Sep 09

Congress Camp: On real-time news, events and Congress

I was privileged to moderate a session on the effect of the real-time Web on the United States Congress today at Congress Camp. Congress Camp is an innovative unconference that brought together technologists, Congressional staffers, open government advocates and citizens here in Washington, D.C. Based upon the lively discussion and interaction in the audience, I’d judge the session a success. I was grateful for the opportunity and learned much more than I contributed — a perfect outcome.

What changes because of real-time?

“No sleep.” At least one person in the audience feels pressure to keep up with constantly tracking news. When he awoke, he needed to check replies to catch up.

Determining what is important in in the context of constant, escalating noise is also a serious and growing challenge.

Disaster tracking is both an opportunity and a challenge. The example of the recent wild fires in California came up, particularly the use of social media to track the #StationFire and aggregate resources in the absence of adequate coverage from local news media. The challenges of discerning the truth of breaking reports contributed by non-official sources is also at issue, like evidenced by reports of shots on the Potomac from a recent Coast Guard training exercise.

Open questions raised for debate:

What should the outcome of using real-time platforms for Congressional offices be?

Does linking to blogs posts or retweeting others mean a Congressional office is validating the views expressed therein?

Should the digital outposts of government agencies, representatives or, crucially, investigative bodies, law enforcement officers and regulators, follow back people or friend them?

Does following constitute an endorsement?

One interesting answer posited to that last question is that by not following anyone, transparency is preserved since private messages cannot generally be sent without that action.

(If you have answers to these questions, by all means chime in in the comments.)

Issues for further thought:

Fact-checking, validation of identity, authentication and sourcing in real-time are elemental challenges for journalists and staffers alike, to say nothing of citizens. Expertise and wisdom matter but judging the veracity of opinions is difficult for everyone.

Congressional hearings represent an opportunity to gather feedback in real-time. That said, those testifying need better tools to filter, aggregate, analyze and ask then ask good questions in return. The cycle of feedback also stretches from real-time platforms to users to blogs and then on to law firms. The need for “real-time,” in this context, is created in bursts.

Validation of government accounts is a growing need. One attendee said that a Congressional office had emailed @Carolineat Twitter and heard back that as the “account was not likely to be impersonated,” the need for validation wasn’t pressing. Correct, verifiable attribution is a need for constituents, journalists and Congress alike.

Disinformation in real-time is a legitimate risk. #IranElection was raised as an example by a member of the conferee. Hashtag spam is also a problem for trending events.

The issue of closed circles of advisers, consultants and aides making policy decisions outside of the public eye also arose. The tension between gathering information from a district’s constituents versus involving the Web as a whole was clear, however, given that accountability and political realities meant staffers needed to target their listening efforts with care. Given that no one has a monopoly on good ideas, however, casting a broad net for feedback has significant utility for gathering sentiment analysis or technical solutions.

Real-time may also mean that offices need both to re-engineer business processes and re-allocate internal resources to monitor and contribute to the stream of news or risk missing important information.

There’s an opportunity for staffers and media alike to aggregate information about events, opinions and issues, and then collaborate with the online audience for editing the results. Even institutions like the New York Times can be challenges by large, complex events, however, so community management is a growing need.

One potential area where the online audience could be of particular use is crowdsourcing the process of reading a bill. Constituents and other people online can help to read and flag issues with bills, which could be extremely useful if and when short time lines between submission and votes crop up.


Use government as a platform, as discussed at the Gov 2.0 movement.

Use the persistence of accounts, history of links and the trust of the community as a measure when decided to attribute or pass on information in real-time, including interaction with community.

Use hashtags to organize conversations, with clear definition and communication about the choice before initiating.

Pull the RSS feed of those discussions back into blogs in sidebars, or wikis.

Aggregate those conversations, comments and wikis in a permanent, persistent place. Twitter search, for instance, does not stick around.

Provide means for constituents to create tools. Apps for America from the Sunlight Foundation is an example of this method.


is a directory of government Twitter accounts.

Govtrack.us suggests and tracks hashtags for bills, like #HR2221.

Memeorandum tracks conversations in the blogosphere.

Really Simple Syndication (RSS). Congressional offices and many other agencies are already released documents into feeds.

Use Google Reader to track relevant feeds and subscribe to persistent searches for certain hashtags.

OpenCongress has a wealth of resources, including the ability to moderate comments up and down

Google Moderator can be used to solicit feedback and provides a way for users to vote on suggestions for questions in virtual town halls.

Partnering with media organizations, like the Wall Street Journals, can help filter for good questions for Congressmen in a useful forum, with built-in distribution.

Google Alerts can be used for targeted phrases, like the names of bills, staffers or representatives.

Tweetbeep is like Google Alerts, except for Twitter.

Driving questions or feedback from social media platforms back to landing pages where constituents can send authenticated feedback is a way to validate identity. Interested parties can also be linked to wikis to help curate information about events or issues.


The real-time Web offers challenges, opportunities and many novel scenarios for citizens and Congress alike. Issues of identity, veracity and transparency are substantial and will need careful attention and consideration. That said, there’s a large body of conversation and engaged electorate that can be tapped into for collaboration.

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Sep 09

Photos from Today

I’ve added the photos I took today on flickr.




Sep 09

Creating Citizen 2.0 Mural


Sep 09

Closing Thoughts From Day 1

  • Broadening the citizen understanding of issues that staffers face
  • Understanding major tools that people are using now
  • Cultural challenges & how to evangelize about selling new media tools
  • Balancing the personal and the political
  • Why some Hill offices have not yet upgraded to newest technology
  • Digital divide and who needs to be included, also how to do this
  • How constituents can utilize new media tools to organize & communicate their concerns about foreign policy
  • How to effectively balance online tools with on-the-ground “real world” advocacy
  • How organizations can leverage new media tools to effect change, especially with a limited budget
  • Best Practices with new media
  • Open Standards/metadata standards
  • Tools and strategies for monitoring the effectiveness of what you’re doing with social media
  • Why are only 7 percent of people using twitter and how to get more people on board
  • Actual presentations from Hill staffers
  • Addressing cultural and structural challenges that Hill staffers face
  • Citizen 2.0 How to empower constituents to utilize new media tools
  • Steps to make it real! How to transform the process into actual tangible change
  • Using facebook and twitter as an institution rather than just an individual
  • Outreach and sharing- verbally spreading knowledge about new media tools
  • Which tools will staffers actually use on a day-to-day basis, practical application of new media tools
  • The Way Forward: Realistic Path for how to take action
  • The missing layer of abstraction on the web: business and legal layers & how they match up with the technology layers, and also including the sociocultural layer

Sep 09

Effective Efficient Advocacy Mural

Advocacy Mural

Sep 09

Twitter + Congress Mural


Sep 09

Happy Hour Info

Tonic @ Quigley’s Pharmacy
2036 G St.
3rd Floor

Sep 09

NOTES: News + Real-time + Congress =?

NOTES: News + Real-time + Congress =?

Hash tags are a very useful in organizing and grouping information and feeds
Can set up Google reader and other RSS readers to follow hash tags. Much more reliable and effective than twitter search. Can set up Google new alerts for hash tags too.
The strategy is more important than the tools, because the tools change and evolve.

Hash tags can be easily be abused by spammers. Big event like the Iran protests. Spammers got on the hash tags and Iranian Intelligence starting putting false information into the hash tag stream and were retweeted.

What is the goal of the dialogue?

Identity of social media accounts? Consistency over time builds a personal history that leads to validity and creditability.

Verified twitter accounts. House leadership has attempted to be verified, but twitter has refused in some cases because the accounts are unlikely to impersonated. Should the congressional community themselves verify accounts by keeping a congressional list.

Hash tagging bills has been started by govtrack.us

What is the point of crowdsourcing legislation?
-Why crowdsource reading bills? Capitalize on value of collective intelligence, catalyze citizen engagement, etc.

What things should elected officials post?
-Post it all and see what people are looking at and commenting on?

The key for congressional offices is validation of address to ensure they are communicating with constituents.

Do you think a congressperson should friend everyone who friends them?
-some no
-some yes
-they should who that find helpful and useful
-the official account should follow everyone who follows them to build a conversation
-can follow hash tags and keywords to follow and be involved in the conversation
-if you follow someone, it allows non-transparent communication through Direct messaging

Sep 09

Creating Citizen 2.0

Creating Citizen 2.0

How to engage citizens?
How do we cultivate “civic-mindedness?”
What does accountability really mean? What do you people want?
How do officials move forward and differentiate spam from real email?
How do we make citizen engagement habitual?
Noise vs. Signal
Make people feel important
Making meaningful motivation

Important to remember that each member of congress is basically their own small business.

A significant portion of the population is still not computer literate.
Is government getting a representative cross section of America? Should the goal be to engage everyone or focus on those who are already engaged online?

Sometimes it takes monumental external events like 9/11 to get people interested and involved.

People also dont get engaged sometimes do to thinking they can’t make a difference.

The big event drives online action. For instance, this week, Rep. Joe Wilson. Advocacy groups are the ones best at capitalizing on these moments at this point.

Perhaps efforts are best spent focusing on the 20% engaged as opposed to attempting to engage the 80% not engaged.

Big events trigger engagement, but usually only last a few days.

Getting and using the Long Tail.

What’s the biggest challenge?
-getting people to know how to contribute? Maybe Congressional offices should direct questions to constituents? The key is to have the constituents set the debate and become engaged.

Tools can be built to engage constituent blogs with congressional offices.

Excellent example: Sen. Claire McCaskill, “I’m online and I want to hear from you.”

What is the goal of members of congress for online interaction? Members likely prefer quality over quantity.

Mayor of Newark Cory Booker on twitter. Communicates on twitter with constituents and sends out motivational tweets. Comes across as genuine and very well engages constituents. Twitter allows him to reengage with constituents himself and not through staff.

Is the goal having the conversation or influencing the policy? Both it engages influences and creates a relationship through trust and familiarity.

Whose voices are actually heard by elected officials on twitter?

Is twitter’s structure helpful or detrimental? Is it dangerous to manage by twitter for elected official? What are possible consequences?

People are going to engage when they are fired up. How do engage people at this point and have it be constructive.

How do you structure the input coming in so everyone is heard and it can be used as opposed to hearing the same people over and over again?

Are people not engaged because they don’t know how to?

Americans tend to only be interested in things that directly affect us. Young people don’t pay a lot of attention to Social Security issues.

When do Congressmen want to hear from constituents during the legislative process? Answer from staffer: There are many opportunities for constituents to contact the Member and timing does matter.

3 Summary points:

-Elected officials should be proactive in soliciting constituents’ opinions
-Citizens should be also be proactive in contacting elected officials
-The structure of the debate is very important to the debate.

Sep 09

What we gonna do at Camp?

law_of_two_feetWe are looking forward to everyone coming to CongressCamp tomorrow.

We have wonderful facilites and a great topic:

Transforming citizen engagement with Congress through social media and collaboration tools.

The **preliminary** schedule

We encourage eveyone to be a session leader… here is a guide for you… don’t be shy… it’s easy to do!

Bring your blogs, wikis, Twitter and Facebook accounts and laptop or mobile device. We are going to connect, communicate and share our knowledge.  See you at the Camp site.