Category Archives: government 2.0

On Moderation

The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws abridging the freedom of speech and generally has been interpreted to apply to state and local governments. In my experience, it does not provide untrammeled rights for an individual to say anything, at any time, in any context. The First Amendment also does not apply to a community on Facebook which was created and maintained by a private individual.

There are many public spaces and contexts in America where moderation by judges, speakers, teachers and other community leaders leading discussions can and must make decisions about speech.

To put it another way, moderation is not the antithesis of open government.

Many parliamentary procedures are based upon Robert’s Rules of Order, which require whomever is leading the meeting to effectively serve as a moderator, wielding a mighty big gavel.

Courtrooms are moderated by a judge, who maintains order in the court. Town halls are conducted by mayors, councils and/or media, all of whom serve as moderators. Classrooms and libraries are moderated by teachers and librarians, who lay out rules for participation and use that enable all students and members of a community to have the opportunity to learn and participate.

In each context, there are rules and consequences. People in a courthouse may be held in contempt after sufficient outbursts. If someone keeps making off-topic comments at microphone at a town hall, for instance, a town councilor running a meeting might ask him or her to answer the question that was posed or to cede the space. Students who insult other students or the teacher, interrupt a class, answer questions with off-topic subjects or threaten others with violence are asked to leave a class — or even suspended or expelled.

In online forums, I think a team of moderators who rotate and adjudicate decisions based on a transparent set of rules would be appropriate. I generally think of the blogs and communities I maintain as classrooms and moderate accordingly.

As the creator and moderator of the Google Plus Open Government & Civic Technology community, I’ve been faced with decisions every week since I clicked it into life, including removing posts or, unfortunately, sometimes banning users. Spam has been an ongoing challenge. I’ve shared my own standards for communication moderation online, which inform how I handle comments on social media and blogs in general

It’s critical for online forum creators and moderators to be clear about the expectations for members of a community, from topical focus to frequency of postings to commercial content to behavior towards others, and to act transparently to address the concerns of those communities. It’s not easy, as we’ve seen on Wikipedia or Reddit or blog comments, but if we’re going to have any hope of fostering civic dialogue online, it’s critical that we all figure it out together, building better tools and models that neither amplify the loudest voices in the chat room nor chill voices speaking truth to power than need to be heard.

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The White House Has Working WiFi!

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In the nearly 7 years I’ve lived and worked in Washington, finding working wifi has been a constant battle around the District. Yesterday, I was astonished and elated to find a working, robust wireless network operating in the basement of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House.

This shouldn’t be that exciting in 2016, but it was, and remains so, particularly in the basement theater that’s a deadzone for cell phones. I’ve gotten online there in past years but rarely without difficulty or disruption.

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Functional White House wifi enabled the people at the forum I attended to get online to share what they were experiencing, including participating in the online backchannel on Twitter and uploading selfies. This was the first time I’ve been asked to take a selfie with strangers at the White House. As precedents go, it’s not earthshaking, but it’s an interesting reflection of our wired moment.

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It’s taken the Obama administration most of two terms to upgrade this aspect of White House’s IT infrastructure — when staff showed up in 2009, they found computers still running Windows 98 — but they’re leaving the place better than they found it.

My favorite public place to log onto a public wireless network, however, still remains the House Public network in “the People’s House” in the Rayburn Office Building.

Creative anti-#sopa activism in the wifi options in the hearing overflow room.

A photo posted by Alex Howard (@digiphile) on Nov 16, 2011 at 7:21am PST

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White House goes direct on Instagram in advance of “Zillow Town Hall”

Tomorrow, President Barack Obama will be answering questions about housing during a live event with Zillow. Today, President Obama went directly to Instagram to ask the American people for questions about housing.

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In some ways, this is old hat. The source for the questions, after all, is the same as it has been many times over the past five years: social media. As I commented on Tumblr, five years into this administration, it would be easy to let these sorts of new media milestones at the White House go unremarked. That would be a mistake.

The novelty in the event tomorrow lies in two factors:

1) The White House is encouraging people to ask the president questions using the #AskObamaHousing hashtag on Twitter, Zillow’s Facebook page or with their own “instavideo” on Instagram.

2) It’s being hosted by Yahoo! and Zillow, a online real estate market place that has been a prominent supporter of the administration’s open data efforts.

As for Tuesday at 5:50 PM ET, there were only around a dozen videos tagged with #AskObamaHousing on Instagram, so if you have a good one, the odds are (relatively) decent for it to be posed. (Twitter, by contrast, is much livelier.)

Such informal, atomized mobile videos are now a growing part of the landscape for government and technology, particularly in an age when the people formerly known as the audience have more options to tune in or tune out of broadcast programming. If the White House is looking to engage younger Americans in a conversation about, Instagram is an obvious place to turn.

Today, politicians and government officials need to go where the People are. Delivering effective answers to their questions regarding affordable housing in a tough economy will be harder, however, than filming a 15 second short.

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Hi! Click here to stop from getting phished on Twitter

Today, Twitter finally started rolling out dual-factor authentication for its users. Twitter will allow users to use text messaging to a mobile phone to confirm their identity upon log-in.

In a post and accompanying video on the company blog, Twitter product security team member Jim O’Leary (@jimeo) explained how Twitter’s version of 2-factor authentication will work:

…when you sign in to twitter.com, there’s a second check to make sure it’s really you. After you enroll in login verification, you’ll be asked to enter a six-digit code that we send to your phone via SMS each time you sign in to twitter.com.

To get started, visit your account settings page, and select the option “Require a verification code when I sign in”. You’ll need a confirmed email address and a verified phone number. After a quick test to confirm that your phone can receive messages from Twitter, you’re ready to go.

Twitter has lagged behind Google, Microsoft, Facebook and institutions that allow online banking in providing this additional layer of protection. It’s showed: Twitter has been plagued by phishing scams for years.

Recently, however, high profile hacks of Twitter accounts at the Associated Press, the Financial Times and The Onion have put more focus on adding this feature. As Twitter adds more e-commerce deals and becomes more integrated into politics and business, improving security will only become more important.

Today’s announcement is a much-needed improvement. Here’s hoping it gets rolled out quickly to the hundreds of millions of users who can’t get someone at Twitter on the phone after they clicked on the wrong link.

Hat tip: The Verge

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On Corrections: Why fixing the rough draft of history matters

Last week, Slate published my article on a recent executive order on open data issued by President Obama. Unfortunately, it contained an error, which has since been corrected.
After an alert reader commented on the article, I responded with a clarification of the history. That didn’t address the integrity of the article itself, however, and since the editors had heard from another reader, I sent in a correction.
Unfortunately, I elided a rich and compelling history into a few short sentences and apologize for any misunderstanding that readers of the syndicated version may take away. I regret the error.
I ran the correction by Craig Silverman, of Poynter’s excellent “Regret the Error” blog, who generally gave high marks to the approach taken here and suggested that I tweet it out. (Done.)
For those interested in the backstory and some thoughts on corrections, read on.
Originally, the piece suggested that President John Quincy Adams agreed with Naval Observatory Superintendant Matthew Fontaine Maury about the importance of collecting and publishing astronomical data and implied that that the Naval Observatory was endowed after the publication of Maury’s book, in 1955.
Searching on the road, I found some useful history on John Quincy Adams, the Smithsonian bequest and the founding Naval Observatory. (Thank you, Google!) Here’s the correction I sent in:
While Adams signed a bill to create a national observatory before leaving office in 1829, it wasn’t until 1830 that a “Depot of Charts and Instruments” was created by the Secretary of the Navy. This eventually became the U.S. Naval Observatory, a decade later.
The institution was funded by Congress 1842, in no small part due to the efforts of President John Quincy Adams, who served for nearly two decades in Congress after he left the White House. Adams was perhaps the Naval Observatory’s strongest contemporary political supporter and spent considerable time there with Maury, looking up at the stars.
So, that’s the history, replete with interesting details (a former president …serving in Congress! Funding scientific research and infrastructure in the 19th century!) and retrieved from the side of the road using a mobile device and network that I imagine both Maury and Adams would marvel at on many levels.
If it seems like I’m taking extra time on this, understand that it’s because I believe corrections really matter. I’ve written thousands of articles and tens of thousands of tweets over the past 7 years, the vast majority of which haven’t needed to be fixed.
Whenever there has been an error of fact, omission, broken links or misattribution, I’ve been deeply grateful for alert readers who let me know via email, phone, tweets and comments about the issue. Online communities that care enough about the source material to comment are valuable, both on their own and to me.
I don’t like being wrong and, candidly, experience embarrassment or even shame when I err. When I do make mistakes — and it’s inevitable that it will happen — I appreciate hearing about error from the networks of people in my life and am glad to fix it. I hope that doing so builds trust, particularly at a time our faith in institutions of all sorts is at historic lows.
Please keep those corrections coming.

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Some context and perspective on open data journalism

This afternoon, I gave a talk on open data journalism at the Developing the Caribbean Conference at the University of the West Indies, Mona in Jamaica. The diGJamaica liveblog captured the discussion. Video may be available later. For now, my presentation is embedded below, with many links inside of it.

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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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