Imagine if you ran a platform with a MMORPG or virtual world and a related LARP network with 4 million new accounts made a day -- but 2.4 million also removed a day. That's a lot of churn, you might think.
But imagine if you had 311,591,917 users as of July 2011, but only 132,618,580 or 56.8% of your user base as your 1,460-day uniques -- half just never show up to play except once every four years, and with an attrition rate like that on the accounts, small wonder.
And try to envision managing a concurrency of 239 million, or about 75% of that constantly churning user base online. What a governance problem, and think of the trouble tickets!
That's the platform called the United States of America -- or at least, how the gov 2.0 crowd should think of Game USA -- but never do. A platform only a third of the size of Facebook, with only half the users coming to the polls every four years, yet with about 75 percent or so online using the Internet.
The digital strategists talk about "serving the people," but it's really only merely themselves and their friends running things, constantly under the guise of "serving the public," without really any meaningful access of that public or involvement. It's really only a small cadre of engineers revolving in and out of government from Google and Microsoft and other big tech companies who decide, and a few big industry lobbying concerns like the Sunlight Foundation and their tribes of Twitter followers. This debate set in motion by Whimsley, and continued vigorously by me with Alex Howard of O'Reilly in a context where Whimsley at least didn't censor most of it, really sums up the issues -- insular, arrogant, out-of-touch people who have trouble even connecting to other insular, arrogant, out-of-touch people.
The US Government's Office of Science and Technology Policy rolled out this week its new digital strategy: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People and to be uber-cool, released the news at TechCrunch Disrupt.
I'll hazard a guest that most Americans, even tech-savvy social-media-using youth, do not have much to do with the social media or web presence of the federal government of the United States of America -- they may have checked a disease at cdc.gov or even a travel advisory for foreign countries at state.gov but they are unlikely to follow the politics of the government's social media programs itself.
Most of us who do interact with the government's presence on a daily basis encounter things like the USG's digital inanities in our daily automated news emails or actual live emails, where the State Department or other government agencies, eagerly trying to be cool, put social media button graphics *right in the email itself*. It's not like I'm going to be sharing the private bilateral email on Twitter! Nor would you want me to. And the press releases are often news-free and anodyne and wouldn't need to go on Twitter, where they'd already been tweeted and re-tweeted by the time you see them in your mailbox. So why all those dumb cluttery buttons in an email?! It's an embarrassment -- like painfully awkward adolescents trying too hard.
But for the insiders following this, such as TechPresident which has a mildly critical piece here, it's a program that both engages and frustrates them, but for reasons that don't have to do with how most Americans "access the platform".
A key program is even the notion of "platform," which is not a broader concept in the minds of these engineers -- not "of, by, and for the people" -- but a narrow concept that computer engineers have about their own work and the interactions with their peers in their culture. That's the problem -- they are blind to everything else -- although CEOS are not indifferent to the profits to be made.
Basically, the business proposition here made implicitly at TechCrunch Disrupt, and made more explicit on various tech blogs, is that the federal government will make available various data sets generated by the American people and collected by various government agencies, in order to be utilized and monetarized by both small start-ups and big IT businesses. The incentive is for the companies to monetarize this rich trove of user data, and the entire shebang is packaged in a "serve the public" wrapping both to entice the better-worlding geeks and fool the general public -- who are supposed to just be happy with new shiny apps.
Is this really in the public interest?
At TCD, the Chief Technology Officer for the whole United States, Todd Park (a former Booz, Allen consultant and founder of his own health companies, becoming the number-one venture-backed company in 2011) and the Chief Information Officer, Steven VanRoekel (a former Microsoft executive) did a demo where they tried to look like a "start-up" by saying phrases like "kick-ass" a lot -- but failed to wear hoodies.
Todd Park bounded out on stage booming like a TED speaker, warbling about "datapaloozas" the USG would have with geeks for "hackathons," and ranting how terrible it was that the average applicant for a federal student loan has to go to *14 websites*. Awful, awful!
But...I've filled out those applications. There weren't any 14 sites at all. There were about...2. Or three, maybe. It was a very streamlined process, in fact. I don't know what he's talking about. Has he ever actually filled out one of these applications?
And datapalooza? (I'm barfing a little at the term). There's only this health thing which doesn't seem like much -- except wait, one guy already monetarized it for $1.25 million in funding (!) for his health-related start-up!
I'm all for capitalism -- I'm for more capitalism than your average lefty geek who really wants technocommunism or Ron Paul libertarianism benefiting mainly his own clan. But this sort of thing strikes me as obscene from the user perspective -- we haven't had a say in how this data is selected, used, and then monetarized.
One of the things the new Digital Strategy is going to do is freeze the number of .gov sites and not produce any more. (TechPresident contorts into a pretzel trying to explain and then approve this silly concept.)
I caught up with John Farmer of the Office of Science and Technology, who set up the empty table with a large American flag on a flagpole, where set up its booth at TCD.
There was nobody else there, despite an announcement from the podium that all the geeks who wanted to come and sign up to help their country by becoming White House Tech Fellows or part of the open gov community could come talk to the reps.
I asked Farmerwhy the cap on .gov sites, at a time when social media technology itself in fact was creating new forms of government presences that didn't exist before, like humanrights.gov and that room had to be left for future such efforts. After all, with good search, we shouldn't worry any more about the proliferation of gov that we do of com or org. He couldn't say. There isn't any logic. The Internet can always absorb "one more" and search is good enough not to care. Why are we fetishizing this non-problem? Do they think it sounds "efficient" if they have "less gov sites"?
Then I asked John how America, which has had some really bad leaks and hacks of user data and sensitive employee communications with foreign partners planned on protecting the data of the people of the United States first, before "liberating" it.
"You're sitting on the most valuable user data of any platform -- salary information that nobody shares even with Facebook; health data that nobody shares on Twitter; birth and death data that nobody shares on Tumblr. How will you secure it?" I wondered.
Farmer was obviously annoyed at having only a pesky blogger show up to talk to him, but a Google engineer came up and began asking him to page a mutual acquaintance that he was trying to reach.
I persisted, asking about the data sets to be released. Farmer assured me, as if I were a child, that of course the data from the IRS would not be included in the open gov sites. Great, except with the kind of venture capital to be attracted, and the kind of money that can be made with data (plus the consulting contracts -- see the full disclosure at the end), how thick is the firewall?
A journalist from ProPublica asked the question I was thinking but thought would be pointless to ask. Is this Digital Strategy team from OSTP working on the Obama Campaign? We've all read about the Dashboard, the president's black-berry etc.
"Oh, no, we have absolutely nothing to do with the campaign," said Farmer. Nothing at all.
"So why are you putting out health data first, then? Isn't that part of boosting ObamaCare?" I queried.
He said in fact they had started doing this in 2009 so it wasn't really about that. Mkay.
I asked for concrete examples of what the data was. How did this actually benefit the American people?
He cited data on the quality and safety of hospitals.
So I can see an app for that -- you're in a car accident, you whip out your i-phone, and as the ambulance takes off with you in the back, you shop around looking for the nearby better hospitals and urge them to go to the better one. Right!
The ProPublica journalist also asked about "constituency communications" (she was talking to the executive branch of government and really should have cared more about Congress in all of this, but ProPub is "progressive").
Farmer began spinning her with the story of We the People (whitehouse.gov/petitions). I interrupted and said that according to Alec Ross, whom I questioned about this at the meeting at Carnegie last week, there are now 10,000 plus petitions backlogged that have reached the number of 20,000 signatures under which the president is "mandated" (by the random bunch of coders on this project who decided, not by Congress) to provide a "statement of policy" (not the same thing as "doing the thing the petition asked")
So this "can't scale" as any engineer could point out, and there's no other venture capitalist around to beam, "nice problem to have" about this, um, largesse in user engagement.
Again, you know, maybe it's why we have this thing called "Congress"? They've been scaling for more than 200 years and most of the members have "gone digital" in fact.
I view whitehouse.gov/petitions as one of the greatest boondoggles of the Obama Administration and a real scam, a usurpation of the function of Congress, a coder gambit to do an end run around democratically-elected representatives, and a failure on its own terms. It's largely a marketing campaign to sell the Obama presidency, especially in the next elections. It stinks.
Farmer could not even tell me the traffic on this site he was touting. He referred me to another official and I'll try to get the answer.
I asked Farmer if there would be any data sets on the number of drone attacks made in Pakistan by the CIA. He didn't even find this ironic or even something liberal folk could share a knowing chuckle about, because he was primarily just annoyed that no geeks were showing up at the desk, and trying to palm me off on some other PR guy from the office in charge of "digital strategies" (spin) -- but that guy was caught backstage like so many of the speakers at TechCrunch, because the staff wanted to keep them to themselves and not share them even with the people paying $3,000 a ticket.
As for CISPA, Farmer said curtly that Obama had already said he would veto it -- nothing to discuss here.
The Digital Strategy has a (very brief) privacy and security section, but it isn't about "how can the American people's data be protected from rapacious Silicon Valley big data miners who want to monetarize it," but rather its main take-home seems to be this: by having all data in the cloud (well, an appropriately-secured cloud), the federal government wouldn't have to worry about devices being lost or stolen, because the data would reside on the cloud servers and could presumably be nuked when "in the wrong hands," like that contractor's laptop that had the plans for the president's helicopter on them, that got in to the hands of Iranian intelligence.
Again: the issue is about who gets to decide which data sets. Health is Todd Park's personal commercial interest from his years of work in the IT/health industry; health is Obama's pet project he is promoting. But if we were to do this right, as an authentic public-interest matter, shouldn't we look at government spending in other areas? Like, how is that Start-Up America really going? Where are those green jobs that have been so ballyhooed and subsidied? (And my favourite ever-unanswered question: what are the salaries of the top officials in OSTP?)
There's a massive amount to discuss and critique here, but it's beyond the time justified spent on it. The insiders like Clay Johnson, quoted in Tech President, merely care about pushing the open-source cult -- he wants more attention to "procurement" by which he likely means "saving money" on open source software that ensures more consulting contracts for geeks.
Others complain that the turnover is too high of the top geeks who leave major IT firms to come into government -- they stay two years or less. Indeed. That's because government service is only a resume-builder and a lobbying vehicle.
I went around asking some of the young geeks at TCD whether they'd apply to be fellows. Of course, six months is an eternity in the life of a young start-up kid, and they couldn't imagine a commitment that long -- and one that was unpaid, even by Kickstarter bare-bones funds. For somebody who had a million dollars from TechStars at the age of 18, how could government service compete?!
Not surprisingly, I then saw Alex Howard of O'Reilly Media in Washington lurking by the government booth; he makes a living covering this stuff enthusiastically. I said, "There's my nemesis," and said fortunately he couldn't block me in real life. "Nor would I want to," he said, as if he's Mr. First Amendment on skates.
Interestingly, I stumbled on a person at lunch who held similar views to me regarding the failure of the gov 2.0 movement to be vetted by Congress, and for congressional representatives to have enough oversight over this boondoggle and meaningful participation in the program when it was started -- and that does not mean some only-yesterday Congressional hearing which doesn't count.
I was surprised, as I've never found a single person who saw this as I do -- either they don't follow technology and can't be persuaded to care, or they do following technology and only favour the coders' perspective. This start-up owner was a Young Republican leader in his state -- and said he shared a libertarian perspective. Interesting -- as usually libertarians -- if they bother -- tend to take Silicon Valley's side in this issue. He thought that gov 2.0 should have been devised and monitored by Congress.
I don't think the notion of having more actual democratic participation in gov 2.0 through elected representatives is some "libertarian" or "Republican" idea, however; I view it as a classic liberal idea that should be a tabula resa for both parties. It's not. Because the gov 2.0 want to put their agenda over on the government via the executive branch, and simply view Congress as "broken" because in fact it's in the way of their agenda. Good! Except, as we know, the geeks view this as a problem that merely is "routed around".