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Web 2.0 Tools Encourage Public Debate

As prepared for delivery.


Remarks By
Casey Coleman
Chief Information Officer
U.S. General Services Administration
CRM Evolution 2009
New York, New York
August 25, 2009


“These are times that try men’s souls.”

We’ve all heard that quote from time to time. But we rarely hear the rest of the passage, which says, “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country.”

Thomas Paine wrote these powerful words in his pamphlet “The Crisis.”  Better known for his “Common Sense” pamphlets supporting the Revolutionary War, Paine was acknowledged for creating a public debate about the war, which until then had been fairly quiet.

What does Thomas Paine have to do with Web 2.0 and participatory government? 

It’s quite simple, really.

The web and social media, or new media, are fundamentally changing the way government interacts with citizens, creating a new way in which public debate can occur.

This is not evolutionary, as the title of this conference would suggest, but truly revolutionary.

Evolution could be viewed as slow-moving.  Revolution is active.

Evolution is a waiting game – let’s see how this all shakes out.

Revolution is aggressive, risky.  It requires speed and quick decision-making.  Revolution says we will command the future, and not be shackled to history.

I know what some of you are thinking … is she talking about the federal government?

Trust me; this is not your father’s federal government!

And the new media revolution in government is based on the fundamental nature of democracy. 

In his book “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” political campaign manager Joe Trippi wrote:

“When people know they are being heard, they will speak up, and when they speak up, they will offer ideas that never occurred to you.”

He also urged: “Have some faith in the American people again. Democracy is based on the principle that if we give the citizens control over their common future, they will choose the best path.”

Trippi worked for Howard Dean in the 2004 election, and while we all know what happened to Dean, some forget that the Dean campaign was an early leader in breaking the restraints of “traditional” political advertising, turning to the web to build a huge political groundswell.  In 2008, the Obama campaign rode the same wave to victory.  Is it any surprise we have an administration committed to transparency, public participation, and collaboration? 

The bottom line is that government serves people better when it makes decisions based on citizen input.  So we are intensely focus on that goal, and everything we do must enable citizens to be part of the process.

Web 2.0 – and beyond – makes that happen.

Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra has called it “game changing innovation.”  New media guru Clay Shirky has equated the revolutionary nature of Web 2.0 with the four great communications inventions:

  • The printing press;
  • The telegraph and then the telephone;
  • Recorded media, including film and records; and,
  • Broadcast media – radio and TV.

Think what Web 2.0 has given us.  Information is disseminated through multiple channels, allowing citizens to receive it where and when they want it … and they can respond back in kind.

We’re not limited to one-to-one communications, or even one-to-many.  We’re at a place in time where many-to-many is the norm ... where the first news about protests following the election in Iran came from Twitter messages and mobile video.

How many of you could live today without your Blackberry or iPhone?  How many of you are responding to e-mail, twittering or doing something else right now, multitasking while you listen to me?

What used to be called the digital divide is going away.  When hundreds if not thousands of apps are available on a relatively low cost appliance, even the so-called “have nots” have the ability to participate.

And they are participating.  From our experiences at GSA, we’ve seen this power.  Believe it or not, there are still hundreds of thousands of Americans who want to get information the old fashioned way.

  • Our National Contact Center handled nearly two million phone calls and e-mail requests in FY2008.
  • And we distributed more than 28 million pieces of print materials from the Federal Citizen Information Center in Pueblo, Colorado.

On the other hand:

  • USA.gov, the federal government’s one-stop-shop for information, received more than 116 million visits and search queries in our last fiscal year.
  • We also had more than 18 million visits to other GSA websites, such as GobiernoUSA.gov, our Spanish-language equivalent to USA.gov.
  • USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov have a very active presence on Facebook.  Combined, we have more than 2,100 fans.  The Facebook accounts allow us to share helpful, timely and relevant information with our audience base in an environment they know and love.
  • The sites also have active Twitter profiles, used to distribute timely and relevant government information … like the need for proper hand-washing during the H1N1 outbreak, live coverage of President Obama’s inauguration, biking to work day, and the postage stamp rate increase. 
  • Our GovGab blog features daily featurettes from a staff of writers on topics of common interest to citizens … things like how to prevent teeth erosion from drinking acidic beverages, the dangers of steroids, and how to take advantage of the “Cash for Clunkers” program.  The blog provides plenty of links to further information on government websites.
  • My personal blog on GSA.gov – Around the Corner – provides bi-weekly (more or less) perspectives on innovation, technology, and information resource issues.  I have fun writing it and I receive valuable feedback and perspectives from my readers.

To me, these kinds of numbers tell a story that our citizens are truly hungry for information, for answers, and most importantly, to participate in government. 

And because one of GSA’s primary jobs is to help other federal agencies do what they do best, GSA has developed the framework to help feds engage with the public.

We made it easier for federal agencies to use new media tools while meeting their legal requirements, signing terms of service agreements with Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Blist, Slideshare, AddThis and blip.tv, just to name a few.  And we’re in discussions with many other providers that offer new media services.  The new agreements resolve legal concerns found in many standard terms and conditions that pose problems for federal agencies, such as liability limits, endorsements, freedom of information, and governing law.

We recently launched the official U.S. Government YouTube Channel with more than 200 videos from 25 agencies arranged in 12 playlists, including one in Spanish.  We’ll keep uploading additional videos as federal agencies share more content. And it’s important to note that USA.gov hosts an accessible video player so that visitors with disabilities can enjoy those videos, a requirement for any government agency.

There’s video from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research on the ocean floors; health and safety topics from public health agencies; audiovisual collections and lectures from the Library of Congress; and how-to videos showing veterans how to find out if they are eligible for benefits.

And, we conduct Web Manager University sessions to train federal, state and local government web managers.  To date, Web Manager University has trained more than 1,500 web managers, helping to make U.S. government websites and new media tools the best in the world.

And it’s not just what we’re doing:

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, created Spacebook, essentially a Facebook-like social networking site for employees, who use it for sharing information, experience, and personal interests.  Since it’s behind NASA’s firewall, it can serve as a collaborative workspace, as well.

Dr. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, maintains a Facebook page where more than 6,500 fans comment and provide feedback on his almost daily missives.

The Department of Education created a hip, interactive website specifically geared toward 9th through 12th graders.  What’s really cool about this site is that it was built in collaboration with students, so that the site really is peer-to-peer.  And it’s important to recognize that this site wasn’t built for teenagers who are programmed to go to college, but for those kids who would be the first in their family to go to college … who sometimes need to be convinced of the value of college, and who need be given the tools to fill out an application and apply for financial aid.

These are just a few examples of the hundreds of cutting edge web and new media sites that are popping up in the federal government alone.  I’m convinced we’ll see thousands in the not-too-distant future.

And speaking of the future, I’m very excited about the prospects for cloud computing in the federal government environment.  Federal CIO Vivek Kundra has been a big proponent of the cloud model and I agree that it has tremendous potential to make government IT more efficient.  We recently issued a Request for Quotations for cloud storage, web hosting and virtual machine services as a first step creating an online cloud services storefront that can be used by federal agencies.

The benefits of Cloud Computing are many:

  • Agility is first and foremost – giving organizations the ability to rapidly and inexpensively change resources.
  • Cost is greatly reduced since capital expenditures for IT resources are converted to operational expenses.  These expenses can be allocated quite granularly.
  • Independence – Since systems are accessed using a web browser, resources can be used anywhere.
  • Reliability improves through the use of multiple redundant sites.
  • Environmentally sensitive – Today’s data centers need to be located next to a hydro-electric generating plant due to the amount of power they use.  Since cloud resources are utilized more efficiently, their impact on the environment is lessened.
  • Security – Cloud Computing is inherently more secure due to the centralization of data and the ability of service providers to devote resources to protecting sensitive data.  Nevertheless, one of the challenges of Cloud Computing is to incorporate controls that don’t sacrifice user benefits.

One of the things that excites me most of this new focus is the ability to move quickly.  It used to be that in the federal government, “tomorrow” meant years.  It’s much different now.  The days of developing massive agency-focused IT infrastructure projects are long gone. 

We can try new things, and if they work, great.  If not, lessons are learned.  If there’s an advantage to doing this in a government environment, it’s that we are mission driven, not profit driven. 

There’s another exciting development in government 2.0 – the growth of data democracy, which I believe will result in a host of applications – some free … some for a small fee – that the public can pick and choose to enhance their lives … all based on easily available government data.

Data democracy has been around for years.  Fundamentally, the U.S. government holds that if the taxpayer has paid for the collection of data, then the data should be available free-of-charge (except, perhaps for distribution charges) to citizens and businesses, who can then parse and use the data in any way they see fit.

While the data has been available, it hasn’t always been easy to find.  Now, through data.gov, there’s easy access to machine readable datasets. 

Want to calculate the probability of a Category 3 hurricane striking within 35 miles of a particular location … perhaps because you’re an insurance actuary?  Or you’re responsible for pre-locating emergency supplies? Mash-up NOAA’s North Atlantic Tropical Cyclone Tracks since 1851 with an appropriate geodata set and apply your particular algorithm.  I know Bob is going to talk more about these types of capabilities, so I won’t steal any further thunder.

Want to find your stolen car?  Download a list of parking tickets for a particular VIN number … look for consistencies like a lot of tickets on a particular street … and stake it out.  This really happened to a friend of mine.  Why the police couldn’t do this is another story, but he DID get his car back.

There are incredible opportunities here for commercial enterprise that will spur innovation and market growth.  Here’s one more example that could save your life.

The National Weather Service, as part of its mission is to protect lives and property routinely issues warnings for severe weather and other hazardous events, including severe thunderstorms, tornados, flash and river flooding, winter weather, hurricanes, and even tsunamis. The challenge, of course, is ensuring that people get and act on those warnings, particularly in cases where mere minutes can spell the difference between life and death … as with tornados.  In places like tornado alley in Oklahoma and Texas, millions have been spent on massive infrastructure projects like tornado sirens to help people get the message.

But there’s an easier way.  A few years ago, the National Weather Service began issuing polygon warnings – areas defined by specific lat/lon locations – instead of traditional countywide warnings.  This data is available in real time, so several companies now offer services that, for a small monthly fee, will send those warnings within seconds to your cell phone, pda, or computer.  Go to a website, pinpoint your location – or several, such as your home, office or child’s school – on a Google map, and sign-up.  The next time a warning is issued and that location resides inside the polygon, you’ll get the warning … wherever you are … at any time of the day – or night.

The potential applications are endless, and it’s all based on readily accessible data … data collected with your tax dollars.

From my perch, it’s a pretty exciting time to be in government, and it’s especially exciting to not only be a witness to the new American Revolution, but to be part of it.

We’re in the midst of a new era where citizens can truly have a say in how their government operates.  Citizen engagement, participation, and collaboration are essential to a government “by the people, for the people.” 

I think if Thomas Paine was alive today, he would be proud.  And one can only imagine what he could do with a laptop instead of his trusty quill pen!

Thank you.