Absurdly bad bill in CA Assembly threatens to close public GIS data

A ridiculously bad bill in the California state assembly threatens to exempt Geographic Information System (GIS) data from the California Public Records Act. AB1978, sponsored by Assembly Member Jose Solorio (D-Orange County) was in response to a court ruling that declared that Santa Clara County’s base map information is public data.
Government GIS data is a valuable source of information for planning, environmental action, and many other areas of public interest. Closing this down is a step entirely in the wrong direction. The availability of public data in the internet age is creating amazing new opportunities for public participation. We need to be making more data accessible, not less.
If you live in California, call your member of the state Assembly. If you happen to live or work in Mountain View, you can be especially helpful. Your rep, Sally Lieber is on the Local Gov’t Committee where this bill is being reviewed.
For more information, see this blog post from the California First Amendment Coalition

The accessibility of online forums for public meetings

People often raise concerns about accessibility when the idea is raised to use internet technology for public meetings.
In my opinion, perceptions are lagging reality. In the latest 2006 large-scale internet study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 73% of US adults had internet access. The percent in the San Francisco Bay area was 83% back in 2003.
A decade ago, there were serious accessibility concerns. Today, internet access is mainstream. Physical attendance to a meeting poses greater accessibility barriers than online participation. Meetings in a building pose problems with people who have mobility impairments and sensory impairments, as well as people who have needs for child care or elder care.
Internet meetings surely need to be as broadly noticed as meetings in a physical building, and it would be important to accommodate people who have shared internet access for example at the library. Taking those considerations into account, I see internet forums as a way of broadening access, not limiting access.
I see local governments in this area doing a lot to try and stimulate civic participation. Local governments are also open to innovation in other areas such as green policy. So I would hope that some local governments would want to take the lead.

El Camino planning session lost in the weeds

On Thursday, I went to a meeting of the Menlo Park El Camino citizen advisory board. The consultancy hired by the city presented the material they were planning to use in the community feedback meeting this upcoming Thursday. It is supposed to be about defining a vision for Menlo Park. It skipped the vision stuff, and dived down into the details of implementing development plans. To the extent that there was any vision, it was concealed and coded. People were far to polite or politic to describe the visions that were implied by the plans.
There were two parts to the presentation. The first showed three different development scenario – minimal change, moderate change, and maximum change.
The “change” in the pictures, though, was new development and density. The first scenario showed a handful of new buildings, the second a few more, and the third showed more new, taller, bigger buildings, with a bunch of new parking lots too. There was nothing about the character and purpose of the buildings, the design of the buildings, and the way people at ground level will get around among the buildings.
And there was no supporting information to help people make these choices.There was no additional information about the impact on the number of residents, number of workers, how people would be travelling and getting around, impact on tax revenues, impact on schools.
The second part showed different plans for increasing sidewalk width, in three segments of El Camino. Should sidewalks be widened by taking space out of the building lot or the street?
What are the underlying assumptions in this presentation?
There are a bunch of empty and underutilized lots, and the open question is how much community approval there will be to build big buildings on them — not what sorts of buildings, and the character of community created by the buildings.
People want sidewalks. But sidewalks alone don’t make a neighborhood walkable! For a walkable neighborhood, you need a bunch of destinations that are close enough that people care to walk from place to place. And you need people who live and work close enough to walk, or to have a destination that is compelling enough that people will drive there and get out of their cars and walk around.
Community input is not being framed to solicit a vision for the city. Instead it is being framed to get citizen input on implementation details.
And even this input is missing a few important things. There was a Stanford representative on the panel. He said, “some of the lots are going to be occupied soon.” He didn’t say by whom and for what purpose. Ok, thanks.
What’s missing from this picture? The kinds of input we citizens can have on the process, other than being “pro-development” or “anti-development.”
Fortunately, several people on the panel raised the concern that the things that citizens we being asked to weigh in on were at the wrong level level of detail, and missing key information that will help people formulate opinion. I don’t know whether the consulting firm got the point, or if they did, have time to make the changes that would spark a more meangingful public conversation.
There were also some interesting clues about the points of view in the community. One man on the panel scoffed at the idea to add more sidewalks, since El Camino is noisy and nobody wants to walk anyway. A man in the audience talked about improving nightlife in Menlo Park, and creating more of a village.
There are at least three contrasting visions for Menlo Park:
* maximal suburbia. Minimal new development, maximal new parking lots, and expand the roads for faster traffic. Pay homage to the needs of pedestrians by adding flyover bridges and walkways, but don’t make anything anybody would walk to
* urban village. Add mixed use, transit oriented development that draws people to live, work, and play, and walk or bike when moving around town. Be a place that people want to come to.
* whatever developers can get away with. Build buildings, as big as possible, wherever they will fit, however you can get approval for them.
It would be interesting to have this conversation, but it’s pretty well hidden in the cross-section diagrams of sidewalks.

Open government geekery

So, is it legal to use a web forum or internet chat for official public discussion in California?
The plot thickens. I asked informally, through city council folk in two Bay Area cities, and got conflicting responses from city attorneys. One says it’s illegal. Another says it’s permitted but recommends that officials use the tools cautiously. And neither has provided citations in case law or administrative ruling.
Point to point email is explicitly prohibited under California’s Brown Act, which requires conversation among a quorum of public officials to occur only in public meetings. But web forums are different — unlike an email, which is visible only to the sender and recipients, tools like blogs, forums and wikis are visible to the public.
Teleconferences are permitted under the Bagley Keene act. What about web conference and chat, which are like teleconferences without a phone number, and with or without voice?
In search of some more solid legal grounding, I sent a question to these California open government watchdogs. If I don’t hear from them directly, I’ll network in.
The new tools are great ways to broaden public discourse. If they’re not legal, they should be. The first step is to find out where the law stands.
I discovered another opportunity for fixing, listening to Jon Udell’s interview of Carl Malamud on IT Conversations. Malamud’s activism was behind the publication of Edgar, and many other initiatives to make public data publicly available. In the interview, he mentioned that Congressional Committee meetings are webcast but not recorded and archived. Well, that’s wrong. Sounds like a lovely opportunity for some blog activism, sometime after election season.

Social software as a collaborative game

Ralph Koster gave an interesting talk at etech about lessons from game design for social software. There were several things that seemed right and useful.
* challenge. Overcoming challenges and learning are key to fun. Games are designed to provide a successive series of challenges. By contrast, the software design paradigm is focused on ease of use. This is right for an ecommerce site that a user uses once, but is wrong for applications that people use and learn over time.
* contextual interfaces. in a game world, the monster acts differently if you approach from the front or behind. Game designers create information architectures that present different behavior depending on context. By contrast, the software IA paradigm is about consistency.
The talk was also missing a few things, I think. His psychological model was individualistic. It was all about the individual player, and didn’t talk about the social factors – decoration, storytelling, came creation. And his social model was purely competitive. “Of course,”, he says, “people are playing the game to win. ” But people play games with a variety of motivations, and social software includes ways to play individually and collaboratively, in addition to competitively.
This topic is really interesting and needs some more fleshing out.

I liked sxsw anyway

SXSW interactive was big this year. Among the people I knew, several were dissatisfied with the atmosphere (the metaphor was flocks of grackles like the birds that make a racket in Austin) and the lack of content depth. SXSW is never the single best place for content — there are more in-depth conferences — but it is a good place to get an array of medium-level information that is of interest to web designers and developers.
Still, I enjoyed it and got a good amount out of it. I went to sessions on a few topics that I was interested in, but hadn’t been following in depth, and got some good substance plus great references. I had good conversations with several people I was happy to have met. And connected with my Austin friends.

Degreasing Social Network Portability

One of the liveliest topics at sxsw was social network portability. In a sesson on the topic, the panelists
panelists, including David Recordon, Chris Messina, and Joseph Smarr were unanimous that the value proposition of social network portability is to enable data to flow freely between services. The metaphor they used was “vaseline for the web.”
There are any number of situations where users may not want their social graphs and identities combined without friction (health support group, religious groups and other subcultures, political groups, etc). Brad Templeton, EFF board chair, got up and talked about privacy, but his message seemed to be falling on deaf ears.
After the session, Chris Messina wrote a post that may be helpful. He suggested stripping down relationships to rel=me and rel=contact. With that, finer-grained denominations of relationships, actions (notifications, publication, invitation, sharing), and permissions can be handled at the application level. This would be a very good thing.