Archive for category berkman

[2b2k] Ethanz on Steve Jobs, genius, and CEOs

Ethan Zuckerman has a great post that begins with a recounting of his youthful discomfort with the way the CEO of his early social media company, Tripod, was treated by the media as if he had done it all by himself.

Hearing me rant about this one too many times, Kara Berklich, our head of marketing, pulled me aside and explained that the visionary CEO was a necessary social construct. With Bo as the single protagonist of our corporate story, we were far more marketable than a complex story with half a dozen key figures and a cast of thousands. When you’re selling a news story, it’s easier to pitch House than Game of Thrones.

This leads Ethan to discourse on the social nature of innovation, and to a brilliant critique of Steve Jobs the person and the book.

My personal TL;DR: Geniuses are networks. But, then, aren’t we all?

Bonus: Ethan includes this coverage from Nightline, 1997. This is what the Internet looked like — at its best — to the media back then. (Go to 2:36 for Ethan his own self.)

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[berkman] From Freedom of Information to Open data … for open accountability

Filipe L. Heusser [pdf] is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk called “Open Data for Open Accountability.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

How is the open Web been changing accountability and transparency? Filipe is going to share two ideas: 1. The Web is making the Freedom of Information Act (FOIOA) obsolete. 2. An open data policy is necessary to keep freedom of information up to date, and to move toward open accountability.

Lots of people praise transparency, he says. There are multiple systems that benefit from it. Felipe shows a map of the world that shows that most parts of the world have open government policies, although that doesn’t always correlate with actual openness. We continue to push for transparency. One of the cornerstones of transparency policy is freedom of information regulation. In fact, FOIA is part of a long story, going back at least back to 1667 when a Finnish priest introduced a bill into the Swedish parliament. [Entirely possible I heard this wrong.]

Modern FOI laws require governments to react to requests and to proactively provide information. (In response to a question, Filipe says that countries have different reasons for putting FOI laws in place: as a credential, to create a centralized info system (as in China), etc.), etc. Felipe’s study of 67 laws found five clusters, although overall they’re alike. One feature they share: They heavily rely on reactive transparency. This happens in part because FOI laws come out of an era when we thought about access to documents, not about access to data. That’s one big reason FOI laws are increasingly obsolete. In 2012, most of the info is not in docs, but is in data sets.

Another reason: It’s one-way information. There’s no two-way communication, and no sharing. Also, gatekeepers decide what you can know. If you disagree, you can go to court, which is expensive and slow.

In May 2009, data.gov launched. The US was the first country to support an open data policy. Sept. 2009 the UK site launched. Now many have, e.g., Kenya and the World Bank. These data are released in machine-readable formats. The open data community thinks this data should be available raw, online, complete, timely, accessible, machine processable, reusable, non-discriminatory and with open licenses.

So, why are these open data initiatives good news? For one thing, it keeps our right to FOI up to date: we can get at the data sets of neutral facts. For another, it enables multiway communication. There are fewer gatekeepers you have to ask permission of. It encourages cheap apps. Startups and NGOs are using it to provide public service delivery.

Finally, Felipe runs an NGO that uses information to promote transparency and accountability. He says that access to open data changes the rules of accountability, and improves them. Traditional gov’t accountability moves from instituational and informal to crowd-source and informal; from a scarcity of watchdogs to an abundance of watchdogs; and from an election every four years to a continuous benchmark. We are moving from accountability to open accountability.

Global Voices started a project called technology for transparency, mapping open govt apps. Also, MySociety, Ushahidi, Sunlight Foundation, andCuidadano Inteligente (Felipe’s NGO). One of CI’s recent apps is Inspector of Interests, which tries to identify potential conflicts of interest in the Chilean Congress. It relies on open data. The officials are required to release info about themselves, which CI built an alternative data set to contrast with the official one, using open data from the Tax and Rev service and the public register. This exposed the fact that nearly half of the officials were not publishing all their assets.

It is an example of open accountability: uses open data, machine readable, neutral data, the crowd helps, and provides ongoing accountability.

Now Felipe points to evidence about what’s going on with open data initiatives. There is a weird coalition pushing for open data policies. Gov’ts have been reacting. In three years, there are 118 open data catalogs from different countries, with over 700,000 data sets. But, although there’s a lot of hype, there’s lots to be done. Most of the catalogs are not driven at a national level. Most are local. Most of the data in the data catalogs isn’t very interesting or useful. Most are images. Very little info about medical, and the lowest category is banking and finance.

Q: [doc] Are you familiar with miData in the UK that makes personal data available? Might this be a model for gov’t.

Q: [jennifer] 1. There are no neutral facts. Data sets are designed and structured. 2. There are still gatekeepers. They act proactively, not reactively. E.g., data.gov has no guidelines for what should be supplied. FOIA meets demands. Open data is supplied according to what the gatekeepers want to share. 3. FOIA can be shared. 4. What’s the incentive to get useful open data out?
Q: [yochai] Is open data doing the job we want? Traffic and weather data is great, but the data we care about — are banks violating privacy, are we being spied on? — don’t come from open data but from FOIA requests.
A: (1) Yes, but FOI laws regulate the ability to access documents which are themselves a manipulation to create a report. By “neutral facts” I meant the data, although the creation of columns and files is not neutral. Current FOI laws don’t let you access that data in most countries. (2) Yes, there will still be gatekeepers, but they have less power. For one thing, they can’t foresee what might be derived from cross-referencing data sets.
Q: [jennifer] Open data doesn’t respond to a demand. FOI does.
A: FOI remains demand driven. And it may be that open data is creating new demand.

Q: [sascha] You’re getting pushback because you’re framing open data as the new FOI. But the state is not going to push into the open data sets the stuff that matters. Maybe you want to say that WikiLeaks is the new FOI, and open data is something new.
A: Yes, I don’t think open data replaces FOI. Open data is a complement. In most countries, you can’t get at data sets by filing a FOI request.

Q: [yochai] The political and emotional energy is being poured into open data. If an administration puts millions of bits of irrelevant data onto data.gov but brings more whistleblower suits than ever before,…to hold up that administration as the model of transparency is a real problem. It’d be more useful to make the FOI process more transparent and shareable. If you think the core is to make the govt reveal things it doesn’t want to do, then those are the interesting interventions, and open data is a really interesting complement. If you think that you can’t hide once the data is out there, then open data is the big thing. We need to focus our political energy on strengthening FOI. Your presentation represents the zeitgeist around open data, and that deserves thinking.
Q: [micah] Felipe is actually quite critical of data.gov. I don’t know of anyone in the transparency movement who’s holding up the Obama gov’t as a positive model.
A: Our NGO built Access Inteligente which is like WhatDoTheyKnow. It publishes all the questions and responses to FOI requests, crowdsourcing knowledge about these requests. Data.gov was the first one and was the model for others. But you’re right that there are core issues on the table. But there might be other, smaller, non-provocative actions, like the release of inoffensive data that lets us see that members of Congress have conflicts of interest. It is a new door of opportunity to help us move forward.

A: [juan carlos] Where are corporations in this mix? Are they not subject to social scrutiny?

Q: [micah] Can average citizens work with this data? Where are the intermediaries coming from?
A: Often the data are complex. The press often act as intermediaries.

Q: Instead of asking for an overflow of undifferentiated data, could we push for FOI to allow citizens’ demands for data, e.g., for info about banks?
A: We should push for more reactive transparency

Q: [me] But this suggests a reframing: FOI should be changed to enable citizens to demand access to open data sets.

Q: We want different types of data. We want open data in part to see how the govt as a machine operates. We need both. There are different motivations.

Q: I work at the community level. We assume that the intermediaries are going to be neutral bodies. But NGOs are not neutral. Also, anyone have examples of citizens being consulted about what types of data should be released to open data portals?
A: The Kenya open data platform is there but many Kenyans don’t know what to do with it. And local governments may not release info because they don’t trust what the intermediaries will do it.

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[2b2k] [berkman] Alison Head on how students seek information

Alison Head, who is at the Berkman Center and the Library Information Lab this year, but who is normally based at U of Washington’s Info School, is giving a talk called “Modeling the Information-Seeking Process of College Students.” (I did a podcast interview with her a couple of months ago.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Project Information Literacy is a research project that reaches across institutions. They’ve (Michael Eisenberg co-leads the project) surveyed 11,000 students on 41 US campuses to find out how do students find and use information. They use voluntary samples, not random samples. But, Alison says, the project doesn’t claim to be able to generalize to all students; they look at the relationships among different kinds of schools and overall trends. They make special efforts to include community colleges, which are often under-represented in studies of colleges.

The project wanted to know what’s going through students’ heads as they do research. What’s it like to be a student in the digital age? “How do students define the research process, how do they conceptualize it” throughout everyday school life, including non-course-related research (e.g., what to buy).


Four takeaways from all five studies:

1. “Students say research is more difficult for them than ever before.” This is true both for course-related and everyday life research. Teachers and librarians denied this finding when it came out. But students describe the process using terms of stress (fear,angst, tired, etc.) Everyday-life research also had a lot of risk associated with it, e.g., when researching medical problems.


Their research led the project to come up with a preliminary model based on what students told them about the difficulties of doing research that says in the beginning part of research, students try to define four contexts: big picture, info-gathering, language, situational. These provide meaning and interpretation.


a. Big picture. In a focus group, a student said s/he went to international relations class and there was an assignment on how Socrates would be relevant to a problem today. Alison looked at the syllabus and wondered, “Was this covered?” Getting the big picture enables students to get their arms around a topic.


b. Info gathering. “We give students access to 80 databases at our small library, and they really want access to one,” says Barbara Fister at Gustavus Adolphus.


c. Language. This is why most students go to librarians. They need the vocabulary.


d. Situational. The expectations: how long should the paper be, how do I get an A, etc.? In everyday life, the situational question might be: how far do I go with an answer? When do I know enough?


Students surveyed said that for course related research they almost always need the big picture, often need info-gathering, sometimes need language, and sometimes need situational. Students were 1.5x more likely to go to a librarian for language context. For everyday-life, big picture is often a need, and the others are needed only sometimes. Many students find everyday-life research is harder because it’s open-ended, harder to know when you’re done, and harder to know when you’re right. Course-related research ends with a grade.


2. “Students turn to the same ‘tried and true’ resources over and over again.”. In course research, course readings were used 97% of the time. Search engines: 96%. Library databases: 94%. Instructors: 88%. Wikipedia: 85%. (Those are the 2010 results. In 2009, everything rose except course readings.) Students are not using a lot of on-campus sources. Alison says that during 20 years of teaching, she found students were very disturbed if she critiqued the course readings. Students go to course readings not only to get situational context, but also to get big picture context, i.e., the lay of the land. They don’t want you critiquing those readings, because you’re disrupting their big picture context. Librarians were near the bottom, in line with other research findings. But “instructors are a go-to source.” Also, note that students don’t go online for all their info. They talk to friends, instructors, etc.


In everyday life research, the list in order is: Search engines 95%, Wikipedia 84%, friends and family 87%, personal collection 75%, and government sites 65%.


Students tend to repeat the same processes.


3. “Students use a strategy of predictability and efficiency.” They’re not floundering. They have a strategy. You may not like it, but they have one. It’s a way to fill in the context.


Alison presents a composite student named Jessica. (i) She has no shortage of ideas for research. But she needs the language to talk about the project, and to get good results from searching. (ii) Students are often excited about the course research project, but they worry that they’ll pick a topic “that fails them,” i.e., that doesn’t let them fulfill the requirements. (iii) They are often risk-averse. They’ll use the same resource over and over, even Project Muse for a science course. (“I did a paper on the metaphor of breast cancer,” said one student.) (iv) They are often self-taught and independent, and try to port over what they learned in high school. But HS works for HS, and not for college. (iv) Currency matters.


What’s the most difficult step? 1. Getting started 84%. 2. Defining a topic 66%. Narrowing a topic 62%. Sorting through irrelevant results 61%. Task definition is the most difficult part of research. For life research, the hardest part is figuring out when you’re done.


So, where do they go when they’re having difficulty in course research? They go to instructors, but handouts fall short: few handouts the project looked at discussed what research means (16%). Six in ten handouts sent students to the library for a book. Only 18% mention plagiarism, and few of those explained what it is. Students want email access to the instructor. Second, most want a handout that they can take with them and check off as they do their work. Few hand-outs tell students how to gather information. Faculty express surprise at this, saying that they assume students know how to do research already, or that it’s not the prof’s job to teach them that. They tend not to mention librarians or databases.


Students use ibrary databases (84%), OPAC (78%), study areas (72%), check library shelves (55%), cafe (48%). Only 12% use the online “Ask a librarian” reference. 20% consult librarians about assignments, but 24% ask librarians about the library system.


Librarians use a model of scholarly thoroughness, while students use a model of efficiency. Students tend to read the course materials and then google for the rest.


Alison plays a video:



How have things changed? 1. Students contend with a staggering amount of information. 2. They are always on and always being notified. 3. It’s a Web 2.0 sharing culture. The old days of dreading group projects are ending; satudents sometimes post their topics on Facebook to elicit reactions and help. 4. The expectations from information has changed.


“Books, do I use them? Not really, they are antiquated interaces. You have to look in an index, way in the back, and it’s not hyperlinke.”

[I moderated the Q&A so I couldn't liveblog it.]
TAGS: -berkman

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