Posted: May 8th, 2012 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Design, Metrics, Social networking | 2 Comments »
Not “Mac or Windows?”; rather “who’s going to help?”
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.
Thus, for organizations, not “Twitter or Facebook?”; rather “who’s going to make this work?”
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:
- People: “[K]now the capabilities of your audience.”
- Objective: “Decide on your objective…. Then figure out how you will measure it.”
- Strategy: What processes “will be different after you’re done?”
- Technology: Twitter? Wiki? Facebook? Blog? etc. “Once you know your people, objectives, and strategy, then you can decide with confidence.”
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.
Posted: April 26th, 2012 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Open Government, Technology, Transparency | 1 Comment »
Is that all there is?
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.
“We The People”-scope
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.
90% of the time, you’re on your own
Of the 39 petitions open for signatures this morning, only four include links:
- a request for funding of an MIT anti-viral drug links to a press release providing further information
- a call for legislation implementing various economic and legal reforms (NESARA) links to an activist website and to a religious/New Age Ning community
- a call for increased funding for NASA includes a reference to a website for that issue campaign, and
- a request that the Administration veto any legislation that extends tax cuts for the highest earners includes a reference to MoveOn.Org.
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.
And there’s more!
(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.)
Posted: March 1st, 2012 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Open Government, Technology, Transparency | 4 Comments »
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.)
Nebraska, North Dakota, Kansas Against; DC Engaged
The outliers, highlighted in red in the chart, are the story.
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.)
This table provides the details for the chart above:
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)
|Days to reach 50 states and DC
|Percent of signers not providing a place
Download the “Stand strong” signature details as a csv file (660k).
See the previous post in the series for details on the Rescind petition and more information on the mechanics of petitions and signatures at whitehouse.gov.
A note on statistics
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.
Posted: February 23rd, 2012 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Open Government, Technology, Transparency | 2 Comments »
Open government often carries a significant risk to activists: organizing efforts may be “locked up” by Federal agencies, even with the best intentions.
The rewards, and risks, of squirreling away
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?
A tool for liberating signatures
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.
The mechanics of initiating and signing petitions
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:
February 22, 2012
Signature # 1,079
Example: Signature data from the “Rescind” petition
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.
This animated map shows how the signatures flowed in from January 28 to February 10, normalized by the population of each state.
The shading of each state shows the number of signatures provided by that state, to date, for each million residents, based on 2010 Census results. States that “boxed above their weight” are shown in darker green; states that were underrepresented, in very light green. Since the figures are cumulative, each state grows somewhat darker over time. Click on the slider at the bottom of the map to show how the signatures accumulated over time.
Signature data for the Rescind petition
Download as csv file (1.1 mb).
More detailed analysis shows
- that the petition took off pretty quickly – two signatures on day one, 32 on day two, 1,386 on day three (reaching all fifty states and DC)
- that state participation varied dramatically: Nebraska provided more than 480 signatures per million residents, North Dakota more than 360, while Mississippi provided just 31 signatures per million inhabitants. (Overall, across the US, 127 signatures were provided per million residents, if we assume that all signatures came from the United States.)
- 4,951 signatures were provided by people who did not state their location — which shows up as NULL in the data.
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?
A postscript for data geeks
- Each signature is numbered. The same sequence number may appear multiple times on the signatures page, indicating, presumably, two or more different people who signed almost simultaneously. For instance, if the third, fourth, and fifth signers all acted simultaneously, the first six signatures would be numbered 1, 2,3,3,3,6.
- One Rescind signer was particularly eager: he signed twice in quick succession, so his name and place show up twice in a row with the same sequence number. This anomaly can’t be tracked by the software currently, leading to a database count of 29,126 signatures, one less than shown on the White House site.
- In addition to the “no location” signatures, 28 people provided place information for military post offices or mistyped their place information.
- The scraping tool captures the first name and initial of the signer as shown on the petition, but I’ve omitted this column from the download for the moment.
Posted: November 13th, 2009 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Govluv, Twitter | Tags: linkedin | 1 Comment »
Govluv, a new Twitter-based tool, provides a geographically-organized directory of political and governmental leaders along with their Twitter handles. It also allows politicians to identify tweets from their constituents. It is billed as a way for “connecting government representatives and citizens”, for a “more productive two-way dialogue”.
However, I had an experience yesterday that suggests it may have another important use.
I was reviewing my Govluv home page, headed up by President Obama, and I noticed this tweet:
I did a quick search and replied to @chosen7stone:
She graciously retweeted the information and thanked me.
A minor interaction all around, and certainly not one that will find any deep resonance or response in the White House. Yet I think that the dynamics highlight what may be one of the more important uses of tools such as Govluv.
Obama was not part of the conversation, not part of the two way dialogue. Instead, he served as context, and the important, indeed the only, interaction was between two citizens. What if this became a primary use of Govluv?
For instance, it’s not surprising that Senator Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, is getting a lot of tweets from his constituents regarding Health Care Reform. Instead of waiting for his office to reply, what if constituents discussed the issues with one another, e.g by providing facts on how a particular bill would affect Nevada? Or what if supporters of a particular position, e.g. the Public Option, used the tweetstream Govluv provides to find one another and organize further?
Our fascination with our political leaders should not keep us from talking, or tweeting, with one another on the issues. Think of @BarackObama and @SenatorReid as hashtags convening conversations, not just handles.
Posted: November 12th, 2009 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Search, Twitter | No Comments »
Less than a month ago, I tweeted
and it’s still online as a Twitter status. I search Twitter occasionally, and I’m often interested in Tweets that are more than a month old. This tweet was forgettable, but the words are unusual enough that it should be easy to find.
So it’s a good test:
Other services which work via Google also found it. I wonder how longer Google will have it.
If you can find this Tweet in any other way, please comment.
Posted: October 30th, 2009 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Government, Social networking, Technology | Tags: linkedin | 2 Comments »
Don’t ask “how do I make the business case for Gov2.0?”; tell us about your agency’s relationships, and the case will become obvious.
Imagine that you’re a savvy Federal staffer in US Defense Military Health System Program. You’re excited by what the US Patent Office accomplished with its Peer to Patent program, eager to copy the success of Twestival 2008 which used Twitter to kick off events in 200 cities across the globe and raise $250,000 for water charities, and inspired by OSTP’s open government initiatives. So on Govloop, or on your blog, you pose the question: “what’s the business case for Gov2.0 (or social media or Web2.0 or Twitter)?”
and … crickets – a kiss of death for the conversation. You may get some well-meaning feedback from others who have confronted the same challenge, but the thread runs out pretty quickly. It seems that no on can help you.
What happened? You’ve focused your readers towards technology (Twitter? Youtube? Maybe a wiki?) and generalities (“communication is good”; “crowdsourcing rocks!”), and away from the relationships, mission, history, and other specifics of your organization that would give you and your readers the raw materials to create the business case.
Worse, we’ve all become distracted from your unique role in this conversation: you know the agency’s goals, its current challenges, what keeps senior management awake at night, what appropriations they’re looking forward to, and what headlines they’re dreading. You know that, or ought to. The rest of us don’t.
So, consider, instead, this conversation opener:
I work for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. As you may remember, one of my boss’s predecessors was featured in the Washington Post’s 2007 expose of poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and we’re still working to rebuild trust with injured soldiers and their families. We’re also trying to strengthen our relationships with medical researchers. And, by the way, we run TRICARE, the military’s HMO, and we’re working hard to keep the program affordable, with low deductibles and co-pays. What Web2.0 tools would be useful to us and how should we measure results?***
Imagine the roaring conversation this would inspire:
- Your readers from the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will be typing their suggestions before they’ve finished reading your post.
- Someone might point you in the direction of OrganizedWisdom — an aggregator of health expertise — and suggest that you to explore how you can engage your customers in becoming guides to military health issues
- The success of PatientsLikeMe will be mentioned as a model for supporting the wounded warriors you serve.
- Someone else might point you to Healing in Community Online, a sort of Second Life for patients and their families.
The question of metrics would become easier as well: TRICARE already surveys its beneficiaries regularly to determine how they perceive the accessibility and quality of care (and if you didn’t already know that, rest assured someone would tell you). Surely you could work some questions into that to evaluate your Gov2.0 initiative?
Now, with your help, your readers are brainstorming how your agency can accomplish its mission and deal with its challenges.
So, tell us about your agency’s key relationships, inside and outside government, and the ones that are most troubled, and watch the conversation explode.
(***Background on USDOD – Health Affairs is drawn from NAPA’s description of top “prune” jobs in the Federal Government. It might be an eye-opening exercise to review the other positions listed and brainstorm how Gov2.0 could, specifically, help each of these appointees.)
(Cross-posted from Govloop.)
Posted: September 25th, 2009 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Social networking | Tags: linkedin | No Comments »
What was good.
Returned earlier today from a useful Twitter 101 session hosted by CAP’s Alan Rosenblatt at the Internet Advocacy Roundtable. It was great. The next one could be even better, if we could learn more about what the presenters knew in their bones (see bottom).
Like many discussions on how to get started with social media, the conversation bounced around.
Tech: twazzup, übertwitter for blackberry , and hootsuite were new to me and look interesting. Much more on Twtter resources here, courtesy of Shaun Dakin.
Stories: AAUW is drawn out of silent lurkerdom when they respond to a tweet from a disappointed soon to be ex-member who has misinterpreted a local chapter’s action; conversation results, the member is mollified and AAUW managers see the value. Dakin’s carefully nurtured network of robocall sleuths identifies the first (known) robo-sex-call one night, and the next day, the news hits the Rachel Maddow show.(I realized Dakin is, in effect, the real-time web’s ombudsperson for robocalls. )
Tips: Twitter is a tool, not a strategy. When you start, decide what your voice is going to be. Keep your twitter stream focused – eclectic is ok, but beware that if you veer from months of all business to throwing in your sports enthusiasms, you’ll lose followers. (Via @epolitics) Why would you want to hear only from people who agree with you? (Via @digitalsista)
Get senior manager’s buy-in by getting him/her on the rostrum for a new media conference, and let the infectious energy work its magic (Via @GloPan)
Conservatives tend to cluster around a few hashtags, e.g. #tcot, while progressives tend to use specific hashtags for specific issues. (This seems important, perhaps because it demonstrates degree of focus.) (Via @digitalsista)
Effectiveness requires listening, which amounts to research, and it’s hard, time consuming work. (Via @henrim)
What would have made today’s session even better?
One of the presenters crystallized this for me when he insisted that the social – non-technical – aspects of using twitter could only be discovered in practice, not taught, and that it was more art than science. But there are more than a few art schools, and though you can’t teach inspiration, you can teach craft.
I suspect that today’s presenters (and more than a few audience members) knew in their bones more than they could say about how to do it well. These questions might have helped:
- How do you insert yourself in conversations and get heard?
- What are your rules of thumb for getting started on a new campaign?
- When you “listen” to Twitter, how do you do it, what do you listen for, and when and how do you respond?
- When you’ve “fallen off the horse” in your use of Twitter, how do you get back on?
I’m sure that the presenters did their best to tell us all they knew how to say, but I doubt they told us all they knew how to do. I’m hungry for more.
Posted: February 1st, 2009 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Wordpress | No Comments »
Off-topic, but as a minor “giving back” to everyone who helps WordPress bloggers fight spammers.
I discovered this afternoon that a few of my posts had 200 or so links each to sites selling various pain medications. You probably missed it, as did I, because they were embedded between tags styled
display:none, so they would show only to search engines. That’s still bad, because it increases my bandwidth load and could lead to Google deciding that this was a spam site and dropping it from their index.
So it had to be fixed.
I read up here:
and installed the Bad Behavior plugin.
Then I went to work in the database. If any of the following puzzles you, PLEASE STOP READING HERE. I’m not guaranteeing that this will work for you. It may blow up your blog, translate your categories into French (or perhaps English), or cause your hair (or mine) to fall out.
- I backed up the entire database via the phpMyAdmin interface, and also copied the table containing my posts, citizentools_posts in this case.
- I was able to determine that the infected posts had the spam text right at the end, i.e. those posts ended with <u style=display:none> 100’s of bad links </u>
- so I used this criterion to find them:
SELECT * from citizentools_posts
REPLACE( `post_content` , "</u>", CHAR( 10 ) )
CONCAT( '^.*<u style=display:none>.+', CHAR( 10 ) , '$' )
- then ran this SQL to fix them, tagging each fixed post with <–nospam–> so I could backtrack if needed
SET `post_content` =
REPLACE( `post_content` , "</u>", CHAR( 10 ) )
CONCAT( '^.*<u style=display:none>.+', CHAR( 10 ) , '$' )
Thanks to the posters before me – at the links above and elsewhere – who dealt with this and left careful notes.
Posted: December 5th, 2008 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Democratic businesses, Social networking | Tags: linkedin | No Comments »
Craig Stoltz writes that it’s a mistake for Obama or anyone else to look for ways to use his extensive social network to govern. Instead, the instigator (for lack of a better word) should/can use the social network as a place to listen to the community and, respectfully, to join the conversation.
So far, so good. But there’s another opportunity: if you’re part of the conversation, you can also teach people. That’s a lesson from democratic businesses, such as Jack Stack’s Springfield Remanufacturing. Stack committed a long time ago to an employee-run business, and found that training is crucial:
Nobody can think and act like an owner without understanding the basic rules of business….
We start with the idea that there are two things every company must do to stay in business: make money and generate cash…. [E]mployees learn about all the subtle and not-so-subtle challenges of doing these two things in the various industries in which we compete.
How could the Obama Administration encourage the development
of primers on key issues? On any contentious issue, various parties would want to have their say — I can’t imagine the conservative Club for Growth letting the Service Employees International Union frame the issue of labor organizing rules, or vice-versa, and neither organization would want to leave the framing to the Administration. Or perhaps the Administration could make available the information they’re considering as they come to policy decisions. Jack Stack relies on Open Book management. What’s the equivalent here?
Links: search Citizentools resource links for more information on open book management.