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Lessons and Highlights from the Gov 2.0 Expo

Aaron Smith and Susannah Fox recently attended the Gov 2.0 Expo, a smorgasbord of policy, technology and citizen engagement put on by the good folks at O’Reilly Media. These are their notes from the conference.

Aaron’s notes:

These are my five key takeaways from the conference that government agencies should consider as they think about their online strategies:

Have fun, be passionate, inspire others, don’t be afraid to fail –The success of any online government effort is directly proportional to the amount of passion you invest, and the extent to which you make government fun and exciting for ordinary citizens. Some of my most memorable moments from the conference included HHS CTO Todd Park nearly flying off the stage as he discussed opening data to improve health outcomes, and Peter Corbett describing his vision of “civic innovator networks” even though he freely admitted that he had no idea what they might do or how they might develop. If you doubt that fun, passionate people can’t make government exciting, just check out what the city of Bryan, Texas is doing with their drinking water quality reports.


Create an environment that encourages serendipitous discovery – By definition, serendipity cannot be manufactured; but you can create an environment that encourages people to consider problems in ways you might never have imagined. For Veteran’s Administration CTO Peter Levin, that means embracing the unpredictability of feedback from users and colleagues (“the entire value of feedback is that it’s unpredictable”). For the intelligence community, that means working topically instead of organizationally, and asking questions at the broadest level to encourage participation by a wide range of stakeholders. As Anil Dash put it, if you take inspired users and provide them with accessible prompts, they’ll give you answers to questions you never would have thought to ask on your own.

Open data can spark creativity, but data without context can be dangerous – The conference was awash in examples of government agencies opening their data to citizens as a way to spark creativity, develop new applications, crowdsource problems and encourage direct feedback.  However, as danah boyd noted in her Thursday keynote, data alone can be dangerous or misleading if we don’t also provide citizens with the tools they need to interpret and contextualize that data.

Examples of awesomeness are all around us – The world is full of cool people doing awesome things, and some of the best “ah-ha” moments of the conference took those outside examples and tied them in to a government context. Some of my personal favorites:

  • Joshua Robin from MassDOT wondering why it was so easy to get weather information but so hard to find out when your bus was going to arrive (hint: it’s because weather data is open, and transit data is often walled off from the world)
  • David Eaves speaking to my inner baseball nerd by pointing out that Bill James and the sabermetric movement have been using open data for years (“open data is old!”)
  • Tim Berners-Lee making the case that the semantic web is like a bag of chips
  • danah boyd using a rather unexpected protagonist (sex offenders) to make us think about the unintended consequences of open data
  • Fred Dust using the Toyota Prius fuel monitor as an example of designing participation
  • Dan Munz citing Harold Bloom’s How to Read to make the case that “literacy” can have multiple meanings in a technological context
  • Andy Carvin pointing to the Heroes fan page as a touchstone in the development of the crisiswiki platform
  • Jay Parkinson’s use of online dating sites, and zipcar to illustrate his vision for how we might engage with doctors and health care providers in the future

Susannah’s notes:

Apps for America Contest Winners – Clay Johnson of Sunlight Labs presented the awards. The health data winner was Forum One Communications’ County Sin Rankings (chlamydia rate – lust; adult obesity – sloth; you get the picture). It was a fun tribute to the County Health Rankings produced by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the U. of Wisconsin. Check out the submission by hometown favorites Regina Holliday and Ted Eytan, which won an honorable mention. (Video of his remarks.)

Elizabeth Losh knocked my socks off with her 12 Don’ts for Government 2.0, which could be applied to any organization. (Video of her remarks.)

Tim O’Reilly gave a rousing speech in favor of Gov 2.0 as a platform for excellence. Among many topics, he asked how health care could improve the more people use it (the way Google improves) and mentioned pricing transparency as a good outcome of health care transformation. (Video of his remarks.)

David Eaves did a lightning-round talk about the power of open data. I wrote about his work in my commentary, The Power of Data and the Power of One, and it was great to see his ideas come to life in the context of Gov 2.0. (Video of his remarks.)

Tim Berners-Lee likened the semantic web to a bag of chips: standard (nutrition) language, universal (UPC) code.(Video of his remarks.)

danah boyd gave a stellar talk about how transparency is not enough – information literacy must be improved throughout the population. She cited Pew Internet teens data and, later that day, posted a review of our Reputation Management report. (Video of her remarks.)

Kathy Sierra gave a talk about the power of passion that was so convincing that one listener said to me “I could run through a brick wall right now.” (Video of her remarks.)

Open Government Ninja 101: Skills, Strategies, and Stealth – David Hale told the inside story of Pillbox, the result of a partnership between the National Library of Medicine and the Food and Drug Administration. He talked about how collaboration was the essential element to Pillbox’s success. His remarks echoed Tim Berners-Lee’s keynote: Pillbox makes FDA drug data useful by exposing once-obscure ingredients. Here are his slides. The Q&A session was intense – pointed questions about the risk of releasing all this drug information to the public. I spoke up to say that first, citizens have expressed interest in having access to government data and to health information. Second, the Pew Internet Project has found that a growing percentage of citizens report helpful outcomes thanks to health information online while harmful outcomes remain a flat-liner at just 3% of adults.

Collaborate, Build, Deploy, Repeat: The Next-Generation Emergency Response Platform – Andy Carvin, Noel Dickover, Patrick Meier, John Crowley, Heather Blanchard, and Walton Smith explained how online tools can be deployed to help people caught in catastrophic disasters worldwide. See Crisis Commons for more information about their work. My big take-aways from this panel were John Crowley’s remarks: “There is a growing collective belief we can define the edge of truth during a crisis” and “Companies are built for funders, communities are built for collective action.” He cited Wikipedia as one example of how internet users now go online to contribute to the public record.

An App We Can Trust: Lessons Learned in Post-Katrina New Orleans – Denice Ross showed how her team used U.S. mail delivery data to create an ad hoc neighborhood census so services could be sent where they were needed most. (Video of her remarks.)

Transforming eGov Accessibility – Judy Brewer of the W3C talked about how federal agencies can create websites which serve all citizens, no matter their physical or cognitive challenges. She noted that web accessibility changes often have side benefit: device independence. I was sorry to hear that compliance is still “high touch” – a human must review the site and there are no easy fixes. I asked if there is a list of accessible social media sites (is there a video site that is more compliant than its competitors, for example?). Unfortunately, there is not and the W3C does not intend to create one, although everyone agreed that social media is where the users are.

No Degrees of Separation: Security clearance in a socially networked world – This panel was ripped from the headlines of our Reputation Management report – but went even further, frankly freaking me out with revelations about how the items we delete and untag online can be tracked. Alistair Croll of Bitcurrent cited a Pew Internet report about drug purchases online in his “eyes closed” survey of the room about illicit activity we may want to keep off the public record. Jeff Jonas of IBM pointed out that we can no longer escape our past: there is no more opportunity to “go West” to start over. (Video of Jeff Jonas’s individual keynote.)

How Open Data Can Improve America’s Health – Todd Park, CTO of the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, lit up the place with his enthusiasm for the Community Health Data Initiative (but asked for help in renaming it). (Video of his remarks.)

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