Tag Archives: culture

What I’m doing at Code for America

For the last two weeks – and for much of January – I’m in San Francisco helping out with Code for America. What’s Code for America? Think Teach for America, but rather than deploying people into classrooms to help provide positive experiences for students and teachers while attempting to shift the culture of school districts, Code for America has fellows work with cities to help develop reusable code to save cities money, make local government as accessible as your favorite website, and help shift the government’s culture around technology.

code-for-america1-150x112The whole affair is powered by a group of 20 amazing fellows and an equally awesome staff that has been working for months to make it all come together. My role – in comparison – is relatively minor, I head up the Code for America Institute – a month long educational program the fellows go through when they first arrive.  I wanted to write about what I’ve been trying to do both because of the openness ideals of Code for America and to share any lessons for others who might attempt a similar effort.

First, to understand what I’m doing, you have to understand the goal. On the surface, to an outsider, the Code for America change process might look something like this:

  1. Get together some crazy talented computer programers (hackers, if you want to make the government folks nervous)
  2. Unleash them on a partner city with a specific need
  3. Take resulting output and share across cities

Which of course, would mistakenly frame the problem as technical. However, Code for America is not about technology. It’s about culture change. The goal is about rethinking and reimagining  government as better, faster, cheaper and adaptive. It’s about helping think of the ways its culture can embrace government as a platform, as open and as highly responsive.

I’m helping (I think) because I’ve enjoyed some success in getting government’s to think differently. I’m not a computer developer and at their core, these successes were never technology problems. The challenge is understanding how the system works, identify the leverage points for making change, develop partners and collaborate to engage those leverage points, and do whatever it takes to ensure it all comes together.

So this is the message and the concept the speakers are trying to impart on the fellows. Or, in other words, my job is to help unleash the already vibrant change agents within the 20 awesome fellows and make them effective in the government context.

So what have we done so far?

We’ve focused on three areas:

1) Understand Government: Some of the fellows are new to government, so we’ve had presentations from local government experts like Jay Nath, Ed Reiskin and Peter Koht as well as the Mayor of Tuscon’s chief of staff (to give a political perspective). And of course, Tim O’Reilly has spoken about how he thinks government must evolve in the 21st century. The goal: understand the system as well as, understand and respect the actors within that system.

2) Initiate & Influence: Whether it is launching you own business (Eric Ries on startups), starting a project (Luke Closs on Vantrash) or understanding what happens when two cultures come together (Caterina Fake on Yahoo buying Flickr) or myself on negotiating, influence and collaboration, our main challenges will not be technical, they will be systems based and social. If we are to build projects and systems that are successful and sustainable we need to ask the right questions and engage with these systems respectfully as we try to shift them.

3) Plan & Focus: Finally, we’ve had experts in planning and organizing. People like Allen Gunn (Gunner) and the folks from Cooper Design, who’ve helped the fellows think about what they want, where they are going, and what they want to achieve. Know thyself, be prepared, have a plan.

The last two weeks will continue to pick up these themes but also give the fellows more time to (a) prepare for the work they will be doing with their partner cities; and (b) give them more opportunities to learn from one another. We’re half way through the institute at this point and I’m hoping the experience has been a rich – if sometimes overwhelming – one. Hopefully I’ll have an update again at the end of the month.

The Future of Media in Canada – Thoughts for the Canadian Parliamentary Committee

Yesterday, Google presented to a House of Commons Heritage Committee which has launched a study of “new media.” Already some disturbing squawks have been heard from some of the MPs. For those who believe in an open internet, and in an individuals right to choose, there is no need to be alarmed just yet, but this is definitely worth keeping an eye on. It is however, a good thing that the parliamentary committee is looking at this (finally) since the landscape has radically changed and the Canadian government needs to adjust.

In his SXSWi talk Clay Shirky talked about how abundance changes things. One an item ceases to be scarce – when it is freely available – the dynamics of what we do with it and how we use it radically change.

It is something government’s have a hard time wrestling with. One basic assumption that often (but hardly always) underlies public policy is that one is dealing with how to manage scarce resources like natural resources. But what happens when something that was previously scarce suddenly becomes abundant? The system breaks. This is the central challenge the Heritage Committee MPs need to wrap their heads around.


Because this is precisely what is happening with the broadcast industry generally and Canadian content rules specifically. And it explains why Canadian content rules are so deeply, deeply broken.

In the old era the Government policy on Canadian content rested on two pillars:

First, the CRTC was able to create scarcity. It controlled the spectrum and could regulate the number of channels. This meant that broadcasters had to do what it said if they wanted to maintain the right to broadcast. This allowed the CRTC to mandate that a certain percentage of content be Canadian (CanCon).

The second pillar was funding. The Government could fund projects that would foster Canadian content. Hence the CBC, the National Film Board of Canada and various other granting bodies.

The problem is, in the digital era, creating scarcity gets a lot more complicated. There are no channels to regulate on the internet. There is just the abundant infinity of internet content. Moreover you can’t force websites to produce or create Canadian content nor can you force Canadians to go to websites that do (at least god hopes that isn’t a crazy idea the committee gets into its head). The scarcity is gone. The Government can no longer compel Canadians to watch Canadian content.

So what does that mean? There are three implications in my mind.

First. Stop telling Canadians what culture is. The most offensive quote from yesterday’s Globe article was, to quote the piece Bloc Québécois MP Carole Lavallée quote:

Bloc Québécois MP Carole Lavallée highlighted the often low-brow, low-budget fare on YouTube. She accused Google of confusing leisure with culture.

“Leisure is people who play Star Wars in their basement and film one another and put that on YouTube,” she said. “ But culture is something else.”

Effectively, she is telling me – the blog and new media writer – and the 100,000s if not millions of other Canadians who have created something that they do not create Canadian culture. Really? I thought the whole point of the Heritage Ministry, and tools like the CBC was to give voice to Canadians. The internet, a tools like YouTube have done more on that front than any Government program of the last 5 decades. Lavallée may not like what she sees, but today, more Canadian content is created and watched around the world, than ever before.

Second. Be prepared to phase out the CRTC. The CRTC’s regulatory capacity depends on being able to create scarcity. If there is no more scarcity, then it seizes to have a lever. Yes, the TV industry is still with us. But for how long? Canadians, like people everywhere, want to watch what they want, when they want. Thanks to the internet, increasingly they can. The CRTC no longer serves the interests of Canadians, it serves to perpetuate both the broadcast industry and the cable industry (yes, even when they fight) by creating a legal scaffolding that props up their business models. Michael Geist understands this – the committee should definitely be talking to him as well.

Third, if the first pillar is dead, the second pillar is going to have to take on a heavier load and in new and creative ways. The recent National Film Board iPhone app is fantastic example of how new media can be used to promote Canadian content. If the Commons committee is really worried about YouTube, why not have Heritage Canada create a “Canadian channel” on YouTube where it can post the best videos by Canadians and about Canada? Maybe it can even offer grants to the video creaters that get the most views on the channel – clearly they’ve demonstrated an ability to attract an audience. Thinking about more micro-grants that will allow communities to create their own content is another possibility. Ultimately, the Government can’t shape demand, or control the vehicle by which supply is delivered. But it can help encourage more supply – or better still reward Canadians who do well online and enable them to create more ambitious content.

The world of new media is significantly democratizing who can create content and what people can watch. Whatever the heritage committee does I hope they don’t try to put the cork back on that bottle. It will, in effect, be muzzling all the new emerging Canadian voices.

Update: Just saw that Sara Bannerman has a very good post about how Canadian content could be regulated online. Like much of what is in her post, but don’t think “regulation” is the right word. Indeed, most of what she asks for makes business sense – people will likely want Canadian filters for searching (be it for books, content, etc…) as long as those filters are optional.

How Vancouver's Open Data Community Helped Open Up the French CBC

For those uninterested in the story below and who just want the iCal feed of cultural events in Vancouver, click here.

Also, I had a piece on the Globe site yesterday, was in the air all day, but was told it hit #1 most viewed, which, if true, is nice. You can read it here.

A couple of weeks ago – at a party – I met someone working at the CBC who talked about how they were organizing a calendar of all the cultural events at the Olympics. Turns out the French CBC is placing a strong emphasis on the Cultural Olympiad that is taking place concurrently to the Olympics and they were gathering all the events they could find into a spread sheet.

I commented that CBC views and listeners – French and English – would probably find such a calendar useful and that it would quite interesting if the CBC shared it as an iCal feed so that anyone could download it into their computer’s calendar.

He agreed, but was unsure how to create such a feed. Admittedly, neither was I – but I did know some people who might…

So at Vancouver’s last Open Data Hackathon – kindly hosted by the City Archives and organized by Luke C – I asked around to see if anyone might be interested in converting the spreadsheet into an ical feed. Up stepped Jason M. who did a little trouble shooting, figured out how the spreadsheet needed to be reformatted and then figured out how to convert it.

So now, if you want, you can download a fairly comprehensive list of the cultural events taking place during the Olympics straight into the calendar on your iPhone, computer, google calendar, etc…

It’s got more events than a lot of the other calendars and includes concerts being played at Maison du Quebec, Saskachewan, Alberta, Ontario and Atlantic Canada House.

This is a bit of a shift for the CBC, the kind of shift that I think we need to be supportive of… a little more open, a little more sharing and a lot more useful. Most importantly it is a great example of how the idea of open data spreads – by being useful.

The Valpy Social Media debate

So a few days ago I posted this response (a cleaner version to be found here at The Mark) to a piece Michael Valpy wrote in the Globe about how social media threatened the social cohesion of the country. My problem with Mr. Valpy’s piece is that it framed the question in the most negative light – seeing only the downside (and in some cases imagined) consequences of social media and none its positives. I was reminded of Steven Johnson’s delightful and intelligent counter-factual that describes a world where video games precede, and are then displaced by, books. One senses that if we lived in a universe where social media preceded main stream media Mr. Valpy would be writing columns worrying about the loss of the country’s small, rich and diverse conversations, crushed by the emergence a dominant agenda, curated by a small elite.

I was initially excited to hear that Mr. Valpy was writing a response in The Mark. Sadly, his piece wasn’t really a response. It addressed none of my critiques. Instead it focused primarily on repeating his original argument, but more slowly, and with bigger words.

I’ve re-read all three pieces and still feel good about my contribution. My main concern is that when reading the counterfactual at the end of my piece, many people have come to assume I look forward to the decline of main stream media (MSM). Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I believe in the potential of social media and, when I stepin  my counterparts shoes, I also see that MSM offers us a great deal. At the same time, I don’t believe MSM is the sole generator of social cohesion, national identity, or democracy. All three existed before the arrival of MSM and, should it come to pass, will survive its decline.

As a newspaper columnist I can imagine it is frightening to see your audience splintered into smaller fragments. At the same time however, I am surprised that a national commentator can’t see how unhealthy this imaginary social cohesion was, and how unsafe the public space was for many people. Remember, this is an article that paints, in a concerning tone, the passing of a world where people, to paraphrase Mr. Valpy, attended a modern version of Mass to become aware of what others thought they should be aware of. That is not a description of an active and engaged citizenry. That is a description of sheep. Well now the sheep are awakening. Yes it is scary, yes there are unknowns, and yes there is fragmentation. But there are also enormous positives, positives I wish Mr. Valpy and others at the Globe would include in their commentary. If they did they and their readers might see what I and those I work with see: the opportunity for something that it is better than what was on offer before, no matter how rosy a picture he paints of the past.

Ultimately, I think Mr. Valpy and I do share common ground. He sees “A glorious objective” in Michale Ignatieff”s call for a public space:

“Isaiah Berlin described this sense of belonging well. He said that to feel at home is to feel that people understand not only what you say, but also what you mean.”

I too believe this is a noble aim. But, while we stand on common ground, I fear Mr. Valpy and I look away in different directions (I would be interested in trying to reconcile these views – and have said as much to him). My reading of his piece leads me to believe that he looks into the past and posits that not only is such a state possible, but suggests we once achieved it. That there was a  Canada where people understood what one another were saying and meant, but that it is slipping away.

For me, I think any such past was more illusion than mirror.

I look forward and see not the realization of Ignatieff’s glorious objective, but an enhanced ability to pursue it. There are no countries where  people understand what each other say and mean. Only countries where citizens are good or bad at committing to try to understand what each other say and mean. In other words, home isn’t where you are understood, it is where others are prepared to go out of their way to understand you.

The opportunity of social media is it gives citizens – The People Formerly Known as the Audience – the ability to increase the range of views about which they want to be understood. This can lead to disagreements (such as the one the Valpy and I are having now) but it also forces us to face the fact that others do not understand, or agree, with what we say or mean. Whether it is disagreeing or agreeing however, the hall mark of social media has been its ability to expose us to new communities – to connect people with others who share interests and care about issues we’ve both long cared for ourselves, or have just discovered. As much as I like my country when its citizens are held to together by a common passport and newspaper, I like it even more when it is held together by a dense weave of overlapping, interconnected, conflicting and ever changing communities around hobbies, politics, personal interests, books, culture, and a million other things. Communities where new voices can be heard and new expressions of the Canadian identity can be manifested.

The promise of social media is its ability to complexify our story, and our relationships with one another. Ultimately, I see that complexity being much more interesting than illusions cast by crude mirrors reflecting only what their holders decide should be seen. Will social media be able to hold up some new “mirror”? I suspect yes, but ultimately don’t know. But whether it can or cannot, I feel optimistic that the ascendancy of social media doesn’t mean the end of our social cohesion.

Why the Internet Will Shape Social Values (and not the other way around)

crystal-ballThe biggest problem in predicting the future isn’t envisaging what technologies will emerge – it is forecasting how individuals and communities will respond to these technologies. In other words I often find people treat technology as a variable, but social values as a constant. Consequently, as they peer into tomorrow, technology is examined only in terms of how it will change (and make easier) tasks – and not on how it will cause social values and relationships to shift. By treating social values as a constant we assume that technology will conform to today’s values. In truth, it is often the reverse that is the case – social values change and come to reflect the technology we use.

For example, I find people ask me if I’m nervous about blogging since, 20 years hence, someone may dig up a post and use to demonstrate how my thinking or values were flawed. Conversely, a friend suggested that social networks will eventually “auto-delete” photos so that any embarrassing pictures that might have ended up online will not be searchable. (Let’s put aside the fact that a truly embarrassing picture will likely get copied to several places.) In short, these friends cannot imagine a future where your past is accessible and visible to a wider group of people. In their view an archived personal history is anathema as it violates some basic expectations of anonymity (not to be confused with privacy) they are accustomed to. In their minds our mistakes, misadventures or even poor fashion choices need to be forgotten (or hidden in the vast grayness of history) in order for us to be successful. If not, we will somehow become social pariahs or certain doors may forever be closed to us.

To put it another way, it presumes that our future employers, social circles and even society in general will punish people who’ve ever had a thought others disagree with or will refuse to hire someone who’s ever had a embarrassing photo of themselves posted to the internet.

Really? If this is the case then the jobs of tomorrow are going to be filled by either the most conservative and/or timid people or (more troubling, but less surprising) by those best able to cover their tracks. I’m not sure either of these traits are what I’m want in a prospective employee. Should I hire someone who is afraid to publicly share independent thoughts? Do I want to work with someone too risk-averse to push a boundary or have fun? Or worse, should I contract someone who is highly adept at covering up their mistakes? If the jobs of the future are going to require creativity, originality and integrity why would I hire for the opposite traits?

Perhaps those whose lives are more visible online will be discriminated against. But it is also possible the inverse could be true. Those who have no online history have no discernible, verifiable track record, no narrative about how their values and thinking has evolved over time. While such a history will be filled with flaws and mistakes, it will at least be open and visible, whereas those who have lived offline will have a history that is opaque and verifiable only by their own handpicked references.

If anything, I suspect the internet is going to create a society that is more honest and forgiving. We will be returning to a world of thin anonymity – a world where it is difficult to escape from the choices you’ve made in the past. But the result won’t be a world where fewer people take risks, it will be a world that recognizes those risks were necessary and expected.

What would such a world look like? Well naturally it is going to be hard to imagine, because it is a world that would likely make you deeply uncomfortable (think of how hard it would have been 25 years ago to imagine a large swath of the population being comfortable with online dating). But there are perhaps microcosm we can look at. While dysfunctional in many ways the culture of Silicon Valley – in how it treats failure – may be a good example. While I’ve not lived in the valley, everything I’ve read about it suggests that it is hard to be taken seriously unless you’ve taken risks and have failedit demonstrates your willingness to try and learn. It is a community where it is easy to look into everyone else’s past – either by searching online or simply asking around. In this regard Silicon Valley is deeply honest – people own their successes and their failures – and it is a place that, in regards to business, is forgiving. Compared to many places on the planet, past failures (depending of course on the nature of depth of the error) are forgivable and even seen as a necessary right of passage.

All this isn’t to say that we should be limiting people’s ability for anonymity or privacy online. If someone wants their photos auto-deleted after 5 years, please let them do it. But let us at least always preserve choice – let us not architect our technology to solely conform to today’s social norms as we may discover we will be willing to make different choices in a few years.

why collaborative skills matter in open source

For the past several years now I’ve been talking about how community management – broadly defined as enhancing a community’s collaborative skills, establishing and modeling behaviour/culture and embedding development tools and communications mediums with prompts that “nudge” us towards collaborative behaviour – is imperative to the success of open source communities. (For those interested in this, my FSOSS 2008 on the subject has been slidecasted here, and is on on google video here.

Re-reading Shirkly’s latest book, Here Comes Everybody, has re-affirmed my thinking. Indeed, it’s made me more aggressive. Why? Consider these two paragraphs:

This ability of the traditional management structure to simplify coordination helps answer one of the most famous questions in all of economics: If markets are such a good idea, why do we have organizations at all? Why can’t all exchanges of value happen in the market? This question originally was posed by Ronald Coase in 1937 in his famous paper “The Nature of the Firm,” wherein he also offered the first coherent explanation of the value of hierarchical organization. Coase realized that workers could simply contract with one another, selling their labor, and buying the labor of others in turn, in a market, without needing any managerial oversight. However, a completely open market for labor, reasoned Coase, would underperform labor in firms because of the transaction costs, and in particular the costs of discovering the options and making and enforcing agreements among the participating parties. The more people are involved in a given task, the more potential agreements need to be negotiated to do anything, and the greater the transaction costs…

And later, Shirky essentially describes the thesis of his book:

But what if transaction costs don’t fall moderately? What if they collapse. This scenario is harder to predict from Coase’s original work, at it used to be purely academic. Now’s it not, because it is happening, or rather it has already happened, and we’re starting to see the results.

My conclusion: the lower the transaction costs, the greater the playing field will favour self-organizations systems like open source communities and the less it will favour large proprietary producers.

This is why open source communities should (and do) work collectively to reduce transaction costs among their members. Enabling the further collapse of transaction costs tilts the landscape in our favour. Sometimes, this can be down in the way we architect the software. Indeed, this is why – in FirefoxAdd-Ons are so powerful. The Add-On functionality dramatically reduces transaction costs by creating a dependable and predictable platform, essentially allowing coders to work in isolation from one another (the difference between collaborative vs. cooperative). This strategy has been among the most successful. It is important and should be pursued, but it cannot help collapse transaction costs for all parts of a project – especially the base code.

But what more can be done? There are likely diminishing returns to re-architecting the software and in finding new, easier ways, to connect developers to one another. The areas I think offer real promise include:

  • fostering cultures within open source communities that reward collaborative (low transaction cost) behaviour,
  • promoting leaders who model collaborative (low transaction cost) behaviour
  • developing tools and communications mediums/methods that prompt participants to improve the noise to signal, minimize misunderstandings, limit unnecessary conflict, and help resolve differences quickly and effectively (the idea being that all of these outcomes lower transactions costs).

This is why I continue to think about how to port over the ideas, theories and tools from the negotiation/collaboration field, into the open source space.

For open source communities, eliminating transaction costs is a source of strategic advantage – one that we should find ways to exploit ruthlessly.

Must see show this Sunday in Vancouver

It’s Friday and time to prepare for the weekend. In that spirit the perfect opportunity has arisen to both notify Vancouverites of a great cultural opportunity and give a shout out to my friend Misha Glouberman who is bringing his famous Trampoline Hall event to Vancouver! What is Trampoline Hall you ask? Look no further then the links above, the text below or the event’s facebook page:

Trampoline Hall is a barroom lecture series usually based in Toronto, but sometimes in other places. On Feb 1, it will be in Vancouver for the first time, as part of the Push Festival.

Trampoline Hall is this: Three people talk, on subjects outside their professional field of expertise. The lectures are sometimes ridiculous, sometimes moving, and always wildly unpredictable. Each talk is followed by a Q&A with the audience which is usually also a lot of fun.

Trampoline Hall was invented by the writer Sheila Heti, and is hosted by Misha Glouberman. In Toronto, it is something of an institution, playing every month for the past seven years or so. It’s also played to great crowds in around a dozen US cities, including Atlanta, Boston, New York, Louisville, Chicago, and San Francisco. Feb 1 will be Trampoline Hall’s first time in Vancouver.

All lecturers for the Vancouver show selected are selected by Veda Hille. Here is the lineup she has chosen:

1) Andrew Feldmar will talk about Cooking from Memory.
2) Kevin Chong will discuss Fraternal Polyandry
3) Faith Moosang will assert “There are Clues Everywhere!!” in a talk about Nancy Drew.


“”Unruly… Caustically Funny” – Durham Independent

“They’ve been doing this for several years up in Toronto… now New Yorkers are in its thrall. Clearly, we love it.” – The Village Voice

“Cloud-splitting Genius” – Lola Magazine

“Eccentricity and do-it-yourself inventiveness” – The New Yorker

I’m hoping my plane lands in time so that I can make it!