Results tagged “government”

NYC's Mayoral Primary: How to Choose

September 10, 2013

Today is New York City’s mayoral primary, where the two major parties select which candidate will represent the party.

Due to my being on the board of the NY Tech Meetup, I got to be part of a small group that interviewed almost all of the major candidates. (Basically, everyone except Anthony Weiner, whose presence I didn’t particularly miss.) If you have the time, I strongly recommend watching all of the video interviews with the candidates. Though they obviously focused their conversation on the fact they were talking to members of the technology industry, each presentation began with a 10-minute talk about their candidacy overall, and the questions that followed weren’t limited to being about technology.

A broad range of representatives from the technology world were present, including people involved in policy, education, entrepreneurship, civic organizations, and even venture capital, well described by Fred Wilson. I am incredibly proud of NYTM for organizing and hosting all of these candidates; When I ran for the NYTM board, my greatest wish was that the Tech Meetup community would become a political force, working as a positive actor in New York City. As I said then, “We must be a community that is able to hold officials accountable.” I think today’s election marks a point where the technology community can truthfully say that we have reached that milestone.

Now the question is what we do with our power. Do we use it to enrich ourselves, or to help our city?

Foot in the Door

Access to the candidates is a powerful opportunity for all of us in technology. From this point on, I’ll diverge from describing what the NY Tech Meetup community has done to representing my own point of view, which doesn’t represent the NYTM board or our members.

As an ordinary citizen, I don’t often get to talk to the likely next mayor of New York City, so I asked the candidates the question that I thought mattered most: Given the success and privilege that the tech sector has seen so far, how would we be asked to serve and give back to our city? I framed the question in terms of how we could help address injustices like our city’s Stop and Frisk policy, but the key point here was that we should be asked what we can give, not just telling what we want to take.

Price of Independence

For me, this exercise is mostly an intellectual one; I don’t belong to a political party, so I can’t vote in the Democratic or Republican primary, and there’s no runoff for independent candidates ahead of the general election. It’s very likely that we’ll see a post-Bloomberg return to having a major party win in the general election, so though I’m friends with Jack Hidary, one of the leading independent candidates, and I found independent candidate Adolfo CarriĆ³n to bevery fluent in the issues of his constitutency, I don’t have much of an opinion about their chances of an upset in November.

Leading Contenders

Before getting a chance to spend half an hour with each of the candidates, my bias amongst the Democratic candidates had been slightly toward Christine Quinn. Though I share the near-universal disgust for her horse-trading to enable Bloomberg’s third term, the prospect of having a true ally for LGBTQ rights in office, and the prospect of our first female mayor were very appealing, especially given that I perceived a lack of substantial policy distinctions between the Democratic candidates. The interview with Quinn also shows her strength, especially during the Q&A: She feels real. She talks like a normal person, and has a great instant rapport with a room in a way that doesn’t feel like a pandering politician. I was impressed, and surprisingly charmed, and her literacy in the minutia of making policy happen in the city is absolutely the strongest of the field. Despite the misgivings many have about her brusque manner, I would have no major qualms about having Quinn as mayor, given the long history of prickly types who’ve inhabited the office.

Another surprise to me was Bill Thompson. I’d been cautiously impressed by his performance in an earlier town hall meeting where I’d seen 3 or 4 of the Democratic candidates speak. He was passionate about housing equity issues that few other candidates addressed. In his NYTM interview, he had by far the most detailed and inspiring plan for using technology to help the city. You can see him outline his 10-point tech plan in the video, but my takeaway from the admittedly impressive plan was more “I wonder who he got to write that for him?” rather than “He has really brilliant ideas about this!” I do respect leaders who are smart enough to get great policy advisors, though, and this put Thompson into my second place overall for desired candidates.

Tech Cred

Any detailed response to how candidates might either help the tech industry or take advantage of tech to make the city run better was well-received, but most candidates generally regurgitated the 7-point policy platform that the NYTM outlined on its site (see bottom of the page). Any deviation from those expected nods to their hosts was very welcome.

One of the few other candidates to do a strong job in thinking of ways to use tech was Joe Lhota, the lone Republican candidate to sit down for an interview. Given that his main opponent is running on the farcical reputation of having built the Gristedes grocery chain (Slogan: “Slightly less shitty than C-Town!”), he’d be hard pressed to not do well in the Republican race. That being said, a close alignment with some of Giuliani’s most indefensible policies, was off-putting, and worse was that he oddly took credit for some MTA open data efforts that I actually helped to launch under his predecessor Jay Walder. Given that Lhota could have easily, and fairly, just focused on the remarkable job that he did getting MTA back up and running after Hurricane Sandy, this seemed like needless stretching for credit with techies.

A Different Perspective

And then, one of the last candidates came up to speak and fundamentally changed how I saw the race: Bill de Blasio. His opening 10 minutes spoke frankly and forcefully about income inequality in our city and in our country, in a way that very few politicians of any stripe have articulated. He mentioned clearly that his children would be the first of any mayor’s to have gone to public school for their education. He articulated a clear plan for preserving our gains in fighting crime while undoing the everyday humiliations of Stop and Frisk. He supports his campaign with public dollars, allowing him to avoid being financially dependent on big donors without being a billionaire. And when I asked the same question about how the tech community could serve, rather than the bland platitudes I got from nearly every other candidate, he answered with specifics about how successful startups could pair with individual schools in order to offer students specific examples of the kinds of careers they could pursue post-graduation.

I get to hear a lot of elected officials talk, and I’m a little inured to the predictable cadence of people telling an audience exactly what they want to hear. Telling a room that has Fred Wilson in the audience, “I’m going to tax rich people” was pretty unexpected. I do not find it at all surprising that, in the weeks since this interview was recorded, de Blasio has seen a precipitous uptick in support for his candidacy. I think it’s well-earned and based on substance.

Do I think Bill de Blasio is the most tech-friendly, tech-literate candidate out of the field of contenders for the mayor of New York City? Probably not. I don't support a candidate based on their blind fealty to an already-wildly-successful industry. But like any of these smart people, he’ll have access to as fine a coterie of technical advisors as he’s willing to embrace.

Get Off Your Ass

Overall, we’re lucky. I don’t love any of these candidates, but given the disproportionate amount of attention that’s been paid to lunatic sideshows in NYC’s elections this year, I’m very glad to see that there’s a deep list of smart, engaged candidates. They all had very good ideas, and none of them were embarrassing to watch when talking about how they’d improve the city.

As an independent, I don’t have much of a vote in city politics, and by the time I do, it’ll probably be too late. But if you’re reading this, you might well have a say as to who we put into office. I think the best choice is Bill de Blasio, and it seems many New Yorkers would agree. But I’m certain the worst choice would be to miss a chance to vote on these candidates, so please do watch the videos, read up on the candidates and issues, find your polling place, and get out and vote!

Further Reading

Tech Now Has Its Own RIAA. Meesa Scared!

September 20, 2012

Today marks the launch of The Internet Association, a laudable effort from a number of prominent Internet technology companies to address our industry's historic lack of engagement with the policy world by creating a lobbying group with a coherent platform and formidable backing.

I'm happy to see such as serious effort from companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Amazon, Ebay and AOL to address our industry's concerns through direct engagement with lawmakers. As Clay Johnson so wonderfully said, Dear Internet, It's No Longer Ok to Not Know How Congress Works, and it would seem from the Internet Association's existence that at least some major companies on the Internet agree. It's especially relevant to me because, by tech standards, the amount of investment it takes to create industry-friendly policy is so small; The total lobbying dollars that the entertainment industry spent advocating for SOPA and PIPA was somewhere around $94 million in 2011. That's roughly how much profit Microsoft Office makes in a week, or how much profit Apple as a company makes every day.

Yes, I hate the pernicious effect of money influencing policy for our major industries. But If Apple could spend a single day's profit and out-lobby the entire legacy entertainment industry, it seems like it'd be a good investment. Then we can move on to fixing the broken business of government and think about the future of web protest.

So, I'm in favor of the tech industry getting more organized in talking to policy makers. But part of me is scared shitless about the Internet Association. Because industry associations that start out with benevolent intentions to protect the freedoms of innovative young industries often become instruments of regulatory capture and innovation bullying as those industries mature. To understand how a well-intentioned effort like the Internet Association can evolve into the unrecognizable form that the RIAA and MPAA have taken for the music and film industries, we should spend some time with our old friend Jar Jar Binks.

Where Weesa Going?

The convention is to hate Jar Jar Binks for his role as a buffoonish Stepin-Fetchit-meets-mincing-nelly stereotype, or for representing George Lucas' insistence on CGI taking the place of plot development, or for demonstrating that a ham fist is able to wield a sledge hammer when it comes to hitting you over the head with infantile punchlines. The more evolved amongst us hate him for doing the impossible and making fart and poop jokes unfunny.


But I quibble with Jar Jar on grounds of policy and governance. It's often overlooked, but Jar Jar Binks created the Empire.

You see, the motion to grant Chancellor Palpatine emergency powers was introduced to the Galactic senate by Senator Binks. Which is to say, the government in the Star Wars universe went from being an elected republic to an autocratic empire due to a wartime policy change which Jar Jar introduced with the intention of protecting people in the most efficient way possible. Who could have anticipated that the Chancellor was also Darth Sidious and that he was grooming Anakin Skywalker to become Darth Vader? Certainly not meesa!

Which is all a roundabout, nerdy way of saying that sometimes when we create institutions under times of duress in order to protect ourselves from outside attacks, those institutions can get corrupted over time, with unintended consequences. One day you're worried about protecting your trade federation, the next day you're slogging through the trash compactor on a Death Star. One day you're still reeling from the onslaught of SOPA and PIPA, and the next day you're seeing how far you can push things with laws that will help your industry.

How We Avoid The Dark Side

The good news is, the journey from annoying pseudo-Rasta sidekick to destroying planets takes a few decades. What our tech industry doesn't often think about is that protectionist industry groups like the RIAA and MPAA started out with important, positive goals. The MPAA wanted to encourage filmmakers to have more artistic freedom, and did much to liberate movies from the oppressive censorship of the Hays code, leading to the flourishing of artistic creativity during the 1970s that we still revere today, including Star Wars itself.

Similarly, the RIAA has fought for artists' rights and their free expression a number of times, along with leading efforts in its earliest days to ensure consistent, high-quality reproduction of audio recordings. So it's no surprise today that most of the policy platform from the Internet Association is utterly reasonable proposals. I'd endorse the overwhelming majority of the Association's goals as stated today.

But if I like a lot of the people and companies behind the Internet Association, and I want most of their policies to happen, why am I raising the specter of the Dark Side in talking about them? For a few reasons:

  • We need to drive attention to the Internet Association at a time when our industry is distracted by passing events like the launch of new phones.
  • We must be mindful of the policies being advocated on our behalf by the companies we all work with — how many of us who care about the future of tech have even read what's being argued on our behalf?
  • Our legislators are going to expect that we agree with the policy positions of the Internet Association that claims to represent us; If that's not true then both the Association and Congress need to hear about it.
  • The Internet Association will likely have a lot of success in the next few years, since our industry is popular with regular people and politicians and provides a lot of jobs; This means the natural tendency that trade groups have toward regulatory capture or policy overreach will be accelerated as IA starts to get traction in Washington.
  • Have we considered how independent groups like Fight For the Future remain an important and vital part of the conversation, so that we have non-corporate policy influencers who'll advocate for users, not just companies, when considering the future of the web?

Making the IA a Force for Good

I am bullish on the Internet Association's work and mission in the short term. I think they will have tremendous impact with lawmakers and policymakers in the short term, even if the tech industry continues its usual habit of ignoring the policy world at large. I am inspired and satisfied by the fact that many of tech's biggest players are willing to work together like grownups. (Of note: Apple and Microsoft have not signed on to IA; We'll have to wait and see what that means.)

But our industry also has a habit of being self-centered and not particularly inclusive. While we're not abusive of intellectual property laws in the way of the movie and film industries that come before us, those industries would argue we're more abusive of traditional intellectual property rights than they are. Our culture values free speech to an extreme, which is admirable, but doesn't value protecting children or the vulnerable from the negative effects of free expression, which is a shortcoming. We are often myopic about the international and geopolitical implications of our platforms, preferring to pretend that content platforms can somehow be "neutral" about what they share or publish, instead of acknowledging that there are real-world impacts to what people do online.

These aren't the Internet Association's obligations to fix, but they are our entire community's responsibility to be aware of and watch as IA grows in size and power over the years to come. Let's watch IA closely, so we can celebrate the way they fight for us and provide a policy framework for our continued success. Let's appreciate that we can't keep growing our tech industry without being serious about the way technology interacts with law and policy.

And then, finally, let's be at our most mindful after we've got a few wins under our belt. Every other industry in the history of our country, and of capitalism broadly, has become abusive of its power once its titans band together into a trade group and start making laws. Maybe, if we're disciplined and vigilant and persistent, we can continue the tech industry's tradition of innovation and be the first industry that refuses to use its lobbying group as a system for protecting us from the disruptions of the next generation of innovators.

Politics is a Business. A Big, Broken One. Let's Fix It.

February 24, 2012

I'm an idealist. I want all governments to work in an ideal, uncorrupted state. But I'd settle for the governments which I live under to work in a way that were at least a bit more responsive and transparent. But part of the reason that doesn't happen is because most of the people I see interact with government based upon their feelings about various governmental institutions, rather than the facts of how it actually works. So here are a few key truths:

  1. Anybody who says "The Government" did something is ineffective at best and just plain ignorant at worst, because there is no monolithic "government" any more than there is a monolithic "The Media" or "The Business". Knowing, and embracing, complexity is necessary for those of us who'd like to change the system.
  2. Money drives an enormous amount of the actions of elected officials. This is not perceived by most elected officials as corruption, but rather as a simple fact, a fact about which they are neither shocked nor surprised. You cannot shame someone about a fact they readily concede.
  3. The reason money drives many actions of elected officials is because it's used to get votes, mostly through the purchase of advertising. It's not because politicians are trying to get rich. Politicians are already rich; That's why they can run.

But if these simple statements indicate that the current system is broken, how come this is the one area that's obviously broken that most tech entrepreneurs aren't trying to fix?

So We're All Doomed?

When I say the political system is broken, it might make it seem like I'm some pessimist decrying that the whole thing is hopeless. But I'm not! Because first, I don't think the process of using our electoral system as a multi-billion dollar media subsidy is going to be sustainable forever.

More importantly, the inescapable motivation for the enormous amounts of money saturating our political and electoral processes is that politicians want votes. It's what lets them become incumbents, a fancy political term that means "ruler for life".

Here's the tricky thing, though: Networks, sometimes, can trump money.

Networks Over Dollars

Now, it's not always the case that enormously vested interests with bottomless pocketbooks can be overcome simply by people banding together through newer, smarter, faster networks. But we've seen it work a few times. Early communities that sprung up around blogging and Craigslist were just trying to meet their own needs, but ended up massively disrupting the wealthy, powerful newspaper and magazine industries largely by accident. You know the same story happened to the industry formerly known as the recording business, too. And those disruptions happened without even trying.

When new technology-based networks are still young, they can be massively disruptive without even intending to be. So what would it look like if we disrupted one of these broken-ass, frequently corrupt, largely inequitable networks on purpose? Well, I can think of no industry in better need of that sort of upheaval than our policymaking infrastructure, at the local, state and federal level. We've let many of the organizations that make up these governmental institutions become unmoored, making many decisions not based on fact or effectiveness, but based on decisions shaped by the money chase that elected officials are obsessed with.

Who's Going To Step Up?

The thing is, there is a ton of opportunity in this disruption that's going to happen. Social networks will reshape electoral politics and the world of policymaking in the next half-decade, and it's just a question of who does it, and on what terms. Even in just the few short years since Expert Labs was formed, we've had to change some of our fundamental assumptions; According to the world we were living in when we started Expert Labs, the widespread, incredibly effective and surprisingly rapid protests against SOPA and PIPA should never have been able to happen. Yet they not only happened, they happened without primarily relying on financial sponsorship of alternate candidates as their primary point of influence.

In short, they used the network to overcome the traditional money-based ways of influencing politics.

The funny thing is, I'm not actually demonizing the fact that money and businesses have a role to play in how the political system works. In fact, as Clay Johnson eloquently explained, we should all do well to be more versed in how political fundraising and policymaking intersect. It's absolutely essential to know the ecosystem around web-based political influence if you want to understand its future.

Going Gaga

Perhaps one of the most overlooked parts of this evolution is that there are going to be new winners. Not just new candidates getting elected to office (although that's great, too!) but new companies which succeed in building thriving new businesses by serving a more responsive, engaged electorate through social networks online. In fact, I'm proud to advise one of the most prominent and promising of them, Votizen, which just got a pretty formidable set of investors who share my optimism that a better political infrastructure is also a good opportunity for building a business that helps make the world better.

I'm not the sort of person who usually ends up advising companies backed by "hot" Silicon Valley investors. (Or Ashton Kutcher. Or Lady Gaga's manager.) But putting aside my own picky preferences about how the tech industry runs, I want this one to work. I want our tech industry to see as much potential, as much excitement, as much glamour, and far more meaning in fixing politics and voting and policy as they do in fixing the way we listen to music or organize our photos.

Because even after Votizen succeeds wildly in getting people to band together to vote more effectively, with more focus on the issues they care about and the facts that impact those issues, we've got a lot of other work to do. We still have to get the smartest, most creative people in our country involved in the hard work of advising policy makers. We have to get regular folks to understand that the drugs that treat their family members' cancer, the highways they drive on to go see their kids' ball games, the parks they go to on the vacation days that they're mandated to have — all those things are the product of government, even with its current inefficiencies and imperfections. Hell, we have to have every big institution, whether it's government or business or academia or religion, to make itself accessible and malleable by all of us who are affected by their decisions.

Today, though, it's easy to criticize government, or to just complain about it. But bitching about government isn't like bitching about the weather, where we can't do anything about it. In fact it's the opposite — government is made out of the only thing we really can change: Ourselves. So let's get to work.

Free Publicity: Who do we help?

January 27, 2010

I'm not a Democrat; I don't much care about the scorekeeping of who has more seats in any given chamber of Congress. But I do think there are things that need fixing in this country, and one of the most important is acknowledging when things are going the right way. More to the point, we need to find a way to use our collective powers of amplification for something that helps us, instead of as a reward for distracting us.

Tonight will be the President's State of the Union address. I'm very interested in what he covers, not least because the address will be the start of a two-way dialogue, as I outlined on the Expert Labs site. I think that's a pretty big improvement over simply addressing our elected officials.

But the world I inhabit, at the intersection of tech and media, is far more obsessed with what Apple's going to announce about its tablet. People who write about gadgets for a living gotta pay the bills, and I love cool stuff as much as the next guy. What leaves me at a loss, though, is how many otherwise sane and sensible people give their time and energy freely to help support a company like Apple that, despite its elegant designs and generally excellent products (I use many of them), certainly doesn't need free PR from some of the most talented people on the web.

Though Apple is a reasonably progressive company, they explicitly don't give a shit about poor people. (Let's pretend I found a nicer way to say that.)

Who does need your help? I'd say the current administration does. Because the biggest difference between now and 18 months ago is not that President Obama has gotten elected; It's that those who support his agenda have gotten lazy about helping in the effort. Remember "We're the ones we've been waiting for?" Well, it seems like a lot of people got tired and gave up on themselves. What if all the energy that went into free promotion for the Apple tablet went into free promotion for what's been achieved so far, in the hopes of encouraging more achievements in the future?

The Feature List

I know, I know. the conventional wisdom is "Obama ain't done nothin'!" But that's clearly bullshit. Obviously, political opponents are going to parrot that idea, but I'm surprised that even supporters are lazy enough to believe it without fact-checking. Perhaps everybody's attention spans have been a little too shortened by chasing the next Apple rumor, because the facts are obvious. In one year, here's what I caught (you might have your own list):

  • The last U.S. Marines are leaving Iraq.
  • Credit card companies can no longer charge interest on fees, and can't retroactively raise your interest rate on existing balances.
  • We know who visits the White House, and who they're affiliated with.
  • There's a quarter billion dollars more funding for National Parks, and $50 million more for the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • We responded, imperfectly but with heart and sincere effort, to the disaster in Haiti. Just as we wish we had after Katrina. Leadership matters most in emergencies.
  • Our current President readily admits when he's made mistakes, respects the validity of arguments that he disagrees with, and has members of the opposing party in his cabinet.
  • The Department of Homeland Security now allocates its security spending according to threats, not by spending the same amount of money on Montana as it does on New York.
  • My 401k is up 30% since the current President took office.
  • Our President asked both corporations and individuals to reduce their electricity consumption. He asked politely.
  • Trains. There's a plan to build more rails and more trains for transporting actual humans around the country.
  • The Matthew Shepard hate crime bill was passed.

Now, that's just my list. These matter to me. Maybe you have your own list. Or maybe there's only have a wishlist of features for an Apple tablet. The difference is this: Our current President is listening to what your requests are, and wants to hear them. Steve Jobs doesn't give a fuck about you. I promise. I'm typing this on an Apple keyboard hooked up to a MacBook, and I don't use Windows anymore, but I guarantee you that Steve Jobs is not going to get those last Marines out of Iraq.

And I know, I know, people will piss and moan about the stuff this administration hasn't gotten done yet. So my question is this: What did you do to help? Did you do 1/10 as much as you did to get these folks elected? Did you do as much, today, as you did to help Apple sell billions of dollars of products that you get no stake in, that don't help make life better for you and your friends and neighbors? What are you waiting for, somebody to ask nicely? I'm asking nicely: Please find a cause you care about, and beat the drum to stir up public sentiment to support it. Make it your wallpaper on your new tablet.

I'm not scolding you; I'm scolding me.

I had to ask myself these questions. Sure, I've got a bunch of tweets about Apple features that I want to request, and of course I'll watch the Stevenote as rapt as when I watch the State of the Union. But we all have a choice to make about how we invest our time, attention, and passion. And I'll bet in eight years, today's tablet is gonna look an awful lot like a first-generation iPod looks today. Some efforts age better than others.

My goal here isn't to browbeat anybody, or to lecture. I'm in the same boat as everybody else who loves technology. But my personal reckoning has just shown me that a bunch of libertarian-leaning geeks in Silicon Valley who refuse to engage with government and civic society at all are never going to make an impact on most of the things that actually make a difference in our lives. Everybody in Silicon Valley will tell you they have a gay friend, but they couldn't stop Prop 8 or get the hate crimes bill passed. Probably everybody at Apple thinks "We should do more to support the arts!" but they weren't funding the NEA. There will be no iTrain.

Right now there are a lot of hopeful, and possibly deluded, people in the old-line media businesses who hope that an Apple tablet will prop up their failing magazine, newspaper or television businesses. Those of us who are digitally savvy are probably having a chuckle at their expense, snickering at their wishful thinking. But Apple will invest a lot more in saving any given book publisher than they ever will in saving civic society, in protecting individuals' rights, or in engaging in diplomacy to neutralize the threat of violent extremists.

I'm gonna try to spend at least as much time advocating for issues I care about as I do for the purchase of new gadgets. I hope that even those who disagree with me on those issues do the same. Maybe there'll be an app for that.

Update: Gawker reposted this piece, kicking off an interesting conversation. William Saletan in Slate writes about politics vs. technology, choosing the "or" option when I think he could have focused on "and". Finally, Alex Balk has a little darker take with Barack Obama Is Your New iPad over on the Awl, which is definitely worth a look too.

Note: This article is also available in Belarusian for those interested.

Healthy Skepticism

August 25, 2009

I've been putting a lot of speculative ideas out lately; It's nice to see some healthy (and respectful) criticism from people who are skeptical about what I'm saying.

Gautham Nagesh followed up on my earlier post and fairly criticized the recent government websites I praised as being too tentative and unproven to merit the praise I'd given them. Interestingly, I had a throwaway half-sentence saying "I think Gautham and I just disagree about government's role in general", and Gautham interpreted this as a bit of an attack on his journalistic integrity, by implying that he wasn't being impartial about the story. That certainly wasn't my intention, but more importantly I think I just forgot (being a blogger myself) that Serious Journalists still care a whole lot about that idea. For what it's worth, I think it's great when journalists have a clearly disclosed partiality about a story.

Similarly, Mitch Wagner talked about my post a bit on InformationWeek's Government Blog, saying I'm "being excessively optimistic, because the Obama White House's record on transparency is decidedly mixed at best, as noted by the Washington Post in a May editorial." A fair criticism, though I think I was highlighting these recent efforts by the government as signals of intent to use the web well, rather than declaring Mission Accomplished. Hence, most interesting startup of 2009, not most successful. I went into this a bit further in this interview I did with Maggie Shiels for the BBC's tech blog:

"I am not a Polyanna about this, " Mr Dash told me.

"I don't think necessarily everything that comes out of this will be immediately great. It will take people some time to understand the potential there is for something great to happen.

On a less critical note, I did like that Inc's take on my post mentioned the success that private companies have had with similar API and data efforts; That was an analogy I should have made more explicitly and prominently in my own post.

Continuing the Conversation

August 18, 2009

Phew! Seems like there are a ton of people talking about the topics we've all been discussing here lately. Here's some highlights:

After I posited that the U.S. executive branch is the most interesting startup of 2009, there have been some amazing responses. Craig Newmark (you love his list!) very kindly gave a nod towards my post, adding "In some results, it's run like a really good Silicon Valley startup", and spreading the word on The Huffington Post as well. Mike Masnick at Techdirt chiimed in as well:

For plenty of reasons that you can guess, I'm pretty jaded by people in government, and it's rare to come across people who seem to be doing things for anything other than "political" purposes. But I have to admit that the amazing thing that came through in both [Federal CTO Aneesh] Chopra's talks was that they were both entirely about actually getting stuff done, with a focus on openness and data sharing. Chopra talked, repeatedly, about figuring out what could be done both short- and long-term, and never once struck me as someone looking to hoard power or focus on a partisan or political reason for doing things. It was never about positioning things to figure out how to increase his budget. In fact, many of the ideas he was discussing was looking at ways to just get stuff done now without any need for extra budget. Needless to say, this is not the sort of thing you hear regularly from folks involved in the government.

Towards the end of my essay, I'd pointed out one particular challenge that faces this new startup-minded government effort: "Acquiring and retaining talent is hard, especially in a city that doesn't have as deep a well of people with tech startup experience." Amazingly, the latest perfect example of the type of talent that are heading to D.C. these days just popped up, with Christopher Soghoian's announcement that he is joining the FTC. I only know Christopher's work by reputation at Harvard's Berkman Center, but I think the fact that the government is looking for talented people in academia (a talent pool that typical tech startups often overlook) is a great sign.

Of course, there are skeptics. Gautham Nagesh covers the government for Nextgov and Atlantic Media, and he thinks I'm believing the hype". Of course, I think Gautham and I just disagree about government's role in general, and that I'll take small signs of progress as successes, even if there is a lot of work left to do yet.

In fact, I'll be talking about this a bit later today on Federal News Radio's Daily Debrief show. If you're in D.C., tune in to 1500 AM at 4:05 EDT and one idea I'll be discussing is how the recent web achievements by the executive branch are a lot like Microsoft's recent success with Bing; It doesn't mean that the whole giant organization is on the right track, it just means that it's still possible for these behemoths to do the right thing.

The potential is also hinted at in Brady Forrest's post about EveryBlock's acquisition over on O'Reilly Radar. I'm ecstatic to see Adrian and his team at EveryBlock get even more resources for their work, but just as pleased to see the government's work being discussed as a peer to even the most cutting-edge startups in the private sector.

Google's Wave Moment

After my recent posts about The Wave Way and Google's Microsoft Moment, I was very graciously invited to join Leo Laporte, Gina Trapani and Jeff Jarvis on their awesome podcast about Google and cloud computing, This Week in Google. If you have an hour or so to spare for listening to a podcast, I am very proud of how it came out, and especially that I got to participate with such pros on a show like this. TWiG is available on iTunes and Boxee and all of those usual services as well.

The idea that Google is facing a reckoning as it grows in size and influence seems to have caught on, and comparing the company to Microsoft has gone from seeming a bit radical at the time I posted to becoming much more popular when Wired covered the idea to finally having become something approaching conventional wisdom in just a few weeks. Take, for example, New Google is the old Microsoft, by Galen Ward, which lists the ways that Google ties its nascent (or even unsuccessful) efforts to the results of its dominant search engine.

Apple Blinks on Secrecy?

Less than three weeks ago, I was arguing that Apple's culture of secrecy can't scale. Fortunately, we may never know if I'm right. Astoundingly, Apple has opened up to some degree, most notably via VP Phil Schiller reaching out personally to bloggers John Gruber and Steven Frank. Of course, that's not a complete course change for Apple, but it is still significantly more human, personal and open than any recent communications they've made about their efforts.

Meanwhile, the idea that Apple's traditional secrecy is untenable has gotten an even larger audience with The Times' lengthy look at Steve Jobs and Apple:

[A]long with computers, iPhones and iPods, secrecy is one of Apple’s signature products. A cult of corporate omerta — the mafia code of silence — is ruthlessly enforced, with employees sacked for leaks and careless talk. Executives feed deliberate misinformation into one part of the company so that any leak can be traced back to its source. Workers on sensitive projects have to pass through many layers of security. Once at their desks or benches, they are monitored by cameras and they must cover up devices with black cloaks and turn on red warning lights when they are uncovered. “The secrecy is beyond fastidious and is in fact insultingly petty and political,” says one employee on the anonymous corporate reporting site, “and often is an impediment to actually getting one’s work done.”

But employees are one thing; shareholders are another. Should Jobs (who, as far as the world is concerned, is Apple) have been allowed to conceal the seriousness of his illness? Warren Buffett, the greatest investor alive, doesn’t think so. “Whether [Steve Jobs] is facing serious surgery or not is a material fact.”

Some say another sign that Apple omerta has gone too far was the death of Sun Danyong, a 25-year-old employee of Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer of Apple machines. He was given 16 prototypes of new iPhones. One disappeared. Facts beyond that get hazy, but it is clear that Sun committed suicide by jumping from a 12th-storey apartment. Internet babble says he killed himself because of the vanished prototype and, therefore, because of Apple’s obsessive secrecy.

Pushing the Right Buttons

Finally, the idea of the Pushbutton Web seems to be gaining steam. I am delighted to point out Om Malik's The Evolution of Blogging, which Om uses as an example of a longer-form blog post he's enjoyed recently, but which I also hope will be a catalyst for the evolution of blogging that he's calling for in the post overall.

That point is taken even further with Farhad Manjoo's ruminations in Slate, which reference my Pushbutton post:

[A]s technologies like PubSubHubbub proliferate around the Web, with companies like Google, Facebook, and others embracing them, real-time Web updates will become the norm. It won't be hard to build competitors to Twitter—systems that do as much as it does but whose decentralized design ensures that they're not a single point of failure. Winer envisions these systems coming up alongside Twitter—when you post a status update, it could get sent to both Twitter and whatever decentralized, next-gen Twitter gets created. If these new systems take off, Twitter would be just one of many status-updating hubs—and if it went down, there'd be other servers to take its place.

Seeing so many great conversations pop up recently around the topics I've been obsessing over has been very inspiring; Right after I made offhand mention of one of my Big Think interviews being about the Philology of LOLcats, my original piece on LOLcat language, Cats Can Has Grammar, was indirectly cited in Time's profile of "I Can Has Cheeseburger", through a reference to "kitty pidgin". It might seem like a minor mention, but the idea that a random dude like me can write a post that results in a phrase showing up in Time or The New York Times is still very exciting to me, after all of these years.

Best of all, there have been a spate of amazing comments on all of these posts lately, both on this site and in some of the responses I've linked to above. I'm having more fun than ever in watching the conversation across the blogosphere.

In the meantime, two to consider:

  • Slow Web: "There's a web that well-considered and worth savoring. We'll show you where."
  • Every Friday, Rain or Shine: "When you see an interesting idea expressed in 140 chars that you think could use elaboration, ask them to do a longer-form post to explain. Especially on Fridays."

The Most Interesting New Tech Startup of 2009

August 14, 2009

I love seeing people start new companies, especially in the tech world. But I've probably gotten a little bit jaded about new startups, especially when the story seems to be more about who's funding the effort than about the product itself. To me the distinction that makes a startup interesting is not just whether their own product or service is cool, but whether it's broad and ambitious enough that others can build interesting things on top of it.

So, after taking a pretty careful look at the tech scene (and of course with a number of my recent posts being focused on Facebook, Google, Apple and other giants of the tech industry), I think the most promising new startup of 2009 is one of the least likely: The executive branch of the federal government of the United States.

Now, .gov websites have historically been backwaters at best, a bunch of awkwardly-designed, poorly defined sites that only met the bare requirements of a web presence. But of course the current administration is comprised in great part of digital natives, and it's remarkable how quickly they've remade the .gov world into not just a number of compelling websites, but into a broad set of platforms that are going to inspire as much technological innovation as Twitter, Facebook or the iPhone did when they unveiled their technology platforms.

.gov Sites

Need proof? Well, let's take a look at some of the most compelling new sites that have launched in just the few short months since President Obama took office:

  •, providing open access to feeds of valuable facts and figures generated by the executive branch.
  •, allowing any of us to drill down into the details of spending from various federal agencies.
  •, perhaps one of the best-known of the new sites, offering up details of how resources from the Recovery Act are being allocated.
  • And of course, there's You know about that one.

What's remarkable about these sites is not merely that they exist; There had been some efforts to provide this kind of information in the past. Rather, what stands out is that they exhibit a lot of the traits of some of the best tech startups in Silicon Valley or New York City. Each site has remarkably consistent branding elements, leading to a predictable and trustworthy sense of place when you visit the sites. There is clear attention to design, both from the cosmetic elements of these pages, and from the thoughtfulness of the information architecture on each site. (The clear, focused promotional areas on each homepage feel just like the "Sign up now!" links on the site of most Web 2.0 companies.) And increasingly, these services are being accompanied by new APIs and data sources that can be used by others to build interesting applications.

That last point is perhaps most significant. We've seen the remarkable innovation that sprung up years ago around the API for services like Flickr, and that continues full-force today around apps like Twitter. But who could have predicted just a year or two ago that we might have something like Apps for America, the effort being led by the Sunlight Foundation, Google, O'Reilly Media and TechWeb to reward applications built around datasets provided by The tools that have already been built are fascinating. And, frankly, they're a lot more compelling than most of the sample apps that a typical startup can wring out of its community with a developer contest.

More importantly, there's a different attitude about the web and leveraging online communities to help make our government work more effectively. I learned a bit about this first hand when I saw U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra speak at Wired's "Disruptive By Design" conference a few weeks ago:

One of the highlights of that clip happens at just 1:45 into the video, where Kundra outlines a vision where the default setting for information created by the government should be public, not secret. This is the same kind of "default openness" that turned ordinary collecting behaviors on sites like Flickr and Delicious into the foundation for remarkable communities that display phenomenally valuable emergent behaviors. We're seeing this right now, with an organization like Twitter looking to build the feature of retweeting into their own platform, after it having been pioneered by their community.

And it's just as essential to note the way in which these changes have happened. Something like the USA Spending dashboard would have taken half a year or more to deploy in any large-sized corporation; Our government got it done in just a few months. How did they do it? Well, the team in the CIO's office was working nights and weekends, borrowing time and resources as they were able in order to get something useful shipping as quickly as possible. In short, they were working startup hours, with a startup's level of intensity, because they knew they were making something cool and useful.

So What's Next?

While it's exciting to see the remarkable embrace of new technologies that's coming from inside the beltway, there are still some serious challenges that face the new startup-minded tech community within our government. In many ways, they echo the classic challenges that all startups face, but with a unique twist:

  • Defining a startup's culture is extraordinarily difficult, since there have to be clear values that are expressed in the way people act both in public and behind the scenes. In the case of the executive branch, this is doubly hard because it's redefining a culture which has been well-established for decades. Bringing organizational change and new technologies to an established way of working requires partners and suppliers to change the way they do business, as well.
  • Acquiring and retaining talent is hard, especially in a city that doesn't have as deep a well of people with tech startup experience. And of course, nobody works in government for the salaries. Fortunately, all of us who are citizens already have equity in this startup.
  • Marketing has never been the strong suit of those doing the most interesting work in the government sphere. Even some of the smarter folks I know in the tech world had never even heard of the sites I mentioned above, or had never bothered to check them out in much detail. It's going to take concerted effort to get the word out beyond the usual circle of those who were already interested in technology and government.

Of course, these efforts just represent a small start towards the incredible amount of work that remains to be done in making an entity like the U.S. government as responsive and interactive as today's web demands. There will be mistakes, and worse, there will be those who try to politicize this good work, even though our government making smarter use of the web benefits us all whether you agree or disagree with the policies of the present administration.

But I am hopeful, because I've seen a couple of cool applications come out, and more importantly I've seen every indication that, after literally decades of ignoring and neglecting the technology industry that defines so much of our culture, those in political power are eager to embrace those with technological ability. I personally can daydream about Pushbutton-enabling feeds from to let us build realtime apps with government data, or deploying blogging tools at the FCC so that we find out about interesting filings from the organization that actually gets the filings. I can imagine all sorts of applications that could be built if we could find "all publicly-available government data on this neighborhood I'm considering moving to".

And while I'm sure that all of these things will get built, as someone who's paying for this stuff with my tax dollars, I am fundamentally most happy about the fact that data generated by my government can be created in a format that fits the way I consume and share information, instead of merely being printed on paper and filed away in a warehouse somewhere. For the way I live, and the way that all of my peers and friends live, the executive branch's new embrace of a startup mentality and the promise of the web means that its work is, for the first time, truly public.

Mayor Mike's Not Wearing His Pajamas

June 17, 2008

Today Newtalk, a site dedicated to substantive political discussions, hosted a conversation asking "Is it possible to fix government?". In his response to host Philip Howard, NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg reveals that it's his first time responding to a conversation online:

Thanks for the opportunity to participate in this discussion, Philip. This is my first time participating in an online discussion, but I can assure you I am not at home wearing my pajamas. This is a great group, the kind of crowd I'd enjoy having over for dinner. So I'm just going to pretend that we're all sitting around a big table. I always learn something when I break bread with diverse groups of talented people, and I expect this conversation will be no different.

It's a little bit depressing that, more than ten years after blogging's taken off, even some of the most prominent politicians in the country still think bloggers are folks at home in their pajamas. But I will take it as a sign of at least a little progress that Newtalk is a Movable Type Community Solution site, so maybe indirectly my day job helped Mayor Mike make his first steps online.