Jared Duval on Open Source Democracy (Podcast)

TreeHugger: A lot of Barack Obama's presidential campaign--and the promise of his presidency--included the types of open source trends that you write about. But have things really started to change in Washington, or has the promise been out-stripped by the reality?

Duval: In terms of government being like an open API, some of that is certainly happening. whitehouse.gov enables anybody to see who is meeting with who in the administration. Every meeting in the West Wing is tracked and anybody can access that. Freedom of Information Act requests have been speeded up since the Bush administration. With new websites like data.gov and recovery.gov, folks are able to see how the stimulus money, for instance, is being spent and track that.

So I do think that is a big step forward. That said, just releasing government data and having things be more transparent is the bare minimum in terms of realizing the true promise of what the open source movement is all about. The other principals, beyond transparency, are participation and collaboration. And until we enable some of our best and brightest citizens to participate directly in problem solving efforts and policy making, then I think that we're really missing out.

One of the ways this is happening locally is a website called SeeClickFix, which is built on a Google Maps platform. It allows anyone in the world to go on and report non-emergency issues in their community.

It could be a pothole, a misleading street sign, or it could be a street that doesn't have any trees and people say, "hey, we should do a tree planting here." You can post pictures, you can post video, other people can post comments. It's this public log of issues and challenges in a community that folks can then go on and say, "I care about this too," and vote it up. They can make sure that their elected leaders get alerts about these things. I live in the city where this started, New Haven, Connecticut, and it's changing the civic culture in amazing ways.

SeeClickFix talks about its mission as turning residents into citizens, from the passive complaint-based to the proactive, more responsible approach. It's amazing to see folks not only just go on a website and say, "well there should be more trees in this section of town. Somebody do something about it." But say, "hey this is a problem and I'm willing to help fix it. Let's get together and do a tree planting next weekend." That's what happened and New Haven in part facilitated by this website, SeeClickFix. It's happening increasingly all over the United States and around the world as well.

TH: Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in the New Yorker not long ago about how Twitter doesn't create revolutions, and why the revolution will not be tweeted. If Malcolm Gladwell were to pose that argument to you, how would you respond?

Duval: I would say that I don't think it's an accurate comparison to talk about the tool as though it's the end. I don't think any organizer worth their salt, who happens to use Twitter or Facebook to supplement their organizing efforts in the real world offline, thinks of those tools as ends in and of themselves.

Of course effective organizing has always and will always continue to be about deep personal relationships. But just because you use Facebook or Twitter doesn't mean that those relationships go away. It just enables you to extend your network beyond the people you already have deep relationships with and connect more efficiently and effectively with circles of people outside of that immediate group.

Facebook and other online social networks enable people who already do have those deep connections to stay in touch more quickly and easily. So I think that focusing on the tools is really misleading. Online organizing or using online tools for off-line organizing can be effective or it can be ineffective. But I don't think that just by virtue of using them or not, it somehow determines whether the result is effective and meaningful.

TH: I often wonder if the information age is making our knowledge a mile wide and an inch deep, as they say. Do you worry about this?

Duval: I do. And I think it's important to have many different kinds of knowledge and access to information. One of the reasons that I wrote this book, Next Generation Democracy, is because I think that there is something unique and important and powerful, both for a writer and for a reader, to take the time to read a book-length work and immerse yourself in it. That kind of sustained attention and thought, and the act of doing it in a solitary way, I think, allows for a kind of creativity and thoughtfulness that can't happen if you're just consuming information in small, blog-sized chunks or five-minute sound bites.

But I don't think one is inherently better than the other. It just depends for what purpose. I think it's really important to have a mix of where you get your information from and what that kind of medium is. For instance, a combination of reading book-length work and magazine articles and shorter blogs. I use Twitter to give me a sense of what's happening. But I don't just stop at that 140-character description of current events. I follow links and then find out more. It's just a start.

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