To quote Jeff Hammerbacher, the best minds of our generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. In other words, web scale companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, Tumblr etc. are innovating in many areas but focused on their business models more than anything else. But that’s okay, because the ‘exhaust’ of their innovations are indirectly having a tremendous impact on society.
This presentation delivered by Jon Gosier at Startup Fest in Montreal, Canada was about how data platforms are being used to solve difficult problems in society and improving the relationship between state and citizen.
Imagine if social movements of the past had access to tools like Neighborland, CrimeSpotting, Ushahidi, Flowminder, VibrantData.org, MetaLayer and others. Would social change have come faster, more peacefully, or been more volatile?
I’m Jon Gosier Founder and Director of Product at MetaLayer, which is making the world’s information easier to understand visualize and share. And today I’m going to share observations on the role data platforms like MetaLayer and others play in Government.
I want to start with this quote by Jeff Hammerbacher, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”
He was talking about how much of the innovation being produced using technology today is designed to attract users and essentially get them to spend money. Most of this generation of web scale companies from Twitter, to Goole and Facebook to Tumblr are examples.
Now that’s definitely not a great thing, but it’s also not exactly a bad thing as many of these innovations are finding their way into the setting of participatory government.
So, with the time I have left, I’ll walk through a few examples. Not just technologies for states to govern, but technologies that also allowing citizens respond.
First, and most obvious example is Open Data. Open data solutions take troves of public records and data that was once filed away by governments simply because there were few efficient, inexpensive ways of sharing that information. Things like census data, government spending data, and so on. Open data gives the raw data to the public to draw what conclusions they will.
For example, at un.data.org, the UN is now sharing the research it collects from countries all over the world in on central repository. This allows smaller NGOs organizations to benefit from the amount of resources they can put towards collecting data that might otherwise go unused.
Or it might simply be used to make an observation about society, like this interactive graphic by the New York Times which used publicly available census data to map the geospatial locality of racial groups in the United States.
There’s also the growing trend of using Crowdsourcing technologies. In 2009 the in the U.S. the White House began an initiative to allow citizens to participate in policy decision by asking them to petition the government’s attention over major concerns. It’s a bit ironic, because simply voting at the polls could be considered a form of crowd sourcing. Technology platforms like Digg and Reddit showed how this could work at scale.
Citizen reporting platforms like the ones I worked on at Ushahidi provide a way for citizens to post reports of distress, in real-time, to authorities. During the 2011 Tsunami in Japan, a group of volunteers who went by the name sensai.info used Ushahidi to not only report incident but helped to coordinate response & recovery.
Or another example, Neighborland where citizens get engaged in improving their own communities on a hyper-local, neighborhood, scale.
Predictive technologies, like those pioneered by organizations like Recorded Future, are being used to not only improve analysis of events that have unfolded, but to anticipate what events might occur and where.
For example, a new project called Flowminder uses historic records and statistical modeling as the basis for anticipating how future disasters might affect regions an populations. Thus, allowing governments to fortify vulnerable areas.
Humanitarian Response organizations like the Red Cross are making use of many of these aforementioned technologies, but specifically these are photos of their Digital Operations lab shared by a former colleague of mine on his blog, Patrick Meier. Here they’ve repurposed social media monitoring platform Radian6 to monitor conversations around world events.
These monitoring dashboards have many prospective needs. At MetaLayer we contributed to a small project last year that correlated the sentiment of social media conversations during Hurricane Irene with service delivery records. The idea was that the data, could inform better decisions on responder deployment during future events.
An emerging field, complexity science, was pioneered by companies like Quid.com to serve enterprise customers. But is now being applied to some of the world’s more pressing problems. VirbrantData.org which was built by my friend Eric Berlow at TrueNorthLabs is using complexity science to find ways of solving small challenges shared across disparate activist communities.
The ability of a state to govern very much depends on a societies willingness to be governed. This makes government a type of dialogue.
Of course, in democratic governments this dialogue is expected to be an engaging conversation. In my opinion, these technologies have the possibility turning the conversation between citizens and state, into more of a debate.
Imagine if in the late 60’s in the United Staes, at the height of the civil rights movement, people had access to the same tools for activism used during the Arab spring?
If they had access to Interactive maps like this one. Mobile communications, that allowed non-violent protesters to capture their stories of intimidation. Or encryption technologies like Tor, which protect communication.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the role technology plays in activist movements. That is to say, they aren’t the most important aspect of the movement by any means. But they are incredibly important because they dramatically change the dialogue between citizen and government tremendously.