The 34 second case for open dialogue, online or off. (Thoughtexchange)

Posted: August 8th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, dialogue, online engagment, The business of public engagement, Transparency | No Comments »

People are well aware of the risks of publicly visible dialogue, especially when it’s online. So agencies and organizations often choose mostly one way information flows: comments and questions are directed to the sponsor privately, carefully reviewed and often trimmed of controversial content, and only then posted in public.

In this clip, Jayme Smithers of Thoughtexchange makes the best case possible, if you only have 34 seconds, for publicly visible dialogue and back and forth.


The whole discussion is worthwhile. It features three school superintendents reflecting on their experience using Thoughtexchange, but it’s mostly applicable to face to face discussions and other web-based approaches as well.

They go well beyond the humor, explaining that the benefits of publicly visible back and forth are manifold.

It allows the sponsor to serve as the convener, introducing participants to one another, often for the first time. It elicits new information from participants and gives them the chance to make the case, in their own words, often with particular credibility for their peers, credibility that the sponsor may not have.

The full video also addresses concerns many dialogue sponsors have that criticisms will be aired. One superintendent notes that “the buzz is out there” already. Those discussions are happening anyway. Shifting them to a public forum allows the sponsor to hear them and, often, add data and questions that may shape the discussion in a more productive direction.

Well done.

Why not build activist communities via White House petitions?

Posted: April 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Open Government, Technology, Transparency | 1 Comment »

Is that all there is?

You’ve landed on a 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 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 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:

  1. a request for funding of an MIT anti-viral drug links to a press release providing further information
  2. a call for legislation implementing various economic and legal reforms (NESARA) links to an activist website and to a religious/New Age Ning community
  3. a call for increased funding for NASA includes a reference to a website for that issue campaign, and
  4. 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. 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.

The opportunity

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.)

On contraception mandate, Nebraska a big NO, DC a bigger YES, in White House petitions

Posted: March 1st, 2012 | Author: | 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.

Petition similarties

In many respects, signers responded similarly to both petitions:

  Stand Strong  Rescind
Signatures 22,945 29,127
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).

See the previous post in the series for details on the Rescind petition and more information on the mechanics of petitions and signatures at

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.

Liberating signatures from White House petitions – a new tool for activists

Posted: February 23rd, 2012 | Author: | 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 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.

The toolset for liberating signatures from White House petitions is almost complete. It’s a browser-based javascript plugin that automates signature capture with some shortcuts to reduce loads on the petition server.

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 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


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

Some curiosities:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. In addition to the “no location” signatures, 28 people provided place information for military post offices or mistyped their place information.
  4. 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.

Lessig: control transparency? No way!

Posted: October 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Government, Transparency | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

I doubt that Lawrence Lessig or his editors meant to set a trap when they titled his article “Against Transparency”. Nonetheless, they’ve bagged some prominent bloggers, who all assume that the piece argues that transparency can and should be controlled:

  • “Larry supplies a very cogent argument against the disclosure of too much data from Congressional members.” (Brian Drake)
  • “Naked transparency, the thinking goes, is really a push for Congress to talk its coat off…. In other words, an extremist position has the effect of simply tugging the political center closer towards openness” (Nancy Scola)
  • “He’s against transparency as the sole requirement for political reform, and he’s against the transparent dumping of data without tools for making sense of it.” (David Weinberger)

Drake, Scola, and Weinberger make broader arguments that are well worth reading, but in these sections, they miss Lessig’s point. As I read him, arguing for restrictions on transparency make as little sense as arguing that hurricanes and earthquakes should spare larger cities. And”naked transparency” is no mere rhetorical ploy, just as a tsunami warning is a rather more than suggestion that sunbathers move their towels a few feet up the shore.

(Weinberger has written at least three posts in response to Lessig. In his first piece, a careful walkthrough, he catches Lessig’s point precisely, when he writes “We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info…. We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect.” In a second piece, Weinberger both gets and misses this point . He’s correct in noting that, in warning of the catastrophe of cynicism transparency may create, Lessig is no Internet triumphalist. But, contra Weinberger, Lessig is in a sense a determinist when he argues that transparency can’t be stopped.)

Lessig’s point is that transparency is inexorable. Just as newspapers have failed to restrict Google News and Craigslist, and as the recording industry has largely failed in its legal and technological efforts to restrict file-sharing, efforts to restrict transparency will fail as well:

In all these cases, the response to the problem is to attack the source of the problem: the freedom secured by the network. In all these cases, the response presumes that we can return to a world where the network did not disable control.

But the network is not going away.

He has serious concerns about transparency, but he spends not a word arguing that it should be restricted. Instead, he seeks

a solution … that accepts that transparency is here to stay–indeed, that it will become ever more lasting and ever more clear–but that avoids the harms that transparency creates…

More about this later, but puh-leeze note that Lessig’s point is that transparency is inexorable, not that it can be restriced.

Lessig: “Anti-corruption transparency” is inexorable; cynicism is not.

Posted: October 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Ethics, Transparency | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

Lawrence Lessig’s recent “Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government” in the New Republic, has generated controversy and comment, in part because it has been misread as an argument that information on political and financial influence should be restricted rather than released.

This post summarizes the parts of his article that pertain to the current government transparency movement and his cautions, criticisms, and remedies. Later posts will summarize some reactions from Carl Malamud, Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, and others, and then offer my take.

Focus: “Anti-corruption transparency”, which …

Lessig is concerned with one one specific kind of transparency: projects intended to reveal improper influence or outright corruption, e.g. by correlating incentives provided to legislators, such as campaign contributions, with the their votes.
Transparency is good when information is provided in usable form to those who are able to use it wisely, e.g. the miles per gallon ratings which guide individuals as they buy automobiles.   Consumers can benefit from “mpg transparency” without much effort.

… misleads us because we don’t pay enough attention.

In contrast, benefitting from what one might term “anti-corruption transparency” requires a long attention span.
But people, often quite rationally, limit the attention they devote to interpreting information. Indeed, politics has become the art of exploiting short attention spans, “tagging your opponent with barbs that no one has time to understand, let alone analyze”.

So, in too many cases, we jump to the conclusion that money has bought a vote…

Unfortunately, what others call “connecting the dots” is the path of least resistance.. For instance, a journalist or an opponent highlights that First Lady Clinton opposed the Bankruptcy Bill in 2000, that soon to be Senator Clinton received $140,000 in campaign contributions from credit card and financial services firms later that year, and that she voted for the bill in 2001.  Although there are many reasons why she might have switched her position, “[e]veryone … ‘knows’ just why she switched, don’t they?” We connect the dots.
Lessig argues, in contrast, that “[a]ll the data in the world will not tell us whether a particular contribution bent a result by securing a vote … that otherwise would not have occurred.”
Anti-corruption transparency is problematic because of “its structural insinuations–its constant suggestions of a sin that is present sometimes but not always”.

… and become cynical about government, and that’s bad.

It is already the “opinion of the vast majority of the American people, [that Congress] sells its results to the highest bidder”, and anti-corruption transparency, “unqualified or unrestrained by other considerations”, will just make this worse. He wants to to reduce this cynicism.

But this transparency can’t be stopped.

But we will not find the answer to our problems in a Luddite counterattack: “The network is not going away…. [T]ransparency is here to stay–indeed, … it will become ever more lasting and ever more clear….”

Instead, let’s restructure campaign finance.

Instead, the solution is “[a] system of publicly funded elections [which] would make it impossible to suggest that the reason some member of Congress voted the way he voted was because of money…”. “Qualified candidates” would be provided with a publicly funded “grubstake”, then permitted to raise additional funds from citizens up to a low cap. $100 per person per cycle.
This will increase people’s trust in Congress “by establishing a system in which no one could believe that money was buying results”.


See also these noteworthy reactions from around the web:

User stories for open government?

Posted: December 1st, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Design, Transparency | Tags: | No Comments »

As we build tools that make government more accessible, are we addressing the actual needs and wants of citizens, or the needs and wants we wish they had?

In Sunlight Foundation’s Open House/Open Senate Project discussion, Clay Shirky wrote:

Without a middle step that helps large, disorganized groups take advantage of the newly transparent information, transparency may in fact further increase the net asymmetry betwee ‘interest group with lobbyists’ vs. ‘interest groups without lobbyists’ in getting the Government to craft the needed bargains their way.

The extreme programming technique of defining “user stories” to be
handled by the software could be useful here. One format is

As a (role) I want (something) so that (benefit).

Possible user stories:

  1. As a voter wondering whether to respond to Politician X’s
    fundraising appeal, I want a summary of his track record on Issue Y so
    that I can decide quickly whether to send him $25.

  2. As an “Issue Y” voter, I want to know whether today is the day I
    should spend the four hours a year I have budgeted for calls and email
    to my Senator, and what I should say to him, so that my four hours
    have as much impact as possible on the Federal Government.

  3. As a policy analyst, I want to identify the Senator who has been
    most vocal and consistent with my position on Issue Y, so can I get a
    Senatorial hold placed on a bad bill. (e.g. )

  4. As an investigative reporter, I want to know what changed in seven
    months, so that I can explain why FISA legislation that failed in
    December 2007 then passed in July 2008.

  5. As a mash-up programmer, I want access to the geographical
    locations of all the sites earmarked for funding in Bill Z, so I can
    place them on a Google Map.

More on user stories: