Apr 26, 2009

Recovery Dialogue: IT Solutions

recovery dot gov logoAnnounced on the Recovery.Gov Website:
Starting...April 27, The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and the Office of Management and Budget in partnership with the National Academy of Public Administration, will host a national online dialogue to engage leading information technology (IT) vendors, thinkers, and consumers in answering a key question:

What ideas, tools, and approaches can make Recovery.gov a place where all citizens can transparently monitor the expenditure and use of recovery funds?

Participants from across the IT community will be able to recommend, discuss, and vote on the best ideas, tools, and approaches. Your ideas can directly impact how Recovery.gov operates and ensure that our economic recovery is the most transparent and accountable in history. Mark your calendars and check back for the web link. Click here for more information.--See more on Recovery.GOV
This project is part of a partnership with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). which sponsors the most excellent Collaboration Project. The Collaboration Project is creating a set of case studies on the best uses of collaborative technologies and new media in government. They also sponsored a national discussion on health information technology and privacy.

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board is asking for  help around five key areas
  • Website Design
  • Data Collection
  • Data Warehousing
  • Data Analysis and Visualization
  • Waste, Fraud, and Abuse Detection
  • Other topics that are key to achieving greater transparency and accountability
For starters, I have a minor suggestion:  stop asking visitors to click through to a PDF for more information. Information is much more accessible when it's not buried in a PDF. More transparent, if you will. 

Anyway, this is a great opportunity for a government agency to learn what people want, need and expect. I look forward to logging in this week--the project is open for seven days--and providing some substantive feedback. Hope you do, too!

Apr 23, 2009

Trends: Online Video UP, Channels Down

an old TVAs agencies look to add more video to their content mix, it's important to keep an eye on current video and TV habits. 
[T]elevision viewership is quickly splintering across a number of platforms like computers, phones, and set-top boxes. But in spite of this trend, viewership on all platforms (including the good old boob tube) is actually up. Online video hubs like YouTube and Hulu have also grown in appeal, as 74 percent of the study’s 14,000 respondents said they would enjoy watching TV via the computer. This increase not only represents a 13 percent bump year-over-year, but also the growth potential of the platform. As more and more video hubs net premium content deals, it seems likely that consumer interest in online viewing will continue to rise.

Surprisingly, Accenture’s respondents also expressed a lack of loyalty towards branded channels. Put simply, this means viewers were fiercely loyal to their favorite shows, but less loyal towards a show’s parent channel. Given the plethora of viewing outlets available to consumers (broadcast, online, mobile, cable provided on-demand, etc), and the myriad pay options available for these services (subscription, ad-supported, pay-to-play) this actually makes sense. As video distribution outlets pop up left and right, there’s basically a non-broadcast option available for everyone. --Read the whole post on Venture Beat.
Two trends I wanted to track here. First, it is critical to recognize the different ways that people are consuming video. TV is still popular, but there is no longer a common time that people watch a TV show--save popular sporting events. People watch a show when and where they want, sometimes with complete ads, sometimes with no ads, sometimes skipping ads. People don't rush home for their favorite shows. They can watch when it's convenient--after the kids are in bed or after studying on a less busy night.

Second, this cornucopia of viewing choice allows people to connect to the content itself--not who created it. The drive is to get the shows from their preferred outlet whether it's broadcast, digital video recorder (like TiVO), over the internet online to a TV or computer, downloaded to a personal device like an IPOD. The particular broadcast channel is unimportant. Again, the video consumer is taking more control.

While there has been a fair amount of attention--and plenty of concern--on the effects of the Internet on newspapers, it's important to also track the disruption in traditional television viewing. 

Apr 21, 2009

Shorts: Stats, DC's Digital Public Square, Good Looking data.gov

red soccer shorts with number 12The Web in Numbers--The Rise in Social Media includes stats on YouTube--100 million monthly viewers in the US and 6.3 billion videos viewed; Facebook--grew from 100 million to 200 million users in less than 8 months, if it were a country, it would be bigger than Brazil; and, Twitter with 7 million unique monthly visitors and a growth rate that will have it at 100 million visitors this time next year. Other important statistic? Social media beats e-mail for top web activity! First time anything beats e-mail. Read the post from Mashable.

Digital Public Square in D.C. The Office of the Chief Technology Officer has launched the District of Columbia’s Digital Public Square which puts the citizen in the driver’s seat to discover how District agencies work, participate in the democratic process and connect with your government. This will be the portal for future mashups and data. See dps.dc.gov.

Image of data dot gov web siteSunlight Labs takes on Redesigning the Government: Data.gov. As part of their series redesigning government websites, Sunlight designers/developers prospectively create a design and architecture for data.gov (which today has a "coming soon" sign). They say, "Providing access to government data is one of the clearest ways to be more transparent— and it is our hope that Kundra and team nail this with Data.gov. In order to do so, we’re looking for these things: Bulk access to data, Accountability for Data Quality, Clear and understandable language, Service and developer friendly file formats, and Comprehensiveness." Read all about it at Sunlight.

Apr 18, 2009

Innovation Causes Failure

The idea of opening up government to her citizens--allowing anyone in the country to ask the President a question or to comment on policy or to even set the policy agenda--seems to be a natural fit for technology, but continues to baffle.

Enter a really interesting interview on Federal Computer Week with Kim Patrick Kobza of Neighborhood America. Kobza takes a critical look at the Online Presidential Town Hall held last month. He notes some good elements, but
Fatal flaw: Where the application breaks down is the volume of solution possibilities – it is not credible. Think about it this way. Most choices in policy are essentially an “alternatives analysis” -- a choice between different but well defined solution possibilities. What is happening in whitehouse.gov is that the public is being asked to create and compare an almost infinite number of choices. Who could possibly read 53,808 questions? 53,808 alternatives? Most people understand that it just isn’t credible to think that that is possible. So the application creates an illusion of meritocracy when in fact the statistical significance of any one person’s participation is negligible. Put in a network context, it treats choices as a mechanical data management exercise, rather than as one that develops and advances logic to why choices might be made. There is no exchange that takes place between members within the network (citizens) and that limits the network value (intelligence) being generated.

Another thought on design. In my view, when building citizen participation, and more importantly, in discovering great ideas it is important that these types of sites build social attention. Social attention comes from novelty, uniqueness, and experiences that are fun and that promote learning. The design of this site again is not interesting. It might be argued it was interesting enough to gain 54,000 ideas. The other side of that argument is that many congressmen receive tens of thousands of emails a week. This application has not upped the standard or participation
. [my emphasis] --Read the entire interview here
Kozba has some specific recommendations for improving future forays, but finishes by saying:
I believe that this is not a good example of how social networking adds value to public processes. In fact, in some ways these methods hurt more than help because they set the wrong citizen expectations. They are not our best effort so to speak. So citizens will ultimately be discouraged because the application as used, will not achieve results. 
...Success depends upon much more than data management and mashing up technology features. We spend a lot of time studying what works and what doesn’t, and have had experiences to validate over 10 years. That has built an appreciation for how hard it is to get this right.

What we showcase at a Whitehouse.gov should be a shining example of our best efforts. It should be state of the art and based on our deepest knowledge and experience. It should not be, and does not have to be, based on experimentation. 
Wow, this is a harsh criticism, but quite on target. Sometimes, we in dot-gov are quick to give ourselves props because we tried. But this isn't U-5 soccer, this is the big leagues. We should be competing with the best and most sophisticated technology implementations.

Yes, this is definitely a resource issue. Many smart and creative people in government are using duct-tape, paper clips and super glue to build engagement tools. People turn to"free" tools like YouTube, Blogger, Google Docs, Flickr, because the barriers are low and something can actually be accomplished.  There are world class websites in government being hand coded--no database, no content management systems. 

This innovation and creativity does not serve government well. 

The reliance on the cheap and the intuitive rather than the quality and the researched supports the lack of a cohesive government-wide approach to using technology to improve government. It allows "progress to be made" despite the absence of empirical data to drive decisions, the proliferation of stale and inflexible development methods, and a process that does not include citizens and their actual needs. It does not challenge the stove-piped agency development and procurement of technology solutions. By making things work, we aren't forced to face the requirements and to build an actual 21st century government. 

I was talking to a colleague yesterday, and she said that government is the best place to work--that the very best and the very brightest technologists and innovators in the country should be clamoring to work at the White House and HHS and the Department of Education, etc.  Where else can you work on projects and programs that have such a huge impact?

It's time to reconcile this last thought with the rest of this post.

Apr 15, 2009

What Is Gov Tweeting About?

Twitter is a social networking and microblogging tool that lets people send short--only 140 characters--text messages to friends and on a massive public timeline. It is growing fast, 131% traffic increase in March to over 9 million visitors. It has grown because it is easy and conversational. People can learn about friends and even converse with celebrities. See what Shaquille O'Neal has to say at twitter.com/the_real_shaq.

See also twitter.com/nasa for an example of what a government Twitter stream looks like. 

Nextgov looked at a random sample of 100 Twitter updates from ten different government organizations to find out what federal agencies were tweeting about. They generated lists of the 40 most-used words in each organization's Twitter feed. 

It's very interesting to see the words that agencies use in their tweets.  The larger the word, the more frequently it is used by the agency. 

Tweets from the Air Force

Tweets from TSA
Word cloud of  TSA's tweets as derived by NextGov.See all ten agency results here.

Twitter can be a broadcast channel, but many see Twitter as a tool to engage and converse with followers. In the case of government, followers are citizens, constituents, and other stakeholders. 

In the Air Force example, they most frequently talk about themselves: air force, afairmen and officer, official; they also talk about the media. Another big word, however, is THANKS, definitely a term of engagement.

The second example is from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Their Twitter stream is all about their blog, post, blogger, publish, less about the organization, tsa and dhs. One of the biggest word on the page, though, is YOU and your. Looks like the agency is getting outside of itself.

What would your agency tweet about?

Apr 11, 2009

Participation Breeds Knowledge and Success

An imaginary idea factory--a girl looks at a big gear.In contrast to fear-mongering about the horrors of using new media tools in government--especially letting EVERYONE in on the game--NextGov has a few examples of agencies taking risks and unlocking knowledge.
[O]nline communities have inherent risks, so agencies must strike the right balance between opening up their operations widely and safeguarding sensitive information. Those with the most successful social media applications are taking various steps to protect information, such as assigning moderators.

The Transportation Security Administration, for example, has three moderators who monitor the conversations on its Idea Factory, an online suggestion forum that 43,000 airport security officers and headquarters staff use.  Idea Factory users, who are identified by name, must adhere to terms of use to ensure online conversations are respectful.

"Employees can include sensitive security information. This gives them the ability to really talk about the work they do," Lynn Dean [manager of strategy and Web communications] says. "But let's say a person forgets to mark a comment as Secret Sensitive Information. Someone else can report that and say it's SSI." Idea Factory participants...have submitted 7,000 ideas to the system, which ranks them based on popularity. A review panel determines whether they can be implemented. --Read more on NextGov.
TSA* has implemented 20 suggestions, so far. In addition, the Idea Factory is affecting its culture. Now frontline employee ideas are exposed to leadership who can implement change. This creates a positive feedback loop--two-thirds of the TSA workforce thinks the Idea Factory is  important, and more than one-third visit a few times each month.

There are challenges of security and information quality that agencies need to address, but if the CIA and other members of the intelligence community can create and use their own wiki (Intellipedia) for information and analysis sharing, other agencies need to view these challenges as problems to be resolved rather than as barriers that interrupt innovation and collaboration.

[* Disclosure, I work for the parent agency of TSA.]

Apr 9, 2009

Digital Kids = Digital Future

Adults of tomorrow, also known as my two boys.Over the past few days I have observed discussions on the value of new media tools and whether it makes sense for government to jump in. It's true that we are still struggling with Web 1.0. Some think we should get that right before moving on. But these discussions were about today. Not about tomorrow. 

Chris Brogan blogged on Envisioning Digital Kids. He said that the adults of tomorrow now live in a world where
  • The Web is always on.
  • The Web is mobile.
  • Google has always been around, and is the core source of search information.
  • Cell phones are the default phone.
  • Apple TV, Netflix, and the Web are where shows and movies come from.
  • iPods are where music comes from.
  • Everything is play-on-demand. Nothing is appointment-based.
  • Most all software is web-based.
  • We share pictures and movies with relatives always.
  • We never get lost (GPS).
  • We buy what we want (Amazon).
  • We learn things from our friends (news via social networks). --Read the entire post.
Yes, there are people who don't have broadband or even Internet. Yes, there are people who don't use email and prefer paper and stamps for communications. Yes, some folks want to pick up a phone and ask questions. And, yes, dot-gov is still working on getting Web 1.0 right.

But it will soon be too late to engage with the next group of adults. The digital natives in my house ALWAYS have more computing power and instant access to information in their hands (cellphones) than we could have imagined five years ago. Some thirteen year olds will be voting in the next presidential election. 

How do we make government a relevant information provider? a relevant employer? a relevant part of society for the adults of tomorrow? 

For starters government leaders and technologists need to look ahead and get out of the muck of current barriers and old ways of thinking. Take a look at Brogran's list above and think how your programs are relevant to tomorrow's adults.

Dot-gov needs to aim to an unknown point in the future and not shoot ourselves in our static foot. 

Apr 7, 2009

Making National Tools Local

Gov 2.0 Camp was a blast! I am so sorry that I only made it to Happy Hour and the afternoon sessions on Saturday. But there are great summaries, impressions, resources and play by plays available here, here, here, and, of course, here

For the session "Ask the President," Macon Phillips, White House New Media Director, and Bev Godwin, usa.gov guru currently detailed to WH new media team, wanted to learn how to improve the question and answer. First, a quick overview from Newsweek
The President held his first "Open for Questions" event in the East Room of the White House. Basically the White House invited people to submit questions for POTUS odnline. People could then vote for the questions they'd most like to hear him answer. The whole event streamed live on whitehouse.gov, and around 100 regular folks where invited to the East Room to watch. Over 90,000 people submitted questions and 3.6 million votes were cast.--Read the rest.
Overall, folks felt the Q&A was successful. The nagging question remained, though, that this type of forum is vulnerable to special interests drowning out more organic issues.  For example, Politico noted that pot, once again, was a top question/question vote-getter, likely via a push by NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The President addressed the drug question head on, but from a participation and technology point of view, the issue of manipulating results remains. 

The White House used Google Moderator, a simple tool that helps groups determine which questions should be asked at all hands meetings, conferences, Q&A sessions (see TechCrunch). Moderator, as designed was  intended to be used locally. Pete Peterson very smartly writes in Tech President that it's hard to make policy on a national scale.
[Can government] focus its online engagement efforts at the local level. In a sense this means using tools like Moderator as they were originally intended. The advantage of this strategy is that the content and political decision-making process involved in localized issues tend to be less complex than at the national level. Participants can more readily see the impact they will have on a community concern than a national one. This does not mean the subject of the engagement is not Federal in nature. Many Federal agencies from the EPA to Homeland Security are tasked with conforming policies to cities and regions throughout the country. Answering the “how” question of policy – specifically, “how does that rule fit here?” – can be supported legitimately by online tools. --Tech President
If all politics are local, could Moderator function locally and roll up to a national agenda? The tool could ask for users' zip code or Congressional District and questions or priorities voted on locally. This would distribute the special interests geographically. 

People could begin by discussing and voting up questions in their locality and then popular questions could "advance" to a regional and then national level.  A bonus to this system, if by Congressional District, is that members of the House could also have access to the data from their districts, helping to inform their deliberations and decisions. If the tool was used for local politics, too, it would become even more valuable. 

This isn't a time to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but to take a closer look at what actually happens when new tools are introduced. The WH New Media team is anxious to refine and enhance participation tools and are looking at each foray into new territory as a learning experience. And that's something that we can all take back to our agencies. 

Apr 4, 2009

Shorts: Tools not Gov20 Ready, Catch-22 and URL Shorteners

Khaki women's walking shorts.Twitter, Facebook not ready for Government 2.0? Bill Schrier, CIO for the City of Seattle and a creative adopter of technology, writes, "Amazingly enough, social networking tools may not be of much use to local government, unless there are significant improvements or new applications. How do social media companies and local governments need to change to really bring social networking "to the people"? " Schrier calls out issues with identity and relationships to government, challenges with volume and true one-one communications with officials, and the digital divide as issues that need to be thought through and addressed. Read his post.

Government 2.0 Meets Catch 22. NY Times blogger Saul Hansell writes, “Do I need to P.I.A. Facebook?” said the perplexed bureaucrat squished into a narrow basement hotel conference room in Washington DC. P.I.A. stands for Privacy Impact Assessment, a procedure that federal agencies must go through every time they create a new computer system. It was one of many questions about how the government can use the tools of Web 2.0 raised in a session of a privacy conference last week. Organizations of all sorts have been trying to figure out how they can adapt social networks, blogs, wiki’s and other Web tools to their traditional operating methods in order to connect to customers and partners." Really, who woulda thunk that a PIA would be mentioned in a NYT blog? Also, for the record the Dept of Homeland Security doesn't have a Facebook page per some misinformed "official" quoted in the blog. Read the entire post.

Analysis: Which URL Shortening Service Should You Use? Search Engine Land has a great primer and comparison for URL shorteners. "URL shortening services are experiencing a renaissance in the age of Twitter. When every character counts, these services reduce long URLs to tiny forms. But which is the best to use, when so many are offered and new ones seem to appear each day? Below, issues to consider and a breakdown of popular services, including recommendations and services to avoid (the new DiggBar being one of these)." Very practical read.

Apr 1, 2009

Twist on Citizen-Jounalist: The Fed-Journalist

Sheila Campbell, former Peace Corps intranet manager and currently on staff at GSA as Manager of Webcontent.gov and Web Manager University AND co-chair of the Federal Web Managers Council, somehow has squeezed out some time to join the blogging team at Tech President.

She said
In full disclosure, you’ll see from my bio that I’m no professional writer or journalist like many of the other bloggers. I doubt you’ll be reading my posts because of my brilliant prose. But what I’m hoping I can offer—as co-chair of the Federal Web Managers Council—is an insider’s view of the government web manager community and the challenges and issues we face every day in trying to transform government websites to better serve the public. I want to share some observations from inside the trenches. And I want to get a dialogue going about how we can work together to effect meaningful, lasting change. Over the past year, I’ve seen too many conversations in the echo chamber, where government people just talk to government people or the “we-want-to-reform-government” folks only talk to other government reform folks. This blog is a small attempt to try to address that. --Read Sheila's entire inaugural post.
Sheila is among many in government who are working to bridge the gap between government and the rest-of-the-world. But she had some reservations that her bosses at the General Services Administration--the agency that oversees buildings and buying for the federal government--would not want her to blog.
But, in fact, they embraced it, as they have with other new media efforts. It was refreshing to hear them say, “it’s no different than other forms of public speaking or representation you would normally do. Just follow the same guidelines as you would otherwise. Then go for it.”
Lessons I am taking from the making of a new Fed-Journalist are, first, don't be afraid to ask permission. Times are changing and if you make a good case the answer may be "Yes!" Second, don't be afraid to be turned down. There is a growing number of examples throughout government. Use models that exist. And if someone says, "No!" you have at least tilled the soil for the next time.

Looking forward to Sheila's blog posts in the future. Go to Tech President and tell her, "hi!"