Tag Archive | "technology"

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SECTOR: PUBLIC – A New Site About Technology For Public Good


Last week, during the Mashable / 92Y / UN Foundation “Social Good Summit” in New York, I launched a new website called SECTOR: PUBLIC.  The focus of this blog is on leading the conversation about innovative social change via technology’s influence on the public sector, public service, and public good.
 
From my “Letter from the Editor“:

Right now, three entities contributing to the public good – citizens, the public sector, and private businesses – are incredibly dependent on each other. Citizens need support from government and the broader public sector, and jobs from businesses.  The public sector needs the support of the private sector through products and services, and needs input, ideas, and other contributions from its citizens.  And private sector organizations increasingly seek to stand for something more than merely selling products – they seek to help the public sector and contribute to citizens’ well-being.

SECTOR: PUBLIC lives where these three entities meet.  If necessity is the mother of invention, there has been no period in our lifetimes during which technological innovation is able to have such a great impact on civic progress.  Every day at SECTOR: PUBLIC, we will discuss cutting-edge technology, share public sector stories, and provide thought leadership about how American progress and public good are being both disrupted and benefited by the rapid innovation era we are living through.

Check out a well-received initial post about “Open Government Entrepreneurship” and read our “Geek 2 Chic” interview with the innovative CEO of iStrategyLabs, Peter Corbett.
 
I hope that many of you find my new website about public sector and public service stories involving technology useful and interesting!
 
You can subscribe to SECTOR: PUBLIC by email or RSS, and follow the Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/sectorpublic.  Learn more about our goals for the site in this Federal News Radio interview.

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Match Message to Medium: Talks Are Bigger Than Tweets


Learn one thing about Twitter: it is a unique medium of 140 character
or less communications. It’s like the haiku of the real-time Web. If
what you have to say is often longer than those 140 characters, maybe
you’re using the wrong medium.

Dig this. When you’re at a large conference with (say) 20 people live
tweeting every interesting sentence from every speaker, are you
thinking about your audience? I seriously hope not, because you’re
often delivering them a bundle of jumbled thoughts. And when you start
retweeting each other, and then people not at the conference start
retweeting *that* everything stops being real-time and becomes
wrong-time. We don’t yet have filters and interfaces that can make
sense of this stuff.

Dig this too. There are alternatives. While celebrations of YouTube
and Twitter happen at dedicated events, you’re overlooking less-used
social technologies with great features, like Viddler and Posterous.
Look at my last few Posterous posts: they were from a conference I
attended. But instead of burying my nose in my BlackBerry for two
days, I listened and took notes, and when I saw something worthy of
250 or so words, I wrote a short post for Posterous and pushed the
info to Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, Xanga, Plurk, and more. What’s up.

Experiment with Web 2.0 technologies. Think about your audience. Do
what’s valuable for your community. Engage.

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Georgetown Professor Mike Nelson on Government Collective Intelligence at the ELC09 Conference


At the ACT/IAC Executive Leadership Conference (ELC) in Williamsburg, VA today, I got to hear from Mike Nelson, who’s a Visiting Professor of Internet Studies at Georgetown University. He spoke on a panel within the ELC “Innovation” track, and made what I thought was a great case for government innovating with social networking tools. [You may recall that I've previously written about how social networking is the underlying key to collaboration.]  The following is paraphrasing of Prof. Nelson’s thoughts.

We are drowning in a sea of information. In the future we will be encountering 50X as much information as we have now, and we’re already maxed out. How do we find the right piece of information, quickly, in any given future situation? The solution is, in essence, taking advantage of collective intelligence and using social tools to help share the best information with the people that need it. Working together helps to form a “group brain” that is a different paradigm than how we normally think about individualism and workflow. [My side note: How do we individually incentivize group thought?]

What’s the killer app for collective intelligence? This will change in the future, but right now it’s basically Facebook and Twitter, which can act as a powerful aggregation and filtering mechanism for finding the right information at the right time. Self-organizing systems of collective intelligence, as evidenced by organizations like IBM, are one part of solving the “collective intelligence problem.”

This quick post oversimplifies but hits the main points. It should also put Mike Nelson on your radar if he’s not already. Find out more about him here.

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Why You Probably Shouldn’t Mourn Media Property Loss


Today the editor of the terrific blog from PBS called MediaShift, Mark Glaser, pointed me via Twitter to comments on one of their recent posts about the closing of Gourmet magazine. Some people mourned its passing, and others didn’t. It’s more logical to be in the camp that didn’t. The reason is that a good deal of the content in a good deal of magazines and other media properties simply isn’t that valuable. It doesn’t have much value because it isn’t very unique, and it’s easy to duplicate and repurpose. Its fidelity is not high enough.

Commenters who didn’t mourn mentioned that they increasingly turned to sites like Epicurious.com for their information. Thus, in their minds, Gourmet (which costs a lot of develop, print, and distribute) is getting outcompeted by websites like Epicurious. If you want to sell hard-copy magazines for 4, 5, or 6 dollars, you really have to provide something on the order of 5X the value of all the websites I can access in 10 min. Otherwise, why would I make the effort to buy your magazine?

The 5X rule means that it is insufficient to simply have the same stuff as a website like FoodBlogs.com, and then add some glossy photos and an interview with Wolfgang Puck. Consumers no longer think that’s worth the money. What is worth the money? Unique, engaging, difficult-to-copy, valuable, branded content. The new database/wiki WhoRunsGov from the Washington Post is a good example of this strategy.

Another thing that is worth the money is getting you the same information as competitors, but faster, in a time-dependent situation. Unfortunately for Gourmet magazine, Thanksgiving dinner can be a few minutes late.

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Amtrak Irresponsibility at Washington DC’s Union Station


Today, I’m taking a train to Williamsburg, VA from Washington, DC to attend a conference. Train #99, in fact, which was scheduled to depart Union Station at 5pm. In fact, it didn’t. As I type this we’re late, and still not moving.

Oh, I’m not writing about how an Amtrak regional train was late; I’ve been experiencing that pleasure since about 1993. What was interesting to observe was the way computer technology interacted with the actual train being late.

You see, a few weeks ago, someon installed new screens around Union Station that give gates and updated information about trains You know, “On Time,” “Boarding,” and so forth. They’re nice screens. You can find summary boards around the train station, and individual boards near the gates. They’re coordinated, and most likely run by some central software.

Sounds great, right? Well, anyone who’s taken trains knows that the big board says “On Time” until the second they switch it to something like “30 min late” (how can they not see that coming?). This doesn’t really happen with the Acela trains, but for the longer, slower regionals, they’re often off by a few minutes at least.

As we were running a few minutes late to board train #99 to Newport News, VA, the automatic screen at the gate (where I was standing at the front of the line) switched from “On Time” to “Boarding.”. Except we weren’t boarding at all. The attendant said it would be just a few minutes, and the door was shut with a fabric rope in from of that.

The attendant went in the back with his walkie talkie to check on something and we quietly stood by the gate, about a hundred of us. Jumbled. You know how these train lines go.

Suddenly, we hear a shriek. A middle-aged woman is running at us, yelling a bit about how her train is boarding, hurdling over people and their bags. “Where’s the train to Newport News?! My train is boarding!!” Before anyone could say two words to her, she quickly glanced at the sign that said “Boarding,” tore off the fabric barrier, barged through the door, and started running towards the escalator to the train.

Now, she bumped into the Amtrak attendant quickly, and he calmed her down and walked her back to us, and we all boarded a few minutes later. But what if this had happened on (say) October 15th, 2001? Would we have not taken this more seriously? Everyone was totally complacent today.

More importantly, this is a good example of how updated technology not only can be merely a cosmetic improvement (I don’t recall people asking for help reading the boards, or wandering aimlessly looking for gate E, before the new signs.) but also can be harmful when used improperly. In this case, Amtrak personnel clearly knew we were not boarding, yet the signs said we were.

In the minds of people these days, virtual boarding is as good as the truth, and we saw this with the middle-aged woman, who ran by a hundred people waiting to board because a digital display convinced her that her train was boarding. (We all must have been waiting for something else, maybe Balloon Boy?) This is a similar problem to the “celebrity death hoax” phenomena whereby Kanye West or a similar high-profile person is declared “RIP” by an enterprising Twitter user – and the information spreads like wildfire. Being dead on Twitter is now equivalent to actually being dead, unless you literally “resurrect” yourself via a YouTube video (Zach Braff) or a late-night TV appearance (Jeff Goldblum). How can we blame this pleasant woman for thinking she was going to miss her train?

So, I don’t know if Amtrak, Union Station, or some third party is working these signs, and I don’t care (It is a good question for a local journalist, though.). What I do know is that whomever is running this system doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing, or even worse, does know what they’re doing but is too lazt to give a shit. After all, it’s just a Sunday afternoon; football’s on…what could possibly happen?

Amtrak is not totally immune from blame. Even if they’re not working the software running the signs, they have employees standing right next to them. Is checking the signs for accuracy in anybody’s job description? Today’s incident could have been prevented in a number of ways. It was very minor, but it serves as an example of what happens when half-assed technology is involuntarily injected into our daily lives by people we don’t know, who don’t care about us.

Boarding 10 minutes late may not seem like a lot, but to that woman it was. If we don’t have standards about making digital information match reality, where does that logically leave society? Working bathrooms declared closed? Incorrect pricing on lattes? Misleading highway directions during an emergency?

What I want to know is: Who’s going to be in charge of coordinating the digital and the real as our country moves toward a more technocratic future?

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Public Diplomacy 2.0


Tero Ojanperä wants to rule the world. Well, perhaps the September cover of geeky Fast Company magazine goes a little too far with that pronouncement. But despite all the media buzz about Apple’s iPhone and the fact that nearly everyone in Washington has a Blackberry attached to their thumbs, those two devices combined account for only three percent of the global phone market. Nokia, on the other hand – the company that Tero Ojanperä  is the Executive Vice President of Entertainment and Communities for – owns nearly 40%. If he who controls the medium controls the message, Nokia might very well control the future of mobile text, video, music, and other things you want to have on-the-go. And this in turn may affect international diplomacy.

But such global ambitions do not happen without good public relations and influencer outreach. Fast Company describes Ojanperä as a Warhol-meets-Bond-villain businessman wooing music industry executives at a fashionable Tribeca hotel. But this kind of public-outreach-meets-global-domination is certainly not unique to corporations. In fact, governments and empires havehad the lead on that score for centuries as they fight for and strive to maintain influence in the world, and Finland is no exception. Thanks to a new “sister city” marriage of Washington and Helsinki, a program called Invitation to Helsinki brought some District influencers to meet counterparts and exchange knowledge. With backing from Finland’s U.S. Ambassador, this brainchild of the Finnish Embassy’s cultural counselor Pekka Hako blossomed into a collection of relationships that may last far beyond the week-long trip that people like Government 2.0 Club co-founder Peter Corbett, Georgetown student body president Patrick Dowd, and political communications expert Blake Zeff took.

Read more about Diplomacy 2.0 in my full-length article at Washington Life magazine.

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Putting the Public Back in Public Relations: Crooked Monkey Style


T-shirtI hadn’t heard of the popular t-shirt company Crooked Monkey until I was invited to an exclusive party they recently held. You see, even though they get great press from actors wearing their shirts in movies and magazines talking about their fashion styles, Crooked Monkey is based in Washington, DC not widely known as the fashion capital of the country. And they wanted to do some local brand building.

This wasn’t just any party. Sure, there were attractive guests in a cool setting with great drinks and music all the usual stuff. It was what they did differently that made it the most memorable event Ive been to in a long time.

Lets start with how I even found out about the event a secretive email from someone I didn’t know telling me that my friend recommended me as a guest for the event. This is somewhere in between Facebook and Eyes Wide Shut.  Then, a request for my home address, to which was mailed a package containing an envelope with a paper invitation, and also a sparsely decorated white t-shirt, which I was required to save for the party two months later and bring with me to gain admittance. Finally, a bag of tart banana candies finished the package.

Further inspection revealed that the event was on a Sunday night (no night is safe from parties!) at a secret location to be given to us later. Keep in mind that I dont know the person behind the party, nor the other guests, and now also not the location. Still later I discovered by email invitation that the event would be in a warehouse in a not-so-savory part of Washington, DC and that we MUST bring our white t-shirts because wed be doing something with them on the night of the event.

When the day of the event came, I really couldn’t stand not knowing anything! I texted the contacts I had for the event to ask questions, but they revealed little. I emailed some socialite friends to try to figure out who else would be there we knew it would be all tastemakers of different sorts, but no one really knew who was going, which was exciting. I used Google Maps to investigate the location of the warehouse. I stressed about what one wears to such events (I think I chose well!).

Even the party itself was very engaging. An artist created a mural from our white t-shirts that we used for entry right in front of our eyes. An old-fashioned photo booth let us take pictures with each other, and the photo strips had (what else?) a Crooked Monkey logo on them.  Even the name of the event Photoshoot at the Warehouse gave the party an active quality.

Do you detect a pattern here? Crooked Monkey kept busy, elite attendees who get invited to tons of events mentally engaged with their event for weeks. They made us part of telling their story. They got us to talk about their brand before, during, and after the event.  And in the end, the event delivered with a cool venue, outstanding bar, fun atmosphere, and lots of fashion.

Photoshoot at the Warehouse is a great example of putting the public back in public relations and brand engagement. How great? Im writing an entire post about them – and I dont even like wearing t-shirts!

This post originally appeared on Brian Solis’ PR 2.0 site.

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Why Posterous Is a Smart Tool For Informal Government Blogging


For a few weeks, I’ve been testing a tool called Posterous, and I’ve come to like it a lot. You can see my account here. If you’re not familiar with Posterous, it is essentially a very simple blogging platform. It may in fact be the most simple one; yet it is very feature-laden. And it has one relatively unique feature that could make it the most powerful tool for informal blogging by government employees.

That simple, amazing, singular feature is email as a primary interface. In other words, you can post blogs simply by emailing post@posterous.com or a similar address – you don’t even need an “account” or a “login” or a “password.” Even in the private sector, this is considered a cool feature. But for government employees, it could be a breath of life in an otherwise locked-down state of cybersecurity affairs.

You see, many government computer systems block domains like YouTube.com, Facebook.com, Twitter.com, and so forth. There’s a current debate about the degree to which government employees can access such sites because of cybersecurity and other reasonable concerns – after all, there have been some very recent instances of bad things being passed through these social media tools and onto your computer. But when you can interact with a blogging platform through email – and in principle even through your official government email account accessed through a traditional program like Microsoft Outlook – you can get the functionality without the risk, and without needing permission from the IT shop.

As information is more decentralized and as more computing is done on mobile devices, quickly communicating information will be more commonplace – and more in demand by consumers of it. So to citizens, government content will still be king, but the speed at which it travels to them may be queen. And being able to blog on-the-go can increase that speed. Recently I’ve experimented with blogging while walking eight blocks to a date, blogging incredibly fast in reaction to breaking news, and blogging during a conference and posting my “journalism-style” article precisely at the end of a talk. There are innumerable other tactical applications of this tool.

Posterous has a lot of great features that I like. Perhaps most important among them is that links to the content you post can be instantly pushed to other social services like Twitter and Facebook – even if they’re blocked in your office. Another great feature is that if you attach photos, videos, or documents to your email, Posterous automatically embeds them in your blog – and will also push them to services like Flickr, YouTube, and Scribd (which may also be blocked in your government office). Still another great feature is that multiple people from multiple email addresses can contribute to one Posterous page (say, for an office), and conversely one email can be associated with multiple Posterous pages (say, a formal public affairs page, and an informal tech thoughts page). In brief, you can be very powerful from your BlackBerry.

Posterous has been described by a Mashable writer as “unremarkable,” but frankly, that’s what a lot of government employees are interested in. The government has a lot of outstanding content, and their primary mission in many cases is to get it out; customizing the blog theme is definitely secondary. A standardized, simple blog platform controlled through email sounds like just what the doctor ordered, and it offers numerous advantages over something more complicated like WordPress; for example, it’s easier to teach people how to use! Oh, and did I mention it’s free?

Posterous would probably love it if people in the government wanted to jump on this bandwagon in a more official manner, too. If I understand the numbers correctly, Posterous currently only has about one million unique visitors a month – total. The U.S. Government has more employees than that. I’m not picking on Posterous – it’s only been available since June 2008 and has some tough competition in the blog platform world – but my guess is that they’d be very willing to work with the General Services Administration and other appropriate people (as have companies like YouTube) to make Posterous work with official government interests and missions. And the same goes for local and state government employees too, who often deal with IT situations similar to those of their Fed counterparts.

Many agencies are working on social media policies and guidelines for employees, and education and training are no doubt part of successful use of tools like blogs by government employees. But assuming that people are trained and empowered to create online content, can you imagine if even 5% of Postal Service or FEMA or Army employees had a Posterous blog, and citizens and journalists could mine that information about what was happening in the country, or the world? It would be amazing.

So, for the 99% of government employees that can blog in their private lives and informally talk about their careers and more generally about their lives, I recommend getting a personal Posterous account. And because many of the things I said about the government also apply to large corporations, I think there’s a huge opportunity there, too. Everyone’s workplace has different rules about what you can and cannot use your computer and mobile devices for, and you shouldn’t break them. But if you can interface with Posterous via email and help to achieve workplace goals by mobile live-blogging of conferences you attend, or posting photos of critical emergency situations, or provoking discussion over the issue-of-the-day, I say: Go for it.

(If you work in government or closely with it and use Posterous, I’d especially like to listen to your feedback as I help prepare content for the upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo in May 2010.)

This post originally appeared on O’Reilly Radar.

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Social Networking is the Means to Achieve Collaboration


Yesterday I live-blogged a bit from the terrific Government 2.0 event produced by FedScoop.com at the Newseum in Washington, DC. I wrote a post about how collaboration was not the means, but rather an end made possible by the means of social networking tools.  You can read my original writing and some initial comments here.  Below, I expand a bit on these ideas.

My post was initially inspired by one speaker’s (WFED’s Chris Dorobek) notion, shared by some others (Justin Houk commented that, “Taxpayers don’t want to think about those in government sitting around on twitter all day even thought that might be an effective way to collaborate.”), that social networking tools come across as too social or “fun” and that being social is not what people are truly doing (in the government) when they use them – they’re collaborating.  Thus, when marketing Government 2.0 to wider audiences, he feels that a term like “collaboration tools” is more appropriate.

In my opinion, while this might sound better to the traditionalist, untrained ear, I think it is factually wrong to say that things like Facebook or Intellipedia are collaboration tools.  True, collaboration often happens with these tools.  And perhaps one could argue that collaboration is mainly what people hope to accomplish with them in the workplace.  Fair enough.  But I think that collaboration is the end result of leveraging social networks, which is in actuality what the social networking tools are for.

In other words, social networks are the means by which to accomplish something.  This something might very well be collaboration.  It might also be putting together an office softball team, or a study group of employees all learning Arabic.  Is that “collaboration”?  I don’t think so.  There are many things that happen in workplaces based around social networks that are not strictly collaboration on work projects.  One big thing I’ve been thinking about lately is “leveraging social networking to accomplish important things” and no one can deny that personal relationships can influence collaboration.  How well you know someone, how much you identify with them, how much you trust them, their level of reliability or transparency – all of these are values derived from social networking that then, when leveraged, can influence collaboration.  Collaboration is not an end in itself, of course – it is a means to accomplish some end (finishing a draft report, etc.).  So, social networking is a means to collaboration, which is a means to achiving some work or personal goal.

I also completely reject the notion that there is something wrong with having some fun at work.  The idea that having fun with social software shouldn’t be allowed in serious workplaces is ridiculous.  And of course, anyone who’s ever passed around a joke-of-the-week email, celebrated a colleague’s birthday with a cake in the break room, or ended work at 4pm for an informal happy hour with the office would surely agree with me on this.  Work can be fun, and be productive, too.  The head of the OPM recently visited Google for a reason.

So, briefly, I think social networking tools are not necessarily collaboration tools.  They are social software that allows social networks to be leveraged to accomplish things you find important.  That might be collaboration on a National Intelligence Estimate, or arranging a carpool with people in your agency (getting to work, being more green), or finding a racquetball partner (staying healthy, living well) – all of which postitively influence the workplace, in government and in the private sector as well.   As Fred Wellman commented on my original post, “I can’t help but wonder if Chris [Dorobek] is seeking a more politically correct or business sounding name of the same tools with the goal of breaking down barriers to implementation and usage as opposed to a lack of understanding of the power of social networking applications in the business of government.”  I think there’s a lot of truth to that.  But I also think that, as an academic, this is actually not what we are doing.  This may sound esoteric, but from an academic standpoint I think it’s an important distinction.

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Government Ambassadors For Citizen Engagement


To the average person, government is represented by an anonymous person on the other end of the phone, a pile of mandatory paperwork, and perhaps at best a friendly neighborhood postal carrier. If you ask the average American not living inside the Beltway to name a single individual who works in the federal government, how would they reply? My guess is that the broad majority of them couldn’t give you the first and last name of a federal government employee; In reality they would find it much easier to name their local pharmacist, garage owner, or supermarket manager. And from the perspective of the government, this is a shame. How might emerging social technologies help to bridge that gap, in combination with a modification in thinking about government public relations?

The ideal end state when a citizen is asked to name a government employee would be that a person working in a micro-niche of interest to them – finance, farming, foot-and-mouth disease – immediately comes to mind. Unfortunately though, interesting and talented people working at Treasury, USDA, NIH and other places are not well-known to the public, despite the great effects their work has on everyday life in America. Why is this? Partly, it is a vestige from the days when communications were controlled by professionally trained public relations staff and mainstream journalism teams. This was understandable – equipment was expensive, channels were few, and citizens trusted authenticated, official sources for their information. But this media structure that worked well for 40 years is now outdated.

In the Web 2.0 world, every individual is empowered to be not only a consumer of information, but a producer of it. Writing is searchable, discoverable, sharable, usable, and yes, even alterable. The proverbial “pajama mafia” of bloggers has morphed into a powerful society class of listeners, questioners, writers, editors, publishers, and distributors. And in some outlying examples from the federal government, such as the TSA’s blog, we see this same power being harnessed by individual employees (with their agency’s approval, naturally) – Individuals from the TSA not only blog, but interact with citizens who comment on the articles. But this form of government-citizen interaction is, honestly, a primitive version of how social technologies can empower citizen engagement with government.

The modern citizen is not a vessel waiting to receive press releases and government website updates. Even a sophisticated government website like the White House’s new blog can only expect to attract a subset of citizens a subset of the time. Why? Simply, there are simply too many avenues of information flowing towards these people formerly known as a captive audience. No matter how compelling your government information, they are not waiting to hear from you about it. Nor are they necessarily waiting to hear from the New York Times, MSNBC, or any other mainstream organization.

Read more about how governments can harness the power of social media to reach the modern citizen at O’Reilly Radar.

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