Friday, September 25, 2009

Don't accept a NO from somebody who can't give you a YES in the first place

The Gov.0 Summit was held in Washington DC earlier in September. The speakers were a who's who of IT and government. The title of this post is my favourite quote from the event (a variation on the “seek forgiveness rather than permission”) from Michele Quaid.

Attendees were mainly from the US - catchphrases like "East meets West" and "Geeks go to Washington" illustrate the IT folk from Silicon Valley working with the federal folk from Washington. There were a small number of overseas attendees – I met people from UK, Canada, Australia, and Singapore – plus myself and Nat Torkington from NZ. Nat spoke about his views on the radio yesterday.

I tweeted from the conference continuously, so you can read the full stream, if you have the stamina, or can visualise the content from my comments on twitter.(produced by

All the material from the conference is available online.
In this post I highlight the items that were of particular resonance for me, with links to more information. From the links you can generally find a Powerpoint and a video to see more. Use this like a menu – choose the dishes that attract you.

Law is the Operating System of Democracy
  • Used more than once by speakers discussing the importance of free and open access to legal proceedings.
  • Government information is national infrastructure and an engine of innovation. Carl Malamud, the only speaker to get a standing ovation.
Government needs to shift from being a retailer of data to providing wholesale data
  • Successful information businesses have operated as a platform - iPhone is the classic example. Govt can get uptake by learning from this. Tim O’Reilly opening keynote
  • Every platform has a killer app. 2.0 closes the loop to consumer about energy consumption.
  • Open and decentralised delivers results ecosystem - open source, ethernet, TCP/IP, Wifi. All based on idea of shared resources Mitch Kapor on government as a platform.
  • What is the role of government in information infrastructure? Government as platform provider of last resort, as well as building on existing platforms.
  • Government is in the wholesale data business. Focus should be on quality of data, let the community do presentation.
  • If you have never seen Gapminder, check it out – the community is much better placed to use these tools to create insight from official data.
Government data is public data
  • Public means on-line. Public means real-time. Government role is wholesale and retail.
  • Priority for government is to produce machine readable data (wholesale). Secondary is interpretation (retail) which many can do - any interpretation of data is only one view.
  • Appsforamerica2 shows that true value lies at the intersection of data feeds.
  • A government agency can’t mash up data from multiple agencies.
  • Government provides the platform for the public as watchdog and innovator.
  • Discussion between Ellen Miller (Sunlight Foundation) and Vivek Kundra (Government CIO).
Three values of open government: transparency, participation, and collaboration
  • Each agency must have a roadmap for Open Government.
  • Roadmap is not just technology, also includes people and operations. Schedule for publishing data online in raw structured machine readable formats.
  • Policy work on how legal framework needs to be reinterpreted in a 2.0 world.
  • How can anyone argue against open and transparency? It's a triple whammy - tap into wisdom and expertise, strengthen trust in government, reduce costs.
  • Beth Noveck Director of the White House Open Government Initiative.
Use wikis and other collaborative tools to create policy on how to open up govt data (aka Eat your own dogfood)
If you can’t describe what you are delivering in a few words, you’re probably doing it wrong.
  • Words of wisdom based on real world experience from Tom Steinberg in eight and a half minutes.
Open source delivers Moore’s Law for software
  • Cost nothing to acquire - costs nothing to retire.
  • .. and many other sound bites on open source from Michael Tiemann.
Vint Cerf See why he still rocks - on the video
  • TCP/IP being open was critical to breaking dominance of proprietary.
  • Platforms of liberation and platforms of control. Is there an inevitability that they move to the control model as they go dominant.
  • Twitter as the channel for the intenet of things?
  • If I designed the internet knowing what I know now, I would have done more on authentication, and mobility.
Thomas Watson was out by 4
  • Thomas Watson, head of IBM, famouly predicted that the market was big enough for five computers. He was wrong – the internet is a single connected computer.
"I decided not to move to XX after I checked it out on the EPA site"
  • An email to the site manager about the personal impact of access to information on the levels of environmental pollution by location.
"Is it disrespectful to wear virtual shoes in a virtual mosque?"
  • Presentation on Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds - using second life as a way of enabling better understanding of different cultures.
Make a real difference to people’s lives
  • UNICEF use SMS and mobile phones to collect data from the field in Malawi and respond with thank you and diagnosis. Python code on
San Francisco open data
  • is open source community for public access to raw government data in machine readable formats – includes utilities for conversion of data files from XL to more useable forms for mashup. Offshoot from
The winner of the department of defence cyberchallenge hacked the server holding the scores.
Just because you can mashup data doesn’t mean you should.
"Only pack it if you can hack it."
  • Army speaking to the culture of improvisation and RedHat. Surface innovation by soldiers on, for widespread deployment.
Health sector innovations
  • Some neat ones here. I especially liked Healthloop (automated email between doctor and patient on effect of medication on patient daily) – in Healthspottr presentation. As well as feedback to GP, can provide aggregate data on effectiveness of medication for public health policy purposes.
Geospatial is foundation information infrastructure.
  • Extraordinary demonstration by ESRI on what can be done with geo-mashup (demo is about half way through the video – worth waiting through the talking head).
  • If Geo is the bones of the new global computer, then identity must be the arteries.
Beyond geo -
Augmented Reality as new public infrastructure
  • Eat your heart out William Gibson.
National Broadband is the major infrastructure challenge for this generation.
  • Like the railways and the electricity grid for previous generations - Chairman of FCC Julius Genachowski.
  • Policy and program development is designed to be open and participatory - 20 consultation meetings streamed online last month.
  • Level of involvement very high for a dull regulatory subject - sign of the (2.0) times and the importance of broadband.
Is Gov2.0 a political struggle over power & accountability? Or an upgrade?
45% of government systems are low risk – can be in public cloud.
  • Avoid wasting public money on the management of commodities. Government agencies and cloud computing Casey Coleman, CIO, GSA.
Use your gmail logon for govt low risk sites
What makes government sites work?
  • Organize content for the public
  • Rely on (and don’t fear) Web 2.0
  • Listen (and respond) to user needs
  • Know visitors come to conduct specific tasks
  • Engage customers with candid, well written blogs
Start small, fail quick

This mantra for Gov2.0 development was mentioned by multiple speakers; it is hard for government to action, but essential as we operate in a richly connected 21st century world.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

"We are all individuals" - "I'm not"

My favourite Monty Python is this priceless gem from the movie "Life of Brian".

I am sure the Python team had not foreseen the chattering classes that now make up the on-line world, but behind the humour of paradox, there is an important truth - everyone being an individual does not a movement make.

The Sound of Silence

I went to a performance of John Cageś 4´33 by Margaret Tan some years ago. This legendary piece is in three movements, all of them consisting of silence - the performer not playing their instrument.The content of the composition is meant to be perceived as the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, rather than merely as four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence.

At the performance I attended, Margaret played the piece on a toy piano, opening and closing the lid of the piano to mark the end of each movement - the first being timed at 30 seconds, the second (the long second movement) being 2′40″ and the final movement of 1′20″. She invited the audience to turn on their mobile phones for the duration of the piece. The effect was extraordinary - the concert hall was filled with a constellation of sound that covered the entire classical music spectrum (saying something about the choice of ring tone for people that attend such concerts). It was a dramatic illustration of the sheer volume of interactions between people.

The global babble

Now in the transparent world of 2.0, we have visibility of how much people talk to other people - on Facebook, Twitter and blogosphere - or sometimes just to the void, in the hope that someone is listening. I was told as a child that I had one mouth and two ears, and should use them in the right proportions. Well, we clearly have ten fingers and are using them all to communicate to the world.

And each person has their own point of view and story to tell, so where can we find or seek the new collective narrative?

The traditional sources of collective narrative, based on personal interactions, are all being dissipated in the new rolling conversations that are happening around the world, around the clock. None of the old sources of authority seem to be relevant any more: we have increasingly fragmented religion, and the old ideologies - communism, socialism, capitalism - all seem to fall short of our collective expectation.

Analysis? - FAIL

One possible response is to break down the world into smaller chunks, to a size that we are capable of understanding; problem is, there are no tidy segments that the ideas or the dialog fit into.

As an aside, I attended the World Summit Awards last week. The awards seek to recognise great use of internet technologies in eight categories - e-Business & Commerce, e-Government & Institutions, e-Health & Environment, e-Learning & Education, Entertainment & Games, e-Science & Technology, e-Inclusion & Participation, and e-Culture & Heritage. There were 20,000 entries from 157 countries and some extraordinary innovations and achievements in the winning 40. While the categories were needed to organise the judging, there were no clear boundaries between the different domains, and indeed all knowledge connects.

How can we cope with the sheer volume of opinion. Thanks to Confused of Calcutta last month for pointing out The Mountain Men’s Three Wolf Moon Short Tee Shirt. 51jZitVcKmL._SS500_
¨Just take a look at the reviews of the item on Amazon. 136 customer reviews. 13,171 finding the first review helpful. 181 comments on that review. Don’t stop there, you must take a look at some of the other reviews. Preferably while sitting down in a comfortable position.¨

It puts me in mind of Google´s audacious goal - ¨to organise the world´s information¨ - which I think is unachievable. Any classification system - Dewey, Dublin Core, or metadata - will collapse under the weight of the world´s information and the peopleś perspective. Ever tried to create a search engine in Mandarin? - well neither have I, but I am told it is a real challenge because the characters have different meanings dependent on context.

Meaning is lost in the choices that are made. The search for a new semantic order is a courageous undertaking.

What can bring it together?

We do seem to have a basic need for a unifying narrative - if history is any indicator. A new narrative needs to be global, multi-cultural, inclusive and trans-national, if indeed one is possible.

This leads me to conclude that the health of the planet - ecology, green movement, sustainability - is the only possible narrative that will be able to connect such a diversity of interests.

The topic of Climate Change has increased in importance over the last few years, with major debates about the level of emission reduction that can be expected, and what will be needed to stave off catastrophe. The only focal point for such action is the United Nations, an institution that has considerable political baggage; the risk is that the need for action on climate change is supplanted by debates on the role and value of the UN, and other options for global governance (which is where I started this story).

However, for all it´s faults, the UN is all we have right now and we will see how effectively that is working at the Copenhagen Summit in December.