Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Morning in America

In the Virtualpolitik book I praise the NASA website for successfully engaging informal learners from amateur astronomy and rocketry communities with and for using online video in ways that captivated its audience members as they watched live feeds from the Mars rovers.

At the Government 2.0 Expo this morning, NASA Chief Information Officer Linda Cureton devoted much of her pitch to the benefits of cloud computing. She also made what would become a familiar rhetorical gesture for the day: pointing to a data innovation of the past to make an argument about data innovation in the present. In her case she pointed to moralizing from naysayers about the destabilizing effects of a communication device known as the telephone, a not unfamiliar analogy in the digital culture community. Later in this session of short keynotes, David Eaves argued that a previous transparency movement for making baseball statistics available had transformed America's pastime.

The panel that followed Cureton's presentation with the City of Los Angeles's Randi Levin and Google executive Dave Girouard caused some of those on Twitter in the audience to ask if they were watching "an ad for Google," as city managers praised the tech company. Although Google critics were dismissed as those who saw Google and cloud computing more generally as "the devil incarnate," more complex arguments about what Siva Vaidhyanathan has called "The Googlization of Government" in his larger argument in the forthcoming book The Googlization of Everything weren't really addressed in the session. Of course, host Tim O'Reilly opened the discussion by asking, "How different is government from a big corporation?" Although the pair presented an interesting argument about the need for automatic translation tools in multi-ethnic cities, they may have lost some credibility among academics who study Government 2.0 by devoting a considerable among of their limited time to criticizing the press, specifically a relatively rare example of due diligence by the normally idiotic Los Angeles Times in covering issues about platforms and proprietary software for once. At one point the group onstage agreed, "If you took the politics out we could probably be done by now." (More complete coverage of the controversy for further reading is here.)

There were also several good arguments made about ease of access and consumer friendliness. Open API was also a key theme during this morning session about e-government, such as the presentation by Joshua Robin of Massachusetts public transit, who showed the proliferation of successful applications for telephone, mobile computing, and display areas in public spaces that were launched at no cost to the government, simply because they had released the data to potential developers.

However, open APIs and cloud computing were often discussed in the same breath in ways that didn't always clearly differentiate between them or articulate the positions of government technologists in relation to specific technologies and vendors in more complete and convincing forms. For example, the possible threat to consumer protection posed by current US computer law that effectively prohibits the testing of potential security flaws by third parties, such as academic experts, was never mentioned, despite the libertarian leanings of many audience members and the supposed argument for technologies that weren't locked down.

Furthermore, relatively little was said about open source technologies in a venue largely funded by corporate sponsors that specialize in proprietary software, even though the advantages of open source approaches would prove to be an important theme in many of the smaller sessions at the conference.

If those in the audience like Ren Reynolds were amused by the promotion of Google at the start of the session, the appearance of Australian Senator Kate Lundy and her discussion of the "three pillars" of democracy and Internet prompted the following Twitter outburst: "keep in mind when listening to this that Australia are attempting to filter the entire net, kinda like china." Indeed, as this blog has pointed out here, despite flagship events like GovHack, Australia's digital rights' record has some significantly ugly features that weren't addressed anywhere in Lundy's optimistic presentation.

Tim Burners-Lee, who is often called the inventor of the World Wide Web, also spoke on the morning's bill about his own interest in transparency issues. He discussed how government entities could see their web outreach efforts as a system of "earning stars" for data access and reusability. Just putting up data in any form merits one star, putting it up in a spreadsheet format that enables mash-ups earns another, and making that data available in an open format would earn a third star in his system. Then he specified how having individual URLs and enabling notation systems and data linking could lead to the highest levels of star-earning. His other simple analogy involved a bag of chips in which he discussed how data should be both machine readable and aimed toward having a social impact. To develop this analogy he contrasted the nutritional information labeling on a typical bag of chips with its UPC code.

At the conference, several people who came up to chat with me compared me to the next morning speaker on the program, danah boyd. This comparison wasn't made based on the fact that we are both blondes or that we are both bloggers for Digital Media and Learning Central. It was based on the fact that we were both perceived as critical voices in our respective keynote line-ups with talks that pointed out potential pitfalls to Gov 2.0 utopianism. Ironically, the parallels were even closer, since in the original version of my talk I had a slide about Megan's Law to illustrate the risks of total transparency undertaken without serious reflection, because vigilantes could use the addresses of sex offenders to enact street justice that is just as likely to harass their family members as it is to target supposed criminals on parole.

I'm glad that I took out that slide the editing process, because I thought boyd did a much better job that I would have in developing a sustained critique of mainstream ideologies about sexual predators. She opened by establishing her ethos with the audience by explaining that a family member had been raped and murdered by a neighbor and that she had always been an advocate for preventing violence against women and girls. But she also pointed out that there were 700,000 people on the sex offenders list and that those offenders included teenagers who had oral sex with other teenagers. Furthermore, she challenged how the oft-cited statistic that one in seven minors had been sexually solicited online had been received without considering how those minors were generally solicited by other minors. Now that 15% of teens had been involved in "sexting" or the sharing of explicit photos, boyd was concerned that a large number of young people could even been charged with child pornography offenses.

She noted that people love to buy books like Blink or Freakanomics about "how we are terrible at interpreting data," but even this widespread consciousness-raising had had little impact on policy. She described her own feelings about being dismissed by justice system officials and law enforcement after the appearance of Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies, a report from Harvard's Berkman Center. (I had also heard this from John Palfrey.) She asserted that "information is power" and "information is not neutral" and argued for more information literacy efforts, particularly those guided by the research of Eszter Hargittai.

After boyd's appearance things quickly went from the sublime to the ridiculous, with an argument for "passion" and people "kicking ass" and "killer" technologies and "cool" strategies with Kathy Sierra. Although her examples about how a water quality report could be made interesting were interesting, it eventually degenerated into a facile argument that lolcats and comic books were the solution for open government.

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