Internet Week New York: Politics, Technology and Transparency

This week is Internet Week in New York and I was able to attend several panels and demos, but the one thing that really made me feel like there was substantial change afoot was the power of technology to truly transform government: to make it a truly transparent and inclusive process. Specifically, at the NY Tech Meetup on June 2nd, the New York State Senate CIO Andrew Hoppin presented massive changes made in an incredibly short time period. Some of the unofficial rules of NY Tech Meetup is that you have to be a NY based organization, you only have 5-10 minutes to present your company or product, and you can’t do it in a PowerPoint; the New York State Senate was allowed to shirk the Power Point rule because what they’ve done is so extraordinary.

I can see your eyes rolling, just as I saw when I explained who presented to a VC at another panel the next morning. The New York State Senate? Yes.

What they’ve done is this…

  • Move from a behind-closed-doors, pre-internet mind set and put every committee meeting online via YouTube. Before this, the only way to see what was discussed was to be in Albany. Nothing more transparent than that; in addition every one of the 34 subject-specific committee has an RSS feed and you can sign up to get email or text alerts as well.
  • Provide every Senator has a RSS feed and systems are built to support Facebook Fan Pages and Twitter accounts if the Senator chooses to use them; every committee has an RSS feed so you can keep tabs on the latest issues she may be tackling (I looked at what made up my Senator’s list of accomplishments and the fact that he has no social media savvy so far this term and I’m decidely underwhelmed – time to push him or support a new candidate)
  • Allow citizens of New York State to actually comment on pending legislation and actually shape legislative agendas using crowdsourcing. From the site:
    • “Crowdsourcing tools leverage the “wisdom of crowds.” By creating a forum where large numbers of people can submit ideas and vote on them, a crowdsourcing application can gather new ideas from beyond the walls of the Capitol to make the Senate a more effective lawmaking body. Crowdsourcing will be used by the Senate’s Policy group to tap into the public to generate ideas and feedback on certain legislation. By doing so, the Senate will encourage citizen participation in the legislative process. “
  • Efficiently using technology to save money and plow it back into programs like the above; every morning staff would get up early, take exacto knives and cut out articles and scan them to make them available to Senate staff at a cost of $1.5 million a year; automating that changed where budgets are focused

Talk about shattering boundaries! Pure access that in the past had been the domain of lobbyists and here is technology in action making politics accessible.

This is not without challenges. One of the biggest challenges to date has been changing the workflow to get take in user comments and changing mentalities in really integrating user comments. Politics change from election to election (the Democrats had been out of power since 1965 and CIO Andrew Hoppin cited new majority leader Malcom A. Smith as the impetus for change, but things can change in the next election). To succeed, costs have to be minimized and more than anything, New Yorkers have to start using the tools and demand they are maintained.

This spirit is the core of another upcoming conference announced this week, the Personal Democracy Forum 2009 to be held June 29 and 30 in NYC at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Conceptually this is a mashup between tech and politically-minded people in figuring how to leverage tech to radically change and democratize our government and the election process. The lineup is impressive (White House CIO Vivek Kundra, Joe Rospars of Obama ’08, Mark McKinnon of John McCain ’08, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, and leaders from Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube and Twitter) and the cost is very affordable at $455. In addition, you can get a $100 discount from NY Meetup using code NYTech. Definitely looking forward to understanding how they are using social media to listen to constituents outside of crowdsouricng as well as understanding metrics they uncovered during the last Presidential campaign with regard to their email and social media efforts.

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