- #gov20 moves on? Age of latest post in @ideascale 's 7 featured gov sites:7,9,11 months; 1,1,2,3 years http://t.co/vTADENjA #
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I used to dread when friends or family asked: “Chris, what sort of computer should I buy – laptop or desktop, Macintosh or Windows?” The people who needed me most were the hardest to help – they didn’t know how they’d use a computer, weren’t settled on much of a budget, had very high expectations, but little sense of what it would take for them to put a computer to good use.
But turning the question back on them (“how will you use the computer? do you need to hook it up to a printer or a PDA? how much do you want to spend?”) led to embarassment, not insight.
Finally, I realized that people who asked me a question like this would rely on a friend or family member for troubleshooting, when things went wrong. It was surprising that most of my questioners knew right away, when asked, who that techie would be. Of course, if there were problems, they’d call on Cousin Amy, or Joe from church, or that nice man down at the High Tech Depot.
The next time I got the question I responded with a question that was useful, not annoying: “who’s going to help you with your new computer, and what systems do they know?” A light went on in my friend’s eyes: they knew what to do.
The moral: Those first questions about technology are almost always, really, questions about people.
Now, if you’re an organization seeking social media strategy and technology advice you’ll need a little more help.
Josh Bernoff and Forrester to the rescue, with a shiny (and useful) acronym: POST.
Consider, in order:
For non-profits and government agencies, I’d widen the circle of People: your staff, your management, your donors, and your partners are important, too. Who will need to participate in this new strategy to make it a success? What’s their training? What are they capable and motivated to learn?
And I’d start the search for Objectives and – more importantly- measures by writing the stories you’d like to tell when the initiative is a success.
Say you’re putting a state legislature online in a more friendly and accessible way. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to say, once you were done, that a particular group of constituents that had been out of the loop for years used your new site to track a proposed law that threatened to hurt them and, instead, shaped the legislation to help them?
That gives you a rich picture of what success looks like — reaching new, non-expert audiences, providing early warning, making legislative content and procedures comprehensible — and how you might measure it.
So, those first technology questions are, almost always, really questions about People, Objectives, and Strategy. Technology, in POST and in life, is the last question, not the first one.
You’ve landed on a Whitehouse.gov petition on an issue that’s close to your heart, and you’re thrilled that’s it’s finally getting some visibility. Of course, you sign the petition, but then you wonder Who are these people? What else can I do? How can I get plugged in?. In way too many cases, the people who started the petition leave you to your wits, and of course to the Google. It’s like a 3am infomercial without the 800-number. What were they thinking?
My inspiration and goad to build tools for the White House “We the People” petition site was the story of an activist who had, in effect, lost her work gathering signatures when she failed to reach the necessary threshold after a month of work.
Along the way, I wondered how often petition initiators added links to their petition text, to provide more information to potential signers or to supplement their work on whitehouse.gov by building a community on a site that gave them more control.
To investigate, I’ve built a live, interactive database of petitions currently visible and open for signatures at the White House. How well are petitioneers using WhiteHouse.gov traffic and visibility to build activist communities? The results aren’t pretty.
Of the 39 petitions open for signatures this morning, only four include links:
None of the links (actually in plain text, since the petition site doesn’t allow hot links) make it easy to plug in to community. The NASA funding campaign website is focussed and includes further calls to action, but does not provide a community forum or a mailing list sign-up. The NESARA-related websites provide a wealth of information and, via Ning, a community. However, I could not see how I might easily connect with other supporters of the linked petition. MoveOn.org is a major activist community, but nothing on its home page references the current tax-related petition.
So, of 39 petitions, only three provide links that would allow a signer to tap into a larger community, discuss the petition, and monitor progress, and even those three links are muddy.
What if, instead, a petition linked to a well-designed landing page that encouraged people to sign up to track the progress of the petition, support the cause via other actions, and connect with fellow activists. It’s a missed opportunity.
(The petition overview can be filtered and sorted in many different ways. For instance, you can highlight the backlog of petitions that have met their signature goal but don’t yet have an official Administration response, or focus just on the petitions for civil liberties, human rights, or immigration issues – almost half of the total currently open.)
Last week, I used a trial run of a new “petition scraping” plugin I’ve developed to see which states most strongly supported the recent White House petition that requested the Administration to rescind the health care reform contraception mandate for Catholic employers.
Today, I can add a second, opposing petition to the analysis. It urged the Administration to “stand strong” on the no cost birth control requirement. From what I’ve seen on the petition site, this is unusual – some petitions garner few signatures, but very few petitions are arranged in pro/con pairs. We can take advantage of this “natural experiment” to compare state responses on either side of the issue. (Signature data for the “Stand strong” petition can be downloaded at the csv link below.)
Kansas, North Dakota, and Nebraska – in the bottom right – showed significantly stronger support for the Rescind petition, at 309, 367, and 487 signatures per million, than the national average of 117. In contrast, their support for Stand Strong was fairly close to the national average of 89 per million – they’re well within the “cluster” on the left axis.
Something even more interesting is going on in DC. At 509 signatures per million, it is the standout supporter for Stand Strong. But notice that, at 229 signatures per million, it looks a lot like Kansas, North Dakota, and Nebraska in per capita support for Rescind. (I’d guess that DC’s intensity reflects the pro-contraception response by longterm residents combined with combined with the response from advocacy groups on both sides.)
Download as csv file (4k).
The animated map shows how signatures flowed from each state, normalized by its population, with the petition “closing” on February 10. Click on the slider to see how each state contributed signatures starting on February 3.
In many respects, signers responded similarly to both petitions:
|Days to reach 500 signatures (visibility threshold)||4||3|
|Days to reach 50 states and DC||4||4|
|Percent of signers not providing a place||17%||17%|
Download the “Stand strong” signature details as a csv file (660k).
Some of the variation of a particular state’s response with respect to the US will be due to chance, rather than a fundamental difference in this state’s political leanings vs the US. For instance, weather patterns or state preoccupation with a sports event might have reduced Mississippi’s engagement; it might generate more signatures per capita on similar petitions at another time.
Statisticians measure how much an indicator departs from the average in standard deviations. The standard deviation captures the variability of a set of numbers. In the case of the petition signatures, if the response of a particular state differed from the US average by less than two standard deviations, e.g. Mississippi, this could occur by chance more than 5% of the time.
The bottom left quadrant contains all the states within two standard deviations of the US average.
The remaining three states and DC are outliers indeed. On the Rescind petition, Kansas’s response is more than two, North Dakota’s almost three, and Nebraska’s more than four standard deviations above the US average. This would occur by chance less than 5%, 0.3%, and 0.007% of the time — i.e., from rarely to never. DC’s response to Stand Strong is 5.7 standard deviations away from the mean, which would occur 0.00001% of the time by chance.
The outliers, in other words, are radically more engaged in these respective petitions than the rest of the country.
Open government often carries a significant risk to activists: organizing efforts may be “locked up” by Federal agencies, even with the best intentions.
Consider Terra Ziporyn Snider. Last fall, she initiated a petition on the White House website requesting changes in school start times. Then current White House rules required that she gather 5000 signatures within 30 days in order to keep the petition on the site. She and her supporters encountered various technical problems – intermittent site outages, difficulty in signing up new users — and as the deadline approached, with 1575 signatures recorded, Dr. Snider realized that the fruit of her efforts was about to be digitally vanished, per White House rules.
I was taken by the lengths she went to transplant the list of names she had built at the White House to Move-On. Though these signatures had been gathered through her online organizing efforts, and of course were stored on a hard drive somewhere in the whitehouse.gov domain, she had no way to access these data easily. Instead, she printed out the petition and, apparently, retyped the signatures by hand.
Imagine a New England squirrel storing away nuts for next winter in the trunk of a tourist’s car – it’s secure today, tomorrow, and perhaps even next week, but when the snow comes, the car — and the nuts — are in Florida, and the squirrel starves.
Of course, in the case of White House petitions, the potential of reaching a wider audience for your cause and of getting the attention of the Obama administration may make this risk worthwhile.
But, as Dr. Snider found, sometimes the car drives away, and you’ve got to scramble not to be left empty-handed. How could one reduce the risk, particularly for activists who don’t know or don’t have access to sites live Move-On?
Her story was my inspiration to build a page scraping toolset that would allow activists to get the benefits of White House web petitions, while reducing the risk.
As a proof of concept, I set the plugin to work on two recent petitions. The first requests that the Administration rescind regulations mandating that religious institutions provide contraceptive coverage under their employee health insurance plans, even if this is contrary to their religious precepts. The second urges the Administration to “stand strong” in maintaining this mandate.
In this post, I’ll focus on the signature data from the “Rescind” petition. A follow-up post will provide details on the “Stand strong” petition signatures. [Update 3/2/2012: I've posted the "Stand strong" results and a state by state comparison.}
If you're familiar with the mechanics of the White House petition site, skip to the next section for the results.
Anyone may initiate a petition. Per the rules currently in force, new petitions are visible only to those web visitors who already know the specific petition URL. Once a petition receives its 150th signature, it is listed by the White House in the index of current petitions and can be found by appropriate search terms.
The initiator and all other petition supporters then have 30 days to gather at least 25000 signatures in total. If they fail to reach that threshold within 30 days, the petition disappears, as Dr Snider experienced. If 25000 people "sign" the petition, the White House promises to post a response.
A WhiteHouse.gov login is required to sign a petition. To get a login, you provide your email address, your name, and, optionally, city, state and zipcode. Each petition signature block includes the first name and last initial, the signature's order in the overall total, the date the signature was provided, and the city and state of the signer, if provided. For instance:
Chris B Washington, DC February 22, 2012 Signature # 1,079
From January 28 through February 10, the Rescind petition gathered 29,127 signatures. The inset below displays the raw data gathered by the page scraping toolset, which can also be downloaded by the link at the bottom of the table.
Download as csv file (1.1 mb).
More detailed analysis shows
Next post: How does the signature flow for the “stand strong” petition compare? What surprises do we find when we compare states’ activity on these two opposing petitions? Are these signers as reluctant to provide place information as the Rescind signers?
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In his estimable blog, Tim Bonnemann asks “Can Social Media Be Utilized to Involve the Public in Making Better Decisions?”
My first four, increasingly accurate approximations to the right answer:
2. No, if the underlying question is “Can I get the ‘public participation’ checkbox checked off by turning on a Twitter account?” (Not Tim’s underlying question, of course, but some people will read it this way.)
There is a lot of approach/avoidance ambivalence about social media: people see that one can set up an account or a fan page in an afternoon, but they also glimpse, more dimly, that a lot of work is required to make that useful. (Excel will help you estimate a project budget, but it won’t make the process fun or easy.)
3. No, if the real question is “Can I use social media for public involvement and still stay comfortably in control?” See Obama asking for questions via Google Moderator, only to be forced to discuss marijuana legalization . See Digg and the DVD encryption hack issue.
(Of course, social media processes can be shaped.)
4. Yes, once you understand that social media technology is a small part of the overall effort and you’ve rethought how much or little control you need over the whole process.
Bonus points for recognizing that the technology of social media is only the fourth most important concern, after you’ve identified the specific Public you want to involve, your Objectives in involving them, and your Strategy for doing so.
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This is the archive of tweets for the September 28 chat. (Archive courtesy of TwapperKeeper.)
This is the archive of tweets for the September 21 chat. (Archive courtesy of TwapperKeeper.)