Category Archives: technology

The OK Cast Shares the Open Systems Message – and Spirit!

To know Alex Fink, even a bit, is to want to share his ideas, his spirit and his work – specifically his amazingly energetic podcast series.  The challenge is to do justice to his work!  So I’m just going to focus on the podcast – an exemplary application of a format with which I am enamored.

Alex Fink is a PhD student in Youth Studies at the University of Minnesota.  His focus is on “methods of making research to document injustice and resistance available to young people to create social change.”  My first brush with Alex’s thoughts was in notes re. social justice he posted on the Code for America/Open Twin Cities  listserv.

Next I learned about his newish podcast venture, a one-person operation in which he explores the range of open information/data issues – “the political economy and ecology of data, including data collection, data use, data access/sharing, data economics, and the ideologies surrounding it.”  In other words, Alex is actually putting a face on open data and open government.

To wit:  The OK Cast (as in Open Knowledge) is a bi-weekly podcast, of which Alex serves as both host and editor. The growing list of podcast topics now includes sessions on global integrity, participatory politics, visualizing information, the possibilities and practice of open planning – and more.

Backing up the podcast is the OK Cast blog, presented “with the goal to explore, connect, use and inspire open knowledge projects around the world to develop the public commons, improve organization and government transparency and communication, and advocate for social justice and social activism.”  It almost goes without saying that Alex is readily accessible on Twitter @TheOKCast

Make no small plans, is a motto that befits the work of Alex Fink.  My hope is that those who care about open government, broadly defined, will check out the visually stimulating blog and the aurally enlightening podcasts that this one visionary is harnessing basic technology to share and to inspire others.

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Eileen Cooke, A National Library Week Tribute

With a firm hand and a smile that could charm the toughest solon, Minnesota native Eileen Delores Cooke (1928-2000) shaped and steered the legislative agenda of America’s libraries.  She anticipated the role of telecommunications technology, held firm to the principle of freedom of information, and saw to it that there are public libraries in small towns throughout the nation.

Born in Minneapolis Cooke, graduated from St Margaret’s Academy and went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Library Science from the College of St. Catherine.

From 1952 until 1964 Cooke served on the staff of the Minneapolis Public Library – working as a bookmobile librarian, branch assistant, hospital librarian and public relations specialist.  For one year, 1957-58, she took a position as branch librarian at Queens Borough Public Library.

It was probably Cooke’s public relations acumen that caught the attention of Germaine Kretek, legendary director of the political arm of the American Library Association.  ALA, with its main office in Chicago, had long maintained a strong presence in Washington, DC.  In 1964 Cooke moved to DC where she held a variety of positions with the ALA Washington Office, serving as Executive Director for two decades, from 1972 until her retirement in 1993.

The early years of her tenure Cooke described as “a great time for libraries.”  The Kennedy administration set a high priority on libraries, which the Johnson Administration continued.  The passage of the Library Services and Construction Act in 1964 marked a time of great library development, particularly support for small and rural public libraries.  The next years saw passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that included generous appropriations for school libraries.  The Medical Library Assistance Act followed in 1966 along with the Higher Education Act of the same year, both of which included unprecedented funding for library support.

Each of these political accomplishments reflects the strategic approach and influence of the ALA Washington Office and of its Executive Director.  Cooke herself described the philosophy and style of the Washington office as being firmly anchored on a commitment to “persistence, persuasion and planning.”

Not one to rest on the organization’s political laurels Cooke worked with library leaders to anticipate and hold at bay the changes that were to come with the next administration.  One notable accomplishment was establishment of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science in 1970.  NCLIS led in time to two White House Conferences on Library and Information Services, both of which engaged a inclusive  public of library users and supporters, along with administrators and board members.

Cooke’s approach was to emphasize the importance of not only engaging but also training staff, board members and the public in the tools of effective politics.  Today library buildings and networks thrive because of the groundwork Cooke laid decades ago.

Still, her legacy far exceeds bricks and mortar.  Among other commitments, she was a formidable supporter of the Copyright Revision Act of 1976, working tirelessly for fair-use provisions of the copyright law, which required revision to respond to demands of evolving media.

In 1978 when the future of the Internet and the role of telecommunications was a gleam in the eye of futurists, Cooke was elected the first woman president of the Joint Council on Educational Telecommunications.

Perhaps best known for her encyclopedic knowledge of the facts and her dependability as a resource, Cooke was also an excellent communicator.  Her public relations background and innate ability led her to write extensively for a host of library-related journals, including the ALA Washington Newsletter, a timely and habitually read information pipeline.

In addition Cooke recognized the way that libraries could collaborate with organizations and projects set on parallel paths – listening to their goals and pointing out the overlap of interests, whether with the needs of older Americans, school media professionals, literacy providers, proponents of library services to American Indian tribes, the National Periodicals Center, services for people with disabilities, preservationists or scholars.

On the occasion of Eileen Cooke’s retirement in 1993, former ALA President and Director of the District of Columbia Public Library, Hardy Franklin, described her as the “51st State Senator on Capitol Hill.”

After her retirement Cooke returned to her birthplace in Minneapolis.  There she found time to enjoy the arts, including her own watercolor painting.  She participated in activities at her alma mater, the College of St. Catherine.  And well into her 70’s Cooke took on the awesome challenge of learning to drive for the first time in her life!

Cooke died April 30, 2000.  On June 30 of that year Congressman Major Owens (D NY) rose to pay tribute before his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives:

As a result of Eileen Cooke’s efforts the library profession moved into the mainstream of the political process.  She demanded that the federal government recognize and respect libraries as universal institutions in our democratic society which deserve greater and more consistent support….

With indefatigable optimism Eileen Cooke worked with Members of Congress, staff assistants, educational and cultural organizations, and all others who supported education and libraries… 

She was a fighter capable of hard-nose analysis but always focused and deliberative.  She was a coalition builder who won both fear and admiration from her adversaries.  Above all she had vision and could see far ahead of the government decision-makers.  She understood the nature of the coming “information superhighway” and could predict the vital role of libraries and librarians as the traffic signals on this expressway into the cyber-civilization of the future.

The work of Eileen D. Cooke benefits all Americans.  She has won the right to be celebrated and saluted as a Great American Point-of-Light.

In commemoration of Eileen Cooke’s commitment to open government the American Library Association continues to sponsor the Eileen Cooke State and Local Madison Award, conferred on Freedom of Information Day, held each year on March 16 to honor the birth date of President James Madison.

Information Format – A cautionary note from James Madison

Two hundred years ago, on January 1, 1814 the President of the United States was James Madison. Technologically deprived as Madison was, he managed to leave an indelible mark on the new nation’s thinking about open government.    Reflect for a moment on these prescient snippets:

In an 1825 letter to his colleague George Thomas Madison wrote the words that every open government advocate can quote from memory:

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

Not so well known are Madison’s thoughts on information format buried as Number 62 in the Federalist Papers:

It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood

Even as I embrace the former, in this digital era I am increasingly concerned about the latter.  There is a mighty chasm between that which is available and that which is accessible to “a people who mean to be their own Governors.”

My concern is that the wealth of information by and about the government is in danger of being walled off simply because it is produced in a format that is not readily accessible to the public.  Though the agencies will continue to do the research and post the results, those of us who need the information will not have ready access.  Though government information cannot be copyrighted the possibility remains that it can be withheld by the technology which, powerful as it may be, remains out of reach until the information is “translated” – at a cost – by commercial interests.

It’s a case of the law lagging behind the technology while the private sector is ever at the ready to seize the moment.  Essential information by and about the government, collected, organized, and interpreted by the government, belongs to the body politic.  If those resources “be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood,” we the people are no longer able to arm ourselves with ”the the power which knowledge gives.”

After two centuries, the words and wisdom of President James Madison, now available in the format du jour, raise a cautionary note for open government advocates for whom constant vigilance is a way of life.

Wrap Up American Archives Month with an Armchair Tour of the American Folklife Center

In a way I regret to see American Archives Month (October) come to an end.  There are so many stories to share… Of course there are always intriguing archival resources to be plumbed – it’s just that this month offers such a good reminder to take the time!

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress  (http://www.loc.gov/folklife/) reigns as the epicenter of this nation’s archives.   Created by Congress in 1976 the Center  continues to collect living traditional culture at the same time it preserves the existing collections in the unique preservation facilities of the Library of Congress.

The American Folklife Center Archive was established in the Library of Congress Music Division in 1928.  Today it stands as one of the largest archives of ethnographic materials from the US and around the globe.  The collection includes millions of items recorded from the 19th Century to the present.  The collections include documentation of traditional arts, cultural expressions and oral histories.

The archives are so robust and so diverse that it’s best to plunge in at some modest level and see where the archival river flows.  There are numerous finding aids to the collection, including a guide to Minnesota collections in the Archive of Folk Culture compiled by Madeline Esposito and Ross S. Gerston.  (http://www.loc.gov/folklife/guides/Minnesota.html)  The guide will lead you to disc recordings of North American Indian songs originally recorded on cylinder by Frances Densmore, to the 1954 recording on tape of a public ceremony honoring Albert Woolson, the 107-year-old last surviving Union Army veteran, and on to an amazing collection of recordings of ethnic music, interviews, even a little Bob Dylan from back in the day.

Don’t think you have to go to Washington, DC to experience the treasures of the Folklife Center  Archives.  The American Folklife Center is tackling the challenge to provide online access to select portions of the collections.  Their approach is thorough and thoughtful.  The Center creates its own online presentations on various topics and the American Memory project (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html) provides additional online access to the selected collections.  The online content may include a wide variety of media including audio samples of music and stories, digital images of rare letters and photographs and video clips.

The Veterans History Project (http://www:loc.gov/vets.about.html ) offers a case in point.  The Project collects first-hand accounts of U.S. veterans for the past century, from World War I through the  Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.   The collection also includes recorded conversations with civilians who were actively involved in war support  efforts, whether as war industry workers, medical volunteers, flight instructors or others.  The founding member of the Veterans History Project is AARP.

Another readily accessible online  treasure that caught my eye and ear is the Lomax Family Collections  (http://www.loc.gov/folklife/lomax/) .  Though one thinks of the Lomax family and folk music, many of the recordings in the Lomax Family Collections are inclusive.  One recording of immense historic value is “After the Day of Infamy, (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/afcphhtml/afcphhome.html) , twelve hours of man-on-the-street interviews following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 – all available online.

Closer to home is another perfect example – with a Minnesota spin.  It’s a celebration of native languages that features a program sponsored by Twin Cities Public Television (TPT), “First speakers: Restoring the Ojibwe language.”  http://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/united-states/endangered-languages-programs-update-celebrating-native-american-languages-library.  For a listing of the online collections and presentations of the American Folklife Center go to http://www.loc.gov/folklife/onlinecollections.html.

And, just for fun, you might want to wrap up American Archives Month by taking time to enjoy the webcast  “How to find stuff at the largest library in the world” produced by the Library of Congress.  (RealPlayer required.)  http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=5980

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ideas + Collaboration = Solutions at CityCampMN and Hackathon

If the mayhem in Our Nation’s Capitol does nothing else it does inspire one to face and possibly solve the problems right here at home – the little stuff that makes a difference in our daily lives, the sorts of challenges that people of good can and will work together to solve.   Civic-minded activists who see the possibilities in technology should seize the chance to participate in these related projects set for Saturday-Sunday, November 9 and 10.

CityCampMN 2013: Engaging Civic Innovations (http://blog.e-democracy.org/posts/2276) is an “unconference” for Minnesotans who want to explore “passion-fueled technology-enhanced civic ideas and solutions.”  The unconference, organized by E-Democracy and Open Twin Cities, offers a chance to connect “active citizens, community leaders, technology buffs and government officials.”  The project promises to be a unique opportunity for collaborative problem solving during which “the group will discuss and imagine how to use technology to strengthen communities and create more open government.”

CityCampMN is Saturday, November 9, 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM at the University of St. Thomas Minneapolis Campus, Schulze Hall.  Registration options are $10 guaranteed spot, open donation, or free (limited space lottery).  All include free lunch and reception.

Topics of the day are wide ranging, something for everyone:  open government, civic technology apps, online engagement, digital journalism, open data, visualization and analytics, tech for social justice and equity, neighbors online, digital youth empowerment, civic hacking, digital inclusion, social media for good, with room for new ideas from participants.  (WHEW!)

The following day, Sunday, November 10, the learning continues at “A Hack for MN Mini-camp” sponsored by Open Twin Cities (http://www.opentwincities.org).  The hackathon is at DevJam Studios (http://devjam.com/about/devjam).  It’s a follow up to the issues and ideas discussed at CityCampMN.

The events are open to everyone who believes that access to information is key to a vital community.  Non-techies welcome.

Click here to register online for either or both events:  http://citycampmn2013.eventbrite.com.

 

 

 

Heeding the prescient insights of Herbert I. Schiller

For manipulation to be most effective, evidence of its presence should be nonexistent… It is essential, therefore, that people who are manipulated believe in the neutrality of their key social institutions. Herbert Schiller

As a naive would-be activist I learned from my wise father that it was  folly to “argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”  Thus primed I absorbed with delight the wisdom of Herbert I. Schiller who railed against commercialism and made a powerful case for the imperative of constant vigilance in the arena of media ownership.  Though Schiller wrote decades ago – he died in 2000 – it is no exaggeration to say that his insights have played into my innate skepticism and framed my perspective on the tsunami that threatens the free flow of information and ideas that is the sine qua non of our democracy.

Schiller rued the fact that “the cumulative effects of unbridled commercialism, however difficult to assess, constitute one key to the impact of growing up in the core of the world’s marketing system.  Minimally, it suggests unpreparedness for, and lack of interest in the world that exists outside the shopping mall.”

“The flow of information in a complex society is a source of unparalleled power,” Schiller wrote.  It is axiomatic that power thrives on complexity.  The Have’s proceed unfettered, content that few will have or take time to monitor the manipulations of the Federal Communications Commission, much less the politics of who serves on the FCC.  They know that no one, including aspiring writers, will track the mighty and ever-shifting global publishing monopoly. We are assured that FISA is keeping a keen eye on the NSA, including the legions of contracted employees whose allegiance is to the corporation. Clearly, only advertising giants have the resources or motivation to track the flow of information through the complexities of social media.

Unwittingly perhaps, each of us is profoundly affected by the messages that flow to our unsuspecting and generally distracted minds. Those with the power to shape the message deftly deliver it to its intended target – us. We the consumers, the voters, the preservers of “the American way” absorb like a sponge the media- saturated culture in which we marinate.  We blithely deal with the cares of the day, oblivious to the engulfing reality that Schiller anticipated:  “That media system (whose ownership and control becomes ever more concentrated under capitalism) will privilege selfish and authoritarian values over positive notions of the common good and social justice.”

Schiller didn’t mince words.

Our democratic society, quick to denounce overt manipulation, is nonetheless susceptible to the more subtle influence of the media. Schiller warned of corporate conglomerates’ control of the channels of communication – TV, radio, book publishing, newspapers, film-making, even recreational industries.  Specifically, in 1996 Schiller decried the Clinton administration’s information infrastructure politics as a move to abdicate “all power to the corporate communication sector.”  The media, Schiller insisted, are not neutral but active players in society, forces that demand attention, regulation, oversite.  Schiller cautioned that the federal government, steward of the channels of communication that belong to the people, was building “an infrastructure that promises to carry, for business and home use, all the image and message and data flow that the country produces.”

As outspoken as he was prolific, Schiller anticipated with remarkable prescience today’s monopolistic stranglehold on the flow of information and limits on cultural expression.  One can only speculate what Schiller would have to say today about the state and future of social media, online consumerism, cross-pollination among once-diversified industries, the ways in which information and ideas enter and flow through an intertwined network that spews forth from an elite cadre of decision-makers with their grasping hands at the controls.

Were he chronicling our societal regress, Schiller would no doubt lament the political and societal impact of the ferocious trend to aggregate wealth, control he media, and defer to the Deciders the implicit power to control.

Still, Schiller would not have lost hope in the power of an informed nation to focus on the restoration of the basic democratic values of equality and justice.

True, only a Neanderthal would revisit the work of a 20th Century thinker – especially an elderly scholar who had the temerity to delve into technology, consumerism, free expression and politics.  Still, for me it is therapeutic to understand from whence came my deep concerns and my commitment to do something.  All I can do is post this incomplete piece on my blog – on a rainy weekend when I hope someone will read it.   The ideas of Herb Schiller, a voice crying in the wilderness, deserve to be heard today.

Notes:

These 20th century imprints may seem dated – the ideas are not.  These are a couple of sources I find helpful in understanding the work and impact of Schiller:

  • Lovink, Geert,  “Information Inequality: An interview with Herbert L. Schiller (http://cryptome.org/schiller.htm)  Includes a great list of Schiller’s writings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minneapolis Candidates 2013: Assessing their Access Agenda

Open Twin Cities (http://www.opentwincities.org/) is an assemblage of local hackers with a timely cause – to harness technology for the public good.  The group involves geeks, hackers, public employees and activists willing to put their technological expertise – and political influence – on the line to make change happen.  Their current initiative falls into the latter category and meets one of the group’s goals: to “lead a public discussion on open data and civic technology.”

Members of Open TC’s have mounted an aggressive campaign to raise candidates’ awareness of the basics.  In a questionnaire sent to candidates for Minneapolis Mayor and City Council the group poses a lengthy list of questions intended to raise candidates’ concern for the implicit, even esoteric, details of what it takes to assure citizens’ access to downloadable city data, which is collected by, and for the public good.

The idea is basic:  the city, like every public entity, collects mountains of data about virtually every function of city government, from crime statistics to street repair, from public transit patterns to who uses water resources, from building codes to neighborhood development.  Historically, the massive data resources have been available but not accessible, i.e. residents need to make a formal request, and probably pay for, access.  Technology can either facilitate or create barriers for public access to public information.

The movement to make public data accessible has taken on momentum as groups such as Open Twin Cities have stepped forward.  Committed access advocates in cities throughout the nation are pushing public entities at every level to publish datasets on websites and data portals.  They are actively demonstrating ways in which a concerned citizen, neighborhood group, or activist can download and manipulate the information that belongs to the people in the first place.

It is axiomatic within the movement that action requires knowledge and commitment of decision-makers to make change happen.  Thus, the questionnaire to prospective elected officials (http://bit.ly/MplsOpenDataQuestions.) raises some probing questions that elected officials need to consider.  The mailing includes some FAQs for candidates who may need a review of the concepts. Results, due by October 1, will be posted and shared with the media.

The intent of Open Twin Cities is to raise awareness and to generate discussion.  It remains to members of the public to seize the opportunity to join the access dialog by letting the squadrons of candidates know that access matters to the voters and to their prospective constituents.  Concerned citizens need not know the mechanics or how to make access happen within the city’s labyrinthine structures.  The devil in the details remains to the experts.  What the candidates need to know is that information matters, that good information leads to better decisions, and that the public, armed for action, will build a better community.

The bottom line is simple: public information in whatever format belongs to the people.  The technology exists to conceal the information, to use it for internal purposes only, to let it lie fallow, or to give it life by putting it to work in the hands of caring residents.  Informed residents offer the best hope – the only hope – of solving the city’s problems.  Today’s challenge to elected officials is establish as a priority strategies to make good information accessible – useful – to constituents of good will committed, as every candidate purports to be, to the public good.