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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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Who Else Does SOPA Affect?

January 26, 2012 Leave a comment

On January 18, 2012, thousands of websites such as Wikipedia, reddit.com, and WordPress joined a concerted effort to protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). These websites were voluntarily blacked out to demonstrate the impact of what these bills could do if passed. The federal government already has the authority to force a website to take down pirated content on its site, but the proposals in SOPA extend their authority to require Internet providers to block access, disabling search engines to link, and preventing investors from funding these sites.

The activities on January 18 turned out to be the largest online protest in history, resulting with the Legislature putting the bill on hold for now. Even President Obama showed his support.

 

Wikipedia blacked out their pages on Jan 18 to protest SOPA

Wikipedia blacked out their pages on Jan 18 to protest SOPA

 

However, it seems like almost all the focus is drawn to one place. FAQs and What-You-Need-To-Know-About-SOPA do a great job of explaining SOPA in plain language, but the focus is just on websites. I wonder if there will be any attention left for the other stakeholders affected by SOPA.

I’m not a lawyer so I’m not going to pretend to understand every word of this bill, but there were two sections that really caught my attention.

1) In Sec 205, it clearly states that the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Commerce shall “ensure that adequate resources are available…to ensure…aggressive support for enforcement action against violators of the intellectual property rights…”

What exactly does “adequate resources” and “aggressively support” mean? In our current economic climate, how do we come up with the funding to aggressively go after copyright offenders all over the world? What if it’s a country that doesn’t care about our copyrights? How does this affect our foreign policies and relationships in the international community? It would take A LOT of money to go after copyright infringers all over the world.

We got a taste of this last week, when the Department of Justice worked with New Zealand police to arrest executives from Megaupload.com. This might be the first domino to fall, but the way it’s written in SOPA is very clear: we’re going to commit to fighting piracy by opening up our pocketbooks.

I hope the next version of SOPA elaborates on this Section to clarify what this means.

 

2) In Sec 202, there is a provision for those that “intentionally traffic in goods or services and knowingly uses a counterfeit mark on or in connection with such goods and services”

To be more specific, “labels, patches, stickers, wrappers, badges, emblems, medallions, charms, boxes, containers, cans, cases, hang tags, documentation, or packaging…the use of which is likely to cause confusion, to cause mistake, or to deceive…”

Growing up in Southern California, there were plenty of flea markets, swap meets, and street vendors that sold designer brand products at ridiculously low prices. Walk through the city and you’ll see plenty of fake baseball caps and handbags. During the Super Bowl in 2011, federal agents seized $3.56 million worth of fake Super-Bowl related memorabilia.  I’m sure there are existing laws against the trafficking of counterfeit goods, so what is SOPA adding that doesn’t already exist?

I’m not advocating the preservation of cheap, fake goods, but I recognize there are a lot of people who make their living selling these products. I’m just curious to see how the next SOPA affects this community.

 

Overall, all signs point to SOPA to be completely revamped. Based on what we’ve seen so far, the majority of attention, at least from the mainstream media, is paid to large websites with user-generated content. It’ll be vey interesting to see how the international community and the underground economy are affected in the next iteration of the bill.

 

Categories: Web Tags: , , , ,

Netflix/Qwikster is Pure Genius

September 21, 2011 Leave a comment

What do you do if you run a highly successful company with two business lines; one extremely profitable but the other, not so much? Your customers still enjoy both products, but it’s increasingly difficult to advance the first if you have to keep pumping cash to sustain the second.

The obvious answer is, you get rid of the one that’s floundering and reinvest in the one that’s flourishing. Yes, there will be backlash from people who like the second, but you know that in the long term, it’s the right thing to do.

This is the exact situation confronting Netflix, a company that provides media through on-demand streaming services (boom) and DVDs through the mail (bust). Until recently. In a highly controversial decision, Netflix announced it is spinning off the DVD mail-in service to a completely different company called Qwikster. Netflix was qwikly reprimanded for the move, with critics disapproving of

  • A name that resembles other startups that died off, such as Friendster and Napster
  • A Twitter handle @qwikster that was already taken by someone who posts about taking a shower and getting stung by a bee
  • A name that can easily be misspelled, which hurts brand recognition
  • The second fee hike this year (only to the mail service, not to the streaming)

Could a savvy business man who brought the Blockbuster juggurnaut to its knees suddenly be so dim-witted to rebrand a business with a silly, childish name? Perhaps. Unless he was trying to kick Qwikster to the curb so he can focus on the other business line that he actually cares about.

Here’s my prediction: Qwikster will fail. Netflix will improve. To the point that people who love DVD by mail won’t care for it anymore because streaming will be sufficient.

Netflix’s biggest threat isn’t disgruntled users who huff and puff about fee hikes and inconvenient billing setups. Their biggest threat is competitors in the content streaming market. Big competitors with deep pockets and clear advantages.

  • Hulu Plus offers TV shows a day after they air
  • Amazon Instant is bundled with Amazon Prime
  • Apple iTunes has its own software platform and hardware devices
  • TimeWarner gets movies the same day as DVD releases
  • Android Market is backed by internet giant Google
  • Vudu, a streaming media company is backed by retail giant Walmart

Netflix’s advantage is in brand recognition and an already large customer base. But if it doesn’t improve its deficiencies soon, one of these other giants will overtake them with relative ease. They knew that if they had to keep sinking cash into a destructively expensive operation like mailing physical DVDs, where

  • the cost of postage keeps increasing,
  • the number of DVDs keep expanding, and
  • the overhead costs never diminish

they’ll be sunk faster than you can say Alta Vista. But now that they put all their eggs into one content streaming basket, the likelihood of success greatly increases, despite the short term criticism from upset customers.

So was it the right move to ditch the DVD mail-in service? Definitely.

 

Can government learn something from this move? Obviously, government can’t get rid of important services just because it’s antiquated and incredibly costly to maintain. Government could save a lot of money if they closed down brick and mortar field offices and mandate citizens to conduct business online, but they can’t.

However, has government done a careful analysis of the cost-effectiveness of their programs? Yes, we have many performance measures and benchmarks, but do they translate to useful metrics that help us better manage our programs? In many cases, yes, but in many cases, probably not. Government still sinks way too much money into outdated, costly behemoths and not enough into newer, more cost-effective technologies. It’s certainly easier to talk about efficiency and effectiveness than to actually do it, but there are steps government can do to better manage how it allocates resources. We might be scornfully criticized in the short term, but in the long term, it might be the right thing to do.

Are You Allowed to Use that Awesome App?

August 10, 2011 2 comments

I hate carrying legal pads or laptops at conferences, but I need to take notes if I want to remember anything anyone says. The perfect solution? I take notes with Evernote on my mobile device, which I can access on my desktop at work, my laptop at home, and on both my phones wherever I get a signal.

But why stop there? I could

  • share my notes with coworkers,
  •  allow them to add and edit,
  •  supplement with photos, videos, scanned business cards, voice memos,
  •  use them to start a brainstorm session,
  •  tweet out nice, catchy soundbites,
  •  derive action items and task team members,
  • integrate with Microsoft Office…

…essentially transforming its use from my personal note-taking tool to an agency-wide knowledge-sharing and productivity application.

Sounds brilliant, right? Except, there might be a problem: I might not be allowed to use it for conducting official government business.

There are so many great web-based services that add productivity to the workplace, and many of them are free. From cloud-based services like Dropbox and Evernote to collaboration tools like wikis to schedule makers like Doodle to even just a URL shortener like bit.ly, the web is full of fantastic, innovative third parties waiting for people and organizations to take advantage of its services.

The problem is, many of these third parties have terms that a government agency can’t agree to, such as

Indemnification – this is a legal term meaning that you won’t hold the provider responsible for legal actions created as a result of using their website. A real world example is if you rent a power drill from the hardware store, and you hurt yourself with the tool, you can’t hold the store responsible for what you’ve done. What are the chances that the government’s use of a website would result in legal action? Probably not high, but still, the fact that the provider would have such a clause might give your legal department heartburn.

Jurisdiction – It’s easy to forget that although a website is ubiquitous, the provider still resides in one location, like Silicone Valley or Austin, TX. To protect themselves, they’ll often say that if you ever need to duke it out in court, you must go to the court on their home turf, which may have different laws than where you are, especially if they’re in a different country. Is it likely that you’re agency will take legal aciton against a website? Again, not likely. But again, it’s still there.

Advertisement – In order for many websites to offer services at no cost to the user, they’ll place advertisements on the site to generate revenue. Pretty standard. But having official government information displayed on a website with advertisements on the side might violate legislation, even if it’s not viewed by the public.

Agreement via clickthrough – When you click that checkbox saying you agree, you are legally entering into a contract with the provider. There are still many government entities that have restrictions about entering into contracts, such as requiring a signature or approval from the Executive Director. This makes sense for paper contracts entered between government and a vendor, but wouldn’t be possible with websites. But still, a contract is a contract.

Other problems not related to Terms of Service:

Privacy Policy – In addition to Terms of Service, it’s standard practice for websites to have a Privacy Policy. This is a statement about the information they collect about their users. Even though you’re a government agency, it was a private person that signed up, not the agency. Many of these sites will collect information such as log data and cookies to use as part of their business model research and analytics.

Now with many websites providing mobile apps to enhance services, they might have insight into information on your phone or tablet, such as your address book, call log, what other apps you have and GPS coordinates. You’ll probably never know what they do with this data, but the thought that it’s being collected could deter your agency.

Accessibility – Many modern websites have problems meeting accessibility requirements, which could preclude your government entity from using its services, even if the website is used by one person with no physical disabilities. There are often workarounds or exemptions, but it could take some time to get approval.

Offshore operations – Many government entities have Security policies that prohibit data to reside on offshore servers for disaster recovery purposes. If the service provider is in another country, their servers will be too. And with so much stuff going into the cloud, who knows where your data is being housed?

An example is bit.ly, a popular URL shortener service for many Twitter clients. The “.ly” top level domain is the country code for Libya, which has nothing to do with bit.ly. They just wanted a short and catchy URL. But to a CISO, this might give the impression that their servers are housed in Libya, which could be a deal breaker (for the record, bit.ly is based in New York and doesn’t do any business in Libya. More details here).

This is just a quick list of obstacles you could encounter if you try to use web-based applications for official government business. The problem is that this model of no-cost-in-exchange-for-non-negotiable-agreements fly in the face of traditional government procurement methods. In many cases, legal departments will accept the risk involved with terms of service, because the risk is so small compared to the potential business value gained.

There is a lot of work being done in this area for social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, but not as much for internal business use applications like Evernote and Dropbox. The federal government is definitely aware of these issues and is very successful at negotiating with service providers on www.apps.gov, but this doesn’t apply to state and local govenrment (A provider only has to agree to one jurisdiction with the federal government, Washington D.C., but 50 different jurisdictions for states, and countless for locals).

In the end, government workers need to get the jobs done. These services can help make it chearper, better, faster. At some point, government will need to figure out how to effectively and efficiently allow apps and websites that deliver business value to be implemented safely and quickly for its business users.

How does your agency handle these issues?

Why Publish Paper Reports?

December 2, 2010 2 comments

Every other year, my agency produces a Biennial Performance Report that shows the progress of IT initiatives across state agencies. Traditionally, we have published paper documents with a PDF version for download. This year, we flipped the model on its ear by turning this report into a website.

Biennial Performance Report website

By virtue of being online, there are a number of inherent benefits.

1) Searchable
Perhaps the easiest advantage is the ability to search. Not everyone reads from cover to cover and is often looking for something specific.

The report itself is also searchable. Use SEO best practices and promote with social media and this report might benefit another state looking for examples like cloud-based solutions for building customized applications.

2) Linkable
The ability to embed links is another low hanging fruit. A large part of the report is to highlight what other agencies have done, and many times that agency already has a website/page about it.

You can also link the raw data that fed the analysis of the report. There were volumes of agency data that would have tripled the length had we included them in an appendix. Instead, we built pages for this data, adding a level of transparency that wasn’t there in the past.

3) Readable
Writing for the web is very different from writing for paper. Online text must be short and to the point, which is not always easy.

For example, here is the introductory sentence from a report by a highly respected government publication:

“The interactive and collaborative nature of Web 2.0 tools of which social media is just one category clearly affords governments at all levels a significant opportunity to engage with citizens and the direct and indirect users of their services across a wide array of programs.”

You might lose some readers with this style. Instead, what if you said:

“Web 2.0 allows government to engage with citizens in a variety of ways.”

I don’t think I’ve lost anything besides 32 words. And that’s just the first sentence of a 37 page document.

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However, being online poses risks as well.

It better be intiutive
Since websites are blank slates, your information architecture better be clearly and intuitively organized. If users can’t figure out how to navigate your report, you’ve done a disservice to your audience and you’ll end up with a negative user experience and a request for a paper copy (if they still care).

Catering to a general audience
For a paper report, it’s expected that you cater to a specific audience. However, if you want your online report to reach as many viewers as possible, you’ll have to find a way to appeal to the casual reader as well as the researcher digesting every word.

What we’ve done isn’t just a change in media output; it’s a cultural shift in how information is presented and consumed. Some may be turned off by the assortment of options, opting for a tangible document with the linear left-right-top-down approach.

But for others, it’s a step in a direction that makes perfect sense. We as consumers are replacing many analog practices with better, cheaper, and faster alternatives fueled by internet technology. Government should recognize this shift and adapt where it makes sense.

Please take a look through the Biennial Performance Report and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your suggestions on how we can improve the site.

Categories: Web Tags: , , , ,