a needed consensus about the way forward.”

In the meantime, everyone who participated in this week’s unprecedented day of online action should know that what they did this week mattered. If you’d asked me about the prospects for the passage of these bills back in December — and many people did, after I wrote a feature at Radar in November that highlighted the threat these anti-piracy bills presented to the Internet, security and freedom of expression online — I estimated that it was quite likely. So did Chris Dodd, the head of the MPAA, who told the New York Times that these passage of these bills was “considered by many to be a ‘slam dunk.'”

We’re now in unexplored territory. I’ve been writing about how the Internet affects government and government affects the Internet for years now. This week was clearly a tipping point in that space. The voices of the people, expressed in calls, letters, tweets, petitions and protests, were heard in Washington. There are incredibly difficult challenges that face us as a country and as a global community, from jobs to healthcare to the environment to civil liberties to smoldering wars around the world. What happened this week, however, will reinvigorate the notion that participating in the civic process matters. Here’s to working on stuff that matters, together.

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Looking Back: The Best Interviews of 2010 [VIDEO]

2010 was full of amazing stories and experiences, both personal and professional. I’m grateful for the many opportunities I had speak to brilliant, fascinating people about technology, government, media and civil society. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my interviews this year, many of which were captured on video. Some were filmed with my iPhone 4, others with a Canon 110si, others by O’Reilly Media’s professional video team after I joined the company as its new Gov 2.0 Washington Correspondent.

Regardless of the quality of light, image or sound, each interview taught me something new, and I’m proud they’re all available on the Web to the public. The list below isn’t exhaustive, either. There are easily a dozen other excellent interviews on my channel on YouTube, O’Reilly Media’s YouTube channel, uStream and Livestream. Thank you to each and every person who took time to talk to me this past year.

20. Professor Fred Cate on electronic privacy protections and email

19. Google Open Advocate Chris Messina on Internet freedom

18. Foursquare Creator Dennis Crowley on the NASA Tweetup and #IVoted

17. Co-Chairman of the Future of Privacy Forum Jules Polonetsky

16. NASA CTO Chris Kemp on cloud computing and open source

15. Portland Mayor Sam Adams on open data

14. Former Xerox Chief Scientist and PARC Director John Seely Brown on education

13. NPR’s Andy Carvin on CrisisWiki

12. ISE Founder Claire Lockhart on government accountability

11. Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior on the evolution of smarter cities

10. Ushahidi Co-Founder Ory Okolloh on crowdsourcing

9. Senator Kate Lundy on Gov 2.0 in Australia

8. Intellipedia: Moving from a culture of “need to know” to “need to share” using wikis

7. ESRI Co-Founder Jack Dangermond on mapping

6. Sunlight Foundation Co-Founder Ellen Miller on Open Government

5. HHS CTO Todd Park on Open Health Data

4. FCC Tech Cast with Expert Lab’s Gina Trapani

3. Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak on the Open Internet

2. United States CTO Aneesh Chopra on Open Government

1. Tim Berners-Lee on Open Linked Data

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What is Gov 2.0? Carl Malamud putting the SEC online in 1993.

What is government 2.0?

Some days, it seem like there are as many definitions for Gov 2.0 as there are people. Tim O’Reilly says Gov 2.0 is all about the platform. In many ways, Gov 2.0 could be usefully described as putting government in your hands. And in three weeks, people will come from all around the world to learn more about what’s happening in the crucible of people, technology and government at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington.

I’m looking forward to the event and have been enjoying writing about many of its constituencies in the Gov 2.0 section of O’Reilly RadarThe Huffington PostReadWriteWeb and Mashable.

As I’ve previously observed in writing about language, government 2.0, jargon and technology, I believe the term should be defined primarily by its utility to helping citizens or agencies solve problems, either for individuals or the commons. Defining it in gauzy paeans evangelizing world-shaking paradigm shifts from the embrace of social media by politicians isn’t helpful on that level. That’s particularly when they’re broadcasting, not having conversations that result in more agile government.

Earlier this morning, I was reminded again of the history of the movement in the United States when, through serendipity, I ended up watching the first few minutes of Tim O’Reilly’s webcast, “What is Gov 2.0?” I participated in the webcast when it premiered this spring but was struck again by a particular vignette:

“The first person who really put Gov 2.0 on my radar was Carl Malamud. Carl is really the father of this movement in so many ways. Back in 1993, that’s pretty darn early in the history of the World Wide Web, he put the SEC online.

He got a small planning grant from the  National Science Foundation, which he used to actually license the data, which at that point the SEC was licensing to big companies.

He got some servers from Eric Schmidt, who was the chief technology at Sun. And he basically put all this data he’d gotten from the SEC online, and he operated that for something like two years, and then he donated it to the federal government.

Carl’s idea was that it really mattered for the public to have access to SEC data.”

He still does.

Just look at PublicResource.org, which is dedicated to making information more accessible. Consider his years of working towards Law.gov, which would provide access to the raw materials of our democracy.

For even more backstory, read more about his work as “Washington’s I.T. Guy” in the American Prospect.

Here’s what the SEC wrote about the effort in 1996.

The Commission would like to extend its appreciation to Carl Malamud and Brad Burdick of Internet Multicasting Service. We would also like to express our thanks to Ajit Kambil and Mark Ginsburg of New York University, Stern School (http://edgar.stern.nyu.edu). Operating under a grant from the National Science Foundation for the past two years, IMS/NYU have been providing the EDGAR database to the public via the Internet as a pilot program. It has been an unquestioned success and has provided a significant public service. After the grant came to an end on October 1, 1995, the SEC decided to continue making the vast EDGAR database available to the public from an SEC facility. In addition to the EDGAR data, the Commission has also made available numerous investor guides, Commission reports, and other securities-related information. Much more will evolve from this initial service in the coming months.

Today, I found it notable to be reminded that Malamud was supported by the future CEO of Google in getting the SEC online. That’s the sort of public-private partnership that has substance beyond a buzzword, like his FedFlix effort to digitize films and videos produced by the government,

If you’re interested in Gov 2.0 and open government, the entire webcast with Tim is about 51 minutes long but well worth the time.

If you have some time, I highly recommend it for perspective on the history of Gov 2.0 and insight into what could be possible in the future.

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