October 20, 2017

Digital Activism and Non Violent Conflict

As a CITP fellow last year, one of my goals was to get a new project on digital activism off the ground.  With support from the US Institutes of Peace and a distributed network of researchers we pulled together an event dataset of hundreds of instances where people tried using information and communication technologies to achieve political goals.  The Digital Activism project launched.

The research team analyzed some 1,200 cases of digital activism worldwide, including some 400 cases from the past three years. First, we defined activism as efforts not just at regime change, but campaigns for policy changes at all levels of government. Second, we made sure this was a truly global sample – going far beyond the best-known cases that both sides in this debate had cited. Our initial research in this Digital Activism Research Project showed us how much more work can and should be done, one particular trend was apparent right away.
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The New Ambiguity of "Open Government"

David Robinson and I have just released a draft paper—The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”—that describes, and tries to help solve, a key problem in recent discussions around online transparency. As the paper explains, the phrase “open government” has become ambiguous in a way that makes life harder for both advocates and policymakers, by combining the politics of transparency with the technologies of open data. We propose using new terminology that is politically neutral: the word adaptable to describe desirable features of data (and the word inert to describe their absence), separately from descriptions of the governments that use these technologies.

Clearer language will serve everyone well, and we hope this paper will spark a conversation among those who focus on civic transparency and innovation. Thanks to Justin Grimes and Josh Tauberer, for their helpful insight and discussions as we drafted this paper.

Download the full paper here.

Abstract:

“Open government” used to carry a hard political edge: it referred to politically sensitive disclosures of government information. The phrase was first used in the 1950s, in the debates leading up to passage of the Freedom of Information Act. But over the last few years, that traditional meaning has blurred, and has shifted toward technology.

Open technologies involve sharing data over the Internet, and all kinds of governments can use them, for all kinds of reasons. Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of these technologies. Thus, “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more transparent), but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, but that may have nothing to do with public accountability. Today a regime can call itself “open” if it builds the right kind of web site—even if it does not become more accountable or transparent. This shift in vocabulary makes it harder for policymakers and activists to articulate clear priorities and make cogent demands.

This essay proposes a more useful way for participants on all sides to frame the debate: We separate the politics of open government from the technologies of open data. Technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.

On digital TV and natural disasters

As I’m writing this, the eye of Hurricane Ike is roughly ten hours from landfall.  The weather here, maybe 60 miles inland, is overcast with mild wind.  Meanwhile, the storm surge has already knocked out power for ten thousand homes along the coast, claims the TV news, humming along in the background as I write this, which brings me to a thought.

Next year, analog TV gets turned off, and it’s digital or nothing.  Well, what happens in bad weather?  Analog TV degrades somewhat, but is still watchable.  Digital TV works great until it starts getting uncorrectable errors.  There’s a brief period where you see block reconstruction errors and, with even a mild additional amount of error, it’s just unwatchable garbage.  According to AntennaWeb, most of the terrestrial broadcast towers are maybe ten miles from my house, but that’s ten miles closer to the coast.  However, I get TV from Comcast, my local cable TV provider.  As I’ve watched the HD feed today, it’s been spotty.  Good for a while, unwatchable for a while.  The analog feed, which we also get on a different channel, has been spot on the whole time.

From this, it would appear that Comcast is getting its feed out of the air, and thus has all the same sorts of weather effects that I would have if I bothered to put my own antenna on the roof.  Next year, when the next hurricane is bearing down on the coast, and digital TV is the only TV around, it’s an interesting question whether I’ll get something useful on my TV during a disaster.  Dear Comcast, Engineering Department: please get a hard line between you and each of the local major TV stations.  Better yet, get two of them, each, and make sure they don’t share any telephone poles.

[Sidebar: In my old house, I used DirecTV plus a terrestrial antenna for HD locals, run through a DirecTV-branded HD TiVo.  Now, I’m getting everything from Comcast, over telephone poles, into a (series 3) TiVo-HD.  In any meaningful disaster, the telephone poles are likely to go down, taking out my TV source material. I get power and telephone from the same poles, so to some extent, they make a single point of failure, and thus no meaningful benefit from putting up my own antenna.

Once the storm gets closer, I’ll be moving the UPS from my computer to our, umm, shelter-in-place location.  I don’t expect I’d want to waste precious UPS battery power running my power-hungry television set.  Instead, I’ve got an AM/FM portable radio that runs on two AA’s.  Hopefully, the amount of useful information on the radio will be better than the man-on-the-street TV newscasters, interviewing fools standing along the ocean, watching the pretty waves breaking.  Hint: you can’t “ride through” a storm when the water is ten feet over your head.]