A Tunisian on the role of social media in the revolution in Tunisia

Last week, dozens of people made their way through streets clogged with “thundersnow” to hear a special guest speak about social media and the Tunisian revolution at the January meeting of DC Media Makers. Much has already been written about Twitter, Tunisia, revolutions and the role of the Internet. For this dedicated audience at NPR headquarters in Washington, the reflections of Rim Nour, a young Tunisian techie who personally took part in the “Jasmine Revolution,” were not to be missed. Their interest was born by the spotlight on Web tools and change that digital activism in North Africa and the Middle East has created.

Her perspective can’t be taken as the definitive version of what happened or why, but given that she participated from on the ground, as a witness to history she provided a valuable account of the role of technology. In Nour’s account, this Tunisian revolution was fundamentally powered by people and the conditions of their lives. Tunisia wasn’t a Twitter or Facebook or Wikileaks revolution, said Nour. It was Tunisians on the ground. Regional disparities, corruption, unemployment were primary drivers, she emphasized.

That said, the online and offline worlds appear to have interacted in unprecedented ways in Tunisia. (That insight reflects new Pew research on the role of the Internet as a platform for collective action in the United States, where many expert observers see the decline of the distinctions between “cyberspace” and the material world). The disruptive effect of cameraphones and other devices was particularly important in Tunisia, and, really, everwhere. As Bryce Roberts observed, “mobile devices are the Gutenberg presses of our generation.”

Nour said that Twitter played an important initial role in Tunisia for much of December. As the revolution gathered steam, the new minister of youth and sports, was an inspiration for bloggers in Tunisia, said Nour. @slim404, as he’s known in 140 characters or less, was been a constant source of insight into Tunisia’s inner workings on Twitter. After December 24th that soon Facebook became the main organizing tool for protests and sharing videos. That’s congruent with the statistics the DC Media Makers audience heard. According to Nour, there is about 85% cellphone penetration in Tunisia, with around 30% of Tunisian citizens are on the Internet. She said that there are 500 or so active Twitter accounts there, as compared to more than 2 million active Facebook users.

NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin, co-founder of DC Media Makers and an expert analyst regarding the role of online communications in uprising, observed that Facebook was the open platform for Tunisians to share videos. People in Europe would migrate those videos into Posterous, then upload to YouTube, and then share them using Twitter. Carvin pointed out the nawaat.org also aggregated Facebook videos almost as fast as they went up. All of the services worked together on top of platform that the Internet provides.

Nour also emphasized the role of Al Jazeera, which she said was “the only channel worth following.” As many people have seen around the world this week as events in Egypt unfold, Al Jazeera is playing a galvanizing role in Arab protests. A global audience is tuned into the Al Jazeera English livestream at AlJazeera.net.

Nour highlighted four ways that social media played a role in the Tunisian revolution, all of which can be applied to other contexts.

  1. Grassroots mobilization. Nour said that some of the organization of protests happened on Facebook, which effectively played the role of community organizing platform
  2. Organize the rise of civil society and active citizenship. Citizens used social media to identify the positions of snipers, police and looters, and to alert one another to other violence, said Nour, who also noted that networks formed to clean streets, protect shops or organize bread lines.
  3. Counter rumor or propaganda tool. When there were concerns about water being poisoned, people sharing information on Facebook helped to counter that falsehood, said Nour. When reports came in that there was massive shooting in a neighborhood, a few minutes later, a few dozen people said that was untrue.
  4. Helped people analyze government statements. Nour said that when government went on TV, people went on online to analyze what president aid and to form a consensus on whether the positions met their requirements. Ultimately, they did not.

Would the revolution have happened without social media? Yes, asserted Nour, but “it wouldn’t have happened as fast.”

Now Tunisians face the next steps: what happens after this uprising. “In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end,” observed Nour, quoting de Tocqueville.

In this historic moment, we’re all living stories. When combined into the narratives of entire countries, they make for fascinating, sometimes heartrending reading.

How GIS technology and social media helped crisis response in Australia

As a new article at the O’Reilly Radar showed today, social data and geospatial mapping have joined the crisis response toolset. A new online application from geospatial mapping giant ESRI applies trend analysis to help responders to Australia’s recent floods create relevance and context from social media reporting. The Australian flood trends map shows how crowdsourced social intelligence provided by Ushahidi enables emergency social data to be integrated into crisis response in a meaningful way.

The combination of Ushahidi and ESRI in Australia shows that “formal and innovative approaches to information collection and analysis during disasters is possible,” said Patrick Meier, “and that there is an interface that can be crafted between official and non-official responses.” Meier is a research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi and was reached via email.

Russ Johnson, ESRI’s global director for emergency response, recently spoke with the correspondent at the ESRI federal user conference in Washington, D.C. Johnson spent 32 years as a federal employee in southern California, predominantly working in the U.S. Forest Service. He was one of the pioneers who built up the FEMA incident response system, and he commanded one of the 18 teams around the nation that deploy assets in the wake of floods, fires and other disasters. At ESRI, Johnson helps the company understand the workflow and relevance of GIS for first-response operations. Our full interview is embedded below in the following video.

The world of crisis response has changed dramatically in the past several years, said Johnson. The beauty of the present historic moment is that “everybody can be a sensor,” said Johnson. “Everybody is potentially part of the network. The struggle that operators have is taking all of that free form data and trying to put into some sort of framework that makes it accurate.”

Emergency and crisis responders are faced with significant cultural barriers that have nothing to do with logging on to a website or configuring a new account, explained Johnson. “Public safety organizations are really, really resistant to change,” he said. “Technology has frightened a lot of people before social media was a new data source. It’s a new challenge that’s threatening to a lot of people. The question I pose is simple. Let’s use the first responder scenario, where you have 4-6 minutes from the time you get the call. the expectation is you’ll be on scene. Think about the possibility that before you arrive, thousands of people will have video on YouTube. They may have more situation awareness. When you arrive, you’ll be videoed, watched, and critiqued. Shouldn’t you consider that data if it can help you deploy more safely or effectively?”

Johnson said that he really likes FEMA director Fugate’s philosophy and operational mentality in that context. Fugate has emphasized that he believes the public can be a resource in crises, instead of a hindrance. The current FEMA chief is tapping social media’s potential for aiding disaster response. “There are times when agencies can’t get good intelligence,” said Johnson. “I cannot tell you how many times where we had televisions and the best information we were getting was from CNN or helicopters. There are times when it may be wrong but I’d rather have it be part of our mashup of data to help validate and inform responders.”

The technology itself has also evolved recently, said Johnson. “We used to have to have a specific person to support mission, which meant we had to drag a person trained in GIS everywhere. As the technology has evolved, and data has evolved, the tools have reached the operator and first responder level. We can now match persona, mission and task to GIS tech so that it fits them. You can get complex answers that can be generated by an operator, not a GIS geek.”

How did Haiti change the conversation?

“Everyone thought Haiti would be completely dark,” said Johnson, with all information provided by boots on the ground. In fact, social media played an important role, he said, highlighted by the efforts of Crisis Congress and others who heard those digital cries for help. Social media “brought the light on,” said Johnson, providing not just something to act on but perhaps the only thing to act on, at least initially. In subsequent crises, responders have found that crisis data, particularly when added to maps for context, can provide valuable insight long before official reports emerge.

This trend is a key issue for communities as more citizen engagement platforms emerge. “When you have a large emergency, who are the first responders? Who can get to you the most quickly? Your neighbors,” says Johnson. “if you can have a universal way to communicate to the people who can help you, that may have the only help you have. Conventionally, you think of the guys in uniforms and helmets.”

In 2011, citizens have the opportunity to shoulder more of that shared responsibility than ever.

For #AskObama on YouTube, a RT is a vote on Google Moderator

Designing digital democracy is hard. The structures and conventions that have evolved for deliberative democracy, as messy as it can be offline, don’t transfer perfectly into machine code. Many different companies, civic entrepreneurs, nonprofits and public servants are working to create better online forums for discussion that make better use of technology. This morning, New York City’s new chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, asked how NYC could use technology to serve citizens. In 2011, the White House is using an unprecedented mix of Web 2.0 platforms at its new State of the Union page for tonight’s speech, integrating graphs and other elements to the WhiteHouse.gov livestream.

Tonight, a new alpha feature in Google Moderator is adding some social signals to help identify the questions that citizens want President Obama to answer in his YouTube interview on Thursday night. Every tweet with an #askObama hashtag will be added to the Google Moderator instance at YouTube.com/AskObama. And every retweet of an #AskObama tweet will count as vote in the Moderator instance. (For the uninitiated, a retweet on Twitter is when a user reshares another user’s tweet. To count as a vote on Moderator, the retweet has to be a “native RT,” not the older manual version where text is copied.)

It’s a simple tweak but it’s one that could make the tool more useful for people who wish to crowdsource questions. “There’s a lot of experimentation going on with Gov 2.0,” said Ginny Hunt, product manager for Google Moderator. “There’s a lot of people on all sides trying to figure out how to involve people in a more useful, participatory, exciting way.”

Hunt looks at Moderator as a way to aggregate and rank answers from many different places across the Web. “We don’t see Moderator as a Q&A platform in quite the same way that you might look at Yahoo Answers or Quora,” she said. “We see it as a way to have an ongoing conversation with constituents in a way that’s efficiently organized. That’s why it fits so naturally with YouTube, because there’s a very clear connection with engaging content.”

Hunt emphasized that what people will see on Moderator tonight “is really alpha” and isn’t available on the standard module on YouTube. “It’s a small step in the evolution of social engagement,” she said. “The more we can simplify the process for government and partners, the better. What you’ll see with Twitter tonight is just the first step. Tweets will get integrated into Moderator with your Twitter identity. It’s just a tiptoe into how we can aggregate ideas in a smarter way and is highly experimental, which is why it’s in Google Labs.”

Part of that process is in making the Google Moderator API available to developers. For instance, Google Moderator powers 10 Questions, which the Personal Democracy Forum relaunched in an effort to reboot citizen to candidate engagement.

“We’ve now used the API to kick of something called YouTube World View, which will be a monthly interview with a world leader,” said Hunt. “You can use the API to plug into anything you want to socialize to allow ranking. We made it open because we expect people to be more innovative than we can anticipate in terms of easily crowdsourcing within a community.”

The content from a Moderator series can also be exported as comma-separated values (CSV) files, which allows developers and designers to take the information and do analysis with the raw data.

There are many challenges in creating platforms for civic discourse, including building in incentives for participation, mitigating identity or privacy issues, addressing vocal minorities overwhelming the system, or ensuring systems scale under heavy traffic. (On that last count, Google’s servers have had little trouble keeping up the load: the Google Moderator instance for last year’s YouTube interview on the CitizenTube channel received over 11,600 questions and over 660,000 votes.)

Even as the role of the Internet as a platform for collective action is growing, however, the technical challenges of getting this right include numerous design, community and cultural challenges. The ways that connection technologies can be turned to governance, versus campaigning, will become increasingly critical as more people go online. Many of the social platforms that are in current use give their users substantial ability to personalize what information or conversations they receive.

Clay Shirky, speaking at this year’s State of the Internet Conference, said that government and technologists have systematically undersigned social spaces where hard choices are addressed. “We have, thanks to James Madison, lots of well designed systems to do that [offline]” he said. “We don’t have as many online. The tendency to rant or opt out prevents the kind of bargaining or horsetrading that’s important.”

The Google Moderator team has made an effort to address some of those issues. “We’ve tried to address that by giving everyone a way to let their voices be heard and to weigh in on the process. Ideally, a small, loud, organized group wouldn’t block the virtual room for others,” said Hunt. “The online systems haven’t caught up to the checks and balances that exist in an in-person town hall. Sometimes, they can be more disruptive. We’re still figuring that out. We do care that people have fair space to have their voice heard.”

Hunt posits that when you ask community about not just what they want to say but what they care about, you’ll get more useful results. “We’re not just inviting people here to post something. We’re asking them to contribute and then vote on something they care about. Freedom of speech in a representative democracy can be messy but that’s part of the process that makes it what it is. The challenge is getting closer to giving people who are busy, with a lot on their minds, a way to get involved.”

The real time Web needs to become the right time Web for most of those citizens to find it relevant in their everyday lives, as it did today when a new geolocation app launched that connected trained citizens with heart attack victims. People need actionable intelligence. Geeks hacking smarter government to make asking questions and gathering feedback simpler can and will make a difference. “If we can make it simpler for folks to plug in, that’s a good thing for everyone,” said Hunt. For those that want to #askObama a question about his plans for 2011, that Moderator instance closes at midnight on Wednesday.

New iPhone app connects trained citizens to others in cardiac distress

In 2011, there needs to be a better way to empower citizens trained in CPR to receive alerts about nearby cardiac arrest victims with geolocated maps and the location of electronic defribrillators to help them.

Now, there’s an app for that too: firedepartment.mobi. The new new geolocation app connects citizen first responders to heart attack victims in San Ramon. FireDepartment can be downloaded directly from iTunes.

Today the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District (SRVFPD) in California launched a iPhone app that will dispatch trained citizens to help others in cardiac emergencies. This new application is the latest evolution of the role of citizens as sensors, where resources and information are connected to those who need it most in the moment. This FireDepartment app is also an important example of Gov 2.0, where a forward looking organization created a platform for citizens to help each another in crises and planned to make the underlying code available for civic developers to improve on. Given context and information, trained citizens in San Ramone will now be able to do more than alert authorities and share information: they can act to save lives. Here’s a demo of the app:

iPhone Demo from Fire Department on Vimeo.

Adriel Hampton called FireDepartment the perfect blend of technology, government and volunteers. Can an everyday citizen become a hero? As Joe Hackman observed, “Today it just got a lot easier.”


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CityCamp Colorado drafts model local Open Government Initiative

Anyone looking for a set of first principles for open government has a new resource to consult: OpenGovernmentInitiative.org.

These principles resulted from a collaborative, distributed project that included representatives from CityCamp, Colorado Smart Communities, Code for America, the Sunlight Foundation, OpenPlans and others. These open government policies shared there could be adapted to the needs of city, state or national government. There are 3 broad principles laid out in this model initiative:

  • Transparency: “Making government information available to the public is a requirement for an informed citizenry and an accountable government.”
  • Participation: “Democracy requires opportunities for participation and collaborative problem solving whenever possible; this is at the core of democratic governance.”
  • Accessibility: “A government serving all its people needs policies which provide maximum information accessibility and maximum inclusion in participatory processes.”

More Open Government Initiatives from around the world can be found on the Civic Commons wiki, including specific policies or open data initiatives.

The new site includes a model open government directive that a mayor or governor can adopt immediately. The men and women behind this draft emphasized, however, that “some elements of the directive are critical to the success of any open government initiative.” Key principles in that model directive include publishing public information online, creating and institutionalizing a culture of open government, and creating a policy framework that supports these goals.

The role of CityCamp

CityCamp Logo

The idea for the model Open Government Initiative came out of CityCamp Colorado, an unconference held in December of 2010. Brian Gryth explained a bit more at the CityCamp blog about how they improved the federal open government directive to adapt it to local government. “Over the next few weeks and months, we intend to continue to create supporting materials and to draft model open government legislation to help institutionalize open government at all levels,” he wrote. “Together we can make transparency, participation, and collaboration possible in our governments.” Readers that are interested in getting more involved can join the Open Government Initiative group.

CityCamp itself has grown steadily over the first year of its existence. Since it was founded on January 23-24th, 2010, there have been 6 cities that have held a CityCamp, with more than 900 attendees. There are now at least 504 combined members in the CityCamp forum at e-democracy and group at GovLoop, along with nearly 1000 Facebook fans.

Why CityCamp? Let founder Kevin Curry explain it in his own words:

Cities are not very smart. Experts are usually needed to extract even the most basic information about cities. Given all of the resources available to us, it’s shocking that we, all of us, can’t access answers to basic questions about our cities. It’s not at all shocking, however, that answering basic questions about any city is not simple. People, processes, and technology all intervene. Negotiation of each of these elements individually is not trivial.

Our ignorance about our cities costs us money, wastes our time, and makes us unhappy. We need our cities to be smarter. Smarter cities save money. Smarter cities create opportunities. Smarter cities are safer.

To understand how we can achieve smarter cities we need to sit down to the table, both proverbially and literally.

We should promote conversations between citizens, communities, and governments across multiple media. We should use the Web as a platform to unlock information from artificial containers and open new channels. We should foster connections that lead to novel collaborations. We should educate ourselves about our surroundings so that we can manage them more effectively.

We can’t achieve any of this without communicating, hacking, collaborating, and participating.  This is why I urge you to thinking about what Gov 2.0 needs and opportunities exist where you live and what you can do to address them. CityCamp is a vehicle for Gov 2.0 at the local level. Depending on where you live CityCamp can be about direction, orientation, training, implementation, or whatever you think fits with the goals of CityCamp.

Malamud: add bulk open government data access to Thomas.gov

An image of (insert name here), taken at about 2:30 this afternoon. (Photo by Abby Brack/Library of Congress)

An image of (insert name here), taken at about 2:30 this afternoon. (Photo by Abby Brack/Library of Congress)

Open government advocate Carl Malamud made a succinct recommendation for improving the United States House of Representatives on January 24th: “Open it up. Bulk access, developer day, an API, long-term open source model. People’s house.” Malamud linked to a letter at House.Resource.org to Representative Eric Cantor (R-VI), House Majority Leader in which he made the case for making bulk data access to bills and corollary data available to the public online through Thomas.gov:

Access to bulk data, both for the core Thomas system and for corollary databases, would have a huge and immediate effect. Hosting a developer day and making sure stakeholders are part of the long-term development will help keep the next- generation system in tune with the needs of the Congress and of the public.

As Malamud pointed out, long term plans to improve public access to the law are evolving, including the announcement that the Cornell Law Library would redesign Thomas.gov legislative/meta data models:

It’s finally official: The Library of Congress has selected us to work on a redesign of their legislative-metadata models. This sounds like really geeky stuff (and it is), but the effects for government and for citizens should be pretty big. What’s really being talked about here is (we hope) a great improvement not only in what can be retrieved from systems like THOMAS and LIS (the less-well-known internal system used by Congress itself), but also in what can be linked to and referenced. We’ll begin with a careful compilation of use cases, build functional requirements for what the data models should do, and go from there to think about prototype systems and datasets. The idea is to bring Semantic Web technology to bills, public laws, the US Code, Presidential documents, and a variety of other collections. Longtime LII friends and collaborators Diane Hillmann, John Joergensen and Rob Richards& will be working with our regular team to create the new models and systems.

Will the new GOP leadership take Malamud up on his proposal for an open developer day and bulk data? Stay tuned. As Nancy Scola wrote in techPresident that “Republicans in the House are making technology-enabled openness, transparency, and participation central to the public presentation of their core political values in a way that their Democratic counterparts never fully did.” Malamud has a track record that lends considerable credibility to his prospects: he helped to get the SEC online in 1993. More recently, “Washington’s IT guy” was able to work with the House leadership to start publishing hundreds of high-resolution videos from the House Oversight Committee hearings at House.Resource.org earlier this month.

If the new GOP leadership is serious about adopting the infrastructure to enable transparency and accountability in the House, perhaps adoption of open government data standards will be one of the enduring accomplishments of this 112th Congress.

gov.house.20110120_to http://d1.scribdassets.com/ScribdViewer.swf?document_id=47510400&access_key=key-28dgxfnpla0o1b17qgmp&page=1&viewMode=list

Debating the meaning of WikiLeaks, the Internet and Democracy

On January 21st, a panel at the Churchill Club in San Jose, California debated the meaning of WikiLeaks and its broader impact to the Internet and democracy.

The issue of how Wikileaks relates to open government, Internet freedom, free speech and the use of technology in government is going to continue to be hotly debated in 2011. This conversation lays out some of the core issues, from the perspective of media analysts, the academy, technologists and, crucially, a man who was at the heart of the release of one of the most important releases of classified government information in the history of the United States.

It’s worth a watch.

The panel was moderated by Paul Jay, CEO and Senior Editor, The Real News Network, and included the following speakers:

  • Daniel Ellsberg, Former State and Defense Dept. Official prosecuted for releasing the Pentagon Papers
  • Clay Shirky, Independent Internet Professional; Adjunct Professor, Interactive Telecommunications Program, New York University
  • Neville Roy Singham, Founder and Chairman, ThoughtWorks
  • Peter Thiel, Technology entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist
  • Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law and Professor of Computer Science, Harvard University; Co-founder, Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Pew: Disability or illness hinders many Americans from using the Internet

President Barack Obama talks with, from left, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., Cheryl Sensenbrenner, James Langevin, D-R.I., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in the Oval Office, July 26, 2010, prior to an event on the South Lawn commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with, from left, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., Cheryl Sensenbrenner, James Langevin, D-R.I., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in the Oval Office, July 26, 2010, prior to an event on the South Lawn commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

A new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project includes the sobering figure that potentially hundreds of thousands of Americans live with disabilities or illness that makes it harder or impossible for them to use the Internet. According to Pew, some two percent of American adults are unable to fully make use of one of the greatest platforms for collective action in history. ‘

The survey was based on a national survey of 3,001 U.S. adults in September 2010. Here are three other data points to consider:

  • 27% of American adults live with a disability that interferes with activities of daily living.
  • 54% of adults living with a disability use the internet, compared with 81% of adults who report none of the disabilities listed in the survey.
  • 41% of adults living with a disability have broadband at home, compared with 69% of those without a disability.

“This is a correlation that we observed, not causation,” said Susannah Fox (@SusannahFox), associate director at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “We don’t know that it’s the disability that’s causing that difference, but we do know that it’s not just lower levels of education or income, or age, all of which tend to depress Internet access rates. It’s something else.”

This research should be considered in the context of an ongoing matter before the Department of Justice (DoJ): the modernization of the Americans with Disabilities Act. When the Act was first passed, the DoJ stated in the preamble to the original 1991 ADA regulations that those regulations should be interpreted to keep pace with developing technologies. (28 CFR part 36, app. B.)

Needless to say, the Internet has come a long way since 1991. The power of technology and equality came into sharp focus this year on the 20th anniversary of the ADA. Iif the United States government intends to go forward with creating online open government platforms for all the people, accessibility and access issues are part of that picture. The country will need ability maps and to consider how to balance the accessibility needs of all Americans as more civic engagement goes digital. Disability advocates agree that transparency without accessibility would be a poor version of Gov 2.0.

“The reality is that so much of what’s happening today in the world is online,” said Fox. “There’s a real difference between a someone in their 70s who doesn’t want to add the Internet to their life and someone in their 20s who can’t go online because of a disability.”

When the ADA was passed, Congress contemplated that the Department of Justice would apply the statute in a manner that evolved over time, and delegated authority to the Attorney General  of the United States to put forward regulations to carry out the Act´s broad mandate. How the Department of Justice does so is still a matter for debate.  The DoJ is considering extending the enforcement of the ADA to include websites operated by more entities, including the following list of 12 categories of “places of public accommodation” covered by the ADA from ADA.gov.

(1) An inn, hotel, motel, or other place of lodging, except for an establishment located within a building that contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and that is actually occupied by the proprietor of the establishment as the residence of the proprietor;
(2) A restaurant, bar, or other establishment serving food or drink;
(3) A motion picture house, theater, concert hall, stadium, or other place of exhibition or entertainment;
(4) An auditorium, convention center, lecture hall, or other place of public gathering;
(5) A bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, or other sales or rental establishment;
(6) A laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barber shop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station, office of an accountant or lawyer, pharmacy, insurance office, professional office of a health care provider, hospital, or other service establishment;
(7) A terminal, depot, or other station used for specified public transportation;
(8) A museum, library, gallery, or other place of public display or collection;
(9) A park, zoo, amusement park, or other place of recreation;
(10) A nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private school, or other place of education;
(11) A day care center, senior citizen center, homeless shelter, food bank, adoption agency, or other social service center establishment; and
(12) A gymnasium, health spa, bowling alley, golf course, or other place of exercise or recreation.

The public comment period for the Department of Justice’s notice of rulemaking regarding this extension will end on Monday, January 24th. The questions being contemplated by the DoJ are straightforward and yet potentially significant, with respect to their effects upon businesses: Do they operate a website? If so, does that website also have to be accessible?

The considerations and trade offs involved in answering those questions are complex but important. For people for whom accessibility is more than a “nice to have” feature, however, those answers will be meaningful.

“It’s not just the group today that’s having trouble going online,” said Fox, ” it’s about how the conversation today contributes towards building towards the future.”

POSTSCRIPT: Audrey Watters, a staff writer at ReadWriteWeb, referenced this article in her post, “Pew Internet Study Points to Challenges Americans with Disabilities Have with Internet Access.” One of her readers, John Mill, replied to Watters on Twitter: “Thanks for posting that. This inspires me as I’m applying for an internship and need to talk about greatest challenge faced by students with disabilities and how I might do something about it.”

Mill said that “many things have actually gone backward” with regards to Web accessibility. “Facebook, for one. Probs with Captcha for another.” When reached for further comment, he tweeted more about the challenge of navigating the social Web as a blind man:

I’d say the single biggest issue is the rate of change on websites and in software apps. Our screen-readers are constantly playing catch-up, and soon as they do another update is released that breaks things! With regards to social networking, FB is difficult also, as they change regularly. New Twitter is all but [unusable], but enterprising blind devs have created a software program called Qwitter client, found at www.qwitter-client.net. Those are a few of my thoughts. Apparently I could write a book!

According to Mill, the new version of Twitter, set to be rolled out to all users this year, “causes screen-readers to become sluggish and unresponsive. Also hard to find where to write the new tweets.” With respect to Facebook, “I can’t really access the main site, largely because I’m not sure where anything is!” tweeted Mills. “The mobile site works well enough, for the most part. All those games and such are out, but I mostly use it to update statuses and message friends and family.”

ExpertNet: What is the future of the open government platform?

The President has lunch with Sen. Bob Casey at the Famous 4th Street Deli in Philadelphia

The President has lunch with Sen. Bob Casey at the Famous 4th Street Deli in Philadelphia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Citizen engagement platforms grew in 2010. There will be more such platforms coming from top, through open government, and from the bottom, as civic developers create, host and use their own communities. The opportunity for citizens to participate in the co-creation of the most high profile open government platforms for citizen consultation, ExpertNet, will close on January 23rd, when the White House’s Request for Information will end.

The White House has been taking public feedback on designing democracy with this citizen consultation platform for weeks. In a number of respects, the discussion on ExpertNet.wikispaces.com has resembled an unconference, where the participants themselves drive the process.

So what’s interesting here? “It is the idea that the public will be (directly) shaping policy that is intriguing, and is a critical component to bridging the gap, both the economic gap as well as the digital gap, as the average citizen is the real stakeholder, and before now has had no forum for influencing change so directly,” said Megan Eskey, OpenGov Lead at the NASA Ames Research Center.

Or put it another way, as Anil Dash did earlier today: how should a White House Quora work?

The White House is looking to build a web community to get its questions answered, sort of their own Quora, and they’re trying to do it the right way. They’re asking those who would participate to help shape how the community itself works. They’re not trying to create a network from scratch, but instead trying to connect to networks that already exist. And they’re not just making a community for the hell of it — they’re trying to build one with purpose.

But they’ve asked for our help, from those of us who build, and know, and love web communities. We’re being asked to share our expertise in what does, and doesn’t work on successful web communities. Our deadline for participating is on Monday. Giving them insights into our hard-earned lessons will only take 15 minutes of your time this weekend, and will keep us from having to wonder, “Why wasn’t I consulted?

Many lively discussion threads have emerged, including suggestion for moderation, voting, ownership of intellectual property and more, including:

“It’s not so much the idea of a wiki or whatever platform ExpertNet rolls out, but rather the format they are looking at of matching experts with those seeking to solve immense problems,” said Eskey. “Whether it is a wiki or a social site or some other crowdsourcing tool like delib’s dialogue app, that feedback loop is critical, especially if the digital divide is to be bridged via new bills that are introduced into Congress, although at this time the project is envisioned for executive agencies and departments only,” she said. Eskey noted that any ideas for using ExpertNet within the legislative branch should be directed to elected representative(s) in Congress.

For those interested in the future of open government and citizen consultation, there’s no time like the present to weigh in. Tim Bonnemann of Intellitics has also posed six questions for ExpertNet for further consideration.

President Obama to take questions on YouTube after State of the Union

Next Tuesday January 25 at 9 p.m. EST, President Obama will deliver his 2011 State of the Union Address, which will be streamed live at WhiteHouse.gov and on the major television networks. Today, Steve Grove announced a YouTube interview with President Obama next Thursday, January 27, with questions coming from the online audience. The deadline for questions is Wednesday, January 25 at midnight EST.

Once again, YouTube is taking questions using Google Moderator, which allows people to vote questions up and down. Before anyone jumps and calls this “Obama 2.0,” the president sat down for a similar live interview with Grove in the White House last year, and used a similar mechanism for an online town hall in 2009. The Google Moderator instance for last year’s YouTube interview on the CitizenTube channel received over 11,600 questions and over 660,000 votes. While the number of questions submitted the last time around suggest the odds aren’t terrific for the average citizen to see a question asked, it’s worth noting that a good pertinent question about the economy, energy, healthcare or foreign policy could be voted up for the president’s consideration (along with the persistent questions about legalizing marijuana.)

For a look back at last year’s YouTube interview, including a sense of how Grove pulls from the public’s questions. watch the video below.