Web 2.0 Blog – Discovering Innovation Opportunities using Social Media

Archive for the ‘government 2.0’ Category

Opportunity:  Spending of government  money should have a purpose and that purpose should be for the benefit of someone whether directly or indirectly.  The benefit might for an employee to work better and that employee might be working to benefit a group of citizens. The administration wishes to create a more transparent, effective and innovative government as well as to reduce the federal deficit. In order to do this, the administration must identify opportunities for innovation which can increase efficiency as well as decrease spending and make the case to the American people that it is making more effective use of taxpayer funds.  I want to make the case here that linking spending data to benefits of that spending in ways which are detailed,  clear and relevant to large numbers of citizens is the best way to find innovations to create a more effective government as well as to make transparency have meaning and value for the average citizen.

Challenge:

  • Linking Spending to Benefits:  Federal spending is reported in ways which do not clearly connect it to the benefits that specific expenditures provide.  While certain dollar amounts may be reported as going toward ‘Defense’ that is not specific enough to understand whether a given expenditure is justifiable and doesn’t allow an expenditure of group expenditures to be compared to alternative solutions for the same specific benefit oriented goal.  Therefore we must find ways to better connect specific spending to specific benefits.
  • Benefits of expenditures must clear and relevant:  Benefits must be stated in ways which are relevant and understandable for a large number of citizens.  For example, a system which tracks resources in a government program is not relevant until it is connected to the benefits that program provides and to whom it provides those benefits.  Often times expenditures are reported as supportting a program, system or equipment but not clearly connected to an intermediary benefit it attempts to provide a person or to the outcome of the the program or equipment and its end beneficiaries.  What is relevant to the average citizen is not how systems support systems or programs support programs but how overall efforts affect people, in what way it affects those people, who those people are, and what is the cost of providing that benefit.    For instance in the case of a self-help kiosk at a federal office.  The relevant benefit is not how it supports the agency’s program but how many citizens does it serve, how frequently does it serve them, how well does it serve them and at what cost per citizen? 
  • Providing  Spending to Benefit visibiliy to a large audience will spur innovation.  Making the links between spending and outcome visible to a large audience is a critical step in identifying opportunities for innovation in government to increase government’s effectiveness.  Innovation comes from diverse people considering things in different ways (remember KIDFAD from Wisdom of the Crowds),  so making connections between spending and benefits broadly relevant and visible will provide the greatest opportunity for innovation in creating more effective means to achieve similar benefits.  Also innovation comes from novel approaches to address overal goals  so providing information on overall cost to an end benefit served to people provides the greatest opportunity to innovate other ways to provide the benefit.  If, for instance, you simply focused on the cost of gas for a truck to travel 1000 miles, rather than the benefit of transporting chairs on that truck, you might miss the opportunity to send it by train.   Of course if you focused on the goal of having chairs at  a location, you might notice that it might be cheaper to purchase them at the end destination rather than pack them up and transport them back and forth.
  • Meaningful Transparency.  Making the connection between benefits and spending in ways which the average citizen can understand and find relevant is required in order to achieve government transparency in a way in which transparency will have meaning for the average citizen.

Approach: Identify, Find and Link Disparate Data Sources which can clarify the benefits of Government Expenditures

              Datsets must be found which can connect government spending to both outcomes and benefits to people.  For instance, compete.com provides data on how many visitors a website receives.  Connecting the cost of a government website to the number of visitors it receives per year can give a cost per citizen served.  Therefore getting the free data provided by Compete.com and  linking it to the cost of a government website will provide more transparency and a clearly cost of the benefit provided.  This can then be compared to other ways of providing that same benefit of information delivery.   

Another example is connecting the expense of providing office furniture to a known number of employees in an agency can then make it clear, the cost of doing providing office support per employee which could be compared to private sector data.   

Connecting government expenditures to their benefits and making clear the cost per beneciary in relevant ways can become a starting point for encouraging innovation to make a more effective government as well as to give the idea of government transparency meaning and value to largest number of people. 

Case for Using the Resource Description Framework Or Linked Data Model:

While linking data can be done in many different ways,  I do want to give a plug for the linked data model in this instance, because in the long term, I believe it is the best way to connect government spending with the benefits of that spending. 

Of course connecting spending to benefits  is not always as simple as the examples I gave,  nor is the data easy to find and easy to connect.  In fact you may need to link multiple datasets in a chain to get the benefit information in a way which is relevant and broadly understandable.  The resource description framework or Linked Data model gives us a way to start to collect this kind of data in a distributed fashion without strict central control and does not even require it to be on the same server or system in order to be linkable.  This makes RDF or Linked Data an ideal candidate to complete the long term vision of linking complex federal spending data with its outcome and benefits in a way which can have meaning for the average American Citizen.

Postscript:  Another example of government spoofing was a prank cell phone call from India to the Pakistani Defense Minstry the day after the Mumbai terrorist attack.  The called claimed to be an Indian Defense Ministry Official and was claiming that India was going to retaliate. Planes went up in the air on both sides and the US had to intervene to prevent further escalation.  The call was taken seriously because normal authentication procedures were not followed or did not exist.

Hot off the press: Another spoofing incident which alleges civil damages involving Twitter the St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa.

While in general I dont think western Democracies have a lot to learn from the North Korean Government, I think in the case of Gov 2.0 spoofing there might be an exception.  The North Korean Central News Agency was recently impersonated on Twitter in a way which might have fooled a lot of people.  The twitter feed was made to look realistic because it used actual articles released by the Central News Agency. The prank was pulled off by a parody website called Stupidedia and they didn’t seem to intend to create any harm with it.

But this points out how easy it is to pretend you are an official government agency on twitter.  Recently I advocated for a simple reciprocal link authentication policy which would place a link on any official government web 2.0 account (twitter, facebook fan page etc) to a .gov or .mil page which would then give a link or list of links to the official social media account for that agency.  Then anyone could with 2 clicks verify that a social media account is authentically coming from an official government source.   As government presence becomes more common on social media, we will likely see more attempts to grab attention through this type of impersonation.  While it doesn’t seem like much could come of this, all it takes is one person believing one source is the voice of a government and acting on it to cause at the least embarassement and at the worse some harm.

Tim Berners-Lee concept of linked data clearly is a way to make data more usable whether this is public data or data within a large enterprise.   Linked data promises a future which makes related data more interoperable, discoverable and opens the door for innovation.

But how do we take large existing data stores and apply linked data principles to achieve these benefits?  We currently have massive existing data stores with complex security regimes which are depended upon for many legacy applications.   To make them available as Linked Data is a huge challenge especially if we were to recreate these data stores in XML syntax using RDF/RDFa or even simpler XML schemas.  This is coupled with the fact that many of benefits of the reconstituted data have not yet been invented so an ROI argument cannot clearly be made.  Of course, they haven’t been invented  yet because while many can agree the data would be more usable, those uses must be discovered by fiddling with the data in linked form and discovering the uses that emerge.  Since the linked form,  doesn’t yet exist, we have the classic chicken in the egg problem.

Perhaps there is a step we can take toward linked data without making large changes to the existing data stores in government and industry.  Let’s review the principles of Linked Data first (as paraphrased from wikipedia to add clarity):

  • Use URIs (Unique Resource Identifiers) to identify things that you expose to the Web as resources.
  • Use HTTP URIs so that people can locate and look up (dereference) these things.
  • Provide useful information about the resource when its URI is dereferenced.
  • Include links to other, related URIs in the exposed data as a means of improving information discovery on the Web.

The striking thing about these principles is that they don’t mention XML or RDFa etc but focus instead on linking data to definitions.  So it would seem a hybrid solution between the linked data concept and existing databases is possible.  We could add URIs as fields in existing databases for important elements and define a central location where we will track information about that element.  For instance, in the US government there are lots of federal buildings used by multiple agencies.  So I would assume many agencies have databases which refer to federal buildings.  Why not establish a central location to define those buildings and assign each a URI. (A URI by the way is essentially a universal identifier for a real world object.  Essentially it is a web page for each building, but the page would more like contain data links than nice pictures.  (Oh and some people refer to URIs as URNs or Unique Resource Name in an effort to make them more human readable which is nice too) .

So each federal building would have a URI/URN and we could of course put more information about each building in a centrally defined schema, but that will start to be real work and have instant security issues.  So why not initially just have URIs contain recipricol links to databases which also contain that identifier?  The links would have brief non-security breaking descriptions of what type of data is stored in the database which is linked to.    This would remove the need to re-securitize a lot of information to make it cross-department/cross-agency available.   And here is the other key to success for this type of solution: Don’t require the back links to the databases to expose data unless they already do so.   If we start requiring data to be exposed in this step,  it opens up the security pandora’s box.   We need to avoid imposing a new security regime for centralized data,  because it is a stumbling block which would create delays and costs.  And if people do not clearly see the benefits of this step, then it would simply die in committee in most cases.

So that is fine you say.  We have URIs for important data elements and for databases which contain those elements but it is not exposing data,  so where is the benefit?  I think this stripped down version of linked data would have 4 definite benefits:

  • Reference.  The URIs could serve as reference documents to find where similar information is stored. Users could then apply for security permissions on an as needed basis when they need to link to other databases.
  • Innovation.  Users, who would now have a more complete map of available data could be begin to suggest more uses for linking the data.
  • Discoverability.  Search engines (internal or external depending on the security decided upon for the URNs) could make existing databases more discoverable because the engines could discover  important data elements in the databases.  Search engines make use of links to discoverable relevance to searches and are often key to researching problems .
  • Interoperability.  The process of assigning URIs will begin to expose problems in data interoperability due to different definitions in different databases. The URI map would serve as a survey of issues in creating truly interoperable data.

So now the readers of this blog are in at least 2 camps.

  • Those who feel this is a half measure and would be a distraction from advocating for more completely linked data.
  • Those who are still not clear on the benefits of bothering to start the process of linking data at all.

I am hoping there is a third camp which sees this as a doable step in large enterprises such as the US government.  And that it would be the first step toward data which is more linked and therefore more usable for both public and internal uses, and eventually interoperable.

Let me know which camp you are in!

The future of the internet will involve more authentication than it does today but here is a potential interim solution to provide some level of authentication for Gov 2.0 presence on online social networks such as facebook and twitter. standard policy of having a reciprocal link back to a facebook fan page or twitter account on a .Gov/.Mil website which the social network page points to could be a simple interim solution. I call it Reciprocal Link Authentication.

Government 2.0 includes a government presence on non-government websites such as online social networks (OSNs) (think facebook fan pages and twitter accounts) so that citizen’s can encounter government guidance and assistance where they ‘live’ in cyberspace.  But how can citizens be certain that the government account/representative is authentic?    If you run into someone in the street and they say they are working for the government, how do you know for certain?  They provide you will a badge or ID right at the beginning of the conversation.

If we encounter government workers as official government representatives in non-government cyberspace, should we also be able to see some sort of identification?   Since cyberidentity is more easily assumable in many cases than aliases in real life (especially on social networks), shouldn’t there be a way to verify the authenticity of someone claiming to represent a government? Often times government officials on OSNs such as agency fan pages on facebook or informational twitter accounts will have an official seal or emblem. The problem with this is that it is trivial and relatively low-risk to copy or create an image of a seal or official looking emblem and put it on an anonymous OSN account compared to duplicating a paper credential which someone might show you in person.

The commercial solution for authentication won’t work on social network pages. Here’s why.

Commercial websites sometimes provide SSL encrypted links to independent authentication websites (Verisign, Godaddy, among others) to prove their authenticity.  The problem with the government using this method is that it would add paperwork and costs to implement SSL badges or require changes in existing online social networks profile options.  Also I don’t think there are products which work with OSNs and the authenticators to verify anyone on social networks yet.  Perhaps more importantly, the government would be then depending on a commercial company to prove its authenticity.  Basically it’s a non-starter if you want to actually achieve a Government 2.0 presence online in the near future for several reasons ranging from practicality to policy to politics to costs.

But wait, there may be a much easier and better way. .Gov and .Mil web sites already are monitored and checked for authenticity unlike .com and .org sites.   So you don’t need an independent cyber authenticator such as Verisign because any .Gov or .Mil site can serve as that authenticator.

Reciprocal Link Authentication.

Why not have a simple policy that any online social network account or non-.Gov/.Mil online presence have a link to a .Gov/.Mil webpage which then links back to that same OSN account?   So if someone wanted to verify a government twitter account, they could simple click on the URL provided and easily find a linkback to that same twitter account on the .Gov/.Mil webpage they landed on.  If the account is hijacked then a notice of the problem could be put up until the account identity is secured again.  If this is done on all federal OSN accounts, the cybercommunity will become quickly accustomed to the authentication method and if a hijacker removed the authentication link, the visitors will know to dismiss the account.  And if they see something which sounds a bit off, then can instantly verify it by following the link back to the OSN account.     It would not mean much work since online government representatives at non .Gov/.Mil sites almost always have some .Gov/.Mil landscape under their control.

Reciprocal Link Authentication seems easy, low cost and instantly provides a universal method to authenticate any online government representation without much effort.  Sure its not perfect from a cybersecurity point of view, buts it goes a long way to addressing several important concerns about government representation on non-government websites.

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.

Conclusion.

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.