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Prepared Remarks: Broadband and the Future of Civic Engagement

February 24th, 2010 by Admin User

Prepared Remarks of Eugene J. Huang
Government Operations Director – National Broadband Task Force
MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media
“Broadband and the Future of Civic Engagement”

Introduction

Thank you for that kind introduction. It is wonderful to be here at MIT and my deep appreciation to MIT for serving as our hosts today. MIT has produced many great graduates. Not the least of which is a member of my team, Vishal Doshi.  To Vishal, thank you for your hard work on the National Broadband Plan. To MIT, thank you for letting him graduate.

In all seriousness, MIT and the Center for Future Civic Media is a leader in the area that my remarks will address today – the area of civic engagement. You truly are leading the world in innovation at the intersection of technology and civic engagement – with an incredible number of groundbreaking projects going on here. From NewsFlow, which maps real-time news reporting, to Lost in Boston, a web tool that cities can use to engage citizens in improvement projects, there is tremendous innovation happening here.

For the team members who have worked on the civic engagement section of the National Broadband Plan, this has been a long journey. Many hours of work, and many sleep deprived days and nights will have been spent on the plan – a plan that when it is released in about two weeks – will inspire a vision for broadband’s future in America.  The team has worked very hard to get to this point, and before I lay out our proposed recommendations, I’d like to take a minute to explain how we got here.

Congressional Mandate

The path to a National Broadband Plan began over a year ago with Congress. Congress tasked the FCC with developing a National Broadband Plan as part of the Recovery Act.  And to quote directly from the Recovery Act, the ambitious goal of the plan is to ensure that every American has “access to broadband capability.”

Congress mandated that the plan address four questions:

  • First, how will broadband infrastructure be deployed throughout the United States? This question is answered through an analysis of the most efficient and effective means to deploy broadband – either via wired, wireless, or satellite infrastructure –to ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband.
  • Second, how will we ensure adoption of broadband services in the United States? This question has led to a detailed strategy for adoption of broadband services, including achieving affordable access to broadband services, as well as maximum utilization of broadband infrastructure and service by the public.
  • Third, what is the status of broadband deployment in the United States?
  • And fourth, how will Americans use broadband services in the future? To address this question, we have looked at how broadband will advance specific national priorities, including government performance and civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, worker training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation and economic growth.

National Broadband Task Force

So how did we develop answers to each of these four questions?

To develop the National Broadband Plan, Blair Levin, our director, assembled a task force of staff from backgrounds including government employees, individuals from the private sector, technologists, consultants, venture capitalists, MBA’s, PhD’s, and, yes, lawyers.

But don’t blame me, I’m an electrical engineer and a technologist, not a lawyer.

Overall, we’ve described the work we’ve undertaken since last summer as a three act play.  In June and July of last year, we began with the Prologue, outlining the process and vision serving as the foundation for the plan. Act I, starting in August and continuing through December, represented our fact gathering stage. Act II stretched into January and focused on analyzing the facts that had been collected.  And in Act III, our final act, the Task Force is developing our recommendations prior to the release of the plan in a few short weeks. We are doing our best to ensure that the plan is neither a tragedy nor a comedy.

In all seriousness, during this process, the FCC has worked hard to practice what we preach in terms of civic engagement.

One of the major goals for the process of developing the National Broadband Plan is to ensure that we are transparent, inclusive and participatory. To that end, I’m proud to say that this has been the most open, transparent, data-driven process in FCC history.  We’ve attempted to practice what we preach by seeking public input in a variety of ways.

We have held more than 35 public workshops with well over 350 panelists on the different topics that the plan will address. These workshops have generated tremendous interest with more than 1,000 people attending in person and more than 5,000 people participating online. Every one of the workshops has been streamed online, and individuals have been able to participate from as far away as American Samoa and Sweden.

We’ve also had a record number of public notices. For everyone here that isn’t steeped in the minutiae of how the FCC goes about its work, a public notice is the way the government formally asks for public comment or input on an issue. We released 30 public notices – and in return, we amassed a significant volume of public comments that represents a public record of over 20,000 individual responses that total in excess of 70,000 pages.

The FCC has also made extensive use of social media and crowd sourcing tools during this process.  The FCC launched a presence on Facebook, twitter and other social media sites.  Since launching on Twitter last fall, we have amassed more than 330,000 twitter followers, making us the third highest of any government agency – behind only the White House and the CDC.

If government Twitter followers were an Olympic Sport, we would have been awarded a bronze medal – a significant accomplishment since the gold medal went to the President and the silver medal went to swine flu.

We’ve also launched a blog where the Chairman and members of the Task Force post updates and ask for feedback. The blog, located on www.broadband.gov, had 40 blog posts and 340 comments in the first month after we launched it.

Our blogging has only increased since the first month of launch, with 175 posts and more than 11,000 comments. We’ve also used IdeaScale to crowdsource ideas for the plan.  The result: more than 450 ideas, many of which are in the plan. These ideas generated more than 7,500 comments and over 37,000 votes.

The Civic Engagement Framework: Information and Tools

After all of this data collection, we came to what may seem like an obvious conclusion: civic engagement is the lifeblood of our democracy.  While this might sound clich├ęd, I don’t believe that it is.

Democracy – at its core – is about self-governance. At the most basic level, this requires an informed and engaged citizenry to participate in society’s institutions, engage their government and hold it accountable. Democracy requires an informed and engaged citizenry in order to validate the actions of government so that it reflects the will of the people.

In short, civic engagement is a very big deal. 

So that’s civic engagement, but what about broadband? What does broadband have to do with civic engagement?

We came to the conclusion that broadband has the potential to transform civic engagement in two principal ways.

First, broadband can strengthen the reach and relevance of mediated and unmediated information in our society.

A healthy democracy requires an informed citizenry, and broadband can change the way that people engage this information. This is true for mediated information, such as public media. This is also true for unmediated information, such as the data the government provides citizens.  

Second, broadband can enable citizens to engage in their democracy – through a variety of broadband-enabled tools that will make our democracy more participatory and more representative.

Broadband-enabled technologies have already revolutionized the way citizens interact with each other in the private sector. Companies such as YouTube enable the distribution of “user-generated content” over the Internet. YouTube now supports more than 120 million viewers watching more than 10 billion videos monthly. And more than 80% of U.S. adults who are online use social media at least once a month, and half of them participate in social networks such as Facebook. Today, 26% of Americans are involved in a civic or political group, and more than half of them use digital tools to communicate with other group members.

Given this context, our proposed recommendations fall into 5 areas.

Proposed Recommendations

Increasing Citizens’ Access to Mediated and Unmediated Information

Open and Transparent Government

First, we looked at ways to build a more open and transparent government. This principally involves increasing citizens’ access to unmediated information, and we think the federal government has made good progress in this area recently.  But we believe that there is more that the government can and should do

The executive branch’s data.gov initiative is one example. Data.gov is a web portal that offers an index of data generated by government agencies in machine-readable formats. Launched last May, data.gov has been a tremendous success, receiving more than 47 million visits in the first 7 months.  This initiative demonstrates that there is great demand for government to be a wholesale supplier of data.

While this example demonstrates progress, there is more that can and should be done. Data.gov includes only a small amount of federal government data.  We believe that all data and information that the government treats as public should be made available online in machine-readable formats.

And although Data.gov applies to the executive branch, we believe that similar initiatives should also extend to both Congress as well as the Judiciary.

Moreover, for data that is actionable or otherwise time-sensitive in nature, the Executive Branch should provide individuals with a single Web interface to manage e-mail alerts and other electronic communications from the federal government.

In addition to making more data available to the public, we believe that the primary legal documents of the federal government should be made free and publically available online. While this might seem obvious to some, this is not currently practice. For example, in the federal judicial system, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, or PACER, still charges for access to federal district, appellate and bankruptcy court records. The U.S. federal courts themselves pay private contractors $150 million annually for electronic access to judicial documents. We believe that these types of barriers inhibit a principle of democracy – that every person who is subject to the laws of this nation should have free access to those laws online.

We also believe that the Knight Commission had it right when it expressed the principle that “the public’s business should be done in public.” Toward that end, government meetings, public hearings and town hall meetings should be streamed online. These events should also offer closed-captioning services to increase accessibility for persons with disabilities and should allow people to ask questions online where feasible.  

Public Media

Our second area of focus has been public media. While broadband can enable the release of more unmediated information, it can also provide greater access to mediated information through media and journalism.

Public media has historically provided invaluable educational, news and other media content. Looking into the future, this could not be more important at a time when many of our journalism and media institutions are under severe stress.

Today, newspapers are closing, local TV news stations are laying off reporters, and statehouses and other institutions are drawing fewer and fewer journalists to cover the news.  Just as communities depend on individuals to create and maintain communities, individuals need trusted intermediates to connect them with relevant, accurate information.

In response to this trend, public media must continue to play a critical role in the development of a healthy and thriving media ecosystem – by providing individuals with information, developing public debate and conversations, and building cohesion and participation in our communities.

But if public media’s future is to be as successful as it’s past, it must transition from a 20th century broadcast based model to a 21st century broadband-based model. 

Today, public media is at a crossroads. It is predominantly structured around broadcast-based communications. This presents a clear challenge as we enter the digital age. Public media must continue to expand beyond its original broadcast-based mission to form the core of a broader new public media network that better serves the new multi-platform information needs of the future.

This is no small challenge. Yet I am optimistic about the future of public media because it has already begun this transition and is showing great results.

Let me give you a few examples.

Across the Charles in Boston, WGBH has developed the Teachers’ Domain, a free collection of more than 2,000 digital resources covering diverse content for students and teachers. Last year was the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. And just a few months ago, PBS launched the PBS KIDS preschool video player – with more than 87 million streams of educational content being delivered in just the first month.

We also have great examples in public radio. NPR launched a tremendously successful API, and apps utilizing this API to access content have been developed for the iPhone and Android. And NPR podcasts are being downloaded more than 15 million times a month.

So we believe that the future of public media is bright. But it also faces challenges.  To the extent that government can help to facilitate a digital transition and mitigate these challenges, we believe it should do so.

One of these challenges is the Copyright Act. Congress passed special copyright exemptions for public broadcasting in the 20th century, but these provisions no longer fulfill their original purpose. For example, current licensing practices inhibit public broadcasters from producing and distributing the highest quality digital programming. These exemptions should be updated to facilitate the distribution of the highest quality programming on 21st century digital platforms.

Finally, during this process we began to ask ourselves what a national digital archive for the 21st century might look like. Broadband holds great potential for increasing people’s access to historical materials. And we believe that the government should get the ball rolling in this area by creating Video.gov, a new video platform for the federal government’s public digital video content. Video.gov should be modeled after Data.gov and the federal government should convene a group comprised of federal agencies, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress to develop Video.gov.

We believe that Video.gov has the potential to be a huge success. But we think it should be only one part of a larger digital federated national archive that would include public media, and maybe even commercial media as well.  Today, these institutions sit on a wealth of America’s civic DNA in the form of historic TV news coverage that goes back more than 50 years…millions of hours of historic news coverage of America’s daily life. This archival content could provide tremendous educational opportunities for generations of students and could revolutionize how we access our own history.

We believe that this is a tremendous opportunity, but we realize that it is not without its challenges. For example, public television has attempted to launch such a digital video archive, but has run into difficulties obtaining the rights clearances it needs. To mitigate this issue, Congress should consider amending the Copyright Act to enable public and broadcast media to more easily contribute their archival content to a digital national archive to help turn this vision into a reality.

Digital archives hold tremendous potential to transform the way the American people learn about themselves, their communities and their history. We can enable this transformation by removing the barriers that inhibit the development of a new ecosystem surrounding public media.


Increasing Civic Engagement Through Broadband-enabled Tools

In addition to increasing the American people’s access to mediated and unmediated information in digital formats, broadband can also improve the quality and number of points at which the American people can access their government. We have been focusing on three specific areas: social media, innovation in government, and digital democracy. 


Social Media

Social media has been our third area of focus. By most standards, social media is not new. Many Americans use tools such as Facebook and Twitter in their daily lives on a regular basis. The FCC’s recently released study of broadband adoption and use in American shows that 55% of broadband users also use social networking sites. Focusing on individuals aged 18 to 29, this number skyrockets to 85%. And these numbers are likely to grow even further in the coming years.

Unfortunately, government has not integrated these tools across the board in the same way that the private sector has. We believe that government must adopt these tools to provide opportunities for citizens to engage using the same communications mechanisms they use in their daily lives. Furthermore, we believe that government should view social media technologies not as pilot projects or add-ons, but as core to its mission. Government should use a variety of new media tools – from those primarily used to communicate, to those that enable more intensive participation and that specialize in co-production and co-governance.

While the success integrating these tools in the government has been uneven, we believe that there is reason for optimism.  As I mentioned earlier, the FCC has integrated the use of twitter, Facebook, idea scale and other tools into the fabric of the agency. In addition, the CDC has had great success in this area – using social media platforms to provide access to credible, science-based health information. The CDC’s use of social media has been instrumental in enabling them to get reliable information about the H1N1 virus to the public quickly.  Between April and December of last year, the CDC had more than 2.6 million downloads of H1N1 podcasts, more than 3 million views of H1N1-related YouTube videos, and more than 37 million views of H1N1-related media feeds.

Social media is also giving rise to citizen-to-citizen diplomacy. These tools are connecting individuals across nations and regions. As one example, the State Department recently launched its “Virtual Student Foreign Service, enabling college students to become “dorm-room diplomats”. These students are then matched with embassies and students in other countries to build transnational relationships and cultural understanding through digital citizen-to-citizen diplomacy.

In short, government is certainly making progress, but these examples are the exceptions rather than the rule. Recognizing the promise that social medial holds, our federal government should accelerate the adoption of social media technologies across all agencies.

Innovation

The fourth area that we have been focused on in civic engagement involves the innovation that occurs at the nexus of broadband and civic engagement. Beyond communicating with individuals, broadband provides an opportunity to engage citizens in more direct collaboration with their government in ways that lead to greater innovation. We all know that many of the best ideas come from outside of government. To take advantage of these ideas, we should create avenues for more citizens to help spur innovation within the government.

Government is just beginning to think about these types of issues. As one example, the White House has used participatory tools in the Open Government Initiative to begin changing the nature of participatory governance. Specifically, the White House has engaged citizens in the development of this initiative through public brainstorming blogs, a wiki and a collaborative drafting tool.

But we believe that government can do more in this area. An Open Platforms Initiative throughout our government has the potential to leverage digital platforms to engage and draw on the expertise of citizens and the private sector. From peer review and open problem-solving platforms to open grant-making platforms, we believe that these platforms can both engage citizen-experts and improve government performance. 

Bringing individuals with a proven record of innovation into government service has the ability to bring new ideas and perspectives to some of the challenges that our government faces. An Innovation Fellows program could place private sector experts and innovators throughout the federal government for 1 year fellowships.  And an Innovation Corps could serve as a think tank for technologists from inside and outside government to help design digital platforms and applications for all levels of government.

Digital Democracy

Last, but certainly not least, you can’t talk about the future of civic engagement without talking about the future of our democratic processes. More Americans engage in democratic elections than just about any other civic act. By bringing the elections process into the digital age, government can promote greater civic participation and increase the efficiency of the process.

Providing broadband to more Americans provides an important opportunity to fix problems in the existing process, starting with voter registration. The current paper-based system for registration voters can include multiple cumbersome steps – from collecting information on paper forms to manually entering handwritten data onto voter lists. One recent study estimates that voter registration problems resulted in more than 2 million voters being unable to vote in the 2008 general election. The challenges are even more difficult for members of the military serving overseas. These individuals are more than twice as likely to face registration problems as the general public.

While these challenges are great, several states have already taken steps to modernize the voter registration process. As examples, Arizona, Kansas and Washington already permit citizens to complete and submit voter registration applications online. In addition to allowing for online voter registration, common standards would assist in making voter records portable to increase accuracy, improve efficiency in the process and decrease cost. Several states have already begun moving forward with standards to facilitate data exchange across state boarders.

While this progress is encouraging, we need a more comprehensive effort to modernize the process across all fifty states for elections at all levels. We believe that federal, state and local stakeholders should work together to modernize the elections process by addressing these and other issues. 

Finally, as mentioned earlier, our military men and women serving overseas face very real challenges when they are trying to vote.  One survey showed that more than half of the military serving overseas who tried to vote were unable to do so because their ballots were late or did not arrive. And a survey of 7 states showed that an average of more than 25% of military and overseas ballots were returned as undeliverable, lost or rejected in the 2008 election. 

We all agree that the government has a moral obligation to ensure that those military men and women protecting us from harm’s way are able to vote. Because no one should have to give up the right to vote as a condition of serving their country.

The federal government has recently taken steps to begin addressing this problem. The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act recently passed by Congress requires that starting with the 2010 elections, states must establish procedures to allow military and overseas voters to request absentee ballot applications electronically for federal elections. This is an important step in the right direction.

States are making some progress on this issue as well. In 2008, Arizona launched a Web-based voting system that allows the military and overseas citizens to vote online, with completed ballots uploaded directly to the Secretary of State’s website.

There are exciting initiatives happening at the intersection of broadband and democratic processes, and we need to ensure sure that this progress continues. To this end, the Department of Defense should be tasked with the development of a secure Internet-based pilot project that enables members of the military serving overseas to vote online. DoD has looked into this in the past and there are clearly security and privacy concerns that must be addressed. But we believe that as long as our military men and women are serving overseas and unable to vote, we must continue working to do everything we can to address this very serious problem. 

Conclusion

The proposed recommendations that I’ve presented to you today represent not an end, but a beginning. A beginning of a new era in civic engagement in America.

In five distinct areas – open and transparent government, public media, social media, engaging citizens in government innovation, and modernizing our democratic processes – we believe that broadband has the potential to transform civic engagement. But this transformation will not occur on its own. It will take a commitment from all of us – our government, our elected leaders, and the American people – to renew our democracy in a broadband enabled twenty-first century.



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