Fighting for Reliable Evidence

New book by Judy Gueron and Howard Rolston: “Once primarily used in medical clinical trials, random assignment experimentation is now accepted among social scientists across a broad range of disciplines. The technique has been used in social experiments to evaluate a variety of programs, from microfinance and welfare reform to housing vouchers and teaching methods. How did randomized experiments move beyond medicine and into the social sciences, and can they be used effectively to evaluate complex social problems? Fighting for Reliable Evidence provides an absorbing historical account of the characters and controversies that have propelled the wider use of random assignment in social policy research over the past forty years.
Drawing from their extensive experience evaluating welfare reform programs, noted scholar practitioners Judith M. Gueron and Howard Rolston portray randomized experiments as a vital research tool to assess the impact of social policy. In a random assignment experiment, participants are sorted into either a treatment group that participates in a particular program, or a control group that does not. Because the groups are randomly selected, they do not differ from one another systematically. Therefore any subsequent differences between the groups can be attributed to the influence of the program or policy. The theory is elegant and persuasive, but many scholars worry that such an experiment is too difficult or expensive to implement in the real world. Can a control group be truly insulated from the treatment policy? Would staffers comply with the random allocation of participants? Would the findings matter?”

The Political Web: Media, Participation and Alternative Democracy

New book by Peter Dahlgren: “As democracy encounters increasing difficulties, many citizens are turning to the domain of alternative politics, and in so doing, making considerable use of the Web and other new communication technologies. Clearly this is having significant impact, and we see that new modes of political participation and even political cultures are emerging. Yet, we would be foolish to expect some simple ‘techno-fix’ for democracy; its problems are more complex than that. This volume analyses various factors that shape such Web-facilitated participation, including features of the Web itself as well as broader societal realities. Avoiding simplistic optimism or pessimism, the discussion highlights the tensions and force-fields that impact on participation. The presentation also addresses several key topics in regard to citizens’ engagement, such as civic subjectivity, web intellectuals, and cosmopolitanism. While anchored in an extensive literature and wide theoretical vistas, the book is written in a clear and accessible style.”

Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization

Book review by José Luis Cordeiro:  Eric Drexler, popularly known as “the founding father of nanotechnology,” introduced the concept in his seminal 1981 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This paper established fundamental principles of molecular engineering and outlined development paths to advanced nanotechnologies.
He popularized the idea of nanotechnology in his 1986 book, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, where he introduced a broad audience to a fundamental technology objective: using machines that work at the molecular scale to structure matter from the bottom up.
He went on to continue his PhD thesis at MIT, under the guidance of AI-pioneer Marvin Minsky, and published it in a modified form as a book in 1992 as Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation.

Drexler’s new book, Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, tells the story of nanotechnology from its small beginnings, then moves quickly towards a big future, explaining what it is and what it is not, and enlightening about what we can do with it for the benefit of humanity.
In his pioneering 1986 book, Engines of Creation, he defined nanotechnology as a potential technology with these features: “manufacturing using machinery based on nanoscale devices, and products built with atomic precision.”
In his 2013 sequel, Radical Abundance, Drexler expands on his prior thinking, corrects many of the misconceptions about nanotechnology, and dismisses fears of dystopian futures replete with malevolent nanobots and gray goo…
His new book clearly identifies nanotechnology with atomically precise manufacturing (APM)…Drexler makes many comparisons between the information revolution and what he now calls the “APM revolution.” What the first did with bits, the second will do with atoms: “Image files today will be joined by product files tomorrow. Today one can produce an image of the Mona Lisa without being able to draw a good circle; tomorrow one will be able to produce a display screen without knowing how to manufacture a wire.”
Civilization, he says, is advancing from a world of scarcity toward a world of abundance — indeed, radical abundance.”

The New Reality of Social Production

Don Peppers on LinkedIn: “…Waze is yet another example of social production, or the increasingly common use of connected people working together to create value with little or no actual economic incentives involved. Instead, social production is based on a completely different set of principles – sharing and giving, rather than trading and selling. It is an important aspect of what some are now calling the “sharing economy,” and systems like Waze are ever more rapidly replacing or supplementing large portions of the commercial economy, as Martha Rogers and I document in our book Extreme Trust.
In the commercial economy, where profit-making entities operate, what you pay for determines what you get. I pay you, and you give me something of value. I may be a customer buying a product or service, or you may be the boss paying my salary, but either way neither of us is volunteering. We are trading our time or money for value in return. In the commercial economy, we all expect to pay for the things we want. When you pay the grocer $6 for a 12-pack of Diet Coke by the can, you don’t begrudge him the money. And you wouldn’t even consider asking the grocer to give you the soda voluntarily, for free – the way a Waze participant voluntarily reports a new hazard for other participants.
An economic system based on money, as ours is, facilitates the efficient division of labor, enabling us to accomplish more and more complex tasks by dividing them into simple components. The end result is that you don’t have to wire your own smartphone together or harvest your own wheat for your morning bagel. The division-of-labor principle has allowed technology to become so complex that none of us today could ever make even the simplest manufactured products all by ourselves.
But because of the very efficient way in which people are now electronically connected, many social production tasks can also be parsed up and allocated bit by bit among assorted different players – just talk to any of the 3.4 million volunteer coders and developers who work on the more than 300,000 different open-source software projects now registered at Sourceforge, for example. Moreover, these tasks are sometimes so complex, diffused, or difficult that accomplishing them with a commercial model just wouldn’t be practical. Imagine what it would have taken for Waze’s organizers to identify and monitor traffic hazards across the nation on their own, for instance. A small army of paid scouts or robotic monitors would have been required, continually updating the system, and the cost would have made the whole project completely unrealistic…”

The Logic of Connective Action- Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics

New book by W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg: “The Logic of Connective Action explains the rise of a personalized digitally networked politics in which diverse individuals address the common problems of our times such as economic fairness and climate change. Rich case studies from the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany illustrate a theoretical framework for understanding how large-scale connective action is coordinated using inclusive discourses such as “We Are the 99%” that travel easily through social media. In many of these mobilizations, communication operates as an organizational process that may replace or supplement familiar forms of collective action based on organizational resource mobilization, leadership, and collective action framing. In some cases, connective action emerges from crowds that shun leaders, as when Occupy protesters created media networks to channel resources and create loose ties among dispersed physical groups. In other cases, conventional political organizations deploy personalized communication logics to enable large-scale engagement with a variety of political causes. The Logic of Connective Action shows how power is organized in communication-based networks, and what political outcomes may result.”

Do you want to live in a smart city?

Jane Wakefield from BBC News: “In the future everything in a city, from the electricity grid, to the sewer pipes to roads, buildings and cars will be connected to the network. Buildings will turn off the lights for you, self-driving cars will find you that sought-after parking space, even the rubbish bins will be smart. But how do we get to this smarter future. Who will be monitoring and controlling the sensors that will increasingly be on every building, lamp-post and pipe in the city?…
There is another chapter in the smart city story – and this one is being written by citizens, who are using apps, DIY sensors, smartphones and the web to solve the city problems that matter to them.
Don’t Flush Me is a neat little DIY sensor and app which is single-handedly helping to solve one of New York’s biggest water issues.
Every time there is heavy rain in the city, raw sewage is pumped into the harbour, at a rate of 27 billion gallons each year.
Using an Arduino processor, a sensor which measures water levels in the sewer overflows and a smart phone app, Don’t Flush Me lets people know when it is ‘safe to flush’.
Meanwhile Egg, a community-led sensor network, is alerting people to an often hidden problem in our cities.
Researchers estimate that two million people die each year as a result of air pollution and as cities get more over-crowded, the problem is likely to get worse.
Egg is compiling data about air quality by selling cheap sensor which people put outside their homes where they collect readings of green gases, nitrogen oxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO)….
The reality is that most smart city projects are currently pretty small scale – creating tech hubs or green areas of the city, experimenting with smart electricity grids or introducing electric buses or bike-sharing schemes.”

Five myths about big data

Samuel Arbesman, senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the author of “The Half-Life of Facts” in the Washington Post: “Big data holds the promise of harnessing huge amounts of information to help us better understand the world. But when talking about big data, there’s a tendency to fall into hyperbole. It is what compels contrarians to write such tweets as “Big Data, n.: the belief that any sufficiently large pile of s— contains a pony.” Let’s deflate the hype.
1. “Big data” has a clear definition.
The term “big data” has been in circulation since at least the 1990s, when it is believed to have originated in Silicon Valley. IBM offers a seemingly simple definition: Big data is characterized by the four V’s of volume, variety, velocity and veracity. But the term is thrown around so often, in so many contexts — science, marketing, politics, sports — that its meaning has become vague and ambiguous….
2. Big data is new.
By many accounts, big data exploded onto the scene quite recently. “If wonks were fashionistas, big data would be this season’s hot new color,” a Reuters report quipped last year. In a May 2011 report, the McKinsey Global Institute declared big data “the next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity.”
It’s true that today we can mine massive amounts of data — textual, social, scientific and otherwise — using complex algorithms and computer power. But big data has been around for a long time. It’s just that exhaustive datasets were more exhausting to compile and study in the days when “computer” meant a person who performed calculations….
3. Big data is revolutionary.
In their new book, “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think,”Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier compare “the current data deluge” to the transformation brought about by the Gutenberg printing press.
If you want more precise advertising directed toward you, then yes, big data is revolutionary. Generally, though, it’s likely to have a modest and gradual impact on our lives….
4. Bigger data is better.
In science, some admittedly mind-blowing big-data analyses are being done. In business, companies are being told to “embrace big data before your competitors do.” But big data is not automatically better.
Really big datasets can be a mess. Unless researchers and analysts can reduce the number of variables and make the data more manageable, they get quantity without a whole lot of quality. Give me some quality medium data over bad big data any day…
5. Big data means the end of scientific theories.
Chris Anderson argued in a 2008 Wired essay that big data renders the scientific method obsolete: Throw enough data at an advanced machine-learning technique, and all the correlations and relationships will simply jump out. We’ll understand everything.
But you can’t just go fishing for correlations and hope they will explain the world. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with spurious correlations. Even more important, to contend with the “why” of things, we still need ideas, hypotheses and theories. If you don’t have good questions, your results can be silly and meaningless.
Having more data won’t substitute for thinking hard, recognizing anomalies and exploring deep truths.”


Code for America: “OpenCounter’s mission is to empower entrepreneurs and foster local economic development by simplifying the process of registering a business.
Economic development happens in many forms, from projects like the revitalization of the Brooklyn Navy Yard or Hudson Rail Yards in New York City, to campaigns to encourage residents to shop at local merchants. While the majority of headlines will focus on a City’s effort to secure a major new employer (think Apple’s 1,000,000 square foot expansion in Austin, Texas), most economic development and job creation happens on a much smaller scale, as individuals stake their financial futures on creating a new product, store, service or firm.
But these new businesses aren’t in a position to accept tax breaks on capital equipment or enter into complex development and disposition agreements to build new offices or stores. Many new businesses can’t even meet the underwriting criteria of  SBA backed revolving-loan programs. Competition for local grants for facade improvements or signage assistance can be fierce….
Despite many cities’ genuine efforts to be “business-friendly,” their default user interface consists of florescent-lit formica, waiting lines, and stacks of forms. Online resources often remind one of a phone book, with little interactivity or specialization based on either the businesses’ function or location within a jurisdiction.
That’s why we built OpenCounter….See what we’re up to at or visit a live version of our software at”

From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age

From Machinery to Mobility

New book by Jeffrey Roy: “The Westminster-stylized model of Parliamentary democratic politics and public service accountability is increasingly out of step with the realities of today’s digitally and socially networked era. This book explores the reconfiguration of democratic and managerial governance within democratic societies due to the advent of technological mobility. More specifically, the traditional public sector prism of organizational and accountability – denoted as ‘machinery of government’, is increasingly strained in an era characterized by smart devices, social media, and cloud computing. This book examines the roots and implications of the tensions between machinery and mobility and the sorts of investments and initiatives that have been undertaken by governments around the world as well as their appropriateness and relative impacts. This book also examines the prospects for holistic adaptation of democratic and managerial systems going forward, identifying the most crucial directions and determinants for improving public sector performance in terms of outcomes, accountability, and agility. Accordingly, the ultimate aim of this initiative is to contribute to the formation of intellectual foundations for more systemic reforms of public sector governance in Canada and elsewhere, and to offer forward-looking trajectories for government adaptation in shifting from a traditional prism of ‘machinery’ to new organizational and institutional arrangements better suited for an era of ‘mobility’.”

Putting Citizens First

New Book by Evert A. Lindquist, Sam Vincent and John Wanna on Engagement in Policy and Service Delivery for the 21st Century: “This book explores the ways in which governments are putting citizens first in their policy-making endeavours. Making citizens the focus of policy interventions and involving them in the delivery and design is for many governments a normative ideal; it is a worthy objective and sounds easy to achieve. But the reality is that putting citizens at the centre of policy-making is hard and confronting. Are governments really serious in their ambitions to put citizens first? Are they prepared for the challenges and demands such an approach will demand? Are they prepared to commit the time and resources to ensure genuine engagement takes place and that citizens’ interests are considered foremost? And, more importantly, are governments prepared for the trade-offs, risks and loss of control such citizen-centric approaches will inevitably involve?
The book is divided into five parts:

  • setting the scene: The evolving landscape for citizen engagement
  • drivers for change: Innovations in citizen-centric governance
  • case studies in land management and Indigenous empowerment
  • case studies in fostering community engagement and connectedness
  • case studies engaging with information technology and new media.”