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February 2011

Civic Hacktivism at Data Camp Seattle

The Code for America Seattle fellows organized Data Camp Seattle, a day-long unconference / hackathon in collaboration with Socrata and the City of Seattle on Saturday. The event brought together city leaders, neighborhood leaders, technologists and [other] civic-minded individuals and groups to share ideas, data and tools, and to build or improve applications to promote civic awareness, engagement and well-being.

Code-for-america The day started with a brief overview of Code for America by the CfA Seattle fellows, Chach Sikes, Alan Palazzolo and Anna Bloom. Code for America is an organization that pairs web designers and developers (fellows) with city governments to create web applications that promote more openness, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness in the provision of services by the hosting cities. In 2011, four cities - and 20 fellows - were selected in a competitive application process; other CfA 2011 cities are Boston (with 7 fellows), Philadelphia (7) and Washington, DC (3). Anna described the focus of the CfA 2011 Seattle fellows as connecting local leaders to solve civic problems.

SeattleGov Chach introduced a number of representatives from the City of Seattle who were attending the event. Neil Berry, with the Seattle Open Data team, told us that his team offers over 100 location-encoded datasets at data.seattle.gov, including information on crime statistics, building permits and neighborhood boundaries. Bill Schrier, CTO/CIO of Seattle (aka Chief Seattle Geek, @BillSchrier), emphasized the collaborative investment made in CfA Seattle by the City of Seattle, EsrI and Microsoft, and the early & ongoing support for the broader initiative by Tim O'Reilly. He described the goal of CfA Seattle as transforming data into useful information & applications.

Socrata Chris Metcalf, Technical Program Manager and Developer Evangelist at Socrata, where the event was hosted (and which paid for our lunches), described the company as providing software as a service (SaaS) for governments of all levels and sizes, from 5,000-citizen townships to the federal government. Among their services is a Web-based API for [open] government data, and among their clients is the City of Seattle (Socrata hosts data.seattle.gov).

Among the other participants introduced during the opening session were

  • representatives from Seattle's South Park neighborhood a community known for its high per-capita concentration of artists, children and industry (and the not-always-desireable byproducts of industry)
  • Sanjay Bhatt, a Seattle Times reporter who focuses on the visualization of data relating to the Seattle area
  • Sarah Schacht, executive director of Knowledge As Power, with the general aim of making lawmaking accessible to the public and the more specific goal (for the day) of developing ways of parsing legislative documents (for which there exists no international metadata standard)
  • Pascal Schuback, with the King County Office of Emergency Management, and CrisisCommons.org, who emphasized the need to create better reporting mechanisms (e.g., a smartphone app to augment current practices of in-person visits and landline phone calls) and an open data set for the damages wrought by disasters
  • Russell Branca, the developer behind SeaAPI.com, which offers a map-based interface for data about Seattle, who came seeking assistance in improving the site and sevice
  • Naoya Makino, a computer science student at Simon Fraser University, who described EatSure, Vancouver an application developed in / for Vancouver, BC, that makes health inspection reports for restaurants available via a Google Maps interface
  • Andrew Morton, a graduate student at the University of Washington Information School, who is working on a project to analyze the access and accessibility of health information through public libraries
  • Brian Ferris, a graduate student in the UW Computer Science & Engineering department, who developed and manages OneBusAway, a web-, phone- and SMS-based service that provides real-time arrival information for King County Metro bus routes, and who proposed a crowd-sourced civic-oriented game - Fuzzy Neighborhood Labels - to enable users to identify neighborhood boundaries
  • Aaron Parecki and Amber Case, of GeoLoqi.org, briefly described how their platform can be used to create location-based triggers that can be sent to notify users of potentially interesting information related to the places they are in (or near), and how another platform, Tropo, can be used for SMS, IM, voice calls and speech synthesis.

Clustering ideas for #DataCampSEA unconference sessions After the introductions, Alan brought out post-it pads and markers, and Chach announced that we would have 5 minutes to write down things we want to share (on the yellow and orange post-its) and things we want to learn (on the blue and green post-its), and then post them on a wall. We would then have 5 minutes to cluster the things people want to share and learn into common themes or topics, to facilitate the formation of unconference breakout sessions. Leaders were recruited for each cluster, we split into smaller discussion groups in smaller rooms, and brief reports were given just before lunch. Notes from the sessions - on the South Park neighborhood, mobile damage assessment apps, transit apps, mobile / geolocation apps, data mining, information visualization - were posted to the DataCampSEA Google Group. I joined the session on mobile geolocation apps, led by Aaron & Amber, and my notes from the session can be found at the link above.

After lunch, a number of prospective projects were proposed (many of which had been suggested during the introductions), and we again split off into smaller groups, but this time with the goal of designing and developing rather than - or in addition to - discussing applications. I joined Aaron, Amber and others to design and develop a mobile geolocation app that would enable users to subscribe to events or event types from Seattle city event calendars (and, eventually, other geocoded event sources) and be notified via SMS whenever they were within 500 meters of the event site within an hour of the start of the event. Obviously, there are a lot of important details to be worked out for a full-fledged application for performing this task, but we were able to make considerable headway on an application over the course of a little over 3 hours.

Collaborating on HearNear at #DataCampSEA We quickly came up with a name for the application - HearNear (the idea being that your phone "listens" for events of interest nearby) - and self-organized into different tasks:

  • Aaron setup the GeoLoqi instance for the app, and helped others develop the other pieces that would be required by the GeoLoqi API.
  • Amber, a UX Designer, developed the wireframes for the site and worked with Jesse and Jenny on the overall look and feel.
  • Gene Homicki, president of Objective Consulting, reserved the domain name (hearnear.org) and set us up with web hosting service within moments of our deciding on a name.
  • Jesse Kocher, Lead Developer at WalkScore.com, and Jenny Frankl, Seattle Youth Commission program coordinator, designed a fabulous logo for the app.
  • Steve Ripley, a web designer and developer with seattle.gov, helped us find and decide among the various calendar event feeds provided by the City of Seattle; we decided the iCal feed was easier to parse than the RSS feed
  • Rebecca Gutterman started working on a Java-based parser for the iCal feed to find and convert the relevant fields into the format required by the GeoLoqi API
  • Naoya started working on a Python version of an iCal feed parser
  • I initially started working on a PHP version of the iCal feed parser, but with two others working on a parser, I soon decided I could be more helpful to the team by identifing and defining mappings between the GeoLoqi API and the iCal feed.

http://hearnear.org Live! I have probably mis- or undercharacterized much of the work done by all the other people on the team, as I became increasingly engrossed in my relatively small role in working out the iCal -> GeoLoqi translations during the session. In any case, it was pretty amazing how much the team accomplished in such a short period of time! Amber has posted a number of photos of the HearNear application - and development effort - on Flickr, one of which I've included at the right. There were a number of other new and/or improved applications worked on other groups during the afternoon, but my note-taking energy was pretty low by the end of the day, so I'm hoping that those developments will be captured / represented elsewhere.

I wasn't sure what to expect going into the event, but was greatly impressed with the interactions, overall experience and outcomes at Data Camp Seattle. I've admired the Code for America project since first learning about it, and have been a proponent of open data and platform thinking (and doing) on my blog. It was inspiring and empowering to have an opportunity to do more than simply blog about these topics ... though I recognize the potential irony of writing that statement in a new blog post about these topics.

I suspect that one of the most durable outcomes of the Code for America project will be this kind of projection or radiation of civic empowerment through - and beyond - the efforts of the CfA fellows and their collaboration partners. In The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler writes about how "[t]he practice of producing culture makes us all more sophisticated readers, viewers, and listeners, as well as more engaged makers". In Program or Be Programmed, Doug Rushkoff warns against "relinquishing our nascent collective agency" to computers and the people who program them by engaging in "a renaissance of human capacity" by becoming programmers ourselves.

While many - or even most - of the specific applications we designed and developed during the Data Camp Seattle civic hackathon may not gain widespread traction and use, if the experience helps more of us shift our thinking - and doing - toward becoming co-creators of civic applications - and civic engagement - then the Code for America project will have succeeded in achieving some grand goals indeed.

[Update: Alex Howard (@digiphile), of O'Reilly Media, has also written a summary of the event.]


Innovation, Research & Reviewing: Revise & Resubmit vs. Rebut for CSCW 2012

cscw2012-logo Research is about innovation, and yet many aspects of the research process often seem steeped in tradition. Many conference program committees and journal editorial boards - the traditional gatekeepers in research communities - are composed primarily of people with a long history of contributions and/or other well-established credentials, who typically share a collective understanding of how research ought to be conducted, evaluated and reported. Some gatekeepers are opening up to new possibilities for innovations in the research process, and one such community is the program committee for CSCW 2012, the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work ... or as I (and some other instigators) like to call it, Computer-Supported Cooperative Whatever.

This year, CSCW is introducing a new dimension to the review process for Papers & Notes [deadline: June 3]. In keeping with tradition, researchers and practitioners involved in innovative uses of technology to enable or enhance communication, collaboration, information sharing and coordination are invited to submit 10-page papers and/or 4-page notes describing their work. The CSCW tradition of a double-blind review process will also continue, in which the anonymous submissions are reviewed by at least three anonymous peers (the program committee knows the identities of authors and reviewers, but the authors and reviewers do not know each others' respective identities). These external reviewers assess the submitted paper or note's prospective contributions to the field, and recommend acceptance or rejection of the submission for publication in the proceedings and presentation at the conference. What's new this year is an addition to the traditional straight-up accept or reject recommendation categories: reviewers will be asked to consider whether a submission might fit into a new middle category, revise & resubmit.

CSCW, CHI and other conferences have enhanced their review processes in recent years by offering authors an opportunity to respond with a rebuttal, in which they may clarify aspects of the submission - and its contribution(s) - that were not clear to the reviewers [aside: I recently shared some reflections on reviews, rebuttals and respect based on my experience at CSCW and CHI]. For papers that are not clear accepts (with uniformly high ratings among reviewers) - or clear rejects (uniformly low ratings) - the program committee must make a judgment call on whether the clarifications proposed in a rebuttal would represent a sufficient level of contribution in a revised paper, and whether the paper could be reasonably expected to be revised in the short window of time before the final, camera-ready version of the paper must be submitted for publication. The new process will allocate more time to allow the authors of some borderline submissions the opportunity to actually revise the submission rather than limiting them to only proposing revisions.

As the Papers & Notes Co-Chairs explain in their call for participation:

Papers and Notes will undergo two review cycles. After the first review a submission will receive either "Conditional Accept," "Revise/Resubmit," or "Reject." Authors of papers that are not rejected have about 6 weeks to revise and resubmit them. The revision will be reviewed as the basis for the final decision. This is like a journal process, except that it is limited to one revision with a strict deadline.

The primary contact author will be sent the first round reviews. "Conditional Accepts" only require minor revisions and resubmission for a second quick review. "Revise/Resubmits" will require significant attention in preparing the resubmission for the second review. Authors of Conditional Accepts and Revise/Resubmits will be asked to provide a description of how reviewer comments were addressed. Submissions that are rejected in the first round cannot be revised for CSCW 2012, but authors can begin reworking them for submission elsewhere. Authors need to allocate time for revisions after July 22, when the first round reviews are returned [the deadline for initial submissions is June 3]. Final acceptance decisions will be based on the second submission, even for Conditional Accepts.

Although the new process includes a revision cycle for about half of the submissions, community input and analysis of CSCW 2011 data has allowed us to streamline the process. It should mean less work for most authors, reviewers, and AC members.

The revision cycle enables authors to spend a month to fix the English, integrating missing papers in the literature, redoing an analysis, or adopt terminology familiar to this field, problems that in the past could lead to rejection. It also provides the authors of papers that would have been accepted anyway to fix minor things noted by reviewers.

This new process is designed to increase the number and diversity of papers accepted into the final program. Some members of the community - especially those in academia - may be concerned that increasing the quantity may decrease the [perceived] quality of submissions, i.e., instead of the "top" 20% of papers being accepted, perhaps as many as 30% (or more) may be accepted (and thus the papers and notes that are accepted won't "count" as much). However, if the quality of that top 30% (or more) is improved through the revision and resubmission process, then it is hoped that the quality of the program will not be adversely affected by the larger number of accepted papers presented there ... and will actually be positively affected by the broader range of accepted papers.

I often like to reflect on Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation:

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

If research - and innovation - is about experimentation, then it certainly makes sense to experiment with the ways that experiments are assessed by the research communities to which they may contribute new insights and knowledge.

BeingWrongBook There is a fundamental tension between rigorous validation and innovative exploration. Maintaining high standards is important to ensuring the trustworthiness of science, especially in light of the growing skepticism about science among some segments of the public. But scientists and other innovators who blaze new trails often find it challenging to validate their most far-reaching ideas to the satisfaction of traditional gatekeepers, and so many conferences and journals tend to be filled with more incremental - and more easily validatable - results. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as many far-reaching ideas turn out to be wrong, but I increasingly believe that all studies and models are wrong, but some are useful, and so opening up new or existing channels for reviewing and reporting research will promote greater innovation.

I'm encouraged by the breadth and depth of conversations, conversions and alternatives I've encountered regarding research and its effective dissemination, including First Monday, arXiv and alt.chi. At least one other ACM-sponsored research community - UIST (ACM Symposium on User Interface Software & Technology) - is also considering changes to their review process; Tessa Lau recently wrote about that in a blog post at the Communications for the ACM, Rethinking the Systems Review Process (which, unfortunately, is now behind the ACM paywall ... another issue relevant to disseminating research). The prestigious journal, Nature, recently wrote about the ways social media is influencing scientific research in an article on Peer Review: Trial by Twitter.

I think it is especially important for a conference like CSCW that is dedicated to innovations in communication, collaboration, coordination and information sharing (which [obviously] includes social media) to be experimenting with alternatives, and I look forward to participating in the upcoming journey of discovery. And in the interest of full disclosure, one way I am participating in this journey is as one of the Publicity Co-Chairs for CSCW 2012, but I would be writing about this innovation even if I were not serving in that official capacity.

[Update: Jonathan Grudin, one of the CSCW 2012 Papers & Notes Co-Chairs, has written an excellent overview of the history and motivations of the revise and resubmit process in a Communications of the ACM article on Technology, Conferences and Community: Considering the impact and implications of changes in scholarly communication.]