Shabbir on Healthcare Reform

My friend Shabbir Safdar has posted an articulate response to some of the myths about healthcare reform here.

…the rising cost of healthcare is driving people to lose their coverage because costs of employer funded healthcare are rising faster than we can keep up. When I co-founded my web agency in 1997, we offered healthcare and paid the entire cost. Today that isn’t possible anymore and employees share part of the cost, and many business don’t even offer coverage, or offer “sham” coverage.

The reality is that the current approach to health insurance has resulted in a loss of coverage for millions of people. From 1998 to 2008, the percentage of large employers who offered health coverage shrank from 66% to 31%, and the trend continues downward today . Rising costs will mean that many employees who are offered coverage won’t be able to afford to accept it.


After experiencing politics in action via the crowd at Lloyd Doggett’s town hall meeting on health reform yesterday, and considering the opposition to health care reform, I tweeted “It always surprises me that some sheep would rather be guarded by a wolf than a bureaucrat.” That tweet was ported to Facebook, where there were several responses, some critical of bureaucrats. I posted this comment in response:

Having been part of a bureaucracy in my first career, I know something about this. Bureaucracies exist to manage complex policies and civic processes. What we generally regard as “bureaucratic inefficiency” is a manifestation of legal and regulatory complexity, often more complex than the bureaucrats themselves can grasp, certainly difficult for most citizens to understand. The policies and systems are complex because they emerge from a political process that is responsive to many often conflicting interests. I’m not sure what an alternative to this complexity would be, but I don’t think it would be a Good Thing. What we might hope for is smarter bureaucrats, just as we hope for more and better engineers and scientists.

Here’s video I shot at the town hall meeting. Lloyd Doggett is talking. I just shot his talk. When he was done, he invited people to speak, alternating healthcare reform proponents and opponents.

Politics and Climate Change

I like to think climate change is settled – we have scientific consensus, we know it’s happening, we generally understand the human actions that have accelerated climate change since the dawn of the industrial era. Many of us are feeling energy about reducing our carbon footprint and our overall planetary impact and concern that it’s too late for mitigation, time for adaptation. I personally have been involved with projects like Austin350, Worldchanging, and Powersmack, and I’ve blogged about global warming at I’ve been thinking and writing about global warming since Bruce Sterling made me aware of it in the late 1990s. I worked with him on the Viridian Design Movement and wrote an article on climate change for the issue of Whole Earth Magazine he edited. In researching the article, “Being Green in 2001,” I learned that scientists were concerned that their commitment to scientific method – to hypotheses rather than certainties – was misinterpreted as uncertainty about the anthropogenic drivers of climate change. Since then broad scientific consensus has developed, especially via the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC.

I was surprised, then, to have a conversation recently with an intelligent, articulate local businessman who told me that this scientific consensus doesn’t exist, and while he could acknowledge that the climate is changing, it’s a natural cycle associated with solar activity. He’s sent me various charts and links. He’s just forwarded an email that mentions Ian Plimer and his book Heaven and Earth, Bjorn Lomborg, and Kimberley Strassel’s Wall Street Journal op ed piece, “The Climate Change Climate Change,” which says that “the number of skeptics is swelling everywhere.” Among other things, she mentions a list that Senator Jim Inhofe has assembled of scientists who supposedly deny that human action is associated with global warming, and says that the earth’s temperature “has flatlined since 2001.” (Has it?) If you read the comments on the op-ed piece, you see that the question of human action and climate change has been politicized – challenged by the right as a left-wing scam. This is really unfortunate – the science is lost in a fog of political wrangling.

Open Government on the Internet

Friday’s “Open Government on the Internet” conference at the LBJ Library opened with Bill Bradley, who discussed his (and President Obama’s) profound interest inmaking government more accessible. The conference explored various aspects of government openness and transparency, but at the core of the conversation is an intention – affirmed by Federal CIO Vivek Kundra – to put all data online and to open up government databases, making as much data as possible accessible via clear and usable application programming interfaces. Bradly talked about data and information as raw material for sculpting democratic outcomes. For example, he supports a searchable Federal budget with links from each budget item to the appropriations bill, the authorization bill, information about the committee that passed the bill, who testified and who they represented. This would be a series of connections that would let you see who did what to affect spending at a granular level.

Bradley said we have the opportunity to leverage the ideas of enormously talented people throughout the U.S. via crowdsourcing or “ideastorming.” Truly open government ios not just about providing information from government sources to the people, but also about flowing ideas back from people to the government.

Most people, he said, are not extremely ideological. Their political views may be more complex, not well summarized by categories like “right” or “left,” “Republican” or “Democrat.” He imagined individuals having personal political pages that include more detail about their views, and from the contents of these pages, you could build constituencies around specific issues (the kinds of “adhocracies” that I envisioned in 1997, when I wrote “Nodal Politics” as one chapter of a never-published book about the Internet’s potential as a platform for democracy and political activism).

Following Bradley, there was a keynote by Vivek Kundra, the new Federal CIO he directs Federal technology policy and strategy. The Federal Government has a wealth of information, he says, that taxpayers paid for and have a right to access and use. Obama issued memoranda on transparency and open government as a first move after he took office – it was his highest priority. We have the Freedom of Information Act that LBJ signed when he was president, and we should assume that transparency and accessibility of information is the default, and not an exception that requires a special request.

Note the Human Genome Project, which put the genome data in the public domain. This resulted in a global explosion of innovation in treatment development, over 500 new drugs. Also consider the democratization of satellite information and its impact on navigation and mapping.

By opening up and making data available across disciplines, we can tap into the ingenuity of the people. The true value of technology and data lies at the intersection of multiple disciplines. Crowdsourcing is powerful – the crowd might see patterns the public section lacks the resources or attention to spot. Looking at innovation at a grassroots level, and lower cost of technologies.

Kundra is looking at agencies that have led the way, and new ways to leverage networks. It’s not enough to merely “webify” exiswting institutions. We should fundamentally change processes. There are 24,000 web sites within Federal government, but we need to think about moving government and services where the people are, systems like Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, Ebay, etc. where there’s high adoption. How do we move our applications where the people are, and fit them to context? We need to provide services in contextgs people are most comfortable with.

Wayne Caswell asked about broadband objectives. Kundra says the intention is to aggressively ensure that we extend broadband access into rural and underserved communities. Services should exist across the entire spectrum, and solutions should work everywhere.

Dennis Mick asked about the possibility of intrusive surveillance. There are robust privacy committees within the CIO council and within the White House. The idea is to bake privacy protection into technologies as they’re developed. They’re working closely with the General Services Administration to negotiate model agreements and ensure privacy protection.

Sharron Rush asked about accessibility. The Feds have rules about accessibility of web sites, yet not all the Fed sites meet accessibility standards (e.g. Kundra says part of the problem is in failing to address accessibility up front and bake it into the procurement process and the architecture of solutions. This will be corrected to make sure no one is disenfranchised.

Gary Chapman, Director of the LBJ School’s 21st Century Project and an organizer of the event, spoke next, saying that the discourse and vocabulary of enterprise computing is being challenged by a new discourse and thinking about consumer technology. What is the bridge between enterprise computing and the new consumer model that is encroaching on institutions?

Our pretense of control

Sanjay Khanna reporting on The New Yorker’s “Next 100 Days” policy summit: [Link]

…it seems our human nature leads us to insist on turning towards increasingly discrete, expert-dependent disciplines to save us from ourselves. Which is why this could be a good time, as [Malcolm] Gladwell smartly hinted, to question our pretense of control. After all, every day, beneath our conscious awareness, the Earth spins around its axis and revolves around the Sun, while the biosphere in its every realm demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of its constituent parts. It may seem glib to say so, but given that we’re simply a small part of that infinite complexity, it might serve us well to ask, hat in hand: What is it we believe we can control, exactly?

Panic in the Tweets

A Guatemalan Twitter user has been arrested for “inciting a panic” with his tweets. Great reporting from Xeni at boingboing: “Twitter user “Jeanfer” was
arrested for suggesting in a tweet that people who had money deposited
in Banrural should remove those funds, and by doing so, break the
control that corrupt entities have over the state-controlled financial
institution.” [Link]

Notes on Emergent Democracy and Leadership

I made these notes a few days ago while researching our Monday Emergent Leadership presentation. Thought it worth posting here for reference:

Joi Ito conducted a “happening” to discuss the concept of “emergent democracy” in 2004. This was a conference call plus chat room (for visual feedback) plus wiki (for gathering notes) plus QuickTopic (for later discussion and creation of a collaborative document). This itself formed an ad hoc organization, with Joi as instigator and leader.

After much talk about a democracy of conversation, wherein many voices are heard, I suggested that democratic conversation or deliberative dialogue was insufficient to produce real governance, and Joi agreed: we needed to decide how decisions are made within democratic groups or groups that run by consensus.

This is where I started thinking about the concept of emergent leadership. If we assume that emergent democracy can be effective, then when we reach decision points, someone must be able to make the decision. In a traditional command and control vertical hierarchy, “who’s the decider” is determined by assignment or election. In a self organizing group, or in “organizing without organizations,” there’s no one to make the assignment, and there’s no formalized election, Instead, leaders emerge, and to the extent effective leaders emerge, these “dis-organizations” can be effective.

Steven Johnson, in discussing the Dean campaign, noted how it had been effective at clustering – bringing people together – but less effective in coping. (Longer term, the organization actually was effective, but that’s another story.) This lack of effective coping is an issue of leadership. In the case of the Dean campaign, there were internal issues that subverted real leadership. I have an idea what those were, but the point is that the campaign grew quickly but lost its bearings in Iowa.

National Broadband Plan (hooray)

Finally, historically, the FCC is working on a national broadband plan. “Why: President Obama considers broadband to be basic infrastructure, like electricity and water, and wants the FCC to do what it can to help drive adoption rates across the USA.” This is what the Freedom to Connect crowd (including yours truly) and the community networking activists have been saying for years. It was delayed for years because “under President Bush, broadband was considered a luxury, and received light government attention as a result.”

The quintessential geek couple, completely and inalterably married-for-life

Our friends and sometimes houseguests, Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tesanovic, are facing an immigration hassle. Says Bruce, “We have no joint bank account, no insurance accounts and no joint children. The authorities therefore suspect that our marriage is a phony ‘Green Card marriage,’ and they would like to have Jasmina deported from the USA.”

Note to the harried couple: send INS our way, we can certainly verify your persistent, more or less blissful marital status…

Purpose of America

Roy Spence and Haley Rushing say, at Huffington Post, It’s Time to Renew the Purpose of America. This resonates well with me – I’ve been doing a lot of work defining and organizing around purposeful thinking and setting goals lately. The clarity in that kind of work is powerful.

America’s clear purpose was already articulated, they say: To be a nation of the people, by the people and for the people, always moving forward without leaving anyone behind.

The first pillar of our nation’s purpose was originally, eloquently and prophetically spoken by our 16th President on the battlefield at Gettysburg. On the political battlefield of our day, with its own deep divisiveness, let us all come together behind the sacred purpose in those words. It does not say of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists, for the lobbyists. And it does not say of the bankers, or by the Democrats, or for the Republicans. It says that in our nation, the people are in charge. We are responsible and accountable for our deeds. And we are the beneficiaries of all we achieve.

The second pillar of our purpose is about progress itself. Always moving forward without leaving anyone behind. We are a nation of doers and dreamers and it’s that drive, that purposeful pursuit of what’s next that has taken us to places we could never have imagined. Let us never waver in that conviction to achieve. Now is the time to redouble our ambition, to look up from the circumstances we’re in and toward the place we want to be. And then let’s go there. All together.

They go on to say that “in times of great turmoil, purpose is your anchor.” And in a period of calm, “purpose is also your north star.”

Rod Bell, who was my undergraduate government professor almost 40 years ago, said “to solve big problems, you have to have big confusion.” Problems and confusion have both been growing, where are the solutions? Spence and Rushing include an Abraham Lincoln quote: “Adhere to your purpose and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life.”

Obama’s cloud

Read Write Web compares word clouds of Obama’s inaugural speech to those by Bush, Clinton, Reagan, and Lincoln. Interesting comparison. (RWW’s other inauguration day posts were underwhelming. You don’t really have to post about the inauguration if you don’t have something new and useful to add to the general noise.)

We set up an ad hoc chat room to hang out and discuss the Inauguration while it was happening, and I was reminded that chat feels more like coherent conversation than Twitter. The Inauguration was meaningful, an historic event, but I’m more interested in the real work that starts today.

“All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper…”

“I have been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life, longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I have seen the promise land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

Gary Chapman at Texas Community Media Unworkshop: Obama’s Open Government Initiatives

At the Texas Community Media Unworkshop last Saturday, I posted several notes to Twitter from a talk by Gary Chapman of the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. By popular demand, here’s those notes, with some additional material…

Kevin Martin from FCC was at UT [last] week. He said Democratic members of the FCC had been trying to increase minority ownership of broadcasting, but his philosophy had been instead to expand the space and the opportunities. Gary had previously had concerns about Martin, but found himself agreeing with much he had to say. Martin is considering how to increse the availability of broadband as well as the bandwidth, something the Obama administration also wants. (See my previous post about white spaces.) Gary also heard Martin propose free national public broadband.

The LBJ School is working with Obama transition team. There’ll be a White House CTO. has info about transition.

The Federal government has already put spending data online and has created APIs, ways for programmers to access and use for that data, which anyone can also download. Obama drove legislation to do this – transparency in government is a top priority for the new administration.

OMB watch has created a site,, using that data.

Data about the Federal budget is also online, but not in an accessible way – as pdf documents. The LBJ School has prposed working on a transparent onine budget similar to the spending data, and is working with the Obama transition team on the concept. This should open a new era of transparency and accountability. People will be able to monitor what’s happening at all levels of government. The most compelling applications will tie the spending data to the budget for analysis… connecting the dots for real transparency.

The LBJ School is also seeking funds for a lab to create tools for bloggers, activists, etc. Get programming talent to build new tools. For instance, the want to take a wiki model of collaborative space and flip that into specfic applications for collaboration and for doing processing online. Gary mentioned as a similar tool Wikicalc, Dan Bricklin’s collaborative spreadsheet absorbed by SocialText. Another exampnle: Google is creating APIs for its spreadsheet.

The next phase of public media will blur boundaries between government and citizens using online tools, Gary says. We’ll see a transition from e-government, which is merely transactional (renew your driver’s license online) to i-government, or information based government. Government shouldn’t just build PR web sites, it should be guarantor of data quality for access by tool builders. This is the next phase of democracy, and the ext stage in the fight against corruption. We won’t need to file freedom of information access requests, because the information will already be online and accessible.

This is all high on the Obama transition team’s agenda. They’ve been working on this for months already. Obama is also reestablishing status of science – planning to bringing on a science advisor.

Obama on Technology and Innovation

The Obama presidency hopefully starts today, not January 20 – and it’s time for all of us to start real work on a future that’s not just survivable, but thrivable. My particular interests are social technology and sustainability, and on the tech side, I’m particularly interested in the ambitious plan set forth in Obama’s white paper, “Connecting and Empowering All Americans through Technology and Innovation” (linked as pdf). The doc incorporates some of the best thinking about where we should focus…

Ensure the Full and Free Exchange of Information through an Open Internet and Diverse Media Outlets – including a clueful paragraph on protecting the openness of the Internet and another on encouraging diversity in media ownership.

Create a Transparent and Connected Democracy. Tals about online tools for open government, and “bringing government into the 21st Century,” using tech “to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks.” To that end, he wants to appoint a Chief Technology Officer. (D’oh – you mean we didn’t already have one?)

Deploy a Modern Communications Infrastructure – great news for the “Freedom to Connect” crowd, including yours truly. “Barack Obama believes that America should lead the world in broadband penetration and Internet access,” so he’s going to push for a redefinition of what constitutes broadband in the U.S., i.e. fatter pipes. He also wants to open spectrum for more and better wireless deployment.

Employ Technology and Innovation to Solve Our Nation’s Most Pressing Problems, such as lowering health care costs by doing more to integrate records and facilitate digital claims processing. Healthcare systems are a patchwork mess, so this will be a huge challenge – it’s definitely time to take it on.

Invest in Climate-Friendly Energy Development and Deployment. Those of us who are interested in clean energy development know that it’s all about technology – we replace resource extraction with knowledge development and engineering to support greater efficiencies as well as the development of new forms of energy. Obama has several items for supporting the development of the clean energy sector, and for upgrading education so that our schools will produce more science and engineering graduates, and “[tap] the diversity of America to meet the increasing demand for a skilled workforce…so that we can retain and
grow jobs requiring 21st century skills rather than forcing employers to find skilled workers abroad.” He’ll also modernize public safety networks.

Improve America’s Competitiveness. “Barack Obama supports doubling federal funding for basic research, changing the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology.” Obama proposes making the R&D tax credit permanent, reforming immigration, doing more to promote American business abroad, ensuring competitive markets, protecting American intellectual property abroad and at home, and (big one) reforming the patent system. “By improving predictability and clarity in our patent system, we will help foster an environment that encourages innovation. Giving the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) the resources to improve patent quality and opening up the patent process to citizen review will reduce the uncertainty and wasteful litigation that is currently a significant drag on innovation.”

This is a lot to accomplish, but vision, attitude, and powerful intention will go a long way in getting us where we need to be after eight years of backward thinking and indifference. Personally, I’m putting my nose to the grindstone and plowing ahead with the the two areas of focus I’ve had for years – on the social web and on sustainability, both well-addressed by Obama’s plan – and I’m feeling invigorated knowing that the new administration will be supporting, not obstructing, progress in both areas.