Free Tools for the New Scientific Revolution

Blogs are great for supplementing real-life events, by giving space and time for specific examples and links which can’t be referenced at the time. I was invited to give a talk last week at the first-ever NASA Information Technology Summit in Washington DC, and the topic I chose was “Government and the Revolution in Scientific Computing.” That’s an area that Microsoft Research has been focusing on quite a bit lately, so below I’ll give some examples I didn’t use at my talk.

One groundrule was that invited private-sector speakers were not allowed to give anything resembling a “sales pitch” of their company’s wares. Fair enough – I’m no salesman.  The person who immediately preceded me, keynoter Vint Cerf, slightly bent the rules and talked a bit about his employer Google’s products, but gee whiz, that’s the prerogative of someone who is in large part responsible for the Internet we all use and love today.

I described in my talk the radical new class of super-powerful technologies enabling large-data research and computing on platforms of real-time and archival government data. That revolution is happening now, and I believe government could and should be playing a different and less passive role. I advocated for increased attention to the ongoing predicament of U.S. research and development funding.

Alex Howard at O’Reilly Radar covered the NASA Summit and today published a nice review of both Vint’s talk and mine.  Some excerpts: Continue reading

A Face in the Crowd

GovFreshGovFresh is a great new web service which aggregates live feeds of official news from U.S. Government Twitter accounts, YouTube channels, RSS feeds, Facebook pages, Flickr photostreams and more, all in one place. It is one of a new class of interactive Government 2.0 services, portals, and tools – many of them just launching in 2009 – which have the potential of revolutionizing the way citizens get and share information about their government.  (I mention several others below.)

At a time when the Iranian people are battling to keep their access open to Twitter, Facebook, and even phone lines in order to mobilize their anti-dictatorial protests, it is heartening that individuals in the United States and many other corners of the world find their governments increasingly willing to share information widely.

Luke Fretwell is GovFresh’s founder, and he’s becoming a welcome new voice in the debates around government technology policy. Luke recently wrote a blog post arguing “Why Gov 2.0 means the U.S. Government must centralize its Web operations.” A heated debate arose in the comments, including my own strenuous disagreement, and yet I became a fast admirer of Luke, his entrepreneurial energy, and the site’s information value.

GovFresh has been running a great series of profile-interviews in its blog section of leading individuals in the “Gov 2.0” movement, and today I was the chosen subject. The article has the unfortunately exaggerated title (in my case): “Gov 2.0 Hero Lewis Shepherd.”  Here’s an excerpt:

What’s the killer app that will make Gov 2.0 the norm instead of the exception?

Can’t tell you because we’re building it in the lab right now, ha! Seriously, the killer app may be something big and powerful, from an enterprise perspective, though I’d put the odds on something less obvious, but more pervasive. Here’s what I mean. I think often about the roots of the original Progressive movement at the dawn of the 20th Century, and their advocacy of direct-vote referendums, championed by Hiram Johnson and the like. Those give the people a direct say over particular issues, but the downside is that “the people” don’t always exercise informed judgment, and popular opinion can be manipulated and swayed by malevolent interests. So I’m looking to Gov 2.0 capabilities that maintain the representative aspect (the elected official, exercising his or her judgment) while incorporating real-time, structured, unfiltered but managed visualizations of popular opinion and advice. I’m intrigued by new services along these lines like www.you2gov.com, www.govfresh.com, www.govtwit.com, and the like, but I’m also a big proponent of semantic computing – called Web 3.0 by some – and that should lead the worlds of crowdsourcing, prediction markets, and open government data movements to unfold in dramatic, previously unexpected ways. We’re working on cool stuff like that.

At the end of the full interview, I observed that “You can’t watch what’s gone on with social software use in Egypt’s Facebook Revolution, our own 2008 campaign, or Iran’s election protests, without feeling that Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson would have been prolific twitterers with awesome blogs.”

In the spirit of empowering the people, instead of lauding one person, I’d like to thank GovFresh for the Hero honor but share the title with those I have worked with in the past few years, and with everyone else around the world engaged in the Gov 2.0 movement – whether they realize that’s what they’re doing or not.

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Elbowing for Obama influence between new CTO, new cyber czar

Today’s Friday – usually a big news day in Washington, whether by design (bury bad news late in a deep weekend news hole) or by human error (bureaucrats tried all week to get something done and slipped it in at the deadline).  There should be Obama cabinet announcements today, and meanwhile tech luminaries across the country are sitting by their phones, drumming their fingers and hoping for a call offering them the position of the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer. Norm Lorentz, who was OMB’s first-ever CTO, told C-SPAN this week that “If I were asked, I would serve in a heartbeat.”

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Several new Microsoft advanced technologies

Fact: As reported in TechCrunch and other sites today, “Microsoft’s Live Labs has just released Thumbtack, a web clipping service that allows users to compile links, media, and text snippets into online storage bins for future reference. Users can also share their Thumbtack collections with their peers, allowing them to collaborate by adding new clips and notations… The service works fine on IE7 and Firefox, and isn’t OS dependent. Each of these clippings can be sorted into folders called ‘Collections’, which can be published to the web via RSS, embedded in blogs, opened to friends for collaboration, or kept private for safe keeping.”  [There’s also a good Ars Technica review of Thumbtack here.]

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Washington Post Puts Microsoft on Page A1 – For Good Research!

Stop the presses! Microsoft Research is getting national front page coverage!

The work of Eric Horvitz and Jure Leskovec got top coverage in major newspapers and news sites today.  With that fame, Eric will probably never again be willing to just while away a Friday afternoon with our Microsoft Institute folks, brainstorming some outside-the-box ideas for future work, as he did this week with us in Redmond’s Building 99.

Right after that meeting, I bugged out of Redmond for a red-eye to the east coast.  Back home in DC this morning (Saturday), I opened my Washington Post to find on page A1, “Instant-Messagers Really Are About Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon: Big Microsoft Study Supports Small World Theory.

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How to Keep Up with the Semantic Space

Fact: Reshma Sohoni, chief executive of Seedcamp (the VC accelerator focusing on European tech startups) said in an interview this week that “In the past few months, we’ve seen a lot more developments around the semantic web,” and talked about the coming value of semantic web services.  

Analysis:  There’s never-ending buzz about the semantic space. Just this week John Conroy writing at the Content Matters blog had a long and interesting piece examining “three ingredients needed to enable and popularize the semantic Web,” with the aim of answering “if we really are on the cusp of a content revolution.”

Also, I admit it, I can’t stop playing with the semantic-space startups, whether it’s Sensebot or the newly launched Evri, or Powerset (just acquired by Microsoft, as I wrote about previously).

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