Too Big to Succeed: The Need for Federal IT Reform

The following is part of a special series of policy briefs by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars running until inauguration day. This piece, written by Commons Lab Early Career Scholar Zachary Bastian, tackles the need for reform in federal information technology.

As the world has become more dependent on information technology (IT), so has the federal government and its constituencies. Leveraged effectively, technical tools can engage the public, create cost savings, and improve outcomes. These benefits are obscured by regular reminders that federal IT is fundamentally flawed. It is too big to succeed. For IT to become sustainable, the federal government must enable change in three categories: 1) embracing agile development, modular contracting, and open-source software, 2) prioritizing small business participation, and 3) shifting the federal IT culture towards education and experimentation. The adoption of these reforms is vital. The current state of federal IT undermines good work through inefficiency and waste.

Click here to read the remainder of this brief on Scribd.


Tweeting Up a Storm

Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 25, 2012
Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 25, 2012

We are inundated daily with stories from the news media about the possible impact social media like Facebook and Twitter will have on our lives. When a storm like Hurricane Sandy hits the East Coast, can this technology actually help to save lives and reduce catastrophic damages? It’s possible.

For instance, mobile devices could allow emergency responders, affected communities, and volunteers to rapidly collect and share information as a disaster unfolds. Photos and videos provided through social media could help officials determine where people are located, assess the responses and needs of affected communities—such as water, food, shelter, power and medical care—and alert responders and citizens to changing conditions.

At least that is the promise. When Hurricane Irene barreled across the Eastern seaboard in August 2011, many in the news media cited it as a pivotal moment for social media for disasters. But research we conducted on the use of social media during Irene suggests otherwise. While some emergency management departments launched new social media outreach strategies during the storm, particularly to push information out to the public, many did not change their practices radically and overall use of the technology varied. Continue reading “Tweeting Up a Storm”

Gaming for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science

Crowdsourcing and citizen science are integrating lessons from gaming culture studies in lots of interesting ways. Since many rote tasks performed by scientists are becoming too large for individuals to complete, particularly under tighter budgets, crowdsourcing — allowing the public to participate — is a viable way of fulfilling necessary activities. Many of these tasks are still too large and complex for ordinary citizens, so citizen science and crowdsourcing often borrow concepts and ideas from gaming studies to make tasks more manageable.

These key concepts and ideas can be classified into a few broad categories. First, successful crowdsourcing and citizen science projects make their tasks fun to complete. Most adopt diverse approaches to reward participants for completing tasks. A particularly innovative approach to incentivization is to link tasks to a user profile, similar to social networking sites; this allows users to track their contributions and share their participation statistics with their friends. HealthMap’s Flu Near You application uses this idea exceptionally well, even allowing users to register using their Facebook accounts and giving users a “profile” to track their symptoms. Continue reading “Gaming for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science”

Governing on the Edge of Change: A Report from the Next Policy Frontier

The following is part of a special series of policy briefs by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars running until inauguration day. This piece, written by David Rejeski, director of the Science & Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center, looks at governance and the technological edge:

Imagine, for a moment, a world that is rapidly changing along three dimensions:
Structure: a shift from hierarchies to networks; Ownership: transitions from proprietary to open-source models; and Exchange: a movement from classic markets and commodities to a gift or contribution economy. These shifts are creating new ways of driving social and technological innovation and simultaneously challenging traditional notions of how we govern. For public policymakers, this emerging zone creates opportunities to craft next generation policy, leadership, and management strategies that can work on the edge of change.The full brief can be downloaded here:

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Calling for “Backup” – Indemnification for Digital Volunteers

Editor’s note: This guest blog is by Edward S. Robson, Esq.

In the past I have written about the tort liability that digital volunteers face when making responses.  In addition to a number of other strategies, one method for reducing liability is to obtain indemnification from the governmental agency or NGO requesting the services of the digital volunteers.

First, a few words about indemnification: This means to require a requestor to pay any expenses or awards associated with the claims brought against digital volunteers as a result of their work for the requesting party.  If a member of a digital volunteer group negligently released information causing a disaster victim to be injured, the requesting agency would be contractually required to pay attorney’s fees incurred in defense, or any awards.  An indemnification agreement would not necessarily cover all conduct of digital volunteers, including acts of gross negligence or recklessness.

To obtain indemnification, groups need an agreement with the party requesting service.  The agreement need not be actively negotiated but could be contained in an online activation request.  The acceptance of terms and conditions, including acceptance of indemnification, would be a prerequisite for submission of an activation request.

Many groups are developing activation protocols or criteria for determining which calls for assistance they will answer.  The willingness of a requestor to indemnify a group and its members seems a logical criterion for separating the sometimes overwhelming requests for help.  It could provide a layer of confidence for digital volunteers and encourage action. Continue reading “Calling for “Backup” – Indemnification for Digital Volunteers”

Hurricane Sandy and Crisismapping

As Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast this weekend, efforts were already underway to allow the mapping of geographically referenced data. A developing trend in disaster management is to allow members of the public to produce data related to their needs and location, to map disaster-affected areas, and to process the data that’s produced. This “crowdsourcing” relies on mapping platforms such as Ushahidi,’s CrisisMaps, and OpenStreetMap, but there are many such examples.

Several hours before Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29, many of these kinds of platforms were set up and ready to be used, each covering a different component of the overall response. Coordination came from Hurricane Hackers, a loose coalition that formed in the run-up to the storm. This group and many volunteers assembled a list of different crisis maps in use and different ideas and areas to which volunteers could contribute. Crisis maps were established for diverse aspects of disaster response, including shelters and evacuation zones and communications network outages, and efforts are underway to engage volunteers in the post-hurricane rebuilding.

Social media was a prominent dimension of data production. The number of Sandy-related tweets posted to Twitter was astounding, with 695,000 posted before 11:00AM on Monday, and reaching 3,200 per minute at one point. Instagram was also a documenting tool of choice by the public, with 10 photos per second being posted at the peak of the storm. Additionally, many citizens were using LiveStream to broadcast their observations in real time. With this amount of data being produced, visualization becomes a challenge; one solution for visualization and analysis is the Tweak the Tweet project. Continue reading “Hurricane Sandy and Crisismapping”

EVENT: International Disasters Charter: Introduction, Initial Issues and Experiences

Editors note: This event is scheduled for Nov. 30, 2012 from noon to 1 pm.

The Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program welcomes Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, Director, National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law, University of Missisippi School of Law and Research Professor of Law.

The Charter on Cooperation to Achieve the Coordinated Use of Space Facilities in the Event of Natural or Technological Disasters (Disasters Charter) provides for the voluntary sharing of satellite imagery in the event of major disasters. Prof. Gabrynowicz will address the contents, structure, and status of the Charter, and highlight its strengths and weaknesses with a focus on how it could develop in the future. She also will discuss data access and sharing issues.

When: Friday, November 30, 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM EST

Where: 6th Floor Board Room

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20004
(Near Federal Triangle or Metro Center Metros)

This meeting is free and open to the public. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry. For more time and to RSVP, please visit:

This event is co-hosted by the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innnovation Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, and the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law, University of Mississippi School of Law.An archived video will be posted within a week of the event.Disclaimer: The materials on this website do not constitute legal advise. This event and presentation is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship by offering this information, and anyone’s review of the information shall not be deemed to reate such a relationship. You should consult your own attorney if you have a legal matter requiring attention. Also, nothing on this sie creates an express or implied contract.

The National Broadband Map: A Case Study on Open Innovation for National Policy

Join us at the Wilson Center on Oct. 15, 2012 for an event focused on the development of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) National Broadband Map, a project that leveraged citizen input and resulted in better consumer protection and government innovation. The event will feature the authors of a new report on the broadband map,  Michael Byrne of  the FCC and Zachary Bastian of the Science and Technology Innovation Program’s Commons Lab, as well as:

For more information and to RSVP, please visit:

The National Broadband Map, designed to provide consumers nationwide reliable information on broadband internet connections, was built incorporating emerging technology.  It protects consumers, holds the government and private sector accountable, and engages the public across the United States.  In a time of budgetary constraint, the Map made a series of remarkable policy innovations that allowed the project to be completed in minimal time and at a reduced cost.

An image from FCC’s National Broadband Map

The public was engaged before, during, and after the project.  Citizens generated speed testing data.  They provided comments and feed back on improving internet connectivity.  They used a National Broadband Map crowdsource utility to let the FCC know whether the information they posted was accurate.  The data collected is open, freely available to anyone.  The application itself was built using open-source software unchained by licensing fees, enhancing its flexibility and accessibility.  The development process broke from traditional government procurement, and programmers regularly communicated with uses to better understand the needs of the project: this avoided cost overruns and unused features. Continue reading “The National Broadband Map: A Case Study on Open Innovation for National Policy”

Crowdsourcing the Budget

In the midst of California’s severe budget crisis, essential services faced deep cuts, school years were shortened, and public discontent with the budget process was at an all-time high. Against pressure to make similar, sweeping budget cuts and risk public backlash, the city of San Jose took a novel approach: They gave their citizens control of the reins to help them understand what it meant to run a city.

San Jose residents playing the budget game

San Jose partnered with nonprofit software company Every Voice Engaged to create a budget simulator game, which groups of citizens would play to express their preferences to the government. While games have often been used by decision-makers to simulate difficult problems and identify an effective solution, the city of San Jose knew that by putting its citizens in the policymakers’ shoes, they could build an appreciation for the tradeoffs that go into designing a budget. This exercise proved highly successful, and elicited levels of civic engagement at the local level that the city of San Jose will continue to leverage for future projects.

I spoke with Kip Harkness, assistant to the city manager of San Jose, and Steve Dobbs of Every Voice Engaged to discuss what made this game a success and how others can learn from their experience.

To begin with, Kip, how did you come up with the idea of using a “serious game” to deal with your budget concerns?

KH: For us, it was a confluence of a couple of energies that came together. Our budget situation was getting more and more complicated, more and more dire. Our normal method of interacting with the public – asking them programs they would like see added – had to really shift gears when the budget was being prioritized. That was very new for us as a city, so we were very flummoxed as to how to do that. We ran a simple exercise on our own, giving people nickels and letting [them] put money where their mouth is, so to speak. The feedback we got from citizens was that such a little shift let them be much more involved in the process and made them feel that they were heard. It made a big difference to them.

When we connected with Every Voice Engaged, we realized that while that first foray into games was useful to us, it was the equivalent of Pong; it really wasn’t taking full advantage of the opportunities you could do with games. Since we tried it out on our own, we had the space to try it again. Every Voice Engaged has a deep experience in working with serious corporate clients from around Silicon Valley, and part of what was appealing about them was their experience with organizations we think of as very effective and very serious in the work that they do. Realizing that our traditional approach to the budget wasn’t going to work, we decided to give Every Voice Engaged a chance. Continue reading “Crowdsourcing the Budget”

Tracking the Revolution

With the Syrian revolution having claimed more than 21,000 lives, policymakers and foreign affairs pundits from around the world have been making the case for intervention into the war to minimize casualties and ease the cost of rebuilding after hostilities cease. Last month, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a piece in the Financial Times about how the United States should form a coalition of countries to provide direct military aid to the Syrian rebellion. While this is not a new idea, Prof. Slaughter also noted that, among other things, the coalition should set up and maintain a system by which citizen journalists in Syria can upload reports of what they witness — effectively crowdsourcing human intelligence.

While crowdsourcing is one of the most efficient ways to collect information about events in real time and to effectively respond to a crisis, if this coalition were to ever form, it should know that the group Syria Tracker has been forming a crowdsourced crisis map in Syria for well over a year, to good effect. Syria Tracker is a crisis mapping system that uses crowdsourced text, photo and video reports to form a live map of the Syrian revolution, while also leveraging a data-mining tool that scans English language sources on the web for reports about human rights violations in Syria. Since its website launched in April 2011, Syria Tracker has received more than 2,000 geo-tagged reports from citizen journalists and over 30,000 official news reports, which provide a living record of the progression of the revolution over time.

With a user base spread throughout the country and robust software powering it, the question is, would Syria Tracker be a good partner for an international coalition interested in crisis mapping the war in Syria? A case could be made both ways. Continue reading “Tracking the Revolution”