Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice

It’s The Consumer, Stupid!

This book is comprised of 34 essays written by thought leaders in both technology and government who are passionate about open data. The authors argue the case for “openness” in government and offer best practices and examples (several case studies included at the end as well) for building, supporting and evangelizing Open Platforms in government.

With the clout of Social Networks and hacker communities, the idea of being “open” isn’t as radical as it used to be several years ago, and the book clearly capitalizes on that. Almost all successful companies have open APIs today. These companies realize that it is “data accessibility” that will invariably create value for the consumer–and their business.

So why can’t governments do the same? The book argues the case for governments to “open up” and give access to their data (e.g. documents, bills, voting records, proceedings, initiatives, …etc) so that the electorate is informed and able to fully participate in governance, which is in effect the ultimate goal of democracy.

Out of all 34 essays, Tim O’Reilly’s “Government as a Platform” offered the most comprehensive blueprint for what needs to be done to get to the next level in Open Government. He offers seven lessons, or principles, that lead to Open Platform. These aren’t government specific, which makes them even more valuable to anyone interested in the subject of Open Platform.

The seven principles are:

  1. Open Standards Spark Innovation and Growth
  2. Build a Simple System and Let It Evolve
  3. Design for Participation
  4. Learn From Your “Hackers”
  5. Data Mining Allows You To Harness Implicit Participation
  6. Lower the Barriers to Experimentation
  7. Lead by Example

The principles are pretty self-explanatory and Tim fleshes each one out with examples and guiding thoughts. I highly recommend reading those sections twice to fully understand what they require of you and your company to build a successful Open Platform.

The principle that resonated with me the most was #2. I see this all the time (I’m guilty of it sometimes too): Engineers embark on an elaborative architecture quest to build the most “awesome” or “kick ass” software that will undeniably be the best platform EVER. The only thing is they often end up with a convoluted, unmaintainable system that ends up being “legacy” in no time. Tim quotes John Gall’s Systemantics:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true. A complex system designed from scratch never workes and cannot be make to work. You have to start over, beginning witha  working simple system.

It’s so very true.

At the end of his essay, Tim O’Reilly offers ten practical steps that government agencies can adopt to be more open. If you don’t have time to read the entire book, I strongly recommend you read his chapter.

In the end, the paramount beneficiary of Open Platforms is the Consumer. In government, the consumer is the Electorate. President Obama understood that. He is the first US President to fully embrace the Open Government movement. We saw clear signs of that during his campaign in 2008 and in the release of data.gov and change.gov.

A few weeks back, I went to interview protesters at the Occupy LA encampment in downtown Los Angeles as part of my research for the new startup I co-founded, Voterspring.com. When I asked the question, “how do you think we can hold government accountable?” The overwhelming answer was, “information and transparent access to it.”

This book paves the road to open and transparent government. Now the ball is in the government’s court.

Goodbye TypePad, Hello WordPress

I finally moved my blog from TypePad to WordPress. The decision wasn’t that hard since I wasn’t really happy with TypePad for a while. Also, the migration wasn’t bad at all since both TypePad and WordPress offer an import/export functionality that makes it easy to move from one platform to another.

To be fair, TypePad isn’t a bad platform. It just hasn’t kept time with the beat of consumer expectations since 2008. Here are some of the pain points I had with the TypePad platform:

  • No default mobile web layout (ridiculous!)
  • Stats are useless
  • Expensive for what it offers
  • iPhone app is a joke
  • No iPad app!

The aforementioned shortcomings didn’t really bother me 18 months ago. But as I started to use my iPhone and iPad more frequently, my blog activities suffered because I couldn’t do anything productive on the blog using those two devices. Given that I was paying $14.95 per month for this service, my expectations were really high and TypePad never measured up.

WordPress.com, on the other hand, has the following going for it:

  • Default iPhone and iPad layouts (HTML5 goodness!)
  • A bargain for what you get ($99/year to get the more advanced blogging necessities like domain mapping, …etc.)
  • Self-hosting option (in case I want to move my blog to my EC2 account.)
  • Great stats
  • iPhone and iPad apps
  • Great tools and widgets

I gotta say, I’m more engaged with my blog now that it’s on WordPress. Granted it’s been only a couple of days since the transition, but I honestly feel more engaged with it. I already have a couple of drafts waiting to be proofread. I’m super comfortable with using the Dashboard and the array of tools available within it.

As for TypePad, I think its failure to keep up with what’s considered platform “standards” is going to hurt it in the long run. With so many blogging platforms competing for our business, I would say WordPress and Tumblr are the only two worth looking into. I have had a media blog on Tumblr for a year now and I love it.

Whatever you do, skip TypePad.

Can Google+ Be The “Actionable,” Relevant Social Network? You Bet!

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about relevancy and the future of user experience on Facebook. I argued that relevancy in Facebook was broken and suggested a way to fix it.

Google+
Two days ago, Google released its newest social product, Google+. As I read through the Tech Crunch post explaing what the product was about, I couldn't help but smile. Google's Vic Gundotra was quoted saying:

We believe online sharing is broken. And even awkward. We think connecting with other people is a basic human need. We do it all the time in real life, but our online tools are rigid. They force us into buckets — or into being completely public. Real life sharing is nuanced and rich. It has been hard to get that into software.

Thank you! That's precisely the arguement I made. Google is finally onto something big in the social space! Moving away from the "walled garden" approach that's at the core of Facebook, Google+ focuses more on shared, real-time interests than mapping real life relationships.

Google+ is inherintly relevant. You don't need a virtual handshake of "friending" another person to connect. With Google+, you can hang out with anyone, no strings attached.

So it's open, it's relevant, but is it actionable?

I worte in my previous post about the detailed, localized and actionable relevant experiences on Facebook. What I meant by actionable was giving the user the ability to transact on that piece of relevant content without leaving his/her profile page.

So, does Goolge+ offer that capability?

Google+, Circles, Hangouts and Sparks

Not yet, but it's definitely within the realm of possibility.

What's currently missing in Google+ is autodiscovery. Right now, you can follow a topic by creating a "spark." This allows you to get content from everyone following the same topic. However, if someone who's not following that topic shares a related piece of content on the topic, you won't see it.

Sparks depend on the explicit intention of the user (ala Facebook) instead of the context of the shared content itself. As it is today, Sparks are useless, but they can be great!

The good news here is Google can easily implement autodiscovery. If you read In The Plex, you know they can. So the question here is, how can autodiscovery make the experience actionable?

For starters, if Google is able (and it is) to recognize the category and context of every piece of content users share on Google+, then they are able to monetize that content by making it actionable.

For example, let's say I'm into photography. I go ahead and create a "photography" spark to follow all the related content people share on photography. A week later, some random person (who is not following the "photography topic) on Google shares the following post:

Dude, I love my Canon 5D Mark II. It's like the best. camera. ever!

Because Google now recognizes the category and context of content, it flags this content as, "photography, canon, 5d mark II, ….etc." And as a result of that, I would see that post under my "photography" spark … with a link to buy the Canon 5D Mark II from the Google Store or Amazon.com or whatever.

That added link, which is a call to action, is where the power of Google+ lies! By knowing what the content is about, you can enhance it by offering a call to action that makes sense to the user who is more likely to engage with it.

Now think of all the other verticals that this could apply to: travel, financial, automotive, gifts, …etc. Google can partner with subject matter experts in each vertical to provide to help it enhance the relevant experience by making it detailed, localized and actionable.

Thought?

Relevancy and The Future of User Experience on Facebook

Gs-450h Last summer, I had a friend over for dinner. When he got to my house, he pulled into the driveway in a brand new Lexus GS 450 Hybrid. I congratulated him on his new purchase and told him that I was looking to lease the same car next year when my current lease was due. He had no idea. My response was, "yeah, I posted something on Facebook like a week ago about it."

Evidently, he didn't see my post.

I went on to ask him when he got the car and how much he paid for it. His story was fascinating. The way he pit dealers against each other to get the best deal possible was revelatory. He didn't step foot in one dealerships; He did it all over the phone, and ended up getting the car plus all the fees involved for below market value.

Dumbfounded, I confessed I had no idea he was such an aggressive negotiator and that I wanted him to negotiate my next car lease. His response was, "I'd love to." But then he said, "I'm surprised you didn't know about this since you're on Facebook all the time. It's all over my Facebook page."

I was surprised as well since none of these posts made it to my wall. I only saw links about real estate from him (he's a realtor,) but none about cars.

The point of my story here is this: Facebook does not recognize or elevate relevant content between friends.

It would have been awesome if Facebook somehow realized that my status update in which I mentioned I was looking to lease the GS 450h was related to my friend's posts about his purchase experience and somehow got us to connect.

But Facebook doesn't work that way (yet.)

Right now, relevant content is discovered on Facebook by chance. My ability to find relevant content to me is depending on 1) the frequency in which my friends share content and 2) the time at which the content is shared and 3) the time at which I check my wall. All three conditions have to align for me to see that one piece of content that's relevant to me.

It sucks, doesn't it? If I'm willing to sift through countless irrelevant posts from my friends, the least of my expectations is that the relevant posts are brought to the top of my wall where I can easily see them.

But how do you define "relevant?"

A Real Opportunity

Since I do work for @Edmunds, I automatically switched to "find a solution" mode. When I got into the office the next day, I talked to my colleague @HowardOgawa about my experience. After bouncing ideas off of each other, we decided to take this on as a challenge.

Our objective: Elevate Relevant Automotive Content and Conversations to Friends That Care About Them within the Facebook Ecosystem.

We decided to build a Facebook app to do this. Our app at a high level would passively listen to the stream of activities (i.e. status updates, links, checkins, photos, ..etc) coming from the app subscribers and try to mine the data for automotive relevancy. As relevant data is found, other subscribers are notified. Subscribers would also get to indicate some of their friends as "auto experts," which in turn will render automotive content coming from those individuals even more relevant to that user (granted they subscribe to our app, of course.)

Soon after we started looking at the data in a user's Open Graph, we realized that we couldn't mine that data efficiently. Something was missing from the structured data. As we dug deeper, we were convinced that for the data to be meaningful for us, it had to be segmented or categorized.

Content Segmentation and Relevancy

It's hard to determine whether a link a user shares on his/her wall is a link to an article, a YouTube video, a Flickr image or an audio file. The type property of the link object in the Open Graph always returns "link." Sure we have access to the optional message the user attaches to the link and the description that is captured with the link, but that isn't enough to determine the type of that link, and most importantly, the category into which the content of the link falls.

Howard and I went back to the drawing board. It was pretty clear to us at this point that in order to truly recognize relevant content on Facebook, the Facebook structured data had to include segmentation or category.

A shared YouTube link about the President giving a speech in Egypt should be categorically distinguished from a shared YouTube link about Arcade Fire rocking out at The Hollywood Bowl. The former falls under "politics" and the latter under "music."

When that segmentation is embedded into the Open Graph, relevancy becomes much easier to discern and users can specify what content they care about from what friends. I'm sure many of my friends on Facebook would rather see less of my political posts and more of my entertainment ones. With segmentation, they will have that choice.

Facebook Committed to Relevancy

About three weeks ago, a Facebook spokesperson was quoted in a New York Times article saying, "We’re always looking for better ways to help people discover the most relevant content on Facebook…"

This was great news to me! As a Facebook user, this would help me a whole lot. But according to the article, the approach that Facebook is taking won't help me in my particular use case. The same questions remain unanswered: How will I be able to see relevant posts from my friends? How can I specify what specific topics I trust which specific friends with? How can I ensure that my wall is 80% relevant to my real life needs?

Potential Solution: schema.org

Schema Interestingly enough, around the time the Facebook story broke, TechCrunch reported that Google, Yahoo and Bing were collaborating on a structured data initiative, or schema.org. The goal of this initiative is to help websites optimize their HTML and crawlable data structures to make their content more accurately searchable.

The question here is, why isn't Facebook working with these companies on this initiative?! Facebook already has the social sentiment component that all three of these companies lack. All it needs now is to ensure that the content people share to their wall is meaningful and structured, which in turn will help with the relevancy goal and will help me find the content I really care about.

Imagine if Amazon uses the right semantic tags to describe items on their pages. When users share an Amazon link on Facebook, it's no longer just a "link." It's now a "link to a book called ABC by author XYZ and it's currently listed for $xx." This granularity adds meaning to the "link." Meaning that is translated to metadata that algorithms can computer, manipulate and correlate, all of which can easily produce true relevancy.

The Real Business Potential

Creating a relevant experience on Facebook is great and I'm pretty sure Facebook will get there one day. But there's a potential here to create an experience that far surpasses that. An experience that's not only great, but awesome.

Facebook knows how to do social very well and its objective is to keep users on its platform for as long as possible. But to do that, showing relevant content isn't enough. They need to think about creating a user experience that is detailed, localized and actionable. But in order to do that, they would need to partner with subject matter experts in each content segment (e.g. travel, retail, automotive, finance, …etc) to provide the missing data points that will enhance the relevant experience Facebook is building and make it detailed, localized and actionable.

What do I mean by detailed, localized and actionable? Here's an example:

Mary just read a review of "Under the Tuscan Sun" by Frances Mayes on oprah.com. She decides to share that review with her girlfriends on Facebook and she does.

What Mary doesn't know is that oprah.com's content is semantically structured which allows Facebook to understand what the content of this link is all about. Also, Mary doesn't know that Facebook uses Amazon.com's APIs to enhance the experience for Mary's friends by offering them more detail about the book (i.e. price) and locality (i.e. availability at Borders down the street) and a call to action (i.e. Amazon buy button.) All of which is customized to each friend as they see Mary's post on their wall.

The next day, Kirstin, one of Mary's Book Club friends and Facebook friend, logs on to her Facebook. Kirstin has previously indicated in her Facebook preferences that Mary was a good source for literary/readying content. As a result, Mary's book link is now at the top of Kirstin's wall since it's a piece of content that is likely relevant to her. Kirstin is so compelled by the review she goes ahead a buys the book, by clicking on the Amazon link attached to the post and without ever leaving Facebook!

This could be applied to any segment. Facebook can partner with @Kayak to allow users to find travel deals to Heathrow when reading a link about London. Facebook can partner with @Edmunds to allow users to see the price of a vehicle and contact dealers nearby when watching a YouTube video about Toyota Prius.

The possibilities are endless.

What I'm talking about here could be huge. Google, Yahoo and Bing can get the structured data, but they don't have the social sentiment. Facebook has that, but what they need to do now is ensure the content shared on the platform is structured. Once that's accomplished, partner up with subject matter experts in every segment and use their APIs to enhance the content.

The resulting experience is not only social, personal and timely; it's relevant and actionable.

When a simple Facebook search returns all the relevant content that friends (and all of Facebook users when privacy allows) are sharing in realtime with specific calls to action that meaningfully transition the online experience to an offline transaction, why bother go somewhere else?

Does this make sense? Am I missing something? I'd love to hear what you think. You can leave a comment here or find me on Twitter at @ielshareef

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation A Must-Read for All Businesses and Individuals Interested in Innovation

I read a lot of business books. Some I pick up on my own and some are given to me by the Chairman of the company I work at. Not all the books I read are good, but those that are usually have one important takeaway that sticks with me.

This book is one of those good ones. So much so that it has inspired me to write this blog post on Edmunds Technology Blog.

It is rife with great takeaways, or as I like to call them, themes. Those "themes" manage to tie together all the other seemingly disparate ideas I've come across in my previous readings, especially the ones on culture of organizations, success and data openness.

The main main theme that stood out for me in this book was the concept of the adjacent possible. The is by far the most interesting and revealing concept I've come across in a while. Essentially, it is a "shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself."

The author goes on to say that, "what the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen." That brings to mind the theme of Openness discussed in Charlene Li's Open Leadership which to me seems to be an application of the adjacent possible. Our collective emotional and mental societal state had made it possible for businesses to be open and transparent. Openness in business has just recently entered the realm of the adjacent possible and the reason why is because the ingredients to make it successful are now mature and ready.

The other important theme discussed in the book is the concept of the liquid networks. The concept is all about feng shui for innovation. Creating the right fluidity between minds and spaces is an art and those who master it are likely to be more innovative than those that don't. The author uses MIT's building 20 and Microsoft's building 99 as examples of successful liquid networks.

In addition to these two fascinating and important concepts, the book discusses an array of other concepts that have proven to be a source of innovation. A great read for anyone interested in the subject.