Posts

Policy Informatics Talk at Universidade do Minho – April 2012

On, April 13, I will deliver a research talk at the Department of Information Systems, University of Minho (in Guimarães). The title of my talk is Policy Informatics: Embracing Complexity, Information, and Systems. The talk will feature my recent work on policy informatics and the policy informatics book project. I will also briefly highlight work featured in my recent book, Intrapreneurship: Managing Ideas Within Your Organization (University of Toronto Press, 2011). I would like to thank my colleague, and friend, Isabel Ramos for organizing my visit to Guimarães. During this visit to Portugal, I will also be giving a talk at the IGU Commission on Geography of Governance Annual Conference 2012 (April 12).

Brad Larson, Creator of Molecules App, Honorable Mention @ NIH/NLM “Show off your Apps” Competition

As promised, in my previous post, my research team and I will be featuring various app developers who have contributed to challenges run by federal agencies on challenges.gov.

Developer: Brad Larson
Bio: Brad Larson is technically gifted with a track-record of programming. He has been working in the mobile app realm since the days of Palm. He is an engineer by training, earning a BS in chemical Engineering with a minor in Computer Science from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, in addition to an MS and PhD in Materials Science from the University of Wisconsin. His current interests in the mobile development space focus on advanced 3-D graphics and high performance image and video processing, particularly when used in scientific applications such as machine vision.
Current Position: Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at SonoPlot, Inc., Consults and develops through Sunset Lake Software

App in Focus: Molecules
Federal Citizen App Program: NIH/NLM “Show off your Apps” Competition
Recognition: Honorable Mention

Description of the App: Molecules is an app that displays 3D renderings of molecules. It allows users to access and download various molecules from the RCSB Protein Data Bank or NCBI’s PubChem. Both are public repositories for molecules and compounds. Once a specified molecule or compound is downloaded, the app displays a 3D rendering and permits the user to manipulate their view; to zoom, pan or even to change from ball-and-stick to spacefilling visualization models. The molecules once downloaded are stored on the mobile device for later review.

Who is the App Intended to Serve: The original target audiences were researchers and high-end knowledge workers in the sciences. Now the primary users are in the education field, with usage even at the high school level.

Current Statistics: The application runs on iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. As of March 22, 2012, Molecules has been downloaded by 2,040,480 people.

Why was the app developed: Initial work on the application began on June 15, 2008 and the first version was submitted on July 6, 2008. It launched with the iPhone App Store on July 10, 2008. Molecules was created to solve a challenge identified by his brother, and one that if solved would benefit many researchers. It began and continues to be developed as a hobby project that focuses on 3D renderings of molecules and compounds. In addition to generating 3D renderings of specific molecules, the application was intended to provide mobile access to users anywhere.

How was the app developed: The development of Molecules began with the normal design process (defining the scope, etc.). With its development contingent upon Brad’s learning and mastery of particular skills, such as 3D rendering. The Apple Developer conferences played a critical role in not only teaching him some of these skills, but also in connecting him with others in the development community. Once able to 3D render, he partnered with RCSB Protein Bank and the NCBI’s PubChem to leverage their databases of molecules and compounds. Molecules makes its source code publicly available, allowing other developers to research and fix bugs/other issues. Complications and challenges in the development process were addressed via two avenues; his network of developers built through conferences and the online resource, StackOverflow.com.

How was the availability of the app communicated to potential users: As one of the first 500 applications on the iPhone App Store, it was fairly visible from the launch of that service. It was the eighth most downloaded free utility in 2008. Since then, it has been featured by Apple multiple times on the App Store, and has appeared in passing on Apple's television commercials and in a couple of their keynote presentations. Other websites have listed it in collections of scientific and educational iOS applications. Beyond that, Brad has told friends and associates about the application, but have not actively advertised it beyond occasional mentions on various developer websites like Stack Overflow.

What were the key lessons learned during the development of the app: 1) Build small, throwaway test applications to explore specific areas that I didn't understand and then to use the lessons learned from these experiments in the larger finished application, and 2) Attend conferences for networking to build partnerships and working relationship with other developers.

What recommendations do you have for government agencies that are trying to incentivize the creation of citizen apps and the leveraging of open data programs:

  • Increase the visibility of the challenges and competitions. Many app developers do not know of them.
  • Improve communication with app developers and external parties. Leverage the app developer networks to increase the reach of the message.
  • Cash prizes while good need to be in touch with realities of developers. Seldom do developers have extensive resources to support travel to D.C for events (even when they win prizes or receive recognition).
  • Support the development of local events for app developers to meet, share ideas, learn from each other, and work on problems.

What do you plan on doing next with the Molecules app, and your interest in app development for tackling social and technical problems: Brad plans to continue the development and refinement of Molecules based upon the reviews he receives online. To-date 389 reviews have been written for all-versions of the app, referencing features such as color coding, interface layout and inclusion of more molecule information. His most recent efforts have been focused on adapting and improving the application for the iPad 3. He also, as noted above has begun work in ‘assisted visioning’ applications.

Developing Innovative Apps for Challenges: A Series of Interviews with App Developers

Over the next few weeks, my research team and I will be interviewing prominent App Developers. All interviewees contributed apps for various challenges run by Federal agencies (e.g. the FCC/Knight Foundation Apps for Communities Challenge, NLM Show Off Your Apps Challenge, etc), and, in most cases, even received prizes and recognition for their apps. These interviews are being conducted for our project, Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology: Challenges and Opportunities for Federal Agencies, which has received funding from the IBM Center for the Business of Government. When we complete interviews, and conditional on receiving permission from the interviewee, I will be featuring the developer, their app, and key take-a-ways from the conversation on my blog. Below is a list of developers who we have interviewed to date:

This is an exciting project and we are learning a lot from our interviews. Our goal is to arrive at actionable knowledge that will increase the effectiveness of challenges run by federal agencies. In addition to publishing our findings in a report, we will be writing several smaller pieces for various outlets. If you are interested in receiving a copy of our report, please contact us at the Metropolitan Institute.

Please send me an email, if:

  • you are App Developer and would like to be interviewed for this project (our highest priority is to interview developers who have contributed to various challenges sponsored by federal agencies)
  • you use an app that was developed for a government challenge
  • you have connections within the federal government that can connect us with agency personnel that designed (or managed) challenges

 

Leveraging the Wisdom of Crowds through Participatory Platforms – Planetizen

My article on Leveraging the Wisdom of Crowds through Participatory Platforms was published on Planetizen.  The future of design and planning is certain to be around participatory platforms, designers and planners should embrace these platforms and leverage their potential towards designing smart(er) cities through open, inclusive, and collaborative approaches.Planners need to learn how to orchestrate participation on these platforms so as to arrive at plans that are representative of community needs and within scope, budget, and resource constraints. Failure to achieve this will result in plans that fall prey to the foolishness or the rowdiness of crowds. I outline five simple guidelines to consider. To read more, click here - LINK

Technologies in Public Agencies and in PA Research: Three Mini-Cases of Use-Inspired Research

I will be giving a talk at the School of Public AffairsCollege of Public ProgramsArizona State University on Feb 14, 2011 @ 10.30-12.

Technologies in Public Agencies and in Public Administration Research: Three Mini-Cases of Use-Inspired Research

Emerging technologies are transforming public agencies and the nature of governance. Public Agencies have long recognized the value of information technologies for achieving their missions, streamlining operations, and communicating with the public. Yet, the track record of public sector information systems (IS) projects - system acquisitions, design and deployment - has been sub-par. I contend that one possible reason is their dual personality. They are both (a) public sector projects and (b) IS projects. Contemporary research on public sector IS projects often emphasizes the former but not the latter, often relegating technology to a “black box.” I will argue that this posture is not only unacceptable but also dangerous. Public administration researchers cannot simply relegate the study of technologies to other disciplines. Today, several factors require us to change our stance on the role of technologies in public agencies and in public administration research, including the amount of taxpayer money that is spent on technologies, the democratizing of technology, and the rise of open data programs. Toward this end, in this presentation, I will briefly present three mini-cases of user-inspired research. The first case will highlight the use of sentiment analysis of secondary data on the IRS Business Systems Modernization. Extracting stakeholder Sentiments and Confidence from documents, with a view to exploring how such measures may offer early indications of project progress and assist managers to prevent undesirable future outcomes. The second case will highlight how innovative public managers are leading the way in deploying technology sophistically for superior citizen engagement. The US Census Bureau used technologies not only to complete the 2010 census under budget, but also deployed them innovatively to engage citizens through the design of viable participatory platforms. The Census Bureau also effectively managed risks associated with using emerging technologies. The 2010 Census campaign focused on increasing response rates and encouraging citizen participation through innovations in the communication process with citizens and the infusion of technology. The third case will describe an ongoing project that seeks to understand the motivations of government agencies, software developers, and the public on the creation and use of (mobile) apps for urban governance.

Citizen Apps to Solve Complex Urban Problems – Journal of Urban Technology

I have a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Urban Technology. Co-authored with Akshay Bhagwatwar (Kelley School of Business, Indiana University) this paper looks at how citizen apps are employed to solve complex urban problems.

Abstract:

Tackling complex urban problems requires us to examine and leverage diverse sources of information. Today, cities of all kinds and sizes capture a large amount of information in real-time. Data is captured on transportation patterns, electricity and water consumption, citizen use of government services (e.g. parking meters), and even on weather events. Through open data initiatives, government agencies are making information available to citizens. In turn, citizens are building applications that exploit this information to solve local urban problems. Citizens are also building platforms where they can share information regarding government services. Information that was previously unavailable is now being used to gauge quality of services, choose services, and report illegal and unethical behaviors (e.g. requesting bribes). To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper to examine the range of citizen applications (‘citizen apps’) targeted to solve urban issues and their ensuing impacts on planning, decision-making, problem solving, and urban governance. We examine citizen apps that address a wide range of urban issues from those that solve public transportation challenges to those advance management public utilities and services and even public safety.

Citation: Desouza, K.C., and Bhagwatwar, A. “Opening up Information for Tackling Complex Urban Problems:  A Study of Citizen Apps,” Journal of Urban Technology, Forthcoming.

Investigative Journalism

Over the next few months, I will be working with a team of researchers, graduate students, and practitioners to study the resiliency of local networks to crises (and catastrophic disasters) using a journalistic lens. Through interviewing subjects, we hope to collect a series of videos that can be used for traditional research analysis, but can also make for interesting teaching material, weblogs, etc.

Metropolitan Institute Partnership with German Marshall Fund Awarded $2.5 million Grant

Christmas came early for us at the Metropolitan Institute!  We were recently awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD chose the  German Marshall Fund (GMF) partnership as the recipient of the $2.5 million award to manage the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) fellowship program. GMF’s Urban and Regional Policy Program leads a partnership that includes Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs and the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. My colleague, Joe Schilling, Associate Director at the Metropolitan Institute, will serve as the principle investigator on this three-year project.

Press Releases:

IBM Center for the Business of Government Grant: Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology

I have received a grant from the IBM Center for the Business of Government for my research project, Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology:  Challenges and Opportunities for Federal Agencies. This project will be conducted as part of the policy informatics portfolio at the Metropolitan Institute.

Most US federal agencies have embraced President Obama's vision for 1) greater transparency, 2) increased citizen participation, and 3) greater collaboration. A critical outcome of these initiatives is the willingness of federal agencies to engage with citizens around open-data initiatives and the creation of technology for solving public policy problems - 'citizen apps.' We are witnessing an increasing proliferation of 'citizen apps', i.e. applications designed by citizens and developers to solve public policy challenges. Federal agencies are not only opening up data reservoirs, but are also incentivizing the development of citizen apps through competitions. In this research project, we propose to study citizen apps and the federal programs that fostered (incentivized) their creation.

There are many reasons why it is beneficial to involve citizens in the governance process. One, it opens up problem solving opportunities where citizens can participate. Second, it serves as a forum to increase the diversity of thought and knowledge brought to a problem. This increases the potential for innovation by engaging many minds to solve complex problems. Citizen participation leads to greater collective intelligence and hopefully more robust solutions for social issues. Third, it allows citizens to solve problems that a government agency might be challenged to address. Finally, it empowers the vision set forth by former President John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Citizen app programs normally come in two broad flavors. One set of citizen app programs are fueled by government open-data initiatives. In these cases, a government agency makes data available to the public and the public in turn responds by using this data creatively to generate technologies (the apps) that better the lives of citizens. The second set of citizen app programs is where a government agency issues a challenge or problem to the public. The public then responds by building solutions to the challenge. In this case, the government may incentivize the development of the apps through issue of recognition prizes and funding. This success of both types of citizen app programs depends on the dynamic collaboration of government agencies, app developers, and the citizenry. To date, our knowledge on what makes for successful collaboration among these three players is limited.

There are a number of design considerations that need to be addressed when building citizen app programs from the nature of incentives provided to goals of the apps, the motivations that drive citizens to create the apps, and how (and where) to deploy the apps, the involvement by the agency (e.g. staff time to interact with app developers), level and amount of data availability, and creation of problem-solving communities and forums, among others. In this research project, we will uncover design considerations that government executives need to bear in mind as they initiate citizen app programs. We will also compare and contrast citizen app programs to arrive at a set of best practices by looking at critical success factors that led to citizen app programs that were highly successful.

Our research project will thoroughly inventory and study the range of citizen apps to understand the typology of the apps, the data they use, the problems they address, the motivation of the designers, the usage by citizens, and the impact on government and governance. We propose to discover and define the inter-relations between the government agencies, the app developers, and the citizens. While our focus will be on studying citizen apps generated out of programs commissioned by the federal government, we will also look at programs started by progressive states (e.g. New York, California, etc).

The results of the final report will benefit public sector government executives, public managers, and the public-at-large in several ways: 1) it will enable government executives to avoid common pitfalls when incentivizing citizen app programs (for e.g. placing emphasis on the frontend, i.e. the creation of apps, and ignoring the more challenging aspect of ensuring that the apps are diffused into the agency's work practices or to citizens); 2) it will enable public managers to understand the landscape of citizen apps, the motivations of citizens who create them, and the factors that drive their usage; and 3) it will enable federal agencies to better engage citizens into the policy setting process through supporting technology development thereby increasing the chances of more effective solution generation for policy problems.

Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters Project – The Metropolitan Institute

Maggie Cowell (Assistant Professor, Urban Affairs and Planning, School of Public and International Affairs) and I have received a seed grant ($20,000) from the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE) at Virginia Tech for our project “Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters: Studying the Emergence and Dissolution of Community Networks.” This project will be housed at the Metropolitan Institute.

The goal of this research project is to study how citizens coalesce into responsive communities, make an impact, and then dissolve during and after a disaster. This research will bring into light locally significant disasters that do not earn national headlines and where the local community turns to their own resources to respond. Too often these local disasters and citizen responses are not studied but they are vital to deepening of our understanding of community resilience and the dynamics of citizen engagement. We will uncover the dynamics of community emergence in response to a disaster. Questions considered will include: who organizes citizens into a community, how, and why? How do they respond to the disaster? How is technology, especially social media, mobilized for community organization and relief operations? And finally, what leads to the disbanding of these communities and is there any institutional memory preserved? Consisting of a series of in-depth case studies, made up of first-person accounts and interviews together with a review of secondary sources, the research will look at three stages of a spontaneous community response: the assemblage; the action and impact; and the dissolution of the community. We will study how these emergent communities use technology creatively in the various stages of the community formation as a catalyst to overcome the lack of formal response mechanisms or response planning.

This project will provide valuable insights for citizen activists, planners, and policy makers on the functions and impacts of community response and improve our understanding of citizen engagement. Understanding the emergence, and impacts of local community response can inform the efficiency of more widespread responses. We will construct a web-based platform to share results from the research project (including video interviews with citizens, case studies, and community planning tools). In addition, the web-based platform will support networking and community building among citizens who are interested in building resilient community networks.

  • “Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters: Studying the Emergence and Dissolution of Community Networks,” Institute for Society, Culture and Environment @ Virginia Tech, 2011, (PI) (co-PIL Margaret M. Cowell)  ($20,000)