Obama Hints At Tech Spending In Address

Estimates for the size of the crowd on the Washington mall today have settled to somewhere around two million. Befitting a crowd of such grandeur, Pres. Obama’s inaugural address outlined many of the largest problems facing America today. Yet, as I stood near the Washington monument (freezing), I was pleased to hear the recently sworn-in president plant this quote about technological infrastructure:

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.

As I have written about in previous posts, the Obama camp seems particularly keen to bridge digital divides. They have talked about funding public works programs to increase broadband access in rural areas and using the web to make government more transparent and responsible.

As his speech suggests, Pres. Obama understands that such investments not only harvest savings for government and private business, but also, and perhaps more importantly, catalyze democratic discourse. This is almost certainly what he means in suggesting that digital networks “bind us together.” Just as real highways in theory increase civil society by linking people who were formerly geographically separated, so the information highway brings ideas and groups together in dialogue, if anything at a more dramatic rate.

Hit The Ground Running: New White House Web Site and Blog Go Live

At 12:01pm the new whitehouse.gov went live with a blog post from the ‘Director of New Media’ Macon Phillips. I’m guessing that is a newly created position that will attempt to take lessons from the successful Internet-driven campaign and apply them to governance.

The site promises that it will “…be a central part of President Obama’s pledge to make his the most transparent and accountable administration in American history.” And encouraging signs in the technology section of the new site which has as its top goal, “Ensure the Full and Free Exchange of Ideas through an Open Internet and Diverse Media Outlets”, and as it’s second goal:

Create a Transparent and Connected Democracy

* Open Up Government to its Citizens: Use cutting-edge technologies to create a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens.
* Bring Government into the 21st Century: Use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks. Appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure the safety of our networks and lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.

According to CNN, a number of senior staffers were planning to be shuttled to their new offices in the White House immediately after the inauguration. Straight to work folks!

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Live Feeds of Inaugural Disappoint

A lot of excited Berkmanites were just huddled around the large screens in our conference room to watch the inaugural ceremonies. Sad, as one fellow put it, that Harvard’s network, probably one of the best in North America, couldn’t stream without interruption. Obviously, a problem on the networks end as well as they were pummeled with requests for the live streams. BBC seemed best for a while but eventually also froze up periodically. Interesting to see the CNN cooperation with Facebook as well which allowed folks to chat with their friends while watching the event. We look forward to Chris Van Buren’s update on how it was live in DC!

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Bush’s Technology Legacy

With all the Bush retrospectives going around, here’s one more for the pile. In important ways, Pres. Bush seemed distracted, even a bit disinterested when it came to tech issues. So much capital was spent on defending warrantless wire-tapping for the Bush camp to be visibly occupied by the wires and networks over which they were eavesdropping…

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AlJazeera’s Twitter Feed in Gaza, Part II

Twitter, and other Web 2.0 social media tools, are continuing to change the dynamics of crisis information sharing. Since the Mumbai attacks, where besieged civilians used Twitter to disseminate information and communicate to loved ones, such tools have only increased in use.

As I began to suggest in my last post, this development has unique implications for the way in which we receive, process and react to crises, particularly military conflicts. Twittering decentralizes the control of information, potentially challenging an accepted line, whether it comes from the government (Israel), the main stream media or influential players (like Hamas) skilled in manipulating press coverage. This necessarily alters the dynamic of how the conflict is framed and understood. How collateral “collateral damage” really is may indeed depend upon how much we know and understand of actual ground conditions, even live Twitter updates.

Hypothetically, the number of civilian deaths could decrease as the public’s appetite for violence wanes and world wide protests against the military players, both Israel and Hamas, increase in intensity. In the Berkman case study of the Burmese Saffron Revolution, the suggestion was made that, although the military successfully quashed the rebellion, it was careful not to massacre the monks completely, largely out of fear of the internet’s collective gaze (pg. 14).

Similar hypotheses may hold true for current conflict in Gaza. What images have emerged from the conflict have sharply increased world protest, and have circulated rapidly through the internet. Moreover, since virtually all of the international press is currently locked out of Gaza, many have turned to AlJazeera’s innovative Twitter feed for regular updates, linking and multiplying those stories (and others) into a massive topic chain of #gaza tweets.

Read the rest of this entry »

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A Lack of Civil Society Can Kill You

According to a recent study by scholars in the UK, nations that go through major shocks or transitions will see increased mortality rates if they don’t have strong civil society institutions to cushion the fall. The study looked specifically at morbidity in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states, and found that rapid privatization in those countries lead to increased mortality rates, especially in Russia. In 2008 the life expectancy of Russian men was below 60 years, while in 1985, just a few years before the break up of the Soviet Union, it was over 67 years.

The most interesting finding to me, though, was that the effects of privatization were reduced if social capital was high. Harvard’s Robert Putnam has been arguing for years about the importance of civil society to democracy since civic institutions (churches, trade groups, sports clubs, etc.) increase interpersonal trust and social capital among citizens. But according to the UK study, those institutions can also help ease the pain of major economics shocks by reducing stress among the adult population during those periods of economic uncertainty. According the paper, “In countries in which more than 45 percent of the population was a member of a social organization, mass privatization had no significant adverse association with mortality rates.” The report compares the Czech Republic to the states of the former Soviet Union and found that in the Czech Republic nearly half of adults belonged to some sort of civic group, compared to less than 10% in the former Soviet countries.

Beyond just reducing stress, though, I would also argue that these groups could provide services to the sick and poor that weakened or non-existent state institutions could not. It’s an open question as well whether the Internet can help to support the creation of new types of online civic groups, or if it is just aiding the decline of traditional ‘brick and mortar’ groups. Given the state of the global economy, this is an increasingly important question, especially if the results of the UK research hold up to greater scrutiny. You can access the a summary of the report here.

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Let In The Sunshine

The Sunlight Foundation — building on one of its own contests and similar efforts by Vivek Kunda, the District of Columbia’s effervescent tech czar — is sponsoring a competition to build open source apps with raw government data (API data dumps). Appropriately, the contest is called “Apps For America” and aims to create applications which allow average citizens to engage with the often intimidating amount of federal data. In theory, this could help rein in elected officials who hide behind the federal government’s giant web of money and special interests. By crowdsourcing the work with a contest, the foundation can also cheaply produce what would cost thousands of dollars with a technology contract. Let it shine.

China Media Expansion to Follow Al Jazeera Model

While media outlets around the world are cutting back international coverage and staff, China is actually looking to expand its global media empire. According to the New York Times, they are basing their expansion plans on the Al Jazeera model:

The country’s increasingly wealthy media giants, which operate under China’s censorship rules and according to its propaganda motives, are trying to acquire international media assets, to open more overseas news bureaus and to publish and broadcast more broadly in English and other languages. Many of them have already announced plans to hire English-speaking Chinese and foreign media specialists.

The plan, first reported Monday in The South China Morning Post, includes the creation of a 24-hour news channel modeled on Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language news network, with correspondents around the world.

The primary objectives, which are totally contradictory, are to improve China’s image overseas while at the same time creating a respected international news channel. I find it very hard to believe that a country that goes to such great lengths to filter the Web and control media outlets, will ever allow the creation of an independent news room. If the goal is image control, the future news channel will be another Alhurra fiasco, and never an Al Jazeera.

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Medvedev to Russian People: We Need to Learn to Rest Better!

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With the global economy in a tailspin and Russia engaged in a new cold war with Ukraine over natural gas shipments, Russian President Medvedev took the slopes in his first vlog post of the new year to encourage Russians to ‘rest better.’ His previous videos have focused on more hard hitting issues like the economy and his recent trip to Latin America, where he reported on forming or rebuilding relations with ‘important’ Latin American countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba (he says in that video that he considers Cuba a long time ‘traditional partner’ and Fidel Castro to be a key Latin American political figure). But his most recent post has all the hallmarks of a bad after school special (although he pulls it off better than a pumped up Ronald Reagan).

After Medvedev’s speech stressing the importance of being a fit nation as it prepares to host the 2014 Olympic games in Sochi (just a stone’s throw from the disputed territory of Abkhazia) he turns and impressively shreds up the slopes, stopping to chat with an ‘impromptu’ assemblage of comrades who ask what he thinks of Russia’s skiing opportunities. Medvedev replies, “I like it, practically like Europe,” but later corrects himself “Just as good as abroad!” (This is the only part of the video left untranslated).

Even thought this video struck me as too much like propaganda, in general it’s good to see Medvedev making use of the Internet and connecting directly with his domestic as well as an international audience, and, as Winter Casey notes, his vlog also now allows comments. He’s generally considered much more tech savvy than Putin, dropping references to Odnoklassniki, the extremely popular Russian version of classmates.com, and has pushed back against efforts to regulate the Internet more closely. Let’s hope he continues to push for a more open, interactive Russian Internet, and to encourage computer literacy among Russians, including bureaucrats, who he reportedly told to learn how to use the Internet, or find a new job.

Berkman Led Task Force Finds Internet Not as Dangerous for Children as Many Think

A major report released today from the Berkman led Internet Safety Technical Task Force shows that online predators are not the major threat to children that conventional wisdom would lead us to believe. While Berkman led the year long effort, the task force was actually composed of a phenomenal group of stakeholders including leading researchers in the field like John Palfrey, Dena Sacco, and Danah Boyd, a number of leading Internet companies including Facebook, MySpace, Microsoft, and Semantec, and several nonprofits working to keep children safe online. The task force was created at the request of 49 state attorneys general. Another interesting finding is that online bullying is probably the biggest threat to children online. For those minors that do fall victim to sexual predators via the Internet, the report states that it is not the Internet that is primarily to blame, since those youth are often already at risk due to a number of other “real world” factor like difficult home environments or substance abuse. According to the report, the best way to improve child safety on the Net is not necessarily a single ‘silver bullet’ technical solution, but instead continued education for kids on how to safely use the Internet and the involvement of parents in decisions about how their children use the Internet and the sites they visit. You can download the executive summary here, and the full report here.

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