April 21, 2014

Jeff is Special Counsel in the Broadband Division of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission. Reflecting his interest in the ability of wireless technologies to foster civic engagement in local communities, Jeff was a member of the FCC Working Group on the Information Needs of Communities, working primarily on the Wireless and Diversity chapters of the Commission’s 2011 report. He is also interested in the role of both licensed and unlicensed spectrum in meeting consumers’ demand for spectrum. Prior to joining the FCC, Jeff was an Associate and Member of the Hiring Committee at Dickstein Shapiro in Washington, DC. He was also awarded a patent for inventing a new-style container for dispensing liquids. Jeff holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard and a law degree from Duke.

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Reflecting on Sunshine Week

Last Wednesday evening, I attended the D.C. Open Government Summit: Street View, which took place at the National Press Club in conjunction with Sunshine Week. The Summit was sponsored by the D.C. Open Government Coalition, a non-profit that “seeks to enhance the public’s access to government information and ensure the transparency of government operations of the District of Columbia.” The Summit successfully focused on two main ideas – using government information to innovate and using government information to inform. I left the Summit encouraged by the enthusiasm for innovation and transparency in the attendees and among some District of Columbia government leaders, but also discouraged because there was a consensus that Washington, DC is still far behind cities such as New York, Kansas City, and Boston in using technology for innovation in government and there is not a vision or financial commitment from the Mayor’s office to facilitate government-wide progress.
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Information Facilitating Participation in Elections Must Be Readily Available – Principle #10 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

For the final installment of my series of blog posts outlining ten principles that governments and local communities should consider when evaluating whether they are using digital technology effectively to facilitate civic engagement, I will discuss the issue that goes to the core of democracy in our country – the public having access to information about elections. The information that facilitates participation in elections comes from a variety of sources, including local governments ensuring that people are easily able to register to vote, politicians using technology for conversations with the public during campaigns, and members of the public using e-mail, blogs and social media to discuss the candidates’ promises.

Technology as a tool for civic engagement has become an increasingly critical aspect of politics, particularly in urban areas. That’s because one of the factors that has affected political discourse, especially in urban areas – race – is diminishing in salience with the public. In a recent NY Times Op-ed, Thomas Edsall asked the question, “What if Race No Longer Matters in City Politics?” He noted the absence of race as a divisive factor in recent elections in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Instead, he argued that income and class shaped the mayoral contests in Boston and New York.

As cities move away from racial politics, the vacuum is being filled, at least in part, by both citizens and politicians focusing on lifestyle issues. Right now, arguably there is nothing that reflects people’s lifestyles more than the wireless devices they carry and the content they choose to consume and share through those devices. And some of that content relates to civic engagement. For example, according to a 2013 Pew study, 67% of all 18-24 year olds engaged in some social network-related political activity in the 12 months preceding the survey. Overall, 39% of adults use social media sites for political or civic activities.

Given that citizens are moving their political activities on-line, it is important that state governments make it easier for people to participate in the political process by making on-line voter registration available. Approximately 15 states currently allow on-line voter registration, while approximately 5 more have passed legislation permitting on-line registration. In addition to added convenience, according to the state of Arizona, paper registration costs 83 cents per registration while each on-line registration costs only 3 cents. To be beneficial for the public though, on-line registration must be secure. CITP Fellow J. Alex Halderman, in an interview with the National Conference of State Legislatures earlier in 2013 recommended, “ensuring that security experts are consulted during design [of an on-line registration system], adequate security testing is undertaken before the system goes live, and ongoing monitoring for threat detection efforts [takes place] while the system is being operated.”

In a recent article in Politico, Columbia University Law School professor Tim Wu suggests that voter participation in Congressional primary elections is so low because of the “convenience gap” between voting and many other modern tasks and proposes increasing participation by moving voting on-line. I disagree with Mr. Wu’s solution partially because I think technology can close the “convenience gap” that makes voting seem burdensome by keeping people connected regularly to the civic and political decision-making process. Since people have the ability through digital technology to be extremely selective about the information they choose to consume, governments and political candidates need to use more targeted methods to reach each constituent with information that’s uniquely important to that person. For example, a person who is registered for Capital Bikeshare – the bike sharing service in the Washington, DC metro area – could register to receive text message alerts about community meetings on bike lanes and transportation policy generally. If a particular series of issues is closely tied to a person’s lifestyle and interests, I think that will drive participation. There will be no need to move to on-line voting now, before the security concerns can be addressed.

People who are invested in their local communities need to continue to experiment with ways to boost civic engagement. In advance of a special election for the City Council in Washington, DC this Spring, three popular local bloggers partnered on the “Let’s Choose DC” website, which posed one question per week to all of the eligible candidates. Candidates provided longer than a sound bite answers to questions about topics such as education, crime, and affordable housing. Readers had the opportunity to vote on the responses. While turnout in the special election was disappointingly low – only 11.32% – participation still improved compared to a 2011 special election that came in at 10.30%. The more that journalists, local businesses, civic activists and government officials recognize the economic and social value of assisting citizens in using technology as a tool for building communities that reflect their members’ needs and aspirations, the stronger local communities will become.

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Improve Connectivity in Rural Communities – Principle #9 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

In my recent blog posts, I have been discussing ways that citizens can communicate with government officials through the Internet, social media, and wireless technology to solve problems in their communities and to effect public policy. Using technology for civic engagement, however, should not be limited to communications with elected or appointed government officials. One of the themes I have sought to address across my series of posts – and will discuss in more detail today – is that citizen-to-citizen communication through digital technologies for civic purposes is extremely important in building healthy communities. This is particularly true in rural areas. Improving digital connectivity in rural areas will help people communicate more effectively with civic institutions, such as schools and libraries, and commercial entities, such as commodities markets, that effect residents daily lives and economic well-being.
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Inject New Energy into Problem Solving – Principle #8 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

In response to my recent post arguing that the Federal government needs to use the social web more effectively as a tool for improving information sharing between the Federal government and the public, Michael Herz from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law reached out and directed me to a comprehensive report he recently authored for the consideration of the Administrative Conference of the United States entitled “Using Social Media in Rulemaking: Possibilities and Barriers.” One of Mr. Herz’s colleagues described the report’s tone as one of “skeptical optimism.” Mr. Herz asked me specifically about the role of social media in the Federal agency rulemaking process. In short, I generally agree with his statement that “social media culture is at odds with the fundamental characteristics of notice-and-comment rulemaking” because filing insightful comments requires “time, thought, study of the agency proposal and rationale, articulating reasons rather than…off-the-top-of-one’s-head assertions of a bottom line.” Social media, we both agree, however, is a valuable tool for Federal agencies to use to inform the public – particularly those people or groups whom the agency believes may have a vested interest in ongoing rulemakings.

Our e-mail exchange has me thinking now about why many governments and residents are embracing technology-based solutions for urban problems whereas the Federal government, as exemplified by the problems with the Affordable Care Act implementation, has not been as effective in using the Internet, wireless technology and social media to deliver services to the public. Today, I will discuss three reasons why it is easier to inject new energy into technology-based problem solving in local communities.
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Local Expertise is Exceedingly Valuable- Principle #7 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

One of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of my research has been my series of conversations with innovators in civic engagement in various cities across the country. These conversations have been enlightening for me as I think about how Washington, DC can maximize its natural advantages to foster civic engagement in its neighborhoods. The ways in which a local community uses technology to share information and solve urban problems reflect its character.

Two of the conversations that have helped shape my thinking took place earlier this year with Abby Miller, a Bloomberg Innovation Fellow and member of the Memphis Innovation Delivery Team and John Keefe from WNYC, the NPR station in New York City. Today, I will discuss their work leveraging the resources of their very different communities in very different roles – one working inside Memphis city government and the other in the media in New York City.
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Government Needs to Embrace the Social Web – Principle #6 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

As Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that – it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” The Federal government shutdown has, at least temporarily, shed light on the valuable day-to-day work done by the Federal government and its employees. Now is the time for the Federal government to strengthen the connection between the public and Federal employees. The Federal government should embrace the social web as a part of its employees’ work lives.

To this point open government has generally meant that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight. Open government should include people too. Putting a human face – along with professional contact information and areas of expertise – as a part of Agencies’ public facing websites will facilitate transparency. Employees should have something like a Facebook-lite or more open version of Linked-in, where everyone’s profile is visible. Certainly, there will be limitations. For example, employees with military or law enforcement responsibilities will continue to be largely anonymous. As with e-mail, Agencies will develop oversight mechanisms. Even so, the public and Federal employees should have better access to each other.
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A Start-Up Born at CITP

As is probably the case with many start-ups, Gloobe was born late at night. Early in 2013, on the night of a snowstorm in Princeton, I presented at the student-led Code at Night hackathon an idea for a web site that organized civic information onto online maps of local communities. With experience as a former elected representative of a relatively small community within Washington, DC, I understood the value of easing the availability of information about voting, upcoming community meetings, and regulatory agency actions, but lacked the coding skills to bring the project to life. Jian Min Sim, a student from Oxford who was spending his senior year at Princeton as part of an exchange program, heard about my presentation from a friend and when we got together, pulled out his laptop and said, “I have already built something very similar.” After winning a contest sponsored by the ITU, Jian had built a mapping website designed to provide a platform for NGO employees and others who travel frequently to share information about places that lacked detailed on-line limited maps. A partnership formed.

Over the course of the year, we have talked repeatedly about different ways of using technology to reach different groups of people – young people, people working for the government, in education, or at large corporations – who are looking to share knowledge more effectively. Through all of these conversations, we have sought to figure out what we think is important – a preference for wireless solutions, a simple platform, providing real-time access to information about what’s happening in local communities. Do we think our mission is best served as a for-profit or non-profit entity?
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Educating Leaders who Tackle the Challenges of their Time; Lessons from the Past: Book Review: First Class, The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School

One of last year’s CITP lectures that is still fresh in my mind is Brad Smith’s talk on “Immigration, Education, and the Future of Computer Science in America.” In his presentation on developing a process for educating the next generation of computer scientists in U.S. high schools and colleges, Mr. Smith noted that in the state of New Jersey, where 8.8 million people live, only 874 students took the computer science AP exam, and of those, only 17 were African-American. In Alison Stewart’s excellent new book “First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School,” Ms. Smith tells the story of one of the best and most important American high schools of the 20th century. In the first half of the 20th century, Dunbar High School, a public school located in Washington, DC, produced numerous leaders in medicine, science, education, law, politics and the military, including several from my family. With the end of segregation, the conditions that resulted in Dunbar’s creation ceased to exist. The question remains, however, as to how in diverse public education systems to develop leaders in the fields that are critical to the country’s economic and social progress.
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Principles #4 and #5 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies: Engage On-line and Off-line, and Prepare for the Future

As part of my continuing series, today I’ll discuss two more principles for fostering civic engagement and digital technologies. My earlier posts are:
#1 Know Your Community
#2 Keep it Simple
#3 Leverage Entrepreneurial Intermediaries

Principle #4: Utilize Creative Combinations of On-line and Off-line Communications

Whether it’s a grass roots organization, national political campaign or local government agency, any group that wishes to identify and motivate people to become involved in civic affairs needs to use creative combinations of on-line and off-line communications. In today’s post, I will discuss two different situations where I’ve observed people combining new technology and traditional grass roots organizing to foster civic engagement.

On Twitter, I recently came across an account dedicated to a student’s grass roots campaign for Vice President of the student government at The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). Her tweets below are a simple representation of today’s hybrid on-line/off-line grass roots campaign.

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First Principles for Fostering Civic Engagement via Digital Technologies #2 and #3: Keep it Simple and Leverage Entrepreneurial Intermediaries

In my previous blog post, I set out the first of 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. Today, I’m setting forth my second and third principles, “Simplicity – Bang for the Buck” and “Digital Intermediaries.” I have chosen to present these two principles together because they are linked thematically.

In almost every community, people are seeking information on public safety, jobs, education, transportation and healthcare. My second principle, “Simplicity – Bang for the Buck” suggests that governments, when determining which problems they can solve through an investment in digital technology, should look to improving government processes related to these core issues. My third principle acknowledges the reality that government itself cannot alone provide all of the information residents are seeking. Therefore, in a community which is engaged digitally, “Digital Intermediaries” – entrepreneurs, including journalists, who are a trusted source for providing local or hyper-local information to residents – will develop Internet and mobile broadband-based businesses providing people with information on these important topics.

Principle #2: “Simplicity – Bang for the Buck”
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