NDN Blog

Open Government Takes Flight

When I last wrote about the Open Government Initiative, the White House had just released their directive calling on all federal agencies to develop their own strategies to meet the objectives of "Transparency, Participation & Collaboration," laid out a year ago on President Obama's first day in office.  Well, last week, all the agencies unveiled their Open Government Webpages, replete with high-value data sets, and avenues for the public to communicate with their government.

Wondering how much direct, bilateral foreign aid we sent to Burundi in 2007?  I thought so.  So was I.  Now you can find out through USAID's open gov page. Here's the Justice Department's page, State's, DHS's, and so on. Pretty cool stuff, and an unambiguous step in the right direction. Here in America, openness is what we're all about.

The White House rates the efforts of each agency, though I smell a bit of grade inflation. The Project on Government Oversight put together a list of 13 best practices that each agency might want to consider as their continue to revise and edit their pages.

More broadly, as I've written before, this is a pretty big step for the government. Openness is not in the nature of bureaucracies, and it's taken a big push from the Obama folks to get these agencies moving. But there's a lot of data buried in our government that, if available to the public, could be put to untold good use. And for the state to incorporate the citizenry in the provision of useful public services-- well, that's a pretty fundamental re-drawing of the line between the government and the people.

Over in the UK, David Cameron's Conservative Party is pushing this bill even further, guaranteeing that if he becomes the next Prime Minister, his government will publish all government contracts online.  Radical indeed.

We'll be discussing these issues and others this Friday, February 19, here at NDN. Andrew McLaughlin, a former Google policy executive, is the Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House, where the effort toward open government has been led.  He'll be joined by James Crabtree, managing editor at Prospect Magazine in Britain, a trustee of MySociety.org, one of the world's leading civic website builders, and a leading commentator on the British government’s efforts at openness.

For more information about the event, go here, or just RSVP. If you can't make it to our offices, we'll be webcasting the event live, and we'll post video afterward on our YouTube page. So, really, you have no excuse not to hear what we talk about on Friday.

UPCOMING EVENT: Transparency, Accountability, Collaboration: Open Government in the U.S. and the U.K.

Through the launch of data.gov and the Open Government Initiative, President Obama has begun a major push to open data to the public, and is taking strides to foster transparency, participation and collaboration with the American people. Across the pond, Gordon Brown is leading an unprecedented effort to make the "power of information" a guiding principle of the UK government; meanwhile, David Cameron s new conservative party is running on a platform of transparency, accountability, and choice and has committed to radical new openness policies, like publishing the details of every government contract online.

James CrabtreeAndrew McLaughlinBoth countries clearly have much to learn from each other, especially given the many questions that remain: How much data should governments share? How should the public be involved in the policymaking conversation? How might open data bring about a shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the state? Better information will enable citizens, small businesses and entrepreneurs to make better decisions and innovate new products, potentially underpinning the growth of a new generation of information-age business that could help lift America out of its economic malaise. But information also redraws the boundary between people and their government and, as Britain's David Cameron has shown, there is a real battle for political mastery of this space.

Join NDN and the New Policy Institute at 12 pm on Friday, February 19th for a lunchtime conversation about the changes the open government initiatives in the U.S. and the U.K. are ushering in. Joining us will be Andrew McLaughlin, Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House one of the offices spearheading the Open Government Initiative and James Crabtree, an editor at Prospect Magazine in Britain, and a trustee of MySociety.org, one of the world's leading civic website builders, and a leading commentator on the British government s efforts at openness.


Andrew McLaughlin
Deputy Chief Technology Officer, White House

James Crabtree
Managing editor, Prospect Magazine
Trustee, MySociety.org


Friday, February 19th, 12pm
NDN: 729 15th St. NW, 1st Floor
Lunch will be served
Please RSVP here
Live webcast beginning at 12:15 pm

A Mobile Banking Primer

I had a great conversation today with Virginia Prescott of NHPR's "Word of Mouth" about the future (and past) of mobile banking, mobile payments, and mobile money transfer.  We talked about Kenyan mBanking success story mPESA, recent action toward mobile payments taken by American banks and wireless carriers, and what limiting factors we might see in coming years. Thank goodness we were on radio, and nobody could see my cheat sheet:

Cheat Sheet

You can listen to the whole show here (mBanking was the first segment).  Enjoy!

Global Mobile Media

I'll be on New Hampshire Public Radio's "Word of Mouth" with Virginia Prescott today at noon to talk about mobile banking, mobile payments, and mobile money transfer.  Fun stuff!

If you're not up in New Hampshire, you can tune in here at noon, or keep your eyes open for a recording, which will be available on their site soon.

If you're in DC, hope you're surviving the snow; if you're not, hope you're having a good laugh at us!

The Big Picture in Haiti Today

The Boston Globe's "Big Picture" blog publishes some of the best photojournalism on the web; their photo essays, which come out a couple times each week, and draw largely on the work of AP, AFP, Reuters and Getty photographers, are consistenly excellent.

They've done five such essays on the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, each of which is stirring and deeply compelling.  The photo below is, of course, related to the subjects I write about here, but is, more importantly, an excuse for me to encourage you to go look at the latest batch: Haiti three weeks later.

Haiti Router

Saturday Retina Tickler

To please your eyes and stimulate your brain cells, I offer you (courtesy of Wayan) a word cloud derived from Secretary Clinton's speech on internet freedom:

Internet Freedom Word Cloud

Happy Saturday!

Text to Haiti - Precursor to Mobile Banking?

In Americans' outpouring of support for the people of Haiti after the earthquake earlier this week, the Big Four mobile operators-- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile-- all made commendable efforts to maximize support for the Red Cross and other organizations. They waived fees on text messaged donations, they matched donations made by their employees, and they did something else that was, I think, even more significant: they advanced the transfer of of verified donations to the beneficiary organizations.

In the past, if you made a donation via text, your cell phone provider would add the charge to your bill at the end of the month, and then pass along the funds once you paid up.  This time, they transferred a good chunk of the total before getting paid themselves.

mPESAThis shift is a huge step toward mobile banking in the United States.  In Kenya, about 20% of the population subscribes to mPESA, a mobile payments service operated by mobile provider Safaricom.  mPESA allows mobile-to-mobile payments without any bank or credit card intermediary; it grew out of the practice-- common in the developing world-- of transferring pre-paid airtime among phones. This type of business has yet to take off in the United States, not for lack of demand, but more because of regulations that prevent telecom companies from acting like banks.

But by forwarding the donations to the Red Cross before recieving payment, the mobile operators took a subtle but very big step toward allowing payments via mobile. Now that we can all send money almost instantly to the Red Cross with a quick SMS, how long can it be before we'll be able to text $1.59 to CVS for a pack of gum, or wave our cell phones by a parking meter instead of pumping in quarters?

Before, the argument was that the telecom companies wouldn't want to be in the business of lending money, and didn't want complicated tie-ups with credit card companies or banks. Now, they've taken a step in that direction, and I expect they'll come out of it just fine-- and perhaps with an idea of the great business opportunity here.

China's Censorship and Information Freedom

The Chinese government has taken some umbrage at Secretary Clinton's speech on internet freedom last week. The Secretary, to be sure, called China out for censoring the internet, but she couched that criticism in pretty cozy language:

The internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it is fabulous. There are so many people in China now online. But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century. Now, the United States and China have different views on this issue, and we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently in the context of our positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship.

Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, was less friendly in his response:

The US attacks China's internet policy, indicating that China has been restricting internet freedom. We resolutely oppose such remarks and practices that contravene facts and undermine China-US relations.

China's internet is open. China is a country with the most vibrant internet development. By the end of last year, China had 384 million internet users, 3.68 million websites and 180 million blogs. China's Constitution guarantees people's freedom of speech. It is China's consistent policy to promote the development of internet. China has its own national conditions and cultural traditions. It supervises internet according to law, which is in parallel with the international paractice...

We urge the US to respect facts and stop attacking China under the excuse of the so-called freedom of internet.

Once we're past the PRC's spurious claims about how free their internet is, we can see this in the context of a much bigger picture. Much like our ongoing spats over Tibet, Taiwan and human rights, the Chinese see internet policy as a purely domestic matter, and take criticism of their policy as an affront to their sovereignty. Given our persistent failure to affect China's behavior on any other sovereignty issues, we're likely to continue receving nothing but hostility when we bring up internet freedom.

But China's trucluence shouldn't be taken as a reason to shut up about internet freedom and censorship. As the Secretary made clear in her speech, freedom of information is at the heart of both our economic prosperity and our national security. Deeper than that, freedom of information is-- in itself-- a core value of American society.

The progress of freedom around the world has been swamped because developing countries see China as a living example that economic success can be achieved without relaxing the grip of authoritarian rule. For the first time in decades, perhaps centuries, freedom is in retreat around the world. Now more than ever, America must stand as a beacon of liberalism and an exemplar of the power of openness.

We may not get the needle to move on censorship in China, but we must be vocal in support of information freedom-- an unambiguous good-- and in our criticism of those who stifle liberty anywhere on the globe.

Clinton Stands Up for Internet Freedom

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a major address this morning on Internet Freedom.  She riffed on FDR's "Four Freedoms," laid down the gauntlet with states that curtail internet freedom, and wrapped it up with this analogy about a Hatian girl who was saved by a text message.  It gave me goosebumps:

So let me close by asking you to remember the little girl who was pulled from the rubble on Monday in Port-au-Prince. She’s alive, she was reunited with her family, she will have the chance to grow up because these networks took a voice that was buried and spread it to the world. No nation, no group, no individual should stay buried in the rubble of oppression. We cannot stand by while people are separated from the human family by walls of censorship. And we cannot be silent about these issues simply because we cannot hear the cries.

Clinton NewseumAs a reader of this blog, I'll have to insist that you read the whole thing, or watch the video here. I'll give out prizes to anybody who does both.

Really, this was an important speech. More than anything we've heard previously, this begins to lay out some of the ideas that will underpin the "Obama Doctrine." Secretary Clinton took a strong, unambiguous position for the freedom of information.  Even if she's not particularly savvy with the technology itself (she joked about this), Secretary Clinton understands its power, and she spoke as someone who has imagined a truly networked world-- in all its potential and all its risks. 

Anyhow, I liked the speech, and NDN liked the speech, as it was very much in line with some of our most foundational arguments. Here are some other people who have used their access to the global network to share their feelings about the speech:

- Ethan Zuckerman was encouraged "to hear Secretary Clinton sounding like a dyed in the wool cyberutopian."

- Jose Antonio Vargas applauds Clinton's adoption of the idea that access to the internet, in repressed states, can be equivalent to freedom.

- The Guardian offered a good preview of the speech yesterday, illustrating some of the intellectual roots of the ideas it contained.  They also managed to squeeze in a quote from yours truly, vastly upping the quality of the piece in the eyes of my mother.

- Senator John Kerry echoes many of Clinton's sentiments and ideas.

- Evgeny Morozov, who doesn't like anything, didn't like the speech.  Some valid criticism, some less so.

- The AP read the speech as an assault on China and other censorious countries. Strange reading, I'd say.

NDN Backgrounder: Internet Freedom

Last week, Google announced that they would no longer censor their search results in China.  On Thursday, Hillary Clinton will be delivering a major address on internet freedom. We at NDN have long been leaders in this conversation around how the internet and the global communications network can be a force for freedom. In 2007, in the introduction to A Laptop in Every Backpack, Simon Rosenberg and Alec Ross wrote:

We believe it should be a core priority of the United States to ensure that all the world’s people have access to this global network and have the tools to use it for their own life success. There is no way any longer to imagine free societies without the freedom of commerce, expression, and community, which this global network can bring. Bringing this network to all, keeping it free and open and helping people master its use must be one of the highest priorities of those in power in the coming years.

Since releasing that paper in 2007, we have written a great deal more on these subjects, and we have assembled below some of our best work on the subject. For future commentary, be sure to check Global Mobile, our blog about the power of connectivity and technology. Enjoy:

  • Question for the Week
    1/18/10: by Sam duPont
    Sam reflects on recent statements by President Obama that begin to lay out a liberal worldview, and asks whether we can continue business-as-usual with China, given recent events.
  • Are Free and Open Societies in Retreat?
    1/17/10: by Simon Rosenberg
    Simon responds to a recent essay in the Economist that sees global challenges to liberty, and observes that the great battles of the 21st century will be open vs. closed, rather than left vs. right.
  • Reflections on 21st Century Statecraft
    1/15/10: by Sam duPont
    One year into President Obama's first term, Sam duPont looks at "21st Century Statecraft," one of this administration's defining foreign policy initiatives so far, and identifies the actions that have comprised this initiative.
  • Should Access to Mobile Networks be a Universal Right?
    12/21/09: by Simon Rosenberg
    Looking at the Administration's recent commitment to protection of human rights in Iran, Simon asks whether—in an age when we use our mobile phones to do so much—we should consider access to our devices and networks a universal right.
  • Twitter, Iran, and More: Impressions from the Front Lines of the Global Media Revolution
    7/15/09: with Nico Pitney, Eric Jaye, and Theo Yedinsky
    In this discussion of the role of Twitter in politics and media, we hosted Nico Pitney, the Huffington Post reporter who brought the voices of Iranian protesters out into the open, and Eric Jaye and Theo Yedinsky of Gavin Newsom’s groundbreaking gubernatorial campaign in California.
    Video: Nico Pitney
    Video: Eric Jaye & Theo Yedinsky
    Video: Q&A
  • Alec Ross, Tom Kalil & Tim Wirth on the Power of Mobile
    6/26/09: with Alec Ross, Tom Kalil, and Sen. Tim Wirth

    NDN co-hosted the release of a new paper jointly published by the UN Foundation and the Vodaphone Foundation examining the potential for mobile technology to improve healthcare delivery in the developing world. Speaking at the event were Alec Ross, Tom Kalil, and former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth. Simon Rosenberg hosted the discussion.
    Transcript: Simon Rosenberg (intro)
    Video: Alec Ross
    Video: Tom Kalil
    Video: Senator Tim Wirth
    Video: Simon Rosenberg (interview)
  • Obama: No Realist He
    6/16/09: by Simon Rosenberg
    Simon argues that, given who President Obama is and what he represents, he does not have the option to become a foreign policy realist. Instead, he must become a chief global advocate of free and open societies.
  • Harnessing the Mobile Revolution
    10/8/08: By Tom Kalil

    Tom Kalil, now Deputy Policy Director of Science and Technology at the White House, authored a paper for the New Policy Institute analyzing the power of mobile to create economic growth, better public health, and stronger democracies in the developing world.
    PDF: Harnessing the Mobile Revolution
  • The Power of Mobile
    4/14/08: by Simon Rosenberg

    On the heels of stories about the potential of mobile technology to help fuel protests, Simon asks what power mobile phones can have to fight poverty, as well.
  • A Global Recession for Democracies?
    3/8/08: by Simon Rosenberg
    Despite a global optimism about the spread of democracy, Simon notes that it has faced challenges and setbacks in recent years.
  • A Laptop in Every Backpack
    05/01/07: By Alec Ross and Simon Rosenberg
    Alec Ross, now Senior Adviser on Innovation to Secretary of State Clinton, co-authored this paper with Simon, in which they argued that connectivity to the global information network is an essential part of life in the 21st century, and called for the deployment of netbooks to prepare our children for this new world.
    PDF: A Laptop in Every Backpack
    Video: Alec Ross
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