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September 19 2011

Promoting Open Source Software in Government: The Challenges of Motivation and Follow-Through

The Journal of Information Technology & Politics has just published a special issue on open source software. My article "Promoting Open Source Software in Government: The Challenges of Motivation and Follow-Through" appears in this issue, and the publisher has given me permission to put a prepublication draft online.

The main subject of the article is the battle between the Open Document Format (ODF) and Microsoft's Office standard, OOXML, which might sound like a quaint echo of a by-gone era but is still a critical issue in open government. But during the time my article developed, I saw new trends in government procurement--such as the Apps for Democracy challenge and the site--and incorporated some of the potential they represent into the piece.

Working with the publisher Taylor & Francis was enriching. The prepublication draft I gave them ranged far and wide among topics, and although these topics pleased the peer reviewers, my style did not. They demanded a much more rigorous accounting of theses and their justification. In response to their critique, I shortened the article a lot and oriented it around the four main criteria for successful adoption of open source by government agencies:

  1. An external trigger, such as a deadline for upgrading existing software

  2. An emphasis on strategic goals, rather than a naive focus on cost

  3. A principled commitment to open source among managers and IT staff responsible for making the transition, accompanied by the technical sophistication and creativity to implement an open source strategy

  4. High-level support at the policy-making level, such as the legislature or city council

Whenever I tell colleagues about the special issue on open source, they ask whether it's available under a Creative Commons license, or at least online for free download. This was also the first issue I raised with the editor as soon as my article was accepted, and he raised it with the publisher, but they decided to stick to their usual licensing policies. Allowing authors to put up a prepublication draft is adroit marketing, but also represents a pretty open policy as academic journals go.

On the one hand, I see the decision to leave the articles under a conventional license as organizational inertia, and a form of inertia I can sympathize with. It's hard to make an exception to one's business model and legal process for a single issue of a journal. Moreover, working as I do for a publisher, I feel strongly that each publisher should make the licensing and distribution choices that it feels is right for it.

But reflecting on the academic review process I had just undergone, I realized that the licensing choice reflected the significant difference between my attitude toward the topic and the attitude taken by academics who run journals. I have been "embedded" in free software communities for years and see my writing as an emerging distillation of what they have taught me. To people like me who promote open information, making our papers open is a logical expression of the values we're promoting in writing the papers.

But the academic approach is much more stand-offish. An anthropologist doesn't feel that he needs to invoke tribal spirits before writing about the tribe's rituals to invoke spirits, nor does a political scientist feel it necessary to organize a worker's revolution in order to write about Marxism. And having outsiders critique practices is valuable. I value the process that improved my paper.

But something special happens when an academic produces insights from the midst of a community or a movement. It's like illuminating a light emitting diode instead of just "shining light on a subject." I recently finished the book by Henry Jenkins, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age, which hammers on this issue. As with his better-known book Convergence Culture, Jenkins is convinced that research about popular culture is uniquely informed by participating in fan communities. These communities don't waste much attention on licenses and copyrights. They aren't merely fawning enthusiasts, either--they critique the culture roughly and demandingly. I wonder what other disciplines could take from Jenkins.

June 16 2011

Advances, setbacks, and continuing impediments to government transparency

I heard yesterday about the good, the bad, and the edgy in open government at Computers, Freedom & Privacy, being held this week in Washington, DC. A panel that covered open meetings laws and social networking started with a summary by Andy Wilson of Public Citizen Texas of how Utah and Texas trended in different directions.

Utah state legislators recently suffered embarrassments when email messages were demanded and released under the open records law in that state, the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). In their urgency to protect future email from public exposure, they passed (and the governor signed) a bill called HB 477 that went to the extreme of cutting off public access to most records. Widespread outrage accompanied the act, predictably organizing under the slogan "Don't Kill GRAMA!", and succeeded in restoring access to records.

In Texas, during the same period, activists succeeded in moving the state forward in terms of open records. Public utilities were required to put data online, over their objections that it represented "competitive information." Electronic filing was instituted for new classes of government information.

Wilson said that Texas legislators were no more enlightened than Utah's. In fact, he called Texas "even more parochial and conservative" than Utah. He attributed the successes in Texas to well-organized NGO sector, and to their advantage in acting pro-actively instead of in reaction to some shock. They used financial arguments to bring many new records online, pointing out how much paper and postage it would save.

Readers of the Government 2.0 site know many of the US Administration's achievements in transparency and public participation, and have probably heard the unfortunate budget cuts that will devastate sites such as and (Congress reduced this "Electronic Government" fund from a requested 34 million to 8 million dollars). Daniel Schuman of Sunlight Foundation mentioned that a Congressional hearing will be held on its budget today, but not in a fashion that gives one confidence in Congress's commitment to open government: he said it will be in a room that seats ten people, with no webcasting.

Nevertheless, even Congress has made great strides in opening up to the public itself. After taking back the House in 2010, the Republicans created several rules opening up their procedures to public scrutiny. The Sunlight Foundation proposed a Public Online Information Act to standardize the release of government information in open, "user-friendly" formats. The bill was introduced into the previous Congress but failed, and has been introduced again.

Joe Newman of the Project on Government Oversight discussed the barriers to opening Federal email and to the use of social networks such as Twitter by legislators and agencies. Plenty are on these networks: nearly all Senators have at least one Twitter feed, and most of the House as well. But many simply use it as an extra channel for announcing their press releases. "Self-promotion is not transparency," Newman pointed out. Real social networking success comes when citizens talk back--hopefully in productive ways, but even flaming shows that there's some chance of engagement. Coffee Party USA, represented at the panel by founder Annabel Park, may be one stimulus to reaching out from the citizen side.

It's ironic that one of the best exemplars of how to use Twitter in Congress, before his fall, was Anthony Weiner. (Before this session, I had felt relieved to get through a day in Washington without anyone mentioning Weiner.) His tweets had information, personality, and appeal. There was some controversy over whether his handle, @repweiner, was proper because it tied his name to the office he held, but the convention is widespread. Congressional use of Twitter dropped 30% after the Weiner scandal hit, but Newman assured us the setback will be temporary.

I brought up a point I have made before in blogs, that government use of commercial sites such as Facebook and Twitter ties their users and citizens into networks whose purposes and goals might not align with the purposes and goals of government. However, Newman warned against asking the government to set up its own social network, particularly if law enforcement can snoop around at what people are storing there. Schuman said there is no way to avoid the popular networks. "Politicians go where their constituents are. If people are on Facebook, they go on Facebook; if people are in the town square they go to the town square."

On the agency side, people are reluctant to take up social media until they're back up by clear policies, and Newman said these aren't in place yet. The problem is not a lack of policy memoranda--quite the opposite. Half a dozen agencies have weighed in with numerous documents about the use of social media. Few federal employee are going to read through them all and follow the references to other documents. Those who do who will come out the other end still not sure where the source of authority resides. Meanwhile, Congress has tried and failed two years in a row to legislate how Federal agencies should store their email. An Electronic Preservation Act also failed to pass last year, and this year (as part of a larger bill) seems to be held up be partisan wrangling. But successes in open government, both in Congress and in the states, demonstrate that it appeals to politicians across the aisle.

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June 03 2011

Should the patent office open its internal guidelines to the public?

Anyone following policy issues around technological innovation has noticed the power and scope of patents expanding over time. For instance, most people are aware of the Supreme Court's decision to allow the patenting of genes. Computer experts are more concerned about the decisions to patent software. Many forces contribute to the expanding reach of the patent system over time, and to understand them better I recommend a thoughtful, readable summary by law professor Melissa F. Wasserman.

Wasserman argues that the patent office, the appeals court that reviews its decisions, and even Congress have incentives to keep expanding patents. Her anecdotes strike home and her reasoning is lucid, although of course we lack experimental methods for testing her hypotheses. (That is, we can't prove that patent examiners or courts were biased by looking at statistics.) I think you'll find her article quite readable, with most of fussy legal language relegated to the footnotes. (I heard about the article thanks to an email from Harvard Law School's Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy Biotechnology and Bioethics.)

As a simple example of the bias toward extending patents, consider that nobody ever appeals a patent examiner's decision to grant a patent, but aggrieved applicants often appeal decisions to deny a patent. And defending the decision to deny a patent costs the patent office a lot of money, which it can't make up from fees. Because the appeals court hears of dubious decisions only when a patent it denied, it has no opportunity to say, "Woah there, stop expanding the patent system."

But it gets even worse. Wasserman offers several subtle reasons why having a denial reversed hurts the patent office, whereas it hardly ever suffers if a patent is successfully challenged years later.

One of the most interesting observations in the paper--which Wasserman makes briefly in passing, on page 14--is that the administrators of the patent office provide guidance to examiners in a number of internal memos that are never exposed to the public. Here is a cause for open government advocates: show us the memos that contain criteria for approving or denying patents!

Wasserman is not unsympathetic to the patent office. On the contrary, she takes raises the question above the usual cries of "poor, overworked examiners" or "corporate-friendly, biased judges" and finds systemic reasons for today's patent bloat. These range from making it easier to challenge a patent right at the start to overhauling the funding of the patent office so it gets the support it needs both for approving and denying patents.

June 01 2011

An ethical bargain

bookstore by loranger, on FlickrThe Readers' Forum is a small independent bookstore in Wayne, Pa. and I've been buying books from Al, the proprietor, since the mid '90s. It's ironic to me that while the one-two punch of Barnes & Noble and Amazon have been killing his business (and impoverishing him in the process) Al does with ease what every analytically-minded well-funded retailer has been trying to do: He gives me great recommendations that result in a very high marginal sales rate. I probably buy at least half of the books that he recommends.

I wander in, usually on my way up the street to grab a bite to eat, and we chat for a bit. Then he says "oh, I have something for you" and he makes his way to the counter and digs into a pile. "I remember you went to Mumbai after the attacks. You might find this interesting." And I did find it interesting, if not more than a little bit painful to read.

It looks so simple. He remembers what I buy, engages me in conversation, and sometimes in the process finds out more about me. Then he suggests things that he thinks I'll like. Or maybe he just suggests things he likes. I don't know, but it works. His recommendations aren't "like" the other things I've read in the typical clustering algorithm sense, and maybe that's exactly why they work. Anyone can suggest the next volume of Harry Potter, but his suggestions regularly stretch my notion of "the kinds of books I like."

I should clarify something. He doesn't engage me in conversation with the express purpose of feeding his algorithms, or at least I don't think he does. Over the years we have become friends. Maybe not hang out on the weekend friends, but friends in context. I look forward to stopping in for our chats and he enjoys the break. As a side benefit his algorithms get what they need and I get good reads. And that's the thing that retailers everywhere could learn from him. He isn't just trying to build a machine-embedded model of my behaviors and profit off it, he is engaging in a two-way interaction that is a pleasure in its own right. And as a result it's not the least bit creepy when he hits me with an uncannily good recommendation.

It's not like I was buying books there for years and then one day some guy pops out of the basement where I realize he's been watching me through the skylights and says "I think you'll like this book!"

"Uh, why do you think that?"

"Well, I have compiled a detailed dossier on your buying habits, including the things you picked up but didn't buy. You shouldn't put as many back down by the way. I imagine you think you have interesting taste but really, you can be a bit pedestrian in your picks. Also, sometimes my friends in other basements will let me know where you travel, how much money you make, and who you date in exchange for me telling them what you read. Anyway, based on all that I think you'll like this book, you should buy it!"

Nope, Al and I are engaging in an ethical bargain. For starters, it is completely obvious and transparent. I never imagine that I'm buying anonymously there. And I get more out the bargain than I give up because his algorithm is incredibly data efficient. Also because I know the nature of the deal, if I happen to need another copy of "The Anarchist's Cookbook," I can just buy it somewhere else.

Al is a sole proprietor, so when I buy from Readers' Forum I'm buying from a person. Despite the root meaning of "corporate," a corporation will never be able to be the simple embodiment of a single actor. However, I think they can still learn from Al.

The way corporate retailers do this stuff is often quite different. Too often their approach gives weight to the argument that corporations are fundamentally sociopathic. Here's one simple example: I went into a Meijer's near South Bend, Ind. to buy a six pack of beer a few months ago. At the self check out lane I scanned my Guinness and the machine asked me for my birthday. I was like "screw that, I'm not entering my birth date." So I canceled the transaction and got in line at a register that had a real live human cashier. She asked for ID to prove my age and when I handed it to her she started to key in my birthday. I stopped her and asked what she was doing. "I need your birthday to prove you are 21."

"Well, just look at it. You don't need to key it into the machine to know that I'm over 21."

"Sir, I'm required to." That's the point where I muttered "bull" under my breath, asked for my ID back, and walked out.

That's a sociopath at work. "Let's use the age limit for beer as an excuse to harvest customer birth dates. We can use that data to correlate them with data we are buying from marketing services providers and then when we fill our customers' mailboxes with pulped Brazilian forests we will have a 0.3% better chance of drawing them back into the store where our HFCS-loaded end caps will grab them. If a customer complains we'll just hide behind 'the process' and let our cashier deal with the awkward moment."

Perhaps that sounds a bit harsh, but that was my reaction and I haven't returned to one of their stores since. It's not just the sanctity of a bit of my PII that was a big deal, it was the dishonesty of an opaque and misrepresented bargain that got me so irritated. That is not the kind of thing Al would do.

OSCON Data 2011, being held July 25-27 in Portland, Ore., is a gathering for developers who are hands-on, doing the systems work and evolving architectures and tools to manage data. (This event is co-located with OSCON.)

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As an aside, while people have been fascinated and disturbed by the news that Columbian drug cartels are building submarines, I'm wondering when they'll start building Hadoop clusters. Just wait till your corner dealer is entering profile data into his smart phone at the point of sale. "Sir, can I get your zip code and the last four of your social? Ah, I see you are a loyal customer. You should really join our loyalty program. I can offer you a free bag of orange kush if you sign up today."

By the way, if it seems like I might be drawing a comparison between a 100,000 square-foot HFCS pusher and a Columbian drug cartel ...

Okay ... Let me just ask this: If you are involved in data capture, analytics, or customer marketing in your company, would you be embarrassed to admit to your neighbor what about them you capture, store and analyze? Would you be willing to send them a zip file with all of it to let them see it? If the answer is "no," why not? If I might hazard a guess at the answer, it would be because real relationships aren't built on asymmetry, and you know that. But rather than eliminate that awkward source of asymmetry, you hide it.

The reason I've been thinking about all of this is because of my new job. From 2003 until January I was a defense contractor. I worked for a company that built large-scale training simulations and did command-and-control system integration. I also worked on a lot of systems strategy and planning. I know for some people that makes me suspect, but while the bureaucracy, waste, and general inanity of the federal government sometimes drove me nuts, I never felt wrong about what I was doing. But in January I took on the challenge of building a data management practice focused on Hadoop and while it has been fascinating work, it has given me the creeps more than a few times.

I think what's interesting is that you can't help but get caught up in the moment. "If we could just join this stuff with that stuff, and then get this additional attribute, we could build a really sweet model. I'm sure that would get you some prospecting lift." And then we all look at each other for a moment and go "wow, and that would be kinda creepy, too." Thankfully I'm not the only one reflecting on the ethics of all this.

Ft. Meade in Maryland is that state's single biggest consumer of electricity, and no small amount of it is being consumed by Hadoop (or similar) clusters that, as it turns out, are probably surveilling you. That is a troublesome thought, but only about half as troublesome to me as the the even more thorough, broad, and pervasive corporate surveillance we are unleashing on ourselves. The only thing that keeps me sleeping is that the competitive dimension will slow the rate that these pools of data coalesce.

Jeff Hammerbacher is concerned that the best minds of our generation are wasting their talents on advertising. I agree with him, vigorously, but to me the even bigger issue is that the kind of advertising we are doing now depends on pervasive surveillance and the reduction of who we are to mere behavioral models. In fact, I find it the height of sad irony that Jeff, and many good meaning people like him, have become the de facto arms dealers of the surveillance state. Of course that isn't their intent, and they may not work inside the beltway, but they are no less arms dealers than Boeing is. "Would you like a Dreamliner Hadoop cluster, or the F/A-18 kind? Never mind, they are exactly the same."

When Apple got pie on its face with that location data hubbabaloo the only real surprise as far as I was concerned was that it was a surprise at all. But that's the point, really. The fact that people were surprised speaks to the asymmetry of the bargains they are party to. The Jeff Jonases of the world certainly understand what data is being collected on all of us, but the average consumer doesn't. And why don't they? Are they stupid? Nope. Do they not care? Apparently at least some of them do care.

No, I think it's because our online relationships aren't at all like my real-world relationship with Al. The full nature of the transaction isn't obvious, visible, and transparent and there is little chance a corporation will think like my friend. Most of the relationships you build with corporations are like icebergs and essentially hidden from view, and corporations like it that way. We don't really want people asking questions about stuff we think they won't understand. As corporations we may be sociopathic, but even a sociopath knows that awkward questions aren't just uncomfortable, they're bad for business.

So, assuming there could be a more human corporation, that could build symmetric ethically-grounded relationships with you, what would that relationship look like? Would transparency and choice be enough to make it symmetric? Could a relationship with a corporation feel at all like the one I have with Al? Could it be obvious, transparent, and a pleasure in its own right? Or, what if instead of asking ourselves "what data do we need and how could we get lift from it?" we asked "what is the value to our customer when we store and use this data and how do we make both the value and our stewardship of the data obvious and transparent?"

Photo: bookstore by loranger, on Flickr


May 31 2011

Why the eG8 mattered to the future of the Internet and society

eG8 logoThe Internet has become more than a platform for collective response. This past week, the official communiqué released by the summit of the Gang of Eight industrial nations, or G8, hailed the importance of the Internet to the world's citizens in the 21st century ahead:

The Internet has become the public arena for our time, a lever of economic development and an instrument for political liberty and emancipation. Freedom of opinion, expression, information, assembly and association must be safeguarded on the Internet as elsewhere. Arbitrary or indiscriminate censorship or restrictions on access to the Internet are inconsistent with States' international obligations and are clearly unacceptable. Furthermore, they impede economic and social growth.

The communiqué also recognized the role of the inaugural eG8 Forum held in Paris, prior to the summit, in exploring these issues. The eG8 showed that online innovation and freedom of expression still need strong defenders. Coming on a week when Iran vowed to unplug the Internet,, thereby disconnecting Iranian citizens from this platform, the G8 leaders holding up those principles was both timely and notable.

As Syria cracks down on social media, whether we can hear the global voices of one another is a serious question, as is whether people living under autocratic governments can access the Internet safely or at all.

The global network, as many of the world's citizens know it today, however, was never a sure outcome, nor a permanent one. Some two decades ago, people were logging onto services like Prodigy or Compuserve, not the World Wide Web that Tim Berners-Lee enabled from his computer in Switzerland.

The communiqué identified the principles that have led to the continued growth of the Internet as we know it:

The openness, transparency and freedom of the Internet have been key to its development and success. These principles, together with those of non-discrimination and fair competition, must continue to be an essential force behind its development.

Author Don Tapscott, who has written and spoken extensively about the Internet's impact on business and society, had this to say about the G8 and the Internet: "Don't mess with a good thing."

The appropriate debate is not between [Nicolas] Sarkozy's oppressive approach as opposed to no regulation whatsoever. Obviously the rule of rule should prevail in cyberspace just as it does in the bricks-and-mortar world.

But the Internet is changing every institution in society. It enables new approaches to innovation, requiring new thinking about patents and copyright. It renders old institutions naked, requiring more transparency on the part of governments and corporations. It disrupts old models of learning and pedagogy demanding a change in relationship between students and teachers in the learning process. It offers new models of democracy based on a culture of public discourse, in turn compelling old style politicians to engage their citizens. It turns intellectual property into bits, that don't know the old rules that governed atoms of how to behave. It drops the transaction costs of dissent, subjecting dictators and tyrants to the power of mass participation. It breaks down national boundaries and requiring a rethinking of how peoples everywhere can cooperate to solve global problems. And for the first time in history children are an authority on the most important innovation changing every institution in society.

Predictably, old style political leaders comfortable with the industrial age are dazed and confused, and many feel threatened. A new communications medium is causing disruption, dislocation and uncertainty. And leaders of old paradigms with vested interests fear what they do not understand, and react with coolness or even hostility. Rather than innovating and opening up they often hunker down, trying to strengthen old outdated rules and approaches.

Along similar lines, following are four video interviews that go deeper into what's at stake and why the eG8 mattered.

Zimmerman on French Internet freedom

Defending innovation and net neutrality at the eG8 meant speaking openly about the risks to the Internet as we know them. When it comes to the Internet, France has followed its own path in making policies, particularly with respect to intellectual property.

As Nancy Scola reported at techPresident, at the eG8, civil society groups restaked their claim to the Net. Looking for more answers, I spoke with Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder and spokesperson for citizen advocacy group LaQuadrature du Net. For many Internet users, this interview should be by turns illuminating and provocative. "Everywhere you look, you see governments attacking the Internet," said Zimmerman.

Benkler on what's at stake

"The primary reason we need to support the Net is because it is a foundational part of how we have our democracy," said Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Benkler was one of several prominent American academics who spoke up during the eG8 Summit and in an impromptu press conference held at the event. We spoke further in this interview:

Benkler noted during our discussion:

... people can actually, with the things they own, capture the world and do something that is at the very core of the most advanced economies. Preserving that framework, preserving a framework that is open, free-flowing, flexible, adaptive to change and inviting so that one person's sacrifice in Sidi Bouzid can then be translated throughout the Arab world into a moment of mobilization. That's new. That's what is critical."

What's at stake today has been what's at stake for more than 15 years, said Benkler: The possibility that a coalition of forces who are afraid of the internet will shut it down."There is still a very powerful counter argument, one that says both for innovation and for freedom, we need an open Net," he said.

Dyson on technology enabling transparency

"You don't need to be 'from the Internet' to believe in liberty or free speech," said Esther Dyson, speaking in an interview at the eG8. You also don't need to be a policy wonk or a geek to see how building tools that tap into the power of the Internet's distributed platform are integral to helping a global transparency movement.

"Even when you have a revolution, what makes the revolution work is what changes in people's minds, and that's what's going on here," said Dyson. "The world is changing. People in government are not special. They should be as transparent as everybody else. People deserve privacy. Officials, governments, institutions, they all should be transparent. That's new thinking, and it was being heard."

Startups and technology companies are "providing tools to make the data meaningful," said Dyson. "They're providing tools for people to share the information. They're providing the communication tools, again, that allow from everything from Wikileaks to people communicating with reporters. Tools like your phone, connected to the Internet, so that you can record interviews not just with me but with all of the other people you talk to, upload them, people can share them, people can comment on them. That's all technology."

Crawford speaks to an open Internet

"Access to the Internet is fundamental," said Susan Crawford, an American law professor and former White House official. "These are the most important policies that government should be embracing. We want to make sure that other voices are heard."

One existential challenge for the Internet of 2011 is that the technology platforms that helped to catalyze the Arab Spring are owned by private companies. As governments everywhere struggle to understand and respond to the rapidly emerging role of new media, the young leaders of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other platforms will have their courage, convictions and ethics tested again and again to change the terms of service.

If an open Internet is the basis for democracy flourishing around the world, billions of people will be counting upon them to be up to the challenge.

Editor's Note: This article was adapted from a column on the G8's Internet statement that ran at CBS News' "What's Trending?" earlier this week.


May 02 2011

Who wrote the first research paper abt e-government... already in 1954? || #gov20 #edem via RT @participatory



ICTs for Development
Talking about information and communication technologies and socio-economic development
Twitter / 02mytwi01 | 2011-05-02

April 01 2011

Four short links: 1 April 2011

  1. Transparency Sites to Close -- the US government's open data efforts will close in a few months as a result of the cuts in funding.
  2. Browser Wars, Plural (Alex Russell) -- nice rundown of demos of what modern browsers are capable of.
  3. Brief Descriptions of Potential Home Information Services (image) -- lovely 1971 piece of futurology, which you can read going "Google News, Amazon, Google Calendar, PayPal, ...." The ancients vastly over-estimated our appetite for educational material, though. There's no education site on the scale of a Google, Amazon, eBay, etc. (via BoingBoing)
  4. Google's Recipes for Recipes -- I'm as astonished as anyone to find myself agreeing with Nick Carr. The whinge is basically that by promoting recipes marked up in a particular format, Google have created an environment that favours corporate recipes over small less-technical people who can post plain text recipes but wouldn't know microformats from microfilm. The really interesting part is how the choice of drill-down categories can backfire: Take, for instance, a recent search for “cassoulet.” The top search result is a recipe from Epicurious, one of the larger and better sites. But if you refine by time, your choices are “less than 15 min,” “less than 30 min,” or “less than 60 min.” There is no option for more than 60 minutes. In truth, a classic cassoulet takes at least 4 hours to make, if not several days (the Epicurious recipe takes 4 hours and 30 minutes; yet there in the results are recipes under each of these three time classes. One from Tablespoon goes so far as to claim to take just 1 minute. (It’s made with kidney beans, canned mushrooms, and beef, so it’s not long on authenticity.) ... Refining recipe search by time doesn’t result in better recipes rising to the top; rather, the new winners are recipes packaged for the American eating and cooking disorder. (via Daniel Spector)

March 31 2011

White House releases IT Dashboard as open source code

The White House has released the software code for its IT Dashboard and TechStat toolkit. The initiative was coordinated through Civic Commons, a code-sharing project incubated within Code for America that helps governments share technology for the public good, with support from OpenPlans. Civic Commons staff worked with REI Systems, the contractor that originally built the IT Dashboard for the United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to prepare the code for release under an open source license. That work included a security audit, documentation, and a licensing review of the software's components.

IT Dashboard

"The creation of the IT Dashboard was a significant step forward in making government programs more transparent and accountable," said Tim O'Reilly. "Its open source release is a huge step forward — and a model for other government programs — in showing how to reduce the costs and increase the effectiveness of government by sharing tools developed by one agency with others who also need them."

A live demonstration of the opensourced code for IT Dashboard is now online. The IT Dashboard code is available at and is released under a GNU Public License (GPL). A bug tracker and other resources are also online.

Karl Fogel, who has been working on open sourcing the federal dashboard for months at Civic Commons, shares more context and technical details about how the IT Dashboard was open sourced in this post.

"We launched the IT Dashboard and the TechStat Accountability Sessions to improve IT transparency and accountability across the Federal Government," wrote federal CIO Vivek Kundra at the White House blog. "The Dashboard has helped us shine a light on IT projects, providing performance data to fuel TechStat reviews, which have led to over $3 billion in cost reductions."

For those unfamiliar with the nation's chief information officer, Kundra is the man who has proposed and is now entrusted with implementing sweeping federal IT reforms. He's been applying the IT Dashboard to track IT spending from within the White House Office of Management and Budget, where he serves. During Sunshine Week, Kundra went to the white board to describe good government at the White House. Video of his presentation is embedded below:

With the release, an application that was developed on behalf of government agencies can now be implemented and further customized by other potential government users and developers at the city, state or international level. CIOs from across the United States and around the world have expressed interest in implementing the IT Dashboard in their organizations, including aarten Hillenaar of the Netherlands, Kyle Schafer in West Virginia and Jason DeHaan of the City of Chicago.

"We don't have to build it, we don't have to buy it, we don't have to procure it," said Greg Elin, chief data officer for the Federal Communications Commission. "What's not to like?" The Office of the United States CIO has also launched CIO tools, which aggregates all information about the IT Dashboard and TechStat Toolkit.

"What makes it attractive to them is that the Dashboard sets a baseline level of accountability that many senior managers feel will help them detect problems early, yet does so without imposing too great a burden on the people closest to the projects, that is, those responsible for the inputs from which the overviews are generated," wrote Fogel at "Establishing such a baseline is a cultural act as much as it is a technological or management one.  Once regular measurement is being done, it becomes much more difficult to slip backwards into complacency. There may be genuine disagreement about how to measure costs and return on investment, but that is a productive discussion to have.  The Dashboard thus acts as a quality ratchet not merely in IT accountability, but in dialogue about how IT investments are measured at all. "

There is an important cautionary note to share with government entities that adopt the IT Dashboard code: performance improvements gained through increased transparency will need to be grounded on accurate data. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released this March, while OMB has made improvements to its Dashboard, "further work is needed by agencies and OMB to ensure data accuracy."

... inaccuracies can be attributed to weaknesses in how agencies report data to the Dashboard, such as providing erroneous data submissions, as well as limitations in how OMB calculates the ratings. Until the selected agencies and OMB resolve these issues, ratings will continue to often be inaccurate and may not reflect current program performance. GAO is recommending that selected agencies take steps to improve the accuracy and reliability of Dashboard information and OMB improve how it rates investments relative to current performance and schedule variance.

A new transparency ecosystem

While this analysis from the GAO does not detract from the significance of the release of the IT Dashboard as open source code, it does serve as a reminder that data-driven decisions made with it will rely upon accurately reported data. That necessity, however, will not come as news to the many chief information officers working on opening government data repositories around the country and globe.

The growth of an international open government data movement is one of the notable developments toward greater transparency in the 21st century. Now there's reason to believe that the release of this IT Dashboard has the potential to catalyze the use of the IT Dashboard as a platform to go with them. "Look at how many states and countries have launched data portals modeled after," said Elin. "Authorities — and enterprises — everywhere will similarly adopt the IT Dashboard, too."

Elin anticipates that more will come of this release of code than adoption of the platform. "Come back a year from now and you'll see a nascent ecosystem growing around the IT Dashboard with vendors offering support, add-ins and extensions," he said. ", the Community Health Data Initiative, the National Broadband Map, the IT Dashboard: these are the kind of assets that will just keep giving and giving."

Whether an entire new ecosystem of code based upon the IT Dashboard platform blossoms or not, it has set an important precedent. "The software is less interesting to me than how they released the software in the first place," said Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist for Red Hat, US Public Sector. "The government has been releasing source code for years, but there's no common policy or understanding of how it should be done. Today's announcement is important because it creates a prominent, very public footpath for other agencies. This wasn't a set of patches, it was a whole application. Other agencies can now use their process, this footpath, to release their own projects."

The most important element of making the IT Dashboard open source may be the model for code release. As open source plays a part in open government at the State Department and other federal agencies, that kind of leadership from the federal CIO is important. Whether it's or moving to Drupal open source matters more than ever. In a time when every level of government is facing painful budget decisions, new tools that provide more transparency are more than timely. They're necessary.

"US taxpayers want accountability, transparency, and cost savings in IT spending at all levels of government," said Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, the organization spearheading the sharing of the IT Dashboard,. "Since they've already paid for an IT Dashboard with their federal taxes, their cities and states shouldn't have to buy it again. We saw a real opportunity here to help all governments work better."


March 15 2011

Certainly they realized, that too many recent visits on their site (after the map was embedded by Global Voices) and especially of the contanimation map, would rise questions about the further statistics up to 2011 - there should be provided an adequate interactive map, to show the development of the contanimation chiffres all over the affected regions in Europe from 1986 up to 2011.

January 20 2011

Russia: Bloggers Discuss Possible Website of Collaborators of Authorities

Written by Vadim Isakov

Blogger welgar contemplates about how useful it could be  to create a website that would list all collaborators of Russian authorities who try to compromise the action of the opposition.

Russia: Analyzing Websites of Regional Administrations

Written by Vadim Isakov

A group of volunteers analyzes [RUS] websites of regional administrative offices for openness and availability of information according to 16 criteria developed by the volunteers themselves.

November 19 2010

Samantha Power on transparency, national security and open government

In November 2010, it's clear that legitimate concerns about national security must to be balanced with the spirit of open government expressed by the Obama administration. The issues created between Wikileaks and open government policies are substantial. Open data may be used for accountability, citizen utility and economic opportunity. But as federal CIO Vivek Kundra expressed to Harvard Business School students studying, the transparency facet in the Obama administration's open government initiative has multiple layers of complexity.

"We release data on toxicity, but not on national security and privacy," said Kundra. "It would be a mistake, for instance, to release zip-code-level data about health care."

Peter Orzag, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, was clear about these concerns in the Open Government Directive:

... nothing in this Directive shall be construed to suggest that the presumption of openness precludes the legitimate protection of information whose release would threaten national security, invade personal privacy, breach confidentiality, or damage other genuinely compelling interests.

Given the unrelenting media spotlight that the 21st century media ecosystem puts upon on the White House's every move, it's no surprise that controversy erupted when Vice President Biden's meeting on transparency with the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board was closed to the media, and by extension the public.

On Tuesday, the International Open Government Data Conference (IOGDC) had its own brush with transparency and open government. The keynote talk and discussion with Samantha Power, special assistant to the President for multilateral affairs and human rights, and member of the National Security Council, was designated as off-the-record by conference organizers. No livestream, no tweets, no liveblogging. On the day that the news broke that no tweeting or Facebook updates would be allowed for President Clinton's keynote at a event, it might have been the latest episode of open government irony. (Clinton's media team has since changed its tune.)

"Making a public conversation at the International Open Government Data Conference off the record is antithetical to what the President's mandate is all about," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, whose panel on transparency followed Power's remarks.

The situation resulted, however, not from any policy decision but simply from the press office running behind during a long trip abroad, said White House National Security Council spokesman Bob Jensen. "There was a simple procedural issue, not a policy issue. This stuff happens all the time." Jensen said the request for press clearance couldn't be processed in time for the conference.

Given that Power's talk wasn't reported or recorded, Power agreed to an on-the-record interview with me to discuss the relationship of open government, technology, human rights and transparency.

Looking back, Power said that none of the comments she made to the open government data conference should be considered sensitive. Given that she talked primarily about the relationship of transparency to fighting fraud and corruption, and holding governments accountable, that's not surprising.

Power discussed her experience using, including finding a data set about child soldiers. She highlighted how technology has changed the ways that citizens around the world can share information about government performance, access economic information, or share key health indicators, including several of the initiatives that she saw when she traveled with President Obama to India. Power subsequently blogged at about the trip and a new US-India partnership on open government.

President Barack Obama confers with Samantha Power, left, and Susan E. Rice, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, before they attended a wreath laying ceremony at the U.N. headquarters in New York, N.Y.
In this official White House photo by Pete Souza, President Barack Obama confers with Samantha Power, left, and Susan E. Rice, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, before they attended a wreath laying ceremony at the U.N. headquarters in New York, N.Y.

What follows is our interview, edited for both clarity and length.

How do you balance national security concerns with open government?

Samantha Power: There are two factors that are always brought to bear in discussions in open government, as President Obama has made clear from the day he issued his memorandum.

One is privacy, one is security. There are also, of course, reasons to protect the deliberative process. He addressed some of this in his speech at the National Archives.There's an awful lot that one can do while still adhering to and advancing those core principles. In the first couple of years, we've seen how much room there is to move, with respect to publishing new data sets and finding new ways for them to be used, and with respect to transparency data on, in the policy process.

You talked about a "trust deficit" in government, both here and abroad, during your talk at the open government data conference. Can that be changed by open government initiatives?

SP: I think transparency can get at a number of different issues at once. What we've seen with the publishing of the names of people who come into and out of the White House -- given the people who know that that's in place -- we see a greater sense of who might be having their voices heard on policy. NGOs and journalists are using those records to assess how we're doing, with respect to who is visiting the most.

Data, transparency, and access to information are also being used in ways that enhance citizen welfare. If you put toy recall data up online, or look at OSHA data -- these are ways of providing to citizens information that government has long collected. Government is an incredible information collecting machine. It's going to take time to create routines, institutionalize these practices, and make the government conversation more collaborative.

I see a change happening in rules. The public comments on regulations are pored over by officials in the domestic space; as a result, rules are changed and much improved. While a great deal has been done, it's going to take time for the culture of transparency and dialog to move even further than it has up to this point. We're not going to change and make that conversation collaborative over night. Some of the trust deficit involves specific policies that people are determined to see delivered on.

As a human rights and democracy adviser in the foreign policy area, I can say that one of the reasons that this is so attractive in countries we're having discussions in is that the reasons for a lack of trust lie in a profound lack of transparency. To the degree that there are people of good will who are willing to sit down and have discussions about open government and transparency, those can have good effect. Consider the Indian examples from the expo. We think there's a lot of mileage for progress in the governance space and we're very excited to think about the specific commitments that all of us will make in presenting subsequent versions of open government.

Which tools are you excited about, specifically?

SP: Each government, and, hopefully, civil society, will come together. Brazil, I think, has been a real leader in participatory budget processes. Indonesia has done a lot to root out police corruption. Citizens can file -- and governments can respond -- to complaints lodged online. Indians have a strong right to information law. Nigeria apparently has a right to information law that's been sitting in parliament for more than a decade.

Part of what's exciting is that a lot of this innovation is occurring in developing countries, which can share their lessons with other countries that are not as far along on the development spectrum. In some cases, that may be more promising than us coming in and saying "look at" or "here's our data dashboards" and do this.

One thing I do want to stress: while President Obama has issued this appeal in his UN speech, taking the message forward in India, success will be when we're sitting down with a full complement of countries. In the G20, we've adopted an anti-corruption agenda. Now it's part of the G20, with no one country owning it. As we embark on a global open government initiative, we want to do so partnering with a very diverse group of countries by our side.

How can open government, transparency or technology address human rights issues?

SP: No one reifies technology for its own sake. What was really exciting in India was that the President got to touch and feel technology being used for to promote democratic progress and accountability. Technology was being used by citizens that had been disempowered, disenfranchised. Suddenly, with connection they could be be empowered, and their voices included in discussions. Technology is neither necessary for open government nor sufficient. And of course, on occasion, technology can also be harnessed in ways that can be antithetical to basic human rights.

In India, the second largest applause point line in President Obama’s speech before the Indian parliament was for the President's comments about e-panchayat, and the landmark "Right to Information" law. What's distinct and fresh and inspirational to other countries is very important. In Indonesia, we celebrated what Indonesian citizens are doing to hold government accountable and build democracy in the region.

The convening power of the President of the United States can be used to partner with others to create a process through which they can make commitments to harnessing technology, fighting corruption, and collaborating more with their citizens to improve service delivery and increase democratic accountability. I think that this open government initiative is the kind of thing that, as it gets more traction, will get more public support.


August 20 2010

Four short links: 20 August 2010

  1. Case Study: Slideshare Goes Freemium (Startup Lessons Learned) -- I love case studies, they're the best part of every business degree. The MVPs were tricky to implement for emotional reasons, too. Because the SlideShare team was used to giving away a high-value product, engineers balked at charging for a clearly imperfect product. The analytics package, for instance, launched in what Sinha calls “a very crude version; we started off and sold it before we were comfortable with it."
  2. Guardian's Pledge Tracker -- keeping track of the pledges and promises from the new UK government. (via niemanlab)
  3. luakit browser framework -- script WebKit using Lua. (via ivanristic)
  4. Sharing of Data Leads to Progress on Alzheimers (New York Times) -- The key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement as ambitious as its goal: not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world. No one would own the data. No one could submit patent applications, though private companies would ultimately profit from any drugs or imaging tests developed as a result of the effort.

July 07 2010

Four short links: 7 July 2010

  1. The Way I Work: Justin Kan of JustinTV (Inc Magazine) -- I admit it, I had written Justin off as "that irritating guy who went around with a camera on all the time" but it turns out he's quite thoughtful about what he does. I try to keep the meetings small, especially when we're doing product design. If you have eight people in the design meeting, it doesn't work. Everybody has an opinion. Everyone wants to weigh in on what the font should look like. The end product becomes the average of eight opinions. You don't get excellent work, just average. (via Hacker News)
  2. Rhodes -- open source cross-platform smartphone app development framework, with offline sync and hosted data storage.
  3. How Transparency Fails and Works Too (Clay Johnson) -- another thoughtful piece reflecting the general awakening that "being transparent" is a verb not a noun: you don't "achieve transparency", but rather you have a set of actors, actions, and objects inside and outside government that provide the checks and balances we hope to get from transparency. It's a complex system, requiring way more than just "release the data and they will come". [L]et’s not fool ourselves into thinking though that just because a system has real-time, online disclosure that somehow the system will be cleaned up. It won’t. Data makes watchdogging possible, sure, but more data makes watchdogging harder. Plus, for the transparency solution to work, people have to actually care enough to watchdog. Imagine that your city council, facing terrible obesity rates, decided to enact and enforce a mandatory nudity law to improve its public health. Policy wonks got together and decided that in order to get people to lose weight, they’d outlaw clothing. People went outside naked, and sure, it was a little uncomfortable at first, but basically— the fat people stayed fat, and the thin people stayed thin. The town was more comfortable just averting their collective eyes.
  4. Meta-Optimize -- a StackOverflow-like q&a site for data geeks who groove to topics like "unsupervised methods for word polarity detection". (via Flowing Data)

June 29 2010

Four short links: 29 June 2010

  1. The Diary of Samuel Pepys -- a remarkable mashup of historical information and literature in modern technology to make the Pepys diaries an experience rather than an object. It includes historical weather, glosses, maps, even an encyclopedia. (prompted by Jon Udell)
  2. The Tonido Plug Server -- one of many such wall-wart sized appliances. This caught my eye: CodeLathe, the folks behind Tonido, have developed a web interface and suite of applications. The larger goal is to get developers to build other applications for inclusion in Tonido’s own app store.
  3. Wikileaks Fails "Due Diligence" Review -- interesting criticism of Wikileaks from Federation of American Scientists. “Soon enough,” observed Raffi Khatchadourian in a long profile of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange in The New Yorker (June 7), “Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most-power without accountability-is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.” (via Hacker News)
  4. Yahoo Style Guide -- a paper book, but also a web site with lots of advice for those writing online.

June 11 2010

European Union starts project about economic effects of open government data

Earlier this week I talked to writer and open source advocate
, who has just href="">announced the start of a
study on open data for the European Union. Fioretti is a
long-time supporter of open source software, which he wrote about in a
chapter of the O'Reilly book href="">Open Government.
Fioretti also held a seminar about open and prorietary formats at
Pisa's Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies, a major European college
in the field of economics.

Several problems impelled Fioretti to propose this study:

  • Government claims are hard to verify. When the cost of the huge Strait
    of Messina Bridge project is announced, for instance, how can the
    public determine whether it's reasonable? (And why, I might add, do
    most projects experience cost overruns but none ever come in under

  • Lots of value is hidden away in government data. When data is released
    without fees or restrictions on use, businesses tend to spring up to
    exploit that data. Maps are one obvious example.

  • Information about open data is scattered. According to Fioretti, 70%
    of public data and online services in Italy are provided by local
    governments. Decentralization increases the effort required to collect
    data about expenditures, and shows that many important decision are
    taken on a city-by-city basis rather than at a national level.

  • As Fioretti points out in a href="">report
    from a conference, one can't really anticipate how much economic
    value one will create by releasing data. However, he hopes to be able
    to quantify the value afterward, to generate an incentive to release
    more data.

  • Data that is not open is silo'd. For instance, two adjoining
    geographic regions may have map data, but no one can calculate
    geographic information spanning the two regions. And even if they
    merge their data, they often find that the combined data contains
    errors because of incompatbilities in storage. A river may stop at the
    regional border and start again on the other side a kilometer away,
    for instance. Such errors have to be fixed after the fact at great

Releasing data that was collected for public use with public taxes is
an appealing goal, but it faces innumerable hurdles. First,
governments usually contract out both data collection and data
analysis to private firms. Right away we're faced with the challenges
of incompatible, proprietary, and even arbitrary formats, along with
the firm's understandable preference to keep data to itself.

So government contracts must be very specific about the delivery of
data that it commissions--and not just the data, but the formulas and
software used to calculate results. For instance, if a spreadsheet was
used in calculating the cost of a project, the government should
release the spreadsheet data and formulas to the public in an open
format so that experts can check the calculations.

On top of these barriers lie the usual difficulties of inconsistently
recorded data, missing metadata such as dates and times, etc.

Fioretti hopes to shine a bit more light through all this smoke,
finding out what data is being released right now and how businesses
are using it. He's concentrating on local governments, first because
of their importance, and second because the data will be more
consistent that way. The structure of government projects and costs
are more similar from one city to another--even across national EU
borders--than from one national government to another.

One phase of the study will be a survey asking cities to give examples
of how the release of local data has enable new business uses. For
instance, he can take a region that used to sell digital road map
information for thousands of dollars, but recently opened it up for
free, and count the use of that data by businesses in that region
before and after it was opened.

This phase concentrates on small businesses, because large ones
usually can afford the fees charged for data that is not open.

Fioretti plans to use the results of this phase to demonstrate the
value of his study and then launch a large second phase. In that one,
he'll just ask a large number of cities a few questions about which
data they make open, with which licenses, and in which formats.

Knowing what data is available to the public does not in itself teach
us anything about the economics of open data. But once Fioretti posts
his results--in downloadable format under an open license, of
course--other researchers can correlate the results with other
information gathered about local businesses. So it may take several
years to learn something practical, but the EU should be commended for
trying to quantify the impact of what Tim O'Reilly calls government as
a platform.

Two other new research projects in open government deserve publicity:

May 31 2010

Four short links: 31 May 2010

  1. Transparency is Not Enough (danah boyd) -- we need people to not just have access to the data, but have access to the context surrounding the data. A very thoughtful talk from Gov 2.0 Expo about meaningful data release.
  2. Feed6 -- the latest from Rohit Khare is a sort of a "hot or not" for pictures posted to Twitter. Slightly addictive, while somewhat purposeless. Remarkable for how banal the "most popular" pictures are, it reminds me of the way Digg, Reddit, and other such sites trend towards the uninteresting and dissatisfying. Flickr's interestingness still remains one of the high points of user-curated notability. (via rabble on Twitter)
  3. Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism (PDF) -- FTC staff discussion document that floats a number of policy proposals around journalism: additional IP rights to defend against aggregators like Google News; protection of "hot news" facts; statutory limits to "fair use"; antitrust exemptions for cartel paywalls; and more. Jeff Jarvis hates it, but Alexander Howard found something to love in the proposal that the government "maximize the easy accessibility of government information" to help journalists find and investigate stories more easily. (via Jose Antonio Vargas)
  4. Smokescreen -- a Flash player in Javascript. See Simon Willison's explanation of how it works. Was created by the fantastic Chris Smoak, who was an early Google Maps hacker and built the BusMonster interface to Seattle public transport. (via Simon Willison)

May 14 2010

Wahlkampfmethoden in NRW: Forschen mit der Staatskanzlei
Parteilichkeit ist noch das geringste Problem: Der Wahlforscher Karl-Rudolf Korte hat der CDU gegen Bezahlung „wohlwollende“ Analysen bei der Landtagswahl in Nordrhein-Westfalen beschert. Und erntet dafür Kritik.
Quelle: FAZ

Anmerkung MB: Prof. Dr. Korte war auch am Aufbau des Centrums für angewandte Politikforschung (CAP) beteiligt, das u.A. von der Bertelsmann Stiftung getragen wird, und ist deren „Fellow“. Unabhängig geht anders. Und dass Prof. Dr. Korte immer wieder von den Sendern als unabhängiger Experte vor die Kamera gelassen wird, ist ein journalistischer Offenbarungseid.

NachDenkSeiten – Die kritische Website » Hinweise des Tages
Reposted fromkrekk krekk

May 06 2010


Regierungssprecher wird BR-Intendant: Merkels lächelndes Fallbeil -

Merkels Regierungssprecher Wilhelm soll heute zum BR-Intendanten gewählt werden. Eigentlich ein Skandal. Doch ein Aufschrei wie damals bei Brender – Fehlanzeige.
Reposted fromekelias ekelias viakrekk krekk

May 05 2010

Bayerischer Rundfunk: Spannend wird es erst nach der Wahl - Fernsehen - Feuilleton - FAZ.NET 20100505

Ulrich Wilhelm soll am Donnerstag Intendant des Bayerischen Rundfunks werden. Da hat er gut zu tun: Das Programm läuft, doch der Sender gilt als schwerfällig. [...]

[...] Wenn selbst langjährige leitende Mitarbeiter raunen, es sei nicht eben transparent, woher am Ende des Jahres doch noch einmal Gelder kämen, mag das einen Eindruck davon geben, wie verschlungen die Pfade sind zu Geldtöpfen, aber auch bei der Besetzung von Stellen. Um den BR - wo nicht - ranken sich Geschichten mit Fällen von Nepotismus, von Parteikarrieren, die in den BR hinein- oder hinausführen. Auch ist wie in fast allen öffentlich-rechtlichen Sendern nicht unbedingt ein Leistungsprinzip zu erkennen. Legendär ist die gern erzählte Geschichte von dem politisch missliebigen Redakteur, der kaltgestellt wurde und sein Büro fortan für den Im- und Export italienischer Weine nutzte. [...]
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