Revisiting the Citizen Initiative

Back in November, I blogged about the Citizen Initiative — a concept entrenched in the Lisbon Treaty. I am interested in this because of its direct relevance to the world of open governance. Open governments are transparent, and invite collaboration and participation. I believe that the initiative is about making all of that possible in the EU — by creating a direct link between citizens and the institutions where it is so needed that 1 million such citizens demand it!

Beautiful.. but how will it work? And will it? Simon Busuttil, one of Malta’s MEPs wrote in The Times of Malta today and gave some insight to answer the first question. I still would like to see more people comment on how this initiaitive will exist in a world that always gives more space to the social media. Will the EU lag behind the US? Will we continue to ignore social media?

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About facebook and open government

When back in November, I blogged about the Lisbon Treaty possibly instigating a paradigm shift in public consultation, I was wondering if the European Commission would ever be forced (as in: would not have any other option!) to consider Facebook. I could see how difficult it would be if there was no means of authenticating Facebook users as being EU citizens, or if one could not prevent one citizen creating a hundred profiles!

Nothing has changed to bring a Facebook-login closer to personal authentication. But, just days ago Facebook and AOL agreed that Facebook  users could now chat with their friends right through AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). This is an achievement from Facebook’s perspective under many counts. Not least, is the one that was pointed out by Mike Melanson in his post on ReadWriteWeb:

   “The partnership reinforces the idea that our Facebook profile is at the center of our online existence. Whether or not someone is signed into AOL is no longer what’s at stake here, it’s whether or not the user is logged into Facebook.”

In January, Mike had revealed how statistics released by widget-maker Gigya showed that 65% of its traffic came from Facebook.

A look at data published by Experian shows that, for the week ending 20th February,  6.98% of visits were to Google and that this was followed closely by 6.77% of visits going to Facebook. This of course excludes the number of people that have Google as their homepage and the ones that go to Google to type “facebook” and click on the first link! The Experian data dashboard also shows that over 49% of social network hits were to Facebook. Google must have been aware of this when, on the same day as the Facebook/AOL deal they launched Buzz. I remain unimpressed by this last addition to Google’s portfolio and so I am not going to waste your time by linking to it. :)

   Fact 1:  Facebook Connect is free and easy to implement, allows any website to link to 350 million facebookers and is steadily being implemented by all those who would like to stay alive.
   Fact 2: Facebook Connect is part of the Open ID project. Simply put, OpenID allows you to use an existing login account from any participating partner to sign in to multiple websites [read more]

If Facebook Connect is becoming so important, when will it go the next level and start offering to authenticate the identity of its users? How would this affect open government initiatives?

Following the launch of the OpenGov initiative in the US, ten industry leaders (including Google) had come forward to take part in a pilot that would allow the American public to participate in Government through Web 2.0. Why is Facebook not one of them?

Open Government… open innovation?

Andrea DiMaio’s latest blogpost is critical about how much the various federal agencies in the US are being succesful in adopting the spirit of the Open Government Directive.  Different authors have given different interpretations to the motivations behind “openness” in governance, but the US directive captures it all and builds upon the three fundamental pillars of transparency, participation and collaboration.

The application of the concept of open innovation is to be applauded. Companies like Google do not only create products for use on the Web, but also live by the Enterprise 2.0 culture. Google Labs showcases a part of the company’s research portfolio while it is still at prototype stage. The company uses this method to attract feedback that would help improve the product’s usability. The open approach has also been taken by the European Commission in its Living Labs project. The idea behind the labs network is to develop a ‘beta-culture’ which engages users’ creativity through their participation in the R&D and Innovation life-cycle. The concept of open innovation offers benefits to all actors in the system, allowing users to feel empowered to influence product development and companies/institutions a larger and live test-base for validating and integrating innovation.

Back to Washington’s Open Government Directive…

Each federal agency had until the 6th February to implement an online Open Government page and many have done so using a free public dialog tool developed by the GSA. The tool allows users to submit ideas and others to deliberate on whether or not they agree — thus raising the “popularity”  of the submission. OpenGov Tracker was launched just a few weeks ago. It allows the public to be informed from one dashboard about the interest being generated in the Open Government concept.

Veteran Affairs and NASA rank at the top by attracting 124 and 121 ideas, from 79 and 71 authors, respectively. They are followed closely by EPA which clocked 96 ideas from 76 authors. My first observation is the relatively low takeup of this system (compare with Facebook).

Andrea DiMaio made another interesting observation: a particular user has submitted the same idea of webcasting all meetings to a large number of federal agencies’ ideas collection system. This same idea ranked as the most popular idea in 20 of the 21 IdeaScales that DiMaio surveyed. The data collection using GSA’s IdeaScales is based on the usage of this electronic tool which, as already highlighted above, is far from representative of the population of the United States. But bearing this constraint in mind, DiMaio’s observations remain very valid and as he rightly points out:

   “open government enthusiasts will learn from this first experience and realize that they need a tighter connection between the idea collection process and the nature and mission of individual agencies”

While Governments are relatively late-comers into the arena of open innovation, it is encouraging to note how its adoption is felt to be directly associated with the process of democratisation.

Of security in social networking…

The CISCO Global Security Report discusses current global trends and threats and makes recommendations for 2010.  The first of the five report highlights states very clearly that “Online criminals have taken advantage of the large social media following, exploiting users’ willingness to respond to messages that are supposedly from people they know and trust. ” 

The full report available for download from the CISCO website (PDF, 9.22Mb). click here

Born to farm(ville)

Farmville (Virginia, USA) had a population of 6,845 people in the year 2000. The Wikipedia article about the small and relatively unknown town of Farmville says “In 2009, the Cormier Honors Program at Longwood University created a community garden near the corner of Griffin Blvd. and High Street. This piece of land was not being used by the community or the university and the Honor Program saw it as ripe with possibilities.”

Zynga too identified an unused piece of land which was ripe with possibilities! Since Farmville‘s launch in June 2009, this Facebook simulation game has attracted a community of almost 70.5 million farms. Some of them (if brought out of the virtual world) would probably be as big as the 18sq km that makes Farmville (Virginia). I am admittedly not a keen Facebook farmer and my very humble patch of land looks like this… It’s got the basic farmland of 6 squares and two trees, two water-fountains and a goat… all donated to me as “gifts” by friendly farmers! I recently even received a holiday tree.

The player controls the game through an avatar that can be personalised to resemble the player :)  Land, buildings, tools, seeds, ornaments etc… can be purchased with Farmville money which is earned by putting effort into growing crops and rearing animals on one’s farm. Land and resources, for those that cannot afford the time, is also available for hard cash at 10$ for a wad of 55 Farm cash. This much would get you a good start in the agri-business (a hundred times bigger than mine!) consisting of a “big family farm” with 18×18 squares and a “plantation” of 20×20 squares. Discounts are available every now and again… then a wad of 240 Farm cash is slashed from $40 to $32 and the 55Fc for 8$ (instead of $10)!

The concept of Farmville is not new. I am old enough to have played Simcity 2000 ( in 1993/4) and vaguely remember its precursor Simcity on Commodore 64. Farmville followed myFarm and Farmtown, both farm-simulation games for Facebook. About a month ago, Zynga followed the success of Farmville with another simulation game… now called Fishville. The interface is very similar to Farmville, making it fairly easy for Zynga to make of it another quick winner.

I will close this post with some interesting numbers: The Holiday Tree was announced by Farmville admin on the 04 Dec. At the time of writing this post, over 46,000 people had “Liked” this and over 50,000 left a comment!

Does all this have any relevance when looking at engaging people in truly creating better societies? (instead of just playing at farmers and building imaginary aquariums!!)

Facebook active users vs. EP voter turnout

I started writing this post just after reading the Facebook message from Marc Zuckerberg (the founder). Then I had to save it in draft and return to it today… It may be slightly passe` but I still wanted to share this thought!

Facebook runs into its fifth year of existence with a network of 350 million users. That is almost as big as the voting population for elections of the European Parliament in 2009. The biggest difference however, is that this collection of people has a voice that can speak up without needing a middleman. Facebook was 300 million users just two and a half months earlier. Even if its growth rate seems to have slighlty slowed down, it will be as big as the voting population for the European Parliament in a matter of months.

And yet, the June 2009 elections are probably the largest trans-national democratic vote ever made possible in recorded history — at least according to the BBC’s Q&As. The most important statistic however is the new record low turnout for these elections: one which brought less than half of the eligible 375 million persons to the polls. This can and should be compared by those at the helms of politics worldwide with the active participation in the Facebook network. As I write this post, and according to the official Facebook statistics:

  • 50% of the 350 million users log on every day;
  • 20% of them update their status (55 million updates for each of the 35 million who choose to do so);
  • on average a user spends more than 55 minutes on Facebook every day; and
  • clicks on the “Like” button on 9 pieces of content each month!

The European Parliament Digital Trends report drawn by Fleishman Hillard shows a staggering reality of 62% of MEPs who had never heard about Twitter, even if 75% of them have a website! Only 24% use a blog, and only a quarter (26%) of these blogging MEPs, actually comment on blogs other than their own! This reminded me of one of the quotes that were running on a big screen at the eGovernment Conference in Sweden… A website is so dot-com, get a platform! (author cannot be credited because I can’t remember who it was!) This is so true and, yet so unappreciated.

The most active online users have gotten away from websites and are participating in the creation of rich content. The significance of social media is not in being online but in having an active participatory role. Fleishman Hillard’s report concludes that “Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) recognize that EU citizens go online and that they therefore need a web presence. However, the majority of MEPs do not currently take full advantage of social media tools as a means to engage with voters and drive them to their websites.”

I checked the realtime stats on Europatweets whilst writing this post and just over 60 hashed tweets had been recorded in the last 24 hours.

The convergence of media on to the Internet is changing the social landscape by the minute and it is good to note that there is awareness of this amongst politicians. But what has been achieved in Europe to date has not even scraped the surface!