Open on principle or Open on demand: Who really needs open data and transparency?

I really enjoyed day one of the Code for America Summit. Many of the topics resonated with me, and as host/emcee David Eaves said, the community and aura “felt like home.” I guess this is more evidence that the civic tech space is a better fit for me than the ed tech space, per se. Ironically, one of the things that attracts me to civic media- projects around open data and transparency that are just plain “cool” – is also seen as a huge red flag in the space.

Specifically, many of us drawn to civic media believe in concepts of “open” and “transparent” on principle. Data should be shared and accessible. Good things happen when information is public. These are principles I instinctively believe in, without regard for how exactly the open and transparent and accessible information will be used.

[image]I was challenged today, as I have been in the past, to think one step beyond “what” and “why,” to the ever-important “for whom” and “how.” When we are passionate about a new idea or new product, it is easy to describe what we’re passionate about and why we’re passionate about it. But it is not always easy to describe for whom it will be useful and how they will use it.

For example, take my ambitious global mapping project for education. The fact that this tool should exist is something I feel strongly about. But my feeling comes from a principle (perhaps”should” statements are a giveaway). It’s easy for me to talk about why this project is compelling, but more difficult to answer the question of demand. However, I should know better, if not for common sense, then for the following 3 experiences:

  • One. Before business school, I worked at USAID, the US government’s foreign aid agency. As anyone who’s worked in international development can tell you, there are many projects that come about because someone thought they sounded like a good idea while sitting in an office. What unfortunately happens is these projects get funded before a needs assessment takes place, without actually being tested in the field, and with no local community input. These projects end up being a waste of (taxpayer) money with little or no impact on local communities. That’s why it’s exciting to see a trend right now where development projects are really focused on the end user: initiatives that are targeted around problems facing local communities.
  • Two. I read the entrepreneurship bible and I drank the MIT Kool-aid. Not only did my previous startup come out of MIT’s foundational entrepreneurship class, but I also TA-ed the class for two semesters after that. So I know by heart the first steps of building a successful startup- they can be summed up in 3 words: Know. Your. Customer. As my mentor Bill Aulet likes to say, a customer is the number one requirement for success (actually, he would say a paying customer). This is especially relevant for projects and startups coming out of MIT, many of which are based on a “technology push” rather than a “market pull.” There is so much groundbreaking and fun research happening on campus, and many students and professors want to commercialize products before really understanding their target market. (This does not detract from the fact that if all active MIT-founded companies became a nation, it would be the 17th largest economy in the world.)
  • Three. This past spring I took a course at the MIT Media Lab with the great Ethan Zuckerman, who directs the Center for Civic Media. In his course, I started piloting projects as a part of my vision for edversation. The consistent feedback I received from Ethan and my classmates was: Who is this for? How will they use it? My response of “I’m not sure- it’s just cool!” didn’t cut it. What was particularly interesting was the fact that most of my classmates were journalists (the class was a news media class that attracted many Nieman fellows). I now think anyone who wants to embark on a new venture should find a journalist friend. Journalists have an intense focus on the who and why. They kept asking me, “What is the story here?” That is such an interesting way of looking at new projects- and a clear way to focus on demand rather than on principle.

Along these lines, what resonated with me most throughout the conference today was the theme of focusing on serving a need in the community. For example, there are myriad projects that Code for America fellows work on, yet they are all based on addressing real gaps between municipal governments and their constituents, particularly services for underserved communities. For example, one of my Berkeley classmates worked on this project to help people check their food stamp balances via text message. This ethos of bridging a gap permeates the culture of effective civic media work.

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I was struck by today’s keynote speaker, Tom Loosemore. Last year’s keynote speaker was Mike Bracken, and everyone loved him and him team so much that for this year’s keynote they brought in Mike’s colleague, Tom. Mike and Tom are from the UK where they work on the Government Digital Service, building awesome tools to allow citizens to access government services in a central location. I guess many US civic technologists idolize the work that has been done in the UK- it is certainly a great example of how far we can go. One of the most memorable parts of Tom’s speech was when he laid out the dream: a government webpage where someone could enter their name and click “Just sort it all out for me.” It was so simple and elegant when he laid the vision out like that- that is the ultimate goal that civic media projects strive for, especially those focused on making government services more easily accessible. Tom is also responsible for the design principles of the UK’s Government Digital Service- the very first one is “start with needs.”

One of the speakers who echoed this point was panelist Stephanie Hannon, Director of Product Management at Google. Stephanie pushed the audience to let “open” be a means rather than an end. She says data must not just be open but must also be structured, licensed, and reusable. She implored the audience to “start with the people you want to serve, pick the problems you want to solve- think beyond ‘open’.” This sentiment was echoed by other panelists, such as Oliver Wise from New Orleans and Vasudha Reddy from New York City, who asked for more civic tech solutions that they can apply to their cities.

These speakers reinspired me to consider the audience I am targeting with edversation, and helped me flash back to other lessons I have learned about understanding the customer and choosing the story I want to tell. For me, this means first and foremost choosing a use case to focus on as I build an education data tool. It can be teachers building lesson plans, parents picking a school for their kids, donors choosing a school to give money to, or researchers using comparative education statistics. These are the types of decisions I must make in order to be open and transparent- not just on principle but on demand.

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Planned Parenthood- California politics and high school campuses

Last night I attended an educational event in San Francisco hosted by Planned Parenthood. The event was geared to inform the public about Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which is the political arm (the 501-c-4) of the organization.

My first impression was surprise that about 30% of people in attendance were men. In fact, one of the first speakers to share how Planned Parenthood benefited him was male. This first impression laid the foundation for an eye opening evening.

imagesI learned that Planned Parenthood does three types of work: reproductive and general health services (97% of which are preventative), education outreach, and advocacy. The Action Fund does the advocacy work, supporting candidates in local, state, and federal elections.

Adrienne Bousian, who runs Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood Northern California Action Fund, gave a helpful overview of the work Planned Parenthood has done and is doing in California. For example, I learned that California is the only state that has defeated parental consent ballot initiatives three times (all between 2005 and 2008), in part due to the advocacy work of the Action Fund. And the Action Fund is currently focusing on the November 2014 elections, helping elect candidates who support reproductive health care access. I didn’t realize the extent to which Planned Parenthood is politically engaged and active.

One point that stuck with me was when Adrienne described the demographic who cares about reproductive health care access. Today it is primarily people under 30- particularly minority groups- those who don’t vote as much as other groups do. As our generation grows older, we will be a significant part of the voting population, and support for Planned Parenthood turns out to be a pivotal issue that indicates support for other causes as well. Planned Parenthood does a lot of voter registration at its health care centers. It’s always fascinating to learn how voter demographics affect political outcomes and I hope to learn more.

At the event, I also had the pleasure of speaking with Heather Saunders Estes, the President of Planned Parenthood NorCal. I told Heather about my positive experience with Planned Parenthood’s education outreach work. At the high school I taught at in Richmond, Planned Parenthood was on campus every Tuesday, available to answer questions. I had heard about the types of questions and concerns students would bring; it was clear that sex ed in our school was a gap filled by the resources of Planned Parenthood. Knowing that many of my students were sexually active, I invited one of the Planned Parenthood staff members to come speak to my classroom. The day she visited, I was very impressed with the ease and professionalism with which she handled student questions. High school juniors are not an easy audience to discuss the SAT withimages, let alone sexual health. As I sat in the back of the class, I thought how uncomfortable I would have been, having the conversation that she had with my students. That was six years ago, and I know today many of the students already have children- I hope at least some are still connected to Planned Parenthood as a source of information, care and nonjudgmental support.

When I told Heather how grateful I was for Planned Parenthood’s education outreach, she told me that unfortunately many of these programs were cut in 2008. In California, Planned Parenthood’s education outreach work was in large part funded by state grants, but the grant program was cut during the recession. Heather also told me that there are still grants that districts can apply for to bring Planned Parenthood and sex ed to their campuses, but the grant application process is complicated and many districts don’t have the capacity to navigate the bureaucracy. Heather hopes that as the economy improves, the state grant program will come back and be more accessible to school districts.

Since most of the time Planned Parenthood is in the news it is related to abortions (which are a tiny fraction of their health services- only 3%), it was really interesting to learn about their other services and lesser known branches of the organization: the political advocacy and education outreach work.  I am so proud of and encouraged by the efforts of accomplished women like Adrienne and Heather. They are tirelessly pursuing work that benefits all of us.

To learn about how to get involved, check out their site.

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Bringing a police officer into my high school classroom

In 2008 I was teaching at Leadership Public Schools – Richmond when I told my students that I invited a police officer to visit our classroom. The first reaction I heard was “I don’t like cops.”

A few days later, the officer came and spent 45 minutes addressing a group of skeptical high school juniors and answering the questions they had prepared (I heard Richmond can’t afford enough police- is that true? Why do you show up late when someone calls? Have you ever shot anyone? Do you get scared?). That day, I don’t know if he changed anyone’s mind about cops, but he succeeded in connecting with the students by answering their blunt questions, sharing his personal story, and showing a more human side to law enforcement.

Today I am reminded of the tension in that classroom 6 years ago, and how much further we have to go- both systemically and individually- to rebuild trust in our communities. We must not pass off the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri as an isolated incident.

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“Higher education is at an inflection point.”

This morning I read MIT’s final report on the Future of MIT Education (livetweeting as I read).  I was impressed by the quality of the report and its level of specificity (I’m somewhat cynical about reports produced by task forces and committees). The report was published last week and has not attracted much attention, but I decided to geek out and read the whole thing.

As a recent MIT alum, and somitxgendermeone who admires MIT’s cutting edge work in ed tech, MOOCs, and open courseware, I was curious how bold the report would be in setting goals for the campus. The 16 recommendations set forth in the report reflect a tension felt by the task force- “a tension between a desire to preserve the qualities that define an MIT education and a push to make grand, sweeping changes to its very core.” This was illustrated in the nature of the recommendations, some of which were concrete and attainable, while others seemed more vague and generic.

Of the 16 recommendations, I was most fascinated with numbers eight through eleven. These 4 recommendations focused on taking online education to the next level. The first three of these were all about engagement- engaging online learners to address global challenges, engaging the K-12 community, and engaging the 1000 local edX communities with MIT. I believe that technology works best when innovators embed outreach and community building efforts into their core strategy. These three goals set MIT onto that path.

The fourth recommendation is not about outreach but I find it intellectually interesting- the task force challenges the institute to consider certifications through MITx and edX, and to develop pricing methodologies and revenue-sharing arrangements through the certifications. Maybe it’s the nerdy side of my post-MBA life, but this made me think back to my Pricing class at Sloan, and what pricing model might best capture the value of online certifications. This kind of thinking and analysis is really at the cutting edge for MOOCs, and I’m eager to see what direction MIT goes with this charge.

I’m glad I read the report, and I hope current MIT students will read it and engage with the task force. There is a lot of work to be done, and I always think students have a role to play in keeping the institution accountable. Finally, I couldn’t end my analysis without trying to categorize where an institute task force might fit into an ed tech market map, as I “think out loud” over here. For now I have added it as a subsection of MOOCs, and also under a new category I created for University Initiatives. Let me know what you think!

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Is Edversation an ed tech startup?

Edversation documents my journey toward an ambitious goal: 1. putting all the schools in the world on a map, and 2. sparking and facilitating a global conversation about education.

As I begin this journey, I ask myself the question, is Edversation an ed tech startup? This question isn’t easy for me to answer. On one hand, it is about education, and it involves technology. On the other hand, when I think about most ed tech companies I’m familiar with, they fall into certain categories that Edversation is not a part of (for example, startups that help teachers teach or help students learn). I tend to think of Edversation as a civic media project. Civic media makes me think about other transparency initiatives (such as MapLight.org or PolitiFact.com), and the ethos of civic media aligns more closely with my long term goals.

As I consider the pros and cons of labeling one way versus the other, I embark on an attempt to categorize the whilrwind world of ed tech, to see where I might fit in. Others have attempted ed tech market maps before (edSurge took over where New Schools Venture Fund began). Mine is a work in progress, and I’ll be writing more about it soon. Check it out.

And you can follow me on twitter. 

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