welcome to jedmiller.com
October 24, 2013
treat all data as conversation
Cross-posted from the #TABridge blog
What if data published by governments had tracked changes and comments turned on like a Word document--for every user? That is basically the question asked the other day by Gov 2.0 evangelist Ben Balter
It's a valuable idea, driven by several urgent needs in the open data world: more usable government data, more engaged data users, and a more fluid, accountable dialogue between data publishers and data users. And Balter stands at the forefront
of the issue, having pioneered the federal government's earliest uses of GitHub, the socially-oriented software platform, and now working with GitHub to help lead its new focus on state, local and federal government usage
The vision in his post is lucid and compelling, but the proposal is off the mark. We need better conversations more than we need better annotations. More precisely, we'll get more users to give more feedback that is more useful to more government data publishers if we don't require issue experts (or civil servants) to become more like programmers.
Balter compares open data sets to open source software, which relies on annotations and iterations of code to create ever-improving tools based on loosely-joined collaborative communities of coders.
Being able to track changes at that level of granularity ... empowers contributors to propose and discuss changes with great efficiently [sic], accurately, and precisely. It makes software a team sport. All of a sudden line-by-line code reviews, issues, and pull requests arise to address challenges both large and small.
If governments made their data more accessible and annotatable, Balter says, "rather than posting the data as a zip file or to a proprietary data portal," the open data community could evolve on a faster track--using lessons from the open source community--and build up habits and standards of markup that strengthened the quality of supply and the capacity of those with demands. "Consumers of the data can submit proposed changed to do everything from normalizing columns to correcting errors to making the data itself more useable."
He's right that current challenges in open data usability are slowing feedback loops between, for example, an education ministry posting schools data and education advocates trying to make the most of the data in local advocacy.
But in a world where people had the time and savvy to annotate the way that he pictures, we wouldn't need the system he's picturing: The user/publisher dynamics would already be rich enough to yield more usable applications and more accountable data publishers.
As it stands, most governments are working to fulfill the basic promises
of the open data movement: delivering a steady supply of higher quality data that is genuinely usable. And open data users are striving to improve their own basic data capabilities while maintaining the pressure on government to fulfill its promises.
Since Kenya's government launched its data portal, for example, the number of published data sets has more than doubled, but open data experts have expressed a range of concerns
about the effectiveness of the portal and the degree of uptake among citizen groups
. As Kenya's own ICT champion Bitange Ndemo said last year
, "Right now, we have dealt with just the supply side of data. The challenge now is to build the demand side of data."
Our #TABridge colleague Mikel Maron
has spoken on several occasions about the value and challenges of "distributed version control
" for data tools and the need for stronger user communities
if the open data environment is to flourish. To build those communities, governments and experts need to meet the members where they are. That's what groups like the Open Knowledge Foundation
, the Open Government Partnership
, the Sunlight Foundation
and we at TABridge
are trying to do.
Before creating a new layer of tags, comments and tracked changes on government data sets, however, let's create a new community of curious, competent, confident data users among NGOs and citizens.
Let's expand our vision of open data community outreach from hackathons
to include feedback-athons and train-apaloozas
. We have a language available to us to describe our challenges and imagine better uses of data: conversation.
I'd rather teach government publishers to listen more often than assume they'll find the time, money or permission to build the infrastructure and job descriptions Balter is imagining. And I'd rather set the threshold of skill lower for users with feedback than assume that all the NGOs who need government data can become good users of GitHub
It's worth noting that the open source community Balter looks to for inspiration has itself confronted the challenges
of usability and adapted
. Just because code is open for collaboration does not mean that breakthrough applications or dynamic feedback loops will spring forth. The developer community's embrace of user communities
and user-centric design has deepened and widened the impact of open source code, and continues to push publishers to do better.
So, yes, we should push the open government data community to evolve faster than the open source community did from "open up and win" to "open up then listen" but the best listening and revision platform should be something more human-centric than comment tags and version histories online.
September 15, 2013
keeping in sync as we open up
Advocates inside and outside government are working hard to embrace open data practices. International bodies
and even rock stars
have moved past the question of why
we need open, shared systems of government data to questions about how to build and maintain those systems.
As we form new alliances and secure new policies to enable efficient sharing of data on financial flows, international aid, public services and related sectors, organizations and coalitions must work to link our activities as effectively as we hope to link our data sets.
Transparency and accountability groups like our own are investing staff time, research, and money to join this open data revolution. This moment of innovation may resemble earlier milestones for technology and advocacy, but we need to keep the particular challenges of open data in mind, and to clearly define our responsibilities in the creation of a vibrant, reliable open data ecosystem.
The digital revolutions that gave organizations a human voice (e.g., blogs
) and their supporters a bigger role (e.g., Facebook
) were, from a certain point of view, selfish. One group with one mission could speak louder and reach further
, even if they were the lone voice speaking.
Big data is different: The more that groups collaborate, the more meaning their data has. Like a wiki entry or a potluck meal, it fulfills its purpose as more people add pieces.
So while it's vital for transparency groups and governments to continue opening and disseminating data, we must also create strong channels of ongoing collaboration--not among systems but among people.
This alignment of efforts is already underway at the policy level. In recent months, the G8 countries
, the European Union
and the Canadian government
have each made new commitments to open data practices, following the historic actions of the U.S. Congress and regulators opening up oil and mining payments in the 2010 Dodd-Frank reforms
. The Open Government Partnership says open data is central
to many of the 300 commitments made by participating countries. In the words of Martin Tisné
, former T/AI director and now policy director for T/AI funder the Omidyar Network, "Transparency is now seen as a key pillar of development - a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to enable growth, accountability and social change."
Meanwhile, the tools for linking data sets are gaining adoption beyond the technology community. In the past 18 months, both the United States
and the United Kingdom
moved their public data portals onto CKAN
, a community repository for data sharing created by the Open Knowledge Foundation. The World Bank announced several new initiatives
in June that seek to collect and open up data, including a collaboration with OpenCorporates.com
on private sector data. The World Bank Institute also continues to help define good practices and data-driven tools that support open contracting
by governments. And, as another of many examples, the African Development Bank launched a new Open Data Platform
in July to help "scale up the collection, management, analysis, and sharing of quality statistics relating to the continent's development."
What remains to be seen is how well we as advocates for increased data-sharing and data-driven collaboration can align our own sharing and collaboration. Can we work together regularly, toward measurable ends, and create a functional data commons that uses linked data sets to reveal more than any single group's information can show?
Besides our own initiative, here are three efforts currently underway that seek to join advocates, practitioners and data for productive teamwork:
Launched in 2012, the Open Data Institute works across the private and public sectors to create "untapped markets and business opportunities" for open government data. The institute was founded by web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the recently-knighted Sir Nigel Shadbolt, a pioneer in the UK and global open data movements. Among ODI's projects is the creation of a data schema designed to standardize the licensing and usage rules that accompany data sets published online.
During summer 2013, our colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation joined with fellow TABridge members Fundar and Open Knowledge Foundation, along with several other groups, to establish a Global Open Data Initiative, which seeks to increase awareness of open data issues and help governments define open data approaches. As part of this effort, Sunlight recently updated their open data policy guidelines, "a living document created to help define the landscape of what open data policies can and should do."
In April of this year, a diverse group of technology and transparency advocates working on aid (Publish What You Fund), natural resources revenues (EITI, Publish What You Pay, Natural Resource Charter), corporate ownership (Open Corporates), government contracts (World Bank Institute, Open Oil) and government spending (International Budget Partnership) sat down in a first attempt to assess how their individual sets of government and analytical data could become interoperable. Initially conceived at T/AI's 2012 Bridging Session, this first effort to "Follow the Data" was convened by Revenue Watch Institute and Open Knowledge Foundation with support and participation by the Omidyar Network and the UK Department for International Development (DfID).
Since the first "follow the data" meeting, DfID has organized a series of hack days in London, Lagos and Sydney, to get local civil society and developers working together to make sense of data on oil, gas and mining revenues. These experiments have helped to highlight the power of interoperable data to track flows of money from mining royalties or international donations, through to government budgets and local spending. To understand more about the process of linking data, the practical challenges, and the high value of oil and mining data in particular, read these three posts by Tim Davies, Adam McGreggor and Jonathan Gray, all members of the growing Follow the Data community.
If the promise of a rich open data ecosystem is collective wisdom greater than any individual data set can provide, and the tools and rules for reliable linkages are well underway, what does this opportunity demand of us--as campaigners, NGOs, techies and funding groups? What must we do to help bring this crowdsourced picture into clearer focus? And what are the essential elements to making sure that data-driven collaboration will flourish among all groups?
First, we need to create an expectation of cooperation among transparency groups, donors and technologists. We will inevitably compete for funding and have days or weeks on end where the demands of daily work overtake innovation projects and coalition conference calls. But we must establish a norm of shared efforts with agreed goals, real deadlines and cycles of assessment and iteration, where the same groups that collaborated in preparation for Conference A are still thinking together six months later in Research Paper X.
Second, we need to seek and cultivate the will to open up,
not only by finding more champions
within government, but by building the demand for open data projects and cross-sector teamwork among our own colleagues and managers. It isn't only databases that need to open up, it's doors and calendars and minds.
Third, we need to ensure there are steady resources available. Donors need to provide financial incentives not only for technology projects, but for capacity development, community outreach and continuing partnerships among the divergent groups whose combined efforts will be needed if we hope to follow the data to actionable knowledge. And donors are not the only group that need to allocate resources. Organizational leaders need to understand that data projects take real time and don't happen "on the side." And staffers inside NGOs and governments need to accept that these new activities are as important as the work to which they're more accustomed.
With steady cooperation, demonstrable will from participants and leaders, and sufficient resources in time and funding, the open data experiments now cropping up among several groups can develop in a climate that supports more regular, deliberate collaboration.
The more consciously we link our activities and findings, the more seamlessly we will be able to link our data, and the more shared knowledge will result. In the campaign for open data, as in all transparency and accountability work, there's more than safety in numbers, there's power.
September 13, 2013
train to equality being held momentarily
Three ads from the NYC Subway say a lot about state of gender relations.
At least Carrie looks like a freestanding being. Maybe that's why she also looks frightened.
August 14, 2013
detours on way to grammar's house
Chilling and compelling quotes on CNN.com this morning from preportedly verified anonymous online Q&A (I know how that sounds) with abduction victim Hannah Anderson.
Obviously the most important questions are, Is she all right? What really happened? And, of course, Is this account of an ask.fm anonymous Q&A with her true?
I can't answer, but I can say that -- maybe in the interest of speed -- atrocious copywriting errors by CNN itself were left in. Let's get this right, people. It's actual news about something really bad (emphasis below is mine).
Hannah Anderson did what any teenage girl would do after a life-changing ordeal: she discussed it with peers online. ...
Dawn MacNabb, whose son is one of her closest friends, confirmed to the Associated Press that the postings on ask.fm were by Hannah. She said her son spoke on the phone with Hannah on Tuesday and urged her to delete some of the postings.
The California teenager was rescued Saturday after family friend DiMaggio held her hostage for a week after killing her mother and brother. Her frantic search stretched from southern California to the Idaho wilderness ...
The most interesting question is what does it mean when peer-to-peer media can replace news media as a newsbreaking source. In this case, it wasn't breaking news that happened via social media (like we saw with the Hudson River plane landing
or the Abbottabad raid
on bin Laden), it was the press conference.
But just because newsmakers are becoming their own newsbreakers and social tools can now be media tools doesn't mean standard media should stop using words properly.
Since the above was drafted, both errors were corrected. Text now says
, "... whose son is one of Hannah's closest friends" and "The frantic search for the teenager stretched from ...."
July 17, 2013
ford foundation's #courtingchange event
The "mountaintop" vision of civil rights and social justice "remains far away" - Luis Ubiñas, outgoing president of the Ford Foundation. Glad to be liveblogging from this Ford event in NYC today with @goddessjaz @sonalbee and @brooklynsingh.
UPDATE: A view from the bloggers' table and a replay of the webstream below:
June 9, 2013
notes on change, from digital managers
At this month's 501TechNYC meetup
, I had the chance to meet about 50 colleagues in the non-profit tech field and present a version of our NTEN panel, "3 Faces of the Digital Manager,"
originally given in April with Laura Brahm, Danielle Brigida and Yesenia Sotelo.
The worst part was not having my killer co-panelists from the NTC in Minneapolis. But the best part was spending the final 30 minutes brainstorming with the entire room. The assignment was to make a longer list of "words to live by" when managing digital change inside an organization.
For context, here's the introduction to the NYC talk, followed by the list we built up together.
Every organization has a different "culture of tech," and every web manager, digital strategist or social media editor uses a different approach to get things done.
Your style for managing change is as important as your tools or your budget. And there's no single best approach. Sometimes your colleagues need a tough leader to lift their online work to the next level. Sometimes they just want someone who will listen.
A new digital strategy is only as good as the strategist who drives it and the organization's comfort with change. Join us for a conversation about style and change management. When is it time to motivate your colleagues and when is it time to reassure them? For the next tech project, are you bringing cookies to the meeting, or a bullhorn?
Become a connector
--since you probably already are one. Find the gaps between departments, approaches, and bridge
them by getting people to articulate their needs, commiserate and brainstorm together.
Listen first before pushing for change. Get to know your audience of colleagues. Do what you can to create trust--in you and, if possible, in each other.
Be a translator.
Know how to speak to your different audiences--staff, consultants and web users. Find the shared vocabularies that get people on the same page
Be a diplomat. Charm it up.
Show people how they are getting what they want --while making sure it's the right thing to do.
Once you understand your colleagues' incentives, create opportunities for victory
--what the jargon-class calls "wins." One way to do this is to "shrink" any sweeping promises
Create quiet experiments,
then use small successes to show what's possible and get wider support. Along the way, downplay your own personality. The high-profile leader
is only one face of the digital manager. There are others
In the midst of a massive site redesign by Open Society Foundations, the Mule Design
team told Laura, "Your colleagues need to like you more than they hate change."
Remember that you are a broker of new ideas, and people don't always like
Be perseverant, be flexible and be realistic. A project may take longer than planned, morph along the way, get scaled down from an ambition to an adjustment. A lot of the time that's okay.
Don't just tell, teach.
Managers of change walk a delicate line between promoting their approach and having too much to do. If you're the only person who knows what you know, you're either really lonely, or really busy, or both. To secure a better future for your work, Danielle advised the group at NTEN to spread your knowledge around. A good digital manager gets more people
Create chances for colleagues to evolve together
. It's often better to have a shared vision
than a master plan in the hands of one mastermind
. To make sure the plan keeps evolving, think of change in an agile
way, based on cycles of iteration, review and feedback that are also shared.
Don't let failure be a project's final step.
During our NTEN session, Yesenia reminded the group that when a project meets poor results, or fails to launch, there is a lot to be learned and an opportunity to help your organization "fail forward
." The digital manager who can talk about failure
leads at a higher level of credibility than the one who merely retreats.
In-person collaboration and organizational culture
are often neglected when we talk about the best ways to integrate new tools into your ongoing work--we tend to focus on the tech opportunities not the organizational realities (much less the "largely subterranean"
issues of style and personality).
April 30, 2013
people are the dark matter of tech projects #13ntc
I have a recurring dream where I'm at work. In a meeting. And we're talking about a new technology project and everyone's excited, even the managers who don't know all that much about tech.
Or maybe I'm not remembering it right. Maybe the managers are skeptical and annoyed, even though they do know a little about tech. Or maybe no one's excited, and we have to explain the whole plan again from scratch. And I'm dressed in a towel. It's all blurry and I can't remember if people think the new tools are a great idea or some overhyped add-on that makes no sense.
And that's when I realize: I am wearing my clothes, but it's not a dream.
In the work of a digital manager, how we relate to our colleagues, and whether they can relate to us and our work, is fundamental to online success. People are the dark matter of tech projects. They account for more than 80% of the gravitational force in the universe of getting things done, but technology won't help us see them more clearly.
Our premise was simple: Since every organization has a different "culture of tech," and every digital manager has a different personality, your styles for managing change are as important as your tools or your budget.
You might be the ever-supportive "Perfect Boyfriend
," for instance, listening intently to colleagues and doing all you can to match your work to their needs -- possibly including chocolate. Or you might be the "Tough Cookie
," setting a digital vision and fiercely keeping colleagues gung-ho and on task as you hack your way (literally or figuratively) into new digital strategies that the whole organization will ... eventually ... embrace.
Or you might be Michael Jackson. The one-in-a-million talent who doesn't need to "ask for permission" or "build alliances" to succeed, because they do what they do so well, and dazzle everyone so fast, that they get the permission retroactively. Lover. Fighter. And Thriller all in one.
There's no right formula for the successful digital manager. But you can do more, and bring more colleagues along with you, if you know your own style and choose the right suit for the right meeting. Sometimes it's pinstripes. Sometimes it's a white glove.
You can watch a video of our NTEN presentation below. While you're watching, think about the persona (or personas or personae
) that describes you best. When did you have to bring people tea? When did you have to dance?