Crowdsourced Legislation & Policy

Crowdsourcing is going to revolutionize how government legislation is drafted and how policy is created and executed. And why not? The very nature of government crowdsourcing is involving the people in government. Whereas open data initiatives are one way – government publishing info to the masses – crowdsourcing enables two-way collaboration. Citizens will have the ability to actively comment on and shape legislation and policy. That sounds a lot like democracy to me.

How will this revolution occur?

IBM recently produced an excellent series of articles on government crowdsourcing and the co-design and co-production of government services.

If you have 18 minutes, Clay Shirky has an excellent TED talk about how Gits could be used to comment on and revise legislation. This is a brilliant idea that I examine in more detail below. implements a variant of this model, publishing legislation and allowing the public to comment on it. But there’s one major flaw with OpenCongress – Congress isn’t participating. It’s citizens talking to themselves.

John Boehner led the charge to publish legislative data in xml as well as other openness reforms, but why not go all the way and adopt an OpenCongress model, where pending legislation is posted online for public comment, and proposed changes or amendments are tracked and referenced to the legislator making the change?

Why not? Accountability. But hiding from accountability is not Congress serving the people, its Congress protecting its own interests.

I’ve often wondered whether the Department of State will ever crowdsource policy development and execution. DoS could theoretically publish its current or proposed policies in an OpenCongress style forum, (perhaps and allow the public to comment on and edit them. Quality control could be enforced by the crowd itself, with the best ideas and information upvoted and highlighted. This would certainly provide policy-makers with a much wider diversity of opinions and presumably richer data inputs. Who doesn’t want more high quality policy options?

Our Embassies could also post information online on policies towards the host country as well as proposed development/ foreign assistance programs. Posting this information in a collaborative forum would engage a broader swath of host country society and would presumably encourage valuable feedback that might not otherwise be available (e.g. an Embassy might discover that development assistance in particular region is disproportionately guided towards one particular ethnic group by government officials). International visitors could be proposed and voted on by the people. Policy initiatives could be generated by host country nationals. It seems like a great way to actively engage a wider swath of society in the kinds of dialogues we want to engage in.

These moves would inevitably generate criticism of our policies, of course. But if we want to create the best policies based on the best available information, shouldn’t we be willing to place our ideas into the public domain so they can be honed by criticism and feedback? If our ideas can’t survive the public crucible, then I believe they probably weren’t all that wonderful in the first place.

The world is increasingly a marketplace of ideas, and if we want our ideas to survive and thrive, they have to be hearty enough to survive a rigorous public debate. These collaborative forums would also provide us outstanding feedback before policies are actually implemented rather than after, when it will be too late to avoid blowback. Also, audiences are far more likely to forgive bad ideas placed into a collaborative forum where they’re expected to be shaped and critiqued, than bad ideas which never go through critique and debate but are simply announced and implemented.

One other concern is that the crowd is sometimes, well, a mob. NASA offered the crowd an opportunity to name a new space station module. Comedian Stephen Colbert hijacked the effort and his followers ‘won’ the contest for him. NASA declined to name the module ‘Colbert’ but they did name a treadmill after him. Still, it demonstrates that there is the risk that special interest groups could hijack particular issues or the mob could promote frivolous ideas (like petitioning the White House to build a Death Star.)

Nevertheless, the idea of crowdsourcing policy inputs and execution IS going to be implemented, it’s just a matter of when. Will DoS do it proactively in an effort to shape discussions with non-state actors? Or will it do it reactively in response to our foreign policies being debated in open forum without State input?

I hope it’s the former. Ditto for other departments and agencies.

In a future article I’ll go into more detail about exactly how a Git-style policy collaboration tool might work. Until then, you can check out this innovative effort by the NY Legislature to serve up legislative data using an open source platform.

Digital Reputations, Development and Diplomacy – the video presentation

Below is my presentation from the June 7 Tech@State: Moneyball Diplomacy where I analyzed how reputation scores might transform how diplomacy and development are assessed. I’d love any comments you might have on the prezo.

Digital Reputations, Development and Diplomacy

The full slide deck is here.

Following is the text of the presentation as delivered.

Hi I’m Matt Chessen.

I’m going to talk to you about digital reputations and how they could transform diplomacy and development in the future.
Where online reputations are beginning to change how people are perceived across a variety of professions and industries, diplomacy is still struggling with the analog past.

This is part of a performance evaluation for US diplomats from 1949.

A supervisor was expected to circle the selection from each of the different groups that best described the officer.

Some of the more interesting options are:

He is slow to wrath
He shows little taste in his clothes
He is a leader of a group of mature men.

These are obviously highly qualitative, personality-driven forms of evaluation

Unfortunately, subjective evaluation still dominates how diplomats and development professionals evaluate each other and the people we work with.

A diplomat’s reputation, known as their corridor reputation, is still mostly analog, circulating through word of mouth and direct experience.

However, we may be on the verge of a technologically driven transformation similar to what is happening in the private sector.
So lets take a look at what’s out there.

If you’ve ever tweeted, written an online review or posted something on Facebook, you’ve established a digital reputation.

Someone could get a qualitative sense of your reputation from reading your Facebook page, tweets or reviews, and some employers are now doing this as a part of their interview process.

But what we’re interested in is quantified rather than subjective reputation. Something like a reputation credit score.

eBay is one of the pioneers of digital reputation. They had to create a feedback and star system to build trust between distant anonymous buyers and sellers.
Now reputation scores are widely used in these types of online transactions.

For example, freelancers on eLance and oDesk provide services in everything from administrative support to multimedia design; and reputation scores represent the quality of their work.

Now there are many more companies using reputation scores are used to build trust into online commerce.

However, reputation scores are increasingly important in niche professional communities as well.

Kaggle is an interesting example.
Kaggle allows companies to post competitions to see who can come up with the best predictive models for data-sets.

Data scientists compete for the right answer, and get points based on the predictive accuracy of their model.

In the data science field, your Kaggle score is becoming as important as where you went to school or what companies you’ve worked for.
Data scientists with top Kaggle scores are considered stars in their profession.

This isn’t unique.

Reputation scores are now relied on in medicine, programming and translation as an indicator of quality and trust.
The professional reputation score is here to stay.
But the trend is even bigger than that.

Sites like and Facebook are trying to use big data and aggregation models to create the equivalent of a reputation credit score.

I’ll make the prediction that in ten years, your digital reputation score will be as important in your professional life, as your credit score is in your financial life.

So where are the digital reputation scores for diplomacy and development?

There are sites like Global Giving and Great Non-Profits that score development projects and non-governmental organizations. And we need more of this to ensure quality.

However, online communities for development professionals like DevEx, have no reputation scoring.

We need a cultural shift to move away from subjective evaluations based on: who you know, degrees, or years of experience, to qualitative evaluations that more accurately measure talent and work quality.

In the future, more development and diplomacy work will be crowd-sourced.

State is developing an micro-tasking platform that will create an internal marketplace for foreign policy work,
But it creates trust and quality concerns similar to what you see in online commerce.

One solution is to tie the micro-tasking platform to Corridor, which is State and U-S-A-I-Ds internal social network.

Corridor is already used by diplomats to collaborate with colleagues, share professional and personal interests, and interact with potential supervisors during the bidding process.
Combining micro-tasking with Corridor through a reputation engine will allow State personnel to develop digital reputations tied to specific accomplishments that transcend their physical location.

Looking ahead, it’s easy to imagine a future where every foreign contact we meet is electronically catalogued and rated for trust and competency.

Or perhaps diplomats will use the reputation amalgamators to assess foreign diplomats and contacts, and tailor their interactions to the individual.

International assistance programs and managers will certainly be rated online, perhaps even by the communities the programs are designed to help.

And perhaps someday we’ll de-centralize policy development, and use crowdsourcing and reputation scores to source effective solutions to foreign policy problems from the general public.

We can’t really predict how quantified reputations will transform foreign affairs,

but based on the private sector experience, we can infer that reputation scores will improve trust, and elevate the status of high quality people and organizations that make biggest positive contributions to the world.
Thank you.

Note: Comments in this presentation do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.

A wiki for US government crowdsourcing efforts

I created a wikipedia page for US government crowdsourcing initiatives. Update your projects here!

US Navy crowdsourcing ideation

The US Navy has a massive crowdsourced idea engine in the form of a MMOG. I wonder how long it will take them to figure out they can now create Enders Game for real and source innovative strategists from the youth of America?


About MMOWGLI – Game Wiki – MMOWGLI Portal.

Coming soon, the full text and ppt from my presentation at tech@state

Check back this weekend!

Digital reputations, development and diplomacy – the links

Reputation scoring has interested me since my .com days in the early 2000’s. A friend and I came up with a business plan along the lines of what and other reputation amalgamators are doing. Our vision was of an ethical credit score rather than a reputation score, but the ideas are similar. (That friend helped design the reputation system for

When I left Afghanistan in May 2012, I knew that I needed a break from Pol-Mil and security issues. I found myself going back to sci-tech, which along with foreign affairs is a professional life passion. The possibilities inherent in crowdsourcing, specifically the crowdsourcing of policy development and implementation, fascinated me. This course led me to eDiplomacy, where I consider myself quite lucky to be leading State’s implementation of a micro-tasking platform. Reputation scoring and feedback will be key elements of this system.

A few points about reputation that didn’t make it into the presentation:

-Reputation scores are contextual. Just because you have a high eBay score doesn’t mean you’re a good person or pay your bills on time. This will be a challenge for the amalgamators.

-I like this quote from Joe Fernandez at Klout: “Influence measures your ability to drag someone into action. Reputation is an indicator of whether a person is good or bad and, ultimately, are they trustworthy?”

For those interested in more information on how reputation scores are transforming the world, below are a list of good links and references for learning more about the topic:

Rachel Botsman’s website is a great place to start. She has some slick presentations on reputation scores and is an expert on the collaborative economy. Make sure you read her Wired article.

The Atlantic has a good article on how reputation scores are transforming professions.

For those interested in crowdsourcing, David Allan Grier has a new book on Crowdsourcing for Dummies. He remarked to me that he may be the only author to be published by Princeton Press and the For Dummies Series.

Wikipedia uses barnstars as rewards for contributors and editors.

Etsy, TaskRabbit, Lending Club, Amazon Mechanical Turk all integrate some form of reputation scoring., trustcloud, whytrusted, and legit (acquired by Facebook,) all try to amalgamate reputation scores and give users control over their data.

I think Facebook is going to turn out to be the winner in the reputation amalgamation game. They have something the others don’t – hundreds of millions of online identities. Reputation is meaningless if it can’t be tied to a verified identity. Combine this with nearly ubiquitous Facebook sign in and you have Mr. Zuckerberg as the gatekeeper for a large portion of the net. is doing great things in generating psuedo-credit scores for the developing world. Not quite reputation scores, but close, and very admirable.

Wikipedia has a short article on reputation scores and the way people can spoof the systems.

More updates later…

The New Feudalism?

Wired’s Bruce Shchneier recently posted this interesting article ‘When it comes to security, we’re back to feudalism.’ It makes some interesting points, but I think it misses the overall trend. Society, the Internet and Internet Security aren’t moving back to feudalism, we’re moving forward to something more distributed.

Historical feudalism is highly hierarchal. You have the monarch, nobles and knights on top, and the merchants, farmers and peasants on the bottom of the pyramid. I see the future of security as more of an extremely networked and distributed form of organization, like a mesh network. Each of the nodes on the network would be a zone of governance, so to speak. Moving from node to node, you step into different zones with differing rules and structures, many of which overlap. So you might live in a gated community with a private security force, yet it’s still subject to state and local laws. You’d drive on a private highway to your corporate campus, which might have its own security and electric system, but it still draws water from the municipal wells. You use Google for its great web services, but you prefer Apple for its hardware design, closed ecosystem and security. 

For me, the mesh network is a better analogy because all of these pieces tie together and frequently overlap.  So its not the position of each relative to each other that matters. In feudalism, where you are on the pyramid makes all the difference. It’s better being the lowliest knight than the highest serf. Knights have much better security protections, and can provide better security to their lord than a peasant can. With zones of governance, or distributed governance, the position of each relative to each other doesn’t matter. What is important is the strength and nature of the connections between them.

So your gated community can have its own security, but it’s still subject to the authority of the State. A strong connection. The local mall may be owned by a Chinese conglomerate, but they can’t suppress free speech on the property: strong connection to US law; weak connection to Chinese law. You might be 100% android and have a strong connection to Google, or you own an iPhone and use Google maps and Gmail, so you have moderate connections to both. These fall under US law, so there is a strong connection there.

But perhaps you download a Chinese chat app which just happens to be monitored by the PLA. So unknowingly you might have a strong (and negative) Chinese security connection you don’t know about. You may have connections to things you aren’t aware of and probably don’t want to be connected to. Surfacing these hidden connections will probably be critical in the future.

And more important than how strong your security connection is to any one node, is how the overlapping webs of security work together, and how resilient your overall system is to failure. So if access to your Gmail would allow a hacker access to all your other accounts in your personal network, then you do indeed have an artificial hierarchy due to the single point of failure. (Kill the noble and the kingdom falls.) We have to acknowledge that we can’t protect everything, so we have to build our security in such a fashion that if a catastrophic failure occurs, the system has enough redundancy and firewalls that the disaster would be contained (more like the lines of succession in case of the President’s death.)

So I think the mesh network/ distributed governance / zones of governance analogy will be a better method for describing the future of human security and society than medieval feudalism, which was strictly hierarchal. And redundancy is key. In the security environment, this means a much more distributed, networked model. So if gated community security fails, you can still call 911, and if your mobile OS allows in malware, your hardware device has protocols to limit the damage.

Mexican Eco-Terrorists Declare War on Civilization

In Manifesto, Mexican Eco-Terrorists Declare War on Nanotechnology | Danger Room |

Unfortunately the future is only going to have more and more of these violent non-state actors. Al Qaeda isn’t the only game in town, and unlike AQ, anti-civilization groups target all of humanity.

We’re all part of the Universe

I’ve always been fascinated by the Buddhist concept of connectedness. Supposedly (since I haven’t got there yet,) enlightenment comes from the insight and true understanding that we are all connected, and all one. I’ve always understood this in a rational sense – that underneath we are all just energy in different configurations, and that there is no thing in reality called the ego or self – but in practice it’s difficult to always feel and live that connectedness.

In a seminar last week, a participant mentioned that we are all part of the Universe. This simple statement has some serious ontological undertones. Any outside observer looking at the Universe would see you and I as parts of it, but our experience is that we’re separate and distinct elements in it.

Everything in the Universe is in fact part of us. We’re just different manifestations of the same underlying energy.

This quote by Shams Tabrizi says it all

“The universe is a complete unique entity. Everything and everyone is bound together with some invisible strings. Do not break anyone’s heart; do not look down on weaker than you. One’s sorrow at the other side of the world can make the entire world suffer; one’s happiness can make the entire world smile.”

So today, go out in the world and relate to everything and everyone as a part of you. When you see a stranger on the street or greet a friend, relate to them as if they were a part of you, looking from a different perspective.

Our energy origins, the power inside and a fanciful creation story

I was reading this silly article on the physics of the Hulk’s jump, when I came across this interesting passage:

“While I am talking about mass, there is something that always bothered me. Bruce Banner is a pretty normal-looking human, right? But then he turns into The Hulk (I guess The is his first name since it is always capitalized). So, if he goes from 70 kilograms as a human to almost 300 kg as The Hulk, where does the extra mass come from? What if this is conversion of energy to mass from Einstein’s E = mc2? This would take 2.7 x 1019 Joules of energy. Where does that come from? The total power output from the Sun is about 4 x 1026 Watts. However, only about 1.7 x 1017 Watts hits the Earth. If The Hulk used ALL of this solar energy, it would take over two and a half minutes in order to capture enough energy to “transform.” I guess this could be the “getting angry time.””

That really struck me. In order to create 230kg of mass from pure energy, you would need all of the sun’s energy hitting the Earth for two and a half minutes.

This is a huge amount of energy! As beings of matter, we really don’t think about how much energy is tied up in our teeny little bodies.

We would need 40 seconds of all the sun’s energy hitting the Earth to create the matter in your average 160lb human.

Conversely, our bodies hold unbelievable amounts of energy. If you liberated the energy in every atom from just one gram of your body, you’d release about 15 kilotons of explosive force. That’s the yield of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

If you converted all the mass in that average human into energy, the explosive force would be over 1 million kilotons, or over 1000 megatons.

The largest nuclear device ever detonated was the 57 megaton Tsar Bomba device exploded by the USSR in 1961. It created a fireball eight miles wide.

We carry around a tremendous amount of energy in our bodies. And this got me thinking…

Imagine a being made of energy, existing somewhere in a cold, low energy part of the universe. To these beings, we are fearsome machines. Huge, dense with energy, powerful…analogous to the Saturn V rockets which took man to the moon. We have a great advantage over the energy beings – we can exist and survive in areas of the universe that are grimy with all sorts of high energy.

If these beings wanted to explore warmer, more energetic areas of the universe, what better vessel than a capsule made of matter? A machine might work best, but how would an energy being construct a machine? This would require the manipulation of huge, dangerous energies and the exploration of technologies which might be beyond their abilities.

But they could manipulate matter at the molecular level. This involves relatively less energy and complexity. They could create forms of self-replicating matter infused with a code that demands replication and mutation. Over the millennia, these new forms of matter, life, evolve. Eventually these lifeforms develop the necessary complexity and intelligence to craft complex machines for the beings to inhabit.

Because they are made of energy and not subject to the mortalities of life, they can patiently wait for the lifeforms to build machines for them.

But perhaps mechanical vessels are not their end goal. Philosophers have speculated that we are spirits residing in material bodies. Could it be that the objective of the beings has already been met, and they reside in us, their material vessels? Like spacecraft, they pilot us around, utilizing us on their explorations.

This could explain the fundamental struggle of the human condition, the tension between our reptilian and primate instincts forged through thousands of generations of evolution, and the more noble spiritual aspirations of our creator(s)?

Looks to me like the spiritual beings are winning, but the reptilian and primate instincts are putting up one hell of a fight along the way. Progress, but slow progress.

Just a fanciful alternate creation story to lighten your day and get you thinking…