The Culture Problem And Government

After receiving a 150 million dollar investment from Peter Thiel, Brian Chesky of Airbnb asked for the single most important piece advice. Thiel’s response was simple, “don’t fuck up the culture”.  Brian describes culture as the key allowing creativity and innovation to flourish at Airbnb, beyond technology, process and even his lifetime in this terrific article.

Culture, especially in technology companies, as an enabler of innovation allows risk taking, and emphasizes the values of the Agile Manifesto.

Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools
Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation
Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation, and
Responding to Change over Following a Plan

As Dave Thomas has already written, Agile is dead, what remains is how much an organization values Agility on a spectrum. After all, “everyone is doing agile” these days.

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to the government, how it’s operating, and how many of my friends and former colleagues are working to create that culture of innovation. Pulling and dragging it to the left hand side, despite it’s intentional design to be more like the right side.

It’s easy to see why the government has developed to favor the right hand side. Every few years leadership changes and with it much of the culture.  What remains is the civil servant, many of whom prefer the security of process over the whims of individuals and interactions.

We’re two years away from a leadership change; I hope the new culture sticks.

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5 Lessons From Standing Up This Blog, Again

It’s been a while since I’ve had both the time and inclination to write. In the meantime, a lot has changed. The last WordPress site that occupied this space had been hacked and ruined. At any rate, I want to start creating content that isn’t 140 characters, my resume, or family and friends oriented. This was my process:

Step 1, what do I have now? After evaluating the hacked wreckage of a WordPress site I long abandoned, I discovered my database been corrupted (my wp_user table had been deleted), a common problem in abandoned sites. After a brief search for methods to repair I decided that deleting it all starting from scratch was the way to go.

Step 2, should I just update my old technology? I poked around my webhost, erasing superfluous user accounts and databases, before locating the one-click install, and finally with a few clicks it was done, or so I thought. I ended up repeating the process of erasing and one-click installing a couple of times. My host’s delay in completing a process made this painful, which left me with plenty of time to look for something else.

Step 3, what’s trendy, and what’s new? In the last two years, Github, at least in government circles, has moved from a way for developers to co-create code, to a way to collaborate on documents, to publication platform. It’s very hip to use github to solve problems, every problem, even weddings.

The fact is that several technology leaders I look up use Github pages as a publishing platform, and when making technology decisions, I always try to follow the best. So I started looking for a great template to fork.

Step 4, what are my actual requirements? I stood up pages a few weeks ago, but I left it unfinished. My second glance today, left me as discouraged. I wanted out of the box, fast, lite, clean, easy to update, and my search left me disappointed. What I found, were good snippets of solved problems; examples of headers here, well done pagination there, social media links and rss feeds. What I wanted was all of them, in 10 minutes.

Thinking about what I needed. I realized, I could either spend a day or more forking, and hacking together blog functionality in pages, or I could just go back to WordPress and it’s legendary 5-minute install.

Step 5, when is good enough good enough?  The latest version of the on-click install worked. The next step was to add a few plugins, and find a clean theme, and presto, I’d be done. What I found as I searched through themes were lots of bloated “feature rich” themes with “responsive” drag and drop menus all over the place. I finally settled on the pilcrow theme for now, just to get this up and running.

The process left me thinking that WordPress is far different from when I started tinkering with it in 2007, but it’s good enough for now. I’m going to have to take another look at pages, maybe building up features is better than stripping them down. In the meantime, here are some of my lessons learned.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  1. Maintaining technology is costly and necessary
  2. Technology is both a marathon and a sprint
  3. Good technologists copy, Great technologists steal
  4. Trendy and new doesn’t matter if it doesn’t solve your problems (but sometimes it’s worth it anyways)
  5. Sometimes the devil you know is best

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Heartbleed Bug Underlines The Strength And Weakness Of The Open Source Business Model

Unless you were hiding under a rock last week, you’ve probably heard of the heartbleed bug in OpenSSL  that exposed around 17% of the internet’s secure servers to an exploit. What I find remarkable about this, isn’t the bug or it’s far reaching impact, but the fact that OpenSSL is being supported by an organization of  5 people, 4 full partners and 1 affiliate (not including volunteers). That’s 5 people responsible for a protocol that supports over 500 million servers, which is many if not most of the websites I visit on a daily basis.

Heartbleed aside, it’s amazing how successful they’ve been at solving a fundamental problem on the Internet, aka how to have a secure transaction, since 1998. Nevertheless there comes a point when shared vision, idealism, amazing technology, and even community don’t deliver. Luckily, the money guy (his joke) from the OpenSSL foundation has put out a request for help in funding 6 new positionsWhile I doubt it will be, I hope at least one of the new positions is a director; someone dedicated to securing funding,  marketing, and even shamelessly promoting the OpenSSL Foundation and all the wonderful work they are doing.

I know that’s not very “Open Source” of me. I know it’s antithetical to how many open source projects start, as just a few friends and acquaintances working to solve an interesting technical problem together. I know “the real work” is code reviews, and that the moment a non-technical person starts poking around, the party’s over.  Nevertheless, at some point, you need to incorporate other people with other skill sets, like fundraising, design, marketing, product development, etc. At some point, when your technology takes over the world you have to adjust otherwise you become a victim of your own success.

P.S. The Open SSL Software Foundation can be donated to here.

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Transportation Lessons For Civic Hackers From Portland

In a recent conversation with fellow Seattleite Sid Burgess from, we discussed the direction and needs of civic data, and how the open data movement can, is, and is not fulfilling its promise. A key walk-away for me from that conversation was that technology products have to solve real business problems.

Put another way.

If technology products solve business problems, then the people with those problems will likely pay for you it.

Not every civic hacker is doing it for a full time job, and not every project has to have to earn revenue to be successful, as many of us see civic hacking as a way of getting involved with our community, in a high impact, low red tape environment.

Nevertheless for people who are looking to transition from volunteer/hobbyist to pro you should take a look at what GlobeSherpa has done. They built a simple, clean app, which allows people to buy tickets and ride Portland’s public transpiration. Since launching in September, 2013, there have been 1 million ticket purchases through that app, with half of those purchases happening in the last 3 months (hat tip to GeekWire).

One the one hand this growth doesn’t compare to the mobile gaming app market, on the other hand Portland was the city that Google partnered with to help launch the public transportation data schema that dominates the U.S. and other markets. So that’s 1 million tickets in Portland in 8 months now, with an eye toward the U.S. public transportation market tomorrow, with its 10.5 billion trips per year tomorrow.

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What Makes The National Broadband Map #Gov2.0?

This is a copy of the post I wrote while working for the NTIA on the National Broadband Map. The original post can be found here.


What makes the National Broadband Map #gov20?

On January 21, 2009, President Barack Obama, in a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, directed Federal departments and agencies to promote public trust through transparency, public participation and collaboration. One of our goals in launching the National Broadband Map (NBM) is to effectively embody those three principles.

Here are some of the ways we are doing so:

The National Broadband Map is transparent.  For example, we provide information on the source of each part of the dataset and how the data were collected. We take a soup-to-nuts approach towards publishing this “data lineage,” beginning with access to the methodologies that each state grantee developed to describe its data collection and validation processes. We include lists of the broadband providers that volunteered data in each state and those that are still working on it. The National Broadband Map also provides information detailing how NTIA and the FCC integrated, evaluated, and mapped the individual state datasets. Finally, the data described above come alive on the website itself through features such as search/findranksummarize and map. And if you want the data for yourself, are all available via API or direct download.

The National Broadband Map is participatory. In fact, we are actively seeking your participation. When you search for information by address, we want you to tell us whether you have access to the specific broadband providers and/or maximum advertised speeds listed (feature coming soon). If your provider isn’t listed, we encourage you to let us know. More importantly, every bit of crowdsourced information, positive and negative, will be available to the state grantees that are collecting and updating the data. Grantees will be able to use your feedback to expand and improve their next dataset, which will be updated every six months.

The National Broadband Map is collaborative. Thanks to an unprecedented partnership among NTIA, the FCC, all 50 states, 5 territories, the District of Columbia, and more than 1650 unique broadband providers, the National Broadband Map is the most comprehensive telecommunications dataset ever released by the government — and we’re just getting started. This Federal-State partnership isn’t solely intended to produce the map, however; the map is part of the State Broadband Initiativedesigned to create capacity and facilitate the expansion of broadband throughout the country. We’ll continue to highlight the work of these efforts to plan, coordinate, and accelerate broadband deployment and adoption across each state, and encourage you to get involved.

So what really makes the National Broadband Map #gov2.0? You do.

Andrew MacRae
Program Officer, State Broadband Initiative
National Telecommunications and Information Administration”

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The Executive Branch Goes Government 2.0; Now What?

With the launch of we are seeing significant efforts by the Obama Administration to finally start bridging the technology divide between government 1.0 and government 2.0, but when it’s all said and done there’s a lot more to web 2.0 than mere technology. After all, it’s really about the conversation that the technology is supposed to help facilitate. Conversation is something that the government seems less apt at than even the most archaic corporations for many reasons, and in the end I fear many conversations will end with “because it’s the law that’s why”. (Read point number 20 on Steve Radick’s 20 thesis for Gov 2.0)

Whether the EPA, OMB, or IRS is using YouTube, Flickr, XML, Google Maps, etc. the real value for citizens is getting the information we need in a timely and accurate manner. APIs can be expected to enable a better digital user experience by leaps and bounds for citizens. Nevertheless, the most crucial element to citizen engagement is not the information we receive from the government, but how the government reacts to the information it’s getting from us. Will our questions, comments, and concerns to the executive branch be aggregated, considered, and responded to? Or, will bureaucrats treat citizen comments with little regard? Will this alter the way we interact with the Executive Branch? Instead of being administered by the Office of the Presidency with oversight by Congress, will the Executive come under increasing account to the people? Finally, as citizens and watchdogs are able to evaluate government performance under a better microscope, how will this effect the Legislative Branch’s constituent services?

I look forward to this “change” and what it can bring, but I don’t believe that a website can’t replace a community. Nor can it replace the neceessary conversation between the people and our government. In the meantime is a great first step to rebuilding our social capital.

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