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5 Reasons Why the White House Response to the Death Star Petition Was Genius

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Back in November 2012, someone posted on the White House’s “We The People” site petitioning the federal government to secure funding and resources to build a Death Star by 2016. We The People is an online petition website that allows any citizen to make a suggestion, and if it receives 25,000 votes, the White House will issue an official response. The Death Star petition reached 25,000 votes in December and one month later, the White House issued their response.

Picture of the Death Star from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

The Death Star would cost how much? Yikes

Here are 5 reasons why I thought the response was brilliant:

1. They Played Along

Kudos to the White House for embracing and adding more Star Wars references. There were mentions of

  • Blowing up planets
  • Having a flaw that can be exposed by a one-man starship
  • Luke’s robotic arm
  • The power of the Force

How many government agencies would have responded with “we are not familiar with the term ‘Death Star’ and therefore are unable to properly respond to this petition.” Probably a lot.

2. It was Informal

One lesson from social media is that it’s okay to be informal sometimes. People like interacting with other human beings more than a dry, soulless organization. It’s refreshing to see government be clever, witty, and funny.

The second paragraph begins with “…look carefully and you’ll notice something floating in the sky – that’s no Moon, it’s a Space Station!” Reading this sentence makes you feel like the author is actually talking to you.

Not only was it written with a playful voice, they even linked to a photo of President Obama wielding a toy light saber.

3. It was Informative

Not only was the response witty and playful, it was also very informative. The author saw this as an opportunity to educate the reader with relevant articles and programs. There were several links to government and non-government projects to get the reader excited about what is currently happening in space. I bet most readers learned something new.

4. They Promoted Others

Another important lesson from social media is that it’s not always about you. The White House was happy to promote other programs that they thought the reader would find useful, giving readers a more complete picture of what is happening in the industry. In addition to the many NASA programs, they also link to a private sector project with a mission to put more humans on the moon and DARPA projects to build floating droids.

There’s even a reference to a study that estimated the cost of a Death Star to be more than $850,000,000,000,000,000.

5. They Ended On a Positive Note

It’s difficult to draw something positive out of such an outrageous petition that was obviously a joke, but the White House pulled it off. Instead of just listing evidence to why this is a terrible idea, they ended with an encouraging message.

The second to last paragraph says “We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field.”

____

Despite the brilliance of the response, there is something that doesn’t sit well with me: I couldn’t find the article on We The People. Of course, if you use a search engine, the article shows up at the top and there are plenty of technology and government blogs that link to it, but if you start from the We The People homepage, it’s very difficult to navigate to the response (I couldn’t do it but someone else probably could). It’s as if the White House is purposely trying to hide it from accidental visits.

Even the title of the response is extremely vague. It’s called “This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For.”

Despite the fact that it’s hidden, I still have to applaud the author for a brilliant and refreshing response. This is a great example of what government can be: clever, in-touch, educational, and inspiring all at the same time.

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Texas Passed Open Data Law, But Not an Automatic Win

July 6, 2011 1 comment

On June 17, Governor Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 701 into law, which requires each state agency to post high-value data sets online. This was a great victory for transparency and open government, putting into statute the requirement for all state agencies to post “raw data in open standard format that allows the public to search, extract, organize, and analyze the information.”

Even though this was an enormous win for Texas, this alone does not guarantee that open data will be sprouting across every agency come September 1. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order for this law to become a reality across the state.

Why this is no automatic win
Due to the economic climate of the state entire planet, this law requires that agencies use only “existing resources”, making data available “at no additional cost to the state.” In a time when IT programs are being asked to do more with less, there is already an abundance of competing initiatives clawing at the shrinking IT budget. It’s difficult to weigh the importance of publishing data versus other initiatives like infrastructure costs and application development, whose value is more tangible and straightforward.

So, if an agency feels like they need existing resources to focus on what they feel are more mission critical tasks, it won’t be hard to say “sorry, no resources available” as its get-out-of-jail card.

The bill did allow two alternatives for agencies without resources: find a vendor who is willing to do it pro bono or find a grant to fund your open gov initiative.

Overall, despite the challenges, SB701 is still a reason to celebrate, and there will be some agencies preparing data sets to publish by September 1. Texas now has the statutory foundation for transparency and open data, but it’s still up to the agencies to allocate the necessary resources to make this a reality. This is a great catalyst to create momentum, and it will be exciting to see how supporters respond in the coming months.

What do you think? What are some incentives that open gov proponents can use to encourage agencies and vendors to make this legislation actionable and attainable?

Are App Contests Sustainable?

May 23, 2011 2 comments

On May 2, Government Technology published a great article called Apps Contest Winners Need Better Government Data to Sustain Innovative Services. It was a very well-written article about the challenges of sustaining the make-data-available-for- private-sector-innovators model.

By now, many of us are aware of events like Apps for Democracy, an app developing contest in Washington DC that yielded $2.3 million worth of applications at a cost of $50,000. These events have been highly successful because:

Government wins by

  • getting applications developed for free
  • building positive relationship with development community
  • gaining a PR win from the public for being innovative and transparent

Development Community wins by

  • Competing for cash prizes
  • getting their name out and showcasing their talents on a public stage

Public wins by

  • obtaining many applications to help them engage with government
  • gaining transparency into government

There’s no doubt valuable apps emerge from these contests, but what happens after the novelty of the contest wears off? This can’t be just a once and for all event, then everyone goes home and things revert back to the way they were. How do you sustain the viability of this relationship so value is still being created in the long term?

Before answering this question, there are several challenges that must be addressed:

1. Who is going to maintain these apps?

The GovTech article mentions that most of these apps don’t get updated after its release because government lacks the resources and developers lack the motivation. It doesn’t make sense for developers to keep playing if they can’t generate revenue and it’s very difficult to monetize off of apps given to the public.

2. How do we get through the “valley of disinterest”?

Former DC CTO Bryan Sivak believes open data has lost some of its luster from a few years ago, dropping from the “peak of inflated expectation” to the “valley of disinterest.” Now that the hype has subsided, are we still interested in this type of model?

3. Not enough data is being offered by government

Daniel Odio, CEO of a mobile Web consulting firm, envisions “dazzling possibilities for private-sector mash-ups… but doesn’t think enough open data is offered.” Ideally, data should be delivered to the public before they have to ask for it, but we’re still a long ways off from realizing that potential.

4. There’s a lot of “dirty data” out there

The article also cites a common frustration among developers trying to work with sloppy, inaccurate or unreliable data. A lot of times agencies are just pushing data out for data’s sake, and if it’s not carefully inspected for accuracy or if it’s not in a usable format, then developers can’t do much with it.

I’d like to add a few more challenges to this list

5. Cultural shift required

Technologically speaking, making data available is easy. There are plenty of tools available to help government push out data in formats that can be easily consumed by the public. The bigger challenge tends to be cultural. It requires a shift in the way government thinks about their data, and there are still a lot of agencies who aren’t ready for this shift.

6. People want quality, not quantity

It makes great PR to brag about hundreds of apps being developed with open data, but how many of them would actually be used by the public? Do we as consumers really want 52 apps telling us where the nearby bus stops are? Sure, it’s not up to government to decide what’s valuable or not, but if you get 300 apps from a contest and only a handful get used, the value of your efforts might be a bit overstated.

7. Can the networks support it?

One of the most frustrating things for a mobile user is to open up an app and wait and wait and wait. Carriers are promoting 4G, but many people don’t have devices that make it worth their time and battery life. For now, 3G is still predominant and if you have a data intensive app, waiting too long is one of the fastest ways to lose interested users.

8.  Are we creating the next wave of the digital divide?

Smartphones are increasing exponentially, but the overall market share of iOS, Android and Blackberry devices is still a minority. Obviously, certain demographics are adopting smartphones at a much faster rate than others, so if government is offering innovative ways to access data that can only be experienced by certain demographics, are we essentially creating a new digital divide?

In the long term, I think the general idea of open data with private partnerships is sustainable, but maybe not in the form of contests. It would have to be a concerted effort with long term incentives for all stakeholders involved. The challenges will make it more difficult, but if true value is being created, the benefits can overcome these challenges.

Presentation from the Tx Gov 2.0 Camp on 1/28/2011

February 3, 2011 Leave a comment

On Friday 1/28, I had the opportunity to present with Dustin Haisler at the Texas Gov 2.0 Camp in Austin, TX. Our session was about transparency in government, and I talked about DIR’s Biennial Performance Report from last November.

You can access the presentation by clicking on the image below.

Transparency and the Performance Report PowerPoint title screen shot