Isn’t There A Better Way To Build Government Software?

The awful performance of has been a staple of the news as well as satire.  This cartoon in the New Yorker this week sums of the frustration of users –

I normally don’t like to comment on hot news stories, but this one offers just too much of a teachable moment, especially for public officials who are not technologists, yet who will suffer public criticism when things go bad.

It’s worth noting that this is not the only case of Federal IT system problems.  Before, the great cost and the long delays of the FBI case management system were in the news.  And, not to be outdone, New York City had a major scandal with its timekeeping system, both for the huge cost (close to $750 million) and the fact that there was a significant amount of that money diverted into the personal pockets of the project staff.

Indeed, costly and disastrous software projects are not just found in the public sector.  It only seems so because the public sector problems are more visible thanks to taxpayer funding, whereas the private sector can keep its mistakes better hidden.

In part, this review of bad projects reminds me of an old line in IT project management.  “Of the three goals of any the project – being within budget, on time, and of good quality – you’re usually only going to get two, but not all three.”  But, for the Affordable Care Act, is none of the three some kind of trifecta?

Part of the problem is that these projects cost way too much money.  That’s often because of rules intended to ensure everything is above board and serves the taxpayers’ interest, but which have the reverse effect.  And so ultimately, the purpose of the procurement rules is, as a well-intentioned government attorney once told me, to follow the rules – not necessarily to get maximum value for the taxpayers.  The big companies that dominate Federal technology projects have learned to master these rules and not necessarily do the best job.  Their reputations are also victims of this focus on process, rather than outcomes.

Another reason for the bloating of these projects is simple ego.  Some top executives have the belief that big important projects should have big budgets. 

Unfortunately, this attitude fails to distinguish the cost of writing the software from deploying it.  The cost of software development does not increase much if the number of users is 100 or 100,000. 

Obviously, the cost of deploying that software will increase in a linear fashion the more people who use it because the deployment may require more servers, more complex database arrangements, etc.

But spending hundreds of millions just to develop the software is usually unjustified.

So what can be done by executives who have to deliver new systems to the public, but feel they are enveloped in a fog of technical jargon so don’t question things until it’s too late.

Consider these alternative ways of handling software projects, none of which is really new, but seem to be not well known to non-technologists in both government and elsewhere:

  • Adopt the agile approach – this means having frequent deliverables and thus taking advantage of learning by users and developers.  It stands in contrast to the traditional practice of big requirements documents and all at once delivery of mammoth amounts of code.
  • Frequent testing, which is also a part of the agile approach.  It’s so important that some people build the test before the software.  After all, proof of the pudding is in the eating and it’s useful to know you’re off course earlier rather than later.
  • Parameterize.  This is something you don’t hear too much about, but it’s something I’ll mention here because some of the vendors blamed their problems on changes in Federal decision making about whether users need to register first.  I would always tell my development staff this simple rule – if the debate about whether some requirement should be X or Y will take longer to resolve than it takes to program it both ways, then program it both ways by creating a parameter that will switch the system one way or the other.  Don’t let these debates hold up progress of software development.  (By the way, if the debate is that hot, there is good reason to expect the decision to change in the future, which will cost more money in future programming.  So parameterize and let the decision makers argue and change their minds as much as they want.)
  • Gradual scaling – don’t roll out a big new piece of software to the whole world at once.  (Do we really need to say this?)  If the scale of deployment is expected to be a possible problem, why not minimize the problem by taking it in several steps and, again, learning what needs to be improved.  Even experienced Broadway veterans try out the show on the road first.
  • Simplify deployments by using a scalable infrastructure.  There’s much discussion about “the cloud”, which is really just a good marketing term for the vast scale of computing resources available over the Internet.  Use it instead of trying to reinvent this vast scale, which is impossible for any organization, no matter big.  Many Internet businesses you’ve dealt with use these resources to handle peak demand or initial rollouts. 

I could go on, but these guidelines are normally enough to keep your next big systems project out of the headlines.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


New Soft Cities

Carl Skelton is my colleague and co-founder of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse and former director of the Experimental Media Center at NYU/Polytechnic Institute.

He has written a book about the Betaville open source project that enables residents of a city to collaborate and participate in urban design and planning.  But it’s more than just about the history and role of the Betaville project.

The book provides context for urban design in an Internet-enabled era.  As the publisher’s (Springer) summary states:

“the reader can gain a deeper understanding of the potential socio-technical forms of the New Soft Cities: blended virtual-physical worlds, whose public works must ultimately serve and succeed as massively collaborative works of art and infrastructure.”

Hence the title of Carl’s book: “Soft City Culture and Technology”, which will be officially published at the end of this month.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Aspen Institute on Public Libraries

Last month, the Aspen Institute gathered about two dozen leaders and innovators to a workshop on the future of public libraries.  I was honored to be asked to participate.  I will be helping to develop the larger strategy, but I thought I’d share some immediate observations from the discussions and my reflections on them.

As a pre-condition to thinking clearly about the future of libraries, we need to leave behind legacy thinking. The libraries of today cannot be and shouldn’t be the libraries that we fondly remember from our childhood.  A library is no longer a building merely with books.  Even the addition of e-books to printed books is not a fundamental and sufficient change in the traditional library model.  

To escape that old mold, library services can now – and should now – escape the confines of the library building itself.  With the Internet, library services can be everywhere.

At one point in the discussion, someone put up a picture like the one below – which isn’t quite what I have in mind by going beyond the library building 😉


The reaction of some people was a feeling that the “little free library” movement built cute little boxes but it is sad that library funding has been so diminished that we are left with such pitiful collections.

My reaction was a bit different.  I said I agreed that this little box was limited, if what you had in it was printed books.  But why not take all the outdoors and other locations which are targeted for “little free libraries” and make the real and much bigger digital library available to people there.  As a portal to the digital library online, the collection can be as large as possible even in this little box.

I also pointed out that our economy has been changing and more people earn a living in digital ways, based on knowledge and innovation.  In such an economy, you would think that libraries should be the key institution and hub of society.  I gave examples of how some libraries are providing support to entrepreneurs.  Another implication of this role for libraries is that the distinctions between public libraries and those labeled as specialized, school or university libraries will be weakening because often an entrepreneur or other innovator needs access to specialized technical knowledge as well as general audience information.

It was clear that the idea that Google and the Internet make librarians unnecessary was weighing on the minds in the room, as elsewhere in the library world.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been an unusually long time user of the Internet, but I’m waiting for help from good librarians.  What most of us face is TMI and TLK – too much information and too little knowledge.

Librarians can be the guide, curator, re-mixer, and knowledge creator for people who are drowning in a sea of information, or worse, swimming in the wrong part of the sea considering what they need to know.

Of course, it was clear from the discussion that many of us realize the users of libraries can also contribute, as in the pro-sumer model where a person is both consumer and producer of information.  So librarians should encourage and make space for people to self-publish.  Going beyond text, libraries should do the same for people making videos, music or even things (through the availability of maker rooms and the like).

Along those lines, there was a bit of discussion about the Douglas County (Colorado) Library model.  That library got fed up with the refusal of four major publishers to sell e-books to them and the tough conditions imposed by the other two big publishers.  So it reached out to many independent publishers to get their e-books in the library.  

A much wider possibility in the future is for the libraries to help authors to publish their works without the traditional publishers. Yes, I know there could be a lot of junk published, but there is no reason why book reviews, peer reviews, and other means couldn’t be used to help identify the junk without the need for editorial approval from the big six publishing companies.  The Public Library of Science (PLOS) has, as an example, established itself as a respectable medium for research using these techniques.

Finally, it seems that each library is trying to create the future itself.  Why can’t librarians and others in the library world work together nationally, enabled by the tools of the Internet.  If there is a librarian in Seattle who is an expert on Eritrea, why can’t she be available all over the US?  Someone described this as the library version of MOOCs.  This kind of federation, perhaps mutual aid pact, is a natural result when librarians realize their services are no longer limited to library buildings.

The Aspen Institute project is asking important questions not only for libraries, but for our country as a whole, so keep track of its efforts.  For more information now, see

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Is County Innovation An Oxymoron?

Last Friday, the National Association of Counties held an Innovation Summit as part of their annual meeting in Ft. Worth.  I was asked to give the keynote speech on what local government leaders can do to encourage innovation in their counties, but I also attended the other discussions.

As I listened, in the back of my mind were recent articles about the increasingly important role local government can play – in the face of a dysfunctional Federal government and the global connectivity that enables local governments to work together and provide better services.

So the first question is whether these county governments can step up to the challenge, or as the title of this post puts it: Is County Innovation An Oxymoron?

While certainly not all of them are innovating, it is striking how many are.  Because so little is reported about local government innovation and there is not an active peer network among these innovators once they leave their annual meeting, the counties often don’t know what each has done.  That, of course, limits the spread of these innovations.

But that will change.  The counties are about to create a peer-to-peer online community, thanks to Bert Jarreau, NACo’s Chief Innovation Officer.  

Moreover, the cost of computer technology and networks is going down and becoming more widespread, which is great for counties with smaller budgets, who want to innovate, but have felt they didn’t have the money and staff skills to do so.

With “cloud computing”, where all kinds of software, hardware resources and data is available on the Internet, these counties don’t need to buy their own expensive equipment or hire large numbers if IT experts.  Instead, they can pay for what they use.

With many of their employees already owning smart phones and tablets, these counties can get access to mobile apps.  Since people have already figured out how to use apps on these devices, training is simple.  And software in the app market often costs dramatically less than traditional software. 

With videoconferencing, social media and other collaboration tools, it is also possible for these county innovators to support and help each other at any time.

These three big trends – widespread technology, cloud computing and mobile devices – may seem familiar to those in the IT industry.  But the reality is that this combination is relatively recent and still maturing.

All in all, however, this adds up to an unprecedented potential for innovation in local government.  It just needs the right platform and the people who will act as a catalyst for that potential to be realized.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis



I’ve written a couple of times about Carl Skelton’s Betaville software for citizen engagement in urban planning and design, so my eye caught the title of a book that came out a few months ago – “Citizenville: How To Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government” by current California Lt. Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.  (Alas, Citizenville is a name based on the popular game, FarmVille, not Betaville.)

When the book came out, there was a little bit of publicity and reviews in a few newspapers.  Perhaps the largest audience Newsom had was an interview on the Colbert Report, which unfortunately was fairly cynical in tone.  Many people, even those who are interested in better government, haven’t read it.

Let’s first get the criticisms out of the way.  Some critics have dismissed Newsom as a lightweight and clearly he does not write in an academic style.  It’s more journalistic, even breezy.  (Many people might consider that a plus.).

The tone in places is somewhat clichéd and sometimes annoying to those of us who are much deeper into the role of the Internet in government.  For example, the implication that the private sector is almost always better than the public sector is too broad a view to be worth much as a guiding principle.

Some of it is too much about him.  And not all of it is correct or well thought through.  But then that would also be true of authors with more prestigious academic credentials.

Ok, now to the more important positive side.  The book is a reasonably good compendium of the various ways that the Internet is being used in the public sector.  It should be read. 

For me, the most significant thing about the book is that an incumbent, leading politician wrote it.  In a way, that’s also why the book is useful to other public leaders.  Newsom shares his experiences – both good and bad – and outlines at least some of the minefield facing other elected officials who wish to use digital technologies in public service.

In addition to writing a book that can help to educate public leaders, Newsom, along with Code for America, has created the Citizenville Challenge ( that has enlisted cities such as Philadelphia and Austin.  

Over the last several years, I’ve seen more elected officials who understand the role of technology in better citizen engagement and better public sector outcomes.  My own experience has led me to realize that technologists, in and out of government, can really only succeed when the top elected official leads the way.  Ultimately, that’s why this book is important.

In a recent review, Pete Peterson summarizes this key to success:

Of course, technology can facilitate these opportunities — but not without public-sector officials who see governments as more than “service providers” and citizens who regard themselves as more than “customers.”

[Note: If you want to get a quick idea of what he’s been saying, take a look at this video from the Commonwealth Club of California. ]

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


What Is WATPA?

What Is WATPA?

Government-to-Government Services?

There was an interesting article in the New York Times, “Police Surveillance May Earn Money for City” (

Because it focused on law enforcement, much of the article dealt with privacy and other issues raised by police use of technology.  These issues are indeed challenging, but not that new.

A newer part of the story is that this is a good example of something I’ve been expecting to see for a couple of years: government to government software-as-a-service.   

Here are some relevant excerpts from the story:

The policing system is making New York safer and it will also make money for the city, which is marketing it to other jurisdictions. 

Buyers would pay to access the software (at least several million dollars and more depending on the size of the jurisdiction and whether specifications have to be customized). New York City will receive 30 percent of the gross revenues from the sale of the system and access to any innovations developed for new customers. The revenue will be directed to counterterrorism and crime prevention programs. 

This government-to-government service allows less technologically skilled governments to get sophisticated services they could create for themselves.   It also enables the most technologically advanced governments to spread out their development costs over a larger base and to save some money for their taxpayers.  A win-win as the old expression goes.

Even beyond law enforcement – or maybe I should say, especially outside of law enforcement – the logic of this situation is likely to lead to an expansion of these government-to-government technology services.  More examples in future posts.  Please let me know if you have any examples.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Rockefeller Foundation Medal For Betaville

Last Thursday night, the Rockefeller Foundation had its (Storm Sandy-delayed) ceremony for the winners of the 2012 Jane Jacobs medals.  My co-founder of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse won the award for Technology and Innovation – the first time such an award has been made.

In this video (, Carl presents some of the ideas that led to this award, including Betaville and its use by a global community in the Open Line Studio project of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


How Can Resistance To Innovation Be Overcome?

To those of you who are not the elected chief executive of your jurisdiction or who are not a senior executive in government, it may come as a surprise that there are public sector leaders who want to innovate.  Particularly during this period of mounting problems and what seems to be a fast changing world, innovation strikes many public officials as the order of the day.

But like their counterparts in well-established private sector organizations, they face a high hurdle in overcoming resistance to innovations and the change that is a necessary part of innovation.

Its often said that people fear change which is why its so hard to get them to accept innovation.  But the Nobel Prize winning work of Princeton Professor Daniel Kahneman makes it clear that the situation is more complicated than that and there is hope for those who would innovate.

In his Prospect Theory, Kahneman points out that there is no general aversion to change or even merely to risk.  Indeed people might make a more risky choice when all options are bad.

But there is an aversion to losses, which people often exaggerate beyond reality.  The sense of loss is greater if what might be lost has been owned or used for a long time (aka entitlements).  Regret and other emotions can also enhance this sense of loss.

Also, in situations where all outcomes are bad, people may become more risk-seeking. 

Putting it all together (from ):

when faced with a risky prospect people will be:
(1) risk-seeking over low-probability gains,
(2) risk-averse over high-probability gains,
(3) risk-averse over low-probability losses, and
(4) risk-seeking over high-probability losses. 

Considering this background, what can you do if you want to innovate in government?  Here are some thoughts on how to overcome the resistance to change.

  • Reduce people’s estimate of their potential loss.  For example, the new highway won’t be paid for by a 25% toll increase, but by an extra dime each time you use it.
  • Increase the perceived value of the change and/or the perceived likelihood of success positive vivid images help to overcome lower probability estimates of the chances of success; negative vivid images help to magnify the probability of loss.
  • Help people redefine the perception of loss. (Shift their frame of reference, which determines their expected starting point.)
  • Ensure that loss is perceived as a fair outcome (and not meanness), which may require you to find a way to allocate real (not potential) benefits widely.  This was one of the reasons New Deal programs, like Social Security, were applied equally to all seniors.
  • Reduce the overall size of the risks – which means it is best to introduce small innovations, piled on each other. (Note: behavioral scientists have also observed the irrational fear of loss versus the possibility of benefit is reduced when a person has had experience with the trade-off.  A series of small innovations will help the public gain that experience.) 

Since any innovation is an experiment, theres no guarantee of success.  Some will fail, but if competent people are implementing the innovations, you’ll succeed sufficiently more often than you fail so that the overall impact on the public is positive.

  • Work to convince people that their certainty of loss is only a possibility.  People react differently to being told something is a sure thing, than a 90% probability.
  • Since risk taking is no longer avoided among bad choices, show that the obvious loss is less than a bigger possible loss. 

(Of course, a long-term decline of nations/states/cities is usually accompanied by a shredding of the social fabric and a dysfunctional civic culture.  Under such circumstances, a public official may find it difficult to exercise any leadership, never mind try to persuade people to adopt innovative solutions.)

Fortunately, the availability of the Internet and the general reduction over the last decade or so in the cost of software development makes it easier to do small experiments (think apps).

The body of work that Kahneman presents in his best selling book “Thinking, Fast And Slow” is more nuanced than presented here and the book is itself only a summary of years of research by many behavioral scientists.  But this summary should be enough to start. 

Of course the application of this research to the public sector is only beginning.  So help us figure this out and please provide everyone with good examples.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


When Will Citizens Be Able To Track Requests To The Government?

A little prelude that may seem obvious, except for the fact that it is widely ignored … 

The people that public officials call citizens or voters or residents are not single-minded civic machines.  Most of the time they are consumers and workers outside of the public sector and so what happens outside of the public sector affects the expectations of the public sector on the part of those same citizens, etc.  

So one of the more frequent parts of a consumer’s life these days is being able to track things.  Here are just a few of the many diverse examples, almost all of which have been around for at least a couple of years:

  • You can track your pizza order from Dominos from the oven to your front door.
  • You can track shipments, at all stages, through FedEx or UPS.
  • You can track the path of a taxi or “black car” that you ordered via Uber.
  • You can track airline flights so you know when to leave for the airport to pick up a relative.

However, in the public sector, this kind of tracking has been rare.  In addition to tracking mass transit in some big cities (perhaps imitating the airline services), there are few examples I could find, such as:

But clearly there are many more situations where people want to track their interaction with the government and cannot.

Why not enable citizens to track their government transactions in mid-stream?  While suggestions of this kind are often proposed to increase transparency of government, the tracking actually serves a much simpler goal – to reduce frustration on the part of the citizen.  If people can see where their request or application is, they will have a lower sense of frustration and a greater sense of control.

If the citizens could also get an estimate of how long it usually takes to go through each step of an approval process, all the better.  

When the Internet began getting much attention more than ten years ago, many governments decided to put applications on line, at least in the form of PDF documents that people could print and then fill out.  Eventually, people could apply online.  New York State government, for example, had a big project that was intended to put every citizen transaction on the Web.

Well, we’re past the point where citizens accept that as the best that can be done.  Now is the time to initiate a “big project” to enable citizens to track the status of each of those transactions.

Of course, the ultimate goal, in so far as possible, is to complete those transactions instantaneously online, like the fishing license app that Michigan makes available.  Then the tracking problem disappears, but that’s a subject for a future blog post.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


What Is A 21st Century Library For?

Although I’m not a librarian, I am the President of the Metropolitan New York Library Council ( and former President of the New York State Library Trustees Association, among other library positions. 

Because of this long standing activity in the library world, which seems to some to be incongruous for a technologist, I’ve often been asked what libraries will be like in a world of Google searches, e-books and the like.  

Although some people question whether we will still need libraries, those folks haven’t been in libraries recently.  Most libraries have had significantly increased use over the last decade, both in the building and online, both for printed and e-books and databases.

Libraries also continue to be the major public institution that helps to overcome the digital divide.  See the recent Pew studies on this subject.

So I’m not going to spend time here retreading the issue of the existence of libraries or even printed books.  Instead, I want to talk about the longer term, more subtle ways that libraries will evolve along with the rest of the 21st century world.

First, look inside the library building itself.  Most newly renovated or newly built libraries have devote a decreasing percentage of their space to bookshelves.  There are computers everywhere and meeting room for community groups, book clubs, author presentations and the like.

In the future, there will be much more than the community center rooms found in most libraries today.   There will creative centers for writing, poetry, music and even community art.  The public library in Aarhus, Denmark has been one of the world leaders in creating these new kinds of library spaces.

In addition, libraries are beginning to understand their key role in supporting entrepreneurs as unofficial corporate librarian for these budding businesses.  The Chattanooga Public Library has made their top floor of their main building a center for entrepreneurs.   The public library in Westport, Connecticut opened up a Maker space in which people can use 3D printing machines to make all sort of artistic and/or utilitarian objects.

Clearly, e-books are increasing in popularity and most libraries offer e-books for loan.  Some even offer e-readers for those who don’t have one.  The serious longer term issue is that some major publishers are refusing to sell e-books to libraries, even under onerous terms such as elimination of the e-book after it has been used a few times.  This is a major threat to what libraries have been all about for a long time – a common collection of books.  I hope the lawyers figure this out soon because if the situation continues it will prevent libraries from evolving their traditional role as collectors of shared books.

It’s worth noting that traditionally published books – print or electronic – are becoming a diminishing fraction of the total written material.  Traditional publishing is being dwarfed by self-publishing and peer reviewed open source publishing on the web.  So one new responsibility of librarians is to include these new sources into the library’s collection, manage them and make them useful to readers.

Moreover, the publishers who are shunning libraries may find they will be encouraging librarians to undertake a more frightening path – mashups of parts of electronic texts.  In various ways, librarians have always been curators.  Now they can curate parts of open source writing and assemble them in new works that help readers better understand a subject than any single author can.

But the most important trend to note is that library services will be everywhere.  They will no longer be constrained by the limits of the building we call a library.

In a sense, librarians will reference guides to the Internet, including the many parts that are not visible to Google and other search engines.  Library services will, as always, help organize the worlds knowledge for us and help us find what we need but these services will be accessible from anywhere. 

I’ve only skimmed the surface here and this post is already too long 😉  So let me know if you want more.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Overdue Convenience of the Day: City Hall as Food Truck

Great story in American City & County and also the Atlantic  about Boston taking an old idea and using it in a new way.  Even in a time when it seems everyone has a phone that can get on the Internet to government websites, the reality is that many people can’t operate this way – some never and almost everyone at least part of the time.

So this City Hall on the go is a nice alternative.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Who Needs To Pay Attention To The Internet of Things?

There’s an increasing drum beat of news about the “Internet of Things”.   There’s even an acronym for it – IoT.   

IoT refers to the increasing number of devices on the Internet that report the status and location of physical things.  This covers everything from the location of your smart phone to where a package might be to the condition of your pulse to the condition of a highway.   (That’s why it is also sometimes referred to as the Internet of Everything.)

All this data has also led to people talking about “Big Data” and the need for analytical software to make sense of it all.

Less often noted is that things connected to the Internet can communicate with each other.  We’ve only begun to think about the practical and fundamental issues this phenomenon will raise.  

On a practical level, this machine-to-machine communications needs to be managed by people not through on-off switches or gauges, but through policies that can be operated at the same speed as the machines – not at the slow speed of human awareness and decision making.

The benefits can be striking.  For example, a bridge whose sensors are detecting potential cracks in load-bearing columns can ask the street light to turn red to stop traffic and also tell the police dispatch system to get a couple of police cars out to redirect that traffic.

Of course, the complexity of a global system that connects all these devices is mind boggling.  This global system has the potential for unpredictable and perhaps disastrous behavior.

That alone should get the attention of public leaders.

Now, most of the advertising and news from technology companies has focused on how corporations can use the Internet of Things.  Surely they can.  Just think of any company that ships things and needs to know the condition of the shipped items and there locations.

Companies are usually responsible for their own office and manufacturing space.  Even including shipments or goods, any individual company has to worry about at most millions of square feet.

However, governments are uniquely responsible for what goes on in a particular territory, which can be many tens, hundreds, thousands or even millions of square miles.  Eventually, all this territory will be covered by sensors, which will greatly outnumber everything else on the Internet. 

By the way, the Internet of Things is not something way off in the future.  Today, the number of physical devices connected to the Internet is already six times the number of people on the Internet, even though there are two billion of those people.  By 2020, just a few years away, there will be 50 billion connected devices.

It’s time for government leaders to start focusing on IoT as a policy concern and as a tool for managing their infrastructure and territory.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Gamification In The Public Sector?

Over the holidays, the New York Times had a story titled “All the World’s a Game, and Business Is a Player” (

Many of us are familiar with computer games.  If not a passion of ourselves as adults, the passion for games is observable among youth.  

The article is not about shooting adventure games, but instead what are called “serious games”.  In various ways, we’ve seen the private sector use gamification.  But the question here is: do even these serious games have a role in the public sector?

The interest in games is based on the observation that people are much more engaged, more motivated and learn quicker in game situations than in more traditional bureaucratic environments.  So there have been game designers and others who have tried to apply these “game mechanics” to the public sector.

Actually, this is not new.  The Annual Games for Change conference has been around since 2004.  At the conference last June, there was even a Federal government caucus.

In 2011, Jane McGonigal, one of the leaders of this movement, wrote the successful book, “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World

But there has been increasing attention to the possibilities, even in the public sector.  The newspaper article mentions games for everything from reducing energy waste to the Israeli Defense Forces.  

In my own work, I have advised a big state government that was interested in the use of gamification to change the environment and re-motivate its work force.  

I’ve also been involved in a strategy to better engage customers of city transit services through gamification.  This provides two additional benefits: it establishes a relationship with riders who before were anonymous and motivates the more social of those riders to help build a community of riders who can help improve the overall urban experience.

There are clearly limits to the use of gamification and it is fairly easy to think of situations where even “serious” games would be considered inappropriate.  But there is much potential in these ideas that have not yet been realized.  

If these are to be used in valuable ways to achieve public goals, then public officials need to take the lead on this movement, rather than watch while this movement gets built without them.

Please pass along examples of such games you’ve observed in practice or your ideas of where games could be used in the public sector.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


What Does Resilience Mean For New York?

The Gotham Innovation Greenhouse met last week at the Municipal Arts Society (MAS)  in New York.  In response to the problems caused by Hurricane Sandy in the New York metropolitan area, MAS is holding a series of forums to design a plan that will improve the resilience of the region.

To get the thought process initiated, MAS asked the GIG collaborators to start addressing the issue of resilience.  The room was filled with a diverse group – scientists, artists, architects, designers, technologists, public policy, etc.  Here is a summary of the key take-aways.

  • With remediation plans in New York and New Jersey costing upwards of $80 billion dollars, it does not make sense to just spend money to recreate the situation as it was before the storm.  Instead, the group focused on what needs to be done with that money to make the area more resilient in the face of the well documented threats of rising seas.  (This attitude is in marked contrast with the position taken by many others who have spoken on the issue so far.)
  • Various possible plans were shown, including those that use nature as a bulwark or even work to integrate man-made and natural designs as means to stop the water.  However, this is more than a traditional public works problem whose solution is to “build something”.
  • First, recent experience and scientific data show that the threat to the urban areas is not merely where we see as the water’s edge.  In Manhattan and elsewhere, the sea also surged from under the ground.  Although the common assumption is that all of New York is built on solid bedrock that goes down thousands of feet, the reality is quite different.  Much of it has been built on landfill or natural formations that can be permeated by water.
  • Second, the city is not just a collection of physical structures so making it resilient also involves the people who live there.   The urban community is ultimately what needs to be resilient.  This is especially important given that the many of those most affected by the storm were the poor and elderly who have been housed on the edge of the ocean – out of sight and mind.  Perhaps just getting the people who lived there back into harm’s way as quickly as possible does not serve their best interests nor the interests of the city at large.  Thus, thinking about resilience in this case also means thinking clearly about what constitutes environmental justice. 
  • Thus, MAS, GIG and others need to work to help devise a plan to transform the currently vulnerable metropolis into a resilient Eco-polis.  The tools to do this are at hand.  The geological and other data is available.  Betaville provides a tool for people to collaborate on a joint vision of the future.  

GIG invites all who wish to contribute to this effort.  

I was also reminded of a statement from Taleb’s recent book:

“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness: the resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better” [… as it learns]. 

New York needs to develop anti fragility.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


What Should Local Gov Do About Corporate Incentives?

In my presentations on economic growth, I’ve pointed out that, given the new rules of the 21st century economy, the typical incentives that government uses to get corporations to bring new jobs to their area are rapidly declining in effectiveness.  Yet these incentives add up to a huge number – now estimated at $80 billion a year. 

Instead, I’ve suggested that at least a fraction of that money be spent in more effective, future-oriented ways.  These alternative ways include connecting local entrepreneurs to global partners, resources and markets, as well as efficient lifelong learning opportunities for adults so they can increase their potential incomes as individual players in the economy.

Some of these ideas are parallel to the small, but growing, movement of local officials called “economic gardening” in contrast to the industrial era “economic hunting” strategy that is still the normal approach.

So it was with great interest to see the front page of the New York Times this Sunday, which began a three part series on the “UNITED STATES OF SUBSIDIES – A series examining business incentives and their impact on jobs and local economies”.

Part 1 was entitled “As States Vie to Lure Companies, the Winners Are Often the Losers” and began with this story:

Today, General Motors’ Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti Township, Mich., stands empty and silent. The storied facility made bomber planes during World War II and then automobiles after being bought by G.M. Ypsilanti gave G.M. more than $200 million in incentives for Willow Run and another plant there — which has also been closed.

In the end, the money that towns across America gave General Motors did not matter.  When the automaker released a list of factories it was closing during bankruptcy three years ago, communities that had considered themselves G.M.’s business partners were among the targets.

Other highlights included:

A Times investigation has examined and tallied thousands of local incentives granted nationwide and has found that states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies.[The combined amount federal and state governments give up for incentives each year is $170 billion.]

The cost of the awards is certainly far higher. A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards. Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid.

“If you’re looking at the competitiveness of a region, the most important thing a region can do is to focus on education. And this use of incentives is really transferring money from education to businesses.” Donald J. Hall Jr., Hallmark C.E.O.

Workers are a vital ingredient in any business, yet companies and government officials increasingly view the creation of jobs as an expense that should be subsidized by taxpayers, private consultants and local officials said.

For towns, it became a game of survival, even if the competition turned out to be a mirage.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Smart Highways?

[Note: with the long power outage in the New York area due to the storm Sandy and the US elections, my blogging time has been limited, so here’s a short post …]

There has been lots of interesting work on making cars smarter, including self-driving cars for the future, cars that can follow a leader creating a sort of train of cars, all sorts of technology built into cars that are sold today, etc.  

But a Dutch designer, Daan Roosegaarde, is instead focusing on increasing the intelligence and technology built into the highway itself.  His concepts include:

  • Glow-in-the-Dark Road that provides extra illumination
  • Dynamic Paint that portrays the true condition of the road surface by showing an image of the danger, for example ice crystals
  • Interactive Light, Induction Priority Lane and Wind Light which provide sustainable solutions to lighting and other roadway needs.

You can learn more at  

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Can Prediction Markets Test Public Policy?

Prediction markets are hot again.  With the Presidential election next week and the relative accuracy of prediction markets about the election in 2008, I decided to finish this article that I first started in March 2009, but put aside for various reasons.

What is a prediction market?  James Surowiecki, the author of the book, “The Wisdom of Crowds” explains:

The premise is that under the right circumstances, the collective judgment of a large group of people will generally provide a better picture of what the future might look like than anything one expert or even a small group of experts will come up with. [Prediction markets] work much like a futures market, in which the price of a contract reflects the collective day-to-day judgment either on a straight numberfor instance, what level sales will reach over a certain periodor a probabilityfor example, the likelihood, measured as a percentage, that a product will hit a certain milestone by a certain date.

[F]or a crowd to be smart, it needs to satisfy certain criteria. It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table. It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowds answer. It needs to summarize peoples opinions into one collective verdict. And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information and dont worry about what everyone around them thinks.

These markets have been around for a few years and have a good, if not perfect, track record.  Various studies have found prediction markets to be better than experts or public opinion polling.

But my focus is not on predicting who wins the White House or the SuperBowl or the number of coins in a large bottle.  Rather there is a use of prediction markets for government leaders testing the likelihood that a particular public policy will achieve success, especially if the policy is intended to change the behavior of people.

Often it is difficult to assess how the public will react to a proposed policy will people actually sign up for program X; will people recycle; etc.  I’m suggesting that prediction markets be used to estimate the reaction ahead of time.

Implicit in the diversity of views that Surowiecki notes is that enough people need to care about the policy.  The reason they care may be to win money, in some cases, but thats not the only reason.  They might care because the market deals with something that affects their lives.

And, the nice thing about this is that if only a few people care about a policy that also tells you something about the policy or, at least, whether youll get into deep trouble proposing it.

You can learn from prediction markets and they may be more effective predictors of policy success than traditional tools.

So far I can tell this has not really been tried yet in the way I’m describing.  The closest was in 2003, when DARPA created a Policy Analysis Market to be “a market in the future of the Middle East”.  That market looked, to critics, like a betting parlor on political assassinations by terrorists and was withdrawn.

In a more futuristic vision, Robin D. Hanson, an economist at George Mason University and a fan of alternative institutions, writes about futarchy, “a form of government enhanced by prediction markets. Voters would decide broad goals of national welfare, but betting in speculative markets would determine the policy steps to achieve those goals.”

I’m not proposing anything so revolutionary as he is.  Instead, let’s try to use prediction markets on a more experimental basis.

More background on prediction markets can be found in:

  • Wikipedia and

  • When the Crowd Isnt Wise

  • Interpreting the Predictions of Prediction Markets

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


1001 Uses For Broadband?

A couple of years ago, I met with several top officials in a major state government at the peak application time for Federal broadband funds that were part of the stimulus program.  Although the Governor was committed to ensuring that 95%+ of the homes in his state would have broadband and his staff all agreed to this goal, many of them couldn’t really say why this would be a good thing.

So, in a moment of frustration in the meeting, I spent maybe twenty minutes rattling off dozens of possible things people could do if broadband were a statewide reality.  That frustration led me to start a list called “1001 Uses For Broadband” – partly, in homage to the ending of the classic late 1980s thriller “F/X” and SuperGlue.

Fast forward to last week, where I met with the OneMaryland network and Howard County officials for another broadband brainstorming session.  Using stimulus money, they’ve created one of the more interesting broadband projects, partly due to a very innovative executive, Ken Ulman. 

To get the discussion going, I put together a presentation based on the 1001 uses approach.  I’ll be sharing these ideas on this blog over the next few months, organized by category.

I hope that you and others add to the list. It really won’t be hard.  The key is to think about what broadband can do for a community, county, city, state or nation. 

The way to frame the question is: what can people do that has been hindered by travel or other significant costs? 

Next: How Can Broadband Get People Healthier?

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Are We Encouraging The Wrong Kind Of Entrepreneurship?

One of the most interesting centers for new ideas about economic growth is the Startup Genome project.  (See and )  This is one of the few places that moves beyond breathless, anecdotal stories to real analysis of the factors in the success and failure of startups.

Its leader, Max Marmer, published an interesting blog on the Harvard Business Review site a couple of weeks ago.  It was entitled the Danger of Celebritizing Entrepreneurship (  Like Peter Theil (see my earlier blog post at, he is concerned about the trivialization of the entrepreneurial process and the celebration of business ideas that are just not that significant.  In turn, this causes a decline in the number of truly important ideas.

More recently, he has moved the discussion to the convergence of business entrepreneurship and social innovation.  

See  Transformational Entrepreneurship: Where Technology Meets Societal Impact (  Reversing the Decline in Transformational Ideas  ( )  from earlier this year.

This is useful reading both for entrepreneurs and those public officials whose economic growth strategy is focused on entrepreneurship – which should be one of the key foundations of that strategy in our new economy.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis