New partnership with Microsoft and Bing lets citizens Skype the White House


For almost five years now, the Obama administration has encouraged the American people to ask or answer questions over the Internet. On Wednesday, December 11th, we’ll see a new wrinkle: the White House is using a collaboration between Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, and Skype to enable people to ask questions from their house.

The occasion is a conversation on immigration reform with Vice President Joe Biden and the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, Cecilia Muñoz. In addition to questions posed on Twitter at #AskTheWhiteHouse (virtually old hat in 2013), people will be able to use Skype to record short messages, as campaign manager Lucy Woolfenden explained at Skype’s blog. According to Woolfenden, “a select group of questioners” will also connect to the White House via live Skype Video Calls. (The criteria for their selection was not disclosed.)

That the use of real-time online video links between elected officials and Americans isn’t exactly a groundbreaking of technology in government in late 2013, which says something about the world we live in. It’s hard to believe that almost two years ago, President Obama joined a Google+ Hangout in January 2012, followed by many more Hangouts from the White House by members of his administration.

Even with the rampant cynicism and historic lows in public trust in government, however, there’s reason to hope for something interesting to come out of the event. The first Hangout with the president featured real, tough questions from citizens that made news on the use of drones. Earlier this year, an unexpected question on “patent trolls” posed to Mr. Obama by Adafruit founder Limor Fried led to a series a series of executive actions in June.

That isn’t to say that recorded questions or the live Skype conversation tomorrow will lead to executive action on an immigration issue, like deportation policy, or even make news. It does mean the livestream at and tomorrow may be a bit more interesting.

While this is a novel use of Skype, the context for it is much the same as past efforts, where the Obama administration is trying to use its bully pulpit and social media prowess to engage the public to put more pressure on Congress on a given policy agenda. (In this case, it’s trying to move stalled immigration reform legislation forward. It’s not at all clear whether the effort will change any votes in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.)

There’s one other new media angle teased by Crittenden last week to watch: “for greater interactivity, live polls will map public engagement with the conversation in real time.”

We’ll see how that goes, but the fact that Bing is being used to host the conversation and analyze engagement is something of a coup for Microsoft’s public sector team, which has not been a major part of the mix of this administration’s digital public engagement strategies, as the White House has tumbled further into social media over the years.

Platforms for citizensourcing emerge in Egypt

As people watching the impact of social media in the events in Egypt know, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube played a role. Today, Microsoft’s director of public sector engagement, Mark Drapeau, sent word that the Redmond-based software company’s open source ideation platform, Town Hall, has been deployed at to collect ideas.

The highest profile implementation of Town Hall to date was for crowdsourcing ideas in Congress for the incoming Republican majority in Congress at “America Speaking Out.

This Town Hall instance and others show how citizensourcing platforms can be tailored to channel feedback around specific topics, as opposed to less structured platforms. As governments and citizens try to catalyze civic engagement using the Internet, creating better architectures for citizen participation will be critical. Clay Shirky’s talk about the Internet, citizenship and lessons for government agencies at the Personal Democracy Forum offered some insight on that count. Using taxonomies to aggregate ideas instead of a single list was a key takeaway.

To date, the Egyptian citizensourcing site has logged a few dozen questions and votes. Whether usage of the site will grow more or not is up for debate. The network effect may working against it. As ReadWriteWeb reported last week, Egyptians are using Google Moderator to brainstorm Egypt’s future. Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who played a role in Egypt’s recent revolution, started a Google Moderator page for Egypt entitled, “Egypt 2.0, what does we need? What are our dreams?!.” To date, the Moderator instance has logged 1,361,694 votes for more than 50,000 of the ideas submitted by nearly 40,000 users.

State of Minnesota Moves to Microsoft’s Cloud for Collaboration

This morning, the state of Minnesota announced that it would use Microsoft’s private cloud computing technology as a platform for its collaboration software. Microsoft’s blog post reasonably Minnesota’s move to the cloud as an “historic first.” Given that the state’s press release, embedded below, describes it the same way, that’s not unfair. Details have yet to emerge on the security or privacy requirements that the Redmond-based software giants signed to gain the customer but, as the release notes, “the move makes Minnesota the first U.S. state to move to a large collaboration and communication suite in a private cloud environment.”

While federal, state and local government entities have used Amazon, Google Apps or, today’s news at least adds Microsoft’s offerings into the conversation. The implementation will likely deploy the Windows Azure platform to deliver Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS).

“As states battle growing deficits, they are continually being asked to do more with less,” said Gopal Khanna, Minnesota’s State Chief Information Officer in a prepared statement. “Rethinking the way we manage our digital infrastructure centrally, to save locally across all units of government, is a crucial part of the solution. The private sector has utilized technological advancements like cloud computing to realize operational efficiencies for some time now. Government must follow suit.”

Not all reactions are quite as optimistic, however, particularly with respect to reduced costs. “I forsee short term gain,” tweeted researcher Simon Wardley, “large future exit costs, increased consumption, no long term reduction in IT expenditure.”

Why no long term reductions in state IT expenditures by going to Microsoft’s private cloud?

“See Jevons’ paradox,” Wardley replied. “Causes are co-evolution, long tail of demand, componentisation and increased innovation. In other words, you’ll just end up doing more. Countries & States are in competition with each other … not just firms. It’s not MSFT specific, it’s general to all clouds. The ‘cloud will save you money’argument forgets consumption effects. You might as well argue that Moore’s law should have reduced IT expenditure. [Cloud will] reduce your costs if your workload stays the same but alas it won’t, it’ll increase for the reasons previously listed.”

State of Minnesota Signs Historic Cloud Computing Agreement With M 092710090511 MN BPOS Announcement Releas…

Apps for California Winners Feature Innnovative Mashups Of Open Government Data

Today, California announced the winners of its Apps for California challenge. As the summer comes to an end, there will indeed be an open government app for that in California. As I reported earlier this year at Radar, the app contest was targeted at catalyzing innovative uses of a refreshed, which included over 400 major data sources, including XLS, CSV and XML formats, and over 100 million records. The winners will be honored and given prizes at an awards gala hosted by Government Technology’s Best of the Web Competition on September 17, 2010.

Who are the Winners?

So who won and why? According to the Apps for California rules, each entry was judged according to the following criteria:

  1. Providing value to California’s residents and businesses;
  2. Demonstrating Innovation;
  3. Promoting Collaboration and Government Efficiency; and
  4. Ensuring Accessibility and Usability.

WIthout further ado, here are the five winners:

California Cage Fight
(info page) allows residents to compare their counties with other California counties and the state as a whole, including population growth, per capita income, unemployment, new houses and more.

California Environment Report: Cleanup Sites and Permitted Facilities
(info page) provide residents with an interactive map that includes heatmaps, a mobile version with geolocation, data feeds, and detail pages for every cleanup site and permitted dacility from the CA Department of Toxic Substances Control Datasets.

California View
(info page) is a simple mapping tool that displays the locations of California state parks, fishing holes and boating facilities.

(info page) provides mobile access to San Francisco zoning ordinance information. This app includes geolocation, interactive zoning maps, resources about code and a mechanism to ask a city planner questions.

(info page) provides a browser for California education, health and current legislation. The mashup allows users to “submit ideas on how the government should spend taxpayer money. Notably, it also has a constant stream of updates from schools, first responders and local politics. The site features Facebook integration, and a “Fix” button  that should be familiar to SeeClickFix users.

People’s Choice Award

Explore California” (info page) and the California Cage Fight mashups won the People’s Choice Awards. Explore California is similar to Data California, providing users with an interactive map and visualizations population, income, unemployment, new housing units, and other trends over time. Visitors can “compare and contrast the patterns of growth and decline in various categories and the relationships between them.”

What’s do Apps for California mean for Gov 2.0?

At review time, the winners seems like it might have the most potential to enable better outcomes for citizens to engage with government, given the tool. The zoning app could potentially be quite useful to builders or homeowners. And if you’re also an angler, the easy lookup of potential hotspots could be of interest, though old salts might not want the increased competition. A complete list of Apps for California finalists is available at

The contest was conducted by the Center for Digital Government in collaboration with the state of California, the city of Los Angeles, the county of Los Angeles, the city and county of San Francisco, Google, Microsoft and That collaboration featured some of the nation’s biggest tech companies partnering with public institutions to create mashups that of open public data that would provide more value to citizens.

Overall, the state saw over a dozen applications developed over the summer that might have taken it much longer to build internally, and at substantially great cost. Beyond stimulating that activity, however, the success or failure of the contest will likely be judged not upon the prices awarded or the number of apps built but rather whether these applications make the lives of citizens easier or provide more frictionless access to information. That’s a judgement that will only be rendered with time.

What will challenges and crowdsourcing mean for open government?

Yesterday, I reported on how the United States federal government plans to approach crowdsourcing national challenges with the new at ReadWriteWeb. As I wrote there, is the latest effort in the evolution of collaborative innovation in open government.

Should the approach succeed, challenges and contests have the potential to leverage the collective expertise of citizens, just as apps contests have been used to drive innovation in D.C. and beyond.

In the interview below, Bev Godwin and Brandon Kessler explain what is and what it might do. Kessler is the founder of ChallengePost, the platform that is built upon.

I interviewed Godwin and Kessler in August, when senior government officials and private sector enjoyed a preview of at the Newseum at the second annual Fedscoop forum on reducing the cost of government. The following excerpts from their panels offer more insight into how challenges work, how they’ve been used in the private sector and what results citizens might anticipate as this approach to open government moves forward.

What is a Challenge?

Kessler defines a challenge.

The Value of Challenges to the Government

Bev Godwin discusses the importance and value of challenges to the government.

Results from Challenges

Brandon Kessler discusses the results he has seen from challenges.

Different Classifications of Challenges

Michael Donovan, Chief Technologist, Strategic Capabilities, HP, explains how he would classify different types of challenges.

Dean Halstead, collaboration architect at Microsoft, discusses how he would classify different types of challenges.

ROI from Challenges at NASA

Dr. Jeffrey Davis, director of space life sciences at NASA, talks about the return on investment shown by some of the challenges he has run or been involved with.

What Makes a Good Challenge?

Dr. Jeffrey Davis explores the characteristics of a good challenge.

Challenges in the Private Sector

Dean Halstead explains how Microsoft leverages challenges.

Michael Donovan explains how HP leverages challenges.

Will Crowdsourcing and Challenges Enable More Open Government? “is the next form of citizen engagement, beyond participation to co-creation,” said Godwin at the Newseum. Many questions remain about how the effort will be received. Will citizens show up? Will challenges see participation from industry leaders and the innovators in the private sector? Will intellectual property rights be clearly and fairly addressed up front and afterwards, in a sustainable way? Will Congress pass legislation enshrining this approach to open government?

The answers to most of those questions, in other words, will often not be driven by legal or technological challenges. Instead, the results will have to be used to drive acquisition, civic empowerment or even more data-driven policy. Opening the doors of government to innovation will not be easy. Whether these efforts can spur the evolution of a more efficient, innovative government in the 21st Century may be the most difficult challenge to win of all.