Because it’s not how to build community, it’s how you build your community.

Every agency, office, and department is unique, each with a specific mission, culture, and constituency. If you want to make the most of what you have, you have to understand and leverage these fundamentals. Yep yep, we can help with that.

24 September 2012

Online Engagement Tools

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I spent last week in the Ukraine as a tech trainer for TechCampKyiv. It was amazing. I was training on online engagement, both generally — and how it relates to expanding the audience for an in-person event. We started a list of desirable functionality along with tools that provide that functionality that I thought others might find useful, so here it is.

Under each heading, there is a generic search term that can be used to search for other tools that will work in your country or region, and then some examples of tools to consider. Most of these are free or at least have a free version that should work for a small event or when you’re just starting.

Feel free to share your favorites in the comments.

Growing Community

Search Term: Social Network

Streaming audio

Search Term: broadcast online radio

Note: These tools also archive the streamed audio. If you are searching for a new tool, this will most likely be an important feature to look for so that your community can listen to the audio at a later time.

Streaming Video

Search Term: streaming video

Note: These tools also archive the streamed video. If you are searching for a new tool, this will most likely be an important feature to look for so that your community can watch the video at a later time.

Screen Sharing

Search Term: screen sharing

Conference Calling

Search term: conference call

Real-time chat

Search term: text chat

  • Public chat tools
    • Twitter – specify a hashtag, eg #techcamp
  • Included in these other tools, mentioned above (best to use what they provide if you’re using the other tool so that you don’t spread your audience among too many tools):
  • If your audience is super geeky (developers mostly):


Search Term: discussion forum, threaded comment system

  • There are plenty of open source tools that can be used for discussion forums but these require you to host the tools yourself. If you are just trying to build discussion around a topic, and you can lead that discussion with regular input, consider using blogging software such as or building on one of the social networks mentioned above.

Note: usually this functionality is part of a larger tool and rarely stand-alone. If using commenting functionality for discussion, look for threaded comments. This means that people can respond to individual comments and thus draw out the discussion instead of just responding to the original post.

Attaching or Linking to Documents

Search Terms: document sharing

Note: these tools allow you to provide additional documents for dissemination. Some of these tools will allow the documents to be read online, if you are self-hosting the documents, your users will have to download it to their computer to view it. Generally speaking, it is better to present information in a web-friendly format (eg on a web page, in a blog post, on Facebook, etc..) where possible. More people will then see it. Obviously, this is not always appropriate depending upon the document.

Accessibility for Disabled People

Search Terms: “508 compliance”

Note: Section 508 is part of US law that requires all US government to be available for disabled people. Accomplishing this is not so much using a specific tool, as it is knowing how to do it.

Video chat

Search terms: video chat

Note: this is an evolving field with many smaller players coming and going.

Online Ticketing

Search terms: online ticketing


Search terms: task management, online outliner

Scheduling Meetings

Search terms: meeting scheduling

Note: This tool helps you to figure out when people are available to meet.

27 June 2012

Virtual In-person Collaboration with Hackpad

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So I recently learned about what I thought was simply another EtherPad clone. We used it in Moldova for the hackathon, at the World Bank for the Development Data Challenge, and most fully this week at the Open Source Summit. Here is what I learned from that experience. »

24 May 2012

Moldova Re-Invents the Hackathon

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Moldovan Coat of ArmsThis last weekend saw the first hackathon ever to occur in the country of Moldova, and they definitely made it their own. For a country that is just starting to build its civic hacker community, the results were nothing short of remarkable: 85 participants set to work almost immediately within impressive, self-organized team structures to produce 18 functional apps.

In traditional terms, this hackathon could be described as more of a code sprint for the final three days of a prize challenge, but even that description understates the innovation and complexity of the event format. In addition, it doesn’t do justice to all of the accomplishments that were achieved by the organizers as well as the participants. »

11 October 2010

Gladwell v. Shirky

I know I’m a little behind the times here, but I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted and feel compelled to add my thoughts to the discussion. »

16 September 2010

Transparency is Dead. Long Live Transparency.

I’ve been writing a post about Transparency (and why it’s not enough) for sometime, but could never quite complete it until Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation provided the impetus recently.

I put it up at GovFresh, because it seemed a better venue for discussion of the concepts therein. Have a look if you’re interested: Transparency is Dead. Long Live Transparency.

3 September 2010

The Library of

There were recently some updates released for THOMAS, the Library of Congress (LOC)’s online source for all your legislative information. As it turns out, this was the third update this year, which is pretty exciting. The first one, back in January (and celebrating THOMAS’s 15th birthday!) included the addition of a page that answers the question “How can I communicate with a Member of Congress (e.g., email addresses)?

I am clearly in favor of this sort of information being readily available to citizens. What I find strange is that after a list of official links to websites and Congress’s own “Write Your Representative” service, the final suggestion is a link to communication tips on Now these tips seem pretty thorough and I am not taking issue with their legitimacy however, is not a government website. Nor is it a non-profit website. It is, in fact  “a project of the CQ-Roll Call Group, the largest news organization on Capitol Hill … [and] … is powered by CQ-Roll Call affiliates Capitol Advantage and Knowlegis — private, nonpartisan companies that specialize in facilitating civic involvement.” (self-described)

So as I read this, even though they are providing direct links to communicate with your elected representatives, if you really want to do it right, you should use Capitol Advantage.

Now first of all, I have nothing at all against Capitol Advantage – from everything I understand they provide a remarkable product and from the interactions I have with them, I have been very impressed with their commitment to enabling citizen engagement.

Furthermore, if I understand correctly, there is nothing illegal about this promotion. Unlike the executive branch, the legislative side is not mandated to propose multiple vendors whenever they promote the offerings of a private company, but given the multitude of independent resources available on this subject, I find it curious that the only one offered is from the largest company in the space.

What do you think? Am I being judgmental for no reason or does this seem out of character for the LOC and a bit unfair to the citizen engagement market in addition?

27 August 2010

Brookings on Improving Congressional Websites?

The Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings recently released a paper titled Improving Congressional Websites. According to their own copy, they were founded in 2010 and are “at the forefront of shaping public debate on technology innovation and developing data-driven scholarship[sic] to enhance understanding of technology’s legal, economic, social, and governance ramifications.”

While I was previously unfamiliar with the Center, I am completely in favor of what they’re trying to accomplish and impressed by their bravado at having moved to “the forefront of shaping public debate on technology innovation” in such a short period of time.

With this in mind, I downloaded the report, read through it, and would like to offer a critical but brief analysis.

  1. I believe the information presented is obvious to anyone already interested in these issues.
  2. The perspective presented was relevant during the growth of the Internet in the early 2000′s (aka web1.0), but doesn’t take into account use of social media (web2.0).
  3. The most recent data for the report was collected 3 years ago (in House of Representative’s terms, given that campaigning is in full swing, that’s effectively two Congresses ago).
  4. It does not present any recommendations for how Congressional offices can improve their websites, but merely mentions the Congressional Management Foundation’s Gold Mouse Awards as the type of program that “society” should sponsor to encourage offices to do so.

In short, I was stunned by the simplicity and lack of useful information and insight that this report contained. Independent of your politics, Brookings is well regarded as a think tank. This report should not have been published as it is, even if the fine print on page 7 does specify that, “This paper from the Brookings Institution has not been through a formal review process and should be considered a draft.”

20 August 2010

Digital IQ?

If you haven’t seen it, there was a report that was released yesterday from NYU Stern and GWU Business Schools that sets out a methodology for determining the Digital IQ of Senators of the United States, and then proceeds to do so. You can find it here. They even go so far as to declare seven Senators as Digital Geniuses.

Unfortunately, the methodology is not well described in the report, but from the information available, it appears to be a bit shallow. The good news is that the researchers have asked for comments on it, so here goes. First, the methodology as described in the report (pg 4):

Facebook – 25%:

  • Presence
  • Number of Likes
  • Like Growth

Twitter – 25%:

  • Presence
  • Followers
  • Velocity of Tweets
  • Follower Growth

YouTube – 25%:

  • Presence
  • Number of Uploads
  • Number of Channel/Upload Views

Online Buzz: Blogs – 12.5%:

  • Velocity of Mentions on Blogs and Other 2.0 Sites
  • Sentiment

Site Traffic: – 12.5%:

  • Annual and Monthly Unique Visitors
  • Number of Visits

Not Enough Information

I’d really like to see the raw numbers and methodology here so I can better understand what’s going on.

  1. What is the scale that is being used? Clearly, they have established the Digital IQ to align with actual IQ numbers in terms of designating individual Senator’s capabilities, eg average is 100, over 140 is genius, but is this established by normalizing the distribution or is there a set scale this is being compared against?
  2. What is velocity? I can guess that it is the number of Tweets (or mentions) per time period, but it’s a term I’ve haven’t run across previously (perhaps I just haven’t been looking at the research closely enough).
  3. During what time frame was this analysis made?

Analysis of the Methodology

The self-stated goal of the study is (pg 4):

Digital IQ = A More Robust Democracy

Our thesis is that digital competence provides an opportunity for senators to authentically engage and mobilize voters and constituents. Key to managing and developing competence is an actionable metric. This study attempts to quantify the digital competence of the 100 U.S. senators. Our aim is to provide a robust tool to diagnose digital strengths and weaknesses and prioritize incremental investment in digital.

Now hold on a second. It seems to me that this methodology is primarily based on eyeballs, the traditional media gauge of effectiveness — to be explicit, the more people that see your stuff, the better your chance of converting them. Unfortunately, this is neither the goal nor the correct gauge to be applying if you are accurately attempting to assess a Senator’s effective ability “to authentically engage and mobilize voters and constituents.” Effective use of social media is about connecting, having conversations, and engaging in meaningful ways.

The majority of the factors in the methodology are nothing more than measures of how traditional campaign tactics have been applied to the digital world:

  1. Presence on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is important, but it only means you’ve shown up to the party – it doesn’t mean you know how to dance.
  2. Number of followers or likes (and the growth of these) is not much different from traditional polling methods. Are you making a lot of noise? People will follow you – sometimes they may not like you, but they want to know what you’re up to – there’s no commitment to even read anything afterwards. That measure in and of itself is almost meaningless. (In all fairness however, it is a mandatory pre-condition for being able to engage meaningfully.)Note: This shows the Facebook metric to be completely irrelevant to meaningful engagement – making only 75% of the Digital IQ valuable.
  3. Velocity of Tweets and Number of Uploads on YouTube are solely about the Senator’s ability to publish. Many of them will simply their press release rss feed to Twitter and push the same information through a new channel. This is not indicative of engagement.Note: This moves the Twitter metric into the same category as the Facebook metric – making only 50% of the Digital IQ relevant.
  4. The Online Buzz: Blogs section references a candidate’s ability to get press (not in the traditional sense, but it’s still getting written about) and takes into account sentiment – which I assume means if the writing is positive or negative about them. This has nothing to do with their ability to meaningfully engage their constituents and in fact doesn’t even measure anything that they would have to actively do themselves.Note: Making 37.5% of the score relevant to the stated goal.
  5. Site Traffic: This is web 1.0. It is possible to engage site visitors in meaningful engagement, but there is no measure of that going on here.Note: 25% relevant.
  6. The only factor in the methodology I have not berated is the Number of Channel/Upload Views on YouTube. Now this is not a complete metric for engagement, but at least it gets at the problem. This is tangible evidence that ideas and information being distributed by the Senator is actually being absorbed by the constituents. There is an implication here that if they’re watching the video, they care about what’s being said. This is a fundamental component of meaningful engagement.Note: Given that the YouTube metric has three components, I will give them all equal weight and arrive at a final relevance score of 8.3%. Not so good for something that’s being touted all over the political media and is representing the good name of New York University and the George Washington University.

Is this fair?

Well, not entirely. I have thus far completely demeaned the importance of the factors that have been measured: primarily the piece of mind to engage online and the ability to attract followers or likes or visitors to online spaces. This is the first step to being able to engage – you have to be there and you have to have constituents to engage with. Since the focus of the study is about the Senator’s abilities to “authentically engage and mobilize” however, I think accomplishing this first step should only account for 10% of the points that can be awarded in Digital IQ.

That means my relevance score has to go up from 8.3% to 17.5%. I still don’t think that means it passes.

What should be done?

I’m not going to pretend to have the answers, but I also know that studies like this are not actually helpful to improving citizen engagement.

Accomplishing what these researchers set out to do is not easy. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Better Metrics. I would investigate the metrics of companies like Klout, who claim to measure your influence on Twitter. There are a number of them, all with different methodologies that I haven’t spent much time looking at recently. I would imagine there are similar metrics or tools that could be used to analyze discussion on a Senator’s Facebook wall and YouTube channel. How often does the Senator (or their staff) respond to the messages there?
  2. Other Sites. There should be a category for effective use of sites beyond Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Some states may have a large following on MySpace or a local social network or discussion forum that the Senator uses very effectively. This needs to be considered.
  3. Distinguish between campaign and official use. There’s a difference for members of Congress and it’s important – without it, incumbents could use federal money and outreach for campaigns, which would unfairly imbalance elections. How effectively are they maintaining this distinction and what are they doing to move followers from one to the other. I don’t know how to accurately measure this factor, but it’s an important part of their digital literacy.

I’m sure there are many more people out there who have better ideas than I about how to establish the metrics that need to be created here, but I hope that it’s helpful in some way nonetheless.

If you’ve taken the time to read this, I’d really like to hear your opinion on it as well. Am I off-base or am I grasping some fundamental component of social media that was primarily unaccounted for in this study?

19 August 2010

Legacy Systems.

In pursuing our mission, I’ve come to realize that technology is NOT the hard part. It’s the legacy systems. Think about it – our federal government (all three branches) has almost 223 years of history – culture, rules, regulations – all put in place to solve some problem or other and most of them were put in place for a good reason.

When was the last time you moved?
You know how you find all that stuff that you haven’t seen in years but that takes up all that space in your drawers and on your shelves?
It’s kind of like that – if you’d lived there for 223 years!

Of course, this stuff is different. This stuff aims to ensure that government treats all citizens fairly and upholds the principles laid out in the Constitution. It’s meant to keep incumbents from gaining unfair advantage in elections by using citizen’s money for campaigning (franking rules in the House), and it establishes procedures to prevent tyranny of the majority (filibuster) and to provide a system through which the multitude of issues that government has to deal with can be channeled and made sense of. There’s a huge bureaucracy in place to handle the compilation and sorting of huge volumes of information and the distribution of huge sums of money, and there are redundant departments meant to keep tabs on each other to make sure that all parts of the government are doing what they’re supposed to do.

If that wasn’t enough, you have the surrounding communities – advocacy groups, lobbyists, corporations, state and local governments, other countries, and international organizations like the UN, World Bank, and IMF. They have all developed their own means of influencing the system based on what they have found that works through trial and error (and in some cases, with a lot of money to throw at the problem!).

Finally, there’s you. Quick quiz:

  1. Do you actually think you stand a chance of having your voice heard in the mess that I’ve just described?
  2. No? Who do you blame for that?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as blaming our elected officials. The system that runs our country was started long before they were in office and it is the reason that we are the country we are today – both the good AND the bad.

If it’s any consolation, I have yet to meet anyone on the Hill that isn’t there to make things better.

There’s a lot of work to do and pointing fingers at one another isn’t going to make it go any faster. It’s time we started trying to understand the legitimate difficulties inherent in the system and finding ways to solve those using our combined strengths.

If you’re into this, you may want to check out the Open Model for Citizen Engagement at

26 March 2010

A new paradigm for citizen engagement.

Many of you may know that I’m putting on a workshop for developers of citizen engagement software that are focused on Congress. Here’s a little ideological background on why I’m doing that and what I expect to set in motion with it.


The current system of communication platforms that connect citizens to their elected officials is a direct evolution from the system that was established in 1787 when the Constitution was signed. It’s based on person-to-person conversations and up until about 10 years ago, this was a perfectly acceptable paradigm to operate within.


However, messages are easier to send today. Email started the process, but mobile phones, Twitter, and Facebook are all equal culprits. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, more and more Americans have the ability to convert a thought into a message to their elected officials in about 10 seconds.

The current system of receiving messages in Congress has not failed to accept and properly distribute incoming messages for about 10 days now. By that, I mean that the Congressional email servers were overwhelmed and incapable of handling the incoming email during last week’s discussion leading up to the final vote on health care. Shocking, isn’t it?

Well, it’s only going to get worse. More and more citizens are getting broadband internet and smart phones. Unstemmed, the current deluge will appear as a trickle when compared to the flow of information that citizens will want to convey to their elected officials when another decade passes. (Now, I’ll acknowledge there are some underlying assumptions to this premise, including the desire of all those citizens to communicate but I’m happy to discuss those points in the comments if you’d like.)

What to do?

It seems to me that there is only one logical answer and that is to fundamentally change the paradigm in which the communication system operates. Person-to-person, one-on-one communication is not a reasonable expectation with today’s technology. Instead, we need to build technology to handle the problems that technology has created.

The Goal

Every citizen who wishes to engage in a meaningful discussion on any issue should be able to do so using the form and format that they wish to use.

A New Paradigm

Let’s call this led multi-directional communication.

Part the Uno. Ongoing, continuous discussions on every imaginable issue that anyone can engage in. These could be sources of new ideas, education on the issues, and debate. They could live on blogs, social network sites, and in mobile apps – many of the places that already exist.

Part the Dos. Technology to tie it all together. Maybe it’s not unlike what exists today to connect blogs for search and pingbacks. Perhaps it’s based on OpenID, Facebook Connect, or Twitter OAuth. Maybe there are multiples methods of connecting diverse sources of information. Nonetheless, it has to go farther than any of these examples. It has to collate the information and provide it in a meaningful format for representatives. This should include breaking it down by topic, perspective, and of course: constituency.

Part the Tres. Representatives engage in these same conversations: adding more information, sharing their perspectives, explaining the current political situation, and helping their constituents to understand the complexity of the process. Ideally, they can do this all from a single dashboard on their computers and cellphones.

Sound crazy? Maybe it is. I will not pretend that this is the answer but I do know that what we have today is not sustainable.

The Workshop

Basically, I’m saying that all the software that is being used today to connect citizens to representatives will be replaced in a number of years. I don’t know how long that time period is, but my goal is to hasten that process. This workshop is my first attempt to identify the players that will lead that change and empower them with everything they need to do it swiftly.

Only when a new paradigm has been developed, accepted, and implemented will every citizen have a voice in the decision making processes that shape the world they live in.

If you’re a developer and ready to lead, sign up here and let’s do this thing!