September 28, 2022

A technological approach to better living, for D.C. and beyond

Washington, D.C., could be a leader in the United States — and worldwide — in using technology to improve the lives of its residents and visitors.

As a rapidly growing city with a diverse and highly educated population, the District is a leader in law, education, tourism and, of course, government. With this mass of educated and engaged citizens, the District can use technology to make local government more efficient and promote the further development of vibrant commercial corridors across the city.

That’s why the District government should join other leading cities in establishing an office dedicated to tech-based solutions to local, urban problems.

The networks that communities use to share information and facilitate commerce have evolved across U.S. history from waterways to railroads to broadband. As the Georgetown waterfront was once a profitable international shipping hub, cities today are leveraging their advantages to attract technology innovators. In Boston, for example, the mayor’s office found partners for its civic technology incubator (the Office of New Urban Mechanics) at Harvard University and Emerson College. Kansas City won a contest and became the first city where Google built its super-high-speed Internet service. And New York City, under the leadership of tech-savvy mayor Michael Bloomberg, developed in 2011 a “Road Map for the Digital City” to establish itself as a world leader in Internet access, open government, citizen engagement and digital industry growth.

True to the District’s status as a world political capital, the leaders in the city’s government, business and educational institutions should work together to benefit the region’s civic and economic future:

● The next mayor must establish a unified program housed in the mayor’s office and focused on using technology, data and innovation to make the city’s government more efficient and responsive to residents’ needs. Initiatives, perhaps similar to Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, should be developed and executed in partnership with local companies, universities and nonprofits.

● Within such a program, the businesses and government could systematically encourage and support new grass-roots organizations similar to the Kennedy Street Development Association, which is using Facebook and Twitter to recruit residents and businesses, and whose investments signal the rebranding of an ailing commercial corridor as a lively mixed commercial and residential neighborhood. Memphis’s MEMShop business incubation program is a good model.

● Critical support for such a unified program is locally available because many global experts on telecommunications and Internet policy are already here. The District’s business leaders could easily engage this brain trust in developing technology policies and regulations that support growing broadband infrastructure and foster economic growth resulting from proven applications, such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.

By taking the lead on civic innovation, the District could be a template for other governments in the area. As the whole region shares information, researchers, local companies and governments can come together to tackle some of the biggest challenges we face, such as homelessness, education and transportation. With this spirit of collaboration, local Washington, D.C., can be a model for the federal D.C.

Copyrights, Fundamental Rights, and the Constitution

There was a lot to take issue with in Scott Turow’s recent op-ed in The New York Times. Turow, who is currently President of the Authors Guild, took to The Times to criticize the Supreme Court’s decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, which brought physical books manufactured and sold abroad within the protective scope of copyright’s first sale doctrine. Turow cast the Court’s decision as another blow to authors’ rights, which, by his account, are being pitilessly washed away by the digital tides. He blames the usual suspects: e-books, Amazon.com, pirates, Google, and—this last one may surprise you—libraries. The coup de grace, he asserted, will be the extension of first sale rights to digital copies of books. (It may comfort him to know that the possibility of that happening is more remote following Redigi’s recent defeat in federal district court.)
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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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Now Available in Print and eBook: "Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring"

I am happy to announce that my new book, co-authored with Muzammil M. Hussain, is now available in print (Oxford University Press, Amazon, Google Books) and eBook (Kindle).

In April of last year, I presented some of our initial findings and described the methodology in a presentation at the Center for Information Technology at Princeton. You can listen to that presentation here:
Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Information Technologies and the Fuzzy Causes of the Arab Spring

Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring
Philip N. Howard and Muzammil M. Hussain

Did digital media really “cause” the Arab Spring, or is it an important factor of the story behind what might become democracy’s fourth wave? An unlikely network of citizens used digital media to start a cascade of social protest that ultimately toppled four of the world’s most entrenched dictators. Howard and Hussain find that the complex causal recipe includes several economic, political and cultural factors, but that digital media is consistently one of the most important sufficient and necessary conditions for explaining both the fragility of regimes and the success of social movements. This book looks at not only the unexpected evolution of events during the Arab Spring, but the deeper history of creative digital activism throughout the region.

Philip N. Howard is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, with adjunct appointments at the Jackson School of International Studies and the Information School.

Muzammil M. Hussain is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication at the University of Washington and Visiting Scientist at the Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH Zurich.