woodWhat other broadcaster in the world would commission films in which there was no dialogue, no music, no camera movement and a stipulation from the director that shots should last a minimum of 10 seconds instead of the usual two or three?

Welcome to Handmade, three lovingly-made gems from the BBC that enter the workshops of three master craftsmen to separately follow the process of the creation of a glass jug, a kitchen knife and a Windsor chair.

This is slow television that reveres its subjects in a back-to-the-future style of filmmaking where the action comes to the frame rather than being pursued by the camera.

For modern audiences accustomed to frenetic delivery and torrents of supplementary detail it requires some adjustment. Lingering shots focus attention on what’s happening but there’s no commentary to explain the process.

These aren’t meant to be ‘How To’ films that will equip you with skills, they’re about appreciating the aesthetic, and the gentle pace reinforces the time and effort invested by the makers. The world may be rushed but some things can’t be hurried.

Framing of events in the workshops is exquisite: long shots, close-ups, mid-shots – if the artist Jean-Francois Millet had been asked to storyboard video scenes this is how he would have done it.

If the visuals are a delight then the audio is an especial treat, augmenting the notion that you’re there, watching and listening, but invisible to the workers.

Picking up the subtleties of natural sound doesn’t come easy: Metalworker Owen Bush has tiny microphones taped to his shirt and his turn-ups. You hear his boots scrunch through scraps of metal shavings and grunts of effort as he pounds away at his anvil.

The apparent ease with which you hear these aural embellishments belies the technical complexity of their capture and the skills of post-production editing – master craftsmen at work with master craftsmen.

There’s no ‘performance’ requirement of any of the three experts featured, they’re doing what they normally do, and the fact that they don’t speak helps concentrate the viewer on the task rather than the individual.

Each film is self-contained and lasts less than 30-minutes; together they are a serendipitous delight.

On the X/Y crosshairs of an audience data graph the series would fit the upper left hand quadrant: small audience, high appreciation, yet it’s not the kind of program-making that comes from focus groups or ask-the-audience sessions.

Handmade captures the uniquely creative essence of public-service broadcasting – a license to experiment, a chance to be original and the opportunity to tell a story free from the burdens of commercial pressure.

Jimmy

A Full Life: Reflections at 90

For many Americans Jimmy Carter will be remembered as one of the worst US presidents in recent history.

His legacy remains blighted by memories of the Iran hostage crisis, still a painful national humiliation, soaring energy costs, crippling stagflation and a sense that the US was emasculated by a weak commander.

The kindest critics describe him as more effective as an ex-president than he ever was as leader of the free world.

He deserves better, both for his term in office from 1977-1981 and as a diplomat and mediator confronting some of the most divisive issues of modern times.

This latest book, the 29th he has published, is not, like so many political autobiographies, an attempt to redeem or even burnish his reputation. It’s more of a personal, matter-of-fact plod through the arc of a diverse life.

There’s a quiet dignity about his perspective on his presidency. There are regrets, but no attempt to retrospectively justify policies and decisions that didn’t work out.

“I look back on those four years with peace and satisfaction, knowing that I did my best and had some notable achievements.”

Foremost among those achievements was the 1978 signing of the Camp David Accords in which Egypt formally recognized the state of Israel.

He defers to his vice-president, Walter Mondale, to sum up the best of their administration, quoting him saying: “We told the truth, we obeyed the law, we kept the peace.” And then he goes on to add: “We championed human rights.”

For a man who has endured so much opprobrium the book is remarkably even-toned, a monochrome view of a colorful career.

There’s no bile or anger directed at political opponents, no hyperbole or intrigue and no ‘setting the record straight’.

He does wish he’d sacked his supreme commander of US forces in Europe, General Alexander Haig, stating: “I had difficulty in understanding what he was trying to say and was concerned about his partisanship and derogation of my policies emphasizing peace and human rights.”

He also had a testy relationship with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany, recording in his diary after a meeting: “He’s a strange man and a good leader of Germany. I’m afraid he has a problem in his attitude toward me…he’s constantly critical of the United States, of our fairness, our commitment, our honesty”.

There may be frustration, but there’s no deep-rooted vindictiveness, no spiteful retorts. Events and meetings are recorded almost as if viewed by an onlooker rather than a key participant. What does shine through, especially in the post-presidential years, is a continued desire to make the world a fairer, better place.

Carter comes across as that rarest of men, a politician who refuses to bend his beliefs to court popularity, and a principled individual whose firmly held opinions have led him into deep and troubled waters.

In 2006 he faced harsh criticism from members of his own Democratic party, the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, and hard-liners in Tel Aviv for condemning Israel’s attitudes towards the Palestinians in his book Palestine – Peace not Apartheid.

He has talked to tyrants, despots and “unsavory people” like North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Ethiopia’s Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

These choices “are not always popular”, he blandly states, but they are not allowed to divert him from efforts to find compromise in intractable situations or broker peace deals where other avenues have ended in deadlock.

He also continues to speak truth to power, denouncing Supreme Court rulings on unlimited, secret campaign funding as a subversion of the US political system.

The country had become an oligarchy in which there was “unlimited political bribery”, he said on a nationally syndicated radio show last month.

Earlier this year he vowed to tackle violence and injustice against girls and women saying it would be the highest priority for the rest of his life.

He hadn’t known then that he had cancer of the liver that has since metastasized to parts of his brain and which he expects to continue to spread as he undergoes treatment.

Just as he did at the end of his presidency, the inevitable parting is being met with a calm dignity: “It is in the hands of God and I am prepared for anything that comes. I feel very good. I have had no pain or debility.”

Telling the truth, obeying the law, keeping the peace and championing human rights is quite a legacy.

So forget Iran, the handover of the Panama Canal, the economic woes and all the other perceived failings. America briefly had the kind of principled president who could pass scrutiny as an exemplar to the rest of the world of the kind of decency, humanity and humility required from a leader in the democratic world.


The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey Oregon trail

You can go a long way with enthusiasm: Two thousand miles in the case of journalist, historian and adventurer Rinker Buck.

His covered wagon epic following in the wheel ruts of America’s 19th Century pioneers is an absorbing mix of trail tales, mule-wrangling and brotherly clashes.

Where Rink is measured and cautious, his younger sibling Nick is gung-ho and excitable. Where Rink is mannered and polite, Nick is brash and vulgar. It’s the bickering between them that provides much of the color.

There’s plenty of humor, too, in the characters of the mules where only one is reliably steady. The second beast exhibits the airs of a prom queen and the third a skittishness bordering on crazy.

They’re a handful for sure and potential dangers are ever present. Items as innocuous expansion joints on a bridge, or a plastic bag snagged on wire and snapping in the breeze, risk spooking the animals with risky consequences for the four-ton rig.

The history of the trail is richly fascinating and it’s here where the book is at its best.

Far from the migration being a deliberate movement, Rink paints details of the varied reasons for joining the exodus: a country riven with clashes between ethnic populations for jobs and space, bitter religious denominational spats and an economy lurching from boom to bust.

Flooding the West with pioneers also suited the purpose of Congress in overwhelming Britain’s lucrative but thinly-staffed fur-trading empire managed by the Hudson Bay Company. And, of course, there was gold fever.

There are some great anecdotes about how the early pioneers were scammed by merchants into oversupplying their wagons. Heavyweight items dumped within the first few miles were recovered by traders and sold again to the next gullible group.

Animals abandoned in the morning by one wagon train were shot and eaten in the evening by members of the one that followed, using utensils that had also been left behind.

Pollution, disease and death were constant companions of the 400,000 or so who made the journey. The Hollywood version would have you believe most were killed by marauding Indians, but filthy water, questionable hygiene and dysentery took the highest toll. And native people, lacking immunity to diseases brought in by the settlers, were cut down as well.

Rink isn’t shy about confronting myths of old, or those being created now, reserving especial odium for the Mormons’ renaming of Devil’s Gate to Martin’s Cove as part of the church’s “parable of noble suffering”.

There are instances where the book descends into mawkish, Waltonesque territory that I could have done without. This is where Rink sheds wagonloads of Catholic guilt about not being at his dying father’s bedside, of always being a disappointment to him and of his own general feelings of inadequacy.

However, movie executives will, I’m sure, be champing at the bit for a family friendly version of this modern-day glimpse into How The West Was Really Won.

20288812572_b85c321e3e_mShadowplay: The hidden beliefs and coded politics of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare can be tough to decipher at the best of times and now there’s another layer of complexity to think about.

Fortunately, code-breaking author Clare Asquith is an excellent interpreter and fashions a page-turning thriller from a tangled web of period politics.

Why did the Bard quit writing and return to Stratford at the height of his powers? Is it credible to think that the greatest playwright of the age would have nothing to say about the turbulent times in which he lived? What did Shakespeare believe in and to whom did his sympathies lie?

The answers to these questions don’t come easy. The concealed messages and ambiguities have eluded scholars for more than 400 years and modern day academic skeptics abound.

It’s the breadth and depth of Asquith’s research in support of her conclusions that make the book so compelling. Little is known about the man, but her painstaking and rigorous inquiries give great insight into neglected areas of an already well documented era.

Shakespeare was living in a virtual police state, an England where political beliefs weren’t just cerebral debating points: Where you stood on an issue, what you said and what you did had consequences – and the wrong answers could cost you dear.

Coded messages

Was your ultimate allegiance to the church or state, monarch or to God? Were you Catholic or Protestant, Jesuit or Puritan? Where did you go? Who did you see? What did you do? Where did your loyalties lie?

Walsingham’s spy network was constantly on alert for plots from abroad and dissidence from within. An allegation, a rumor, a betrayal, any whiff of insurrection could lead to dispossession, torture and a grisly execution.

It’s within this context that Asquith unravels the coded messages that have become even more opaque through the passage of time.

Few of Shakespeare’s contemporaries are read today and, as she explains, the sophisticated elite then were better versed in the classics than many modern theatregoers; they were attuned to allegories, allusions and hidden meanings.

One court dramatist of the time described his play as a Trojan horse: an elaborate gift concealing an unpalatable message.

The subversive genius of Shakespeare was to get his message through to a Catholic audience while concealing the true meaning from the rest. This was a dangerous tightrope to be on and one he walked for many years until, it seems, he had a major fall from grace.

FolioYou have to admire the chutzpah of Seattle entrepreneur David Brewster and his latest notion – an athenaeum in the heart of the city of Amazon.

Not only does it cock a snook at digitization of the printed word, it’s housed just a block away from the city’s acclaimed public library, home to nearly 1.5m books.

What on earth is he thinking? There hasn’t been a new athenaeum in the US since 1899 and it’s little wonder. Why would anyone pay to join a library when the excellent public network is ubiquitous and free?

Why, in the age of eBooks, would anyone forgo the convenience of digital downloads to brave Seattle’s notorious congestion and go to a physical address downtown?

Brewster smiles patiently as I trot out the objections. He has a gleam in his eye and a vision of his bibliophile’s heaven.

Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum will be a social hub, a curated collection, a quiet place to read and contemplate and work. It’ll be a place for discussion groups and literary seminars, for concerts and serendipitous connections – a place to cultivate ideas.

It’s housed in part of the Y building at Fourth and Marion which is currently being refurbished ahead of an anticipated opening in October. There are already hundreds of books on the shelves and more stacked in piles awaiting classification.

Many have been donated from the private libraries of individuals. Folio aims to keep these as collections that might otherwise have been broken up.

The focus is on “quality books” so it’s not the place for the latest bodice ripper or Dan Brown. Its curation favors art, architecture, literature, history, economics, political science, journalism, philosophy, law and natural sciences. It’s especially strong on books about the Pacific Northwest.

All these, of course, can be found at the public library up the hill and while Brewster is careful not to denigrate its efforts, he points out that it has an ever-widening remit in its provision of information services.

His focus is much narrower – readers who cherish physical books and the tangible pleasures of reading, and authors who need a place to research, to write and to connect with other authors.

If it sounds like an elitist home for the literati it isn’t meant to be. Anyone can pop in and read books at Folio, just not take them away, and free or low-cost public programs are promised. Borrowing books requires membership which is $125 a year.

Brewster is especially keen for Folio to become a hub for young, up-and-coming writers in the area and board member Steve Scher, the journalist and former KUOW commentator, sees it as a potential space from which he can produce live podcasts on books.

So far the enterprise – a tax exempt, non-profit – has raised almost $100,000 towards running costs. The gamble for donors is whether the niche is strong enough and distinctive enough to attract and retain members in a whirlwind of digital disruption and changing consumer habits.

 They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy

 image1By happy coincidence my two latest library books were delivered at the same time: a hardback on Shakespeare’s coded writing, Shadowplay, by Clare Asquith and a digital copy of Robert Scheer’s They Know Everything About You.

Though separated by almost 500 years they share a number of common themes: manipulation of the law, curtailment of individual rights and abuse of power.

It’s tempting to think of a meeting between Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham and his present day NSA counterparts. How he would have marveled at, and enjoyed, the apparatus of the watchers of the modern state.

Along with William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief adviser, Walsingham turned England into a police state.  Feared threats from Catholic plotters at home and Jesuit infiltrators abroad were met with manhunts, torture, extracted confessions and executions.

Fast forward to the post 9-11 period and substitute al-Qaeda or ISIS for the Catholic menace and the same tactics and justifications are being made for the extraordinary powers needed to protect the homeland.

Since 9-11 the US has spent more than $500bn on intelligence, according to veteran journalist Scheer.

Following the attack on the World Trade Center, “priorities shifted from viewing the preservation of individual liberty as the guarantor of freedom to the justification of unbridled government power exercised in the name of preserving national security”.

And we’ve all gone along with it. We’ve become inured to intrusion and surrendered our privacy.

We accept CCTVs recording our presence, we know our emails are sifted for keywords, we willingly surrender our location history, we helpfully codify our social networks, we give up our relationship status and a million other things without being compelled to do so. We do it because on balance it makes our lives easier; we’ve traded convenience for privacy.

So far, so yawn. But Scheer reminds us there’s also a darker side to today’s unprecedented level of data gathering: “The point of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was was to show that the public would come to accept totalitarian intrusion as part of the normal fabric of life, as something that was actually good for them”.

Except, of course, that it’s not. Scheer contends that the US surveillance state, governed by secrecy, drew the country into a futile search for weapons of mass destruction, a war with Iraq, and laid the foundation for the emergence of a jihadi caliphate hundreds of times bigger and better organized than al-Qaeda.

The war on terror had become a war on the public’s right to know, a bipartisan crusade that destroyed the foundation of democracy – an informed public.

It was only through whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures that we came to learn digital behemoths like Google, Facebook, AoL and Microsoft had been compelled (some more willingly than others) to surrender vast amounts of data to the state surveillance apparatus.

The dirty secret of the internet was that it was privacy and not just advertising that was being sold.

Scheer states: “While there is no doubt the commercial exploitation of our most intimate practices to enhance advertising sales is destructive of privacy, it is a qualitatively different assault than secret monitoring by a government agency.”

He argues that government intrusions subvert constitutional intent and basic rights, specifically the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of private space to collect one’s thoughts and papers free from the intimidating surveillance of government.

All the more surprising then that President Obama, a former constitutional law professor, has not only continued Bush-era surveillance powers but has expanded “on that horrid legacy” by cracking down on the press and prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous US presidents combined.

It is here that Scheer delivers his most withering criticism of the president using a campaign speech the then-Senator Obama delivered in 2007 to deride President Bush’s “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand”.

His own administration, he said, would provide tools to take out terrorists without undermining the Constitution: “That means no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime…No more ignoring the law when it is not convenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works…”

Scheer’s analysis is a gift to critics of the Obama administration but his frustration goes far deeper than simple partisan politics. He is neither a hysterical commentator, nor a soapbox scaremonger, but a man who believes the nation is sleepwalking on a dangerous path towards its own destruction.

In a rallying call for citizen action he cites the dictum that: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking that they don’t have any”.

And he warns: “If we persist in apathetically accepting the privacy invasions of corporations and the predations of our own government – perhaps believing the war is already lost – our dystopian future is clear: a world where our private and public spheres are the same, where any agency or business or even individual who can afford the fee can scrutinize us at their leisure, and penalize us for any perceived defect or nonconformity.”

Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop – Guardians of the American Century

The names Woodward and Bernstein are probably still the first to come to mind when considering the high point of investigative journalism in the US.

But for four decades before the Watergate scandal two brothers were pre-eminent in breaking the biggest stories of the time and delivering the most influential commentaries on them, the Alsops.

Author Bob Merry brings the characters of Joseph and Stewart alive with a political insider’s eye on their methods and a firm grasp of historical background to put their reporting into perspective.

The brothers were prolific writers and they were golden. Four columns a week, every week, syndicated to 175 newspapers across the country, plus opinion pieces, extended investigative articles, political profiles, deep features and even books.

With family ties to the Roosevelts and a privileged upbringing they started out with a stellar contacts book and they worked hard to cultivate even more by hosting high-level dinner parties for makers and shakers of all persuasions.

There’s a wonderful anecdote from one of the parties in the 1950s in which a phone call for Dean Rusk, then the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, disrupts the evening.

He takes the call, returns to the gathering looking ashen-faced and declares that he has to go. Within minutes Army Secretary Frank Pace and Air Force assistant secretary John McCone offer apologies and also depart abruptly. There had been, said Rusk, “some kind of border incident” in Korea.

It was, in fact, a full-scale invasion of the south by the north and illustrates one of the themes that runs through the book, the Alsops proximity to the biggest breaking stories and their close ties to those in power.

Joe saw eight presidents come and go during his time and he was a frequent guest at the White House where he was forthright with his opinions and free with his advice.

He and his brother were among the original WASPs, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who wanted to preserve the mores and values of their caste and keep its place in shaping the destiny of the nation.

They endured through the most turbulent times of the 20th Century: WW2 – from which Stewart emerged with a Croix de Guerre with Palm from Charles de Gaulle – the last gasps of the Pax Britannica, the “loss” of China to the communist party, wars in Korea and Vietnam, McCarthyism, the Oppenheimer affair, the Suez debacle, the Cuban missile crisis, the election and assassination of JFK, the Watts riots, and Nixon’s Watergate disgrace.

As the world turned, Joe’s view of America’s place in the world became increasingly out of step with the opinions and aspirations of a younger generation. His writing became increasingly polemical and his influence less and less so.

His last book, I’ve Seen the Best of It, underscores his belief that America’s best days were those when the old elite flourished and it comes with a sense of sad incomprehension that not everyone else could see it that way.

Fiber optic

Flickr image by x_tine

Within the next decade the US should be well on its way to becoming a Gigabit Nation.

Superfast broadband – or Gigabit Internet – holds the promise of delivering richer and more immersive entertainment and gaming, new skills, new jobs, new lifestyles and even greater possibilities for prosperity.

If that sounds like a rosy depiction of the future, it is, but there’s a dark side too, which has the potential to leave communities and groups that are most in need of assistance at a severe disadvantage. You could call it a Gigabit Divide; one which could grow with speed of service.

The benefits of fiber for homes and businesses can be encapsulated in three words – bigger, better, faster: Bigger flows of data, better connectivity and faster uploads and downloads. Yet 30 million-plus Americans currently have no broadband connection of any kind.

Professor Susan Crawford who served as President Barack Obama’s Special Assistant for Science, Technology and Innovation, warned back in 2009 that: “We are creating two Americas where the wealthy have access . . . while others are left on a bike path, unable to join in the social and economic benefits that the Internet brings”.

Wealth inequality in the U.S. is almost as wide now as when the stock market crashed in 1929 so there’s every reason to suppose the roll-out of superfast Internet services will leave millions more people in the technological slow lane.

The rules of engagement are sometimes tricky. Requirements of Gigabit Internet providers can include neighborhood adoption rate minimums and hook-up costs which threaten to shut out lower-income households. One alternative in the near-term is greater investment in ultra-high-speed broadband in public venues such as libraries and community centers.

Very real concerns about inequity aside, Blair Levin, who leads a group of U.S. universities that are seeking to accelerate the deployment of high-speed networks, believes it is still the best path to drive economic growth and to stimulate innovation in areas like healthcare and education.

The issue for communities, he believes, is how to take advantage of digital wealth, how to create what he calls community capital and how to have a stake in the civic society of the future.

Information – cheaply distributed – creates wealth

Speaking at a regional broadband summit in St Louis in September, he said:” The most valuable resource in our economy is information and as the distribution cost of the wealth approaches zero, digital technology has the ability to create a kind of wealth unknown in other times; the best for one becomes available for all.”

While digital wealth was not a panacea, he said, no community would have jobs or opportunity if it didn’t allow its residents full access to digital wealth and for that to be available there had to be a network.

A recent study commissioned by the Fiber to the Home Council examined 55 U.S. communities in nine states and found that the 14 which had widespread Gigabit Internet access had per capita gross domestic product – or total combined economic activity – 1.1 percent higher than the 41 similar locales without it. Those 41 communities lost a total of as much as $3.3 billion in economic activity as a result, the study found.

The relative speed and cost of U.S. networks compared with other parts of the world is a prime concern for many telecoms specialists who fear the U.S. could lose its competitive edge in areas like business, education and innovation.

Population density a key factor

Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea routinely top the table for high-speed services. All three have densely-packed metropolitan areas with high-rise apartments  (almost half of the 50 million population of South Korea lives in the Seoul Capital Area)  making them attractive propositions for commercial players. Delivering fiber to small, remote communities is much less so.

As of last year, the Fiber to the Home Council reported market penetration of ultra-high-speed Internet in the U.S. was 8.4 percent of residential customers, far behind United Arab Emirates (72 percent), South Korea (70 percent), Japan (50 percent), Taiwan (45 percent) and Hong Kong (44 percent).

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler recently told Washington D.C.’s 1776 start-up community that where competition could not be expected to exist, the government would have to shoulder the responsibility.

“One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve.

“Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge – not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.”

Platform for radical innovation

How that unfolds remains unclear, as Wheeler’s use of “whomever” underlines. But Gigabit-age innovation could spark widely-distributed benefits which partly make up for varying home Internet speeds. Pew Research recently canvassed opinions for killer apps in the Gigabit Age and received more than 1,400 responses. Suggestions ranged from remote surgery and virtual reality environments for living, to disaggregated schooling.

The truth is no one really knows what’s coming but they expect it to be profound. And if they did know, as media specialist George Leddard declared:  “I wouldn’t tell you, I’d invest in it”.

Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, summed it up when he told Pew: “I could not have predicted Google, Facebook, Blogger, or certainly Twitter. So there’s no way I can predict what ubiquitous gigabit bandwidth will bring. I only know I want it.”

This story was commissioned by and first appeared on The Open Standard website.

“Thank you for calling our customer service line. All our representatives are busy at the moment. Your call is important to us. Please hold why we try to connect you to one of our agents.” Cue a distorted version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Welcome to the Fifth Circle of Hell.

Dante would surely recognize the call center as a modern day equivalent of his vision of the Styx where “the wrathful fight each other on the surface and the sullen lie gurgling beneath the water, withdrawn into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe”.

Necessary evils they may be, but call centers do have the devil’s own job to perform. They occupy the place between “us”, the public, and “them”, the administrators/mindless bureaucrats/pettifogging functionaries – depending on your point of view.

It’s a thankless task. And while some perform heroically well, calling a call center is too often a dread experience to be avoided whenever possible.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Developers with a vision of greater transparency in government and a more engaged citizenry are using technology to transform the civic landscape in a slow but steady erosion of established practices.

In the UK, a not-for-profit social enterprise, mySociety has been spearheading the change with a web-based, open-source platform called FixMyStreet.

Launched in 2007 for ratepayers to report issues ranging from potholes in streets, to graffiti, to broken street lights and dog fouling, it’s become the UK’s most widely used fault-reporting website.

It’s based on a technical standard called Open311 and provides a way for computers of ordinary people to report problems to the computers of the people who can fix them.

Its US equivalent, SeeClickFix provides a similar framework for public action but for the service to really take off it needs the buy-in of local authorities and getting that is a problem.

SeeClickFix for Seattle is a good example. More than 400 issues going back to 2011 have been logged by locals and there hasn’t been a single official response on the site to any of them:

 “Street drain grate missing at street end. South side of street partially clogged with debris.”

“This van has been parked in the same parking spot all year and has not moved. It is filled with junk and garbage, not sure if someone is living in it or not.”

There are numerous reasons why town halls don’t engage: It can be viewed as yet another feedback channel to support, an unwarranted cost, an extra IT overhead and maybe even a little bit too open for comfort.

According to Myfanwy Nixon, mySociety’s communications officer, it most frequently takes the form in the UK of councils replying to users saying they must use the council’s own reporting system.

“The most common reason is that their systems can’t accept FixMyStreet reports – the fields don’t match up.”

“Obviously, we’re big fans of people being able to make reports from whichever platform they wish, be it the council’s website, FixMyStreet, Facebook, Twitter, text… and we’ll always work with any council to find a solution if we can. We’re advocates of Open311 to the extent that we’ll offer free integration if the council’s system is configured correctly.”

US transparency advocate Philip Ashlock said: “Cost is definitely a major factor.

“I think there’s also a cultural hurdle around the transparency of the approach with things like Open311 in terms of forcing a government to confront demand and be honest about how well it can meet that.”

SeeClickFix does provide a list of its top performers but big cities like Chicago and New York stick with 311 phone calls – a single number, non-emergency, government helpline – for the bulk of their interactions.

The number is easy to remember, citizens don’t have to root through phone directories and tiers of government to know who to call and it suits people who aren’t adept or comfortable with computers.

Last year Chicago’s 311 unit received 3.9m inquiries across the full range of issues that arise in a modern metropolis – and in multiple languages too.

For the most part is works well; Chicago is transparent about performance in its engagement with the public. You can go online and see metrics about average wait times for calls to be answered, call abandonment rates, call volumes and agent efficiency statistics.

The early adoption of 311 call centers suggests why the US might be lagging behind the UK in harnessing Open311 web technology.

According to Ashlock: “The big difference between the UK and the US is that the UK doesn’t have the history of 311 or cities that provided some of that kind of interaction on their own, so FixMyStreet was serving a need and providing interactions that governments really weren’t doing at all on their own.

“In the US there were already a number of major cities that had a 311 call center to handle issues like this and let them be tracked to resolution, but apps like SeeClickFix worked to make those interactions much more public and social and generally easier to use.”

Making interactions public and social is a key part of Open311’s appeal as mySociety developer Dave Whiteland states: “We didn’t originally build FixMyStreet because we wanted to get potholes fixed.

“We built it because we wanted nervous, politically inexperienced people to know what it felt like to ask the government to do something, and to be successful at that.

“We wanted to give people the buzz of feeling like they have a bit of power in this world, even if the most tiny amount.

“If the government fixes a problem and the citizen doesn’t find out it’s a double loss. The citizen becomes disillusioned and weakened, and the government doesn’t get the credit it is due. Everyone loses.”

Seattle town hall has its own mobile app for citizens to report issues, Find It, Fix It, and it lacks both the public and social elements of Open311. It’s a closed loop interaction between the individual and the city and it’s had some testy reviews in the Apple store:

“Even when it did work the city closed the case without taking care of the illegal dumping or communicating with me on the status of my request.”

“City called the case closed without removing the dirty sofa illegally dumped on my side walk! I don’t think they look at those requests. Useless apps. Crashed and now I can’t even open it…”

“I reported a streetlight that was lit during the day. The report sat there for months before it expired with no response. What’s the point of this app if nobody responds to reports?”

Get it right and the joined up experience works “incredibly well” according to Chris Palmer at the London Borough of Barnet: “Rather than putting you through a ‘customer service process’, FixMyStreet gives you a clear idea of what’s happening, allows you to contact your council from standing in the middle of the street with your phone, and gets you a quick response.”

mySociety’s Myfanwy Nixon said one of the organization’s main aims was to serve people who might never have contacted their council about the things that bothered them in their own community.

“The metric we set most store by is the percentage of people who answer our follow-up site survey to say that this is the first time they have reported something to the council. This is consistently over 50% and currently runs at 53.5% over all time.”

She said there was a general understanding in UK councils now, of the benefits of channel shifting and increased transparency.

“We tend to promote FMS in terms of its extreme usability…(and) as a proven means to reduce reports made by phone, it saves the council money that would otherwise be spent on staffing the phone lines.”

She added: “The benefits of transparency go both ways: councils typically do a lot of hidden, unappreciated work which FMS can help highlight. Equally, councils can dispel misconceptions in public – by explaining their actions online, they are reaching many people rather than the single person they can talk to on the phone or by email.

Nixon said there was also a general understanding of the low levels of council funding in the UK at the moment. Her own council was canvassing opinions from residents on how to prioritize spending for the coming year in the face of austerity measures from central government.

“So, perhaps at the moment, funding gaps are not something that councils feel they have to hide.”

Community-based effort to get things done has found favor in Zurich, one of the cleanest and most efficient cities in the world, and the open source software that underpins it has also been used for other crowdsourced efforts such as reporting empty homes and tackling anti-social behavior.

The latest initiative to come from mySociety is Collideoscope, a tool for reporting and gathering data on cycle accidents in London which will be used to provide insights into accident prevention.

It’s another example of the way data is being aggregated and shared and illustrates how crowdsourcing allied to greater transparency can deliver small pockets of feedback to achieve potentially big results.

News produced by the people, for the people, without the involvement of traditional journalists – it’s a nightmare vision for survivors of the digital hurricane that has battered news organizations over the past decade.

Alternatively, it’s a vision of the future in which hyper-local events get covered that wouldn’t otherwise be on the radar of traditional media or would go unreported because of newsroom cuts.

The prospect of the audience doing it for themselves, providing “journalism as a service,” triggered researchers Andrés Monroy-Hernández and Elena Agapie to conduct a trial they called Eventful at Microsoft Labs in Seattle, Wa.

The pair presented their findings at MIT’s Collective Intelligence Conference in June, acknowledging that: “Professional journalism is a complex endeavor that we are not proposing to replace with Eventful.

“However, we are inspired by citizen journalism as a model that opens up new possibilities for non-experts to carry out journalistic tasks.”

They used their experimental platform to recruit crowd workers as writers, reporters and curators, to assign “missions” and to trial six events they felt were unlikely to be covered by mainstream media: two town hall events, an art show, a hackathon, a festival and a public talk.

These crowd workers were asked to perform tasks such as taking photos, recording audio or video, conducting interviews while getting real-time feedback from content curators, before the final piece was stitched together by writers.

Overall the tasks were accomplished and most within an hour of the event ending. Hernandez and Agapie believe they showed that Eventful could provide a sustainable end-to-end solution for local news production given time-commitment contributions from the community and what they called “interest aggregation”.

The barrier to the kinds of events it can be used on necessarily remains low before questions of legality, balance and accuracy make implementation far more trying.  “Pro-am” partnerships seem to offer far greater potential and have a good track record of excellent results.

It was a different kind of “interest aggregation” that led ProPublica to set up its Patient Harm Community group, a community which now has more than 2,300 members.  It did so not on its own site but on Facebook, an interesting departure for a news organization.

The group is “a place for those who have experienced harm while undergoing medical treatment and their loved ones to learn, share resources and connect with others”.

While the site is moderated by ProPublica staff, the information shared in the group is public and therefore open to competitors to mine for contacts, quotes and case studies. That’s fine by ProPublica too.

In an interview with the Neiman Lab, ProPublica reporter Marshall Allen described it as a form of service journalism: “Not so much by putting them in touch with us, but more by putting them in touch with one another.”

It’s an enlightened view. For many newsgathering operations the audience is a source to be plundered. There are few long-term relationships in the quest for news; it’s mostly a series of one-night stands.

ProPublica made good with another of its collaborative pieces of journalism, crowdsourcing the flow of ‘dark money’ political ad spending during the 2012 presidential election.

Almost 1,000 people rallied to the cause and after 10 weeks of effort and 16,000 files later a billion dollars of ad contracts had been logged. It also prompted the company to challenge the Federal Communications Commission to require TV stations to submit a series of key points as structured data to make ad spending more transparent.

In the UK, one of the early triumphs of The Guardian’s crowdsourcing efforts came when it tackled the expenses claims scandal of British Members of Parliament.

Buried by a government data dump of 700,000 documents covering every claim from each of the 646 MPs over four years they turned to the audience for help in digging out the best stories.  Within the first 80 hours almost 70,000 files had been reviewed by readers.

Alfred Hermida, associate professor at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism, and author of the newly-published book Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, believes important lessons emerged from that exercise and that they continue to resonate today.

“The reason it worked well was down to publication, timing and implementation. The Guardian could reach out to an audience who had a pre-existing interest in politics and this type of accountability journalism.

“Timing was critical as the project was launched when the topic of MPs’ expenses was in the news, so it tapped into the contemporary zeitgeist, but one key element was the implementation of the project,” said Prof Hermida.

“The Guardian made it easy for people to engage on different levels. They could look at a couple of receipts or at 10. It also added a social factor, where readers could see how they stacked up against other readers. So it also took advantage of game mechanics to make it fun to participate in the crowdsourced project.”

Prof Hermida spelled out four key components that he thought contributed to best practices in crowdsourcing initiatives:

1) Focus: Make a clear and specific ask so that your audience knows what is required of them.

2) Levels of commitment: Enable audiences to participate on their own terms. Some people may have an hour to spend on the project, others a few minutes. Providing a range of options will help to attract a broader range of contributors.

3) Recognize and reward: Make sure to acknowledge publicly the contributions from your audience and even reward them, not necessarily financially but socially, for example through a list of the most active contributors.

4) Cultivate community: Build on your existing audiences and engage with new ones before making the ask. If audiences have a connection to your organization, they are more likely to help out with a crowdsourcing initiative.

Above all, share the project with the audiences. Engage, listen and acknowledge contributors throughout the process.

Prof Hermida said: “They are as much part of the project as the media organization. This means moving away from a transmission mindset and viewing the audience as a source. It is about communication and the audience as partners.”

That chimes well with fellow Professor Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, who revealed plans for a new social journalism degree at the City University of New York (CUNY).

The course was still awaiting state approval, he said at this year’s Online News Association conference in Chicago, but if it was given the go-ahead for January it would be turning journalism on its head.

“Rather than starting with the idea that we make content, it starts with the idea that we serve communities. How do we start? By listening to those communities, understanding them, understanding their needs and then serving them with all the tools we have at hand.

“Social journalism is more than just social media. I think that we in media look at social journalism as another way to publish, another way to get our stuff out there and that’s part of it but really, truly, social media is about connecting with real people and no longer treating people as a mass.

“You know gigantic Google understands me as an individual, it knows where I live and where I work. My newspaper doesn’t. That’s kind of ridiculous so how do we get a news organization to know people as individuals and communities first, understand what those needs are first, then figure out how to serve those needs….it’s really about relationships with the public, it’s not so much about being a content factory.”