Thursday, February 28, 2013

Code for America

Jennifer Pahlka leads Code for America, which she calls something like a Teach for America or Peace Corp for geeks. The organization pairs techies, coders, designers and data wranglers with municipal governments to build apps that help connect citizens with public services and with each other.

The project starts with the premise that both technology and government are platforms for collective action. In that light, updating government's traditionally lagging approach to digital technology might have a big impact in terms of engagement with grassroots community projects.

The hope is that government can learn a few tricks from Internet and start-up culture - being permissionless and open, crowd-sourcing. Pahlka spoke at the conference Strata yesterday on helping government become more data-driven (Moneyballing Government).

Code for America seems to like trying lots of quick experimental projects to see what sticks. Some of these include:

Rebooting government

Politics may be broken beyond any individuals ability to fix. technology can lower the barrier to entry letting more people lend a hand to help the day-to-day business of government run better. In Pahlka's vision, this involves setting aside politics and contempt for bureaucracy and realizing that we are not just consumers of public services. By using our hands rather than our voices, we end up strengthening civil society.

Our contempt for bureaucracy keeps bureaucracy working against us. Maybe it's better to occupy the SEC than Wall Street.

She concludes her 2012 TED talk Coding a better government with the observation that “We're not going to fix government until we fix citizenship.” and asks, “Are we just a crowd of voices, or are we a crowd of hands?”

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Politics of Data

However objective data may be, interpretation is subjective, and so is our choice about which data to record in the first place. ... data, no matter how “big,” cannot perfectly represent life in all its complexity

The Problem with Our Data Obsession, by Brian Bergstein writing in the MIT Technology Review

Privacy vs. transparency

There's been a flurry of news about openness and data.

Cartoon by Rayma.

David Brooks' New York Times pieces on The Philosophy of Data and What Data Can’t Do explore whether data can overcome human bias and what biases get introduced in the process, where to draw the line between data-driven decisions and organic judgment, when values, context and causation trump mere correlation. Flawed models helped bring about the 2008 financial crisis, but the underlying causes had more to do with deeply flawed incentives.

On one hand, data from social networks are making social science more scientific. On the other, do we want Facebook to make us more open and transparent to advertisers? I'm dreading 5 or 10 years from now when pictures of my kids will be used to advertise to me. The masters of click-data keep are sure to keep getting better at pushing our buttons.

The collection and exploitation of personal data remains a largely unregulated open frontier. But, on some fronts, policy is moving in a positive direction. The public was able to effect the demise of SOPA, but the special interests expect us to give up. The government is looking out for its own pocketbook when it mandates Open Access.

Open access in science

White House says government-funded research should be more public and has moved to expand public access to the results of federally funded research by directing that published results be made freely available to the public within one year of publication and requiring researchers to better manage digital data.

Open questions

What's needed is, a “rethinking [of] how our legal system affects technology, and how it allows crony capitalism to stifle innovation”.

There are trade-offs to be made: privacy against transparency; open access against proprietary business models. Can we trust what the data is telling us and how that knowledge will be used? Will the benefits will be gated and captured or open and distributed?

A political economy

A recent piece in the Economist ( A new anthology of essays reconsiders Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” , May 20, 2107) ends with these words: &q...