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Civics Lessons for and from Silicon Valley at the Gov 2.0 Summit


This week's first ever Gov 2.0 expo and summit in Washington, D.C., re-orients what Web 2.0 will mean, not just for consumers and the piranha pond of business interests, but also for citizens and the administration that serves us. The events were organized by Tim O'Reilly, the publishing guru, and Dick O'Neill, the Highlands Group strategist, who are building on previous tech gatherings focused on what the web promises to developers, and to the rest of us.Previously, the O'Reilly community coined the phrase that characterized the second coming of the internet in recent years: Web 2.0-a sort of shorthand for the open collaborative approach programmers adopted to invent and continuously improve tools for the web. So what does it mean when budget-burdened bureaucrats, vendors in search of a public contracts, and elected leaders encounter this open-source invention?The conference proposition is that Gov 2.0 will be analogous to an operating system. And it's a compelling metaphor: an open framework, always on in the background, that provides the platform to access all the services you need to get on with your life. It should be reliable, trustworthy, easy to navigate, and efficient. And you should be barely aware of it. Ideally, there will be no crashes, and no need to reinstall.As government agencies adopt these new networking tools for delivering public services, what their success will depend on?Openness, and other valuesAs public data becomes more accessible, and developers work with ever-refined open standards, projects that build the capacity of professional and local communities have come of age. The Open Architecture Network grew out of a concept of open source architecture. It won Architecture for Humanity's founder, Cameron Sinclair, the TED Prize in 2006. Philip Ashlock also presented at the expo, introducing Open 311 as a model for participatory non-emergency services, a project of the Open Planning Project. Yesterday, in a session celebrating the primacy of place, Mikel Maron showcased the Open Mapping Project's map of Gaza. Next, he's off to Kenya to map Kibera, the world's largest slum. In all these cases, cooperative sharing rewards individual initiative, rather than relinquishing personal agency, and that's key as tech and administrative standards are articulated to meet the new paradigms these services present.A sense of place, especially localGoogle's chief economist Hal Varian reminded us that the advantage of a federal system is that we have "fifty state-level civic experiments going at once." So even though government can handle issues at a massive scale, its role as partner and service provider is best done locally. Street level makes things meaningful to people, which is a refrain we heard throughout the day. When Tom Steinberg introduced MySociety's FixMyStreet, he made it clear that people just want to raise their civic gripes one street at a time-and they don't think about what inter-agency dynamics take place behind the scenes to put things right. FixMyStreet's self-generating archive suggests the range of concerns it tackles, from the pedestrian (potholes, fly-tipping) to the comical (now thankfully addressed), but also builds legitimacy for the authorities that address them. Later in the day, Monica Guzman, a news-gatherer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, lauded the grass-roots authority that citizen bloggers now command in local news journalism for the city, simply because readers appreciate that these reporters live down the block.And that means mappingVisualizing and combining information from a range of agencies is key to telling pertinent stories with public data. Better still, according to ESRI's Jack Dangermond, plop it on a map and invite experts and locals to add to it in real-time. Geographers have long known the power of maps, but it took the information failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to advance this kind of actionable spatial analysis. This week it's helping to manage risk imposed by the Station wildfires north of Los Angeles, and identify service resources nearby.And more blending than blurring of public and privateArguably the rock-star panel of the day was the exchange between Vint Cerf (who co-invented TCP/IP for the internet back in the days people were still rolling out asphalt on the information superhighway), Jack Dorsey from Twitter, and Tim Sparapani from Facebook (who announced the launch of facebook.com/government from the stage). The moderator, John Markoff, asked a series of probing questions: Might Web 2.0 unravel representative democracy just as it has been the Trojan horse of the music, publishing, and news journalism industries? What would Cerf have paid more attention to in his pioneering work, looking back? What does Twitter's future imply? On the first question, Cerf was skeptical; on the second, he wished he'd focused on authentication and on mobility; on the third, he suggested to Dorsey that what Twitter might do was better thought of as blending-rather than blurring-public and private. We are, after all, both private and public actors, so why shouldn't our tools navigate that with us? I should know better than to evoke Star Wars when a roomful of techies might be reading, but it really was a little Obi-Wan meets Luke moment, minus the light saber.Guest blogger Rachel Abrams is in D.C. to listen in to the wisdom of the technorati, grass-roots idealist application designers, public officials, and social media gurus at the Gov 2.0 summit.Photo (cc) by Alex Dunne. From left to right: Tim Sparapani (Director of Public Policy at Facebook); Jack Dorsey (co-founder, Twitter); Vinton Cerf (Google); moderator john markoff (The New York Times)
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Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

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