IdeaScale: crowdsourcing ideas for better governance

Tonight I got to hang out with a nice bunch of Gov2.0 aficionados and activists at an Open Gov West meetup at Twist in Belltown. (As an aside, Twist has stunning views of the Sound and an all night happy hour menu).  The happy hour was organized by Sarah Schacht (@SarahSchacht), the woman behind Knowledge as Power and the Open Gov West conference.  It was a great opportunity for those of us who attended the conference to gather and continue our connections.  There was also a designated half hour to hear reports back on the ideas and projects that surfaced at OGW.  Unfortunately, I have an evening class on Mondays and missed the reports back.  But, I did have great conversations with a number of folks. One of the people I met was Rob Hoen (@rhoehn) who works at IdeaScale (@ideascale), a company I’d never heard of before.

Apparently, IdeaScale is a platform that — similar to Digg — let’s users rate ideas so that the best, or at least most popular, rise to the top.  And it’s being used in a number of Open Government initiatives. The Obama administration implemented IdeaScale when it asked the public:
How can we strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness by making government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative?
This nifty crowdsourcing tool is being used in a variety of arenas, not just for the pubic sector.  However, I was impressed with the various OpenGov projects using IdeaScale. Here is the list from their website:

Throughout Wiki GovernmentBeth Simone Noveck emphasizes the importance design of technology plays in creating opportunities for government to tap the knowledge and expertise of the public.  For the most part, there are not effective mechanisms in place for goverment to take action on the thousands of emails and letters constituents send in.  Noveck calls for the design of systems that lets users rate ideas, thus allowing the best to bubble to the top.  This is exactly what IdeaScale is designed to do and why it’s now on my radar.

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May 6th: Open APIs for Government

OpenPlan (formerly The Open Planning Project) points to an exciting event happening in San Francisco on May 6th: 

Open data and Open APIs are increasingly powerful vectors for what Tim O’Reilly has called ‘government as a platform.’ A number of open government efforts, including Open311, are opportunities to fundamentally improve the way that municipalities and citizens interact. Open APIs allow for software developers to create novel data-driven applications, and those in turn create more direct, responsive relationships with citizens.

That’s why we’re excited about the upcoming Open APIs for Government event being held at San Francisco’s City Hall on May 6 at 6:30pm. We hope to see many of you there for lively discussion of the importance of open government in the era of open data and open source. The event will explore visions for the future of this movement as well as updates on current efforts and app demos.

Wish I could be there! Craig Newmark, Tim O'Reilly, San Francisco's CIO, Tim Vein, and OpenPlan's Phil Ashlock (@philipashlock) will all be on a panel at the event.

I've been hearing a lot about the API-driven web lately. We discussed it in Samantha Starmer's class last Saturday morning. (I'm not even enrolled in her class, but I love the way she thinks about information so I got up at 7:00am on a Saturday morning to sit in and absorb her knowledge. That's how good she is!) And Robert Scoble also raved about it's potential in a recent blog post reporting Apple's acquisition of Siri, a mobile app that connects users to information via APIs. Robert thinks the API-driven web is huge.  In "Why if you miss Siri you’ll miss the future of the Web" he explains, well, why: 

Web 1994 was the “get me a domain and a page” era.
Web 2000 was the “make my page(s) interactive and put people on it” era.
Web 2010 is the “get rid of pages and glue APIs and people together” era.

Siri is the best example. First, it’s not a website. It’s an application you put on your phone (today iPhone, soon others like Android and Blackberry). Second, it isn’t a search engine, those are so 1998. It’s a system that assists you in your life.

Why is it so different?

Because on the back end they’ve stitched together a sizeable group of APIs from services like Opentable to Flightstats. With more coming soon. Before it was common only for a couple of APIs to be joined together, here they have dozens.

He goes on to explain how Siri works using voice recognition for user queries.  But the true magic of Siri is decidedly not it's voice recognition mojo:

Why is this really new and important? Don’t get confused by the awesome voice recognition engine that figures out your speech and what you want with pretty good accuracy. No, that’s not the really cool thing, although Microsoft and other companies have been working on natural language search for many years now and have been failing to come up with anything as useful as Siri.

No, the real secret sauce and huge impact on the future of the web is in the back end of this thing. A few months back the engineers at Siri gave me a secret look at how they stitch the APIs into the system. They’ve built a GUI that helps them hook up the APIs from, say, a new source like Foursquare, into the language recognition engine.

Just think about the possibilities Open APIs can unleash for Gov2.0 initiatives. Looking forward to reading the follow-ups from Open APIs for Government.  Please do get in touch if you're in San Francisco and attend.  I'd love to hear about your experience.  

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Me, We and Junto

Listen up, everyone. The social web just got a hell of a lot more interesting with the birth of Junto.  Today, I tried out Junto for the first time and was blown away!  Knowledge sharing, a sense of excitement, thinking out loud, collective delight in the process —  it was fun!  I’ll share more about my experience including the specific ideas shared and the thoughts that surfaced on the future of Junto.  Before I get into that, more about the concepts behind Junto. They’re important and worth discussing.

Junto’s Premise

I remember the giddiness I felt when I first read Venessa Miemis’s (@VenessaMiemis) grand proposal.  The basic concept is this:  create a platform where people can publicly discuss and experiment with ideas, hash out solutions to all kinds of problems, and learn from one another. With video support, text chat, and a Twitter backchannel, people from all over the world can dive in and out of conversations in a similar way that people pop in and out of Twitter’s constant data stream.  Think public “ChatRoulette format + Livestream + Twitter Backchannel” with the purpose of building collective intelligence.

Vanessa builds on an idea initiated by Benjamin Franklin and applies it to our internet-enabled Network Society.

Originally, “The Junto was a club established in 1727 by Benjamin Franklin for mutual improvement. Its purpose was to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy, and to exchange knowledge of business affairs.” [wikipedia]

This seems rather amazing to me, and something that should always exist for knowledge sharing, information exchange, learning, personal growth, and empowerment. Not only does it make logical sense, a recent research study suggests deep, meaningful conversation actually makes us happier. [emphasis hers]

A big part of her application is a Chatroulette style video interface.  Now before reading Vanessa’s post, I’d never heard of Chatroulette. But Venessa peaked my interest and after reading dana boyd’s perspective on it, I finally decided to give it a whirl.  The chance to be randomly paired with strangers from anywhere in the world was definitely exciting. Chatroulette has also sparked some amazing examples of why I love the internet: creative expression and unexpected connections. But while I had some interesting encounters, overall I found the quality of the conversations disappointing. Perhaps that’s because while I was looking to engage in ideas and mindshare, many of the people trolling Chatroulette are looking for sex. In formulating the ideas behind Junto, Vanessa modifies the Chatroulette model asking,

Now what if instead of the “roulette” format, with two random stranger in a conversation for no good reason, what if we do this as purposeful dialogues between intelligent people to discuss big ideas? [emphasis hers]

In addition to discussing big ideas, Venessa suggests that we make the process of idea exchange public:

In the last post, I mentioned a few ways we can kickstart our personal thinking process – through building networks, self-reflection, and rewiring the brain.

I think the next step is through dialogue – bouncing ideas off each other, practicing the act of listening to each other’s perspectives, gaining insights from our different viewpoints, and learning how to communicate.

I know that many great ideas and insights come from those one-on-one interactions that often go late into the night, discussing all those things that really make up the stuff of life.

Now, for the sake of all of us moving forward as people – what if we engaged in these types of chats publicly?

The spoken word has a different impact on consciousness than the written word. When we’re reading text from a book or from a screen, it’s one-way information. We can’t ask it to clarify itself, can’t ask it if it could give us an example, and it won’t let us ask it how its view differs from ours. [emphasis hers]

The result? “People talks” (as opposed to TED talks) that have “the potential to spur on an explosion of intelligence and innovation.” I’d also add the potential for robust communities to emerge organized around different kinds of thought exchange.

So potentially, if this thing would take off, there could be interesting public dialogues discussing important ideas that matter for all of us, all over the world, all of the time. 24/7. It could take the mysticism out of TED talks, by just creating People talks.

It would become like a video-based version of Twitter, where you could tap into the thoughtstream of the planet. And the voicestream. [emphasis hers]

Diving In

Idea Exchange in Action
The announcement of Junto’s birth flew by my tweetstream.  I read Venessa’s post, and then gleefully clicked on Junto’s latest prototype http://dave.parsons.edu/junto/.  (Venessa humorously refers to it as version “0.01”.)  There were two people participating, but one was just leaving.  Cole Tucker (@cole_tucker), the lone person remaining, welcomed me in the chat box.  With help from Cole and some fiddling around on my part, I finally got video to work (I could see him, but he couldn’t see me). Within about a minute, we learned that we were both passionate about collaboration, technology, innovation, openness, ideas!

We discussed how we each found out about Junto and that lead Cole to tell me about some interesting projects and people. These included:

  • Mark Pesce (@mpesce), a virtual reality pioneer and co-creator of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) who writes and thinks about the future of technology.
  • Robert Anton Wilson, an influential American author.
  • ShareThisCourse.org, a self described “experiment in creative collaboration” whereby people are “working together to understand how the sharing technologies and culture of the early 21st century can be applied to the specific task of creating a book which talks about this new world of shared culture, knowledge and power, a book titled Share This Book.”

In turn, I told Cole about:

Privacy

At one point Cole asked me what I thought about how Junto could work. (Junto is, of course, in a very nascent stage.  And because it’s a collaborative project, users still have the capacity to shape its development).  One of my concerns, I told him, was around privacy, and I relayed some ideas that had been percolating since yesterday.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to attend TEDx Seattle and hear award-winning scifi writer, Greg Bear‘s take on privacy (excellent live blogging coverage of his talk by Kathy Gill here and Sarah Davies here).  Bear echoed many of the ideas I’ve had about privacy in the Information Age (I agree with Sarah that privacy is dead).  Many of his points centered on what the long-term impacts of judging and being judged will be on our society.  As Kathy writes of Bear’s talk:

“All of us are neural nodes” in a massive and “vast social brain.” What does it mean to live in a world where finding a moment of private time — for nefarious or honorable reasons — becomes nearly impossible?

We don’t know, Bear asserted. “We must understand that we cannot predict the ultimate social response to technology.” In part, that is because society changes over time.

……..

“Who is watching whom? Do you trust yourself to judge someone else? It’s like Carrie over-and-over again: we all get covered with the pig’s blood of technology.”

Now, Bear wasn’t simply restating the meme that “in the future no one will be able to be president.” In other words, with the advent of the social web, too many skeletons will be unearthed.  His point goes much deeper. What does the threat of being constantly judged, of our ever present surveillance of one another do to our to our ability to think?  Our ability to really stretch our minds? To risk?  To make big mistakes? And to have the courage to keep making mistakes over and over again — publicly? This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. My best guess is that this non-privacy and the social controls that come with it  — public humiliation (or simply the fear of it) being one form of social control —  may profoundly limit our collective ability to think BIG.  And to dream up ideas that make us sound crazy.  Yet, it’s precisely the “crazy ideas” that have created scientific and social breakthroughs.

One of my criticisms of Bear’s talk was that it sounded, at least the way I heard it, like he was saying that we shouldn’t have these kinds of privacy-killing technologies.  I don’t think that’s possible.  We won’t, nay, can’t stop technology’s progress in this area.  What we can do is shape the kind of cultural norms around how we use and interact with technology and each other.

So with these thoughts about privacy in mind, I talked with Cole about my specific concerns relating to Junto.  That is: a permanent video and text record of conversations coupled with people (hopefully) taking risks, experimenting and pushing their minds to the bleeding edges of where they can think, might lead to unintended consequences. For instance, most definitely it will lead to people making mistakes.  That’s a good thing!  But how forgiving will the Junto community be of mistake makers?  And maybe more importantly, how will others outside the Junto community look at and judge people without the proper context in which the mistake was made? It doesn’t even necessarily need to be a “mistake,” just perceived as one.   How will people be judged years into the future?

Cole said that if the mistake wasn’t vicious or intentional, the Junto community would be forgiving.  I countered that there are plenty of well-meaning white people who make unintentional, racist mistakes.  Ones that, while not done on purpose, end up hurting people of color nonetheless.  Lambasting a white person in a situation like this, doesn’t seem like it will move anything forward.  Firmly and lovingly interrupting racism will curtail the oppression while affirming the essential humanness of everyone.

I don’t have the answers, and truthfully, I’m much, much, much more excited about the possibilities of Junto than I am worried about it. One idea I did share with Cole was that as a community, we need to make sure there is space for people to make mistakes.  That can be easier said than done.  Often, when someone mistakes a mistake, we want to distance ourselves from that person.  We need to be willing to defend a person’s right to make mistakes and not be judged harshly for them.  Obviously, malicious oppressive behavior shouldn’t be tolerated.

Knowledge Management
In discussing Junto, another issue I bounced off Cole was in how to capture the important insights.  Said another way: how do we extract the signal from the noise? I told Cole that it can sometimes take an hour or more when discussing an idea with friends before an AHAH! moment emerges. So how do we make sure we capture these juicy nuggets and not waste our time on the other stuff?

Some folks have thrown out the idea of transcribing conversations, creating mind maps, and other kinds of work that reflects back on the conversations that have already happened.  Reflective work is vital. We need a way of tracking, managing, making sense of, and distributing new knowledge.  But one of the things that I weighed aloud with Cole was how to balance the reflective work that needs to happen versus engaging in more conversations and thus creating more content that needs to be “reflected upon.” Tricky,  but doable.

Cole offered a possible solution that’s been circulating around.  Assign meanings to arbitrary key symbols.  When something worth capturing gets uttered, type that symbol so it’s easy to search and find later. Brilliant!

Use
Originally Vanessa proposed having only two people engage in a conversation on Junto.  Others could listen in and participate in the Twitter backchannel, but it would primarily be a conversation between two people.  A number of commenters wanted to have more than two, but I actually agreed with Vanessa.  Quality is important in what we’re trying to accomplish and when everyone’s talking at once, not much value is added.  Or at least not as much as what’s possible.

After talking with Cole, I changed my mind.  I think having more than two conversationalists might work just fine. But there’s a catch.  There has to be well understood and agreed upon guidelines on how such a conversation would work in practice.  The complexity rises in how to manage the conversation with each additional person, but I no longer think it necessarily has to be “just two.”

When Vanessa first proposed Junto, there was an idea in my mind that there would be two talkers and a great big flock of people listening and contributing to the conversation via the Twitter backchannel. While this kind of exchange could certainly be organized on Twitter with not very much advance notice, my guess is that the great majority of the time, there will be 2-5 people engaging in a conversation.  While originally created by humanity-loving, technophiles interested in increasing intelligence, it will attract all kinds of people with divergent interests.  From people interested in music, film, cars, cycling to various sports, literature, comic books, political theory — you name it!  It will be interesting seeing how it is used and changed from Junto creators’s original vision.

Final Thoughts
I can’t wait to play with Junto again! Meeting and talking with Cole was a rewarding and fun experience. A user by the name of @notthisbody, popped in just wanting to listen to our conversation. I enjoyed having his “listening” participation.

Where will this lead us?  I’m excited to find out!

Thank you, Vanessa, for constantly pushing the limits of your mind.  Looking forward to seeing where your latest idea will take us!

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Beth Simone Noveck’s Modest Proposal

“Ordinary citizens have more to offer than voting or talking. They can contribute their expertise and, in so doing, realize the opportunity to be powerful.”  ~ Beth Simone  Noveck
Open government and Collaborative Democracy in the Network Society

As part of my independent study on open government, I’ve been devouring Beth Simone Noveck‘s new book, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More PowerfulNoveck is on leave as a professor at New York Law School and currently leads President Obama’s Open Government Initiative as deputy chief technology officer for open government. Her 2005 blog post, “Peer to Patent: A Modest Proposal” lead — only 23 months after it was first published — to the federal government’s first open social networking project, radically changing the patent review process and catalyzing the open government movement.

Open government is somewhat of an amorphous term with varied meanings, depending on who you’re talking to and in what context. In a later post, I’ll go deeper into Noveck’s discussion of three elements that, for her, characterize open government: transparency, participation, and collaboration.” But first, some thoughts on the power of ideas, blogging and the Read/Write web (also known as web 2.0).  And, then a bit of background on peer-to-patent (wikipedia entry, official website).


[Hat tip: I picked Wiki Government for my independent study because Lucy Bernholz highly recommended it to me on Twitter.  I first learned of the book in her blog post, “Open Philanthropy: A Modest Manifesto.“]

Idea Power in the Web2.0 Ecosystem after the jump
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Open Government Independent Study

Kathy Gill graciously agreed to work with me on an independent study this quarter.  The topic? Open Government, an area I've wanted to dig my teeth into for quite some time now.  We're not in the same department — Kathy teaches in the Digital Media Program and I'm at the iSchool getting a Master in Information Management — but our interests dovetail quite nicely.  I know this from following her on Twitter, reading her blog, and looking at her past syllabi.  Our stimulating, face to face meeting also confirmed this (Kathy took me on as her independent study student before we got a chance to meet in person.) 

Below are the learning objectives for the course that I sent Kathy via email.  So far, I've been devouring  Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful by Beth Simone Noveck.  It's by far the best reading I've come across in grad school thus far.  Kinda helps when you're assigning it to yourself, I suppose. 

Learning Objectives

Up until now, my understanding of the Open Government movement has been hit and miss.  A blog post here, an article there, and attendance at a day long open government unconference has been most of my exposure to this topic. I'd like more of a comprehensive view of the movement — it's history, major players (the activists who are pushing for reform and the governments that are responding), and a global perspective of its manifestations (I've been told that the UK is leading in this arena, but I don't know whether or not that's true).  I'd also like to know how different actors are defining "open government" and "Gov2.0." For instance,  is it simply governments that dump data sets out into the public?  Does it involve governments making that data understandable by ordinary citizen? Are there rating systems yet for the openness of government?  Does the term "open government" usually include ways for citizens to interact dynamically with policy makers?  Other aspects of Open Government that I'd like a better understanding of include:
  • Interoperability. From what I understand, San Francisco, Portland and Washington D.C. are developing open data standards that will make transferring and reusing government data easier and, perhaps, one day even seamless.  How are different government entities collaborating to move Open Government forward?  Where and why have their been successes and failures?  What are the major road blocks?
  • Technology. What technology is being used in Gov2.0 and Open Government initiatives? Is it always open source? I know Anil Dash and Gina Trapani at Expert Labs are working on the Think Tank app, but I'd like to learn about other initiatives.
  • Social factors.  I should have probably listed this point first since it's the most salient to Open Government adaption inside and outside government.  What are the social, political and cultural barriers in Open Government?
  • Unintentional consequences.  What are the unintentional — and potentially negative — consequences of Open Government?
  • Threats. What are the biggest threats to this movement?
  • Linked Data.  Is there a relationship between the movement for Linked Data and the semantic web, and Open Government

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