craigconnects: Connecting the World for the Common Good

Craig's Blog

Peter Levin and Roger Baker leave Dept Veterans Affairs; legacy includes the VA Center for Innovation

Hey, VA got a lot done under really tough conditions in the last several years. That includes dealing with increasing IT workload regarding the GI Bill, more web-based access to benefits, and processing a lot more vets entering the system from current wars and also Vietnam.

Peter Levin and Roger Baker leave Dept Veterans Affairs

That's a lot more than anyone knows, and it's a good time to step up to recognize these guys. It'll be really hard to replace them, to continue the momentum at VA which started in 2009.

Part of that is addressed by the new form of the VA Innovation Initiative, the VA Center for Innovation. The deal has a lot to do with working with employees, vendors, and others for suggestions from folks with boots on the ground.

For example, employee suggestions have led to Disability Benefits Questionnaires, which show real promise addressing a part of the disability backlog. (Disclaimer: in 2009 I helped judge the employee innovation effort as a civilian/nerd.)

Vendor innovations have a lot to do with medical gear that wounded warriors could wear that reports sensor readings via smartphones to VA databases. That could, in turn, be included in Blue Button files which make it way easier for doctors to share current data.

All this is a much bigger deal than I can articulate; the country really does owe a lot to Peter and Roger, and I already see the VA Center for Innovation getting stuff done.

You can read more on Peter, Roger, and the VACI:

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Social Enterprises: The Silver Lining Between the Free Market and Social Good


In recent years, there have been elevated tensions between the traditional free market economy and our society. Some of those tensions are related to misconceptions about a free market. Investopedia defines the free market as:

A market economy based on supply and demand with little or no government control. [...]

In other words, it is a voluntary agreement between people who trade goods and services.

For example, when you go to the store to buy a loaf of bread, you are participating in the free market. In addition, a free market can also describe a political view or ideology. As we know, political differences can create tensions and misunderstandings between people of any political perspective.

The free market is a resource for job creation, economic growth, and mobility. It is also a resource for making a difference in the world through a hybrid business called a social enterprise.

“Social enterprises are revenue-generating businesses with a twist,” according to the BC Centre for Social Enterprise. These entities have two core values: To create goodwill and to earn revenue.

A social enterprise can be a for-profit, a nonprofit, or a charity. Perhaps some of those tensions in the past years related to the earning revenue part – business has had a bad reputation. Sometimes when people think about business, they think about scandals and fallout from big companies like Enron, or Lehman Brothers.

In reality, most businesses in this country are small businesses. According to the 2008 U.S. Census Bureau numbers, there were 3,617,764 companies with 1 to 4 employees, compared to 18,469 companies with over 500 employees. Small businesses create jobs. And social enterprises have double value: they create jobs and positive social change. They are an ideal opportunity for social entrepreneurs to change the world and earn revenue.

This bit of background is leading to our story: a story about a silver lining in the dark cloud between the traditional free market economy and the wellbeing of our society…

The Silver Lining

At the end of 2011, Craig Newmark’s craigconnects launched a project with a grand idea: Craig asked people to send in their ideas about how they would change the world in 2012. In early December 2011, Craig’s inspirational call-to-action lead us to submit our idea “How Secretary of Innovation Will Change the World in 365 Days”:

We created SoI’s [Secretary of Innovation] Web of Life series this year. Each day, we post pictures of anything in nature – animals, plants, water, people. We share the beauty and diversity of life as a reminder that everything is part of the Web of Life. is a spinoff of the Web of Life series – WoL means the Web of Life. is one way for people to think about our connection with nature. This new social media project will be a hybrid business model: self-funding for SoI and proceeds donated to charity.

December 27, 2011, our idea to change the world was selected and listed on craigconnects “16 People and Organizations Changing the World in 2012”:

Bessie and Claude DiDomenica over at Secretary of Innovation, share their ideas about building bridges and making connections by sharing “the beauty and diversity of life as a reminder that everything is part of the Web of Life.”

Turning Silver Into Gold

We took our pledge seriously. On December 31, 2012, we launched our photo sharing crowdfunding effort, “WoL” stands for “Web of Life.” Our purpose is to use photo sharing and crowdfunding to raise money for worthy causes. is now in Alpha/proof-of-concept mode.

In January 2013, craigconnects had another call-to-action: How does the Internet give you a voice? We heeded the call and published “How the Internet Gives a Voice”:

For many people, freedom and liberty seem to be ethereal nebulous concepts. However, people without freedom appreciate what we all often take for granted. Our thanks to craigconnects for the opportunity to remember ideas that are most precious to all of us: Freedom and liberty. We all need to work together to protect our liberties.

January 18th is Internet Freedom Day, and we’d like to share a few words of support.

On December 31, 2012, we launched, a photo sharing crowdfunding social enterprise. Our goal is to be a for-profit business run in the spirit of a non-profit: to do good and do well. We want to provide resources for worthy causes. The Internet is a resource for entrepreneurs and small businesses.

The Internet has given us this voice to help others…

January 18, 2013, our blog on Internet freedom was selected and listed on craigconnects “Internet Freedom Day: Giving a voice to the voiceless.”

We were motivated by the challenge to make a difference in the world. Through hard work and finding the right people, has emerged as a social enterprise and a small business to create jobs.

2013 is going to be a great year for and other social enterprises. There is hope, possibility, and a silver lining. If you’ve thought about starting a business, embrace your entrepreneurial spirit! Stop thinking and take a step toward a new reality.

Epilogue has gotten off to a great start! But there is still much work to do. Our volunteer advisory board is in place with eight wonderful people who have offered their help. We invite others to join our advisory board, and welcome celebrity kudos and endorsements.

We are actively looking for other worthy causes that can benefit from crowdfunding. And we are lining up business partners who will provide discounts and freebies for our paying subscribers.

Bessie & Claude DiDomenica

Co-founders | Photo Sharing Philanthropy Engine

“It is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself and others.”

–Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama

About the Authors


Bessie DiDomenica, MBA is a successful entrepreneur, researcher, business professional, writer, social media manager, and agent of change. She is responsible for the contentand business development for

Bessie is a doctoral candidate in public policy and is writing her dissertation on urban food policy.

Claude DiDomenica is a gifted, award-winning jazz composer/guitarist and agent of change with an intuitive talent for solving computer problems. He dreamed up the idea and is the Webmaster and Chief Imagination Officer.

Claude thrives on creativity, and innovation, and is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence.

Copyright © 2013, All Rights Reserved [republished with permission]

What It Means to Be SAFE – a guest blog post from the USO

Safe – such a small word but one loaded with meaning.  To be safe is to be free from hurt, injury, danger or risk. Our troops’ primary focus is to uphold and keep safe our American tenets. Our military families’ primary focus is the safe return of their loved ones so that our service men and women enjoy the rewarding and fulfilling life they so richly deserve.

At the USO, we have a long tradition of “standing by their side” wherever troops are serving — at forward operating bases in a war zone, at military hospitals, in airports or on bases around the world.

Just this week, we officially opened our newest center: the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. It’s the first of two new USO centers in the United States specifically designed to promote a community of care and provide resources, programs and support to our men and women in uniform, especially our wounded, ill and injured troops as they prepare to return to active duty or transition to the next phase of life.

These new centers will be the largest we've ever built but that is not what makes them special. Their mission makes them special. Medical experts tell us that healing happens in places outside an operating suite or rehabilitation facility. Our programs will help troops sustain hope and build confidence in a happy and fulfilling future, keep families together and strong, ensure troops and military families develop a plan for their future and help them build a support network that’s there when progress falters.

These Americans have done their part. Now, as many return to communities across the country and others continue to serve, it’s our turn — all of us — to “stand by their side.”

Supporting the troops has to be more than a slogan. It has to be reflected in action.  Jeep® joined the USO’s mission by contributing more than $1 million in funding and vehicles to the USO for use in programs that directly aid service members and family in their efforts to re-acclimate to civilian life.

Jeep Operation SAFE Return ( was created to address the special needs of returning service men and women along with their families. The program pays tribute to our service men and women through the USO with:

      • Secure Transport: A provision of Jeep brand vehicles to be utilized at USO centers for the transport of troops and supplies
      • Aid for Transition: The brand will assist in their reintegration process through a veteran employment initiative as well as an incentive toward the purchase of a Jeep brand vehicle
      • Freedom Adventures: Through homecoming celebrations and light-hearted engagements, the Jeep brand will provide a much needed hiatus for our troops
      • Enduring Care: Support for the USO continuum of care to assist the wounded, ill and injured troops at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va.

To encourage volunteerism, Jeep also hosted a day of service at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, VA during which its employees provided a night of fun and food for our troops and their families.

Jeep’s Operation SAFE Return invites the public to pay tribute to our troops. Now through May 27, the brand will donate $1 for every person who pledges to join the movement and tweets out their efforts using the hash tag #joinOSR. Through community giving, this program will make a real difference for our troops and their families.

The USO is a private, nonprofit organization, not a government agency. It is through the generous support of corporate partners and individuals that we are able to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families millions of times each year at hundreds of places worldwide. To lend your support to Operation SAFE Return, please visit


Sloan Gibson is CEO and President of the USO. The organization lifts the spirits of America’s troops and their families millions of times each year at hundreds of places worldwide and provides a touch of home through centers at airports and military bases in the United States and abroad, top quality entertainment and innovative programs and services. To learn more about the USO and Operation SAFE Return, please visit and



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Internet Freedom Day: Giving a voice to the voiceless

Hey folks – today is Internet Freedom Day and that's a really big deal. A year ago, many good people on the Internet came together to stop SOPA. Internet Freedom Day reminds us that we all need to work together to preserve what we have and to help everyone realize their own individual voice. It's something which we assert frequently, not just one day, but it's one way to remind ourselves that what we take for granted can be lost.

This year, I asked folks: How does the Internet give you a voice?

I got a lot of really good responses, and wanted to share some of them with you on Internet Freedom Day.

danah boyd: Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research:  In a broadcast environment, the young punk troublemaking activist version of me would never have been given a microphone.  In a world of credentialing and hierarchies, I was nobody. But in 1997, I started blogging. I started documenting what I saw and providing my interpretation of key socio-technical issues. I was able to draw people in and build an audience based on my insights, not my status. This became the foundation of my career. As a teenager, the internet allowed me to realize I wasn't alone. As an adult, the internet allowed me to use my voice to share knowledge and inform others. I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for the internet.

Gary Vaynerchuk, Author, Wine, and Social Media Expert, ‏@garyvee: Allowed a jersey wine retailer like me the chance to speak to the wine world by never leaving my office and not rely on media.

Elisa Camahort Page, ‏Co-Founder of BlogHer, @ElisaC: When I started using it myself it changed ALL. Made me a writer, an activist & finally an entrepreneur.

Ilyse Hogue, ‏President of NARAL, @ilyseh: I've never had trouble having a voice, but it sure as hell has made it louder! #InternetFreedom

Deb Schultz, Co-host of Tummelvision, @debs: Voice is awesome. Step 1…let's think big and move to step 2 – better conversations and action! #internetfreedomday #tummel

Tara Hunt, Author and Entrepreneur: Every time I was lost, the internet found me. Or rather, the people on the internet did, but without the platform, it wouldn't have been possible. Because of the internet, I found a voice, I built a career, I wrote a book, I became a public speaker, I traveled all over the world, I met (and meet) thousands of interesting people I wouldn't have otherwise, I started movements, I joined movements, I met my cofounders, I met the love of my life, I adopted my dog, I keep in touch with my son, I learn and grow every single day…I don’t know if I could even imagine a world without the web. My IRL world and my virtual world are interlinked so deeply that there are no clear boundaries.

Danielle Brigida, Senior Manager of Social Strategy at NWF: The internet gives me a voice, but it also gives me new ears to listen. I feel like I learn so much every day from the people I associate with online. I also know that while it provides unique ways to express myself, it can extend the life of my experiences elsewhere– offline.

Jill M. Foster, Founder of Live Your Talk: The Internet breaks the world of self-assertion wide open. It has become many things, centrally a testing ground for my perspective and creativity. Could an idea work on online video? or better through a photo essay? Or is it better written, brief, and social? It lets answers to these questions be tested more than what I ever imagined; that's powerful for testing voice and point of view. And strangely, the Internet has revealed when silence is golden too, leaving the voice to turn inward or offline.

Sheila Katz, Associate Director of Ask Big Questions: Without a doubt in my mind, I know that the internet has maximized my voice…..[Today] I posted an article on gender equality and shared information on organizations I feel passionate about. I use social media to fundraise for excellent causes, share my voice in national conversations around important issues, and to get more students asking Big Questions. I use the internet to create community and spark action.

@Britrock: For squirrels it obviously gives them a voice where in the past they only had squeaks.

@jamie_love: Allows us to create a user generated new media, in an era where journalism is under-funded and reporting scarce.

Margaret Carney Myers: I get to read about people doing things I have only dreamed of – like protesting the Keystone pipeline on stolen Native American land.

@jerryjamesstone: I am big into food issues and recipes and I am able to explore that with. #InternetFreedom

@connectaschool: If we want to nurture a critical mass of young people who trust and respect each other, we need an Internet that fosters freedom of expression. If we want to empower future leaders to work together towards a healthier and safer planet, we need an Internet that supports an open and fair exchange of ideas.

Team Antenna in Lajan Village, Kurdistan, Iraq, cheer a green light on their modem! The group is participating in Touchable Earth, the first digital world book for kids where kids in each place explain all the facts about it. The Christopher Stevens Youth Network will support efforts like this in 20 countries.

@chr15_eat0n: The internet allows me to connect with freedom fighters around the world & act in solidarity with them.

@yearofkindness1: I started a youth empowerment and anti-bullying movement in my school focusing on bravery and awareness.  The Internet allows me to reach people all over the country at the same time, and it works!

Debby Guardino: I’m just a teacher. I’m not anybody special. But by spending a few weeks on a computer in my living room, I was able to generate $400,000 in donations. I’m just blown away by the power of social media. It’s made me more confident. I feel like I can do anything when I set my mind to it.

Bessie & Claude DiDomenica: For many people, freedom and liberty seem to be ethereal nebulous concepts. However, people without freedom appreciate what we all often take for granted. Our thanks to craigconnects for the opportunity to remember ideas that are most precious to all of us: Freedom and liberty. We all need to work together to protect our liberties…Far too often, there are forces that don’t understand the shortsightedness of censorship.

Angela Young: I think that everyone has something to say. Traditionally, finding the right platform to say it was challenging. Now that we have the Internet, it provides the ability for each and every person to create their on platform to share what they need to, or are inspired to share with others.


I really want to help give a real voice to the voiceless where I can, and it's nice to start with the Internet – a place that gives me a voice too. We need to protect what we have in the US, and that includes really protecting our freedom on the Internet. Let's all make a point to remember #InternetFreedom Day throughout the year, folks, it really connects us and helps to give the powerless real power.


Department of Veterans Affairs gets real stuff done

(from the Department of Giving Credit Where Credit's Due)

VA is getting a lot of good work done, using IT to much better serve veterans, helping address the disability claims backlog, maybe their biggest challenge. Sure, the tech is a work in progress, but the greater issue involves skepticism and low expectations.

Toward this end, they had to change the way they built IT systems, getting together a partnership between the IT people and end users, and including stakeholders, like employees and Veterans Service Organizations. That's not easy in any organization, and a rarity in government. Could be the way IT should work everywhere in Washington, ending the era of big spending on failed projects.

Please don't underestimate this accomplishment; in my industry, incremental development engaging people who'll use the software, that's the norm. However, it's not business as usual in private industry, and rare in government where cost overruns and late delivery of buggy software is frequent.

A big problem, though, is about outdated expectations and getting the word out to stakeholders.  That is, more people outside Washington need to hear about what's going on, and to see that this computer work actually gets the job done.  More on this in a moment.

Veterans can receive ongoing financial benefits from VA, but that means getting through the disability claims system. That involves huge amounts of paper forms and documentation which is often hard to fill out, and suffers from the usual problems. Moving paper around is slow and expensive, and prone to getting lost.

Toward that end, VA has built and is now deploying the Veterans Benefits Management System, all about online workflow management. What's really novel about VBMS is that it was built by IT people working along with the people who'll use it. That's a novelty for government, it's real cultural change.

Filling out disability claims forms is challenging for anyone who doesn't do a lot of it.  So VA is making that easier with VONAPP Direct connect (VDC) on eBenefits.  VDC lets a veteran submit a compensation claim on-line in a turbo tax like, drop down format. VDC isn't a form, it is an electronic interview process that even pre-populates with the information VA has on the Veteran.Vets frequently get help from Vets Service Organizations, VSOs, either at nonprofits or local government and VA wants to partner with the VSOs to improve service.  VA is deploying an electronic interface for VSOs called the Stakeholder Enterprise Portal (SEP).  The deal with SEP is that qualified VSOs can use VDC to directly submit the veteran's data into VBMS  to build a claim and to track the status as it gets processed.  Having this realtime info on the claim makes VSOs even more valuable in the eyes of veterans.

The reality for many VSOs is that they work with existing front end claim builders, like VetPro, to fill in claim forms right, but on paper.  The Digits to Digits effort, D2D, defines the means by which existing software can talk right to VBMS.

In addition, VA is doing some real innovative partnership work with employees, hearing from front line workers about simple changes with large benefits.  For example, if a vet condition has been certified by a private doctor, then there's no point in doing that again with a VA doctor. That suggestion has resulted in the Disability Benefits Questionnaire, which helps get vets qualified more quickly and easily, saving time and money.

A related effort to speed processing is called Fully Developed Claims.The deal is that a claim that’s submitted with all the supporting medical records can be processed relatively quickly. Otherwise, VA must send multiple requests and gather evidence from multiple sources to substantiate a claim—which is a main cause of the backlog.  Fully Developed Claims also free up VA people time to work on more challenging claims, or to work on old claims.

We're seeing other existing partnership efforts pay off for vets. Google, as part of its VetNet effort, has worked with the Chamber of Commerce, Institute for Veterans and Military Families, Hire Heroes USA, VA, and DoD to build the Veterans Job Bank.  The deal is that employers mark job postings as suitable for vets, maybe even with a preference.  You can find it here.

The Blue Button effort is also paying off for veterans, it can be used to download and share both medical and service record info, which is being used by vendors who can read and update Blue Button info for better ongoing treatment.

Finally, VA just announced a contest, where private software developers are challenged to write software that talks to the existing VA clinic systems.  The clinics systems, Open Source VistA, is a real big deal, an early success story. Newly notable is the "open source" part, enabling new ways for VA to engage in partnership.

Partnership has been critical to each VA success, but that partnership has been limited to parties in Washington or in limited local areas.

However, there's been very little outreach to stakeholders outside that relatively small community.  Success is inhibited, it's at risk, unless stakeholders hear about good efforts, particularly they need to hear about new, successful efforts. That is, if no one's talking about a successful effort, it hasn't happened.

Those stakeholders include:

  • veterans and their loved ones
  • VA line workers throughout the system
  • nonprofit VSOs, local and national
  • government VSOs, generally local
  • politicians genuinely concerned with vets
  • Americans who support vets

If you don't keep people in the loop, it's a lot harder to get their buy-in and cooperation.

However, inclusion is really difficult to accomplish for a bunch of reasons, cultural and practical.

  1. The deal is that VA is getting a lot done with in the spirit of internal and external partnership.  However, a lot of stakeholders are way out of the loop, and are frustrated about that. They don't see much progress, and expect what they observed in the past, lots of money being spent with few effective results.Keeping people in the loop is just not expected in US government or business culture, no one teaches it.
  2. Knowledge is power, and not sharing is normally perceived as a means of retaining power.
  3. Bad actors in the press will seize on released news, and will ignore good news, but will attempt to buy audiences by exaggerating bad news.
  4. In Washington, failure is very damaging, and success is rewarded not so much;  personal networking dominates. (Contrast that to the Silicon Valley perception, where failure is just perceived as normal on the way to success.)

Well, people of goodwill can maybe help address that, first by writing a post focusing on success and what got there, writing with brevity. (done?)

Next, well, would be finding a way to broadcast VA success, along with some ideas of what made these efforts successful, or potentially successful.  In these cases, the critical success factor involves the kind of partnership perspective one doesn't often see in Washington.  I guess I've just volunteered to partner up.

I feel that we need to get this stuff to all stakeholders, seriously engaging VSOs and VA, making sure we listen to line workers.  (Seriously, I suspect I've just volunteered.)

Personally, I feel a lot of affinity for efforts like this.  I figure that if an American is willing to risk a bullet for me, I should give back.

As a nerd, well, I'm an IT guy.  As a customer service rep, I'm emotionally invested in the perspective of line workers and their customers.

A nerd's gotta do what a nerd's gotta do.