Pioneering technologist and blogger Anil Dash explains to Oliver Lindberg how he’s helping the US government and how a combination of real-time apps and huge open data sets are leading a new wave of innovation on the web
Anil Dash began blogging in 1999 and as the first employee of Six Apart, creators of Movable Type and TypePad, slept on the couch of the founders’ spare room. He’s since become one of the most influential bloggers and tech evangelists. Now, in his new role as director of non-profit incubator Expert Labs (expertlabs.org), Dash is helping the US government.
“Our mission is to make better government policy by enabling crowdsourcing through social networks,” Dash explains. “The way to do that is by creating new technologies that let people in the White House and other parts of the US federal government ask questions on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and get back responses from the public to help them form their decisions about policies.”
While at Six Apart, Dash made connections with the White House and wanted to help. He realised, however, that he wasn’t government material. He has a preference for slightly inappropriate T-shirts: he famously posed in a Goatse [please don’t Google this – Ed] shirt for The New York Times in 2005 and likes to say silly things on Twitter and his blog. As a government official, Dash would have had to shut down his social networking accounts (and he’s on most of them as “anildash”). But then, after Dash wrote a blog post calling the federal government “the most interesting new tech start-up of 2009”, he started getting messages from White House officials, who eventually convinced him to lead Expert Labs as an independent organisation. It’s funded by a $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation and is part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publishers of Science.
Expert Labs’ first customer was the White House itself. Supporting the Grand Challenges initiative, Expert Labs asked the public about the next science and technology challenges facing America. Dash hired Lifehacker founder Gina Trapani as project director and selected her crowdsourcing Twitter app ThinkUp (first known as Twitalytic, then ThinkTank) as Expert Labs’ first official technology platform (expertlabs.org/thinkup.html). It helped thousands of people submit ideas through Facebook and Twitter (2,000 in the first 48 hours alone). “ThinkUp works in a simple way,” Dash says.
How do you highlight unique, interesting, unexpected and truly innovative answers out of a large set of responses?
“Gina has around 80,000 followers on Twitter and her questions can get hundreds of responses. She didn’t have a good way to view, publish and share all these responses, so she made a tool to do that, and made it open source. Today ThinkUp can scale this function for somebody at the White House with millions of followers. For example, I asked my followers what kind of phone to get, and I had hundreds of responses saying ‘iPhone’ or ‘Android phone’ but one person said ‘here’s a list of the most popular handsets in America ranked by the amount of radiation that they outpour’ – now that’s an answer that really informed my decision. And it can easily be determined to be fairly unique. That’s exactly what we were trying to build. How do you highlight unique, interesting, unexpected and truly innovative answers out of a large set of responses? We also want to indicate the popular answers, build visualisations and filtering tools, hook it into other networks like YouTube and create an attractive user interface for managing that data.”
Power to the people
ThinkUp attracted an enthusiastic community of developers and this year became one of the youngest open source apps ever to be chosen for Google’s Summer of Code. Anil Dash wants to show that government can be under the people’s control and adds: “On a more practical level, for policy feedback in the US, you had to fax your ideas, maybe email them, and go to a government website that you’ve never heard of that has an ugly design. If we asked a question in your Facebook news feed, alongside your friend’s video, that’s much closer to where I live. If I see that question pop up on Twitter, I’m much more likely to respond than if I had to remember to go and do my civic duty. We want to make it as easy as saying ‘I like this YouTube video’.”
Having the White House as its first customer gives Expert Labs a lot of credibility. Dash expects other agencies to follow soon. “Our Federal Communications Commission is looking into using this tool for helping inform broadband policy. They’re putting a billion dollars into providing universal broadband coverage in America, and we’re going to be able to make a fantastically better policy if everybody who cares about it can be involved in the discussion, using social networks they’re already participating in. There’s a lot of potential and I think we’ll not only get a lot of adoption within the government but, because it’s open source and anybody can use it, I can see private industry using it too. There’s no reason airline JetBlue can’t ask, ‘Do you want better pillows and are you willing to pay extra for that on our plane?’ and not get really good responses.”
Traditionally, government agencies have been slow on the uptake of new technology but, says Dash, a lot has changed. “They’ve been moving at startup speed and faster,” he enthuses. “In fact, the environment of technology around government has changed so much that they’re actually able to lead even Silicon Valley and the inventors, innovators and startups. The federal government, for example, launched its own URL shortener at go.usa.gov two months before Facebook and Google did. That’s an extraordinary change.”
It was a special moment when, at the inauguration of the new administration last year, the new White House site launched with a blog. “I realised that after 10 years of advocating and fighting for this medium, it had reached the point where all of a sudden it was safe to have a blog,” Dash says. “Nobody could ever say this medium is too disruptive when it’s on the website of the White House itself! We’ve changed the culture.”
We’re at the starting point of the real-time web
According to Dash, ThinkUp might just be the first of a new wave of real-time applications that will bring more powerful, customisable tools to the web. “We’re at the starting point of the real-time web,” he says. “People think there’s one service that defines it: Twitter, Facebook or whichever one you want to pick. Now, it always starts with one centralised service. In 1999/2000, all of the blogosphere was on Blogger. One centralised service dominated the new medium, but the nature of all computing is to go back and forth between centralised and decentralised. There was an inflection point, when really customisable, powerful and professional tools started to come into place and there was this explosion of creativity that led to the Huffington Post, to Daring Fireball and Boing Boing. So, I’m super-excited that our very first project is a decentralised real-time platform that could spurn the next wave of innovation. Look at what Movable Type, WordPress and Drupal did for blogging – this is about to happen for tweeting.”
Dash is also enthusiastic about the amount of open data that is becoming available from both commercial services and governments. “The Department of Health and Human Services put out a data set of healthcare outcomes by cost, by procedure, by effectiveness, so we will be able to see how much a diagnostic imaging test costs in one neighbourhood vs another. People built a billion dollar business out of the weather channel – now imagine a health channel. Imagine all the applications you can build.”
Dash says the change will be radical. “I’ll be able to move to a neighbourhood where my kids’ illness will be best treated. Imagine that built into Google Maps and Bing Maps. And that’s just one data set from one agency at one level of the government. We’re going to have that happen across a thousand agencies at all levels of government with new, real-time data sets every day. The amount of innovation that will be built around that is unbelievable. It’s as exciting as the birth of Web 2.0!”