Tim O'Reilly on the History and Future of Government 2.0

Tim O’Reilly is telling the Aspen Ideas Festival crowd about the history of Government 2.0. He starts it with Carl Malamud and SEC data online; next, he cites the Brits and TheyWorkForYou.com; gives Sunlight Foundation their due; and says that then-candidate Obama’s claim that we would connect people and ideas to transform government as the final breakthrough (not to mention all that great web 2.0 work in the campaign).

The hard question, as O’Reilly rightly notes, is whether these tools can work as well during times of governance as it does during the time of campaigns (or crises). To get it done, he says, we should build from a set of principles, which sound great to me:

1) We need to embrace open standards, because it leads to generative systems (with a very nice shout-out to JZ and his book, The Future of the Internet);

2) Build a simple system and then let it evolve. Twitter has 11,000 applications now build upon it — in no time (another nice shout-out to JZ here and his “hourglass architecture” slide is shown). One such simple intervention: by default, make government information open and accessible to the public.

3) Design systems for cooperation. Presume that people can work well together, even if they don’t know one another. Think of the difference between Linux development and traditional software development within a single firm. Think also of the DNS. O’Reilly also credits Cong. John Culberson, R-TX, as a leading user of social technologies in DC and someone who gets the need to set up systems that allow for cooperation (and who cites a Jefferson letter of the early 19th c. for inspiration). Make rules like: the only requirement for participation is that you participate.

4) Learn from your users, especially ones who do what you don’t expect. In the mash-ups world: 45% are built on Google Maps, with only 4% on Microsoft Virtual Earth, 3% from Yahoo! O’Reilly says the others were too slow to open up APIs; Google just went for it. One of the first hackers to do this was HousingMaps, which a hacker name Paul did using Maps (in a contravention of the Terms of Service, O’Reilly says). Did Google sue Paul? Nope. They hired him.

5) Lower barriers to experimentation. Failure has to be an option. He quotes Edison: “I didn’t fail ten thousand times. I successfully eliminated, ten thousand times, materials and combinations which wouldn’t work.” O’Reilly says that Amazon’s cloud services make this kind of rapid experimentation, iterative development, and parsing through huge data sets possible.

6) Build a culture of measurement. Systems should respond automatically to user stimuli. Real-time measurement is crucial. Throughout his talk, O’Reilly credited Vivek Kundra, the new federal CIO, as a wonderful leader in making a great deal happen already within the Obama government. As Google and Wal-mart do, the government needs to be close to a living organism, responding in real-time to extensive stimuli. We need to instrument our world to be able to respond to useful data.

7) Throw the door open to partners. Apple’s iPhone has given rise to more than 50,000 applications in less than a year. The App Store made a fine tool into a phenomenon. More than 1 billion applications have been downloaded as of April, 2009. Everyone else in the smartphone business is eating their dust, at least in the apps business. And yet, O’Reilly says, the government is still making no-bid contracts. Government has to get out of its own way. Throw it open, and let everyone compete. Apps for Democracy is much in the right direction. (He gets a big laugh when he cites a Congressman who asked: why do we need NOAA when we have Weather.com? Pretty impressive case of some people in Washington still not getting the point…)

Fundamentally, government is a vehicle for collective action. O’Reilly is right, here, too. That also happens to be what distributed digital networked technologies are good at doing — supporting collective action.

All these principles together can lead us to the Digital Commonwealth. (Hear, hear!)

Bottom line: I think O’Reilly nailed it. These are great principles and a fine time to be discussing them.  Turns out, Beth Simone Noveck, deputy CTO in the White House, and others in the Obama Administration are actually now DOING all this right now. My only amendment to the O’Reilly talk would have been a cite to Beth’s brand new book, Wiki Government (Brookings, 2009) which includes a terrific commentary on these and related themes.

Look to EthanZ‘s blog for his better-live-blogging than mine here.

Being Thankful

There are many things to be thankful for this week, as we celebrate the Obama victory.  It means so many good things about America and offers — truly — such hope for the future of our troubled world.   After a few days of reflection, there are three things, perhaps idiosynchratically, that I find myself particularly thankful for: 

One is that the Obama campaign won after doing such a terrific job of combining old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning with the best of the online tools and strategy.  There are of course many reasons for the landslide; this is but one of them.  Many people, like Joe Rospars and his crew, deserve credit for this approach.  Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder, joined the Obama campaign very early on as coordinator of online organizing.  The team from Blue State Digital, veterans of the Dean campaign, was there from the start of the primary, too.  But the digital teams for the campaign didn’t do their work in isolation; everything was brilliantly coordinated with real-space campaigning.  It’s the combination of classical-and-jazz campaigning that I have been waiting to see a campaign pull off at large scale.  This one sure did.  And how.  The Obama campaign did that, and much more.  It is surely a new blueprint for a successful political campaign.  (PRI/KCRW’s “To the Point” did a segment on this concept yesterday.  Chris Hughes made this point, too, on his MyBO blog the same day.  Micah Sifry was overhead on NPR yesterday talking about the future of this community.   CQ, among many others, wrote about some of the differences in the campaigns on these topics, early on.  And so forth.)

Second — and not unrelated — the uptick in new voters and young voters continued in 2008.  We’ve had great numbers in 2004 and 2006 in these categories compared to previous cycles.  The trend clearly continued this year, no doubt to the benefit of the Obama campaign and other Democrats newly elected to office.  The presumption that today’s youth represent an apathetic “generation” is, time and again, being disproven, as they find ways new and old to demonstrate their commitment to civic activism.  David Gergen is calling it a “new order” and pointed to the 18-to-29-year-old vote on CNN.  The New York Times referred to a “deep generational divide” that cut sharply in favor of Obama this time around.  (Urs Gasser and I took up this issue, and related matters, in the Activism chapter of Born Digital.  It will be fun to update that chapter now.)

Third, the campaign deployed so many good election lawyers that Obama voters were not disenfranchised in the way that Kerry and Gore voters plainly were in 2004 and 2000.  It was incredibly well-organized this year.  My brother, Quentin Palfrey, took a leave from his job as chief of the health care division at the Massachusetts AG’s office to run voter protection in Ohio.  His team — of literally thousands of lawyers — ensured that there was no repeat of the 2004 horror-show that cost John Kerry votes, if not much more than that.  (Like many other lawyers, I trekked up to NH to do voter protection in previous cycles; this time, there were more than enough lawyers to go around, such that many were sitting around at polling places, redundantly.)  The emphasis on voter protection in this cycle, at such a high level of sophistication, and in so many states, was a great thing to watch.  And locally, organizations to keep this trend growing (in Massachusetts, for instance, consider MassVOTE), only seem to be gaining strength.

Each of these trends took an extraordinary amount of work by an extraordinary number of people.  The successes of these collective actions offers much reason for hope. 

We all share the responsibility of turning this hope into tangible improvements in all of our lives.  One way we can do that is to encourage our elected officials, from President-elect Obama to our local representatives, to govern just as they campaigned — with the Internet as a means of providing transparency.  I think this next four years will be great for organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, Lessig’s Change Congress, the Omidyar Network (with its new investment area in transparency and governance), Personal Democracy Forum, and others, which will — as institutions and communities — help lead us in these ways.  No doubt the terrific Obama technology policy means that there will be administration support for such efforts at transparency. 

These changes need to continue to be driven from the bottom up, with widespread participation, just as the campaign was.  I’m confident that many youth, brought into civic life during this cycle, will stick around and make great things happen — and that many of us, no longer so youthful, will pull our weight, too.  Today, and tomorrow, it’s up to each of us to find ways to maintain the momentum that’s been built up in these and other areas so important to the future of democracy in America.  And in the meantime, I’m feeling awfully thankful to Chris, Quentin, and all those who tossed aside their day jobs for a while to make this happen full-time — yes, community organizing — to make sure that all that volunteer time and money went to great use.

The Risks of a Digital Blindspot

One of the questions Americans need to ask over the next few days is whether a self-described computer “illiterate” can lead our nation effectively in the 21st century.  There are few greater contrasts between John McCain and Barack Obama than on the issue of how comfortable they are with the culture and technologies of the digital era. 

Young people in America ride to school in the same yellow buses and play in the same parks as their parents and grandparents did.  But the way they are learning and socializing is radically different.  They shape their identities via Facebook, MySpace, and cell phones.  America’s youth are growing up in a hybrid world: part analog and part digital.

Digital natives – young people with access to digital technologies and the skills to use them – are, for the first time, a major bloc of our nation’s voters, employees, entrepreneurs, and consumers.  They are relating to one another, information, and institutions in fundamentally different ways than past generations.  Some of the things they are up to online are great; others, not so much. 

Parents and teachers of digital natives are often not connected to the digital world that their children are living in.  Getting connected is the first, most important step that we can take to help children thrive in a digital era.  Our children will gladly be our guides to these new public spaces online.  Then good teaching and parenting can work its magic, keeping kids safe online and off, helping them distinguish credible information from falsehoods, helping them make the most of the opportunities the digital world offers.

The next president needs to be connected to this enormous culture, too.  The digital policy issues facing America are not unlike the issues kids face in the home.  Just as parents worry about the safety of their children in a digital world, our next president needs to understand the security implications of a fast-growing global network, like how a cyberattack – no longer mere fantasy, as the Defense Department makes plain – might cripple our nation’s infrastructure and how to protect against it. 

In times dominated by fears of terrorism, the next president will have to consider the extent of government surveillance.  He will need to help us grow our high-tech economic sector, as digital natives in countries like Brazil and India vie for the digital-era jobs our graduates also seek.  Issues like network neutrality and how U.S. companies operate in countries like China that censor the Internet will land on the next president’s desk.

Just as social life takes place for young people online, so too does political life.  This no doubt helped cybergenic Obama reach young voters in the primary.  But more important than how he reaches voters during an election is how the next president will govern.  To ignore online public discourse and the possibilities for engagement, by young people and old, would be to squander one of the great opportunities of our age.  That much of today’s conversation online is unconstructive only heightens the need for a leader who can help to create effective online spaces, not one who will pretend it doesn’t exist.

Much turns on whether Americans choose McCain, who is new to email, or BlackBerry-toting Obama.  This distinction is about more than age or hipness.  It is about an ability to understand crucial issues of how we surveil terrorists, protect civil liberties, and defend against cyberwarfare.  It is about jobs, growth, and the nation’s economic place in the world.  And, fundamentally, it drives at the issue of how our democracy will function for the next four years and beyond.

Prof. Obama's Con Law Exams

The most promising lawyer in my law school section, Jodi Kantor, dropped out after a semester to join Slate as a reporter. She’s since become a big-shot at the NYT, now covering national politics. She’s returned to her law school roots in writing about Sen. Obama’s teaching of constitutional law. Her article was great. Even better, though, she’s posted all those exams and is moderating a conversation about them at NYTimes.com. You can join the class here and here.

Comparing early Obama, Clinton, Edwards web presences

With a year and a half to go in the ’08 cycle, the idea of presidential candidates using the Internet is big news today, apparently. Eugene Robinson has a clever column today in the Washington Post, in which he compares the web sites of Clinton, Edwards, and Obama. I think he got it mostly right; his column is definitely worth the read. Over the course of the campaign, it will be interesting to see if these same attributes continue to define the web sites, or if strategies shift over time. A second question is whether these differences reflect substantive or tactical differences in the candidates or the campaigns at large. And, most important, whether these differences have any impact on who becomes president.