Saturday, November 7, 2009

Micro-Democracy and a Publicly-Owned Twitter

When I was getting my public education in Boise, Idaho, my very conservative 11th grade civics teacher had us write an essay on our single best idea on what we would do to improve the United States. After he'd finished grading the assignment, he read aloud some of them that he considered to have the most merit: banning abortion, strengthening the 2nd Amendment, re-instituting Prohibition, removing the separation of church and state. He then returned everyone's graded essays but mine. After class, I came up to his desk and asked what had happened to my essay. He looked me in the face and told me that I had never turned it in to him, and we both knew he was lying. I had written an essay arguing that the United States was too big to govern as one body and that it should be broken up into a half dozen smaller countries.

In the nearly twenty years since I wrote that essay I've become a civic-minded adult that understands our political system a lot better, but I still find myself occasionally thinking about that teenage idea. The heart of that idea was an assumption that a national representative couldn't be an effective avatar for their constituency, but I can't agree with that now: it would be hard to imagine Michele Bachmann and Earl Blumenauer as being interchangeable to their districts. Another argument was that it was too hard to communicate with the representative, that you couldn't make your voice heard, and that you had no idea of what it was that they were doing or working on. The local newspaper was pretty much the sole source of information about the activities of your representatives, and as such, a citizen was limited to the legislative activity that the newspaper chose to cover. Getting "in touch" with your representative meant telephoning their office, writing a letter, or sending a fax(!), and about the best that you could receive in return was a form letter that thanked you for your communication and vaguely touched on the issues you'd addressed. Somewhat strangely, as a teenager I only thought about all of this in relation to national and statewide politics rather than regional or local politics; I guess local policy wasn't as exciting to me back then.

When I wrote that essay, the Internet hadn't even received its first graphic browser (the World Wide Web had only been implemented a year before), and the idea of Web 2.0 was still almost a decade away. Our national representatives now have their own websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts (all of those links will take you to Representative Blumenauer's respective pages), and the number of people, companies, and organizations monitoring and reporting on the activities of those representatives are nearly endless. Constituents can use this same media to communicate with their elected officials or participate in online petitions, polls, and public lobbying groups.

Micro-Democracy, or A More Intimate and Accessible Government

I'm especially interested in how all of this applies on a local level, and the potential it offers for even greater citizen involvement and awareness in the government that serves them. For a lack of a better phrase, I've been referring to the idea of invoking the concepts and technology of Web 2.0 with the day-to-day workings of local government as "micro-democracy". This isn't a new idea, and is something that can already be seen in action. For example, Mayor Sam Adams uses both his Facebook and Twitter accounts to not only inform his constituents of actions he is involved in, but also to solicit ideas from the public. Surprisingly, his interactions are not simply one-sided: on Twitter, he actively re-posts relevant links by other users and engages directly with users. By being an active participant in social media, the Mayor effectively demonstrates that he is a part of the community, rather than an elected official above the community.

The end goal of micro-democracy (at least as I'm defining it, not how this guy's defining it) is to increase citizen access, awareness and involvement. Ideally, it shouldn't just be elected politicians that are involved in the process, but all extensions of government. The Portland Water Bureau has been one of the early adopters of this idea, having maintained their popular Water Blog for a few years (they've also got a Facebook page and a Twitter account). A few other local government agencies have Twitter accounts as well, such as the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the Portland Office of Emergency Management. Where are the other agencies that might benefit from a more casual broadcasting of information? I'm thinking of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the Office of Transportation, or Portland Public Schools, for starters.

Potential for a Better Public Process

For a specific example of how this idea of Micro-Democracy could have been utilized in an actual setting, I'll use the Washington High Community Center project that Portland Parks and Recreation is working on. Portland Parks and Rec does have a Facebook page, but they don't appear to have used it for anything in the past year. (They may also have a Twitter account? I can't really tell). As the planning for Washington High got underway early this past summer, Parks and Rec mailed out 6,000 postcard mailers to residences, sent email invitations to neighborhood and business associations, and distributed 50 posters. Living within the 3-mile service area, I received a postcard, but it was the presence of a poster stapled to a telephone pole near my apartment that served to remind me of the public process, and specifically, the survey.

For the survey, Parks and Rec issued 940 physical surveys (600 of those went to parent-teacher associations), a targeted mailer was mailed to 1,739 Buckman residences, 2,165 door-to-door surveys were attempted, and 3500 inserts were sent out in the Sunnyside neighborhood associations newsletter. Of the physical surveys, 600 were returned, with 400 of those coming from the PTA surveys. The mailers, inserts, and door-to-door surveys yielded another 635 surveys, with only 37 of those coming from online responses (I was one of those 37 people). [Outreach Activity Summary, 6/09].
If the online survey was promoted via Facebook and Twitter, how much more online participation would we have seen? One of the powerful tools of Facebook and Twitter is that users can share posts and links with people in their own network. I would be much more likely to "re-tweet" a link to a Parks & Rec survey than I would to share the postcard I received with my friends and neighbors.

Looking at the demographics of those that responded to the survey, almost half of them reported having children, which makes sense given the number of surveys that were received from the PTAs. However, this is a disproportionate number of families with children; the percentage of households with children are as follows: Buckman, 4.8%; Kerns, 5.5%; Hosford-Abernethy, 12%; Brooklyn, 11.2%; Creston-Kenilworth, 13.3%; and Reed, 8.1%. Another area where the survey respondents were in a disproportionate percentage was in home-ownership. 67% of the respondents to the survey owned their homes, while home-ownership for the same neighborhoods is much lower; these are the percentages of home-owners in the respective neighborhoods: Buckman, 16%; Kerns, 19%; Sunnyside, 35%; Hosford-Abernethy, 51%; Brooklyn, 37%; Creston-Kenilworth, 38%, Reed, 36%. [All figures come from census information available of]

Of the roughly 117 people that filled out comment cards at the open house in late August, 44% had children in the household and 78% were homeowners. Would there have been a larger gathering of citizens if they were invited to the "event" on Facebook, or if Portland Parks and Rec had posted a reminder on Twitter? It makes sense that families with children and people that own their own homes responded in larger numbers, since they probably have a bigger stake in the community center built in the neighborhood (especially if they both have children and own a home in the neighborhood), but an opportunity was lost in not using available technology to generate a greater involvement of all members of the community.

A Publicly-Owned Twitter Doesn't Really Mean a Publicly-Owned Twitter

Twitter is a great resource for any organization that may want to disperse regular updates to a large group of users, but there is the problem of a perception by a certain segment of the public that is only used for trivial navel-gazing. I prefer to think of Twitter as an information resource, or as David Eaves points out, a newspaper (thank you for the suggestion, Molly Vogt!). This perception of Twitter as frivolous is probably a problem in encouraging greater government usage of the service. Another problem that concerns me more is that Twitter is a private enterprise.

Twitter is a platform of communication, like email, instant messages, or text messages, but it is also a brand name. Facebook, of course, is the same way. Both companies provide their APIs, though, so it is possible for third-party applications to post updates directly to Twitter and Facebook. This is where I've been thinking of a "publicly-owned Twitter": a platform that functions the same way as Twitter, that can automatically update Twitter and Facebook statuses, but is not Twitter. The utility in a publicly-operated version of Twitter is that it removes the government from the reliance on the company, and disassociates it from the brand.

For the sake of example, let's imagine that the city of Portland creates the website for this purpose. The city can market PortlandUpdates as a place where you can sign up to get mobile updates from all of Portland's departments, schools, and elected leaders online. Users elect only to follow the areas of government that they are interested in: maybe you don't care about updates from the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, but you want to see the Department of Transportation's posts, and you want to get SMS updates from Sunnyside Elementary. That's fine, there you are. You want to follow all of City Hall, except for Randy Leonard, because you don't like Randy Leonard? Okay, no problem. There's probably even a free PortlandUpdates app that you can download for your iPhone or your Android. Cool.

The utility in having something like this is that it provides the opportunity to connect with someone who "hates Twitter", while still including them in the discussion. The end user of doesn't need to know that when Mayor Adams or the Water Bureau posts to PortlandUpdates that it is also posting to their respective Twitter or Facebook accounts. It's an approach that my parents would be more comfortable with.

Anyway. That's what I've got. An essay about bringing government closer together instead of splitting it apart. And Mr. Binder, if you're reading this, can I please have that essay back? It was pretty funny.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Visual Idea of Crowd-Sourcing Portland Records

In reference to my post the other day about my desire to crowd-source transcribing Portland directories, I decided to make a quick diagram of what I'm trying to do. Maybe this will be more compelling, so please take a look (click on the image for a larger view):

Part of this is a re-cap on thoughts and concerns, another part is thinking out loud:
  1. The first step is capturing individual pages of the City Directories. A big problem is that these things are too big to easily copy; the interior parts of the pages are far enough away from the scan bar that they copy black (I tried to imply that with the page illustration). A specific idea is finding existent copies of directories outside of the library collection, purchasing them, then cutting the spines in order to facilitate scanning. This seems extremely expensive (and I hate the idea of cutting spines in general). Another option would be high-resolution photos of the pages, although I don't know enough about photography to gauge the expense or difficulty of this.
  2. Pages have a varying amount of entries on them, and a human eye (at least currently) is required to correctly parse out the different entries. Cutting and pasting each record is an easy option, but I haven't yet looked for any software that will automatically save and number pasted JPGs. I have little concern about facilitating this process, as I'm sure that someone has created software that will allow quick pasting to sequential files.. If I'm wrong on this, this may be a more difficult step.
  3. The actual interface for recording individual records is something that I am currently trying to learn, and it's been very difficult for me. The components that I'm focusing on are: individual users and records, and how to record both. My plan is to figure out how to do this using MySQL and PHP, although I have extremely little experience with both. The goal of this process follows this pattern:

    The user logs in and starts transcribing data. I want a user log in so we can track how many records the specific user is logging. I want to provide reward to top-ranking users. The secondary reason for this is that each record will need to go through at least two users - the data will be compared, and if each matches, it goes into the database. If a record is recorded differently by two people, then it gets sent back to this process. It's a quality control process.
  4. After data is coded twice in the same way, it gets entered into the final database. This database is meant to record accurate historical information that can be later data-mined.

This is what I want to do. I'm aiming to digitize all of Portland's directories. Do you have advice? Better ways of doing the same thing? Do you have the time and expertise to help? Is anyone interested in this?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Hope of Crowd-Sourcing Historical Data Entry

I spent almost 4 hours at Portland's Central Library today doing data-entry work. My ultimate goal was uncertain, but I was armed with an Excel spreadsheet, the 1893 City of Portland Directory, and the 1900 City of Portland Directory. I started from the beginning of each of the directories, entering all information for persons and businesses listed. I got as far as "Acre" in my endeavors before I called it a day. I've done this sort of thing about two dozen times in the past year.

Like I said, my ultimate goal is unknown (although I've got some vague future plans), but the immediate goal is to digitize these directories. After leaving the Library, I walked back towards my neighborhood, silently reflecting on the amount I accomplished and doing calculations. On average, I complete one entry in one minute. Based on this statistic, it would take 42 weeks of full-time data-entry to go through just the 1893 directory. I don't have that kind of time. I don't have the kind of money to pay other people for that kind of time. In the grand scheme of things, my 4 hours of work has amounted to nothing.

In the past, I've toyed around with photocopying the directories, scanning them, OCRing them, then coding the data. This hasn't worked out very well. First (and this is a big problem for any solution), the books are extremely thick and fragile, making it very hard to clearly photocopy a page. Even though I've spent a decade of my life making photocopies for a living, I still have trouble getting a clear photocopy of most of these pages. Secondly, OCR technology as it currently exists is extremely fallible and OCRing century-old print is less than ideal. Third, coding the OCR'd data is not automatic and is time-consuming in itself. I haven't walked around figuring out the statistics for the time this might take me, but I'm pretty sure that it's still more time than I have.

My solution? Obtain the best copies I can of these directories, scan them, separate them by entry, and then set up a process where other humans help me do the data entry. If I could divide the 42 weeks of labor between 1000 willing people, we might all get somewhere. Have you seen the United States Geologic Survey of the North American Bird Phenology Program? That's what I have in mind.

This is something that I think is worth spending time working towards, even if I can see some big problems with this. The first is the noted problem of getting a clean copy of the documents. Another is breaking the scanned pages into individual entries - that will take some labor. The next big problem is setting up the system; I currently have no idea how to program something like this. Assuming that I can overcome those hurdles, the next difficulty is finding people who are interested in participating in this project.

Even with these problems, I see a potential in this and I'm going to work towards it. Even if my own goals are vague, I'm a huge believer in the utility of converting historical analog information to digital media. My exact goals might be a little hazy right now, but I'm convinced that this information will be hugely useful to future researchers. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

His Father Must Be Proud

I saw this guy walking down SW 3rd outside of the Portland Outdoor Store last week. If you can believe it, this illustration only captures about a tenth of his smugness and conceitedness. It was really awful. Please make sure to click on the image for the full effect.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Things I Saw Today

This happened at Powell's Books:

(I wish I'd gotten a better look at the guy.)

And then I saw this at the Basement Pub:

I didn't see this last one, but I wish I had:

Monday, April 13, 2009

April 12th Sketches

Happy Easter everyone! (I know it's over, but I did them on Easter, so there.)

And here's the non-Easter themed one:

Here's John Barth on Wikipedia for the punchline. I wanted to do Richard Yates as the gag, but I couldn't remember his name at the time.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I'm Trying To Wrap My Head Around The iPhone

My mom used to tell me the story of how she went to Disneyland and they had a display of phones set-up and that you could use push buttons to call someone instead of using an old rotary handset. Her brother and her spent a good deal of time dialing the numbers for the next booth over so they could talk to each other on these amazing new devices. (This was probably between 1962 and 1964 when World's Fairs were happening in Seattle and then New York.) She was amazed by the potential and the functionality of the things, and to her it felt like a fundamental shift in technology, enough so that she would remember to tell me that story several times in the late 80s, when touch-tone phones were the norm. In late summer of 2007, I had my first experience of seeing the iPhone in use, and I immediately thought of that experience that my mom had: "Now we're living in the future!" I was completely mesmerized by it, in exactly the same way my mom was mesmerized by touch-tone phones.

I visited my parents a few months ago, and showed my mom a YouTube video of the iPhone after trying to explain to her the utility of Twitter. She didn't get Twitter, and only kind of got the iPhone video, but she was impressed and without understanding. I'm sure that I'll be the same way when I'm sixty and something completely "game-changing" comes along.

I have an iPhone now. I wouldn't have had it if my company didn't change carriers, but they did, and they issued a policy permitting personal use. If anyone is interested in contacting me in an old-school fashion, my number is 503.442.9703. I'm still getting used to the damned thing, probably like my mom did when she finally made the transition from old dial phones to touch-tone phones. "Dialing Opearator is different!"

Does anyone remember the old days of the early 90s when the new technology was spelling out things on your touch-tone phones? There used to be a section of the phonebook (remember those? Of course you do, because they still give you them, like it or not) where it was: "Are you thinking of killing yourself? "Dial 555-5555, then enter the code 7486". What an awkward time period we all live in.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A plea to Google Earth for full 4th Dimension ability

At some point within the past few months, Google Earth has added the option of "historical imagery". Its great: you can overlay historic maps on the area that you're looking at, adding the ability to compare the now versus then. It's fun to play with for a while and worth trying out, but it doesn't approach the scale that I'd been hoping for.

To any of my friends that would listen, I've been advocating for the past couple of years the idea of a fourth-dimension element to Google Earth. The idea hasn't been implemented with this latest update, but it can't be far from being realized: ideally a user can tag a location with a time frame, and subsequent users can see that tag when accessing a range that includes that time frame. For example, I can currently tag the location of the Portland Hotel, but if I tag it, it shows Pioneer Courthouse Square. There's already a ton of tags on Pioneer Courthouse Square, and it's difficult to parse through them. Ideally, I'd tag that site with the dates of its existence (1890 - 1951), and if someone used a slider bar between those dates, only then would my Portland Hotel tag would pop up.

I've got a ton of data that I would love to tag using Google Earth, but I hesitate to contribute, because I feel like I'm making noise. The program as it is exists is an amazing way to view a site unseen by you, but who needs all the extraneous data on the history? I'm only thinking of Portland here, as it's my focus, but what about more historically important sites? I'm thinking of places like Trafalgar Square in London, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, or Union Square in New York. Many things have happened at these points over the ages, but they might not be immediately important to the casual virtual tourist. Perhaps it's important to someone to know what was on exhibit on the Fourth Plinth in 2000 to a few people, but probably not to the casual internet tourist.

On the other hand, site-and-time specific data could be a huge boon to historical researchers. For example, I have a specific Google Maps set dedicated to Portlands buildings in 1908. Maybe someone else out there is interested in the city of Portland during 1908? What a boon it would be to the both of us to be able to set our slider bars to "1908", and only see, tag, and markup that year. Granted, this is is only useful to those interested in the past, but what if this was implemented globally? It would provide us with another tool of understanding the past that has brought us to the present.

With our technology becoming increasingly friendly to geotagging, this idea may be even more important. It might not matter now how many first kisses happened in Pioneer Courthouse Square and how they're tagged, but in a couple of years, there might be a critical mass. Tiananmen Square might be the site of hundreds of thousands of geotagged Facebook updates. It's all noise and unwanted distraction now, but by 2049 it might be the answer to how we lived our lives, one location at a time.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Al Gore

You can't roll back time, but shit, what would the world look like now if we'd had President Gore in office in 2001?

I don't want to think about it too much, because I'd probably start crying and call in sick to work tomorrow.

The Idea of the Semantic Web

I first read about the idea of the Semantic Web today, and it totally struck a nerve in me. I've got to admit that I'm not sure that I totally understand what Berners-Lee is going for, but I really like one idea that came up while I was reading about it, and that is the standardization of cross-platform (cross-discipline?) data.

From the perspective of an amateur historian like myself, I know that there's tons and tons (or, more appropriately, gigs and gigs) of data out there about Portland and the people that have lived in Portland, but there is no easy way of searching or aggregating that data. For example, there are genealogists that are contributing great information about people from Portland's past, but they have no regard for historians of the city (like me). I'm doing research about the city and people that have lived here, but my research is not likely to cross paths with the genealogists. We're referred to as two different "silos" of data accumulation. How awesome would it be if those two "silos" were to be somehow integrated? My posted research could benefit the genealogists, and their research could benefit mine. It'd allow people to do research without being redundant in regards to previous research.

Admittedly, I haven't read much on the idea of the technology, and wouldn't even understand how this might be implemented, but the idea is really exciting to me. I think that the idea of standardizing data across all possible spectrums of collectible data is nigh impossible, but I've got to admit that it's one of the fantasies I imagine in my head while I'm drifting off to sleep.