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July 26 2010

13:18

What if there are no secrets?

Is no secret safe?

That’s the moral to the Wikileaks war log story: you never know what might be leaked. Of course, that itself is nothing new: Whenever we reveal information to even one person, we risk it being spread. The ethic of confidentiality (and privacy) rests with the recipient of that information.

So what’s new now? There are more means to get information since it is pooled and digital. There are more means to share information; Daniel Ellsberg had to go through media to spread his Pentagon Papers while Wikileak chose to go through media so they could add value (perspective and attention) but didn’t have to. And there are new means to stay anonymous in the process.

I’m writing a book arguing that we are becoming more public and that’s good — and that institutions (government, companies) have no choice but to live up to our new standards of transparency and openness. But I am also examining when transparency goes too far.

Is the Wikileaks story an example of crossing a line? First, we have to ask where the line should be. I think it has to move so that our default, especially in government, is transparency. Rather than asking what should be made public we should ask why something should be kept private. Imagine if all government information and actions were public except matters of security and personal and private identification. There will be pressure to head there.

I make the mistake of thinking that we’ll navigate toward openness via rational and critical discussion. But we’ll more likely move the line because of purposeful subversion of the line like Wikileaks’. The line will be move by force.

Now that they’ve made the war log public, it makes us examine the impact.

We need to ask whether the knowledge that anything written down could be made public will cause less to be written — and we lose information in the long run. That is my concern about efforts to make *all* government communication, including person-to-person email, permanent and public. I imagine that people will stop saying important things in email and instead pick up the phone and we lose the record.

We need to ask whether an ethic of transparency can be expected when leakers can be anonymous and their leaks swift.

We need to ask whether the government would have been better off making more public so that the leaker’s selective publication does not solely set the agenda and the government is stuck reacting.

In the war logs, we are learning things we should know. It’s the leakers — Wikileaks and its three media outlets — who are deciding what not to make public (with some consultation, post-leak, from government) and what should be open. So government loses the ability to decide secrets. Now leakers do. Which side do we trust to decide?

The sane response to leaks, I think, is to open up as much as possible. Then there’s nothing to leak except the things that shouldn’t be leaked. If we had the faith that we knew more, there’d be fewer leaks, fewer reasons to.

I don’t think this is an inexorable process of opening everything, of making no secret safe. As much as I advocate transparency, I don’t advocate that. But when you don’t know how many secrets there are, when there are too many secrets, then everything can be a leak — in Afghanistan or in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless government and business take on a credible and complete ethic of transparency, they will hand over the job of transparency to leakers and no secret is safe.

: MORE: Many notes from Jay Rosen here: “I don’t have the answer; I don’t even know if I have framed the right problem.”

July 14 2010

01:51

No American BBC

I just don’t understand Columbia University’s apparent obsession with handing over portions of the press to government subsidy, giving up on the free market. I haven’t given up on it. Have you?

The latest raised palm comes from Columbia President Lee Bollinger in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal, of all places. This could send BBC-hater Rupert Murdoch to his grave so he can spin there. Bollinger proposes that we start an American BBC by pooling (merging?) the resources of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, PBS, and NPR.

He repeats the old saw that American media is already government subsidized. Except postal subsidies are meaningless as print and the post office decline. Legal ads should be going to the web for free to save taxpayers money anyway. I wish PBS and NPR did not rely on any government money so it would not be put under government pressure and could operate with true independence. And I do think broadcast spectrum should be sold so it is not seen as public airwaves (broadcast itself becoming meaningless) and so it is not subject to government censorship (see today’s victory for the First Amendment).

Bollinger argues that we’re getting the BBC thanks to the British taxpayer. Well, yes, the BBC has funded its world service for years to extend its empire; their choice. But I pay a fee on Sirius to hear them. And its TV channels in the U.S. are ad-supported, as is its web site. As BBC budgets are attacked by the Tories, I’d say it’s more likely our marketing economy will subsidize their free news — if Murdoch doesn’t stop them.

When Columbia presented its plan to save journalism — which included government subsidy — I had this discussion with Bollinger and he pointed out that I am subsidized by government as a professor at a state university. Touché. But I’d rather raise money to support my work from foundations and companies and revenue-generating activities. “Indeed,” Bollinger writes in the Journal, “the most problematic funding issues in academic research come from alliances with the corporate sector.”

Bollinger then questions the editorial integrity of the American press he wants to save, saying: “To take a very current example, we trust our great newspapers to collect millions of dollars in advertising from BP while reporting without fear or favor on the company’s environmental record only because of a professional culture that insulates revenue from news judgment.” Who has mishandled BP more — the press or the government?

Shockingly, he mentions as models of state-supported media, not just the BBC but also China’s CCTV and Xinhua news and Qatar’s Al Jazeera. In what sane world is the Chinese government’s relationship with news a model. What would Google do?

Bollinger suggests taking down the prohibition on beaming propaganda broadcasters VoA and RFE into the U.S. “This system needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters,” Bollinger concludes. “The goal would be an American broadcasting system with full journalistic independence that can provide the news we need. Let’s demonstrate great journalism’s essential role in a free and dynamic society.”

I think we can demonstrate and build that independence by teaching tomorrow’s journalists to build strong, sustainable, and independent businesses. We just disagree.

June 25 2010

18:21

FNCM conference plenary videos now available

Please to enjoy the visual fruits of last week's Future of News and Civic Media conference plenaries. Below--available for viewing, downloading, and reusing--are the three plenary videos...

Announcement of the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners


Available for download at MIT TechTV.



"Crowd Building" with Gabriella Coleman and Karim Lakhani


Available for download at MIT TechTV.


"Data into Action" with Nick Grossman, Ellen Miller, and Laurel Ruma


Available for download at MIT TechTV.


C4FCM demo videos will be available early next week.

June 17 2010

10:58

June 07 2010

23:10

Mexican Senate uses Google Moderator for a Q&A session with citizenship

Built upon the Google Apps Engine, Google Moderator is the tool used by the Mountain View company’s executives to hold their town hall meetings that sometimes include Q&A sessions with thousands of people from all over the world. The software allows participants to submit questions and vote for those who want to meet with priority.

Google has announced on its official Latin American blog that the President of the Mexican Senate will use Google Moderator to answer questions to the citizenship next June 14th.

“El Senado Responde” (The Senate answers) is the site that will host all the questions from the Mexican public to Carlos Navarrete, President of Senate.

The Q&A session will also be broadcast live through the Senate Channel and website, and later will be uploaded to YouTube.

June 03 2010

09:18

The Great Government Data Rush – what does it mean for journalists?

Earlier this week I posted briefly on what I consider to be the most significant move for journalism by the UK government since the Freedom of Information Act. But I wanted to look more systematically at what is likely to be a huge change in the information landscape that journalists deal with…

So. In the spirit of data journalism, here is an embedded spreadsheet of the timetable of data to be released by national government, local government, and other bodies. I’ve added notes on how I feel each piece of data could be important, and any useful links – but I’d like you to add any thoughts on other possibilities. Here it is:

Meanwhile, over at Data.gov.uk, the Local Data Panel has published a post inviting comment on the format that data might be supplied in, and fields it might contain.

  • As a first stage, publish the raw data and any lookup table needed to interpret it in a spreadsheet as a CSV or XML file as soon as possible. This should be put on the council’s website as a document for anyone to download. Or even published in a service such as Google Docs
  • There is not yet a national approach for publishing local authority expenditure data. This should not stop publication of data in its raw, machine-readable form. Observing such raw data being used is the only route to a national approach, should one be required
  • Publishing raw data will allow the panel and others to assess how that data could/should be presented to users. Sight of the data is worth a hundred meetings. Members of the panel will study the data, take part in the discussion and revise this advice.
  • As a second stage, informed by the discussion, the panel and users can then give feedback about publishing data (RDF, CSV, etc) in a way that can be consistent across all local authorities involving structured, regularly updated data published on the Web using open standards.

Help Me Investigate contributor and all-round good guy Neil Houston has already responded with some very interesting points.

“You’d be surprised how many times there are some systems where it’s not totally easily to identify the payment, back to the relevant invoice (apart from a manual reconciliation), you need to know the invoice side of the transactions – as that is where the cost will be booked to (as the payment details will just be crediting cash, debiting Accounts Payable).”

June 01 2010

15:16

Local and national government open up data – starting now

Yesterday saw the publication of an incredible letter by David Cameron to government departments, including local government. It sets out a whole range of areas where data is to be released - some of it scheduled for January 2011, but some of it straight away. You can find my thoughts about the release in this article by Laura Oliver, along with those of the likes of David Higgerson. This is probably as important an event as the passing of the FOI Act - it is more important than the launch of data.gov.uk. Note it.

May 29 2010

19:08

Spreadsheet or database of of state-by-state, county-by-county government agencies?

I'm looking for a downloadable/scrape-able database or spreadsheet document that has a list of state and local government offices, alongside (fingers crossed) address and contact info.

Some Googling didn't turn it up, but thought someone on here might have some pointers.

May 25 2010

17:28

Video: Civics in Difficult Places

From the MIT Communications Fourm, which co-hosted last month's Civics in Difficult Places "call-in" show with us and Ethan Zuckerman:

In a live demonstration of globe-straddling communication technologies like Skype, this forum connects to citizen journalists and activists around the world, some of whom frequently test the limits of governmental authority. Moderator Ethan Zuckerman wonders if these new digital forms are fundamentally liberating, providing users access to public spaces they might otherwise be denied. He pursues this line of inquiry in a series of internet conversations with correspondents covering some of the world’s most ravaged or oppressed regions.


Featuring:

  • Cameran Ashraf, Iran
  • Mehdi Yahyanejad, Iran
  • Georgia Popplewell, Haiti
  • Huma Yusuf, Pakistan
  • Ruthie Ackerman, Liberia
  • Brenda Burrell and Bev Clark, Zimbabwe
  • Lova Rakotomalala, Madagascar

March 31 2010

14:00

Maine Congresswoman requires earmarks to be submitted by video

One of my favorite dorky words is "affordances". As in, what are the affordances of, say, a push-bar across a fire-exit door: pushing, even when the user is panicked, and definitely does not afford for pulling.

Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine is using affordances brilliantly by requiring people to ask for earmarks via video submission. Video's affordances are that it's easily viewed, easily shareable, easily archiveable, easily citeable--and thus doesn't afford for less ethical requests:

As your Member of Congress, I am committed to doing everything I can to support the economic and community development important to the people of the First District---that means fighting for sound federal investments in our community that can grow our economy and create jobs.

This year, I am unveiling a new, transparent and open approach to how I receive, review and submit these federal funding requests: every requesting organization has been asked to make a short presentation, which has been recorded and posted online. This is in addition to extensive written materials they submit describing their funding request and how it will benefit Maine's first district. All of this information is particularly geared towards jobs retained or created and examining the long-term economic benefit of federal dollars. The videos and project descriptions will be posted on my website and the public is invited to comment on the projects.

Via My 2011 Appropriations Requests

March 11 2010

15:00

What makes a nonprofit news org legit? Three other questions to separate journalism from advocacy

Last week, Jim Barnett raised a question about nonprofit journalism: What makes it legit? How do we know if a nonprofit news outlet shares the ideals and culture of traditional journalism, and how can we make sure we don’t get fooled by advocacy groups disguised as objective journalists?

It’s a difficult question — the Internet makes publishing wide open to everyone — and at the end of his post, Barnett lays out a list of what he thinks we should use as a starting point when deciding what is and isn’t a legit nonprofit news outlet. He lists various IRS and accounting standards, a number of vague measures of professionalism, and what I’d consider an unfair standard, whether an organization is credentialed by federal or state government.

This is one place where Barnett and I disagree. Before coming to the Lab, I used to edit a nonprofit news site, The Washington Independent, where for two years I dealt with the reality of who gets considered “legit.” If you’re not, you lose out on the privileges given to traditional media outlets. Take Congressional press passes: The Washington Independent was denied admittance to both the daily and periodicals galleries because the site was not chiefly supported by subscriptions or advertising. (Our support came from donors and foundation grants.)

The Independent’s reporters are resourceful, but not having that credential sometimes put stories out of reach. When Republicans released their alternative budget in a credential-required portion of the Capitol, we didn’t get to attend. We were shut out of an event where we would have had access to ask lawmakers direct questions. Congressional credentials are the toughest to get in Washington (compared to White House credentials, or campaign plane credentials, for example) and as such are sometimes used by other groups as the standard for access. For example, when Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in 2008, our reporters were not allowed to attend because they didn’t have a Congressional credential.

Legitimacy is a tough word when it comes to journalism; here I’m using it just to refer to the limited set of privileges that come with an external journalistic seal-of-approval. (Legitimate reporting can come from outlets without that seal of approval, of course, and illegitimate work can come from the biggest names in the business.) But as far as organizational legitimacy goes, I’d argue that instead of looking at a nonprofit’s structure, or vague markers of professionalism, we should think about criteria that more directly capture what a nonprofit news outlet should be.

I thought about what I thought made the Independent trustworthy, and what distinguished us from other journalism-like nonprofits that were more like advocacy groups — the ones who might use their access to lawmakers for lobbying. I came up with three questions I think distinguish a nonprofit as a legit news organization:

1. Does the nonprofit create original news or commentary on a regular schedule?

2. Does it directly reach an audience (or does it fuel news outlets)?

3. Does it spend its money on and dedicate the bulk of its resources to journalism?

Producing news

Does your organization produce news and/or commentary daily, weekly, monthly, or in some other regular interval? It’s a simple criteria that weeds out nonprofits that sporadically put out reports. It also excludes transparency groups, many of which do excellent work, but are not in themselves journalists. (To help clarify this point, imagine that instead of transparency, these groups were focused on any other topic. A searchable database is useful and interesting, particularly to journalists. However, providing access to information is not the same as producing news and commentary. It’s a service or a tool provided to allow journalists to build narratives, which is part of a broader strategy of using the media to advance their cause.)

Directly reaching an audience

I struggled to think of how to sift out a phenomenon Mark Bowden took on in The Atlantic last fall: the rise of opposition research disguised as journalism. Oppo-research has been around forever; campaigns leak dirt on the other side to reporters hungry for a quick, easy scoop every cycle. But as Bowden points out in the instance of Sonia Sotomayor, within hours of the announcement of her nomination, videos of her “wise Latina” comment were all over TV news and the Internet. Opposition research wasn’t just behind the story: It was the story. However, the Judicial Confirmation Network doesn’t reach an audience on its own. They function to fuel news organizations and influence coverage; they aren’t a news organization themselves.

I’d distinguish nonprofits like ProPublica and Center for Public Integrity from nonprofits with no direct audience. Both of these groups have established partnerships with other media to reach an audience. A public content agreement is different than leaking a salacious tidbit. And of course having a website with a loyal readership counts, too.

Putting your money where the journalism is

I borrowed this third question from my old boss and publisher of the Independent, David Bennahum. Our efforts to get Senate press credentials were denied because of our funding model of foundation grants and individual donations. Bennahum came up with the interesting idea that perhaps the gallery could look at how an organization’s money is spent, rather than how it is raised. If you’re an advocacy group with a magazine, your tax records will demonstrate that the bulk of your money is going to things other than reporter salaries or other news costs. If you’re a nonprofit dedicated to news, your spending will reflect that.

There are plenty of other questions to ask in thinking about a nonprofits legitimacy, but I think these get the conversation started. What do you think?

Photo by John Abell used under Creative Commons license.

February 04 2010

15:00

Should the government be spending tax dollars printing tiny type in newspapers? The arguments in favor

Public notices, those tiny-type blurbs announcing zoning issues, licensing applications and public meetings, seem anachronistic in our database-driven world. Does anyone use them? Can anyone use them, with that crammed-in text? They’re a long-term accepted oddity that persists today. When Geoff Cowan and David Westphal came out with their report last week on government’s historic subsidies of the press, the printing of public notices as newspaper advertising was one of the awkward stars. As Cowan and Westphal put it:

Historically, these fine-print notices have been a lucrative business for newspaper publishers, and have touched off heated bidding wars for government contracts…But the era of big money in public notices will almost certainly fade away. Proposals have been introduced in 40 states to allow local and state agencies to shift publication to the Web, in some cases to the government’s own Web sites.

And when those proposals are made, newspaper companies are quick to defend their lucrative turf — vociferously. Legislatures in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio, among others, have considered moving public notices to government-run websites as a cost-cutting maneuver. These efforts are often for naught after strong newspaper opposition. (Virginia’s the latest, last week.)

Since the case against public notices seems so obvious — why should a local government buy ad space in a newspaper when it can publish the same material itself, in a more searchable and useful form? — I wanted to hear the arguments on the other side. Tonda Rush, a registered lobbyist for the newspaper industry and head of the Public Notice Resource Center, outlined for me the common arguments surrounding public notices. They fall into three domains.

It isn’t too much money: Pro-digital folks say public notices belong on the web, where publishing is cheap and search is easy. But bruised newspaper companies have no interest in watching yet another revenue stream get sucked away by the Internet. The only industry-wide public notice revenue data I was able to dig up is 10 years old. In 2000, the National Newspaper Association said public notices account for five to 10 percent of newspaper revenue.

Rush doesn’t have updated figures, but she noted repeatedly that the total amount government bodies spend on public notice fees is low. “We have yet to find a discussion going on at county or municipal level where the actual cost of these notices gets beyond one to two percent of the budget,” she said. “It’s not that much money.”  

Rush also pointed out that moving public notices to government-run websites incurs its own costs. There’s startup and design fees, and some amount has to be allocated to ongoing maintenance and updates. If the question is purely financial, Rush said, then the decision needs to balance costs on both sides of the equation. It could be that the actual savings of going web-based don’t amount to much. 

Of course, “one to two percent of the budget” sounds very different when it’s translated into a specific position or project. How many teachers would that pay for? Could it fund a social program?

Print sticks around: In researching this post, I ran across a number of pro-newspaper viewpoints that teetered on absurdity. The most egregious focused on the claimed archival problems of electronic public notices. A pamphlet published by the Arizona Newspapers Association contains this jaw dropper:

…in newspapers, Public Notices are a permanent archive that won’t go away if the electricity is turned off. You can research yesterday’s Public Notices or a notice published a decade ago.

Rush thankfully addressed archival issues from a far more measured and informed perspective. For starters, she said public notices have practical application. They’re official records, which means they can apply to all sorts of claims. 

Now, it’s certainly possible for an industrious scammer to fabricate a print-based public notice and pass it off as an official record. Layout skills and a copy of InDesign are all that’s needed. But if we elevate this a bit, the fundamental differences between print and web begin to play a role here as well. 

Print is a push technology (I’m taking license with the formal definition). A centralized news organization assembles a master file and then pushes thousands of copies out to the community. The web, on the other hand, is a pull technology. Readers access information — pull it — from an online news source. If someone wants to fabricate a document, it’s (theoretically) easier to do that in a web-based environment because changes can be made at the source. Print subterfuge is trickier because it can be refuted by a hard copy edition of the same newspaper. It’s not fail proof. Just tougher.

Whether anyone would bother to hack a public notice is a separate question (I tend to think not). The bigger issue here is which environment appears more secure. If you’re involved in litigation, you want the most iron-clad documentation you can find. And as Rush noted, the current print-based model does an adequate job creating fixed official records. Backups and vetting might address concerns about web-only public notices, but then we loop back cost savings. If you have to invest in layers of technology to achieve “official” status, are you still saving money? 

One archival counterpoint: Online public notice databases exist, but they’re little more than print blurbs shoveled wholesale onto the web. It seems like there’s an opportunity here for a newspaper — or a startup! — to liberate public notices from their poor formatting and turn that data into an accessible tool — an Everyblock of tax liens, sheriff’s sales, and license applications. And if this theoretical service also included a revenue stream — perhaps advertising, perhaps a Twitter-like data feed — that money could offset the investment needed to create official, verified web-based public notices. 

You can’t trust The Man: Some in the pro-print contingent like to play to an ingrained distrust of government. This line from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association is a colorful representation of the argument:

Putting public notices on a government-run website is like trusting the fox to build and watch the henhouse.

Rush avoided henhouse quips when we discussed issues of independence and availability. She said public notices should be available through government websites as long as they also appear on newspaper sites and print editions.

“The question is where’s that official record,” Rush said. “Are you going to trust the government body publishing and maintaining it themselves and calling it an official record? That’s where the question gets much more pointed and much more critical.” 

That initially sounds conspiratorial. Are shady government organizations distributing propaganda-laced public notices? Probably not. It’s not as if newspapers are fact-checking public notices before starting the presses. But then again, there’s a reason the press evolved into its watchdog role. Governments meddle. And there’s the slippery slope argument, too: give an inch on something small like public notices and it makes bigger targets easier to bring down. 

What’s your take? Do print-based public notices still have value, or are they an awkward leftover from history, best done away with? Please weigh in through the comments.

January 17 2010

06:07

Apps for Haiti: An SMS 911, a People Finder, and more to come.

The information activist community has been rushing to respond to the Haitian earthquake. What I find remarkable is the capacity that has been built up in the last few years; from software standards, like the "pfif":http://zesty.ca/pfif standard generated after Katrina, to early systems like the Ushahidi engine designed during the Kenyan election violence, to larger organizations and resources like the Crisis Commons wiki: and the Crisis Camps.

First on the scene were a variety of technologists who were addressing the problem of people finding -- how to bring separated people back together, both for peace of mind and for social capital. Several sites started offering this service, like the American Red Cross Family Links and the custom-made Haitianquake.com. By Friday, Google stepped in with its offering, and because of their capacity most everyone agreed to standardize around it, even though it lacked some of the functionality of other systems, and had only a few dozen people in its database (compared to Haitianquake's 6000). Similar utilities are still springing up -- the Miami Herald and the New York Times came out with their own -- but developers are lobbying these and other organizations to contain the spread. Silos will only make it more difficult for people to find each other. The tool to use is http://haiticrisis.appspot.com/. Blog it, yo.

Also just launched by Ushahidi, is an effort to create a sort of 911 for Haiti, based on SMS messages. The SMS shortcode 4636 is now live, and messages are being queued. A web interface then allows Creole speaking "dispatchers" -- from anywhere on the Internet -- to take the SMS messages off the queue to organize and tag them. The SEIU, with tens of thousands of Haitian American members, is setting up command centers in four North American cities and its members will be actively dispatching, but any Creole speaking web user can volunteer. Once the messages are coded, they will generate feed outputs that can be used by various organizations (including journalists, humanitarian relief workers, etc.). Messages are just starting to come in: no doubt the biggest problem starting Sunday will be what to do with all the data.

There is now talk of doing a similar "mechanical turk" style translation interface as well, allowing Haitian Americans to act as real-time mediators between aid workers and citizens. Voice systems are requisite in a country with %50 illiteracy, but also significantly harder to create and more computationally demanding.

A list of some of the software initiatives:
http://haiti.crisiscommons.org/atrium/home
And volunteers:
http://crisiscommons.org/wiki/index.php?title=Haiti/2010_Earthquake
And organizations:
http://haiti-orgs.sahanafoundation.org/prod/or/organisation

January 13 2010

22:25

Connect/disconnect - thoughts on the Amman Mobile Data Innovations workshop


(Above, a representative of the Iraqi government presents a concept for a mobile-phone-based child safety reporting program)

Since a few weeks have gone by, I thought I'd post some of my thoughts about the MobileActive/UNICEF workshop on Mobile Data Innovations in Amman. Several people, including JD Godchaux of NiJeL and Robert Soden of Development Seed, not to mention Josh Levinger from here at the Center for Future Civic Media have published thoughtful articles about the workshop, but I have to admit the experience remains unsettling in my mind.

First, I want to say that I very much enjoyed the talks, the opportunity to meet among experts in a variety of fields, from mobile health monitoring to community mapping, and the excellent organization and support by UNICEF and MobileActive. But I think the difficulty in collaborating with, or even communicating with, the Iraqi delegation which attended the workshop highlights some of the challenges in bridging differences in spoken lanugage (arabic/english) and especially in technological language. Conversations were nebulous; some of the Iraqis wanted to use mobile survey tools to gather information on child safety and incidences of violence against children - but it the scope of their need was hard to grasp. Did they have volunteers who would interview residents of various communities and submit results? Did they expect just anyone to learn of this system and report things of their own volition? How did they expect to verify or quantify the results?


(Techies type furiously during a brainstorming session)

These are not really technological problems, and they don't really call for technological solutions. There are a range of possible technologies out there - SMS based surveys, for example, can make distribution of a survey easier, especially if one partners with a local cell carrier. Optical character recognition and cheap cameraphones could make for faster and less error-prone data entry. But I was reminded of some meetings at the Center for Future Civic Media, where organizations were looking for a technological silver bullet to solve what are really problems in reaching out to people. Problems of a cultural or societal nature, let's say. To me, the big unanswered question is what incentivizes people to participate in projects such as this child safety one? Do they see immediate improvements in safety for their own children? If not, I don't really see many people getting involved on a voluntary basis.

These difficulties can be very discouraging for people like myself, who are trying to work with communities, who use technology to try to effect social change, and who rely on successful social interactions - and trust - to push our work forward. All I can think of is to look to projects like Paul Chan/Creative Time's project Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, a project which at first I did not really understand. Basically, Paul Chan and Nato Thompson went to the 9th Ward in New Orleans and organized a performance of Waiting for Godot, involving a wide range of community members, a local theater troupe, musicians, and others in the area. What stands out for me most, and what initially I did not understand the importance of, is that much of what the project describes is a series of potluck dinners and social gatherings - not to mention that the play itself was preceded by free gumbo and live music.

As I thought about the project more, and about how Chan eventually found someone else to direct the play, and built such a good rapport with his local collaborators on a personal basis, I feel that the real genius of the project is how Chan and Thompson essentially yielded the project to those who joined them. The project, for me, was less about the play, and more about the potluck dinners... and I hope to be able to form similarly trustful and rich relationships with participants in the upcoming Grassroots Mapping workshops here in Lima this month. Only then, it seems to me, will we be able to accomplish anything, technological or otherwise.

December 14 2009

20:41

Gov 2.0 Expo extends deadline for submissions

Just came over the wire:

We've Extended the Call for Presentations for Gov 2.0 Expo to January 6, so there's a little more time for you to submit a proposal. If you're passionate about the power of the Web and how it can be leveraged to create greater transparency, participation, and collaboration between government and citizenry, we want to hear from you.

Whether you're submitting a 50-minute session or panel discussion, 90-minute workshop or a 5-minute rapid fire presentation (as demonstrated at the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase in September 2009), please choose the track which best fits your submission from the choices below.

read more

December 08 2009

01:42

Get off the lawn

There’s one thing that Rupert Murdoch, Arianna Huffington, Steve Brill, and I agreed on last week – and and there’s probably nothing else one can imagine this group would ever find consensus around. At the two-day Federal Trade Commission “workshop” (read: hearing) that asked how journalism will “survive” (their word) in the internet age, we all told the commissioner to kindly butt out.

Murdoch talked about a drumbeat building to bail out newspapers and how that would be a mistake, just as bailing out GM was. The government shouldn’t save companies that make things customers don’t want, he argued. Huffington said there’s no need for government intervention and after her speech (read: testimony), I interviewed her for my upcoming Guardian MediaTalkUSA podcast and when I pointed out that she agreed with Rupert, she pointed out that he was asking for government favors in his threats to try to rewrite fair use. Brill started his talk begging government to stay out.

And I told Liebowitz that the future of news will be entrepreneurial not institutional; the institutions had and blew their chance. What we need is a level lawn where the tender shoots of these new businesses can grow without government trampling them on its way to try to protect the legacy players.

But the commissioner’s title for this “workshop” alone – “How will journalism survive the internet age?” – is prejudicial, a foreshadowing of the results they have already prescribed: it implies saving the legacy players when, as the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton said at the hearings today, journalism doesn’t need to be saved, it needs to be created. (The reason I’m not there today is that I am teaching my entrepreneurial journalism course. That’s one way to save journalism: build it.) The choice of speakers was itself prejudicial: mostly the old players who played their tiny violins. The questioning was prejudicial: an FTC bureaucrat threw a newspaper exec a soft ball to decry aggregators and suggest how he wanted to get money out of them (not hearing the idea that aggregators who are adding value to the content). Liebowitz’s presumptions about the event were prejudicial; in his opening talk, he said he has already scheduled more hearings to talk about copyright (read: changing copyright to favor the dying institutions).

My requestion to Liebowitz and company: Get off our lawn!

Maybe, just maybe, he heard a bit of this. He told the Wall Street Journal last night, “I think the message from today is be very, very cautious before you do anything.” How about nothing.

But from the looks of Twitter, it’s worse today. Rep. Henry Waxman told the group today that “Congress responds to market failures.” But this is not a market failure. It’s a market, doing what markets do. Let the market do that.

Rep. Waxman: Get off our lawn!

December 04 2009

16:33

C4FCM heading to Amman for "Mobile Data Collection for Social Action" workshop

Just got word from Chris that Jeff Warren (Newsflow/Cartagen, Josh Levinger (VirtualGaza), and Nadav Aharony (Comm.unity) are headed to Amman, Jordan, for an amazing workshop hosted by UNICEF Innovation and our friends at Mobile Active.

It's called "Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action in the Middle East". Snips from the registration site:

UNICEF Innovation and MobileActive.org invite you to attend a three-day workshop on distributed and real-time data collection, monitoring, and visualization of data with mobile technology.

What is this About?

With the ubiquity of mobile technology, data collection and monitoring of key indicators from the ground up by affected populations is now possible. Mobile technology in the hands of people can now be more than a person-to-person communication medium but can be used for capturing, classifying and transmitting image, audio, location and other data, interactively or autonomously.

By involving people in defining and participating in their own data collection, this approach can address significant unmet challenges in large-scale data collection for public health and citizen participation.

In this three-day workshop, we will explore the critical issues, technologies, and architectures involved in collecting and utilizing data-from-below, bringing together the key technology and research leaders on distributed data collection and distribution in the Middle East.

What are the Goals?

  • An exploration of key issues in citizen-driven data collection in the Middle East. These include technologies, systems, architecture, tools, standards, and people, among others.
  • Kick-start a regional working group / community around open-source data collection, aggregation and visualization using mobile technology
  • Map the landscape in the Middle East of applications/technologies, developers, and key thought leaders around real-time distributed data collection, monitoring, and visualization using mobile technology?
  • Help UNICEF build a roster of potential partners, possible vendors, academic institutions of interest, and groups or individuals to advance UNICEF regional goals.
  • Prototype new products or improvements of existing products about distributed data collection.

[...]

The impetus for the workshop is UNICEF’s national-scale project in Iraq collecting data from various populations about key indicators and use that data to effect policy and programmatic changes that can improve the lives of children.

As part of this work, MobileActive.org, a global community of people using mobile technology for social impact, and UNICEF partnered to explore, with key leaders in the Middle East, critical issues on large-scale, citizen-driven and bottom-up data collection.

[...]

Why Attend?

If you are a thought leader representing academia, foundations, civil society organizations and the private sector in the Middle East exploring data collection from the ground up with mobile tehnology, we'd like you to contribute your experiences and knowledge.

If you are a a coder, hacker, or technical expert interested in this space and/or have relevant applications, systems, or prototypes for real-time data collection and analysis, we encourage you to apply!

We wish the guys and other attendees a fun trip! Stay tuned for reports back from Jeff, Josh, and Nadav, and if you are attending, drop us a line or Tweet us (@c4fcm) and let us know what you learned.

read more

December 02 2009

18:08

Get off the lawn

There’s one thing that Rupert Murdoch, Arianna Huffington, Steve Brill, and I agreed on yesterday – and and there’s probably nothing else one can imagine this group would ever find consensus around. At the two-day Federal Trade Commission “workshop” (read: hearing) that asked how journalism will “survive” (their word) in the internet age, we all told the commissioner to kindly butt out.

Murdoch talked about a drumbeat building to bail out newspapers and how that would be a mistake, just as bailing out GM was. The government shouldn’t save companies that make things customers don’t want, he argued. Huffington said there’s no need for government intervention and after her speech (read: testimony), I interviewed her for my upcoming Guardian MediaTalkUSA podcast and when I pointed out that she agreed with Rupert, she pointed out that he was asking for government favors in his threats to try to rewrite fair use. Brill started his talk begging government to stay out.

And I told Liebowitz that the future of news will be entrepreneurial not institutional; the institutions had and blew their chance. What we need is a level lawn where the tender shoots of these new businesses can grow without government trampling them on its way to try to protect the legacy players.

But the commissioner’s title for this “workshop” alone – “How will journalism survive the internet age?” – is prejudicial, a foreshadowing of the results they have already prescribed: it implies saving the legacy players when, as the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton said at the hearings today, journalism doesn’t need to be saved, it needs to be created. (The reason I’m not there today is that I am teaching my entrepreneurial journalism course. That’s one way to save journalism: build it.) The choice of speakers was itself prejudicial: mostly the old players who played their tiny violins. The questioning was prejudicial: an FTC bureaucrat threw a newspaper exec a soft ball to decry aggregators and suggest how he wanted to get money out of them (not hearing the idea that aggregators who are adding value to the content). Liebowitz’s presumptions about the event were prejudicial; in his opening talk, he said he has already scheduled more hearings to talk about copyright (read: changing copyright to favor the dying institutions).

My requestion to Liebowitz and company: Get off our lawn!

Maybe, just maybe, he heard a bit of this. He told the Wall Street Journal last night, “I think the message from today is be very, very cautious before you do anything.” How about nothing.

But from the looks of Twitter, it’s worse today. Rep. Henry Waxman told the group today that “Congress responds to market failures.” But this is not a market failure. It’s a market, doing what markets do. Let the market do that.

Rep. Waxman: Get off our lawn!

December 01 2009

12:24

First, do no harm, government

Relevant to today’s FTC workshops (read: hearings) on the “survival” (their word… I would have said “rebirth:) of journalism in the internet age, Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal issue a good set of principles for government involvement (read: meddling or support):

First and foremost, do no harm. A cycle of powerful innovation is under way. To the extent possible, government should avoid retarding the emergence of new models of newsgathering.

Second, the government should help promote innovation, as it did when the Department of Defense funded the research that created the Internet or when NASA funded the creation of satellites that made cable television and direct TV possible.

Third, for commercial media, government-supported mechanisms that are content neutral — such as copyright protections, postal subsidies and taxes — are preferable to those that call upon the government to fund specific news outlets, publications or programs.

I disagree about their conclusion: that government has always supported media (with postal discounts, legal notices, tax breaks) and that should continue. I disagree on principle and as a practical matter. Postal discounts are in force for many – including junk mailers – and in any case they become less relevant when news isn’t printed. Legal notices, I believe, should go online in standard data forms and feeds, making them more available to more people, giving us a permanent record of them, and – critically – saving taxpayers money. There’s no reason for media to have tax breaks (except, as other industries receive them, for innovation).

November 20 2009

14:00

The FTC should give nonprofit news a closer look

You know the old saying about how we’re from the government and we’re here to help you? That’s what came to mind as I read the Federal Trade Commission’s notice for its workshop on journalism in the digital age.

The notice makes the case that “news organizations,” which it notably does not attempt to define, are suffering at the hands of aggregators and other online actors that have drained the fun and profit from news gathering. Among the solutions the FTC wants to examine are some that would seem to support nonprofits — tax treatment and greater public funding, for example.

Memo to the FTC: No thanks.

It’s not that the FTC’s proposed solution are so bad, though I don’t much like the idea of government funding non-broadcast news operations. It’s that they provide fresh fodder for misinformed critics who have come to the conclusion that nonprofits pose a threat to for-profit news sites and journalism generally.

Mention “nonprofit” to some of these folks, and you’re likely get an allergic reaction. No sooner had San Francisco investor Warren Hellman ponied up $5 million for the Bay Area News Project than somebody complained errantly that the new venture would rely on unpaid college students, forcing other media to cut staff to remain competitive. News flash: Old media aren’t competitive in the online age, and that isn’t the fault of Warren Hellman or any nonprofit. Others fretted that donated money like Hellman’s comes with agendas and strings attached. And advertising dollars don’t?

But I digress. Nonprofits offer a viable solution to the decline of socially responsible journalism. By design, they put mission ahead of profit. And as a result, they will live or die based on their commitment to transparency. When the government gets involved, it introduces the appearance of special favors and the potential for political interference. That’s the death of transparency.

To be clear, I don’t object to the notion of government oversight. A little can go a long way — witness the FTC’s late-1990s antitrust investigation of Intel Corp. At the time, Intel dominated the computer chip market and, along with Microsoft Corp., seemed capable of devouring anything in its path, much as Google appears today. But just before trial began in 1999, Intel signed a settlement with the FTC in which it admitted no guilt and essentially agreed to be nicer to the smaller kids in the technology sandbox.

Based on this experience, we can assume that what the FTC workshop really hopes to accomplish is to once again nudge the bullies into being nicer. I would submit that there are better ways to accomplish this goal. One might be to bring in witnesses who can explain how the nonprofit model works and how it complements the work of for-profits in journalism and other sectors.

My nomination would go to Duke’s Jay Hamilton, author of All the News That’s Fit to Sell, which is cited in the FTC notice. In the book, Hamilton makes the case that journalism is becoming a public good. He writes:

The point here is that since individuals do not calculate the full benefit to society of their learning about politics, they will express less than optimal levels of interest in public affairs coverage and generate less than desirable demands for news about government.

I do agree with the FTC that the stakes are high because unlike the great oil and steel trusts of old, the big powerhouses of the Internet are in the business of ideas. As Bill Kovacic, then a law professor at George Washington University and now an FTC commissioner, told me during the Intel case: “I think the impact is so important because its impact on information services affects everything we do.”

The FTC workshop will be held in Washington Dec. 1-2.

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