During the last portion of Sunday's WAAA2007 schedule we split up into groups again, but this time more focused along lines of expertise. The technology experts convened separately, and led by Dick Hardt, we brainstormed about what we needed to find out in order to start building, and what could we think of building off the tops of our heads to help with the stated goals and use cases.
In addition to the previously mentioned techniques for open and reliable publishing, we also discussed the following important capabilities:
As our group lead, Dick Hardt provided the summaries of the above points which we had recorded both on the wiki as part of the Sunday Group Notes, and on paper sheets which you can see in the photo provided.
The workshop closed with lunch and informal discussions / reflections, which was a very pleasant way to end a conference, and unique - I don't remember any other conferences offhand which ended with a meal. Perhaps the effect was purely psychological, but somehow ending with a sharing of food and conversation felt particularly bonding and unifying.
At the end of the workshop we took a short video where nearly everyone (or perhaps everyone, I couldn't quite see everyone myself) raised their hands in affirmation of a commitment to help continue the efforts and work we started during the workshop. I'm sure that each of us will play a different role and provide respective contributions in our areas of expertise.
You can see for yourself on the wiki that substantial work has happened (and continues) since the workshop.
As it was made clear to me that clarifying and promoting recipes for open and reliable publishing is key to many of the stated goals, that's the area that I've decided to focus on.
In particular, aspects of online social networking were mentioned throughout the workshop, and as soon as the weekend after, fellow workshop participants Joseph Smarr, Brad Fitzpatrick and I attended BarCampBlock and led several related sessions: microformats community meetup, opening the social graph, and social network portability today.
Thus my contributions to the goals of the workshop will likely come from my focus on developing and advancing microformats for both social network portability, and for data formats that commenting/discussion systems require, such as hCard for people and organizations, hCalendar for events, hReview for commentary/reviews, hAtom for syndicating episodic information, and a citation microformat for easier publication and discovery of references for discussion purposes.
For further reading see more posts on the "We Are All Actors" workshop:
While I certainly applaud the various goals discussed during the WAAA2007 workshop, I couldn't help but think that smaller steps are first required to at least move us in the direction of the longer term goals.
Open discussions about the Federal budget, or anything government related, requires first of all, open and reliable publication of the information that is to be discussed.
Open and reliable can mean many things in this context, so those of us who were more technically inclined pointed out the following key steps that anyone can take towards open and reliable publishing in today's world:
If every government site had to publish all their documents as above, that would go a long way towards providing a foundation for open discussions.
HTML is readily repurposable with all the parsers and tools out there (as compared to proprietary formats).
Publishing on the public web with URLs that don't change means bloggers, forum users etc. can then link to what they are specifically discussing. Link aggregation search engines like Technorati or Google Blog Search can tell you who is talking about what.
Publishing at URLs 70 characters or less helps the reliable transmissability of those pointers to your pages thru various media like email etc.
Finally, given the length of many documents published by governments, marking up each section, heading, and even paragraph with a unique
id attribute enables people to link to a specific section or paragraph that they want to comment on.
Once you have that foundation of open and reliably published data, you enable both anyone on the Web to comment on them immediately using existing blogging tools, but more importantly, you enable the creation of a new generation of perhaps government-specific (or even budget specific) discussing tools (e.g. www.govtrack.us) which can simply use permalinks to official resources as the targets of their discussions.
Years of formal professional experience with developing data formats (from when I started on OpenDoc at Apple in 1992, to working on XHTML2 in the W3C) taught me a lot about what worked and what didn't. By analyzing my personal experiences and data format efforts out there in the wild I discovered a number of commonly shared implicit assumptions. With additional analysis I was able to determine which of these assumptions led to failures, or very slow adoption, or perhaps simply unnecessary friction on an otherwise good idea. From the beginning of when I first coined the word "microformats" and introduced it at O'Reilly's ETech conference in 2004 with Kevin Marks, I openly not only questioned numerous assumptions, but stated their inverses as design principles.
In my conversation on the van ride over on the second day of the WAAA2007 workshop, I told the gentleman from the New York Times that the core ideas behind microformats were about inverting several conventional assumptions, and proceeded to list the ones that came to mind:
Most folks at the WAAA2007 conference were users, that is, they knew the basics of using computers, the Web etc., but you couldn't necessarily assume they knew how to edit a wiki (though pretty much everyone had heard of Wikipedia). To the average user, technology is a complex black box that seems to work most of the time. There is also a perception that doing technical things is a lot of work and takes a lot of time.
One of the earliest questions I asked the first day (shortly after Silona announced the "tag" for the conference) was something like: where can we collaboratively take notes and otherwise share thoughts about the conference in real-time? There wasn't really an official answer so I followed up with shall I set up a wiki? Whereupon Silona said, yes a PBWiki, how about waaa.pbwiki.com? Could you set that up she asked, looking at me. I'll take care of it I said. Merely a few minutes later (after creating an email alias, and setting up the aforementioned PBWiki) I looked at her and said "It is done. We have waaa.pbwiki.com."
Later on another participant expressed dislike for the term "transparent budget" because that doesn't help you actually see it, and preferred something that indicated making it more visible, understandable, like "illuminated budget". The immediate reaction in people's faces showed that that phrase had clearly resonated with the crowd. Silona made an executive decision, looked at me again and asked, "could you grab illuminatedbudget.com org and net?". "I'm on it".
Moments later I had picked up illuminatedbudget.com, illuminatedbudget.net, and illuminatedbudget.us and redirected them to the aforementioned wiki. I interrupted whatever was being discussed (us technology types have the unconventional habit of communicating via interrupts) and said outloud: "We've got illuminatedbudget.com, .net, .us and they're live, redirecting to the wiki."
In both cases, these brief exchanges happened during all group sessions, and I thought that was important, just so that everyone (especially the not as technical folks) could see with a real-time practical demonstration just how efficient you can be with technology. I'm hoping that removes the fear and perception of difficulty of technology from at least a few folks.
I remember being similarly inspired when at a rock concert at the Warfield in the early/mid 1990s, I happened upon the band's online techs who were monitoring the streaming audio (maybe even postage-stamp video IIRC) feed as well as updating their website in realtime with new content by typing in HTML directly into a terminal window. This was before any of the
crappypopular WYSIWYG HTML editors, no looking up tags in a reference book/pamphlet, they were typing in HTML off the tops of their heads!
Mostly just hyperlinks but even then just watching someone type
<a href="http://..." without so much as pausing amidst a bunch of prose made me realize, this isn't code, this is just hypertext. I had just started writing HTML myself and was still looking up tags/examples in books (or at a minimum copying and pasting even small bits of markup) when I needed to write the "codes". Not anymore. At that very moment I committed
<a href="..." to memory and pursued the goal of becoming a fluent hypertext reader and writer.
It was very much an "a-ha" moment, where I realized that any literate person could learn to write hypertext. Later I would realize how much this "human authorability" of HTML helped with its success. Even later still, I played a small part in encouraging at least one or two informal group meetups on hypertext literacy. Now that so many website interfaces (in particular commenting interfaces and wikis) allow at least some HTML markup, any literate person not only can learn to be hypertext literate, but should.
One of the WAAA2007 attendees commented at the reception dinner that everyone seemed so nice, and this was no coincidence. All the attendees were hand picked by Silona not only for their areas of experience and expertise, but also their overall friendliness and nice demeanor. Almost certainly as a result, the discussions were very respectful, and rarely was a voice raised.
This conference and a few recent blog posts have underscored the importance (and frankly, efficiency) of being civil when discussing topics, developing technologies, etc. One effective method for keeping things civil is to simply not invite trolls and other negative (e.g. drama-ridden) people to your discussions. Obviously in open forums / online communities that can be more difficult, and in those you need mechanisms for swiftly identifying, banning, and otherwise filtering out negative behaviors. I've had a bunch of personal experiences with this recently which I'll write about more in a later follow-up.
For now here is my summary advice: focus most of your time on the people that are nice (or overall clear net positives), some of your time on people who are neutral (or unclear if they are net positive or negative), and no more than 1% of your time on people who are mean (or net negatives). This explicit distribution of time will likely take considerable proactive effort on your part, as once you start analyzing how much time you spend on whom, you'll likely realize that the net negatives end up soaking up most of your time (and emotional energy / attention span for that matter) by default. You will almost certainly need to take firm steps to reduce the time you spend both with such individuals, and even thinking about them, and then be sure to fill that time by both thinking about and spending time with nice people.
The We Are All Actors workshop (WAAA2007) was quite the interesting mix of individuals. In addition to contributing to the discussions as one of the invited technical experts, I learned some things about the complexities of not only the federal budget itself, but the process by which it is revised.
Apart from the scheduled subject matter, there were a number of other things I noticed worth calling out which I will briefly list here but are worthy of their own blog posts
(which I'll subsequently link to once posted).
WAAA2007 was one of the more unique conference/workshop experiences I have ever had and I think a large portion of that had to do with the wide variety of session formats over the course of the two days.
On the morning of the first day we watched both a video message from Bill Bradley on governmental transparency, and a video interview of Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia (who was interviewed by Eddie Codel) on community based solutions, pausing after each for a few minutes of open discussion which provided a very good starting pace. I found both video messages quite fascinating — each provided both high level visionary suggestions and specific design suggestions. E.g. Jimmy Wales suggested requiring login to participate in the system (without specifying how in particular, e.g. site-specific or OpenID), but not any form of required identification, that is, explicitly permit people to create and use of pseudonyms which can gain/lose reputation all on their own.
Given the division of the workshop schedule into "Acts" I thru III, and "Actors" in the title, it didn't take much to see the pattern. In the afternoon of the first day, volunteers were tapped from the audience to play "roles" and speak to provided scripts. The scenes were clearly written to make points thru the use of story-telling thru re-enactment. A clever and certainly entertaining technique which however did leave me wondering exactly how much the scenes were based on actual anecdotes vs. crafted to represent hypothetical scenarios. My skepticism made it difficult to connect with the implied use-cases. To be fair, the authors provided disclaimers about how the scenes were merely intended to be illustrative.
The thespian theme continued into the evening with a Shakespearian themed dinner complete with Renaissance Faire attired live music. With a belly-dancer and theremin set (separately) thrown in for good measure, which was about right for the city.
See the Group Notes from Saturday on the wiki for more details of the specific discussions / sessions.
Every conference has its hallway discussions. Given the relatively small size (around 50 participants I think) and fairly participatory nature of the sessions, there wasn't quite as much impetus for side discussions. There were maybe only one or two of us in the IRC backchannel at any particular point in time.
However, since many of us were from out of town and staying in the same hotel, the organizers shuttled us back and forth from the LBJ Library in a big group transport van. The rides were just long enough for those of us sitting tightly three to a row to strike up brief conversations about topics relating to the conference.
On the Sunday morning ride to the workshop, I ended up sitting next to and speaking with a gentleman from the New York Times who told me he had heard about microformats, was already interested in implementing them, and wanted me to tell him the ideas behind microformats and how microformats came about.
I told the gentleman from the New York Times that the core ideas behind microformats were about inverting several conventional assumptions, and proceeded to list the ones that came to mind.
And with that, I will expand upon the earlier points I listed, following which I'll wrap up with a summary of the final group discussions and next steps from the workshop.
This weekend I'm at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin Texas participating in the We Are All Actors workshop on the Transparent Federal Budget project (TFB) with the stated goal of increasing
the transparency and accountability of our political processes. It's a fascinating mix of people representing a good variety of perspectives and expertises: standards bearers, techies, users, data brokers, nonprofits, businesses, and role models.
I'm here to contribute to the key aspects noted at the top of the We are All Actors website (emphasis mine):
Discovering and Encouraging Open Standards for our Open Source / Free Social Network. I'm certainly going to be making sure to inform folks about the burgeoning work on social network portability. Lots of great folks here who are also helping move forward the vision of a portable social network: Brad Fitzpatrick, Dick Hardt, Joseph Smarr, and many others.
Appropriately making a meta-point in the interest of transparency, the workshop organizers have setup this live Windows Media stream where you can watch our workshop on the transparent federal budget project as it happens.
I'm also here in the unofficial backchannel: #waaa on irc.freenode.net.
It feels a little surreal to have been blogging for five years. I cannot imagine what it must be like for those that have been blogging for 10+ years, like Jeffrey Zeldman, one of the original sources of inspiration that finally got me to start blogging.
This blog has survived two jobs, two long term relationships, and so far, the emergence of "Web 2.0". At the time I thought I was one of the last folks to start blogging, and yet there are probably more than 100x blogs now (>~80M) than there were then (<0.8M).
How I blog has changed dramatically since my first post five years ago.
I used to regularly read the news on Yahoo.com, actually, specifically, the most popular news in the past 24 hours (link now redirects to a generic "popular news" page, whereas it used to give you options of 24hrs, 48hrs, 7days etc.) and link to / comment on what I thought were interesting stories, as a substitute for emailing them.
At some point I realized that the vast majority of news stories were merely appealing to lowest common denominator emotional triggers and thus abandoned that particular daily habit. However, I've taken a strongly renewed interest in reducing my use of email in preference to other methods of communication.
In addition to news commentary, I also wrote a little about the few things I worked on (at the time) which had a web presence, namely web standards (in particular, for advancing CSS) at the W3C, something which I continued to work on for several years after. My participation with W3C started waning after I left Microsoft (where I was an official W3C representative) in 2004 and shortly afterwards joined Technorati (where I continued contributing to W3C as an invited expert).
At Technorati I started to focus on standards for data and semantics more than style. However, I've certainly missed working with the folks in the W3C CSS Working Group (not to mention other smart folks involved with W3C) and now that I've "transitioned out of" my fulltime role at Technorati to spend more time on the microformats.org community, I'm strongly considering re-engaging with the CSS Working Group as well, if for nothing else to contribute some time to help advance some of those Candidate Recommendations (CRs) that I've worked on in the past (a few of which were CRs when I linked to them five years ago).
But first and foremost I'm focused on the microformats community, and currently the growing effort to enable portable social networks through open data formats. See the wiki for the latest and read Brian Oberkirch's excellent series of blog posts for the narrative.
Looking at the past five years, I actually find it quite difficult to predict what the next five years will bring, even the next year. I've been struggling just to keep up with the incredible growth and adoption that microformats have been experiencing, and sometimes just working out the logistics for speaking arrangements can be daunting and take forever (I know, good problems to have, to be sure). I'll be finalizing details on a few in the next couple of days so stay tuned.
Until then, go check out BarCampBlock, the 2nd anniversary of BarCamp, being planned by none other than BarCamp veterans Tara Hunt, Chris Messina, Ross Mayfield, Liz Henry, and as of a few days ago, yours truly as well. I'm excited to be working with such great people (in many cases, again), and hope you can make it.