FOSE Keynote: Wired’s Chris Anderson Talks About the Promise of Government 2.0

Michelle DeFiore

Chris Anderson made an East Coast appearance today and spoke to FOSE attendees on delivering on the promise of government 2.0. Chris is the editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, and author of The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.

He has a degree in physics from GWU – so he’s actually pretty local. Here’s what Chris had to say: This is an extraordinary moment, where my world – Silicon Valley – is intersecting with your world – government technology.

The word of the day is “Twitter”, not because it’s necessarily the answer, but because it’s telling. Enter the FAIL WHALE.

In 2008, Twitter became super popular, providing extreme stress on servers – which prompted the fail whale. This became a cult in itself and became an icon of the web 2.0 culture, bringing t-shirts, sculptures, and even tattoos.

The concept of Twitter going down, or failing, became a global cultural phenomenon. An icon of the Google generation, something that everyone online seemed to know – Twitter had problems with uptime, scalability, and reliability. In December, it was down for .2 hours – or 12 minutes for the entire month.

That’s amazing that it was only down for 12 minutes as it scaled up, doubling every 40 days.

Here’s another example. March 1st is the filing deadline for state taxes for Delaware. This was on a Sunday, and if you signed on to file you received an error message – the following error was returned from mainframe: EA91 State of Delaware Broker System is currently inactive.

This was the weekend that taxes were due. This is an absolute shocker, that this didn’t blow away headlines. It’s our government, it’s our taxes, and there was no press release, no public apology, no online “lynch mob” was built because the expectations were so low.

Someone was OK with it. (Not to mention the word “mainframe”.) That has to change. We are now training a generation to expect things online to have a sort of Amazon quality, a Google quality, and those expectations are mentioned as they move to government sectors.

If we want them to think of our citizens as engaged, and to participate, they have to think of government as living in the same world they do. In San Francisco, we are surrounded by web start-ups. Most often with only two people.

Most likely they are teenagers. They are building websites in no time. This is web 2.0. There is no cost. These services are free. Yet, public institutions who interact with millions of citizens with huge budgets are unable to accept credit card transactions.

The generations from the past 20 years grew up with Google and Facebook, they grew up with broadband and expect sites to be online, all the time. It can go down for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, but it’s expected to come back up.

A lot of government services are not optimized for Google. They have meta-data. They’re not searchable. They’re behind a database cleaning engine. Governments should be in Google. Some are, but many are not.

They need to optimize sites to make them Google friendly. Another concept of the younger generation, is that they don’t want to go to a website. They want to come to them on their own – on their own terms. Twitter, RSS feeds, E-mail, text messaging, Facebook updates, IM.

We need to communicate with people the way they want to be communicated with. You need to let them opt in – and let them opt out.

The idea that people are going to come to your site, navigate your information, and get where they want to go is no more. Another important aspect of the younger generation is the idea of two-way communication should provide an opportunity.

The ability to interact with peers, leave a record of your thoughts, and build on the content that’s there. So what’s standing in our way?

  • Outmoded client/server software
  • Security and privacy rules
  • Archive rules
  • Procurement rules
  • Lack of urgency/pressure

Many problems are legal problems, but many are not. They are the same problems that large institutions have. It’s human nature to want to stick with what you invest in, and to validate your original technology decision.

The decisions that were made in 1997-1998 or 2000-2002 are not relevant.

We have the cloud. We have open source. The facts change. When that happens, our obligation is to change with them. That may mean writing off the old way in favor of something faster, more nimble, and cheaper.

The problem is there are lots of competitors that are doing a better job than we are, ironically the smaller companies do the best job.

They can adopt the new technologies, they can take risks and make decisions, implementing at a faster pace than a company that has baggage and archival stuff – legacy systems hat cause problems when migrating forward. The fastest, youngest, newest company will rocket to the front.

They’re using state of the art technology, while we are using state of the art 1999 technology…and it shows. How will government feel this pressure to compete? From citizens? From congress? From the top down with the Obama administration? Will we inspire government agencies to do the same.

Vivek Kundra is one of the most important appointments of our time. His philosophy: “How could we use consumer technologies in the public space?” This is an extraordinary time of technology innovation.

The 1990’s invented the internet, but only in the past few years has the underlying technology become rich and robust  and mainstream enough that we can call on those promises of the web from the 1990’s. (We’ll hear from Vivek on Thursday morning.)

We want to see creation, evolution, the voices – alternative views and documentation. All of this can now be recorded, consider turning a document from a static page into a wiki. Anyone can use it, and it’s free.

It’s simply a matter of a decision. The D.C. office of consumer protection has a Twitter page. They offer customer service, and the idea that they’re listening, and responding in public – showing people that there is a real human being behind this official office address.

Is this the best way to do all government services? No. Is this scalable for all agencies? No. But, for some services, this is an opportunity to meet them where they live. Look at the value of as a repository of government data that is available in raw form so that collectively we can turn it into something valuable.

The Washington DC one has about 100 different data feeds. There are building permits, crime reports and construction, etc. This is not the most important information, but information that may be interesting to the public.

What are the downsides? Who knows. Somebody will do something you don’t like? Maybe.

But the odds are much better that someone will do something extraordinary and wonderful. Maybe do your job for you. AppsforDemocracy, by iStrategy Labs is a great example of a mashup contest that works.

Programs that are localized, that provide open data, and most importantly, that work. Amazing things that happen when you create a constituency to improve data. One thing I hear from government IT executives is the problem of procurement rules.

Startups don’t have procurement, paperwork, etc. What can you do for less than $5k?

  • Wikis
  • Google apps
  • Content Management Systems (Drupal, etc.)
  • Comment systems
  • Blogs
  • Databases
  • Project Management
  • Social Networks

My next book, “Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business” is really about how we’ve created an entire technology industry where the price to consumers is zero dollars. Any technology you want out there is on the web, available for free.

The Google products are now nearly as good as the Word products. And, they’re in the cloud. The documents are always with me. It’s easy to share, easy to integrate data from the web, and I don’t have to worry about where they are or worry about backup. 

I want my apps to be in the cloud too. Getting your content system management right so that it does scale, so it’s web friendly, flexible, and anyone can use it from the edges rather from the center is important.

It’s a painful thing to migrate off your old content system, but now is the time. Again, this is what the younger generation expects. The benefits are amazing.

What’s the role of the CIO? Case Study: MIT Report from a typical undergraduate. Complete list of university IT resources used, aside from bandwidth:

  • Mailing list management (better done by Google Groups?) Seeing what’s coming up at (better done by
  • Access to online library references (university does best)
  • Command-line access to shared programs like Mathematica, and to general Linux account stuff (university does well)
  • File storage (university price hard to beat)
  • Printing

The university technology infrastructure had boiled down to this: broadband access and printers. That’s what they want from a CIO – keep the pipe open and pay for the work. These are the people coming into government.

These are the people we will be hiring. They come from a world where they have access to everything. They come to a c(for example) a big media company and discover:

  • Skype is blocked
  • The “iPhone problem” – newer phones not supported
  • Email retention policies – deleted after 30 days
  • Spam whitelists
  • Storage limits
  • Administrative privileges

So – they have to route around the problem. Consider storage. A terabyte is about 1,000 gigs and costs about $120. Sends a message – storage is expensive and time is cheap. We have now inverted the equation.

We should be wasting storage to conserve time. Go around administrative privileges? Get DSL and bring in a whole new, open access system. Using that open access for everything, and use the company issued access for…printing.

Web 2.0 Thinking Words to be encouraged

  • “Fail fast” – failure is inevitable, and can be a great teaching experience
  • Hosting/cloud – S3, EC2, etc. — now is the time w/ flexibility, cost, and distributed options
  • Nimble
  • Experimental – everything is in perpetual beta, the important thing is changing things for the better
  • Beta – it’s OK!
  • “Sure!” – you can say yes to more than you may think
  • Interns – often the most innovative and knowledgeable
  • Messy – the web is messy. It’s how we learn

Words to fear

  • Approval process
  • Client server
  • Planning cycle
  • Safe
  • Signed off at all levels
  • “Maybe next year”
  • Sysadmin
  • Static – an error of omission.

The Longtail The web allows us to reach people outside the mainstream – the uniques, the individuals. News and government data is more important to people when it’s personal and affects their daily lives.

The lesson of the modern day: one size doesn’t fit all anymore. The general is not as important as the specific. We have an obligation to serve everybody. And everybody is different. These are your customers, this is the Google generation.

They want government their way, they want it using the technologies they use. We have to meet the Google generation – and the time has never been easier, cheaper, or more fun than today.

That’s the message of the new administration, and the message of the marketplace.

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