April 18, 2014

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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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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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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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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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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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Web Tracking and User Privacy Workshop: Test Cases for Privacy on the Web

This guest post is from Nick Doty, of the W3C and UC Berkeley School of Information. As a companion post to my summary of the position papers submitted for last month’s W3C Do-Not-Track Workshop, hosted by CITP, Nick goes deeper into the substance and interaction during the workshop.

The level of interest and participation in last month’s Workshop on Web Tracking and User Privacy — about a hundred attendees spanning multiple countries, dozens of companies, a wide variety of backgrounds — confirms the broad interest in Do Not Track. The relatively straightforward technical approach with a catchy name has led to, in the US, proposed legislation at both the state and federal level and specific mention by the Federal Trade Commission (it was nice to have Ed Felten back from DC representing his new employer at the workshop), and comparatively rapid deployment of competing proposals by browser vendors. Still, one might be surprised that so many players are devoting such engineering resources to a relatively narrow goal: building technical means that allow users to avoid tracking across the Web for the purpose of compiling behavioral profiles for targeted advertising.

In fact, Do Not Track (in all its variations and competing proposals) is the latest test case for how new online technologies will address privacy issues. What mix of minimization techniques (where one might classify Microsoft’s Tracking Protection block lists) versus preference expression and use limitation (like a Do Not Track header) will best protect privacy and allow for innovation? Can parties agree on a machine-readable expression of privacy preferences (as has been heavily debated in P3P, GeoPriv and other standards work), and if so, how will terms be defined and compliance monitored and enforced? Many attendees were at the workshop not just to address this particular privacy problem — ubiquitous invisible tracking of Web requests to build behavioral profiles — but to grab a seat at the table where the future of how privacy is handled on the Web may be decided. The W3C, for its part, expects to start an Interest Group to monitor privacy on the Web and spin out specific work as new privacy issues inevitably arise, in addition to considering a Working Group to address this particular topic (more below). The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is exploring a Privacy Directorate to provide guidance on privacy considerations across specs.

At a higher level, this debate presents a test case for the process of building consensus and developing standards around technologies like tracking protection or Do Not Track that have inspired controversy. What body (or rather, combination of bodies) can legitimately define preference expressions that must operate at multiple levels in the Web stack, not to mention serve the diverse needs of individuals and entities across the globe? Can the same organization that defines the technical design also negotiate semantic agreement between very diverse groups on the meaning of “tracking”? Is this an appropriate role for technical standards bodies to assume? To what extent can technical groups work with policymakers to build solutions that can be enforced by self-regulatory or governmental players?

Discussion at the recent workshop confirmed many of these complexities: though the agenda was organized to roughly separate user experience, technical granularity, enforcement and standardization, overlap was common and inevitable. Proposals for an “ack” or response header brought up questions of whether the opportunity to disclaim following the preference would prevent legal enforcement; whether not having such a response would leave users confused about when they had opted back in; and how granular such header responses should be. In defining first vs. third party tracking, user expectations, current Web business models and even the same-origin security policy could point the group in different directions.

We did see some moments of consensus. There was general agreement that while user interface issues were key to privacy, trying to standardize those elements was probably counterproductive but providing guidance could help significantly. Regarding the scope of “tracking”, the group was roughly evenly divided on what they would most prefer: a broad definition (any logging), a narrow definition (online behavioral advertising profiling only) or something in between (where tracking is more than OBA but excludes things like analytics or fraud protection, as in the proposal from the Center for Democracy and Technology). But in a “hum” to see which proposals workshop attendees opposed (“non-starters”) no one objected to starting with a CDT-style middle ground — a rather shocking level of agreement to end two days chock full of debate.

For tech policy nerds, then, this intimate workshop about a couple of narrow technical proposals was heady stuff. And the points of agreement suggest that real interoperable progress on tracking protection — the kind that will help the average end user’s privacy — is on the way. For the W3C, this will certainly be a topic of discussion at the ongoing meeting in Bilbao, and we’re beginning detailed conversations about the scope and milestones for a Working Group to undertake technical standards work.

Thanks again to Princeton/CITP for hosting the event, and to Thomas and Lorrie for organizing it: bringing together this diverse group of people on short notice was a real challenge, and it paid off for all of us. If you’d like to see more primary materials: minutes from the workshop (including presentations and discussions) are available, as are the position papers and slides. And the W3C will post a workshop report with a more detailed summary very soon.

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Antisocial networking

I just got my invitation to Google Wave. The prototype that’s now public doesn’t have all of the amazing features in the original video demos. At this point, it’s pretty much just a way of collecting IM-style conversations all in one place. But several of my friends are already there, and I’ve had a few conversations there already.

How am I supposed to know that there’s something new going on at Wave? Right now, I need to keep a tab open in my browser and check in, every once in a while, to see what’s up. Right now, my standard set of tabs includes my Gmail, calendar, RSS reader, New York Times homepage, Facebook page, and now Google Wave. Add in the occasional Twitter tab (or dedicated Twitter client, if I feel like running it) plus I’ll occasionally have an IM window open. All of these things are competing for my attention when I’m supposed to be getting real work done.

A common way that people try to solve this problem is by building bridges between these services. If you use Twitter and Facebook, there are several ways to arrange for your tweets to show up at Facebook (bewildering Facebook users with all the #hashtags and @references) and there are also a handful of ways for getting data out of Facebook. I’d been using FriendFeed as a central hub for all this, but it would sometimes stop working for days at a time. Now that they’ve been bought out by Facebook, maybe this will shake itself out.

The bigger problem is that these various vendors and technologies have different data models for visibility and for how metadata is represented. In Twitter, everything is default-public, follow-up comments are first-class objects in the system, and there’s effectively no metadata outside of the message, causing Twitter users to have adopted a variety of seemingly obscure conventions (e.g., “RT” to indicate a retweet of some other tweet). Contrast this with Facebook, where comments are a very different sort of message from the parent messages, where they have all sorts of security rules (that nobody really understands) about who can see what, and where there is actually structure to a message. If I link to a Youtube video, it gets magically embedded, versus the annoying URL shorteners that people have to use to shoehorn messages into Twitter.

Comments are a favorite area for people to complain. Twitter comments are often implicit with the @username tags. If I’m following a friend and a friend-of-my-friend comments on one of their tweets, I won’t necessary see it. In Facebook, I have a better shot at seeing those comments. But what if I wrote a blog post here at Freedom to Tinker, which Facebook nicely picks it up and makes it look just like I posted a note on my Facebook page. Now we’ll have comments on Freedom to Tinker and more comments inside Facebook which won’t intermingle. Of course, thanks to FriendFeed, a tweet will (probably) be automatically generated when I post this, causing some small amount of Twitter commenting traffic, and there may be comments within FriendFeed itself as well as Google Reader commentary (which is also different from Google Reader’s “share with note” commentary).

Given these disparate data models, there’s no easy way to unify Twitter and Facebook, much less the commenting disaspora, even assuming you could sort out the security concerns and you could work around Facebook’s tendency to want to restrict the flow of data out of its system. This is all the more frustrating because RSS completely solved the initial problem of distributing new blog posts in the blog universe. I used to keep a bunch of tabs open to various blog-like things that I followed, but that quickly proved unwieldy, whereas an RSS aggregator (Google Reader, for me) solved the problem nicely. Could there ever be a social network/microblogging aggregator?

There are no lack of standards-in-the-wings that would like to do this. (See, for example, OpenMicroBlogging, or our own work on BirdFeeder.) Something like Google Wave could subsume every one of these platforms, although I fear that integrating so many different data models would inevitably result in a deeply clunky UI.

In the end, I think the federation ideas behind Google Wave and BirdFeeder, and good old RSS blog feeds, will ultimately win out, with interoperability between the big vendors, just like they interoperate with email. Getting there, however, isn’t going to happen easily.