Political Technology

New Media informs Chinese quake response

In the wake of the catastrophic earthquake in central China last week, the western media has reported on the role that new media – blogs, mobile phones, and instant messages – have played in communicating news of the earthquake around China. These communications mark a vast change in the flow of information surrounding a disaster from previous disasters in China.

From Cara Anna of the Associated Press:

Almost nonstop, the uncensored opinions of Chinese citizens are popping up online, sent by text and instant message across a country shaken by its worst earthquake in three decades.

"Why were most of those killed in the earthquake children?" one post asked Thursday on FanFou, a microblogging site.

"How many donations will really reach the disaster area? This is doubtful," read another.

China is now home to the world's largest number of Internet and mobile phone users, and their hunger for quake news is forcing the government to let information flow in ways it hasn't before.

A fast-moving network of text messages, instant messages and blogs has been a powerful source of firsthand accounts of the disaster, as well as pleas for help and even passionate criticism of rescue efforts.

"I don't want to use the word transparent, but it's less censored, an almost free flow of discussion," said Xiao Qiang, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the China Internet Project, which monitors and translates Chinese Web sites.

China is well known for controlling the flow of information.

"We didn't know that hundreds of thousands of lives passed away during the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 until many years after the disaster took place," sociologist Zheng Yefu said in a commentary last week in the Southern Metropolis News.

But word about Monday's magnitude 7.9 quake spread quickly on Web sites and microblogging services, in which users share short bursts of information through text and instant messages. The services also publish the messages online.

"It all depends on the users; we don't edit it," FanFou founder Wang Xin said. "We just gather their words together."

A string of crises over the last few months — including crippling snowstorms and Tibetan protests — has taught the government a few lessons, Berkeley's Xiao said.

Government officials held a rare, real-time online exchange with ordinary Chinese on Friday to answer angry questions about why so many schools collapsed in the quake.

"They understand better now that to react slowly or to cover up in the Internet age is a bad idea," Xiao said in a telephone interview.

But the government is still monitoring the online conversation. Seventeen people have been detained since the earthquake, warned or forced to write apologies for online messages that "spread false information, made sensational statements and sapped public confidence," the state-run news agency, Xinhua, reported Thursday.

Even as recently as the SARS crisis, the Chinese government did not seem to understand the beneficial role of an uncensored press. Instead of allowing the media to report on the public health crisis, Chinese officials censored reports of the disease. This new media, particularly text messages via mobile communications devices, exist in great degree outside of the government’s ability to censor. NDN has written about the impact these devices are having on Chinese political movements and the power of mobile bring about major societal changes – from governance to public health.

The impact that these mobile phones has on communications in China will be far reaching. The Chinese government has been realizing that a free(er) press and communications flow serves an important role in distributing reliable information in the wake of disasters. While the blogging and texting has been valuable, rumors circulated wildly in these unrestricted media. The introduction of these technologies to the information market in China will have a profound effect on its openness going forward, as new media will doubtless improve both government responsiveness and the ability of, and necessity for, traditional media to function.

Gordon goes to the people

You've probably seen the British Prime Minister's Questions on C-Span. (If you haven't, check them out because they can get rough.) The question time essentially gives Members of Parliament from all parties about 30 minutes to question the PM on any subject. It has provided those who watch it both an interesting look at government and transparency. Now, PM Gordon Brown is building upon its success and making his office more transparent to the citizens it serves.

Thanks to the help of YouTube, the Prime Minister is taking questions directly from the people via 10 Downing Street's channel. In the video below, Gordon Brown introduces "Ask the PM" and says viewers can ask questions about Globalization, Climate Change, Housing, Jobs, Health and Public Services, etc. It looks like they've got a neat submission tool, so if you're a resident of the UK check it out and let us know how it works.

This is yet another example of where the new tools can take us. We saw the CNN-YouTube debates and the potential that video has shown in opening up the process, allowing so many to participate. We've also seen it give more people the chance to weigh in on critical conversations. So I can't wait to see how this goes. As always though, we must remember that not everyone will have the chance to participate, a problem in and of itself...

The Blossoming Field of Data Visualization

Now for a brief break from hardcore politics, to something tangentially related. Take a moment this weekend to play around at the website FlowingData. It’s a very nice nexus that points out many great examples of data visualization that are appearing these days. Most of them do not have to do with politics or advocacy, but I expect we soon will start seeing more visualization examples in that space.

I have been tracking data visualization techniques for years now, well before I became involved as director of the New Politics Institute. The field is important, and increasingly so, because of the mushrooming of data and information that our modern society is getting filled with due to the proliferation of computers and all things digital. Fortunately, the same technology that is helping cause the proliferation is also creating new ways for humans to process the information in efficient and powerful ways.

The Flowing Data site is one way into this increasingly fascinating world. (Kudos to Carlos Bakota who just pointed it out to me.) You can just start at the homepage and start clicking on the graphics that run down the middle of the page. They all lead to blog posts that explain and show some visual effort to make better sense of information. Today’s lead post shows a great example of how the Boston Globe figured out a way to chart each of Manny Ramirez's career homers on the path to his hitting 500. I mean they showed exactly where each ball was hit, in each stadium, off which pitcher, etc., etc. Yet they do this is a fun, simple, and very visual way. Check it out.

Another way into the material is through their archives, which break down examples by various categories. Here would be several that I would check out, here, here, and here. They also spotlight one of the great creators in this space, Jonathan Harris, a young innovator who is more like an artist. Early on, I connected with him and have been following him for years. To give you a sense of his work, check out this We Feel Fine website on tracking feelings around the world. It’s very hard to explain in mere words, which is the point of the whole field. Sometimes, you just have to see it to believe it.

Peter Leyden
Director of the New Politics Institute

MoveOn Learns to Herd the Cats of User-Generated Content

Much has been made about the wonders of user-generated video and other content that average people just spontaneously create for a candidate or a cause. But people in organizations and campaigns mostly think of these outbursts as random and impossible to initiate or influence. That’s why MoveOn’s “Obama in 30 Seconds” project is so important to watch. Once again MoveOn points the way towards how to effectively herd the cats of the viral world.

On Tuesday, MoveOn announces the finalists of the contest on the project’s dedicated website. The basic story, in case you have not heard, is that they asked average people to put together positive ads for Obama in the classic 30 second formula -- only via the web. In short order they had more than 1,000 submissions, which they then set up on a website that served up each of them one at a time for viewers to watch and rate. Each time you went to the site, you would be served up a different ad, or as many as you wanted served to you. Some were ok, as you would expect from any open contest (ever watch the early rounds of American Idol?), but some were terrific. Here is my favorite from my random troll.

The finalists in the voting will then be considered by an all-start panel of Hollywood types and other progressive heroes from Matt Damon to Moby and from Lawrence Lessig to Markos. The very top ad will be put on mainstream TV with MoveOn money. Already they have drawn 4.7 million votes, and they have not even begun the push that will come from having the top dozen examples or so.

The whole process is a deliberate attempt to solicit bottom-up media, structure a method to get to the ones with the most viral potential, and get everyone thinking about positive messages about Obama – and then sending them around the Web for their friends and family to see.

Other progressive organizations and campaigns should take note of this basic formula. It’s building on the truly innovative breakthrough that MoveOn did in the 2004 cycle with its “Bush in 30 Seconds” contest. That was a similar bottom-up video contest but done before YouTube even existed. It was truly visionary at the time.

This Obama in 30 Seconds does not have the breakthrough innovation, but it does refine and improve the process. And thankfully, they are encouraging not a negative spot on them, but a positive spot on us. It’s a much better direction to move towards. Congrats to MoveOn once again.

Peter Leyden
Director of the New Politics Institute

The ABC Debates and the Death Throes of Old Media and Old Politics

As a former journalist, schooled in the great traditions of journalism of the 20th century, I have to add my voice to the chorus and say that I was deeply disappointed in the performance of the profession in the debate last night. Deeply disappointed, if not angry, and yes, maybe a bit bitter.

At a moment when America needs our journalists and commentators on politics to help the country move beyond the petty, bickering, red-herring politics of the past 25 years, the moderators of the debate went back for one long immersion. George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson spent the entire debate at this momentous time in American history trying to parse out the clauses of off-hand remarks, point out the support of people with seven degrees of separation from Obama, and trap the candidates in these gotcha moments that would put a ripple in another 24 hours news cycle. It was deeply disappointing.

I must say, in my opinion, Clinton did not do much to resist the flow back to those past norms. She cut her teeth in that kind of political environment, learned to play well at that game, won a lot, and lost some. She seemed perfectly at home going back to the gotcha, parsing, split-hair politics that defined the Bush Clinton Bush years.

Obama truly did try to do something different, tried to break into a new kind of politics, a new kind of framework, a new kind of discussion. He needed to show he could battle head-to-head, and not appear wimpish, but he genuinely tried to shift the conversation to a higher plain. He did ok in that – certainly better than anyone else on that stage.

It’s so disappointing because our country is at a moment in history in which we face a series of deep structural changes to the American economy and society, to the whole world order, and we are up against a series of 21st century challenges that are unprecedented and extremely complex. If anything we need to call upon the best in the American people, the best in American political leaders, and the best in American journalists, to rise to the occasion, face up to the challenges, and help figure this out for the country and the world.

At a moment when we need that, the last thing we need is to get completely mired in this old politics, in which we’re worried about who wears a lapel pin, or whose supporter was a radical Weatherman 40 years ago. At a moment when our country needs to fundamentally rethink how we run the economy, how we distribute wealth, reinvest in our infrastructure, shift to new energy sources, rebuild our schools, provide healthcare in a 21st century setting of biotech and genetics, Stephanopoulos is trying his best to get the candidates to say: read-my-lips-no-new-taxes. He’s trying to fiscally hamstring the country for the next four years, or catch the Dems in a way that will allow McCain, a throwback not just to Bush but to Reagan, to hammer them about raising taxes this fall. (Folks, how many more times can we retread tax cuts as the center of our economic policy? The deficit is in the trillions, our infrastructure is collapsing, etc, etc. Why are we still back in that old Reagan frame?)

It’s difficult to watch and not get angry, and maybe even bitter.

One thing that makes me hopeful that is a basic confidence in the American people, the bedrock of our democracy. It looks like people are not buying this. In the bigger context of the race, Obama, who is bucking this old framework and forging a new one, maintains a lead and momentum. In the smaller context of the upcoming primaries, these distractions do not seem to be pushing the poll numbers around much.

You have to hope that there is a core wisdom in this complex mix of classes and ethnic groups and races that makes up this amazingly diverse democracy. You have to hope that a collective wisdom will come out of this process that moves away from the old politics, built on that old media and old journalism, and moves towards a new politics, which is increasingly built on new media.

It’s worth remembering the YouTube debates. They were not perfect by any means, but they were far better than the debate driven by the best of ABC News. At least CNN and YouTube blended together and tried to pose questions from average people with real concerns, balanced by journalistic analysis. The candidates were able to mostly talk about real issues and not this gotcha stuff.

It’s good that politics now has a more open new media environment to turn to when the one-way broadcast media proves wanting. Now people can see Obama expound upon a gotcha race moment at great length via a 45 minute video of his speech. They can just go to the web and instantaneously see it. The environment of new media is allowing for a new politics, a new conversation, a higher plane of discussion that is woefully missing from the politics of the last 25 years.

Some people lament the collapse of broadcast TV ratings, the freefall of newspaper circulation and ad revenue, and there is a place in my heart that laments the undermining of the great journalistic tradition of Edward Murrow and the Watergate reporters. But when I see performances like those of Stephanopoulos and Gibson, it makes me think: bring it on.

Peter Leyden

The power of mobile

Coming on the heels of a slew of stories about how people have been using mobile phones to organize against the government in places like Tibet and Egypt, the NY Times magazine published a truly great article yesterday by Sara Corbett on the growing global power of mobile phones, Can the Cellphone Help Global Poverty? An excerpt:

To get a sense of how rapidly cellphones are penetrating the global marketplace, you need only to look at the sales figures. According to statistics from the market database Wireless Intelligence, it took about 20 years for the first billion mobile phones to sell worldwide. The second billion sold in four years, and the third billion sold in two. Eighty percent of the world's population now lives within range of a cellular network, which is double the level in 2000. And figures from the International Telecommunications Union show that by the end of 2006, 68 percent of the world's mobile subscriptions were in developing countries. As more and more countries abandon government-run telecom systems, offering cellular network licenses to the highest-bidding private investors and without the burden of navigating pre-established bureaucratic chains, new towers are going up at a furious pace. Unlike fixed-line phone networks, which are expensive to build and maintain and require customers to have both a permanent address and the ability to pay a monthly bill, or personal computers, which are not just costly but demand literacy as well, the cellphone is more egalitarian, at least to a point. 

"You don't even need to own a cellphone to benefit from one," says Paul Polak, author of "Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail" and former president of International Development Enterprises, a nonprofit company specializing in training and technology for small-plot farmers in developing countries. Part of I.D.E.'s work included setting up farm cooperatives in Nepal, where farmers would bring their vegetables to a local person with a mobile phone, who then acted as a commissioned sales agent, using the phone to check market prices and arranging for the most profitable sale. "People making a dollar a day can't afford a cellphone, but if they start making more profit in their farming, you can bet they'll buy a phone as a next step," Polak says.

Last year, the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental research group, published a report with the International Finance Corporation entitled "The Next Four Billion," an economic study that looked at, among other things, how poor people living in developing countries spent their money. One of the most remarkable findings was that even very poor families invested a significant amount of money in the I.C.T. category - information-communication technology, which, according to Al Hammond, the study's principal author, can include money spent on computers or land-line phones, but in this segment of the population that's almost never the case. What they're buying, he says, are cellphones and airtime, usually in the form of prepaid cards. Even more telling is the finding that as a family's income grows - from $1 per day to $4, for example - their spending on I.C.T. increases faster than spending in any other category, including health, education and housing. "It's really quite striking," Hammond says. "What people are voting for with their pocketbooks, as soon as they have more money and even before their basic needs are met, is telecommunications."

There are clear reasons for this, but understanding them requires forgetting for a moment about your own love-hate relationship with your cellphone, or iPhone, or BlackBerry. Something that's mostly a convenience booster for those of us with a full complement of technology at our disposal - land-lines, Internet connections, TVs, cars - can be a life-saver to someone with fewer ways to access information. A "just in time" moment afforded by a cellphone looks a lot different to a mother in Uganda who needs to carry a child with malaria three hours to visit the nearest doctor but who would like to know first whether that doctor is even in town. It looks different, too, to the rural Ugandan doctor who, faced with an emergency, is able to request information via text message from a hospital in Kampala.

Jan Chipchase and his user-research colleagues at Nokia can rattle off example upon example of the cellphone's ability to increase people's productivity and well-being, mostly because of the simple fact that they can be reached. There's the live-in housekeeper in China who was more or less an indentured servant until she got a cellphone so that new customers could call and book her services. Or the porter who spent his days hanging around outside of department stores and construction sites hoping to be hired to carry other people's loads but now, with a cellphone, can go only where the jobs are. Having a call-back number, Chipchase likes to say, is having a fixed identity point, which, inside of populations that are constantly on the move - displaced by war, floods, drought or faltering economies - can be immensely valuable both as a means of keeping in touch with home communities and as a business tool. Over several years, his research team has spoken to rickshaw drivers, prostitutes, shopkeepers, day laborers and farmers, and all of them say more or less the same thing: their income gets a big boost when they have access to a cellphone.

This understanding of how being connected to this immensely powerful emerging global communications network was behind the two papers NDN released last year, A Laptop in Every Backpack and Tapping the Resources of America's Community Colleges. In these papers NDN argues for a new national committment to give all our workers and kids access to the global communications network and training on how to best use it for their own life sucess. As Alec Ross and I wrote in our Laptop paper:

It is the core premise of this paper that the emergence of a single global communications network, composed of Internet, mobile, SMS, cable and satellite technology, is rapidly tying the world's people together, is one of the seminal events of the early 21st century. Increasingly, the world's commerce, finance, communications, media and information are flowing through this network. Half of the world's 6 billion people are now connected to this network, many through powerful and inexpensive mobile phones. 

Each year more of the world's people become connected to the network, its bandwidth increases, and its use becomes more integrated into all that we do. Connectivity to this network, and the ability to master it once on, has become an essential part of life in the 21st century, and a key to opportunity, success and fulfillment for the people of the world.

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.

This paper offers thoughts on one piece of this commitment - how we best bring the power of this network to America's schoolchildren. Achieving the American Dream in this century increasingly requires fluency in the ways of this network and its tools - how to acquire information and do research, how to construct reports and present ideas using these new tools, how to type and even edit video. We believe we need a profound and urgent national commitment to give this powerful new 21st knowledge, essential for success in this century, to all American school children.

The implications of the spread of this mobile, global communications network are huge and only just beginning to be understood. It is a subject we've spent a lot of time thinking about, and plan to spend much more time in the coming years. We've looked hard at the coming power of mobile for advocacy at our affiliate, the New Politics Institute, and also recommend a compelling new series in the current issue of the Economist. And we are proud that Senator Obama has choosen to adopt our Community College plan outlined in our paper in his campaign for the Presidency. But there is much more to understand about how all this is changing the world, and how we can best harness it for the common good.

Bridging the Gap between Web Video and Traditional TV

A lot going on in the reimaging video front these days, the frontier where the new world of web video and the old world of traditional TV are butting up against each other, and even melding. A few stories and developments are worth pointing out:

The New York Times has a front page story today bringing the uninitiated up-to-speed on two trends we have been long talking about at the New Politics Institute: the viral nature of online media and the new media habits of the young Millennial Generation. Not a lot new there, but a nice overview with some nice numbers (Young people have tripled their voting numbers from 2004 to 2008 in the 22 states will exit polls so far.)

But there are some other nice stories elsewhere that go deeper. Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej have a very nice column in politico.com that analyzes the shift from soundbite to what they call "sound blast." and they lay out the numbers for web video that are starting to add up to serious impact. An example:

So far, Obama’s videos have been viewed more than 33 million times on YouTube.com — and that's not counting partial views, since YouTube only reports a full viewing as a “view.” His campaign has uploaded more than 800 video clips, and adds several more a day.

If you just look at his ten most viewed videos, here are some astonishing facts:

  • The average number of views for these top ten is currently more than 1.1 million (nearly double the average from a month ago!)
  • The average length of these ten videos is 13.3 minutes.
  • There have been nearly 3.9 million views of the longest of Obama's most popular videos, his “A More Perfect Union” speech on race in America.

By contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s YouTube numbers are nowhere as impressive as Obama's — a sign of her failure to understand and embrace the new medium than anything else. She’s garnered about 10.5 million views, but the average length of her top ten most viewed clips is only two minutes. Several of her top ten videos are actually 30-second TV ads, in fact.

There is a legitimate argument that traditional television still reaches far more people than video online. That is true, but a development that is just happening today may start to bridge that gap.

A new website called votervoter.com is just launching that will make it very easy for average individuals to create 30-second spots and get them placed on broadcast and cable television, starting with a $1,000 buy. The site is run by an advertising company with deep experience in placing TV ads, called Wide Orbit, in San Francisco.

This could be a very interesting development because you could image people banding together outside the campaigns to raise money to place popular online videos on mainstream TV. Given the looser campaign spending limits for backing ads like this, you could see a lot of money getting channeled this way. We’ll soon see.

And soon enough we will be taking a deeper look at some of these developments at our upcoming Reimaging Video event, It’s in DC on April 24th. Hope to see you there.

Peter Leyden
Director of the New Politics Institute

Obama dropped $1m on Google search

Yikes. Via Ken Wheaton at AdAge and Mark Walsh at MediaPost here's a quick update on an earlier post on the use of search ads in the 2008 campaign:

BARACK OBAMA AGAIN FAR SURPASSED Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in online ad spending, according to the candidates' latest spending reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The Obama campaign spent more than $1 million with search giant Google compared with only about $67,000 by Clinton during February. The $1 million paid to Google in February was also more than a 10-fold increase over what his campaign had spent with Google in January.

The big jump in search spending by Obama could be tied to the Super Tuesday primaries that took place on Feb. 5 in 24 states.

Obama also continued to outspend Clinton on Web portals and social networking sites. The campaign designated $4,900 to Facebook, for instance, which has been a major source of online support for Obama from the start of his campaign. Obama also paid $99,341 to Yahoo and another $58,000 to Yahoo Search Marketing.

Clinton, by contrast, spent only $9,186 with Yahoo.

To varying degrees, it seems evident that both campaigns have seen the work our New Politics Institute has done on online advertising, particularly paid online search advertising. To learn more, be sure to come to an event we're holding on May 9th to discuss the role new tools like search have played in the presidential nomination process and that they can be expected to play in the general election in the fall.


Come talk about the great challenges facing America

Tomorrow at 10:00am, the NDN community will be gathering for a day-long conference to take an in-depth look at some of the most urgent challenges facing America and the world. Guiding us through this discussion will be some of the nation's leading thinkers. We will look at what an American foreign policy after Bush could look like; attempt to better understand the rise of China; hear from one of the world's most respected experts on climate change; listen to one of the world's most accomplished entrepreneurs discuss his new venture to bring electric cars to the world; take a serious look at how to make a carbon tax work here in the United States; marvel at the possibilities of the new millennial generation, the largest generation in American history; receive a preview of Dr. Robert Shapiro's new book, Futurecast, which makes provocative and powerful arguments about how geopolitics and globalization will play out over the next 15 years; and end it all with a freewheeling discussion with some of America's most thoughtful journalists.

To learn more about some of tomorrow's compelling speakers, review these profiles of Elaine Kamarck, Shai Agassi, Orville Schell, and Amory Lovins. Also come hear Derek Chollet and Jim Goldgeier, co-authors of a great new foreign policy book; Morley Winograd, co-authors of a great book on the millennial generation; Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine; Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post; John Heilemann of the New York Magazine; and Simon Rosenberg, Peter Leyden, and Dr. Robert Shapiro of NDN.

All of our speakers will be addressing the question we've heard raised throughout this campaign - is America in a transformational moment? A defining moment? A moment when one era ends and another begins? The idea that we are entering a new era of politics in the United States is one we've covered in a recent article, "The 50-Year Strategy".

I hope you will take the time to join us for what is going to be a very exciting event at the Capital Hilton, 1001 16th Street NW, here in Washington, DC. Registration is free. The doors open at 9am and the program begins promptly at 10 am. We will end at 6pm, and retire for a reception to kick back and talk about it all. So please join us, bring your friends and colleagues, and spend time learning more and discussing the events of the day. For bios of the speakers or to RSVP, please visit our website. Below is the final schedule:

09:30 AM - Breakfast

10:15 AM - Welcome by Simon Rosenberg, President and Founder, NDN

10:25 AM - Opening Remarks by Peter Leyden, Director, New Politics Institute

10:40 AM - Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, co-authors,
                    America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11

11:30 AM - Shai Agassi, Founder and CEO, Project Better Place

12:10 PM - Lunch

12:25 PM - Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, co-authors,
                    Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics

01:30 PM - Dr. Robert J. Shapiro, Chair, NDN's Globalization Initiative and author of Futurecast

02:20 AM - Orville Schell, Director, the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society

03:10 PM - Elaine Kamarck, soon to be co-chair of the Climate Task Force

04:00 PM - Amory Lovins, Cofounder, Chairman, and Chief Scientist, Rocky Mountain Institute

04:50 PM - Panel with Matt Bai of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Ruth Marcus of the
                    Washington Post
, and John Heilemann of New York Magazine

06:10 PM - Cocktail reception

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