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April 27 2010

Pew Report: Citizens turning to Internet for government data, policy and services

Anyone who's been watching the Internet knows that a lot of interesting things are happening online with government. Government entities have begun to open up their data to the public, including state, local, and the federal government efforts with websites like data.gov.

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010A new research report on online government from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that citizens are searching for information in unprecedented numbers. When they visit sites, they're increasingly making transactions and participating in discussion around policies.

Forty-one percent have gone online to get forms, including tax forms, health forms or student aid forms, and 35 percent have researched government documents or statistics. Roughly one-third of all Internet users reported renewing driver's licenses and auto registrations online. In general, the use of government websites for information and transactions is nearly ubiquitous among Internet users, with 82 percent of online adults surveyed reporting one of the two activities.

There's also a change in terms of how people are accessing government information, particularly through social media among traditionally underserved minorities. Nearly one third of U.S. Internet users are using social media and new tools to access government services and information. The three activities heavy users reported doing the most are reading government blogs, signing up for email alerts and watching videos.

Looking for government data

"When we saw that 40 percent of adults have gone online in the last year to look for data about the business of government, that was a really striking finding to us," said Aaron Smith, the research specialist at the Internet & American Life Project that authored the report. "I think it's indicative of something that we've seen throughout our recent research, which is that people are increasingly going around established intermediaries and they're going to the source for online data. And then they're doing that whether it's data about a health condition that they might have or data about the presidential race, as we saw in the 2008 campaign. Now we're seeing the same thing in the context of government."

Citizens are going online to see how federal stimulus money is being spent at Recovery.gov (23 percent of surveyed Internet users), read or download the text of legislation (22 percent), visit a site that provides access to government data (16 percent) or to see campaign contributions to elected officials (14 percent).

Consumption of government social media growing

"We wanted to know whether they were using things like blogs and social networking sites and online video and text messaging to get government information," said Smith. "What we found was that about one in three online adults were using these tools to get information about the business of government.

Smith said they found that about a quarter of U.S. Internet users have participated in a broader debate around government policies, although much of that is currently occurring outside of the context of "official government channels," like fan pages and government blogs that are posted on government websites.

Embrace of social media by government has particular appeal for minorities

The report found greater rates of use and participation on government websites and services is associated with higher macroeconomic status. "You see a really different story when you look at engagement using social media in a broad context," said Smith. "When you look at the percentage of whites, African-Americans and Hispanics who watch videos on government websites or sign up to get text message alerts or follow government agencies on blogs or social networking sites, all three of those groups do those things at basically the same rate. There isn't the same gap that you see with some other online government offerings. The same is true for high and low-income Americans. There's a much smaller gap when it comes to those sort of participatory interactive modes of engagement than there are with some of the other online government activities we examined."

Smith said that this trend was something that they started picking up on during the 2008 election. "Younger adults, minority Americans, those at lower levels of income were very active on these tools, using these tools during the election. I think that's something that offers a great deal of promise in terms of government thinking about how to reach some of those groups that may not be as served with existing offerings."

For online users, government is increasingly participatory

The Pew Research report fond that nearly one-quarter of online Americans (23 percent) have participated in the broader online debate over government issues by publishing their own commentary or media, attending an online town hall meeting, or joining an online group focused on influence government policies.

Participation and usage is correlated with Internet access speed, which puts special emphasis on digital divide issues and the premise behind the FCC's National Broadband Plan.

"When you look at the FCC's plan, one of the key planks of their rationale for why we need to expand broadband services is to facilitate that citizen to government interaction and broader civic engagement between citizens," said Smith. "t's something that we've found since we began conducting this research way back in 2000: as people get access to high-speed, always-on connections, it opens up a whole range of activities and services that people can take part in that just aren't really feasible using a slow dial-up connection or accessing a computer at the library, for instance. It's been a truism since the day we started this that broadband users and now wireless Internet users are much different in what they do and take part in a much greater range of activities in all areas, whether that’s entertainment, news, health or government, than folks who aren't online or don't have access to that type of high speed connection."

No avoiding death and taxes

"When we asked them the last place they went, not surprisingly, federal agencies sort of led the pack," said Smith. "About a third of the folks who remembered their most recent interaction said that they went to the website of a federal agency."

The top two sites? The Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service. One of the truisms about life is apparently true online as well: you can't avoid death and taxes.

"There were a lot of other sites within the federal government that folks mentioned too," said Smith, "like Immigration and Naturalization Services, FBI and Department of Homeland Security, CDC and NIH, Veteran's Administration. We literally got 1,700 responses on this question that ranged across the board, anything you could imagine. It was really indicative of the range of services and the range of agencies that Americans are currently accessing online."

Visits to government websites are overwhelming successful

In a finding that has positive implications for the ability of government agencies to provide information and transactions, the report showed that a sizable majority of online visitors were able to accomplish their goals.

"That was actually true regardless of what type of site it was, whether it was a local site or a state site or a federal site," said Smith. "People were generally fairly successful with what they were trying to do. So I think if you're looking for positives in terms of things that government is doing right, I think that that shows that they're doing a fairly good job of making information available in a way that's relevant and meaningful to people."

Use of government websites for transactions growing rapidly

Eighty-two percent of online adults went to a government website to get information or complete a transaction in the 12 months preceding the survey. Finding information and services were the top two reasons for visits. Increasingly, however, citizens are going to government websites to do things. "That was actually where we saw a lot of growth between the earlier part of the decade and now," said Smith. "Quite sizable numbers of people are going online to do things like renew driver's licenses or auto registrations or apply for jobs or pay fines, get recreational licenses like hunting or fishing licenses."

Despite the increasing ability for citizens to complete transactions online, however, they still want to be able to contact government directly when needed. "If there's a challenge in all of this, it's that you can't really let up anywhere anymore," said Smith. "People want to have your information and access your services in all kinds of ways. And that includes offline means as well. We saw that very clearly when we asked people how they preferred to get in contact with government.

Among the population as a whole, the telephone remains the number one way people preferred to get in contact. "When you look at the online population, they actually prefer the Internet," said Smith. "But a sizable number still like to be able to pick up the phone or go see someone in person. Based on previous research that we've done, that particularly rises with sort of the urgency and complexity of the issue."

Smith offered a simple example of where escalation to other methods of communication matters. "I love nothing better than being able to file my taxes online," said Smith. "But when I was a victim of identity theft and someone began filing fraudulent tax returns in my name, you better believe I wanted to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody and work through that in a person-to-person way. Email is great. Being able to get my license renewed on the website is fantastic. But when there's a problem, I definitely want to be able to get someone on the line."

Search is king for finding government information

Search engines are a much more common method for users going online to look for government information or to make transaction, with 44 percent of online users starting with a search engine.

"When we asked this question previously in 2003, we found that search engines were far and away the number one way that folks were reaching their destinations," said Smith. "We found almost exactly the same thing this time around. Sometimes they'll go to a place that they saw in a notice or an email or a friend or a family member told them about. But, by and large, if they need to find information on their tax bill, they'll search tax information or IRS in their search engine of choice and get to their destination that way. So that's very much inline with what we've found in previous years and in other areas of online life as well, which is that the search is generally the default entry point to all sorts of information and other types of activities that people take part in."

That means search engine optimization (SEO) is an important consideration for government officials, agencies and anyone trying to convey information. In other words, add SEO to the important acronyms to know in government: using search data to connect with citizens online is crucial.

Higher use of government websites led to more trust

Trust in government is at historic lows. The electorate as a whole doesn't have a much faith in openness and accountability, despite the Open Government Initiative. The Pew Research report found, however, that those who are heavy government data users have different attitudes about government in terms of it being more open and accountable. This differs from people who are not online or people who are online but not heavy government data users. That perception, however, is heavily biased around ideological lines, which gibes with historical trends.

"That fits with some research that our colleagues over at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press put out last week," said Smith. "They went all the way back to public opinion data as far back as the Eisenhower administration. Basically, what they found is that people tend to trust the government when their party is in power and they tend to distrust it when the other party's in power."

"What we see happening is that, at least at the moment, when you look at Democratic voters, they're giving credit to the government for making that data out there. When you look at Republican voters, they're a little bit tougher sell. The upshot to government is if you put your data out there, people will clearly use it."

Related:

January 07 2010

Pew Research asks questions about the Internet in 2020

Pew Research, which seems to be interested in just about everything,
conducts a "future of the Internet" survey every few years in which
they throw outrageously open-ended and provocative questions at a
chosen collection of observers in the areas of technology and
society. Pew makes participation fun by finding questions so pointed
that they make you choke a bit. You start by wondering, "Could I
actually answer that?" and then think, "Hey, the whole concept is so
absurd that I could say anything without repercussions!" So I
participated in their href="http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2006/The-Future-of-the-Internet-II.aspx"
2006 survey and did it again this week. The Pew report will
aggregate the yes/no responses from the people they asked to
participate, but I took the exercise as a chance to hammer home my own
choices of issues.

(If you'd like to take the survey, you can currently visit

http://www.facebook.com/l/c6596;survey.confirmit.com/wix2/p1075078513.aspx

and enter PIN 2000.)

Will Google make us stupid?

This first question is not about a technical or policy issue on the
Internet or even how people use the Internet, but a purported risk to
human intelligence and methods of inquiry. Usually, questions about
how technology affect our learning or practice really concern our
values and how we choose technologies, not the technology itself. And
that's the basis on which I address such questions. I am not saying
technology is neutral, but that it is created, adopted, and developed
over time in a dialog with people's desires.

I respect the questions posed by Nicholas Carr in his Atlantic
article--although it's hard to take such worries seriously when he
suggests that even the typewriter could impoverish writing--and would
like to allay his concerns. The question is all about people's
choices. If we value introspection as a road to insight, if we
believe that long experience with issues contributes to good judgment
on those issues, if we (in short) want knowledge that search engines
don't give us, we'll maintain our depth of thinking and Google will
only enhance it.

There is a trend, of course, toward instant analysis and knee-jerk
responses to events that degrades a lot of writing and discussion. We
can't blame search engines for that. The urge to scoop our contacts
intersects with the starvation of funds for investigative journalism
to reduce the value of the reports we receive about things that are
important for us. Google is not responsible for that either (unless
you blame it for draining advertising revenue from newspapers and
magazines, which I don't). In any case, social and business trends
like these are the immediate influences on our ability to process
information, and searching has nothing to do with them.

What search engines do is provide more information, which we can use
either to become dilettantes (Carr's worry) or to bolster our
knowledge around the edges and do fact-checking while we rely mostly
on information we've gained in more robust ways for our core analyses.
Google frees the time we used to spend pulling together the last 10%
of facts we need to complete our research. I read Carr's article when
The Atlantic first published it, but I used a web search to pull it
back up and review it before writing this response. Google is my
friend.

Will we live in the cloud or the desktop?

Our computer usage will certainly move more and more to an environment
of small devices (probably in our hands rather than on our desks)
communicating with large data sets and applications in the cloud.
This dual trend, bifurcating our computer resources between the tiny
and the truly gargantuan, have many consequences that other people
have explored in depth: privacy concerns, the risk that application
providers will gather enough data to preclude competition, the
consequent slowdown in innovation that could result, questions about
data quality, worries about services becoming unavailable (like
Twitter's fail whale, which I saw as recently as this morning), and
more.

One worry I have is that netbooks, tablets, and cell phones will
become so dominant that meaty desktop systems will rise in the cost
till they are within the reach only of institutions and professionals.
That will discourage innovation by the wider populace and reduce us to
software consumers. Innovation has benefited a great deal from the
ability of ordinary computer users to bulk up their computers with a
lot of software and interact with it at high speeds using high quality
keyboards and large monitors. That kind of grassroots innovation may
go away along with the systems that provide those generous resources.

So I suggest that cloud application providers recognize the value of
grassroots innovation--following Eric von Hippel's findings--and
solicit changes in their services from their visitors. Make their code
open source--but even more than that, set up test environments where
visitors can hack on the code without having to download much
software. Then anyone with a comfortable keyboard can become part of
the development team.

We'll know that software services are on a firm foundation for future
success when each one offers a "Develop and share your plugin here"
link.

Will social relations get better?

Like the question about Google, this one is more about our choices
than our technology. I don't worry about people losing touch with
friends and family. I think we'll continue to honor the human needs
that have been hard-wired into us over the millions of years of
evolution. I do think technologies ranging from email to social
networks can help us make new friends and collaborate over long
distances.

I do worry, though, that social norms aren't keeping up with
technology. For instance, it's hard to turn down a "friend" request
on a social network, particularly from someone you know, and even
harder to "unfriend" someone. We've got to learn that these things are
OK to do. And we have to be able to partition our groups of contacts
as we do in real life (work, church, etc.). More sophisticated social
networks will probably evolve to reflect our real relationships more
closely, but people have to take the lead and refuse to let technical
options determine how they conduct their relationships.

Will the state of reading and writing be improved?

Our idea of writing changes over time. The Middle Ages left us lots of
horribly written documents. The few people who learned to read and
write often learned their Latin (or other language for writing) rather
minimally. It took a long time for academies to impose canonical
rules for rhetoric on the population. I doubt that a cover letter and
resume from Shakespeare would meet the writing standards of a human
resources department; he lived in an age before standardization and
followed his ear more than rules.

So I can't talk about "improving" reading and writing without
addressing the question of norms. I'll write a bit about formalities
and then about the more important question of whether we'll be able to
communicate with each other (and enjoy what we read).

In many cultures, writing and speech have diverged so greatly that
they're almost separate languages. And English in Jamaica is very
different from English in the US, although I imagine Jamaicans try
hard to speak and write in US style when they're communicating with
us. In other words, people do recognize norms, but usage depends on
the context.

Increasingly, nowadays, the context for writing is a very short form
utterance, with constant interaction. I worry that people will lose
the ability to state a thesis in unambiguous terms and a clear logical
progression. But because they'll be in instantaneous contact with
their audience, they can restate their ideas as needed until
ambiguities are cleared up and their reasoning is unveiled. And
they'll be learning from others along with way. Making an elegant and
persuasive initial statement won't be so important because that
statement will be only the first step of many.

Let's admit that dialog is emerging as our generation's way to develop
and share knowledge. The notion driving Ibsen's Hedda Gabler--that an
independent philosopher such as Ejlert Løvborg could write a
masterpiece that would in itself change the world--is passé. A
modern Løvborg would release his insights in a series of blogs
to which others would make thoughtful replies. If this eviscerated
Løvborg's originality and prevented him from reaching the
heights of inspiration--well, that would be Løvborg's fault for
giving in to pressure from more conventional thinkers.

If the Romantic ideal of the solitary genius is fading, what model for
information exchange do we have? Check Plato's Symposium. Thinkers
were expected to engage with each other (and to have fun while doing
so). Socrates denigrated reading, because one could not interrogate
the author. To him, dialog was more fertile and more conducive to
truth.

The ancient Jewish scholars also preferred debate to reading. They
certainly had some received texts, but the vast majority of their
teachings were generated through conversation and were not written
down at all until the scholars realized they had to in order to avoid
losing them.

So as far as formal writing goes, I do believe we'll lose the subtle
inflections and wordplay that come from a widespread knowledge of
formal rules. I don't know how many people nowadays can appreciate all
the ways Dickens sculpted language, for instance, but I think there
will be fewer in the future than there were when Dickens rolled out
his novels.

But let's not get stuck on the aesthetics of any one period. Dickens
drew on a writing style that was popular in his day. In the next
century, Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Vladimir Nabokov wrote in a
much less formal manner, but each is considered a beautiful stylist in
his or her own way. Human inventiveness is infinite and language is a
core skill in which we we all take pleasure, so we'll find new ways to
play with language that are appropriate to our age.

I believe there will always remain standards for grammar and
expression that will prove valuable in certain contexts, and people
who take the trouble to learn and practice those standards. As an
editor, I encounter lots of authors with wonderful insights and
delightful turns of phrase, but with deficits in vocabulary, grammar,
and other skills and resources that would enable them to write better.
I work with these authors to bring them up to industry-recognized
standards.

Will those in GenY share as much information about themselves as they age?

I really can't offer anything but baseless speculation in answer to
this question, but my guess is that people will continue to share as
much as they do now. After all, once they've put so much about
themselves up on their sites, what good would it do to stop? In for a
penny, in for a pound.

Social norms will evolve to accept more candor. After all, Ronald
Reagan got elected President despite having gone through a divorce,
and Bill Clinton got elected despite having smoked marijuana.
Society's expectations evolve.

Will our relationship to key institutions change?

I'm sure the survey designers picked this question knowing that its
breadth makes it hard to answer, but in consequence it's something of
a joy to explore.

The widespread sharing of information and ideas will definitely change
the relative power relationships of institutions and the masses, but
they could move in two very different directions.

In one scenario offered by many commentators, the ease of
whistleblowing and of promulgating news about institutions will
combine with the ability of individuals to associate over social
networking to create movements for change that hold institutions more
accountable and make them more responsive to the public.

In the other scenario, large institutions exploit high-speed
communications and large data stores to enforce even greater
centralized control, and use surveillance to crush opposition.

I don't know which way things will go. Experts continually urge
governments and businesses to open up and accept public input, and
those institutions resist doing so despite all the benefits. So I have
to admit that in this area I tend toward pessimism.

Will online anonymity still be prevalent?

Yes, I believe people have many reasons to participate in groups and
look for information without revealing who they are. Luckily, most new
systems (such as U.S. government forums) are evolving in ways that
build in privacy and anonymity. Businesses are more eager to attach
our online behavior to our identities for marketing purposes, but
perhaps we can find a compromise where someone can maintain a
pseudonym associated with marketing information but not have it
attached to his or her person.

Unfortunately, most people don't appreciate the dangers of being
identified. But those who do can take steps to be anonymous or
pseudonymous. As for state repression, there is something of an
escalating war between individuals doing illegal things and
institutions who want to uncover those individuals. So far, anonymity
seems to be holding on, thanks to a lot of effort by those who care.

Will the Semantic Web have an impact?

As organizations and news sites put more and more information online,
they're learning the value of organizing and cross-linking
information. I think the Semantic Web is taking off in a small way on
site after site: a better breakdown of terms on one medical site, a
taxonomy on a Drupal-powered blog, etc.

But Berners-Lee had a much grander vision of the Semantic Web than
better information retrieval on individual sites. He's gunning for
content providers and Web designers the world around to pull together
and provide easy navigation from one site to another, despite wide
differences in their contributors, topics, styles, and viewpoints.

This may happen someday, just as artificial intelligence is looking
more feasible than it was ten years ago, but the chasm between the
present and the future is enormous. To make the big vision work, we'll
all have to use the same (or overlapping) ontologies, with standards
for extending and varying the ontologies. We'll need to disambiguate
things like webbed feet from the World Wide Web. I'm sure tools to
help us do this will get smarter, but they need to get a whole lot
smarter.

Even with tools and protocols in place, it will be hard to get
billions of web sites to join the project. Here the cloud may be of
help. If Google can perform the statistical analysis and create the
relevant links, I don't have to do it on my own site. But I bet
results would be much better if I had input.

Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?

Yes, I don't believe there's much doubt about the technologies that
companies will commercialize and make widespread over the next five
years. Many people have listed these technologies: more powerful
mobile devices, ever-cheaper netbooks, virtualization and cloud
computing, reputation systems for social networking and group
collaboration, sensors and other small systems reporting limited
amounts of information, do-it-yourself embedded systems, robots,
sophisticated algorithms for slurping up data and performing
statistical analysis, visualization tools to report the results of
that analysis, affective technologies, personalized and location-aware
services, excellent facial and voice recognition, electronic paper,
anomaly-based security monitoring, self-healing systems--that's a
reasonable list to get started with.

Beyond five years, everything is wide open. One thing I'd like to see
is a really good visual programming language, or something along those
lines that is more closely matched to human strengths than our current
languages. An easy high-level programming language would immensely
increase productivity, reduce errors (and security flaws), and bring
in more people to create a better Internet.

Will the internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

I'll pick up here on the paragraph in my answer about takeoff
technologies. The end-to-end principle is central to the Internet I
think everybody would like to change some things about the current
essential Internet protocols, but they don't agree what those things
should be. So I have no expectation of a top-to-bottom redesign of the
Internet at any point in our viewfinder. Furthermore, the inertia
created by millions of systems running current protocols would be hard
to overcome. So the end-to-end principle is enshrined for the
foreseeable future.

Mobile firms and ISPs may put up barriers, but anyone in an area of
modern technology who tries to shut the spiget on outside
contributions eventually becomes last year's big splash. So unless
there's a coordinated assault by central institutions like
governments, the inertia of current systems will combine with the
momentum of innovation and public demand for new services to keep
chokepoints from being serious problems.

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