The Declassification Engine


Wired: “The CIA offers an electronic search engine that lets you mine about 11 million agency documents that have been declassified over the years. It’s called CREST, short for CIA Records Search Tool. But this represents only a portion the CIA’s declassified materials, and if you want unfettered access to the search engine, you’ll have to physically visit the National Archives at College Park, Maryland….
a new project launched by a team of historians, mathematicians, and computer scientists at Columbia University in New York City. Led by Matthew Connelly — a Columbia professor trained in diplomatic history — the project is known as The Declassification Engine, and it seeks to provide a single online database for declassified documents from across the federal government, including the CIA, the State Department, and potentially any other agency.
The project is still in the early stages, but the team has already assembled a database of documents that stretches back to the 1940s, and it has begun building new tools for analyzing these materials. In aggregating all documents into a single database, the researchers hope to not only provide quicker access to declassified materials, but to glean far more information from these documents than we otherwise could.
In the parlance of the day, the project is tackling these documents with the help of Big Data. If you put enough of this declassified information in a single place, Connelly believes, you can begin to predict what government information is still being withheld”

Introducing: Project Open Data


White House Blog: “Technology evolves rapidly, and it can be challenging for policy and its implementation to evolve at the same pace.  Last week, President Obama launched the Administration’s new Open Data Policy and Executive Order aimed at ensuring that data released by the government will be as accessible and useful as possible.  To make sure this tech-focused policy can keep up with the speed of innovation, we created Project Open Data.
Project Open Data is an online, public repository intended to foster collaboration and promote the continual improvement of the Open Data Policy. We wanted to foster a culture change in government where we embrace collaboration and where anyone can help us make open data work better. The project is published on GitHub, an open source platform that allows communities of developers to collaboratively share and enhance code.  The resources and plug-and-play tools in Project Open Data can help accelerate the adoption of open data practices.  For example, one tool instantly converts spreadsheets and databases into APIs for easier consumption by developers.  The idea is that anyone, from Federal agencies to state and local governments to private citizens, can freely use and adapt these open source tools—and that’s exactly what’s happening.
Within the first 24 hours after Project Open Data was published, more than two dozen contributions (or “pull requests” in GitHub speak) were submitted by the public. The submissions included everything from fixing broken links, to providing policy suggestions, to contributing new code and tools. One pull request even included new code that translates geographic data from locked formats into open data that is freely available for use by anyone…”

Working Anarchy / Peer Mutualism


“Voluntaristic associations that do not depend on direct or delegated power from the state, and in particular do not depend on delegated legitimate force that takes a proprietary form and is backed by shared social understandings of how one respects or complies with another’s proprietary claim.”

Since the 1990s, Yochai Benkler, Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, has been instrumental in documenting (and advocating for) the economic and societal value of an information commons and decentralized ways of collaboration, especially as it applies to innovation. Both his books The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest (Crown 2011); and The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (Yale University Press, 2006) are required reading for anyone interested in social networks, open innovation, and participatory democracy.

Politics & Society carries a new paper by Prof. Benkler entitled “Practical Anarchism : Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State”. The paper considers “several working anarchies in the networked environment, and whether they offer a model for improving on the persistent imperfections of markets and states”. In particular, Prof. Benkler tries to capture and analyze our growing experience with what he calls:

“peer mutualism: voluntaristic cooperation that does not depend on exclusive proprietary control or command relations as among the cooperators, and in many instances not even as common defense for the cooperators against nonparticipants.”

Later in the paper he describes “working anarchy”  or “peer mutualism” as:

“ voluntaristic associations that do not depend on direct or delegated power from the state, and in particular do not depend on delegated legitimate force that takes a proprietary form and is backed by shared social understandings of how one respects or complies with another’s proprietary claim.”

According to Benkler,—using a “utopian” position—these working anarchies have the potential to produce four effects:

  • “First, they offer their participants a chunk of life lived in effective, voluntary cooperation with others.

  • Second, they can provide for everyone a degree of freedom in a system otherwise occupied by state- and property-based capabilities; they do not normally displace these other systems, but they do offer a dimension along which, at least for that capability and its dependencies, we are not fully subject to power transmitted through either direct state control or the property system.

  • Third, they provide a context for the development of virtue; or the development of a cooperative human practice, for ourselves and with each other.

  • And fourth, they provide a new way of imagining who we are, and who we can be; a cluster of practices that allow us to experience and observe ourselves as cooperative beings, capable of mutual aid, friendship, and generosity, rather than as the utility-seeking, self-interested creatures that have occupied so much of our imagination from Hobbes to the neoclassical models whose cramped vision governs so much of our lives.”

The central purpose of the paper is to examine the above value proposition behind peer mutualism, using two key questions:

  • “First, there is the internal question of whether these models can sustain their nonhierarchical, noncoercive model once they grow and mature, or whether power relations generally, and in particular whether systematically institutionalized power: hierarchy, property, or both, reemerges in these associations.

  • The second question is whether those practices we do see provide a pathway for substantial expansion of the domains of life that can be lived in voluntaristic association, rather than within the strictures of state and hierarchical systems. In other words, do mutualistic associations offer enough of a solution space, to provisioning a sufficient range of the capabilities we require for human flourishing, to provide a meaningful alternative model to the state and the market across a significant range of human needs and activities?”

The paper subsequently reviews various “working anarchies” – ranging from the so-called paradigm cases involving IETF, FOSS, and Wikipedia to more recent cases of peer mutualism involving, for instance, Kickstarter, Kiva, Ushahidi, Open Data, and Wikileaks. The emerging insight from the comparative selection is that all the examples examined:

“are perfect on neither dimension. Internally, hierarchy and power reappear, to some extent and in some projects, although they are quite different than the hierarchy of government or corporate organization. Externally, there are some spectacular successes, some failures to thrive, and many ambiguous successes. In all, present experience supports neither triumphalism nor defeatism in the utopian project. Peer models do work, and they do provide a degree of freedom in the capabilities they provide. But there is no inexorable path to greater freedom through voluntary open collaboration. There is a good deal of uncertainty and muddling through.”

Despite the uncertainties and imperfections, Prof. Benkler advocates…

“to continue to build more of the spectacular or moderate successes, and to try to colonize as much of our world as possible with the mutualistic modality of social organization. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it merely needs to offer a new dimension or sufficient diversity in how it instantiates capabilities and transmits power to offer us, who inhabit the systems that these peer systems perturb, a degree of freedom.”

Bringing the deep, dark world of public data to light


public_img03Venturebeat: “The realm of public data is like a vast cave. It is technically open to all, but it contains many secrets and obstacles within its walls.
Enigma launched out of beta today to shed light on this hidden world. This “big data” startup focuses on data in the public domain, such as those published by governments, NGOs, and the media….
The company describes itself as “Google for public data.” Using a combination of automated web crawlers and directly reaching out to government agencies, Engima’s database contains billions of public records across more than 100,000 datasets. Pulling them all together breaks down the barriers that exist between various local, state, federal, and institutional search portals. On top of this information is an “entity graph” which searches through the data to discover relevant results. Furthermore, once the information is broken out of the silos, users can filter, reshape, and connect various datasets to find correlations….
The technology has a wide range of applications, including professional services, finance, news media, big data, and academia. Engima has formed strategic partnerships in each of these verticals with Deloitte, Gerson Lehrman Group, The New York Times, S&P Capital IQ, and Harvard Business School, respectively.”

UK: The nudge unit – has it worked so far?


The Guardian: “Since 2010 David Cameron’s pet project has been tasked with finding ways to improve society’s behaviour – and now the ‘nudge unit’ is going into business by itself. But have its initiatives really worked?….
The idea behind the unit is simpler than you might believe. People don’t always act in their own interests – by filing their taxes late, for instance, overeating, or not paying fines until the bailiffs call. As a result, they don’t just harm themselves, they cost the state a lot of money. By looking closely at how they make their choices and then testing small changes in the way the choices are presented, the unit tries to nudge people into leading better lives, and save the rest of us a fortune. It is politics done like science, effectively – with Ben Goldacre’s approval – and, in many cases, it appears to work….”

See also: Jobseekers’ psychometric test ‘is a failure’ (US institute that devised questionnaire tells ‘nudge’ unit to stop using it as it failed to be scientifically validated)

Innovation in Gov Service Delivery


basicDeveloperForce: “Can Government embody innovation and deliver ongoing increased levels of service? Salesforce.com’s Vivek Kundra and companies like BasicGov, Cloud Safety Net & LaunchPad believe so.
Entrepreneurs work tirelessly to help private sector companies streamline all aspects of their business from operations to customer engagement. Their goal and motto is to challenge the status quo and maximize customer satisfaction. Until recently, that mantra wasn’t exactly echoing through the hallways of most government agencies….
Public Sector transformation is being driven by increased data transparency and the formation of government-segmented ecosystems. In a January WSJ, CIO Journal article titled Vivek Kundra: Release Data, Even If It’s Imperfect, Vivek explains this concept and its role in creating efficiencies within government. Vivek says, “the release of government data is helping the private sector create a new wave of innovative apps, like applications that will help patients choose better hospitals. Those apps are built atop anonymized Medicare information.”
Some areas of government are even going so far as to create shared services. When you look at how governments are structured many processes are repeated, and in the past solutions were created or purchased for each unique instance. Various agencies have even gone so far as to create apps themselves and share these solutions without the benefit of leveraging best practices or creating scalable frameworks. Without subject-matter expertise government is falling behind in the business of building and maintaining world class applications….
ISV’s can leverage their private sector expertise and apply that to any number of functions and achieve dramatic results. Many of those partners are focused specifically on leveraging the Salesforce.com Platform.
One great example of an ISV leading that charge is BasicGov. BasicGov’s mission is to help state and local governments provide better services to its citizens. They accomplish this by offering a suite of modules that streamlines and automates processes in community development to achieve smart growth and sustainability goals. My personal favorite is the Citizen Portal where one can “view status of applications, complaints, communications online”….
AppExchange for Government is an online storefront offering apps specifically geared for federal, state & local governments.”

Innovations in American Government Award


Press Release: “Today the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University announced the Top 25 programs in this year’s Innovations in American Government Award competition. These government initiatives represent the dedicated efforts of city, state, federal, and tribal governments and address a host of policy issues including crime prevention, economic development, environmental and community revitalization, employment, education, and health care. Selected by a cohort of policy experts, researchers, and practitioners, four finalists and one winner of the Innovations in American Government Award will be announced in the fall. A full list of the Top 25 programs is available here.
A Culture of Innovation
A number of this year’s Top 25 programs foster a new culture of innovation through online collaboration and crowdsourcing. Signaling a new trend in government, these programs encourage the generation of smart solutions to existing and seemingly intractable public policy problems. LAUNCH—a partnership among NASA, USAID, the State Department, and NIKE—identifies and scales up promising global sustainability innovations created by individual citizens and organizations. The General Services Administration’s Challenge.gov uses crowdsourcing contests to solve government issues: government agencies post challenges, and the broader American public is awarded for submitting winning ideas. The Department of Transportation’s IdeaHub also uses an online platform to encourage its employees to communicate new ideas for making the department more adaptable and enterprising.”

The transformation of democratic taxation states into post-democratic banking states


John Keane, Professor of Politics, in The Conversation: “The extraordinary bounce-back reveals the most disturbing, but least obvious, largely invisible, feature of the unfinished European crisis: the transformation of democratic taxation states into post-democratic banking states.
What is meant by this mouthful? The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter long ago pointed out how modern European states (at first they were monarchies, later most became republics) fed upon taxes extracted from their subject populations. The point is still emphasised by government and politics textbooks. Usually this is done by noting that under democratic conditions elected governments are expected to satisfy the needs and respond to the demands of citizens by providing various goods and services paid for through taxation granted by their consent. Behind this observation stands the presumption that the creation and circulation of money is the prerogative of the state. ‘Money is a creature of the legal order’, wrote Georg Friedrich Knapp in his classic State Theory of Money (1905)….
Slowly but surely, in most European democracies, the power to create and regulate money has effectively been privatised. Without much public commentary or public resistance, governments of recent decades have surrendered their control over a vital resource, with the result that commercial banks and credit institutions now have much more ‘spending power’ than elected governments. In a most interesting new book, the acclaimed historian Harold James has described how this out-flanking of European states by banks and credit institutions was reinforced at the supra-national level, disastrously it turns out, by the formation of the independent European Central Bank….
The principle of no taxation without representation was one of the most important of these innovations. Born of deep tensions between citizen creditors and monarchs in the prosperous Low Countries, it proved to be revolutionary. In late 16th-century cities such as Amsterdam and Bruges, influential men with money to invest demanded, as citizens, that they should only agree to lend money to governments, and to pay their taxes, if in return they were granted the power to decide who governs them. The principle was first formulated in the name of democracy (democratie) in a remarkable Dutch-language pamphlet called The Discourse (it’s analysed in detail in The Life and Death of Democracy. Its author is unknown….
Sure, these political proposals and reforms are better than nothing, but if my short history of banks and democracy is plausible then it suggests that a much tougher and more innovative program of democratisation is needed. If the aim is to ‘throw as many wrenches as possible into the works of haute finance’ (Wolfgang Streeck), then organised pressures from below, from both voters and civil society networks, will be vital.”
 

"Imagery to the Crowd"


Description: “The Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU), a division within the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues at the U.S. Department of State, is working to increase the availability of spatial data in areas experiencing humanitarian emergencies. Built from a crowdsourcing model, the new “Imagery to the Crowd” process publishes high-resolution commercial satellite imagery, purchased by the Unites States Government, in a web-based format that can be easily mapped by volunteers.
The digital map data generated by the volunteers are stored in a database maintained by OpenStreetMap (OSM), a UK-registered non-profit foundation, under a license that ensures the data are freely available and open for a range of uses (http://osm.org). Inspired by the success of the OSM mapping effort after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Imagery to the Crowd process harnesses the combined power of satellite imagery and the volunteer mapping community to help aid agencies provide informed and effective humanitarian assistance, and plan recovery and development activities.
5-minute Ignite Talk about Imagery to the Crowd:

The Dangers of Surveillance


Paper by Neil M. Richards in Harvard Law Review. Abstract:  “From the Fourth Amendment to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, our culture is full of warnings about state scrutiny of our lives. These warnings are commonplace, but they are rarely very specific. Other than the vague threat of an Orwellian dystopia, as a society we don’t really know why surveillance is bad, and why we should be wary of it. To the extent the answer has something to do with “privacy,” we lack an understanding of what “privacy” means in this context, and why it matters. Developments in government and corporate practices have made this problem more urgent. Although we have laws that protect us against government surveillance, secret government programs cannot be challenged until they are discovered.
… I propose a set of four principles that should guide the future development of surveillance law, allowing for a more appropriate balance between the costs and benefits of government surveillance. First, we must recognize that surveillance transcends the public-private divide. Even if we are ultimately more concerned with government surveillance, any solution must grapple with the complex relationships between government and corporate watchers. Second, we must recognize that secret surveillance is illegitimate, and prohibit the creation of any domestic surveillance programs whose existence is secret. Third, we should recognize that total surveillance is illegitimate and reject the idea that it is acceptable for the government to record all Internet activity without authorization. Fourth, we must recognize that surveillance is harmful. Surveillance menaces intellectual privacy and increases the risk of blackmail, coercion, and discrimination; accordingly, we must recognize surveillance as a harm in constitutional standing doctrine.