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Craig Newmark on Fostering Digital Democracy

Question: What are you doing to bring democracy online?

Newmark:    I’m involved in a number of efforts where other people and smarter than me are doing some real, new things with the internet primarily.  Because, in the past, people did a lot of stuff in very small scale, face to face, and face to face efforts don’t scale into the millions or hundreds of millions.  For example, there are the folks at Sunlight Foundation and what Sunlight has done is fostered a network of groups which are taking governmental data and putting it online to make it much easier to find.  For example, over time we might be able to figure out how lobbyist’s money is used and what it gets them, for example, in favor of legislation or contracts or other privileges.  There are a number of other efforts involved in customer service for government that’s 311 in New York and San Francisco and I hear LA, and I’m working with folks to figure out how we can do that better.  For example, I’m pointing people in this country to what people are doing in Britain under the aegis of mySociety.org.  For example, if something called FixMyStreet.com and they have a new application iPhone and Smartphone based, where if you see a problem like a pothole, you take a picture of it and then you can describe the problem, transmit it to the website, and then hopefully get a solution.  There’s other areas, some people are using the metaphor of Craigslist for service.  There’s a lot of way people can serve each other, can serve the country, so there’s traditional means like Peace Corps or the military.  There’s other means where people can help each other out let’s say through VolunteerMatch, or of you have money but not the time, you can pool money with other people to get stuff done.  There’s Kiva for microfinance and there’s DonorsChoose for classroom projects, maybe most importantly all those areas where people can participate in government directly.  Now, realistically, most people don’t want to be bothered with this [governance] and normally I’m a person like that.  I’m perhaps more of a couch potato.  But this is a historic effort where people in the millions are getting involved in grassroots democracy, so this period is too important for a guy like me not to stand up.  So what I’m doing is pushing some of the efforts like Change.gov, and whatever that evolves into where people can make their voices heard especially with new technologies where millions of people may participate and then millions of people may get involve not only in promoting new and good ideas, but in helping filter out the bad stuff, not so much bad ideas as people, well, trying to get attention by disrupting the process, we call them ‘trolls,’ but we want to promote up the efforts of people who have really good ideas who are really making things happen.  We’ve seen the first efforts along those lines at Change.gov and elsewhere, but some of the technology needs to evolve and it’s being built and rebuilt right now.  Finally, something I’ve observed over the last few weeks, there are a lot of people in the government who have been trying for some time to do the right thing to provide really good resources and customer service via the web.  And I’ve spoken to a bunch of them, they feel the darkness of the last eight years as ending and they are very ready to go to start showing they can do good work through the net and that they have published some papers via techPresident.com, which is a great hub for this kind of stuff, and I’ve started encouraging my fellow nerds.  As of the last days, I’ve been propagating the meaning of ‘free the nerds’ and there’ll be a lot more of that coming up. 

Question: Why isn’t more government already online?

Newmark:    There are a number of barriers in the way of better online electronic democracy kind of tools.  There’s some bureaucratic restrictions which the [Federal Managers] address in some papers.  They also address solutions.  There’s a lot of cultural inertia, and not only in federal government, but in local government everywhere.  Some of that starting to be changed, because one big contribution that Obama has made he’s been saying, “We’re all in this together.  Let’s make things a lot better,” and that’s unleashed a lot of energy among a lot of people who say, hey, here’s something simple that can make things better pretty soon, and maybe here’s something harder that can make things better a little later on.  So, there’s bureaucratic inertia, cultural issues, and also in a way, until now, a lack of leadership.  There’s other problems too because once you start putting governmental information online that shows, let’s say, where the money has been going, and that could be awkward for many people.  Like we know that in the course of the Iraq War, there’s a lot of missing money, maybe 50 billion in money no one knows where it went.  In terms of the top program, troubled assets reinvestment or recovery program, there probably is a lot of money.  No one knows where that money went.  But, with the Obama program, the intent is to put that up online in great details, so if some money is going in places we don’t expect, people will be able to prevent that from being a problem before it is a problem and that’s a big, new change which matters in huge ways to people.

Craig Newmark on promoting democracy online.

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