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January 24 2012

"The President of the United States is on the phone. Would you like to Hangout on Google+?"

We're suddenly very close to science fiction becoming reality television, live streamed to large and small screens around the world. On Monday, January 30th, 2012, the fireside chats that FDR hosted on citizens' radios in the 20th century will have a digital analogue in the new millennium: President Barack Obama will host a Google+ Hangout from the West Wing, only a few weeks after the White House joined Google+.

Screenshot of President Obama sending a tweet through the @whitehouse account
A screenshot from July 6, 2011, of President Obama sending his first tweet through the @whitehouse account. On January 30, he'll host the first president Hangout on Google+.

If you have a question for the president, you can ask it by submitting a video to the White House's video channel, where you can also vote upon other questions. The president will be answering "several of the most popular questions that have been submitted through YouTube, and some of the people who submitted questions will even be invited to join the president in the Hangout and take part in the live conversation," explained Kori Schulman, deputy director of digital content at the White House, at the White House blog.

The real-time presidency

This upcoming "President Hangout" offers a fascinating window into what bids to be a disruptive scenario to citizen-to-government (or citizen-to-citizen) communications in our near future. Mobile Hangouts on smartphones running the world's biggest mobile operating system, Android, could enable citizens to connect to important conversations from wherever a call finds them.

Such town halls could be live streamed and shared through Facebook, Google+ or the White House's iOS app, reaching hundreds of millions of people connected through mobile broadband connections. In the future, we might even see iOS cameras enable citizens to "get some FaceTime with the president" through his iPad. The quality of the video on the iPad 2 is poor now, as owners know, but what if Apple adds a camera to the iPad 3 as good as the one it added to the iPhone4S? That would enable instant video chat through 100m+ connected iOS devices, along with millions of MacBooks and iMacs that have webcams.

In that future, I can't help but think of video phones from the "Jetsons." Or "Blade Runner," "Minority Report," "The Fifth Element" or "Total Recall.' Or, better yet, "Star Trek," since Gene Roddenberry's vision of a peaceful future is a lot better than the dystopian epics Philip K. Dick tended to write.

Style or open government substance?

The technology we have in our hands right now, of course, is pretty exciting. The prospect of a presidential Hangout has naturally been getting plenty of attention in the media, from CNET to Mashable to the L.A. Times to NextGov, where Joseph Marks has one of the smartest takes to date. In his post, Marks, a close observer of how the White House is using technology in support of open government, goes right to the heart of what analysts and the media should be asking: What does this mean and how will it work?

The administration is touting the Google Plus event as 'the first completely-virtual interview from the White House.' It's not entirely clear what that means. It could signal merely that the president will respond directly to questioners' YouTube videos rather than having them keyed up by a moderator. In past social media Town Halls conducted through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, Obama has typically shared the stage with a moderator who introduced and sometimes picked questions. If questioners are able to ask their questions directly, including follow-up questions through the Hangout feature, that would be a more significant innovation.

To put it another way, will the first presidential Google+ Hangout be about substance, or is this about burnishing the president 's tech-savvy image and credentials in an election year?

When I asked that question openly on Twitter, Gadi Ben Yehuda, who analyzes and teaches about the government's use of social media for IBM, replied: "Both, I bet. Message is medium, after all. Style, in this case, is part of substance."

As it happens, Macon Phillips, director of digital strategy at the White House, was also listening. "What criteria would you use to answer that question?" he asked. Noah Chestnut, director of digital media at Hamilton Place Strategies in D.C., suggested the following criteria: "Q's asked, length + content of A's, follow-up Q's vs. cursory, who writes the process stories."

As I analyze this new experiment in digital democracy, I will look at A) whether the questions answered were based upon the ones most citizens wanted asked and B) whether the answers were rehashed talking points or specific to the intent of the questions asked. That latter point was one fair critique I've seen levied by the writers at techPresident after the first "Twitter Townhall" last July.

In reply, Phillips tweeted: "Well, if the past 2 post-SOTU [State of the Union] events are any indication, you should be optimistic! One the exciting things about the Hangout format is that conversational aspect." As evidence for this assertion, Phillips linked to videos of YouTube interviews with President Obama after the 2010 and 2011 State of the Union addresses. The president answered questions sourced from the Google Moderator tool on the CitizenTube channel.

There are process questions that matter as well. Will Steve Grove, head of community partnerships at Google+, be asking the questions? Or will  the president himself respond directly to the questions of citizens?

Phillips replied that there will be a "little bit of both to involve both the voting prior and the participants during." He also told the Associated Press that the White House would have no role in choosing the questions or participants in the Hangout. "For online engagement to be interesting, it has to be honest," Phillips said. "We want to give Americans more control over this conversation and the chance to ask questions they care about."

In other words, citizens will be able to ask the president questions directly via YouTube and, if chosen, may have the opportunity to join him in the Hangout. When I asked Phillips my own follow-up question, he suggested that "for specifics on format, better to connect w/@GROVE but we are planning for ?'s that are voted on & others asked live."

I was unable to reach Grove. However, he told the Associated Press that the Hangout "will make for a really personal conversation with the president that's never really happened before."

Will there be #realtalk in real time?

Direct interactivity through a Hangout could also introduce that rare element that's missing at many presidential appearances: unscripted moments. That's what the editors of techPresident will be watching for in this new experiment. "Our prevailing hypothesis around here is that one great promise of the Internet in politics is to create unscripted moments, opportunities to yank politicians off of their talking points and into a confrontation with the real and complex problems America faces today," wrote Nick Judd. "We saw this in July at the very end of the Twitter event with Obama. Reid Epstein saw a similar occurrence when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential aspirations took him to a New Hampshire diner, where he met a gay veteran who asked him about same-sex marriage. We're hungrily looking for examples of this in the integrations of the Internet and of social media in presidential debates, and not finding many so far."

What will be particularly interesting will be the opportunities that citizens have to ask follow-up questions on the Hangout if they're not satisfied with an answer. That feedback loop is what tends to be missing from these online forums. Many citizens haven't had the opportunity to ask informed, aggressive follow-up questions like, say, at a presidential press conference at the White House. The evolution of these platforms will occur when organizations stop "adopting" them and start actually using them. In this case, using the killer app of the Google+ platform to connect directly with the American people.

As of this morning, 30,594 people have submitted 16,047 questions and cast 208,431 votes. Currently, the most popular video questions are about stopping the PROTECT IP Act and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which would establish international standards for intellectual property. The top question comes from "Anonymous," and asks "Mr. President, it's all good and well that SOPA and PIPA are slowed down in Congress, but what are you doing about ACTA? This is an international agreement which could prove much more devastating."

To date, President Obama, has not commented extensively on ACTA or either of these bills. If any of those questions are answered, it will indeed be evidence that the White House is listening and the president's commitment "to creating a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration" using social media and technology is genuine.

A version of this post originally appeared on Google+.


November 28 2011

Keeping Safari Books on top

This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we'll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.

Andrew Savikas (@andrewsavikas) is one of the brightest minds in the content industry. His extensive work on O'Reilly's production toolchain as well as having been chair of the Tools of Change conference will serve him well in his new role as Safari Books Online CEO. Safari was built before the influx of mobile devices affected our industry, but Andrew is making sure the service evolves with the needs of its customers. As Safari celebrates its 10th anniversary, Andrew talks in this podcast interview about what lies ahead and how Safari will remain on top.

Key points from the full video interview (below) include:

  • Mobile devices have had a significant impact on Safari — It's not just about iPads and mobile phones, though. A good deal of Safari content is also consumed via eInk devices like Kindles and Nooks. [Discussed at the 0:49 mark.]
  • iPad usage patterns differ from desktop patterns — Length of session and use at different times of the day distinguish the typical iPad-based Safari user from the desktop user. Deeper content dives happen via the iPad app as well. [Discussed at 2:06.]
  • The iPad app drives more Safari usage — Subscribers aren't substituting desktop access for iPad app access. The numbers indicate subscribers are accessing Safari more when they utilize the iPad app. [Discussed at 3:49.]
  • Video has rapidly become an important component of the Safari experience — And it's particularly attractive to iPad app users. [Discussed at 5:57.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

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July 20 2011

Smartphones and spheres of influence

This is part of an ongoing series suggesting ways to spark mobile disruption. We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead.

Though the mobile space is rapidly expanding, some may argue that the space just isn't disruptive enough. In the spirit of disruption, I've reached out to several people across the tech and publishing industries to answer one question:

If you were going to build an app that fully harnessed mobile's capabilities, what would it do and how would it work?

I recently posed this question to Tyler Bell (@twbell), director of product at Factual. His answer follows.

TylerBell.jpg Tyler Bell: I'm keenly interested in the idea of the phone as a universal telefactor-cum-sensor platform. To effect something you must know its status, so I would note that this would entail it's being a universal monitor also. I'm not certain I could choose a single app to develop, but I would be most interested in accelerating the phone's development in several ways:

  • As a universal interface — Moving us away from proprietary devices and a multiplicity of interfaces. I would first include obvious next-steps like house and car security and automation. Generally these devices will go hand-in-hand with monitoring tasks — energy consumption, charge levels, and security status are all base-level statuses that can be monitored and effected from a single device.
  • As a sensor suite — Phones now are packed with devices that can create data from the world around us. It gets most interesting when their use deviates from their original intention. For example, the camera has migrated from a novelty to become an input device, the microphone and accelerometer — my favorite sensor; everyone has one, surely — are used to determine proximity, and the Wi-Fi chip is used to aid in location determination. I'd like to see the phone continue on a similar trajectory, especially with regard to personal health monitoring.
  • As a swarm — Phones are still built around one-to-one thinking. Sensors and collective inputs are more valuable when part of a massive collective. I would expect that this hypothetical app would ensure that my phone worked together with millions of others, reporting data on civic infrastructure, the weather, traffic, and other aspects of our shared existence.
  • As an agent — The phone remains a synchronous device, though push-based mechanisms have begun to move us away from this as the norm. I would expect my preferred app to become more autonomous, "spinning up" agents to satisfy my requests and reporting back when complete.

Phones allow us to expand our influence to other things, people, and places. Any app that facilitates and enriches such interaction can only be a good thing.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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  • July 08 2011

    Open government data to fuel Kenya's app economy

    Open KenyaFrom Brazil to France to Australia to India, new laws and platforms are giving citizens new means to ask for, demand or simply create greater government transparency. The open data movement has truly gone global, with 19 international open data websites live around the globe. This week, the world will see another open government platform go live in Kenya.

    On July 8th, the government of Kenya will launch an open government data platform. Open Kenya is powered by Socrata, the Seattle-based startup that has been instrumental in standing up open data platforms at the state, city and federal levels in the United States. With the launch of Open Kenya, Africa will have its own story of promoting transparency through open data to celebrate, learn from and share.

    Newly open data will enable the comparison of different counties in Kenya, in terms of how they use resources, said Bitange Ndemo, secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communications, at a press conference on July 7th. Ndemo said that the Kenyan government is committed to releasing more open data on an ongoing basis. With open data, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector can increase its contribution to the gross domestic product to 15%, asserted Ndemo, pointing to the development of local Web and mobile applications.

    "The Kenyan Parliament has been pushing the open data as part of a larger policy," said Paul Kukobo, chief executive officer of the Kenya ICT Board, in a phone interview this week. "We have been giving grants to people who develop applications that meet citizen needs for years. Many people asked us to give them access to data that they could then use for developing applications."

    As with governments around the world, the technical challenges of data collection, structuring and publishing were balanced with another issue: the beast of bureaucracy. A similar phenomenon can be seen where open government is taking root in India, with the passage of India's Right to Information Act. New digital platforms have the potential to change the dynamic between citizens and their governments.

    "The whole culture of government is that they are the data originators and data collectors," said Kukubo. "Sharing internally was a problem in the first place. That was why the parliament secretary taking a huge role was a big deal, in terms of talking to colleagues about opening up this data. Technical challenges were not where the headache was — we have plenty of skill and partners here to do that — it was in getting the data in the first place, in the form that we needed it. Plenty of data wasn't in digital form or usable, and was trapped in agencies."

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    Open Kenya will fulfill many of Tim Berners-Lee's expectations for open data, including machine-readable data structured in .CSV files and XML, and available through APIs. Notably, the concept for Open Kenya offers context, rationales and a definition for open data, including the apt observation that "publishing PDF files do not constitute 'open data' and are not helpful to large-scale users." The Open Kenya concept states that open government data must be easily found through search engines, machine-readable, interoperable and available for use and re-use under non-commercial and commercial licenses, i.e. "Creative Commons."

    That perspective is a progressive one for Open Kenya to take and will set a standard for other open data efforts. Making government data searchable changes how citizens can access it in important, potentially disruptive ways. While Open Kenya will only contain five or six datasets at launch, government officials say more will go online over the coming months. The United States open government data platform,, started with just a few data sets as well; now there are thousands.

    "The project involved a significant effort to make geo-coded data available and present it using new geospatial boundaries for 47 counties," said Safouen Rabah, vice president at Socrata. "Since 98% of Internet access in Kenya happens through mobile phones, location awareness on the site and through the API is really critical to make the data contextually relevant to ordinary Kenyans."

    Open Kenya isn't simply about meeting data standards or publishing data online. Ultimately, it's about changing the compact between citizens and their government. The World Bank, no small enterprise itself, was featured in the New York Times this month because of its own open data initiative. The Bank assisted the Kenyan government with its efforts. Aleem Walji, practice manager for innovation and technology at the World Bank Institute, wrote that Kenya will provide a live case study for open data, picking up the same theme and focusing on the newfound importance of opening county-level government in Kenya:

    A Freedom of Information act has been sitting with the Government for years. The country recently passed a new constitution devolving significant fiscal and political authority to newly created counties. Elections are scheduled for 2012 and there is considerable demand for greater efficiency in the delivery of public services, youth-focused job creation, and improved governance. Against this backdrop, the Kenyans heard about Open Data, Open Government, and saw them as opportunities given their booming IT industry and youthful population. Over a period of 6 months, a handful of Government reformers working closely with a World Bank team paved the way for Kenya to launch one of the first and most comprehensive Open Data portals in Sub-Saharan Africa. The portal will make available multiple years of detailed government expenditure data (at the county level), household survey data, and the 2009 census mapped to the district level.  Citizens will be able to download information directly, compare data within and between provinces, create visualizations including maps and graphs, and most importantly understand the relationship between spending and public service delivery. This is where the rubber meets the road with Open Data. It's a shift from opening datasets towards a more open and inclusive model for citizen-centric development.

    "I'm most excited about the reaction that people have had," said Kukobo, "particularly at the business level. Tickets for the launch of the website are sold out." He found that he's personally gaining from the change. "I'm learning a lot myself, in terms of what the data is telling me," he said. "You can't be clear about something you can't define. What is going on in my country? Income levels? How many hospitals or schools are there in a county? The development community is excited about building applications so data can be useful to citizens."

    Several members of the Kenyan technical community views this launch as an historic day. "In Kenya, accessing public records even those that are about you is difficult," tweeted Muraya Kamau, a web and mobile apps developer in Nairobi, in response to a question. "Tomorrow we get access and not just that, we get a chance to build apps that disseminate that info through various platforms."

    Open data in Kenya "means a great deal," tweeted Juliana Rotich. "Kenyans can disaggregate the big data pronouncements into relevant info. Dev com is already using open data. Our devs have already been hacking and will showcase today."

    Open data drives the innovation economy

    Wired Kenyans are wondering if open data will "give rise to great stuff," as it has in other countries and municipalities, notably in the healthcare apps generated by the release of open data by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

    "Data will fuel employment and wealth creation like never before," tweeted Ndemo, this week. That's a bold prediction. It may will be aided, however, by the kind of open data released, which draws from fundamental sectors in the Kenyan economy.

    "The nature of Kenya open data effort is really cool, simply because of the quality of the data and how it's presented," said Rabah. "Open data will be available about schools, access to drinking water, hospitals — basic things that relate to daily life in Kenya."

    The prospects for mobile apps driven by open government in Kenya gaining traction are good, given a population that primarily accesses the Internet over mobile devices. "The whole reason they've released the data is to empower people to create social change," said Jessica Colaço, developer evangelist at iHub, Nairobi's online Innovation community, in an interview. "The biggest step that the Kenyan government has taken is giving data to the development community, allowing them to make visualizations and to make the data usable and useful to society."

    Colaço said that iHub has a database of 4,000 developers right now, with around 200 members interested in using this open government data. While not everyone is subscribed to data on their mobile devices, Colaço thinks that the more than 20 million mobile subscribers in Kenya will be interested in these apps. Most Kenyans with Internet access get in through their phones. In urban areas, phones are running on the Android platform, she said, including devices from Samsung, Nokia and HTC. "Currently, there's a craze for the Android app store," she said. "Developers will definitely get people to use open data apps." In rural areas, however, data connections are in short supply and expensive. "I think mobile phones will be used for lot of querying of data using SMS via a USSD platform," said Colaço. "Mobile web and SMS will be used to reach rural areas."

    There's plenty of local technical talent to make great apps, she emphasized, pointing to the growth of M-PESA, Kenya's mobile banking system, and the success of the Ushahidi platform for crowdsourced information gathering as evidence of Kenya's vibrant mobile ecosystem and local development community. "An innovation such as Ushahidi being so simple and being used worldwide goes to show that when there's a problem and a need for it, we have the resources in house to solve it," she said.

    Robert Alai, a Kenyan blogger who covered the Open Kenya press conference, said via Skype that a $100 Android smartphone device launched in December led in smartphone sales by March. "There's a very big community," he said, with one government agency estimate that by the end of 2012, almost every Kenyan household will have a smartphone. And at least some of that adoption was being driven by the demand for access to Facebook on mobile phone. Alai put Kenyan success on the World Stage with Ushahidi and M-PESA in the context part of a larger push towards joining the innovation economy. "Kenyans are very excited about making money from applications," he said. "A Kenyan won a prize in the World Bank competition, in Nokia's competition and others."

    Alai predicted that the open government data Kenya is releasing will find even more use in the development community. "Developers have been saying that when they want to create applications, it's very difficult to get data," he said. "When we process data, we can create applications that will make it useful." Alai focused on the importance of releasing county level data. "Existing applications is applications are not being used to solve real life problems or used locally, yet," he said. "They need local data. Costs are currently very high to get it. There's a very big hunger for the data. I hope as the platforms are built that they'll pan out well."

    In the future, Colaço hopes to see apps that create feedback loops between citizens carrying mobile phones and their government, where health, water, sanitation and education projects are monitored by everyone. "Open data does make government more accountable to the citizens, increasing trust between the government and citizens, and enhances collaboration, acting as a kind of the audit," she said. "If you see inconsistencies, feedback in your application could report it."

    Here come the apps

    Data visualizations will be among the first applications to use the open data, Colaço said. "You can actually see what's being utilized intensely in different areas, using heatmaps. In the northeast, for instance, funds have been used for drought and famine."

    It's in that context, perhaps, that one of the value propositions of open government data will be tested first. This week in Kenya, police tear-gassed maize and fuel price protestors as millions of lives are threatened by historic draughts in the Horn of Africa. No application can bring the rains nor data visualization deliver food to a starving child. Citizens equipped with mobile phones can, however, tell their governments where and when aid has or hasn't arrived. In time, they can look at the government's resource allocations in different regions and see if it matches up with reality on the ground. With better data and tools to analyze it, government itself can track what's happening and where.

    Those kinds of apps may not be long in coming. Eric Hersman (@WhiteAfrican), co-founder of Ushahidi and founder of the iHub, published a comprehensive review of Africa's first national open data initiative that demonstrates that apps are already online:

    • The Ushahidi team took census data and mashed it up with healthcare institution data on their Huduma site
    • An SMS query apps allows Kenyan to text the name of their county or constituency to 3018. In return, they'll receive a text with the demographics and minister of parliament of that location.
    • The iHub community built a mobile app called "Msema Kweli" that allows a citizen to find Constituency Development fund projects near them and add pictures of them

    "There have been many people pushing for this, over many months, and it's been an exciting process to watch unfold," wrote Hersman. "Foremost amongst the drivers on this has been Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the Permanent Secretary of Information and Communications. This is indeed a very proud moment for Kenya, and a leading position to take on the continent."

    When the needs of the many are great, the empowered have a civic responsibility to help. Open government data offers those who want to help their fellow citizens a new form of civic participation. Science fiction author William Gibson famously said that "the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet." Perhaps this week, and in the years ahead, even more Kenyans will be showing the world what it looks like.


    Reposted bymurdelta murdelta

    June 20 2011

    People don't need faster horses

    This is part of an ongoing series suggesting ways to spark mobile disruption. We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead.

    As the mobile space increasingly connects the real and virtual worlds, changing the way people communicate, shop, read, and (very soon) pay for things, some argue that amidst all these shifts the space really needs a creative spark. Taking the analog experience and simply making it digital isn't cutting the mustard.

    In the spirit of disruption, I've reached out to several people across the tech and publishing industries to answer one question: If you were going to build an app that fully harnessed mobile's capabilities, what would it do and how would it work?

    Up first is Joe Wikert, general manager and publisher at O'Reilly Media. Wikert recently posted a piece bemoaning the state of digital content, specifically in relation to magazines. He summed up the issue succinctly in his post:

    The bottom line is that I had higher hopes for the shorter-form content model by now. I'm hard-pressed to point to any one magazine app and say, "yeah, they've really created something special here." Instead, the Wired's of the world came in and offered the print content in e-format and thought they could charge a lot for it. I'm glad they've learned that won't work, but now I'm hoping they'll start experimenting more, either on their own or jointly with some of their competitors.

    Joe's response to my question follows:

    If you were going to build an app that fully harnessed mobile's capabilities, what would it do and how would it work?

    JoeWikert.jpgJoe Wikert: That's the million-dollar question ... or maybe the billion-dollar one! I have a few thoughts on the capabilities required to capture my attention, but I also realize that there are probably many features I haven't even thought of. It reminds me (once again) of a Henry Ford quote I like to toss out from time to time: "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse." In other words, if customers aren't already used to a particular platform or its potential capabilities, it's easy for them to limit their thinking to what they already know, not what they haven't yet experienced.

    One of the key things I'd like to see happen with content is for us to stop looking at it through the lens of a book. We tend to get hung up with animating page-turns and we think less about how the content should be conceived in a digital-first (or digital-only) world.

    Search preview example
    Why can't ereaders offer the preview functionality we see in search engines?

    Here's a simple example: Why am I limited to one frame into the content on a Kindle or in the iBooks app? Imagine using your computer and only being able to open one document or app at a time. That's the way it is with e-readers today. Why can't I do more with frames and pop-up windows that can come and go as I need them? We see a bit of this with the dictionary feature in the Kindle iPad app — touch a word, and a small frame at the bottom appears with the definition. Why can't I do the same with searches across the book? Just as Google and Bing give you previews of what the links point to in search results, all without ever having to leave the search results page, why can't we do the same in an e-reader app?

    I'm not suggesting these apps become a hodgepodge of pop-up windows and orphan frames — all this should be customizable by the user so they can use as much or little of it as they choose. I'd just appreciate the opportunity to turn it into a richer experience. Other readers might prefer to leave it as a one-frame experience.

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