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March 01 2013

TERRA 805: Natabar Sarangi - The Source

Natabar continues to find, save and share his indigenous rice seed with local farmers. To date he has managed to re-introduce over 350 varieties. But it's not just about the indigenous rice seed of India or about the survival of a sustainable agriculture system with the knowledge of over ten thousand years. It's about a global phenomenon taking place where a non-sustainable system systematically destroys a sustainable one, where short term profit has the power to overwhelm common sense and the consciousness of many millions, where progress is not progress but the wanton destruction of an eco-system and environment we will never be able to replace. Natabar Sarangi is just one of a growing number of farmers throughout the world who realize that if we do not begin to repair the damage taking place to our agricultural systems and our environment, we will lose not just our cultural identity but our fundamental right to a truly sustainable system of food security.

August 19 2011

Everyone jumped on the app contest bandwagon. Now what?

The open government community has learned some hard lessons about app contests and sustainability, many of which, when expressed here on Radar last month, created a strong debate.

After reading Andy Oram's post, Virginia-based civic developer Waldo Jacquith, who was recently recognized as a "champion of change by the White House for his work on Richmond Sunlight, published a sharp critique of government app contests in general. Jacquith writes that, after watching the applications presented at June's Health Data Initiative Forum, he came to a realization that there are two categories of apps:

... those that were liable to exist six months later, and those that weren't. These apps have got to have a business model, whether making money themselves, or being such clear grant-bait that it's clear an organization will take them on to house. Otherwise it's just a toy that will do nothing to benefit anybody. The exception is perhaps for government units that are not collectively persuaded that there's value to opening up their data — perhaps such contests to put their data to work can serve as inspiration.

There isn't an inherent problem in app contests, I don't think, but they're probably not worth bothering with unless there's a simultaneous effort to foster a community around those data. There's got to at least be a couple of ringers, folks with good ideas who are prepared to create something valuable. Otherwise I think app contests are liable to disappear as quickly as they appeared, a strange blip in the upward climb of open data technologies.

Volunteers work on projects at the second Crisis Camp Haiti at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Volunteers work on projects at the second Crisis Camp Haiti (January 2010) at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Clay Johnson, who gained significant experience guiding such contests as the former director of Sunlight Labs, has been advocating that governments focus on building communities, not app contests. "Whether it's for procurement, press, or community, the important part is that the app contest deadline is the beginning of the engagement with the developers, not the end," wrote Johnson this summer.

Dan Melton, the chief technology officer at Code For America, described a deeper issue for this "movement of makers" on the nonprofit's blog. As entrepreneurs, civic hackers, open government advocates and urban leaders try to make government better, Melton highlights a key tension around scaling:

On one side, we're trying to achieve policy change for a more transparent, efficient and participatory government. On the other, we're making the tools and software necessary for that to happen. We haven't quite figured out how to meld the two movements' successful organizing strategies.

In particular, Melton took a hard look at the return on investment that the civic media community has received from app contests and hackathons to date and found reason for both concern and hope:

Policy makers/political leaders champion city or social contests, to which developers respond with dozens or even hundreds of submissions. So far so good. When the app contest is over, often too is the partnership. Maybe one or two apps will be adopted by the sponsoring entity; sometimes none. It's very very rare that we see widespread replication or scaling of these efforts and applications across our movement. We could have an app contest in every one of 360ish metro regions, and not a single widely spread app as a result. In fact, in the past year, I've counted nearly 80 hackathons, contests and other types of events in our space. At an average of 40 participants and say 10 hours (low), that's 32,000 hours of cognitive surplus spent on software. This isn't a problem of effort, excitement, time or energy. It's a problem of scale, leveraging each other's work and replication.

We make once, but we're not very good at making many times. We don't lack from makers, just in our organization, 550 this year wanted to commit a year of their life to making. I'm excited about the opportunities for replication and scaling through CityCamp, Civic Commons, Code for America, Open Plans and Sunlight Labs amongst others. Maybe it's the engineer in me, but we're really lacking tools for widespread engagement, coordination and replication.

If we're a movement of makers, what do our factories look like?

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Seeking sustainability

For people who have created or participated in hackathons, this may come as bitter medicine, but it's in keeping with the agile development culture that many coders now work within. If an approach isn't working, analyze the problem, try a different solution, measure the outcomes, and learn from your failures.

One clear trend in government app contests in cities is a shift from "what's possible with this dataset" to focusing on the needs of citizens.

New York City Big AppsIn New York City, the NYC BigApps contest is now trying to tie ideas to development. Chicago's open government approach to an app contest, Apps for Metro Chicago, has focused explicitly on sustainability, requiring open source code, offering technical assistance and explicitly connecting communities with software developers.

There are other reasons to continue to refine the model that go beyond connecting communities or app generation. As GIS developer Eric Wolf commented at Jacquith's blog, prototyping and testing data are two valuable functions that government app contests can serve:

1. To test/validate the infrastructure used to "open" government data. App contests can provide an intense beta test by people who can provide precise feedback about what works and doesn't work.

2. To demonstrate usability concepts around the information produced by a government agency. The app doesn't have to live on, but the combination of information and interface the app created may guide future developments in the agency.

I would suspect that an app contest could become an important part of standard government contracting. Or even contract validation. You want to build a system that streamlines an agency's information use and makes it more transparent? Here's a relatively cheap way to beta test the effort or even do some rapid prototyping.

Here are a couple data points for architects of app contests to consider:

  1. The winner of the first NYC BigApps contest is now a VC-funded
    startup, MyCityWay.
    While $5 million in funding isn't a common outcome (in fact, it's
    unique as far as I know) it shows what can happen when civic
    entrepreneurs decide to solve a problem for citizens that hasn't been
    addressed in the market. In this case, MyCityWay offers a good digital
    city guide that's populated with open government data.
  2. One of the winners of the second Apps for America contests is href=""> The href="">civic
    developers behind the app, which provided a better way to browse
    the open data behind the Federal Register, the nation's official
    publication for government rules,
    subsequently worked with government to redesign and relaunch using
    open source and open standards. That outcome, available to all
    citizens to see and build upon was one of the best case studies for
    open government in 2010. In August 2011, href="">Federal
    Register 2.0 launched an API, further moving to act as a platform
    built upon open source and open standards.

Lesson learned? Whether developers are asked to participate in federal challenges or civic hackathons, it's time for governments convening them to focus on sustainability.

There will be plenty of chances to apply that lesson in the months ahead. For instance, a California law hackathon planned for September 3-4 will offer an opportunity to explore an open source approach to CA law. That same weekend in Washington, citizens interested in greening the Internet by making Apps for the Environment are invited to an American University hackathon. And developers who want to pursue $100,000 in prizes in the Apps for Communities challenge are up against an August 31 deadline.

To its credit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made a public effort to learn about the issues surrounding app contests. Last week, I moderated an EPA webinar on open data at the agency's D.C. headquarters. The webinar featured a robust conversation about open data and app contests that touched on many of the critiques rendered above, along with persistent issues around government data quality, availability and structure. Jeremy Carbaugh of the Sunlight Foundation and Michaela Hackner and Kurt Voelker of ForumOne shared their perspectives with me in the video embedded below:

The presentation used in the webinar is embedded below, including useful links to resources.

Apps for the Environment Developer Webinar

If you have feedback and ideas on how to make app contests and hackathons sustainable, let us know in the comments.

Photo: IMG_0597 by Divergence, on Flickr


July 15 2011

Sustainable publishing is a mindset, not a format

Green initiatives are prevalent throughout most industries these days, including publishing. But how sustainable are our publishing practices?

Dennis Stovall, director of the publishing program at Portland State University and publisher at Ooligan Press, tackles this topic in the following interview. Stovall will also expand on his ideas at the upcoming miniTOC Portland in Portland, Ore.

How do you define "sustainable publishing?"

0711-dennis-stovall.jpgDennis Stovall: The two most important sustainability concerns are environmental and cultural. The former, which students at Ooligan Press address so well in "Rethinking Paper & Ink," gets most of our attention, and it fits with all of the issues of environmental care and sustainability.

New production technologies afford some relief since overprinting of traditional books is reduced. But print on demand (POD) and short-run digital (SRD), while ostensibly helping to cut paper use, are probably more environmentally costly per book, and they are facilitating an incredible number of individual, new titles to be printed. The environmental impact of the manufacturing and rapid obsolescence of digital readers is often ignored, as if saving trees somehow offers consolation for other degradations, including the super exploitation of Third World labor.

How many ebooks must be read on any single device before its real costs are less than the equivalent paper books? We fight for things like vegetable-based inks and more renewable fiber sources for paper books, but achieving that winds up pushing arable land out of food production. Yet the current mix of options, plus the demand for further greening of the processes, can reduce the carbon footprint for conscientious publishers today. Sustainable publishing, now, is about education, research, and best practices that both inform the production choices we make and provide the momentum for continual innovation and improvement.

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How sustainable are ebooks? Are they a dramatic improvement over print books or an incremental improvement?

Dennis Stovall: Ebooks are sustainable, and in some form they're here to stay, but guessing their evolution over the next century is a lovely exercise in creative nonfiction.

Ebooks are not a dramatic improvement over print; they are different than print. Every medium exists with constraints and opportunities, and the new frontiers of digital publishing have hardly been opened. Meanwhile, we've pushed many of the limits of the old technologies. That makes the "greener" pastures that much more inviting. We know neither the boundaries of this new territory, nor what realms we'll discover next.

Of course, ebooks can do things that print books cannot. New forms are being experimented with, and old and new technologies are being mixed and matched to suit the needs of the material and the audience. We talk about the appropriate vessel for the content, but the vessels certainly affect the content. Not only are ebooks sustainable for now, they abet our efforts to sustain and create culture. The combination of digital persistence and massive data redundancy may be a better way to preserve literature and knowledge than paper, but there will just as probably be "books" that we prefer in the traditional form because of what that form can still do. So, it's different, not better — but the difference is good for literary culture.

Which publishers are doing the most for sustainability?

Dennis Stovall: Without giving grades, it's fair to say that indie publishers, in general, lead the way, frequently because these things have always been part of their mission statements. The newest generation of indies goes further, and they represent the future of the discussion and the actions to ameliorate the damage that we'll inevitably cause. Larger publishers are not ignoring the issues, but they're not leading. Still, shifting economic conditions, new means of production, and consumer demand are resulting in better, less environmentally costly decisions across the industry.

What kinds of publishing are we — or should we be — sustaining?

Dennis Stovall: There's all sorts of publishing I'd love to see disappear, but that's philosophical. In the hope of making a buck, we publish an extraordinary amount of worthless dross, wasting vast resources, and new technologies and new media aren't stanching the flow, but releasing it. Fortunately, we cannot say who gets to publish and what's allowed. So get over it — because this is also the upside.

While we need to devise new, better filters — and that's what good publishers are, among other things — the liberating possibilities of new technologies have unleashed more literary experimentation than I can recall. The old ways of publishing, particularly following the literary homogenization brought by the superstores, have been a steadily tightening noose around the neck of literary culture. Writers suffered. Readers suffered. And independent publishing suffered. That's been reversed. It's wonderful.

This interview was edited and condensed.


  • An era in which to curate skills
  • TOC Evolvers: OR Books
  • Into the wild and back again‎
  • The solutions to our big problems are in the network

  • December 15 2010

    Four short links: 15 December 2010

    1. Dremel (PDF) -- paper on the Dremel distributed nested column-store database developed at Google. Interesting beyond the technology is the list of uses, which includes tracking install data for applications on Android Market; crash reporting from Google products; OCR results from Google Books; spam analysis; debugging map tiles. (via Greg Linden)
    2. Conversational UI: A Short Reading List -- it can be difficult to build a text user interface to a bot because there's not a great body of useful literature around textual UIs the way there is around GUIs. This great list of pointers goes a long way to solving that problem.
    3. Sustainable Education (YouTube) -- Watch this clip from the New Zealand Open Source Awards. Mark Osborne, Deputy Principal from Albany Senior High School, talks about the software choices at their school not because it's right for technology but because it's right for the students. Very powerful.
    4. What Font Should I Use? -- design life support for the terminally tasteless like myself. (via Hacker News)

    May 21 2010

    The solutions to our big problems are in the network

    Massive issues around the environment, social change, and worldwide economies feel intractable. Where do we even begin?

    "Sustainable Network" author Sarah Sorensen sees things differently. She believes solutions to our biggest problems can be found in something many of use every day: the global communications network. In the following interview, Sorensen explains how the network shapes connections and opportunities far beyond technology.

    What is a sustainable network?

    Sarah SorensenSarah Sorensen: Every network can be a sustainable network because it has the ability to be a sustainable platform for change. Unlike any technology that has come before it, the network is able to permeate all parts of the globe and establish new links and relationships between people, governments and economies.

    Every network is also self-sustaining. In the book I call this the "The Sustainable Network Law," which states that: the more broadband that is made available, the faster network innovation occurs, the greater the opportunity is for creating change, and the greater the need is for even more bandwidth.

    Is "network" synonymous with "Internet," or are you talking about something larger?

    Sarah Sorensen: When I say the "network," I'm talking about the world's global communications infrastructure, which supports connections from all types of computing devices. It:

    • Establishes relationships between people, things, governments and economies.
    • Provides a capacity to build and develop relationships, which perpetuates its growth. The more we use it, the more uses we find for it.
    • Represents the best platform we have for sustainable progress and action.

    In a broader context, the network is a part of the information and communications technology (ICT) industry, which is the full range of devices and applications that play a role in digital communication. This goes from monitors and cell phones to PCs, storage devices, and all the different applications and hardware that enable the sharing or use of information. It stretches from the smallest home office to the largest global network.

    Can you point to examples of the network creating positive change?

    Sarah Sorensen: The network can create a lot of connections that create positive change., which connects micro-lenders with entrepreneurs, is a great example of the network providing resources that can improve the opportunities of an individual, business or community.

    Also, look at the role the network plays when disaster and tragedy hit. In Haiti, after the earthquake, within minutes we saw photos and news of the devastation and calls for aid from philanthropic organizations. The network served as the main source of information, providing critical links to family and friends around the world. Of course, this is nothing new. Relief and aid organizations have been using online sites to link people to humanitarian needs for years, but the use of social media to mobilize groups is becoming more sophisticated and effective.

    This is the promise and hope of the network. If it can help people band together and get involved, even in small ways, there's the opportunity to ultimately make a big difference or solve big problems.

    What should be done to protect and grow the network?

    Sarah Sorensen: We need to roll out broadband to as many people as possible. This not only takes real investment in the infrastructure, but also a political environment that recognizes the link between broadband and economic prosperity. Restrictive regulation could hinder the roll out, which is one reason why there is concern about the FCC's potential proposal to reclassify broadband as a Title II service.

    How does the network affect individuals?

    Sarah Sorensen: The potential is limitless, which is critical since we are facing some of the toughest challenges yet. Collectively, we need to make changes to our consumptive habits, adjust our resource dependencies, and create more sustainable social, economic and political models. On an individual level, we can use the network to be more efficient, reduce waste and get involved.

    It will take everyone, so we all must understand it. This is where the book comes in -- it strives to help people recognize the network's role in the world around them, replacing vague notions of 3G, 4G, broadband and malware with a concrete understanding of how the network is relevant to their personal, business and civic lives.

    Just look at recent headlines: U.S. lags in high-speed broadband access; Google pulls out of China; Court ruling on the FCC's ability to regulate net neutrality. These highlight the broadband investments, cybersecurity risks, privacy issues, and political and ideology battles taking place right now that will affect the ability of the network to improve our lives in the future.

    We need everyone to understand what's at stake and participate in the dialogue to shape the changes we want to see. We are just at the beginning -- we can't even imagine the innovations to come -- and it necessitates a base understanding of the network by all to ensure no one is left behind.

    This interview was condensed and edited.

    April 15 2009

    TERRA 511: Montana Fare

    How do Americans decide what food to eat? What is more important: quantity or quality, taste or price? MONTANA FARE examines contemporary food culture in rural Montana through the eyes of two women (farmer/rancher Jenny Sabo (Harrison, MT) and Native American tribal elder Minerva Allen (Lodge Pole, MT on the Ft. Belknap Res)) who try to feed their families while living 50 miles from the nearest grocery store.

    December 05 2006


    First Nation inhabitants have depended upon marine resources for thousands of years in the Pacific Northwest. Now an important ecological and cultural symbol of sustainability, the pinto abalone, is being pushed to the brink of survival. But this community is responding - combining traditional knowledge, modern science, and old-fashioned elbow grease to challenge the forces of extinction. This grassroots effort is an inspiring micro-model for what could ultimately be done on a global scale.
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