Web 2.0 Blog – Discovering Innovation Opportunities using Social Media

Archive for April 2009

I noticed after writing this post that the underlying theme emerging from the fanciful thought droppings below is that it is best for the end user if data and applications are separate and interoperable.   The theme is starting to highlight for me the promise of semantic technology and open data standards.

I keep hearing will facebook win? Will google win? Will microsoft ever get out in the running? Will twitter be bought and by whom?  I wanted to offer another option.  Could the people win?

How would the people win?
Well what is a social network anyway? It’s a series of connections between people and it has rules for distributing information to people based on their connection.  Mutually agreed friends, followers and non-connected voyers following what you do and when you do it  as well as sharing with you.  The connecting and sharing  rules of the social network you choose determines what others see and, if you are up on the privacy settings, how you are connected with them.

Right now our choice is which networks to be on and we make that choice based on the connection rules, the type of content and interactions that can be had and where the people we want to connect with already are. As facebook or another network become more popular, it becomes more difficult not to choose it.

But we pay a price for choosing an online social network.
1. We have to accept the interface which is chosen for us. And while more customizations and widgets are coming out, the essential choice of interface is the control of the provider, not us.
2. We can’t choose our ideal mix. For instance what if we want a myspace style interface but with our facebook friends feed?   There are some configuration options available but still trying to match what we want with what is out there can be challenge.
3. We get targeted advertising based on our peronal information. Maybe we want it, maybe we don’t but at any rate we are not in full control of our information which gets mined for these ads.
4. We can’t move our information to another network or cross link to people in other networks. This is changing some but our information is still not in our control.
5. We can’t create our own rules for connection and viewing, we have to relay on a central authority to do this, even if they allow some flexibility. Very non-Web 2.0.

So how do we win?

What if instead of our data residing on a social network server, it resided on our own private space in the cloud?

And what if we could choose or even create the applications which would allow our data to be seen but others and with the rules which we decide on.  So we could use a facebook style application to interact with our friends but our friends wouldn’t have to be “on” facebook. They would simply have their own ‘cloud space’ and they could send twitter style updates back to us and not have to look at the vacation pics we just posted if they don’t want to.  But they could also choose to send some updates only to some people if they wanted, rather than having the choice tweet to all or tweet directly to one.  Basically the social network core of connections and activity of you and your friends could be managed by any number of applications and rule configuration more tailored to each individual. The way you want to interact with your friends and who your friends could be would not be determined by the popularity of a social network but by you.

Would this kill facebook or google?  Facebook would probably be the most popular application for people to choose to use to interact with their friends with and they could still get their ad revenue.  Google could provide the cloud space to host our data securely for free with ads or for a small cost as well as provide an interface application if you want it.

Twitter provides the first step in separating social data from the social application and it is good evidence of why this approach would be so popular.  I don’t mean the asynchronous relationships or the 140 character limit, but the fact that anyone can build a twitter application to interact with the “cloud space” of twitterfeeds.  Tweetdeck, tweetgrid, and many other twitter applications let people choose how to interact with their social connections and what their interface looks and feels like to some extent.  I am suggesting is widening this approach to include all of your personal information which you would want to potentially share and putting you back in control of your own information.

So you could have one interface for your immediate family, another window for friends and another for interesting people you follow or combination you choose.  Application vendors could make money through ads but you would choose who had a privacy policy on what those ads could find out about you.  Or you could choose to keep everything very private and pay for a service and place to keep your data.  This is similar to what people refer to as interoperability between networks but also with the twist of separating our peronsal data from the network itself.  So its more of an interoperable data model for social networking than an interoperable social network model.

Would this work?  Is part of a social network, the common rules and ways to connect which we are all are agreed upon?  If some people could stop sharing a lot of information except with their BFs, would the fabric of the social network be weakened and this whole idea result in a less networked world?    I don’t think it would because the culture has started to discover the benefits of sharing, but it’s definitely an open question.

So how do we get there?  Hmmm. Not sure.  Google’s free app engine could potentially power something like this. Something like a user rebellion which occurred when facebook tried to change its privacy policy a couple of months ago might be the start of an online privacy movement.  Right now people seem to be having too much fun though to worry about being in charge of their own information. Will this change?  I guess it depends what the social networks decide to do with all of our information that they have.

I decided to take my Wordle data set out for another spin and make google maps from each category.

Here are the maps. Hope you enjoy them!

There are not 100 questions in each map because some people did not provide valid US locations and a few questions were taken out for being off topic as described before.  The maps end up have 829 questions in 9 categories. Thanks to MapaList for the map tools and Ken Ward’s HTML guide for the javascript template.

This is my rough draft in my work with the W3C E-Gov Interest Group. I wanted to get comments from those working on social media in government as we work to finalize our recommendations. Please keep in mind this is for an international standard, so I have no assumed that 508 compliance is required but rather wrote about what compliance policies in digital age should take into consideration.

Multi-Channel Distribution Standards.

Distribution to Non-Government Websites and Platforms

In an age of connected data, standards are not just about the format of information but are also about accessible and fair distribution. That having been said, a balance must be achieved so that distribution of information does not become a barrier which limits the amount of information which is distributed.

In the digital age, information is key to both economic and social development of societies. Therefore, governments need to prioritize making the most information available through broadly distributed channels over limiting information in order to make it most broadly available and distributed. This is a classic 90/10 effort issue, where the last 10% of effort to broaden distribution and availability to near perfection would take 90% of the effort. Too often governments have opted for an all or none method in information distribution and it has resulted in less distribution and a lesser good for the public as a whole. The amount of information is too vast given the current state of information storage formats and technology to make all information accessible through all conceivable methods and channels. Accepting this fact and opening up government data needs to be the priority.

That having been said, wide-spread availability should not be discarded but rather a system should be in place to determine which information warrants the broadest, most accessible distribution and which information should be posted but resources are insufficient for the broadest possible access.  (Of course in both cases, the format chosen should be a non-proprietary an,d when appropriate, ‘mashable’ one so that the public may redistribute and remix the information if it chooses.) Concern for availability to all may be handled by providing a government sponsored service which can provide specific data in  alternate formats on demand.

This is not a radical departure from traditional accommodations but rather a continuation of choices which have become routine. An excellent example to understand how this is an extension of existing policies is to consider library books and the blind in the US. Library books for the sighted are more widely available and more easily available at libraries across the country,  but Braille versions of books can be accessed on demand through the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Handicapped. A similar program could be developed for on-demand access of multimedia material for the handicapped. That having been said, basic accommodations which can easily be built into websites to promote accessibility should be addressed with social media providers by encouraging broad accessibility to their material and links should be provide on multimedia home pages on how to request more accessible versions such as closed captioned videos.

It seems some people are misunderstanding this as advocating abandoning progress in accessibility.  I assure you this is not the case.  But it is simply stating plainly what already occurs throughout society and government already.  If you look at multi-lingual issues, not every document in the US from governments is immediately available in Chinese, or even Spanish for that matter.  I simply am saying if that EVERYONE is better served by as much government information as possible being available in some way and that should be the priority.  It is imply not possible to make everything avilable in all possible ways but when the need arises, on-demand services can supplement  the less broad methods of making information available. I hope this clears it up.

Availability in Social Media and Across the Digital Divide

Availability is determined by 3 factors which form a digital divide in most countries: device, bandwidth or connectivity, and user disability in using the device (commonly known as 508 standards in the US). Device availability varies because interoperability standards but also based on lifestyle, screen size, audio clarity and raw processing power. (My blackberry can play audio and some video but I am not going try to access a lot of that content in reality even if there is a way to squeeze it onto the device.)  Both wider broadband distribution and availability of information on mobile devices can help to solve this issue. One of the ways in which governments are broadening broadband access is through free internet enabled computers at libraries and kiosks. The type of access which is made widely available to citizens for free at public locations as well as the connectivity and devices available at the lowest price points should be considered when choosing data standards, platforms, devices and websites for the bulk of information. If broadly available public access is not compatible with how the majority of a country’s citizens use the internet, then clearly public internet access is not adequate.

Fair distribution on Non-Government Portals.

The lower costs devices and the lower costs access in most countries means that whether a website or platform makes text based information available on low cost mobile platforms should be taken into account. While most platforms are multimedia, there is still often the opportunity to provide some information in text form for mobile access.

The availability of multimedia information should be announced and searchable through text based services so that users who have limited access to multimedia enabled workstations, can find out about resources they need and go to a kiosk or library which better connectivity or devices are available. To prevent those without full access even to discover what is available would effectively block its use, since time and context when accessing the public internet is limited.

Fair distribution becomes an issue when government distributed content through selected websites, platforms or devices creates an unfair advantage for a particular device, platform, distribution network, or website or disadvantages a defined demographic among the citizentry. It seems appropriate for governments not have to expend resources on wide distribution if the bulk of the intended audience is on one platform or website, but some consideration should be taken so that governments do not become unintentional monopoly makers through their social media distribution choices. Again this consideration should not take priority over wide distribution of the bulk of information but be a factor in making policy choices.

Posting Information on the Social Web

The nature of social media information is that it is posted on locations which are not on government servers under its control and is distributed though social connections not through formal organizations. Social media information is distributed on websites which choose whom to allow access to the website and which behaviors are acceptable for participation. Also a user’s activity and connections on a social media website determines to some extent how much exposure they receive to information available on that site. For instance, someone is who is a friend of a person who participates in government discussion boards will be more likely to be exposed to government distributed information than someone who is not similarly friended. Likewise, people who belong to communities who choose to participate in smaller online venues will not be exposed to the government distributed information on the larger venues. For instance, what about the parent who blocks Youtube on the household computer because of objectionable material? Some consideration to the unevenness of social media distribution should be made.

Multimedia central feed for externally published info.

Therefore a government using social media to distribute multimedia, should create a public location which announces distribution of documents and content with links to their openly accessible location.

A central text feed of all distributed info will serve four purposes:

1. Provide the public with a completely open and highly accessible index to content provided through social media channels.

2. Provide the government content in a form isolated from other content to broaden distribution to those who prefer to avoid mixed distribution sources.

3. Provide other smaller content providers and websites a mechanism to have the same government content as larger providers.

4. Provide a central reference location for any on-demand accessibility service requests for government sponsored or partnered services such as closed captioning or braille.

This media index feed could be in the form of a searchable text feed which link to the original documents. The text feed would be searchable from text based mobile devices as well as web browsers. Search would be provided through a tagging mechanism which at the least allows those posting the information to create new search tags and categories. It also may allow the public to tag items to create a folksomy based search. Documents would be in a freely accessible format, so long as that format allows for the same distribution both in context and content to other websites as was carried by government officials. For instance, if a document was associated on a social media website with certain search tags, titles and description attached, those tags should be indicated in this feed.   If a document had hyperlinks or embedded content placed in it by government officials, those hyperlinks and content should be preserved in this centrally stored format.

Video and audio should be available from a link on this central feed in an instantly playable format such as a progressive player linked to cloud based storage so high demand will not slow distribution, as well as a downloadable format which can be used to replicate the distribution on other websites. Again the meta or context data which allows for duplication of the original post to the primarily distribution site should be stored in the feed or the linked files.

In the case of virtual world information distribution, some capture of the virtual world experience would be attempted to replicate the primary message in some way such as a video of the experience. If it is possible to store in an open format 3-D objects or actions, that content maybe also be considered for placement in this central data store.

To the extent that an industry standard is developed to allow easily subscription or importing of documents and audio/video content to alternate media websites and platforms, governments should adopt these methods to support their central feed.


Governments should clearly prioritize distribution and accessibility options which do not pose barriers which would result decrease the amount of information distribution. At the same time some consideration to disabled users, users without high bandwidth and high cost devices, as well as devices, platforms and websites with smaller audiences should be taken for high priority information as well as possible on-demand conversion services. A low-barrier method which could serve as a base from which to achieve these accomodations would be a central text-based multimedia index feed containing hyperlinks to content in open formats. This feed would be searchable from both text based mobile and internet browsers and contain context information which would allow replication of the content posting which were created on non-government websites by government officials.   If possible this central feed would facilitate posting of content to websites by those website owners, so that the websites themselves can opt in to the distribution.

In the policy to effort session at Government 2.0 camp, Lovisa Williams of the Department of State summed up the problem of building on cross agency’s efforts as “Don’t share your best practices, share them when they are good enough.” It sounded like a good start to a blog post.

For more on workplace collaboration check out the workshop I am organizing on April 23rd.

The essence of collaboration is to steady build on one another’s ideas bit by bit until you get a solution. Of course contributions in reality should be somewhat thought through but by no means need to be final, because if sharing final plans were enough, then there would be no need to collaborate.

The current cross-agency practices seem to be built on sharing each other’s best practices, which means they have been fought for, tried out, approved and finalized within an agency and no one in that agency has any stomach for opening up that can of worms again.  So suggestions for improvement from the outside, after the practice is shared, are not  as likely to be incorporated.

Sharing these final lessons learned, does not accumulate ideas from different perspectives and situations to create cross-agency solutions and support. Instead it passes an agency specific solution to another agency, at which point it gets rewritten.  There is some efficiency gained, but it doesn’t seem to compare to a truly collaborative process in which ideas are shared and accumulated quickly showing an agile and responsive result.

If collaborative efforts begin with sharing final outcomes which the authors don’t want to change because they have invested in these as being final, then essentially the collaborative process doesn’t begin. It’s more of a building on lessons learned than a collaboration .

It’s kind of like growing your vegetables in your own walled garden and only sharing the seeds after you have harvested the first successful crop.  In order to build an agile and responsive government, we need to all plant  seeds at the same time and figure out together how to get them to grow in the first season.

The systemic problem with sharing methods and ideas before they become a ‘best practice’ seems to be fear of acceptance within the agency or worse yet criticism from outside the agency.   A best practice almost by definition means it has the stamp of approval by agency heads.   Therefore by definition a “good ‘nough” practice does not have the stamp of approval and there is a fear of implied ‘approval’ and finality when you share it cross-agency. It seems we either need to create semi-private cross agency channels so people can be comfortable in sharing practices still ‘in–progress’ or overcome the fear of unfinished solutions being seen.