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Optimism, Fear, and the Knight News Challenge

BY David Eaves | Tuesday, April 9 2013

Reading through the list of Knight News Challenge semi-finalists I was left feeling both optimistic and concerned.

Optimistic because there are a number of great ideas people have put forward. Indeed the sheer number of submissions to the challenge - 828 - itself speaks to a deep well of people that want to find ways to improve the interaction between citizens and government. As a serious policy and government geek it is always nice to find peers.

On the flip side I get a little depressed because programs like the news challenge remind me of the problems of both money, and scale, that plague any change initiative, but particularly in government.

As many readers know, I'm Canadian. It is often with awe that I see both how much money moves around in the foundation and granting sector in America as well as what it can — and can't — accomplish. To put it in perspective, not only are there far fewer granting organizations, one of the largest private foundations in Canada has a total annual granting budget of about $30 million. This is the kind of money that, for some US foundations, is the size of a single grant. (Knight has told techPresident it gives out about $120 million a year.)

The key problem with money - particularly grant money - is that it can distort a problem and create the wrong incentives. Success can be seen as external from sustainability, and a flood of money can crush emerging sustainable efforts.

Disruption and Sustainability

The Democracy Map - the proposal with the most views on the Knight News Challenge - feels like one such example. This is hard to share since I know, have a lot of respect for, and like, Philip Ashlock. And he's right! It would indeed be great if there was a service where people can plug in a query to find out all the local, state and national jurisdictions - and the officials that represent them - for the place they are standing. The problem is, one exists! It's called Cicero and it is operated by a company called Azavea that produces a lot of open source software.

Of course, Azavea doesn't have the coverage Democracy Map envisions. It does national and state government, but it only covers hundreds of cities, as opposed to the more than 30,000 localities in the US. But this begs the question... why not? This is a company that understands "open." Almost half their products such as OpenTreeMap and District Builder (something that could itself be a Knight News Challenge) are open source. In addition Cicero's business model is identical to that proposed by Democracy Map sees sustaining itself by "charging small fees for extremely high volume usage of the API." The nightmare scenario for me is that Democracy Map, flooded with some initial cash, kills Cicero. But then, unable to find a sustainable business model, is eventually deprecated, leaving the space off with less infrastructure than it had when the adventure began. That is the power, and danger, of money.

Scale

The other reason I get concerned (but am also optimistic) looking at the News Challenge submissions is the issue of scale. When it comes to government, I'm of the opinion that it is all about small changes focused on leverage points. The key is not to do something big, but to do something small that shifts incentives or structures and so causes the changes to propagate and get larger.

This is part of the reason why my fellow columnist - Nick Judd - was entirely right in his critique of the proposals that are predicated on the idea they will generate an army of interest. My sense is that successful projects are going to be about assembling people around something you think they should care about. They are going to be about supporting small groups of people, who, if they are passionate and effective, will assemble more people in their communities. The only question is, can you give them tools to help?

This is why toolkits like Open Gov for the Rest of Us seem to me to be the really scalable projects — not because they have to reach lots of people, but because they give people tools to do something tangible, as well as plant seeds for future action. Rather than relying on thousands of people to be a success you could accomplish an outcome with just 10 people. But do it with the right 10 people, maybe they'll mobilize the next 100 or 1,000 - and my sense is that these toolkits can scale with them.

It's also why I love the subtle subversiveness of the FOIA Machine, which overlays the government-citizen interface to ensure the citizen is maximally empowered. Here again, it is possible to imagine a small community of users - FOIA geeks - that both find the tools helpful in achieving their own selfish ends, but that also, over time, make it easier for others to file a single request or join their community.

What I'm really excited about are the projects that directly touch the interface between people and government such as: Plan In a Box, HousingCheckup, and Procure.io. (Full disclosure, I also know some of the people behind these, such as Procure.io originator Clay Johnson and the team at OpenPlans, which is proposing Plan In a Box.) Here are projects that are trying to reimagine how governments share information and engage either internal and external stakeholders in ways that will just make things better.

My sense is that none of these tools are revolutionary, but rather that over time, they would become revolutionary as the organizations that use them begin to adapt to them. Plan In a Box might cause a city to rethink its planning process and how it engages residents; Housing Check Up might help renters and landlords to start thinking very differently about the importance of compliance and inspections; Procure.io could help shift how governments deal with vendors and companies, a source of friction for anyone who has worked with a city. In each case, these proposal may appear to have a small impact because, well, they are just software. But once virtualized this shift could help open up a universe of possibility around process, something that could ultimately cause public servants to start challenging and rethinking the way things are done.

And, that for me, is the real way you change governments, not with a flash, but with subtle, deft moves that cause people to start making the changes for you - not because you are asking, but because you've change the logic of their environment. With the Knight News Challenge my sense is there is a predisposition for frontal assaults and big bangs. My hope is that of the more subtle approaches will not only get funded, but be given time to exert their effect.

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