Archive for January, 2011

January 31, 2011

Of mind blowers and mind readers

I know you didn’t ask but I’m going to tell you anyway: I had a fantastic weekend.

Last Friday & Saturday, I participated in the Texas Government 2.0 Camp – also known as Txgov2.0. – and got so much out of the experience. Besides meeting a slew of very interesting people (fellow state employees and others), I was exposed to so many good ideas that my head is still dizzy from all the thinking and my fingers are still tired from all the typing. The event’s primary focus was on open government with an emphasis on data transparency and citizen engagement.

Rather than cramming miles of notes into a single blog post, I’ll just share the highlights.

Best quote:  “Access to data is seldom the problem; locating the needle in the haystack and then understanding what you have found are the real challenges.” A panel of LBJ School students conducted a survey as part of their research on data accessibility and this quote came from one of their respondents. Their presentation pointed out that data scarcity is very often not the problem and that many organizations provide a firehose of data that is so poorly formatted and organized that the information cannot be found or used.

Best observation: The students mentioned above pointed out that there is a disconnect between:

  • the information government thinks is relevant / the information people want, and
  • what people understand / what analysts are producing

Newsflash: government isn’t a mind reader.

Best list: Evan Smith, CEO & editor of the Texas Tribune, stated the 5 principles of open government

  1. Mindset: All the information in the public sphere belongs to citizens who paid for it and are entitled to it.
  2. Make it easy: The data should be easy to find, easy to understand and easy to manipulate. According to him, government agencies are so “dumbshit” about data that they share entire databases in PDF format, rendering the data unusable.
  3. Visualize: A sheet-full of numbers isn’t as compelling as a well-designed graphic or a story that puts the information in context.
  4. Collaborate: Competition is a luxury government cannot afford.
  5. Share: Information shouldn’t sit idly on websites, waiting for people to come to it. It should be pushed and distributed through various means including social media. This data should also be device and format agnostic.

Best encouragement: Dustin Haisler, of Spigit and known for his work for the City of Manor, acknowledged that the road to transparency is long and that the to-do list to get there can be overwhelming. With that in mind, his best way to get started is to “start small” with the most requested information using its existing format.

Best formatting adviceJon Lee, from the Texas Department of Information Resources, warned the audience against stale government reports with rigid structures that bury meaning in a sea of information. He showed us an example of a report he worked on and asked which title sounded more appealing:

  1. 2011 Biennial Performance Report for Information Resources, or
  2. Top 11 IT Strategies Affecting Texas Agencies

Making reports more content-driven and less formal is another way to be open and transparent to the public. There shouldn’t be any barriers to making the most valuable information rise to the top.

Best tone advice: Steven Polunsky, a participant in an “unconference” session on social media, would like government institutions to “Give me information but don’t sound like my mom”. He’s right, there is a fine line between being relevant and annoying.

Best compliment: A participant in an “unconference” session on state data (an employee of the railroad commission I think) was complaining about how too many state agency websites are organized politically with information aligned with their org charts. He then pointed out how the website of the agency I work (and which I helped design) is structured differently by putting the needs of the user first.

Best omission: I can’t remember anyone mentioning the need to write in Plain English instead of jargonese and bureaucratese. Using simple language that a 6th grader can understand is key to ensure the information can be understood by everyone.

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January 21, 2011

Texas hizzouse goes social.

I just HAD to share this article.

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Legislation Gets Social Media Presence

by Emily Ramshaw, The Texas Tribune
January 18, 2011

Your newest Facebook friend and your latest Twitter follower could be an inanimate object: a House bill.

House Joint Resolution 51 — Rep. Wayne Christian’s anti-health care reform measure to allow Texans to go without health insurance without a penalty — hasn’t even had a committee hearing. It was only filed Jan. 4. But it’s already got 111 Facebook friends and hundreds of Twitter followers — not too shabby for a 278-word bill.

In the span of a single biennium, many lawmakers have boosted their online credentials, establishing Facebook pages and persistent Twitter threads. But as far as we can tell, this is the first time a Texas bill has had its own social media presence. As lawmakers scramble to push their pet legislation through jam-packed committees, expect an increased reliance on social media tools, to rally their troops and put public pressure on their colleagues.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://trib.it/fgU8OW.

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Not sure how the addition of the social element is going to help a piece of legislature move along (other than creating buzz about it); but if this opens the gates to more citizen engagement in the legislative process it would be wonderful. So far, the Facebook page is mostly one-way conversation. It will be interesting to see if how this evolves and if other bills will set up an online presence as well.

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January 18, 2011

Epic Fail

I stumbled upon this site today. I won’t bother naming it as it is mostly a collection of rubbish, with the exception perhaps of the picture below.

That site is fed by party-goers (and shitty friends I might say) who upload embarrassing revelry pictures of their peers. The picture above is an oddity on the site because the people on it are fully clothed and relatively clean. And that drink thief could potentially be construed as funny (OK, I laughed).

It’s probably a sign I’m getting old, but I’m really shocked by the content people are willing to post online nowadays. That site, with its photos of abused drunk people (yes, burying your drunk friends under furniture or drawing on their bodies with sharpies is abuse), is only the tip of the iceberg.

Stories of the tragic aftermath of youth being harassed online are becoming increasingly frequent in the media, so I’m really shocked the owners of the site (which also houses other less offensive initiatives like the world famous lolcats and FAIL blog) actively solicit that type of content. I know people will upload similar things to Facebook, but the social networking site wasn’t created for the sole purpose of displaying embarrassing photos. It’s also there for me to share pictures of my PETS and rant about traffic with the universe.

Yes, freedom of speech and all that is the reason sites like that will continue to exist if not proliferate. Expecting young people to wisen up and to start acting decently and respectfully toward one another might also be a far stretch – pigs growing wings seems more likely.

Which makes me very thankful and appreciative of the fact that the Internet wasn’t really around when I was a teenager. Pictures of me costumed as a tree or of my younger brother forced into a dress will forever remain in the vault of history.

OR WILL THEY? (Subtly-inserted cliffhanger to make you come back)

January 10, 2011

Finders, keepers

My friend Lama’s latest blog post, titled “The Death of the Retweet Button”, revealed a disturbing and frustrating phenomenon occurring in the Twittersphere: people taking credit for other people’s discoveries.

They would rather go through the tedious process of copying the entire tweet and placing it in their tweet box, then deleting all unnecessary crap that comes on there. Then, they write the magical “RT” right before it. That way, if anyone else liked the tweet, their name remains as tribute to their efforts of finding that valuable piece of info and sharing it with the rest of the world.

While I share Lama’s sentiment and strongly believe that credit should be given where it’s due, I find it amusing that our society has evolved to a point where finding the cool stuff is almost as important as creating it in the first place. Not sure why we’re wired to do this. I remember feeling very frustrated as a teenager because everyone believed my then-boyfriend discovered this really cool Pearl Jam song (clip posted below) that wasn’t on their main albums when, in fact, I (me, moi) was the one who found it (through another friend who found it through another friend) and introduced it to our group’s musical landscape.

Yes, the fact that I’m still stewing over this is beyond pathetic.
But it goes to show that people feel a sense of ownership over the things they find first.

I also remember my younger brother battling me ferociously – when we were kids and sometimes today – to be the first to tell our parents that a famous singer or actor passed away. Not sure why he takes so much pleasure out of delivering this type of news – let’s just call that his thing. (My husband might get mad at me if I don’t mention that HE discovered Tom Segura – dude in the link – first and introduced me to him.)

Could this visceral desire to be the first to find something be the source of hipster culture? Think about it.

Hipsters spend their time trying to out-obscure one another. Why? Because they’re so unique? Or because they’ve mastered the art of finders, keepers by running breathlessly down the least beaten path?

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January 9, 2011

Book review: Tunnel and the Light

It feels like discovering a treasure when you pick up a book to read about a particular subject and end up learning a lot about something else in the process. I love finding gems about Communication in unexpected places.

The latest book I read is “Tunnel and the Light: Essential Insights on Living and Dying” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross M.D.
The book is a collection of lectures the author gave on death and features a lot of anecdotes. My first encounter with her writing took place shortly after my best friend passed away three years ago. This woman has the most thorough understanding of all the emotions felt by the grieving and the dying and the most gentle style to write about them. Not sure why I impulsively decided to read another of her books a few days ago – it was really random. Here’s the quote that has stuck with me:

There is no one dying, whether he is five or ninety-five, who does not know that he is dying. And the question is not: do I tell him that he is dying? The question is: can I hear him?

Words of stomach-punching force. Shows that:

  • we’re all equals in the face of death – being older doesn’t prepare one more for it,
  • some human experiences are absolute,
  • one should never underestimate the interlocutor/audience,
  • mastering the art of listening is key to being a good communicator.

A significant portion of the book is a lesson on the importance of non-verbal communication. Kubler-Ross interacted with so many children who were facing death in some way and who did not have the vocabulary or ability to express freely how they felt.  So she gave them paper and pencils; and they drew. These drawings told her everything she needed to know to help them.

The limitation of the written word is notably what prompted information designers like Edward Tufte or Sunni Brown (former classmate and leader of the “Doodle Revolution” ) to create work that is becoming increasingly relevant and important.

Another memorable part of the book warned against trying to make small talk with people who are suffering and to avoid telling them that everything will be just fine. The dying know what’s coming and feel censored and even more lonely when their loved ones refuse to acknowledge the painful situation. This warning is also key to corporate communication – nobody in their right mind would tell employees everything is fine and dandy while the ship is sinking. Trying to protect people from painful information is not only futile, it also generates a lot more harm than good.

Here’s my second favorite quote from the book,  great advice to help the next generation communicate – and live – better than we do:

Do not protect your children! Share your anguish and your pain with them. Otherwise they will develop into cripples. Because sooner or later the plants have to come out of the greenhouse anyway and then they cannot withstand the cold and the winds.

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January 6, 2011

Bump it (off the road)

Ever felt compelled to say something to the driver of another vehicle? I know I have… in the form of expletives for the most part. Which is probably why a tool like “Bump!” wasn’t designed for someone like me.

In case you’re too lazy to click on the link, Bump! is a service that allows motorists to message one another using a license plate number only. People can add their plate number (and phone number) to the website to start receiving messages. These can be sent straight to someone’s phone. Here’s all the good this service could bring to mankind:

  • letting people know they left their light on, their tire is flat or something’s leaking from their car,
  • kindly inviting people to move their car if it’s blocking yours,
  • telling someone who just zipped by in their ride that you think they’re cute,
  • get deals and discounts from retail stores/institutions that flagged your license plate number. That’s like Foursquare on wheels.
  • receive personalized service at drive-thru places.

The following staples of human interaction were cleverly left off the list:

  • Flipping off the person who just cut you off on the freeway,
  • Telling someone who just stole your parking spot what you think of their manners,
  • Warning the person tailgating you to back off,
  • Calling the slow driver in front of you who’s hogging the passing lane all sorts of funny names.

Call me a cynic if you want, but I think people are 10 times more likely to add this service to their road rage arsenal (already comprised of lively hand gestures, exacerbated facial expressions and aggressive car moves) than they are to use it to tell someone they’re cute.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the powers of the tool (it’s good!) and am sure it can be used for the greater good. I just think the majority of people in cars behave the same way Omid Djalili does in the video clip above.

Back in 2006, two guys created this website to allow users to report bad drivers by their license plate number. It’s a good venting outlet and is still quite popular. Can you imagine the possibilities offered by Bump! in this context? Endless!

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January 3, 2011

The end of an era?

The New Year started with a bang by dealing a major blow to freedom of speech. While we all sleep soundly, one of the four pillars of Internet Fun is under threat of demolition.

“California’s SB 1411, which adds a layer of criminal and civil penalties for certain online impersonations” went into effect on January 1, 2011. Similar laws in other states will probably follow suit at some point.

While this may be a victory for high school kids who worry about bullies impersonating them online, it is painfully obvious that lawmakers overlooked the dramatic impact this piece of legislation would have on the Twittersphere.

Some of the most interesting and witty Twitter accounts are online impersonations. Here is a small sample of what SB 1411 threatens to TAKE AWAY from us:

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