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National Broadband Workshop Reimagines 21st Century Citizenship

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, August 6 2009

The enduring lesson from this morning's workshop on the Federal Communication Commission's National Broadband Plan? Americans need accessible, affordable broadband so that they can do things like participation in workshops where we create a national broadband plan.

We'll be covering many of the 22 upcoming FCC broadband workshops, with assists from a raft of regular contributors and guest bloggers. The sessions will run from today until September 9th, as the commission works to write a national broadband strategy that is due on the president's desk in February. Today's and future workshop are being streamed live online through WebEx's webinar software package available at Broadband.gov.

The unintended irony, of course, is that participating in policy-making around broadband is quite a bit easier if you've already got high-speed Internet.

The irony was unintended. But it also was kinda the point. Today's first session was on the topic of e-government and civic participation. The assembled experts from inside and outside government -- U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra; former Fort Wayne, Indiana, mayor Graham Richard; deputy U.S. CTO for open government Beth Noveck; the American Enterprise Institute's Norm Ornstein; Rutgers School of Law's Ellen Goodman, the Sunlight Foundation's John Wonderlich; Beth White of Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games; and our own Andrew Rasiej -- detailed examples of civic engagement via broadband Internet that dial-up (or no connectivity at all) makes difficult, if not impossible.

The intended audience, according to those in the know, is FCC staff as much as anyone else.

The hope is that attaching flesh-and-blood examples to all the talk of broadband provisioning, the national broadband plan the commission produces (the first comprehensive strategy for connecting the United States to zippy Internet), will be focused on maximizing the potential and opportunities of citizens. In the past, the U.S. has relied upon a far more market-driven, metric-driven approach. There wasn't an abudance of hard numbers or charts in evidence today. The focus here was on the broad strokes of what hearty bandwidth makes possible.

Noveck, the deputy U.S. CTO for open government described how her Office of Science and Technology Policy has adopted open tools like blogs, wikis, and MixedInk to upend the way that federal policy is made, particularly concerning the White House's Open Government Initiative. "We turned the policy-making process inside out," said Noveck, "and went to the American people first for their ideas."

But beyond the gates of the White House, the U.S. government, said Chopra, is in a unique position. It buys a ton of technology. Several tons, actually. Uncle Sam is "a $76 billion consumer" of IT, said the CIO. What it does with tech ripples out. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's telework program has saved an estimated $2 million and 14,00o tons of carbon emissions. After GAO turned to a work-from-home program after September 11th, says Kundra, its productivity stayed steady.

Government can lead by example, said several panelists. A question came in from Second Life (itself available only to the broadband-equipped amongst us) asking for examples of tech-driven civic engagement with a real impact. Former Fort Wayne mayor Richard echoed that call, saying there's a need for a "national clearinghouse" of e-participation.

Kundra gave a shout out to his federal IT spending dashboard, a new site which tracks where federal agencies are spending all that money, and FlyOnTime.us. The latter is a free service that lets you track domestic airline fights using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics now being published through Data.gov.

(If you regularly fly from JFK to SFO, for example, try to get on Delta Flight 615. FlyOnTime says that, on average, that plane gets in 21 minutes earlier than scheduled.)

Noveck highlighted TSA's internal Idea Factory, the collaborative promise hub Pledgebank, Connecticut's CityScan project which pairs senior citizens and young people in cleaning up derelict land use sites, and Carrotmob, a San Francisco-based social entrepreneurial project built on the "buycott" model; shoppers pool their purchasing power and use it to reward businesses that commit to going green.

Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute argued that while "it's a real challenge to find a public square in an extended republic" like our own, in the future those public meeting points will no doubt occur over broadband.

That future is now, said Rasiej. In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, there were 1.3 billion views of political videos created outside the confines of traditional political campaigns. Some, like will.i.am's "Yes We Can" and "Obama Girl" were wildly popular. Others were viewed only a few thousand or few hundred times. What had once been conversations happening around the water cooler at work are now "on steroids."

The wonder of the web, said Rasiej, is that it turned his bulk-emailing parents "into 21st century political pamphleteers and they don't even know it."

An audience member raised the concern that e-government and digital civic engagement exacerbates the digital divide by amplifying those whose voices already get heard. Richard argued that that's exactly why we need to focus in on broadband, and why it should be treated like textbooks and school lunches -- a necessary footstool for those working to get ahead.

And you don't think the digital divide is widening on its own, said Rasiej, consider the state of tech in American businesses and American schools ten years ago. Back then, there's was rough parity.

Today, as schools lag badly, he said, the only business people whose business cards don't list an email addresses are committed Luddites or those doing it to make a point.

Here's the full schedule of upcoming workshops.

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