Category Archives: USA

“… and communication for all”

Amit Schejter and a group of really impressive colleagues just released a new book titled “…and Communications for All: A Policy Agenda for the New Administration“.  Today (Monday) they held a one-day conference in Washington DC where they presented the book and discussed its chapters.  I really wanted to be there, but couldn’t.  Gladly, the technologies, regulation of which they were discussing, made it possible to watch the conference and even share it with you.

The first video includes some introductory comments from Sascha Meinrath and Amit Schejter, followed by a keynote from an FCC commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein.

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The first panel included the following speakers:

  • Marvin Ammori (University of Nebraska) – Competition and Investment in Wireline Broadband;
  • Richard Taylor (Penn State) – U.S. Cable TV Policy: Managing the Transition to Broadband;
  • Sharon Strover (University of Texas) – America’s Forgotten Challenge: Rural Access;
  • Heather Hudson (University of San Francisco) – The Future of E-Rate: U.S. Universal Service Fund Support for Public Access.

The second panel included:

  • Jon Peha (Carnegie Mellon) – A Spectrum Policy Agenda;
  • Rob Frieden (Penn State) – The Way Forward for Wireless;
  • Ellen Goodman (Rutgers) – Public Service Media 2.0;
  • Kathryn Montgomery (American University) – Creating a Media Policy Agenda for the Digital Generation

I think this video covers both panels.

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I watched substantive parts of the conference and it sounds really interesting.  According to Amit, the four commonly shared points in the book are:

  1. There is a need for deliberative government policy and for clear goals for telecommunication policy;
  2. The new policy direction should be technologically neutral, the segregation of media, information, and communication technology for regulation purposes has proved itself inefficient and obsolete;
  3. Telecom infrastructure should serve both, the commercial aspiration and the public interest; connectivity alone is not enough, it is important that people know how to use the technology in order to be able to acquire knowledge, innovate, and take part in pubic life;
  4. Telecommunication policy should be based on equal opportunity and non discriminatory practices; i other words, the idea of fairness is important for telecommunication policy.

To me it looks like an interesting reading.  Also, the New America Foundation’s YouTube channel seems to have some interesting talks, so it is worth checking out.

Visualizing the inauguration

In the spirit of recent days, AKA obsession with the inauguration, I thought to share a couple of visualizations of Obama’s speech.

The first one is using the IBM’s “Many Eyes“:

Obama's inaugurationspeech through Many Eyes

The other one is from NY Times:

Inauguration speech through NY Times

I am not sure what exactly stands behind each one of the visualizations, because the results are slightly different, but I think each one is interesting in its own way.  I think this is probably just the beginning of what we are going to see being done with all the information the new administration is putting out.  As one of my friends said: “Obama is over-communicator and it suits me”.

Also, you may be interested in checking out CNN’s 3D visualization using Microsoft’s Photosynth.  This one requires installation, but once you have it, you will be able to use the tool to view a 3D picture of the inauguration compiled from pictures that regular people have taken and volunteered to CNN/MS.  Unfortunately, there are not that many pictures in the database, so the result is not as smooth as some of the demos they had when the project was still in beta.

That’s it, this is my contribution to the hype at the moment.  Now back to work.

TIGRing

Just a day before the inauguration, the Obama team has published a video about their Technology, Innovation and Government Reform (TIGR) group.  As its name suggest, that is the group that will supposedly lead technological innovation in the Federal Government.  My understanding is that they are the people running change.gov and they were behind their Citizen’s Briefing Book initiative.

This latter idea probably deserves a separate post, but in the meantime, I just wanted to share a couple of observations from visiting change.gov after consuming it primarily via an RSS feed for quite a while now.  What you miss when you consume content via RSS are the comments.   This is where it is getting interesting.  When I checked the aforementioned post, there were only 16 comments and here is what I saw.

First, it is really difficult to maintain an open platform and at the same time maintain your agenda.  Naturally, the TIGRs are using change.gov in order to share information about government activities presented in a positive light.  However, it looks like people are not necessarily interested to talk just about the topic set by the administration.  Thus, for example, there were a number of comments dealing with some controversy surrounding Bishop Robinson.  I’ve been slightly out of the loop recently, so I am not sure what the controversy is about, but people seem to care and seem to feel free expressing their dissatisfaction and critique on the transition team’s website, even when the topic is something absolutely not related.

Second, kind of related to the previous one, if you open your communication channels, there is no way you will be able to downplay criticism.  In this particular post, people have been voicing their criticism also about the technology and innovation aspects of the transition team’s conduct.  Particularly, there were some comments about people’s dissatisfaction with the way their opinions were treated in the Citizen’s Briefing Book project.  Apparently, the visitors of change.gov voted legalization of Marijuana as their top priority, but this topic was apparently neglected from the book.  I am not sure whether this opinion represents the popular opinion of the American society or just that of those who feel comfortable using the web to participate actively.  Anyhow, the TIGRs are probably factoring in additional information and not just the users’ comments.  It looks though that the users of change.gov do view themselves as representing the entire country.

Third, again related to the previous, the issue of digital divide was brought up in this discussion by the users. A user named Mona Marlow wrote:

“While I think this is a vast improvement, one aspect has been overlooked. There is a huge portion of us who live and work in rual America. We cannot view some of this “new” tech, thus miss out on alot. Due to the lack of having access to or affording the high-end internet access required to partisipate and/or view some of this new content. It would be of great help and service to “us” if there was a basic html view as well. There is not much you can do of the video content, but perhaps have a transcript of it for rual America to read.
Thank You”

The bottom line is that after almost 3 months in the air, change.gov is evolving in terms of user participation and it will be interesting to see where the new administration will take it.

In the meantime, on the other side of the Atlantic, things are also changing.  The Russian president Medvedev has also opened his website to comments, but in the meantime only in the Russian version (RU).  I couldn’t spend much time on the site, but from what I saw the comments are more on the topic.  Of course the space is moderated (RU) and on the face of it there are more and clearer restrictions than on change.gov (here).  At the end of the day, however, I don’t think we have many chances to actually know what comments are not getting published on both websites.

So, these were my few observations for the moment.  Now back to work!

P.S. By the time I finished writing this post, there were already 33 comments on that post.  They got traffic!

P.P.S. An update. Actually, on kremlin.ru the discussion is also split. They actually provide a split of the main themes of the comments. So, in the latest post (RU) 785 comments were left on the topic (development of mass/public sport) and 396, the second largest category, were about the management of the comment space.  The admins of the website have even published stats for the period between Jan.12 and Jan. 19 (may be still available here in RU):

  • 7558 – Activated users
  • 961 – People who have not confirmed their email addresses
  • 230 – Blocked users
  • 2354 – Comments published
  • 982  – Blocked comments
  • 396 – Comments being reviewed

According to them, comments that were not published, contained personal complains or specific requests that needed an individual answer (that is not allowed according to their comment policy).  They say however that in all(?) those comments no contact information was provided, so they will not be able to take care of those complains and requests.

The “digital divide” is on the map (again)

In his recent weekly address, Obama revealed parts of his economic recovery plan.  Interestingly, one of the main points he chose to reveal was actually about the “digital divide” even though he is not using the term.  Here is his address:

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In case you skipped the video, here are the MICT related highlights:

Third, my economic recovery plan will launch the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen.  We will repair broken schools, make them energy-efficient, and put new computers in our classrooms. Because to help our children compete in a 21st century economy, we need to send them to 21st century schools.

As we renew our schools and highways, we’ll also renew our information superhighway. It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they’ll get that chance when I’m President – because that’s how we’ll strengthen America’s competitiveness in the world.

Even though Obama is not using the term “digital divide”, on its face we can see both components of the debate present in his speech.  First, he is talking about access (emphasizing the bandwidth as the key issue).  Second, he is talking about education, which refers to the skills aspect of the “digital divide”.

In a recent study, Erik Nisbet and I found that the skills frame of “digital divide” usually leads people attribute the problem to individual.  In simple words, if you frame the “digital divide” as an issue of access, people will expect the government to solve the problem.  However, if you frame the “digital divide” as a matter of skills, people tend to hold the individual responsible for lack of knowledge.

This is why it is really interesting that Obama is framing the issue in a rather sophisticated way.  In his plan, it is not an issue of children lacking skills, as much as it is an issue of the school systems lacking the infrastructure.  In other words, the issue of skills is being transformed into an issue of infrastructure – if we bring the technology to schools, the students will figure out how to use it in the best possible way.  Re-framing the issue in terms of access definitely makes it more amenable to a centralized solution and rationalizes future government spending on public works, however, I wonder if it actually adequately addresses the issue of promoting digital literacy.  At the end of the day, we do need computers in schools, but we also need the manpower and an educational paradigm in order to empower the next generation through their use of MICT.

The real change in change.gov

Not so long ago, i draw a short comparison between change.gov and kremlin.ru.  I think my main observation was that both websites are more of propaganda machines that allow no feedback mechanisms.  It looks like I was wrong and I am happy to admit that.

As i noticed in the last digest, change.gov is now offering a mechanism for interaction and is trying to build an active community on their website.  First there was a discussion about health care and now there is a discussion about economy.  They keep those discussions limited in time, which is understandable, and it will be interesting to see how these discussions will be implemented in actual policy making.

In a number of face to face conversations I had with people following my post criticizing change.gov for lack of a feedback mechanism, was the trickiness of having an open platform when it comes to an official website.  While it is natural and expected that on an election website there would be heated, and not always politically correct debates, it is not necessarily appropriate for an official government website.  Moreover, while it can be understandable if messages viewed as inappropriate by the campaign are removed from the website, it is again much more complicated when it comes to an official government website.  What does it say about free speech, when the government website starts making decision about appropriate and inappropriate content produced by it users.  Where is the line between censorship, or even more so, appearance of censorship?

Back then, I argued that clear and up-front community rules, may be a solution for this sensitive situation.  Interestingly, this is was the strategy taken by change.gov.  They just published a guide to comments, which is also linked to the comments policy.  They implement a set of community principles and technical tools to foster a community.  For example, while you can comment each time by a different name, they encourage you to register and maintain an online identity as a means for community-building.  They also have a rating system for comments, which seems like a useful tool.  The comment policy is also very simple, yet it leaves an ample room for the website managers to remove content and block users.

All in all, the first steps look very promising and the snippets of discussion that I saw seem rather thoughtful and constructive.  It will be interesting to see how the website managers will deal with removing content and blocking users, something that will have eventually happen.

A couple of side thoughts, though…

First, I wonder if what allows such an open policy is the fact that change.gov is not really a government website.  I remember reading that the website is run by an NGO registered to support the transition team (even though I could not find a reference to that on the website now).  So, formally, even though the website carries a .gov domain, it is not a government website, thus there are less strings attached to what can be done there.  I wonder, whether after the inauguration, they will maintain a similar approach.

Second, I think that if this approach of using online tools for an open public discussion will take off, we will probably witness a renewed debate about the digital divide.  The kind of discussion hosted at change.gov is absolutely unprecedented in its scope and it is open to many more people than any other government discussion so far.  However, it clearly leaves out those who do not have the technology, or who are not technologically savvy enough to engage in an online discussion.

The MICT-related innovation of Obama administration is definitely impressive and I feel I am really lucky to being in the US to witness this.

I feel inspired

Slowly by slowly I start realizing that last night, watching the US election results coming in and then listening to the speeches I witnessed history in making.  Whether or not you agree with political view of Barak Obama, last night was a really good example of how democracy can work.  Until you live here for a some time, it is difficult to realize the depth of racial and cultural cleavages in the US society.  Being able to bridge over those with a lead in both electoral college and popular vote, is quite an achievement.  Last night was indeed another way of demonstrating the power of the American dream – a country where anything seems to be possible, not just in business, but also in politics. This election campaign is already being studied (for example for its use of information technology), but I believe there will be more of it making to the books of political campaigning.  If Barak Obama is going to govern the same way he ran his campaign, there may definitely be reasons for hope.

The US was like a computer running Windows for a very long time – it needed a reboot.  After eight years of Republican government, it seemed like the system became slower and buggier.  Spending the last summer in Washington DC, I have not met a single republican who would be happy with the President Bush’s government, not to mention a democrat.  And last night the people rebooted the system.  As with rebooting Windows, you can be sure that it will feel better at the beginning, but you can never know how it will behave in the long run.  It can work better, but it can also work worse with new bugs and glitches may come out as you go.  It will be now up to Barak Obama to demonstrate that “he can” and in his speech last night, you could also sense him being more cautious.

Regardless of how it will eventually work out, it seems like the USA is now in sort of an euphoria.  It is in an euphoria not only because if the election of the first black president, but also (and maybe mostly) because they see that the democratic system still works.  Following the election even closer in the last few days and talking to people around me, it is amazing to see how inspired and hopeful most of them are.  Being chronically skeptic, I do hope that there will be no hangover following this excitement, but right now it feels good for most people I meet.  In fact, watching the election results last night and listening to the speeches, I felt inspired.  If he and his team made it against the odds, many other things seem suddenly possible.

Inevitably I couldn’t help, but thinking about the upcoming Israeli election in February.  I wonder, if such a reboot is possible in Israel, which seems to run that Windows system for even longer than the US.  Even though in the last decade and a half, Israel had election practically every two years, there was no real change.  All the leaders who came and left, arrived from the same apparatus, held very similar views, and more so acted more in a reactionary way instead of taking active leadership positions (with an exception of a few stand-alone cases).  As a result, it is more like running on the same boot of Windows for a while and only keep on logging in with different users.  There is no real difference in performance, but the bugs keep on piling.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that even if a young politician starts in the Israeli political system with drive, energy, ideology, and leadership aspiration, by the time they get to a position where they can actually make a difference, they are too much socialized into that culture of impotent party-based politics.  In order to make it to any change-enabling position, they need to navigate party politics for such a long time, that they become part of these ideologically-corrupt systems. By the time they get to any role that can make a difference, they are alraedy not that young and are deeply indepted to their respective parties internal “acocunting” of favors, that they cannot do anything substantively bold.

One of potential reasons for that may lie in the Israeli electoral system.  In Israel we vote for parties, not for leaders.  The head of the largest party in Knesset is usually assigned with a task of assembling the coalition and forming the govenrment.  We do not directly elect the head of the state.  The result is what i described before – by the time you reach a position in your party that allows you to realistically run for Knesset or more so compete for the post of the Prime Minsiter, you are deeply embeded into the micro-party politics and is lacking the drive, the energy, the vision, the optimisim, and the ability to dare in order to make a substative change.

There was an attempt to try and directly elect the head of the state in the past, but that failed.  I think it failed because in the quickly changing Israeli realities, we didn’t have time to mentally adjust to that change.  Even more so, the political system didn’t have the time to adjust to that change.  People who ran for election during that trial period, were the same people whom we see running today through their parties.  So, although there was a nominal change, there was no really substantive change in the way people think or the way people function.  Hence the failure.

Watching the American people celebating their reboot and their democracy, makes me wonder what would it take to reboot the Israeli politics.  Some of their enthusiasm is definietly rubbing off, but I still wonder if “we also can”…?

Register to vote!

Lack of interest in politics among the young voters seems to become a serious problem of our times. In November, the US voters are going to elect their president who is going to guide still the most powerful player in the global arena. Even though I am not voting in this country, I do share the sentiment that it should not be a decision of a fraction of the American society, and the more people will go out to the polls the better the results will be in terms of strengthening the democratic principles.

So, I am plugging in my two cents by posting this video, which I first saw on Google policy blog.  It is nicely done, features a lot of pop-culture stars, and has very clear objectives – make one register and make them send the video out to five more friends.  The issue is that in order to vote one has to register and the registration deadlines are starting to expire in some states as soon as a couple of days from now.

So, here we go…

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I only hope i have five readers on this blog :)

Quesitons to Lessig’s comments on McCains tech platform

On August 14, John McCain announced his technological platform.  On August 19, Lawrence Lessig published a very detailed and well crafted response to McCain’s platform.  After listening to Lessig’s analysis I remain puzzled with two main questions:

  • First, Lessig refers to the relative drop of broadband penetration in the US as an indicator of failure of US tech policy.  I keep on hearing this argument elsewhere, but I have not seen a thorough analysis of why broadband is so beneficial from the social point of view.  I mean, intuitively, I can see why that might be the case as I am using it myself.  However, because I part of the system, I am not sure how this intuition was actually formed.  May it a result of hearing this argument over and over again?  Nevertheless, I would expect from Lessig a more thorough argument in this regard beyond just treating broadband penetration data as an obvious indicator.  I wonder what other possible indicators are out there and where does US stand in that regard.  For example, I know that many Israeli start-ups end up being registered as US companies, which suggests that there is a friendlier environment for maturing innovation into finished projects.  Can that be another indicator?  Or am I wrong? And if I am not wrong, what does it say about the US tech policy?  I would love to hear Lessig laying out a more thorough analysis.  He is making interesting points in terms of competition, but primary focus on broadband penetration is taking away from his argument in my view.
  • The second point I remain puzzled with is the link Lessig makes between corporate interest and slowing down of broadband penetration.  Why would not be telecom giants interested in getting people on a broader line?  How is his main idea that it is in corporate interest to control the “pipes” leading to the corporate world slowing down the broadband penetration?  Is it the cost of connecting people vs. prospective revenue?  I am not sure i am following.

What do you think?

Al Gore’s media event

Yesterday was my first time at a typical media event in the US.  Thanks to Joanne, I went to Al Gore’s announcement of a national challenge on climate and energy.  The event was very popular and it was a rather interesting experience.

On the one hand it was well organized in terms of communication leading to the event.  By the time Joanne and I registered, we made it only to the waiting list.  Nevertheless, the organizers kept on communicating with us and encouraged us to come, assuming that they will be able to fit in everyone.  There were indeed a lot of people and getting in was quite a mess.  Of course there were some supporters of Al Gore’s ideas, some protesters, and some advocates for vegetarianvegan food, demonstrating outside.

Outside of Al Gore's speech venue.

Inside, it was rather impressive.  It was my first time in the DAR Constitutional Hall and it was packed (probably over three thousand people).  The crowd was extremely supportive.  Gore was received with standing ovations and many times his talk was interrupted with more ovations.  Well, in fact it wasn’t interrupted, as the speech was very well planned and the ovations came in all the expected places.  It was rather short and didn’t have any famous Al Gore’s use of gadgets (which I hoped for).  I didn’t have a normal camera with me, but took a few pictures with the cell phone.

Al Gore is speaking about the WE campaign.

The speech itself was rather simple and short.  This is not to say it was not good, but I felt slightly used, as it was too obvious that the entire event was held for the small army of journalists who were there typing, taking pictures, and filming.  The audience was there just as a decoration, and it was a really good and interactive decoration.  You usually see it on TV, but when it happens live, the feeling is quite different.

As I said, the message was simple:

  • The problem: United States is in a horrible shape with weak economy, distant wars, and high gasoline prices;
  • The reason: United States’ reliance on fossil fuels;
  • The solution: Shift to using renewable energy sources in 10 years from… NOW!

To help everybody with that Al Gore and Co. have launched the “We” campaign, which has a nice website with additional information about the idea and footage of yesterday’s speech.  According to the website, so far over 1.3 million people already signed up.  From a quick glance at the website, the primary goal of the campaign is advocacy and it is used as a vehicle to collect signatures on various petitions.

Again, it was an interesting experience.  It was not only a typical media event of a kind you usually see on TV (especially now, with all the coverage of US presidential election) – one that is carefully planned and has a weird mixture of sincere ideas and crafted messages.  The way the speech was delivered was also interesting.  Maybe this is the image of Al Gore that i had in my head – one of a global liberal thinker concerned with the future of the entire planet, but I found the speech to be extremely US-centric.  That makes sense in light of my other observations above (after all it is a carefully planned event), but the level of patriotism and nationalism in Al Gore’s speech caught my ear.  It sounded as if US is the world and solving the national problems will definitely make the rest of the planet a better place.  Without judging this way of presentation, it was surprising.

As to the substance, I am no expert on energy, but it looks like the speech was recieved with mixed feelings (not by the audience in the hall, but by experts elsewhere).  Nevertheless, it also seems that the environmental questions are entering every domain of public discourse, including telecom policy.

CNN 1.0

I watched some morning news on CNN today.  One of the main items was the reaction of Obama’s supporters to his vote for an amendment to FISA (official site).

For those who do not follow, a few days ago the senate voted for granting immunity to the telecommunication companies for participating in wiretapping program of the current administration.  In the past Obama opposed this legislation, but in the current vote he changed his mind and voted for the amendment.  As a result, many of Obama supporters came out criticizing him.  A lot of the criticism appeared on the social network component of Obama’s own campaign site (if you haven’t done it yet, take a look, there is a small Facebook on his website).  I think this is the story in a nutshell, but you can search for FISA and Obama for further details (here is an item on CNN’s website for example).

Now to my morning observation….

The main point, made a number of time during the morning news, was amusement, or even shock, about criticism taking place on Obama’s website.  How can it be that a campaign website hosts criticism of the candidate?!?!  After all, Obama is considered to be the one who harnessed the internet and reinvented election in the 21st century!  How come he allows criticism on his own campaign website?!  Is this what the new politics all about?

Leaving sarcasm aside, it really looked as if the anchors found it difficult to comprehend that there is a discussion going on a social networking platform on a candidate’s website.  And their shock/amusement went on and for the half an hour that i had the TV on.  However, what got lost in that shocking reveliation of new politics is the issue itself.  FISA did not get discussed and the change in Barak Obama’s stand deserved only limited attention (as a background to the virtual uprisal).  Most attention was focused on the fact that Barak Obama’s supporters are backlushing on him and they do it on his own campaign website.

The bottom line is that I think CNN missed the point.  In fact it was really surprising that a channel that markets itseld as technologically advanced (just remember all the touch screens obsession) has such an unsophisitcated amusement by technology as its main political item of the morning.  Not impressive at all.