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Big Idea 2014: How to Fix Washington's Approach to Tech

Much of the business of Washington is based on getting info around, much of the good news has not been reported, and I'd like to get the word out to make things better. This is the short, oversimplified version, based on 37 years of direct observation in both private and public sectors.

This is mostly about doing software based on actually listening to people and then acting on feedback, with a focus on the "ground truth" and what we can learn from that.

I think it was 1969 when some guys at Bell Labs started inventing something called Unix. It was a simple, very effective operating system, which could be ported to most any computer, since the source code could be checked out by outsiders, then adapted. It was in the spirit of what we now call "open source," but the code was AT&T proprietary, limiting its use. Key to its effectiveness was that it was built in modest increments, by people who'd use it, both at Bell Labs and at the universities and labs who built Internet tech.

Note those elements: Built with real humility, talking to people, piece by piece.

Back then, software was most often developed starting with requirements or specifications docs. These were written by managers or people in marketing, the popular kids, who didn't so much as talk to the people who'd run the software.

Once the docs were written, they tossed it to the people who'd write the code.

If the software actually got developed, it would frequently be late, over budget, and sometimes bought by no one except people who had to. (That's like a lot of Federal software projects.)

In Washington, this is called the "waterfall" approach, since the docs are kind of tossed over some barrier which limits the ability of coders to talk to people, and which meant the software was frequently built as a big, complex monolith.

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I saw this approach used to develop the first operating system for the IBM Series/1 minicomputer, great hardware, in the late seventies. Whenever I asked why the software was so hard to use, I was explicitly told by the developers that usability wasn't a requirement. (I'm not making this up.)

Bell Labs asked us about porting Unix to the S/1, and my recommendation is that we could do better, but why fix what's not broken?

Turns out that a modest, maverick effort at IBM Research resulted in S/1 Event Driven Executive, which I feel was much better than the official product. For the matter, two versions of Unix were built for the S/1, both too late.Otherwise, the history of the whole industry could be different.

Years later, Linus Torvalds figured that Unix was pretty good but too proprietary, so he started building what's now called Linux. It's pretty much a Unix clone, but it's open source in the sense that anyone can build stuff on it.

(Special props to Linus, who initiated this global, grassroots effort. Linus, like Jimmy Wales and Craig Newmark, is not an Internet Billionaire.)

That worked in a really big way, and much of the world runs on Linux, not only servers but our phones. Specifically, the Android operating system is a tight version of Linux, and it runs on hundreds of millions of phones. Even though developed in a large corporate environment, Google, it's a pretty modest effort, based on what people need, rather than the imagination of the popular kids.

For the most part, government software is done using the waterfall approach, in isolation from the people who'd use it, even as much of private industry has moved on. However, there have been efforts which go against that grain.

Long ago, clinicians at the Department of Veterans Affairs realized they needed a really good health records system. Without permission, they built something called VistA, built by the people who use it, ground up. It's perhaps one of the largest, and most effective health records systems around. No waterfall requirements, just a very modest approach.

Now, Veterans Affairs got the Veterans Benefits Management System, VBMS, just in recent months. It hasn't been reported, but the piles of paper you see at VA offices has been disappearing dramatically after they were scanned in. Vets' claims are just starting to get processed this way, and it looks good so far. We need to get Vets Service Orgs like the American Legion, Vets of Foreign Wars, and Disabled American Vets directly involved, via the Stakeholder Enterprise Portal, or vendor software via Digits to Digits.

VBMS development involved a lot of waterfall stuff, but much more recently, VA people are actually directly listening to people on that and acting on that. If vets, VSOs, or VA workers find a problem or have a suggestion, they contact contact actual humans to get stuff done.

Terminology: the antithesis of the waterfall approach is usually called "agile software development." I'm not very smart, and the version of it that I've practiced is this:

repeat forever:

  • listen to people
  • do stuff based on that

Please permit me to call that "agile"; seriously, I'm kinda simple-minded, that works for me.

(Seriously, people can contact for specifics. I'll act in my capacity as the official VA "nerd-in-residence", hold me to that. Email craig@craigslist.org)

So, here's the deal:

  • small, modest efforts by programmers get stuff done, they can ask for forgiveness later.
  • listen to the people who use the system.
  • even systems started by the waterfall approach can become much more agile, with commitment from the boss.
  • open source approaches get stuff done, often a lot better than proprietary approaches. Can cost less, get done faster, possibly more reliable and secure.

Programmers who get stuff done this way, well, we're nerds. The alternative to the Federal government's waterfall approach to software development? Get the popular kids, for the most part, out of the way, and let the nerds get stuff done.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

5 Fun Facts About Craig on his Birthday

The craigconnects' team here to wish Craig a very Happy Birthday! We thought we'd share 5 fun facts about Craig with you on his birthday.

  1. Craig always says "I'm not as funny as I think I am," but he's wrong.
  2. His "rabbi" is Leonard Cohen. He usually says it like that, too, with the quotation marks.
  3. Craig and his wife wanted to get married by Skype but they knew their mothers wouldn't put up with that.
  4. Craig loves birds and squirrels a lot. He and his wife started a birdography, they call it Eileen and Craig's birdography spectacular. And when Craig talks about squirrels, he says, "Those urban survivors are quite sneaky, and for that matter, I've been told I can get a little squirrelly, and more than once…"
  5. His first real job was at IBM, in the old Boca Raton lab, in 1976.

If you'd like to help Craig celebrate his 61st birthday, consider making a donation to one of the 500+ charities over at the CrowdRise Holiday Challenge that Craig is supporting.

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5 Ways to Participate in #GivingTuesday

Hey, #GivingTuesday is the real deal, and I'm happy to be able to participate in it. #GivingTuesday's a global event that inspires people to give to causes they're most passionate about.

My gut tells me this is really good, #GivingTuesday has gotten what sounds like real traction, with 10k partners in all 50 states and beyond (according to Henry Timms, the guy who's made the whole event happen, from 92nd street Y in NYC). #GivingTuesday is the story of thousands of organizations coming together around philanthropy, volunteerism, advocacy, and education.

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This year, I'll be giving to IAVA, Casa de las Madres, a local women's shelter, and Poynter. I'm also giving $70k to the CrowdRise #HolidayChallenge that lots of nonprofits are participating in.

Here are 5 ways that you can participate in #GivingTuesday:

  1. Give to your favorite team over on CrowdRise's #HolidayChallenge.unselfie
  2. Post an "unselfie" – to do this, you'll need to post a photo of yourself with a piece of paper in front of you face that says how you'll be giving back on #GivingTuesday. You can share this across social networks using the hashtags, #Unselfie and #GivingTuesday.
  3. Check out Great Nonprofits' #GivingTuesday guide. There are great tips and tricks for raising and giving money for your cause.
  4. Remind others the importance of giving, especially after days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
  5. Even if you can't give money, remember that you can give your time and your passion. #GivingTuesday is all about coming together for what we believe in.

What's your story, and how will you give today?

craig1

 

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5 Free Tools To Track Social Media Engagement

I'm frequently asked by good orgs that I support to share their work, and sometimes they ask me the best way to track the engagement that's occurred. I've compiled a list of some free tracking tools that can really benefit you personally, or that can help out your org. These could be especially useful with all of the end-of-year campaigns coming up (including the CrowdRise Holiday Challenge that I'm helping to fund).

5 Free Tracking Tools to Help You Out:

1.  bitly – bitly is a great way for you to shorten links and then track their click through rates. If you sign up for an account, you can store all of the links that you've shortened, and then track how well the link is performing with your audience. It's possible to shorten links without signing up for an account, but if you get a free account, you'll be able to access historical data.

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Just click "view stats" and you'll have insight into:

  • How many times the link has been clicked;
  • The percentage of clicks;
  • The number of bitly links that have been created from your original URL, and who created them (if the person has a public account);
  • The date that the link was clicked, and an hourly breakdown;
  • What social media platforms the bitly was shared on;
  • Where the link was shared geographically, and where the most clicks were coming from;

2.  Topsy – Topsy allows you to analyze conversations in realtime, and  provides instant social insight. You can analyze any topic, term, or hashtag.

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Once you conduct your search, you'll have access to a few different stats:

  • All web mentions of your term, topic, or hashtag – or you can specify that Topsy just shows you links, Tweets, photos, videos, or influencers that relate to your search;
  • You can sort by language;
  • You can sort by relevance, newest, or oldest;
  • You are able to view the Tweets per day that mention your search, and from there you can view top Tweets;
  • Topsy reveals how many Tweets mention your search over the past 15 days, and it provides a Topsy sentiment score;
  • You can chart replies to your Twitter handle and view when the most people are responding, and what they're saying;

3.  Twubs – If you plan on hosting a tweetchat or having a hashtag livestream at an event, Twubs allows you to register a hashtag. Once you register the hashtag, you can update event details or hashtag details and create a page for your particular hashtag. Once the page is setup, you can set up a main account (i.e. your org's Twitter handle) for the hashtag that will show up in a different, prime stream.

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Other features include:

  • Scheduling Twitter Chats that will show up in Twub's global calendar;
  • Adding additional hashtags to stream on your main hashtag page;
  • Customizing your hashtag page to match your branding;
  • Watching the livestream of your Tweets as people use your hashtag;
  • Adding websites that may be relevant to your hashtag;
  • Allowing other folks to be admins for your particular Twubs hashtag;
  • Blocking trolls and spammers (don't feed the trolls!), as well as blocking words that you don't want included in the stream;
  • A moderated fullscreen feed module that allows you to control a customizable fullscreen display of Tweets that you can project anywhere;

4.  Twitter Counter – Twitter Counter is a really good site to track your Twitter stats.

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The free version will track:

  • How many followers you have and how many you are following;
  • Your increase of followers over a period of time (you can choose the time period);
  • Comparisons between you and your competitors or partners;
  • Increases or decreases in followers, Tweets, and folks you are following from the previous day;
  • Your daily average follows, tweets, and following;

5.   socialmention* – Similar to Topsy, socialmention* allows for real-time social media searches and analysis, but has more filters for types of medium . The site will show you trends underneath the search bar if you're interested in perusing, or you can type in your own trend that you want to search. For example, if you want to type in keywords from a blog post you published last week, or the name of your org, you'll get a variety of results.

socialmention

Results will show you:

  • socialmention*'s perceived sentiment of the keyword or phrase you typed in;
  • The last time the search phrase was mentioned;
  • A list of top related keywords;
  • The top users who have mentioned the search phrase;
  • How many unique authors are talking about it;
  • The top related hashtags;
  • The sources from which the results were pulled;

 

What tools have you found to be useful, folks?

11 Disruptors Creating Social Change to Follow on Twitter

Hey, it’s easy to get overwhelmed thinking about all of the big problems that need fixing in the world. With issues like bad actors preventing folks from voting  and the search for news we can trust, how do we expect to react to colossal disasters, global health crises, and other really big stuff?

The deal is that sometimes the best thing to keep you moving forward is to learn from people who are already working to change the world and set things right. Fortunately, there are lots of inspiring, smart people doing great things. They are builders and thinkers, disruptors, innovators, and philanthropists.

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I've compiled a list of some of the Top 11 social change makers who really are making the world a better place. I hope they inspire you to change the world too.

(in no particular order…)

1. Fawzia Koofi – Fawzia Koofi is an Afghan politician who has fought for women’s rights and access to education, and has worked to combat violence against women and political corruption. She's also a candidate in next year’s Afghan presidential election.


2. Bill McKibben – Bill McKibben is leading a movement to solve the climate crisis. Bill's an organizer, activist, and co-founder and Chairman of the Board at 350.org, a climate campaign working in 188 countries. He continues to inspire a generation of climate activists.


3. Jacqueline Novogratz – As the founder of Acumen Fund, Novogratz's leading with a unique approach to solving global poverty. The businesses that Acumen has invested its patient capital in are providing millions of people with affordable services for healthcare, clean water and energy, and housing.


4. Bill Gates – Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and his promotion of the Giving Pledge, Gates has led a movement of philanthropists making big bets and big commitments of wealth for social good. He's working to eradicate polio and to improve education and global health. Not to mention that he inspires countless entrepreneurs and technologists.


5. Rangita de Silva de Alwis – Rangita de Silva de Alwis directs the Women in Public Service Project launched by Secretary Clinton and the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The WPSP at the Wilson Center has now grown to affiliate with over 75 partners including government entities, academic institutes, and multilaterals around the world.


6. Ruth Messinger – Ruth Messinger is President and CEO of American Jewish World Service. Through AJWS, Messinger advocates for human rights and works to end poverty in the developing world. AJWS supports grassroots organizations around the world, and helps communities protect local resources and recover from conflict.


7. Maggie DoyneMaggie Doyne  built and leads the Kopila Valley Children's Home and School in Surkhet, Nepal, which she founded during a year of travel after graduating high school. Doyne encourages young people to volunteer and inspires them to make service personal. She is a Do Something Award winner.


8. Malala Yousafzai – Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani activist for women and education. She has overcome being banned from her school, death threats, and an assassination attempt, to champion the right of all children to an education.


9. Sal Khan – Sal Khan founded the Khan Academy, whose goal is to change education for the better by providing free world-class education for anyone anywhere. Khan has produced more than 4,300 video lessons teaching a wide spectrum of academic subjects, mainly focusing on mathematics and the sciences. In 2012, Time named Salman Khan in its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.


10. Majora Carter – Majora Carter redefined the field of environmental equality, starting in the South Bronx. Now she's leading the local economic development movement across the US. Carter was awarded a 2005 MacArthur "genius" grant,and advocates for eco-friendly practices (such as green and cool roofs) and, equally important, job training and green-related economic development. Carter has formed the economic consulting and planning firm, the Majora Carter Group.

11. Roya Mahboob – Roya Mahboob is an Afghan entrepreneur and businesswoman. She founded and serves as CEO of the Afghan Citadel Software Company, a full-service software development company based in Herat, Afghanistan. She has received attention for being among the first IT female CEOs in Afghanistan, where it is still relatively rare for women to work outside the home. Roya was named one of TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People In The World for 2013 for her work in building internet classrooms in high schools in Afghanistan and for Women's Annex, a multilingual blog and video site hosted by Film Annex.



What other change makers inspire you, and who would you add to this list?