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November 19, 2009 4:56 PM   Subscribe

Expert Labs
[mefi's own] Anil Dash's new government 2.0 incubator project (via waxy)

At least three Obama big wigs -- Goolsbee, Sunstein, Podesta -- have called for an iPod gov't, "an effort to rethink public services and national regulations in ways that will make things far simpler and more user-friendly." Well, it looks like anildash has been enlisted to digitize democracy and put the social (transparency & accountability) into government.

previously 1 | 2 | 3
posted by kliuless (38 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
It certainly looks professional, with that white background.

Sorry. Sorry.
posted by Jimbob at 5:03 PM on November 19, 2009 [11 favorites]


The web-savvy community are gonna be all upon this "real" website yo.
posted by fire&wings at 5:15 PM on November 19, 2009


What exactly does it do?
posted by fixedgear at 5:23 PM on November 19, 2009


fixedgear, the basic idea is that policy makers would ask a broader array of experts (scientists, academics, ordinary citizens) for their input into policy instead of just the usual bunch of lobbyists and insiders, if they had the right tech to do so. So, we're working at Expert Labs to see if we can provide them with those tools. We'll do that by working sort of as a tech incubator (for the geeks in the crowd, think "GCombinator") and by advocating the tools across the various agencies and departments that could make use of them. Eventually, all the stuff we make will be released as open source tech, available for hosting in standard cloud environments, and provided to government workers through the Apps.gov Federal app store.

Jimbob, if we succeed in getting some of our tools deployed at the FBI, I'm gonna ask them to put you on the list. :P
posted by anildash at 5:31 PM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


um, so it's supposed to legalize marijuana!? :P
posted by kliuless at 5:38 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why are people ending their comments with a colon followed by the letter p?
posted by gman at 5:41 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


And not a minute too soon. Suggestion: A smiling headshot of each member of congress with a live readout of big money donations in the lower left hand corner as they fall into said members lap, happenstance as it were. Ajax link to a breakdown of all lobby donations, meetings with and bill add-ons, passed and failed. Thats the transparency I've long been jonesing for.
Overlaid over all that you describe above, for us, the inexpert huddle-mass viewing public in the peanut gallery who won't I presume, get to post.
posted by Fupped Duck at 5:42 PM on November 19, 2009


gman, :P and the like are emoticons. Text .. now with emotions!
posted by cavalier at 5:46 PM on November 19, 2009


the basic idea is that policy makers would ask a broader array of experts (scientists, academics, ordinary citizens) for their input into policy instead of just the usual bunch of lobbyists and insiders, if they had the right tech to do so.

You realize that the lobbyists and insiders have gobs of cash that they're handing over to the policy makers and you don't, right?
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:53 PM on November 19, 2009


You realize that the lobbyists and insiders have gobs of cash that they're handing over to the policy makers and you don't, right?

I believe they are proceeding under the assumption that not all policy makers are criminals.

(:P)
posted by napkin at 6:00 PM on November 19, 2009


I believe they are proceeding under the assumption that not all policy makers are criminals.

As well the assumption that if given the proper, objective tools voters will hold them accountable, which is also false.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:10 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Voltaire is credited with saying "The perfect is the enemy of the good." I think that if he had been alive today, he might have instead said, "Snark is the enemy of the good."

There's a lot that is imperfect about this idea, and thus easy snark fodder. But I, for one, think its pretty damn cool, and I hope it succeeds.
posted by googly at 6:22 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


You realize that the lobbyists and insiders have gobs of cash that they're handing over to the policy makers and you don't, right?

Whose doing that? I donate.

Let's be clear here. What's needed when the Gov 2.0 comes on there, we gotta take it over. Like submit good ideas to it. Because it will have data that Obama can use to learn about the teperature of the country out there. So our voices and ideas have to count. The more we contribute, the more good things are going to come out of that. Its only going to be as good as the people make it.

Note to Mr. Dash: please have this up and running 18 months before November, 2012.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:28 PM on November 19, 2009


googly: "Voltaire is credited with saying "The perfect is the enemy of the good." I think that if he had been alive today, he might have instead said, "Snark is the enemy of the good.""

If you think that, you have no clue who Voltaire is.
posted by pwnguin at 6:34 PM on November 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


No, if Voltaire were alive today, he'd say, "HOLY SHIT, AIRPLANES!"

Paraphrased from an SMBC strip I can't seem to find.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:23 PM on November 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


Founding Fathers.
posted by pwnguin at 8:00 PM on November 19, 2009


I have to say, I am confused. Is this collaboration web 2.0 technology, cloud computing/hive-mind leveraging or about govt. transparency? Murky, murky and I fear a lot of folks will just shake their heads and go back to reading HuffPo.
posted by Skygazer at 8:04 PM on November 19, 2009


Laudable indeed, anildash, and sensible. Let's hope the policymakers see the benefit of this. Best of luck with this enterprise.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:06 PM on November 19, 2009


Thank you, Mr. Dash. I hope I can do something this potentially useful someday. It's sure to at least teach us something about how politics can work, and it might well help in a pretty immediate way. You're bound to learn something cool!
posted by amtho at 8:14 PM on November 19, 2009


OMG Skygazer! It's a nice, rational initiative that says "lets assume, first, that there are some lawmakers who really care about the consequences of the bills they pass (rather than having the exchange begin and end with the receipt of favours from lobbyists). Then it says, the educated, tech-savvy community can probably help these elected officials understand the issues involved in what are, now, inevitably complex considerations when deciding how to frame legislation. I can think of any number of cases where, to the naive individual, very valid scientific inquiry seems trivial (I'm thinking of Johnny Carson, in the seventies, making jokes about government grants being given to study 'the sex life of fruit flies'). I would be a kick-ass legislator when it comes to science, because I understand the deep issues. When it comes to economics, not so much, and I'd look for help. The reverse should be true. But economists don't often look for help from technologists and scientists. They should. Hence my wholehearted endorsement of this project!
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:16 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


So, what honey is used to lure these politicos to find out what the experts think?
posted by lekvar at 8:27 PM on November 19, 2009


Man, that guy's never going live down that MeTa post. I've never known a group of people so vitriolic about a website's background...

I mean, it wasn't a great idea. But I come up with terrible, ridiculously stupid ideas all the time. I just don't realize how bad they are after the fact. Cut the guy a break...
posted by spiderskull at 8:46 PM on November 19, 2009


I'm thinking of Johnny Carson, in the seventies, making jokes about government grants being given to study 'the sex life of fruit flies'

I'm pretty sure Palin brought that one out during the last election cycle.
posted by weston at 8:49 PM on November 19, 2009


a colon followed by the letter p?

Special control code that indicates end-of-message on Gov't 2.0 software. It becomes almost second nature, like saying "over" when using a single-channel radio. :P
posted by Jimmy Havok at 8:50 PM on November 19, 2009


Forgive me for preemptively giving up on "a broader array of experts (scientists, academics, ordinary citizens) for their input into policy", but I think the closest we're going to get to objectively in U.S. government is like a really bad CliffNotes of Ayn Rand.

Here's wishing you luck. Please prove me wrong. Please.
posted by y6y6y6 at 8:52 PM on November 19, 2009


"a broader array of experts (scientists, academics, ordinary citizens)"

Silliness. The government employs more scientists (and virtue of grants, more academics) than any other single entity in the country. If you want the opinion of the scientific community on something, call for some research papers on the subject.

And why exactly do we want the opinion of ordinary citizens? Aren't these the same citizens who thought that Iraq was behind 9-11?
posted by Pastabagel at 9:38 PM on November 19, 2009


Fupped Duck: I think you're missing the point of the website, which is to inform members of congress about the nation, rather then informing the nation about members of congress. There are lots of sites out there that seek to do that already.

It's an interesting idea, but so far the Obama has proven to pretty uninterested in what the people actually have to say, since apparently what they want is to LEGALIZE WEED, MAN, which just isn't something the Obama administration wants to deal with in a public way (although they have taken steps that allow states to basically decriminalize it if they want too).

However, the Obama administrations efforts to actually reach out and foster an online community were hugely disappointing, IMO. If you're going to solicit input from ordinary people, don't just ignore what they have to say or blow it off with a joke.
Silliness. The government employs more scientists (and virtue of grants, more academics) than any other single entity in the country. If you want the opinion of the scientific community on something, call for some research papers on the subject.
Well, this website isn't going to be run by the government, I think the idea is to work as a filter to bring 'ordinary' voices into the mix, particularly in congressional debates, which are currently dominated by lobbyists and special interests.
posted by delmoi at 3:39 AM on November 20, 2009


So it appears that this project will make it easier for various issue networks to coordinate around a policy that interests them. The citizen-input part seems like a bit of a red herring considering that most citizens aren't experts in economics or technology.

I think the Read Write Web article does a good job highlighting the difference between this approach and Tim O'Reilly's. I've read nothing in any of the linked articles that suggest that Expert Labs is going to bring 'ordinary voices' into the mix. It seems more like a technology lobby, or like another version of Sunlight Labs.
posted by sciurus at 5:52 AM on November 20, 2009


In terms of offering the right technology for citizens to interact with policy-makers, it might be worth checking out the DeER project.
posted by sciurus at 6:07 AM on November 20, 2009


the basic idea is that policy makers would ask a broader array of experts (scientists, academics, ordinary citizens) for their input into policy instead of just the usual bunch of lobbyists and insiders, if they had the right tech to do so.

This is a strong concept. It’s also what I’m employed to do. I’m a political consultant/lobbyist currently in-house at a government department.

The ‘new PR’ is Stakeholder Engagement which you’ve just defined brilliantly above. It’s all about better, smarter and more representative policy making.

From a tech point of view, I would hope that this will be plugged into a robust CRM/stakeholder relations database but this shouldn’t be a one shot deal – this should be about drawing stakeholders into dialogue and ensuring that channels of communication are open, forestalling conflict. I’ll watch this with interest.
posted by dmt at 6:23 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Forgive me for preemptively giving up on "a broader array of experts (scientists, academics, ordinary citizens) for their input into policy", but I think the closest we're going to get to objectively in U.S. government is like a really bad CliffNotes of Ayn Rand.

You need HOPE, man! [COLON CAPITAL-P]


The idea is that we're going to have an avenue for idea input for people that isn't attached to money. Or, rather, isn't necessarily attached to money. There's two issues here:

1. Currently, the ones with the most money are the loudest. They can afford to get their message out there. People with good ideas but no direct financial stake or funding do not get their message heard. I can see these types of initiatives improving this issue, and that's exciting.

2. Currently, the ones with the most money are listened to the most. Unfortunately I don't see this improving with the Gov 2.0 efforts. Other related efforts are helping (Obama's anti-lobbying stance), but the degree to which these are going to help other areas (lawmakers) and remain for future administrations (they could just start talking to lobbyists again!) remains to be seen. This particular issue seems to be Lessig's focus.


Maybe, hopefully, the decreasing relevance of centralized, expensive media--which translates to plummeting ad rates--means that the influence of money will go down in politics. Possibly because the lobbyist can't deliver voters as efficiently, and the money they offer isn't as big of a deal because it's easier for the campaign to reach people on their own?

I don't know. I've long despaired of the lack of input from the common people (I'm reduced to a checkbox somewhere of "which issue are you interested in?", and the fact that I can't reconcile the difference between political donations and bribery. I mean, if there's absolutely no expectation of benefit, why donate? And if there is, then isn't it bribery? I hope the changes we're seeing persist beyond the current administration, though. So far is seems like Obama is an outlier among politicians in his embracing of change, but the rest of the world has been ready for years.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 7:19 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Isn't this a bit premature for an FPP? Right now it just looks like a web page with an about us and a short blog.

That aside,

Questions:
1) What are some examples of the kinds of questions that a policy maker might ask of Expert Labs?
2) What is an example of a "tool that will get those answers"?
3) Who qualifies as an expert?
posted by justkevin at 8:11 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Expert Labs will leverage and extend the potential of social networking Facebook or Twitter

Expert Labs will help policy-makers harness the wisdom of crowds

Expert Labs will help to incubate new technology platforms for capturing and sharing expertise

Expert Labs will develop innovative solutions for sharing expertise


Bingo!
posted by euphorb at 8:32 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Expert Labs will develop innovative solutions for sharing expertise

Repeated for emphasis. Expertly! Seriously, I understand the words and think it's great but I still don't quite get it. Hasn't the internet changed things? When I was a kid my mom would write letters to her elected officials. Letters and phone calls were it. Now anyone can provide input on any issue at no or low cost. In short, what justkevin asked. It sounds like another consulting firm hired under Government contract to tell us what we already know, something I have some experience with.
posted by fixedgear at 2:09 PM on November 20, 2009


I'm a bit slammed, so I'm just gonna answer @justkevin's questions here, because I think they get to the heart of the issue:

1) What are some examples of the kinds of questions that a policy maker might ask of Expert Labs?

We'll solicit questions specifically from the policy makers, using a process I'm working on right now, but let's throw out a few straw men as useful examples:
* "The First Lady has made childhood nutrition a priority -- who's got an example of a school lunch program that's making good use of healthy, local ingredients, which we could use as a national example to learn from?"
* "The Recovery Act provides a lot of incentives for pervasive broadband connections, even to rural communities. As the FCC helps support those efforts, what might be some of the killer apps that will help demonstrate the value to new communities that might otherwise not know why this matters?"


2) What is an example of a "tool that will get those answers"?

I'm explicitly modeling much of what we do after Ask MeFi. Imagine the same kind of platform, but aggregated and distributed across (say) Twitter and Facebook instead of living solely on this website. I'm similarly influenced by StackOverflow and some other very successful web communities that tap into expertise, and have been trying to get everybody I talk to in the government to take a look at how AskMe works.

3) Who qualifies as an expert?

This depends on domain. My assumption is that we're not going to pre-qualify people to answer. Looking at my own experience answering questions on AskMe, I might have the credentials on paper to be qualified to answer questions about social media or blogs, but consider myself as qualified (or more so) for questions about music or New York City.

Since that stuff is hard to predict, I'm more interested in how we architect a community that rewards good participation, and what tools we can provide for winnowing answers. If we ask a question about clean energy tech, it'll be very useful to say "show me responses that are just from scientists who have published papers in this area". Or maybe we want to say "flag responses from people who are registered as lobbyists". Perhaps we want "show me the intersection of people who are responding from tweets in the region most affected by this proposal".

More importantly, I'm not presuming that I know the answers to these questions. Some part of the tech we need might already be out there on Github, saddled with an unsexy name and some bad branding, but just waiting to be discovered and tweaked to do the job. Some techniques for making this work might be out there just waiting for us to make a call for proposals. And if you look at efforts like the Knight News Challenge, they've sponsored some great innovation simply by having grant challenges — I see no reason why we can't do the same.

Basically, I'm not looking to reinvent the wheel, I just want to bring what we already know works to the attention of folks in the White House and across the government. I think about how much effort I put in, and how much satisfaction I get out, when I simply get marked as a Best Answer here on AskMe. Now imagine if you could get a gold star next to your reply reflecting the fact that the White House marked your answer as a favorite. Sure, there are cynics out there (and in this thread) that think that doesn't matter, and could never work. But I'm not one of them.

And Expert Labs is structured so that we don't have an explicit political agenda, don't need to return profits to some VC, and aren't dogmatic about getting credit for every good result that comes from our work. Not needing money, recognition or pats on the back make us a pretty good candidate for actually getting some work done, from what I can tell.
posted by anildash at 4:50 PM on November 20, 2009


hey, you should consult crshalizi -- cf. Networks of Political Actors & viz. The United States Congress, How It Works and For Whom :P

also btw, fwiw...
Experiments Treated as Team Sport
Around the world, scientists are cutting across boundaries of place, organization and technical specialty to conduct ever more ambitious experiments.
oh and i was just thinking expert labs might be able to help with the press as well:
Washington reporters tend to be typically the most subject to this instant scorekeeping. This is part of the game of Washington reporting. They're at the bleeding edge of this phenomenon that I think is distressing in terms of the approach of the press to serious questions. Everything is shot through this prism of short-term political calculation as opposed to thinking seriously about stuff. You can't be an expert on every question...
cheers!
posted by kliuless at 11:56 AM on November 21, 2009


While I appreciate the idea of larger involvement in government, as well as the potential for discovery of new knowledge and wisdom, part of me worries that the cornerstone belief of this website is that government just doesn't have enough information, and that more information will make government work better.

I don't think that the problems we are experiencing right now are due necessarily to a lack of knowledge, or even too much bad information (which would be even worse, really). I think most of it comes from the fact that government involves competing ideas, each of which has its own attached knowledge.

I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell(yeah, I know)'s article on Enron. His basic argument was that the trouble with Enron wasn't a puzzle; it was a mystery. The general thrust of the argument is that if something is what he calls "a mystery" then there's plenty of information out there to make decisions, but that the information itself is complex and that it's hard to derive a single conclusive answer.

For example, right now we appear to be in a jobless recovery. Technology has its own mark on this, because part of what is happening is that companies have already gotten used to using technology to replace workers, or to make existing workers do more work more quickly. Consumer demand hasn't risen, because there's too much unemployment and way less of the easy credit (that people have been really using instead of income for the past few years anyway). So companies have responded by making around the same amount of product (and sometimes less) but using less human labor to do so. So even companies that are doing better than average don't necessarily need to hire more workers, because they've simply gotten better at making use of the workers they currently have. And even if they know abstractly that hiring more people will be better, economically, for the nation at large, it certainly isn't economically better for them (particularly when you have to take in consideration non-income generating extras like health care and wage taxes).

Clearly, in order for this to be a meaningful recovery, there need to be more jobs. But what jobs in which industries? What if the industry we choose is one that is made obsolete? What if, in fact, there simply are too many workers and not enough jobs, ever? What if the answer is that we need to tell some people (or even pay some people) not to work? Should the government just create a bunch of jobs like they did in the 30s? Would there be widespread support for that?

I can see how some of the examples above (the lunch program, for example) might benefit from the sharing of information. But here, I don't necessarily think the problem is that there's no effective forum for this kind of information. Let say one community came up with a great lunch program. Would it work in different contexts? What would be the risks or costs if it failed? And for any these initiatives you'd run into problems of Not Invented Here or Not In My Backyard or any other reactionary acronym.

Not that I'm saying that I have an alternative solution, which is kind of my point. Unfortunately, I think that there are some problems here that are systematic, and not simply faults of our specific government structure but of governments in general. Which is why I'd welcome solutions which bypass government completely and focus on building up community activity and interaction and networking between communities and local groups. Although I guess part of the point is that these groups have actually been pretty good at using information technology for stakeholder participation and now it's the government's job.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:25 PM on November 21, 2009


Deathalicious, your point is well taken. But there's kind of an infinite number of problems to solve, and I'm deliberately scoping out stuff that's, well, not a problem of government. However, fortunately, there's no shortage of problems that are handled by government, and those are the ones I think we can assist with.

I find lots of people have objections to this project that fall into a few categories:
* I don't think government can solve every problem
* I don't think technology can help the government solve all of its problems
* I think some problems are better handled by the states, local government, or indepedent organizations

I think all of those are completely valid objections, and the problems best handled by those methods are out of the scope of Expert Labs. If you feel that every single problem facing our country and society falls under those three headings, then we simply disagree and I hope you're right because then my job will be very easy.
posted by anildash at 10:47 AM on November 23, 2009


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