The Bot Wars, begun they have. Over the past two years, automated social media accounts and fraudulent regulatory filings have been used by anonymous parties to obscure public opinion, distort public discourse, and corrupt the integrity of rulemaking in the … Continue reading
Today, dozens of websites “slowed down” for a cause, collectively advocating against Open Internet rules proposed by the Federal Communications Commission. None of the participants in today’s “Internet Slowdown Day” actually delayed access to their websites: instead, they used code to add a layer to visitors’ Web browsers with one of the loading icons grimly familiar to anyone who’s ever waited for a long download or crufty operating system function to finish in an overlay and linked to BattleForThenet.com/September10, which encouraged visitors to sign a letter supporting net neutrality, or to use online tools to call Congress.
While many big tech companies didn’t participate, millions of visitors to Reddit, Tumblr, Netflix, Free Press, Reddit, Netflix, Mozilla, Kickstarter, Upworthy, Automattic, Digg, Vimeo, Boing Boing, Urban Dictionary, Foursquare, Cheezburger and the Sunlight Foundation saw the spinning icon, among others.
The effort appears to have made a difference: According to the FCC*, by 6 PM ET the agency saw 111,449 new public comments added to the already record-setting total, with some 41,173 filed into the 14-28 docket of the FCC’s website since and another 70,286 sent to the firstname.lastname@example.org inbox, setting a new high water mark of some 1,515,144 to date, with more yet to come. As reported by Mike Masnick, citing ThinkProgress, the Internet slowdown generated 1000 calls per minute to Congress. *Update: Fight for the Future claims that more than 740,000 comments were submitted through Battleforthenet.com and that the FCC hasn’t caught up. According to the nonprofit, “this happened during our last big push too when their site crashed. We are storing comments and will deliver all.”
“We sent 500K+ comments,” wrote Tiffaniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, in an email. “They’re getting backlogged as the FCC can’t handle the amount of data. The FCC asked us to hold as they could not accept them and can’t handle all the load. So, they only just got to accepting them again.”
That means there have been at least 409,522 reply comments filed since July 18, with five days left in the reply comment period, with more than one quarter of them coming in a single day. (*If Fight for the Future’s total is correct, the number of reply comments filed passed 800,000, with the total nearing 2 million.) The FCC will host a public Open Internet roundtable discussion on September 16, the day after the period closes. According to an analysis of the first 800,000 public comments by the Sunlight Foundation, less than 1 percent of the submissions were clearly opposed to net neutrality.
These numbers are still dwarfed by the millions of calls and emails sent to Washington during the campaign to halt the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP Act in Congress in 2012, when Google and Wikipedia connected visitors to their websites to switchboards on Capitol Hill. They may also have less of an effect on an independent regulatory agency that has yet to chart a sustainable legal course in the storm of online criticism and intense lobbying by affected industries.
According to a FCC spokesman, the agency expected an increased volume of traffic due to the “slowdown.” Perhaps anticipating the interest, the @FCC’s first tweet today encouraged people to submit comments via email:
Next Monday 9/15 is the deadline for the 2nd round of #OpenInternet comments. Submit via email@example.com.
— The FCC (@FCC) September 10, 2014
The total number of comments on the Open Internet proceeding is sure to grow in the remaining week, with the number of emails sent to the FCC’s dedicated inbox likely to go past a million. (Update: On Thursday morning, the FCC confirmed that a total of 632,328 comments filed to ECFS and 1,118,107 sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, for a cumulative total of 1,750,435.) In many ways, that outcome feels appropriate.
When the FCC’s 18 year-old online commenting system has groaned under a huge volume of online traffic, people have routed around the downed comment system and used the original killer app of the Internet: email, the “tremendous, decentralized, open platform on which new, innovative things can and have been built,” based upon the same kinds of open protocols that enabled the unprecedented growth of a wealth of networks to grow around the world.
Update: At the end of the day after the Internet Slowdown, the FCC still working to enter all of the new comments created the day before into their systems — and the agency decided to offer another way to file comments: using email attachments.
In fact, FCC asked for something unexpected, simple and smart: for comments to be submitted at bulk open data, as .csv files of no more than 9 MB each. While the FCC doesn’t refer specifically to the comments that Fight for the Future has collected, this option does offer an easy way to electronically transfer the comments through an established channel. In the future, perhaps this will become the default option for
filing bulk comments collected by advocates, at least until Congress funds a new online filing system or the agency finds a way to use Dropbox. It should certainly make releasing them online as structured data for third-party analysis much easier; if the FCC wanted to, if could publish them almost as quickly as the comments came in.
The agency’s chief information officer, David Bray, explained the additional option in a blog post:
The volume of public feedback in the Open Internet proceeding has been commensurate with the importance of the effort to preserve a free and open Internet.
The Commission is working to ensure that all comments are processed and that we have a full accounting of the number received as soon as possible. Most important, all of these comments will be considered as part of the rulemaking process. While our system is catching up with the surge of public comments, we are providing a third avenue for submitting feedback on the Open Internet proceeding.
In the Commission’s embrace of Open Data and a commitment to openness and transparency throughout the Open Internet proceedings, the FCC is making available a Common Separated Values (CSV) file for bulk upload of comments given the exceptional public interest. All comments will be received and recorded through the same process we are applying for the email@example.com emails.
Attached is a link to the CSV file template along with instructions. Once completed, the CSV file can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org where if it matches the template the individual comments will be filed for the public record with the Electronic Comment Filing System. When you email this file, please use the subject “CSV”. We encourage CSV files of 9MB or less via email.
The Commission welcomes the record-setting level of public input in this proceeding, and we want to do everything we can to make sure all voices are heard and reflected in the public record.
Citizensourcing and open innovation can work in the public sector, just as crowdsourcing can in the private sector. Around the world, the use of prizes to spur innovation has been booming for years. The United States of America has been significantly scaling up its use of prizes and challenges to solving grand national challenges since January 2011, when, President Obama signed an updated version of the America COMPETES Act into law.
According to the third congressionally mandated report released by the Obama administration today (PDF/Text), the number of prizes and challenges conducted under the America COMPETES Act has increased by 50% since 2012, 85% since 2012, and nearly six-fold overall since 2011. 25 different federal agencies offered prizes under COMPETES in fiscal year 2013, with 87 prize competitions in total. The size of the prize purses has also grown as well, with 11 challenges over $100,000 in 2013. Nearly half of the prizes conducted in FY 2013 were focused on software, including applications, data visualization tools, and predictive algorithms. Challenge.gov, the award-winning online platform for crowdsourcing national challenges, now has tens of thousands of users who have participated in more than 300 public-sector prize competitions. Beyond the growth in prize numbers and amounts, Obama administration highlighted 4 trends in public-sector prize competitions:
- New models for public engagement and community building during competitions
- Growth software and information technology challenges, with nearly 50% of the total prizes in this category
- More emphasis on sustainability and “creating a post-competition path to success”
- Increased focus on identifying novel approaches to solving problems
The growth of open innovation in and by the public sector was directly enabled by Congress and the White House, working together for the common good. Congress reauthorized COMPETES in 2010 with an amendment to Section 105 of the act that added a Section 24 on “Prize Competitions,” providing all agencies with the authority to conduct prizes and challenges that only NASA and DARPA has previously enjoyed, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which has been guiding its implementation and providing guidance on the use of challenges and prizes to promote open government.
“This progress is due to important steps that the Obama Administration has taken to make prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox,” wrote Cristin Dorgelo, assistant director for grand challenges in OSTP, in a WhiteHouse.gov blog post on engaging citizen solvers with prizes:
In his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on all Federal agencies to increase their use of prizes to address some of our Nation’s most pressing challenges. Those efforts have expanded since the signing of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which provided all agencies with expanded authority to pursue ambitious prizes with robust incentives.
To support these ongoing efforts, OSTP and the General Services Administration have trained over 1,200 agency staff through workshops, online resources, and an active community of practice. And NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI) provides a full suite of prize implementation services, allowing agencies to experiment with these new methods before standing up their own capabilities.
Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy famously once said that “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” This rings true, in and outside of government. The idea of governments using prizes like this to inspire technological innovation, however, is not reliant on Web services and social media, born from the fertile mind of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. As the introduction to the third White House prize report notes:
“One of the most famous scientific achievements in nautical history was spurred by a grand challenge issued in the 18th Century. The issue of safe, long distance sea travel in the Age of Sail was of such great importance that the British government offered a cash award of £20,000 pounds to anyone who could invent a way of precisely determining a ship’s longitude. The Longitude Prize, enacted by the British Parliament in 1714, would be worth some £30 million pounds today, but even by that measure the value of the marine chronometer invented by British clockmaker John Harrison might be a deal.”
Centuries later, the Internet, World Wide Web, mobile devices and social media offer the best platforms in history for this kind of approach to solving grand challenges and catalyzing civic innovation, helping public officials and businesses find new ways to solve old problem. When a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, it can improve the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.
“Open innovation or crowdsourcing or whatever you want to call it is real, and is (slowly) making inroads into mainstream (i.e. non high-tech) corporate America,” said MIT principal research professor Andrew McAfee, in an interview in 2012.” P&G is real. Innocentive is real. Kickstarter is real. Idea solicitations like the ones from Starbucks are real, and lead-user innovation is really real.”
Prizes and competitions all rely upon the same simple idea behind the efforts like the X-Prize: tapping into the distributed intelligence of humans using a structured methodology. This might include distributing work, in terms of completing a given task or project, or soliciting information about how to design a process, product or policy.
Over the past decade, experiments with this kind of civic innovation around the world have been driven by tight budgets and increased demands for services, and enabled by the increased availability of inexpensive, lightweight tools for collaborating with connected populations. The report claimed that crowdsourcing can save federal agencies significant taxpayer dollars, citing an example of a challenge where the outcome cost a sixth of the estimated total of a traditional approach.
One example of a cost-effective prize program is the Medicaid Provider Screening Challenge that was offered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) as part of a pilot designed in partnership with states and other stakeholders. This prize program was a series of software development challenges designed to improve capabilities for streamlining operations and screening Medicaid providers to reduce fraud and abuse. With a total prize purse of $500,000, the challenge series is leading to the development of an open source multi-state, multi-program provider screening shared-service software program capable of risk scoring, credential validation, identity authentication, and sanction checks, while lowering the burden on providers and reducing administrative and infrastructure expenses for states and Federal programs. CMS partnered with the NASA Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI), NASA’s contractor Harvard Business School, Harvard’s subcontractor TopCoder, and the State of Minnesota. The State of Minnesota is working on full deployment of the software, and CMS is initiating a campaign to encourage other states to leverage the software. COECI estimates that the cost of designing and building the portal through crowdsourcing was one-sixth of what the effort would have cost using traditional software development methods. Through the success of this and subsequent
challenges, CMS is attempting to establish a new paradigm for crowdsourcing state and Federal information technology (IT) systems in a low-cost, agile manner by opening challenges to new players, small companies, and talented individual developers to build solutions which can “plug and play” with existing legacy systems or can operate in a shared, cloud-based environment.
As is always the nature of experiments, many early attempts failed. A few have worked and subsequently grown into sustainable applications, services, data sources, startups, processes and knowledge that can be massively scaled. Years ago, Micah Sifry predicted that the “gains from enabling a culture of open challenges, outsider innovation and public participation” in government were going to be huge. He was right.
Linked below are the administration’s official letters to the House and Senate, reporting the results of last year’s prizes.
Today, the Participatory Politics Foundation launched AskThem.io, a new online tool focused upon structured questions and answers with elected officials.
The platform is an evolution from earlier attempts to ask questions of candidates for public office, like “10 Questions” from Personal Democracy Media, or the myriad online town halls that governors and the White House have been holding for years.
AskThem enables anyone to pose a question to any elected official or Verified Twitter account. Notably, the cleanly designed Web app uses geolocation to enable users to learn who represents them, in of itself a valuable service.
As with e-petitions, AskThem users can then sign questions they support, voting them up and sharing the questions with their social networks. When a given question hits a preset threshold, the platform delivers the questions to to the public figure and “encourages a public response.”
That last bit is key: there’s no requirement for someone to respond, for the response itself to be substantive, nor for the public figure to act. There’s only the network effect of public pressure to make any of that happen.
After a year of development, Moore was excited to see the platform go live today, noting a number of precedents set in the process.
“I believe we’re the first open-source web app to support geolocation of elected officials, down to the municipal level, from street address,” he said, via email. “And I believe we’re the first to offer access to over 142,000 elected officials through our combined data sources. And I believe we’re the first to incorporate open government data for informed questions of elected officials at every level of government.”
Moore referred to AskThem’s use of the Google Civic Information API, which provides the data for the platform.
AskThem goes online just in time for tomorrow’s day of action against mass surveillance, where over 5,000 websites will try to activate their users to contact their elected representatives in Washington. Whether it gets much use or not will depend on awareness of the new tool.
At launch, 66 elected officials nationwide have signed on to participate, though more may join if it catches on. In the meantime, you can use AskThem’s handy map to find local elected officials and see a listing of all of the questions to date across the USA — or pose your own.