For OpenBlock, Big Improvements From Small Newsrooms

at Ideas Lab: “A little more than five months after NBC News shut down its hyperlocal product,, the original open-source application has been resurrected in Columbia, Mo. But although both products were born of the same Django codebase and Knight Foundation funding, visitors to The Columbia Daily Tribune’s new Neighborhoods site will see a different emphasis and a new hope for a project that has slowed under the weight of government disability and technical complexity….The user interface is clean and smart, and the government data — which is the most difficult of any kind of data to mine — appears to be more current and complete than any OpenBlock installation has seen since the very early days before its code was made public.
That kind of commitment is needed for OpenBlock to succeed, because pulling digital records out of all but the very most efficient and transparent government agencies is a tremendous drag on the expense side of the news business. That difficulty, though, can also create an opportunity for outsized revenue.
Chris Gubbels, the Web developer who’s been overseeing the project for The Tribune, said that unlike many jurisdictions, Columbia’s police and fire data were “pretty simple” to pull into OpenBlock. The police even provided The Tribune with an RSS feed of geocoded 911 response calls.”

Big data, crowdsourcing and machine learning tackle Parkinson’s

Successful Workingplace: “Parkinson’s is a very tough disease to fight. People suffering from the disease often have significant tremors that keep them from being able to create accurate records of their daily challenges. Without this information, doctors are unable to fine tune drug dosages and other treatment regimens that can significantly improve the lives of sufferers.
It was a perfect catch-22 situation until recently, when the Michael J. Fox Foundation announced that LIONsolver, a company specializing in machine learning software, was able to differentiate Parkinson’s patients from healthy individuals and to also show the trend in symptoms of the disease over time.
To set up the competition, the Foundation worked with Kaggle, an organization that specializes in crowdsourced big data analysis competitions. The use of crowdsourcing as a way to get to the heart of very difficult Big Data problems works by allowing people the world over from a myriad of backgrounds and with diverse experiences to devote time on personally chosen challenges where they can bring the most value. It’s a genius idea for bringing some of the scarcest resources together with the most intractable problems.”

International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance

Final version, 10 July 2013:  “As technologies that facilitate State surveillance of communications advance, States are failing to ensure that laws and regulations related to communications surveillance adhere to international human rights and adequately protect the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. This document attempts to explain how international human rights law applies in the current digital environment, particularly in light of the increase in and changes to communications surveillance technologies and techniques. These principles can provide civil society groups, industry, States and others with a framework to evaluate whether current or proposed surveillance laws and practices are consistent with human rights.
These principles are the outcome of a global consultation with civil society groups, industry and international experts in communications surveillance law, policy and technology.”

Can We Build A Kickstarter For Cancer?

Paul Howard in Forbes: “tarting you own band, writing your first novel, or re-publishing your favorite ‘80s tabletop RPG are all cool goals. You can do them all on Kickstarter. What would be cooler?
How about funding a virtual biotech company with one goal: Saving or extending the life of a cancer patient who doesn’t respond to “standard of care” treatments….
The Cancer Commons approach – a distributed framework for empowering patients and learning from every patient/treatment combination – breaks down traditional distinctions between clinical trials and patient treatment in the “real world.” Instead of developing treatments in a lab and then testing them on randomized patients in clinical trials (designed to benefit future patients), researchers would apply the latest scientific knowledge and tools to help each patient achieve the best possible outcome today based on what we know – or think we can predict – about a molecular subtype of cancer….
We’ll need more than money to power a Kickstarter-for-cancer movement. We’ll need to encourage companies – from Big Pharma to “small” biotechs – to participate in distributed, Bayesian trials where new biomarkers or combinations of biomarkers are tested in patients with particular molecular profiles. And the FDA is going to have to be convinced that the system is going to generate high quality data that benefits patients, not sell them snake-oil cures.
In return for companies making their compound libraries and experimental drugs available for the “virtual biotechs” launched by cancer patients and their families, there should be a regulatory path established to take the most promising drugs and drug combinations to market.”

New Report Finds Cost-Benefit Analyses Improve Budget Choices & Taxpayer Results

Press Release: “A new report shows cost-benefit analyses have helped states make better investments of public dollars by identifying programs and policies that deliver high returns. However, the majority of states are not yet consistently using this approach when making critical decisions. This 50-state look at cost-benefit analysis, a method that compares the expense of public programs to the returns they deliver, was released today by the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The study, “States’ Use of Cost-benefit Analysis: Improving Results for Taxpayers”, comes at a time when states are under continuing pressure to direct limited dollars toward the most cost-effective programs and policies while curbing spending on those that do not deliver. The report is the first comprehensive study of how all 50 states and the District of Columbia analyze the costs and benefits of programs and policies, report findings, and incorporate the assessments into decision-making. It identifies key challenges states face in conducting and using the analyses and offers strategies to overcome those obstacles. The study includes a review of state statutes, a search for cost benefit analyses released between 2008 and 2011, and interviews with legislators, legislative and program evaluation staff, executive officials, report authors, and agency officials.”

How to do scientific research without even trying (much)

Ars Technica: “To some extent, scientific research requires expensive or specialized equipment—some work just requires a particle accelerator or a virus containment facility. But plenty of other research has very simple requirements: a decent camera, a bit of patience, or being in the right place at the right time. Since that sort of work is open to anyone, getting the public involved can be a huge win for scientists, who can then obtain much more information than they could have gathered on their own.
A group of Spanish researchers has now written an article that is a mixture of praise for this sort of citizen science, a resource list for people hoping to get involved, and a how-to guide for anyone inspired to join in. The researchers focus on their own area of interest—insects, specifically the hemiptera or “true bugs”—but a lot of what they say applies to other areas of research.

The paper also lists a variety of regional-specific sites that focus on insect identification and tracking, such as ones for the UK, Belgium, and Slovenia. But a dedicated system isn’t required for this sort of resource. In the researchers’ home base on the Iberian Peninsula, insects are tracked via a Flickr group. (If you’re interested in insect research and based in the US, you can also find dozens of projects at the SciStarter site.) We’ve uploaded some of the most amazing images into a gallery that accompanies this article.
ZooKeys, 2013. DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.319.4342

Launch of new site “In many cities around the world, people whose lives have been enriched by the sharing economy were getting together to work out how to find new opportunities to share or overcome barriers. We realized that, with the right tools and support, we could achieve more by working together, across communities, cities, counties and the globe.
We started meeting with small groups of people who share their cars, homes, skills and time to build a grassroots organization, from the ground up. Within a few months, we had meetups and house parties happening in cities across the globe, from Boston to Barcelona and San Francisco to Seoul.
In summer 2013 we launched Peers to provide support and tools for people who want to see the sharing economy thrive. We support the movement in three ways:

  • Mainstream the sharing economy By raising the profile and visibility of sharing
  • Protect the sharing economy Through policy campaigns for smart regulation
  • Grow the sharing economy By discovering, joining and using new peer and sharing services”

New Book: Untangling the Web

By Aleks Krotoski: “The World Wide Web is the most revolutionary innovation of our time. In the last decade, it has utterly transformed our lives. But what real effects is it having on our social world? What does it mean to be a modern family when dinner table conversations take place over smartphones? What happens to privacy when we readily share our personal lives with friends and corporations? Are our Facebook updates and Twitterings inspiring revolution or are they just a symptom of our global narcissism? What counts as celebrity, when everyone can have a following or be a paparazzo? And what happens to relationships when love, sex and hate can be mediated by a computer? Social psychologist Aleks Krotoski has spent a decade untangling the effects of the Web on how we work, live and play. In this groundbreaking book, she uncovers how much humanity has – and hasn’t – changed because of our increasingly co-dependent relationship with the computer. In Untangling the Web, she tells the story of how the network became woven in our lives, and what it means to be alive in the age of the Internet.” Blog:

If Your Government Fails, Can You Create a New One With Your Phone?

Philip Howard in the Atlantic: “Wherever governments are in crisis, in transition, or in absentia, people are using digital media to try to improve their condition, to build new organizations, and to craft new institutional arrangements. Technology is, in a way, enabling new kinds of states.
It is out of vogue in Washington to refer to failed states. But regardless of the term, there are an unfortunate number of places where governments have ceased to function, creating openings for these new institutional arrangements to flourish. Indeed, state failure doesn’t always take the form of a catastrophic and complete collapse in government. States can fail at particular moments, such as during a natural disaster or an election. States can also fail in particular domains, such as in tax collection.
Information technologies like cellphones and the Internet are generating small acts of self-governance in a wide range of domains and in surprising places.”

The Recent Rise of Government Open Data APIs

Janet Wagner in ProgrammableWeb: “In recent months, the number of government open data APIs has been increasing rapidly due to a variety of factors including the development of open data technology platforms, the launch of Project Open Data and a recent White House executive order regarding government data.
ProgrammableWeb writer Mark Boyd has recently written three articles related to open data APIs; an article about the latest release of the CKAN API, an article about the UK Open Data Institute and an article about the CivOmega Open Data Search Engine. This post is a brief overview of several recent factors that have led to the rise of government open data APIs.”