Monthly Archives: February 2014

Capitol Coders Share Open Government Ideas & Apps

You can’t keep a good Minnesota activist down!  Saturday’s Capitol Code, initiated by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, drew a public-spirited crowd of open government enthusiasts who braved the slipperiest streets in the hemisphere to share ideas, tools and apps.  The free and open event at Uptown Cocoa was well organized by state staffers and Bill Bushey of OpenTC’s.  The buzz of the worker bees at Uptown CoCo offered a lively take on the information chain at work as data and ideas flowed to and from policy makers, data producers, app developers and the public.

It was a chance to view close up,  then reflect upon, the real-time evolution of the two disparate forces:  1) the two-way interaction between the government and the governed and 2) the marriage between information (the content) and communications (the exchange).  Putting these two forces together, it is clear that the challenge du jour is to create conditions that support the constant and mutually supportive role of information and communication technology to effectively achieve the shared goal to serve the public good of a democratic people.

The parallel paths of governance and technology are restructuring the world order as we the people blink in awe. Till now the public has watched the inextricable growth of the information and communications industries.  Policy makers and the massive structures of implementation they have shaped have struggled breathlessly to keep apace while citizens are lost in a sea of acronyms – technical and bureaucratic.

For the corporate world, it’s match between producer and consumer is as obvious as it is profitable.  Unfettered by the intrusion of the vox populi, the unbridled power of wealth swoops in to consummate the marriage made in heaven.  Policy makers concerned about the public good and hamstrung by the slow-moving wheels of government, may find the relationship more problematic.

Tough as it may be, it’s time for the people to get a grip on our unalienable rights and our responsibility to defend those rights.  It’s time to butt in.  Accepting the fact that our forefathers got it right about our democratic government being based on an informed people, we need to keep an eye on how that information flows.  We need to care about how the information resource on which we depend – as individuals and as a nation — is first produced, then made accessible to the voting public in a format that is useful and usable.  That means everything from how the research agenda is determined to the format of the message to the free flow of information to the preservation of the public record.

We need to tend to the sources of information and to the channels of communication.  Above all, we need to hold accountable those charged with establishing and enforcing policy, the elected representatives of the people at every level of government.

The bad news – it’s complicated – obviously, we need to understand the tool.  What’s more, we need to know something about the responsibilities and the power flow among the levels of government.  We also need to be paying attention.

The good news, we don’t all need to understand the intricacies.  There are squadrons of good government organizations that tend to the mechanics.

What we need to do is to keep a critical eye on the process and the watchdogs, including the media, and to hold the system as a whole accountable.   Though nobody said it was easy, the burgeoning crop of hackers who participated in this weekend’s Capitol Code can attest to the fact that it can be a lot of fun!


Celebrate Presidents Day with an Armchair Tour of Presidential Libraries

Important update:  I forgot to include the great series on Presidential Libraries sponsored some years ago by C-SPAN:  For a great week of viewing, check it out here:  — then search under “presidential libraries”


President’s Day has devolved into one of those ambiguous Monday holidays when we’re not so sure anymore just what we should be commemorating.  Given the weather reports it might be a good time to explore the legacy of the Presidents as it preserved in a variety of ways by the federal government.    Since the character, location and management of the presidents’ lives and administration vary, this post is a mix of exploring options.  Once again, meander your way through the collections from your armchair – thanks to digital technology and the benefit of open government you’ll find treasures along whatever path you take.

The Library of Congress welcomes you to celebrate Washington’s Birthday with a “Today in History” tribute on February 22nd.  You’ll be greeted with the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait and a very useful guide to the vast resources related to Washington’s life and era.  You can click your way through amazing resource at  realizing that this but a taste of the resources preserved and made accessible by the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress also houses the complete Abraham Lincoln Papers, approximately 20,000 documents.  A good place to start is by clicking here:

And then there is the system of thirteen Presidential Libraries administered by the National Archives.  These libraries cover the recorded legacies of the Presidents from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush.   The best way to dip into that immense resources is start with the website maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration web (  -a single click will take you to the individual sites, each with its own location and personality.

More than one family has used the road to the presidential libraries shape their summer plans.  Start from your armchair on this snowed in day

As with history, there are countless permutations on the theme – and there are also politics.  In many cases the President’s hometown or state lay claim to their local hero.  Many have collections of personal papers in a local university or research center.

Bear in mind that the business of Presidential libraries, like the lives of the presidents, is fraught with politics.  In the news today are two hot political topics — one concerns the time period during which a president can claim privilege over his or her papers – the other has to do with the proposed site for the Obama Presidential Library – Chicago and Hawaii have oars in that political water.

Exploring African American History Month – the Gov Docs Approach


Maya Angelou tells us that “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”   And so, whether or not we slow down to think, we as a people set aside occasions – a day, a week, a month – to commemorate a the stories of the people, events, eras or movements that shape our nation’s history.

As we pass the halfway mark of African American History Month I have finally stopped to think.  Because at this juncture I cannot free my thinking from the confines of information by and about the federal government this post explores those singular and massive resources. With a nod to February, these national treasures are accessible to the snowbound learner with time to ponder the wonders of the African American story.

Sound stuffy?  Try tweeting Beglan O’Brien, fictional Civil War reporter – he’ll fill you in on what’s happening on the battlefront and direct you to amazing backup resources you can explore from the comfort of your home or cubicle.  (

Feel like viewing a documentary film?  They’re online, too. There are several films covering a range of topics including The Loving Story relates the troubled tale of a mixed race marriage in 1958;  Freedom Riders documents the story of the diverse and determined riders, black and white, many of whom traveled great distances, to join the struggle for civil rights;  The Abolitionists brings to life the men and women — Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe and their contemporaries — who led the battle to end slavery; and Slavery by Another Name, the unacknowledged story of African American men charged with petty crimes, treated as indentured slaves. (

Want to get into the creative mind of Zora Neale Hurston?  Feel free to explore the digitized manuscripts of many of her plays now readily accessible online from the Library of Congress.  (

Also at the Library of Congress find Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project from the Library of Congress. (

At the Smithsonian join a Heritage Tour (  It starts slow but keep on trekking.  You’ll find photos and the story of Muhammed Ali’s robe and boxing gloves or the Woolworth’s lunch counter.

The National Archives offers learners a free eBook, The Meaning and Making of Emancipation, that illustrates the conception and significance of the Emancipation Proclamation through documents in the holdings of the National Archives, available for iPad, iPhone, Android, eReaders, and online

Also at the Archives explore the photographic map-based tour of The March on Washington on Historypin. (

Though the possibilities never end African American History Month will do so soon – and thus the list of thought-provoking resources stops here.   Wherever you start, you’ll soon find yourself enmeshed and amazed at the digital treasures to probe and ponder.

Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.

                                                                       — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.




Dr. Martin Luther King’s Thoughts on Thinking


The quest began with a personal need to get back to writing for Poking Around with Mary, long abandoned when life interfered. Because I have been trying so hard to get a grip on a new job I have lacked both time and spirit to poke, much less to think, much less to write.

Knowing that it’s African American History Month I have longed for a chance to poke around the stories and resources I have gathered in better days.  My head teeming with disjointed ideas I kept trying without success to focus on that special theme or idea that might inspire me and inform others.

Today as I rifled aimlessly through the turgid backwater of paper, emails, post-its, phone messages and minutiae on my digital desk, this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King surfaced:

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking.  There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions.  Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

Dr. King’s observation that “nothing pains some people more than having to think” gave me pause.  I posed the question to myself:  Are we as a voting public, am I as a voter, complacently surrendering this democracy simply because we are pain resistant?  Do we the people settle for “easy answers and half-baked solutions?”  Worse, are we relinquishing the power of the people to forces that are only too willing to endure the fleeting pain of thinking for the long-term gain of seizing power?

The corollary lies in another of Dr. King’s prophetic quotes:

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think crtitically.  Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.  (emphasis mine)

Madison, Jefferson, Thomas Paine and others of their ilk enjoyed good educations, amassed impressive libraries, lived privileged lives that afforded them time, skills and tools to think. As men of intelligence and character, they made the most of the opportunity.  Fortunately for us, they thought through the long-term implications of their action. The took time to engage in meaningful dialog.  They weighed their options and considered the consequences of  governing, authority, checks and balances, the public accountability of the government they forged.  They underscored the big ideas, including that fundamental principle that the printing press was a protected public good essential to an informed – and thinking – citizenry.

As we all know, there were some gaps in their thinking about who was qualified to engage in the process, a topic to ponder another day.   Still, their idea of sharing the power with an informed public was both solid and challenging.   The challenge today is to think about how a diverse citizenry with a range of skills, an infinite array of resources, the communications and information tools of the day – can embrace the challenge – and set aside the time – to think.

Monday is President’s Day, originally intended to commemorate the contributions of our forbearers. The day also offers a rare opportunity for those of intelligence and character to think long and deep about how best to nurture this fragile democracy.

Dr. King adds this relevant thought:     “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”