April 24, 2014

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First Principles for Fostering Civic Engagement via Digital Technologies: #1 Know Your Community

Over the first few months of my Fellowship at CITP, I have had the pleasure of meeting with a number of people from academia, non-profits, for-profit companies and government to discuss the role of digital technologies in fostering civic engagement.  In a series of blog posts, I plan to set out ten principles that local governments and communities should look to as they evaluate whether their community is using digital technology effectively to promote civic engagement and solve local problems.  Because I do not think that my work developing these principles is complete, I hope to use this forum as a way to offer ideas for further exploration.  Feedback is welcome!

Principle #1: Know Your Community
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The State of Connectivity in Latin America: from Mobile Phones to Tablets

Ten years ago, issues like e-health, e-education and e-government were more products of wishful thinking than ideas with a real possibility of being implemented in most Latin American countries. Conversely, the present moment has become a turning point for the region in terms of connectivity. Government policies, markets and non-profit initiatives are contributing to improve the overall connectivity in the region.

By 2012 98% of the population in the region had access to a mobile cell signal and 84% of households subscribe to some type of mobile service, according to a World Bank report. This rather quick expansion of ICTs in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) caught many intellectual property and access to knowledge scholars and practitioners unprepared. While they were still considering hypothetical models for deploying and using information and communication technologies (ICTs), a significant portion of the region’s population was already putting in practice innovative uses to newly available technology, and going beyond expectations in terms of self-organization and empowerment.
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A Reivew of Oral Arguments in McBurney v. Young: State FOIA and State Rights

Yesterday, I attended oral arguments in the Supreme Court case of McBurney v. Young, which I have previously written about. The case involves two different petitioners who were denied access to state records under a Virginia “freedom of information” law that limits such access to Virginia residents only. McBurney is a former Virginia resident who wanted some records related to an ongoing child support dispute. Hurlbert is a government information aggregator and reseller.

At issue is whether this preferential treatment is constitutional under the Constitution’s “Privileges and Immunities” clause, as well as the “Dormant Commerce Clause.” In my previous post, I discussed these doctrines in more detail, but I devoted most of my time to describing the privileges and immunities argument — essentially that citizens must receive equal treatment across all states when it comes to “fundamental rights.” While waiting for arguments to begin, I was chatting with another person in the audience. I asked him whether he thought that the argument was going to focus significantly on states’ rights, and he said he expected more time to be devoted to the question of whether or not the rights in question were “fundamental.” It turned out that, with the boisterous support of Justice Scalia, states’ rights were the order of the day.

[Update: Transcript of the arguments is available here]

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Computer science education done right: A rookie’s view from the front lines at Princeton

In many organizations that are leaders in their field, new inductees often report being awed when they start to comprehend how sophisticated the system is compared to what they’d assumed. Engineers joining Google, for example, seem to express that feeling about the company’s internal technical architecture. Princeton’s system for teaching large undergraduate CS classes has had precisely that effect on me.

I’m “teaching” COS 226 (Data Structures and Algorithms) together with Josh Hug this semester. I put that word in quotes because lecturing turns out to be a rather small, albeit highly visible part of the elaborate instructional system for these classes that’s been put in place and refined over many years. It involves nine different educational modes that students interact with and a six different types of instructional staff(!), each with a different set of roles. Let me break it down in terms of instructional staff responsibilities, which correspond roughly to learning modes.
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Presidential Commission on Election reform – good news & bad

In his State of the Union address, President Obama stated:

“But defending our freedom is not the job of our military alone. We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote. When any Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. That’s why, tonight, I’m announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And I’m asking two long-time experts in the field, who’ve recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign, to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.”

The White House announced that the commission will be led by Robert Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, attorneys for the Obama and Romney campaigns. According to the New York Times, the panel will include lawyers plus “election officials and customer service specialists — possibly from theme parks and other crowded places”.

I have no doubt that all of these are valuable areas where we need expertise in solving problems with long lines. But at the same time, it’s critical to recognize that any solution to solving problems will undoubtedly involve technology – and for that, there must be technologists on the panel. For example, if the panel determines that making it easier for people to register or check their address online is a good idea (which I expect will be one outcome), they need technical experts to help understand the security and privacy issues associated with such requirements.

My greatest fear is that the commission will blindly recommend internet voting as a cure-all. As readers of my postings on this blog know, internet voting has yet to show promise as a secure solution to voting, and it risks threatening everyone’s vote.

Here’s hoping that the yet-to-be-named members of the panel will include not just lawyers, election officials, and customer service specialists, but also a leading technical expert – and not someone from one of the other fields claiming technical expertise.

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“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”

Since the historic snow storm, “Nemo,” deposited a NOAA-certified 40 inches of snow on my hometown of Hamden, CT, I have been watching from afar to see how the town and its citizens are using a combination of digital technology, the traditional telecommunications network, and mass media to communicate in the aftermath of the storm. While I have been lucky enough not to have been directly affected by the historic storm, my senior citizen parents have been inside their house waiting for a snow plow to come for approximately five days. Since they are healthy and have food and heat, I have the luxury of writing about the use of communications technology by Hamden’s government during this weather emergency. The purpose of this post is not to pile onto an already overwhelmed town government, but to highlight fairly easily achievable improvements that Hamden’s government could make in its emergency communications that will make residents of the town safer the next time an emergency occurs.

On Friday morning, I woke up and heard the Mayor of Hamden, Scott Jackson, on CNN stating about the storm, “It’s a Disaster.” I was impressed to hear the Mayor of my approximately 60,000 person hometown with a national and international forum to talk about the weather emergency and recovery efforts. I figured this was only the first step in the process of informing town residents about what they could expect over the next few days. However, based on reviewing “The Town of Hamden, Connecticut” Facebook page, e-mails sent from the Mayor’s Office, the Mayor’s Twitter feed, and having conversations with my parents, there are three specific areas where the town could have communicated more effectively during this weather emergency. These failures of communication sell short the heroic work of the people working around the clock to plow the streets and respond to emergencies.
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Ed Felten elected to National Academy

The National Academy of Engineering announced today that Edward W. Felten, professor of computer science and public affairs, and director, Center for Information Technology Policy, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., has been elected to the National Academy “For contributions to security of computer systems, and for impact on public policy.”

From the NAE’s announcement:

Election to the National Academy of Engineering is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer.  Academymembership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to “engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature,” and to the “pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education.”

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Making Excuses for Fees on Electronic Public Records

I recently posted about my draft bill to make electronic public access to federal court records free (#openpacer). Since then, I’ve had some very positive feedback from members of Congress, and I expect that the bill will be introduced with bipartisan and bicameral support once the public settles on the right language (the bill text is open for comment).

Schultze Hogan LetterIn the meantime, I wrote a letter to Judge Hogan, Director of the Administrative Office of the US Courts. I wanted to make the case directly to him that the courts should do the right thing — and that what they are doing right now is against the law. I was assured by his colleagues on the bench that Hogan is a reasonable and judicious person, and that he would at least hear me out. Yesterday, his administrative assistant replied to me. She said that he had forwarded the letter to the people in the Public Access and Records Management Division (PARMD), and that he didn’t want to talk to me. She said that I could contact Public Affairs Office if I wanted to discuss it further. The PARMD folks have, in the past, forwarded my requests for things like the congressionally mandated Judiciary Information Technology Fund Report to the Public Affairs folks, who of course never respond.

So, rather than participating in yet another bureaucratic run-around, I thought I’d outline the series of poor excuses that the Administrative Office has offered to justify their fees. If you’re a lawyer reading this, I invite you to consider what a lawsuit might look like. My email address is

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Basic Economics of Bitcoin Mining

Arvind wrote yesterday about the availability of chips that do super-fast Bitcoin mining. I want to follow up by unpacking the economics of Bitcoin mining, to see what the effect of the new chips will be, and more generally what the future of Bitcoin mining looks like.
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Bitcoin grows up, gets its own hardware

The big news in the Bitcoin world is that there are several Bitcoin-mining ASICs (custom chips) already shipping or about to be launched. Avalon in particular has been getting some attention recently. Bitcoin mining moved long ago from CPUs to GPUs, but this takes it one step further. The expectation is that very soon most mining will be done by such specialized hardware; general-purpose machines will be too inefficient to be profitable. This development raises a whole host of interesting questions.

First, if ASIC mining is indeed so much faster than any current method, and can recover the hardware cost in just a few days as claimed, why are the creators selling them, or even talking about them?! Why not keep the existence of these devices a secret and mine as much BTC as possible before the world catches on? After all, the costs of packaging and distribution will only decrease the margins. There are several possible explanations:
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