Yesterday the City of Boston launched its new website, Boston.gov, on Drupal. Not only is Boston a city well-known around the world, it has also become my home over the past 9 years. That makes it extra exciting to see the city of Boston use Drupal.
As a company headquartered in Boston, I'm also extremely proud to have Acquia involved with Boston.gov. The site is hosted on Acquia Cloud, and Acquia led a lot of the architecture, development and coordination. I remember pitching the project in the basement of Boston's City Hall, so seeing the site launched less than a year later is quite exciting.
The project was a big undertaking as the old website was 10 years old and running on Tridion. The city's digital team, Acquia, IDEO, Genuine Interactive, and others all worked together to reimagine how a government can serve its citizens better digitally. It was an ambitious project as the whole website was redesigned from scratch in 11 months; from creating a new identity, to interviewing citizens, to building, testing and launching the new site.
Along the way, the project relied heavily on feedback from a wide variety of residents. The openness and transparency of the whole process was refreshing. Even today, the city made its roadmap public at http://roadmap.boston.gov and is actively encouraging citizens to submit suggestions. This open process is one of the many reasons why I think Drupal is such a good fit for Boston.gov.
More than 20,000 web pages and one million words were rewritten in a more human tone to make the site easier to understand and navigate. For example, rather than organize information primarily by department (as is often the case with government websites), the new site is designed around how residents think about an issue, such as moving, starting a business or owning a car. Content is authored, maintained, and updated by more than 20 content authors across 120 city departments and initiatives.
The new Boston.gov is absolutely beautiful, welcoming and usable. And, like any great technology endeavor, it will never stop improving. The City of Boston has only just begun its journey with Boston.gov - I’m excited see how it grows and evolves in the years to come. Go Boston!
In March, I did a presentation at SxSW that asked the audience a question I've been thinking about a lot lately: "Can we save the open web?".
The web is centralizing around a handful of large companies that control what we see, limit creative freedom, and capture a lot of information about us. I worry that we risk losing the serendipity, creativity and decentralization that made the open web great.
While there are no easy answers to this question, the presentation started a good discussion about the future of the open web, the role of algorithms in society, and how we might be able to take back control of our personal information.
I'm going to use my blog to continue the conversation about the open web, since it impacts the future of Drupal. I'm including the video and slides (PDF, 76 MB) of my SxSW presentation below, as well as an overview of what I discussed.
Here are the key ideas I discussed in my presentation, along with a few questions to discuss in the comments.
Idea 1: An FDA-like organization to provide oversight for algorithms. While an "FDA" in and of itself may not be the most ideal solution, algorithms are nearly everywhere in society and are beginning to impact life-or-death decisions. I gave the example of an algorithm for a self-driving car having to decide whether to save the driver or hit a pedestrian crossing the street. There are many other life-or-death examples of how unregulated technology could impact people in the future, and I believe this is an issue we need to begin thinking about now. What do you suggest we do to make the use of algorithms fair and trustworthy?
Idea 2: Open standards that will allow for information-sharing across sites and applications. Closed platforms like Facebook and Google are winning because they're able to deliver a superior user experience driven by massive amounts of data and compute power. For the vast majority of people, ease-of-use will trump most concerns around privacy and control. I believe we need to create a set of open standards that enable drastically better information-sharing and integration between websites and applications so independent websites can offer user experiences that meet or exceeds that of the large platforms. How can the Drupal community help solve this problem?
Idea 3: A personal information broker that allows people more control over their data. In the past, I've written about the idea for a personal information broker that will give people control over how, where and for how long their data is used, across every single interaction on the web. This is no small feat. An audience member asked an interesting question about who will build this personal information broker -- whether it will be a private company, a government, an NGO, or a non-profit organization? I'm not really sure I have the answer, but I am optimistic that we can figure that out. I wish I had the resources to build this myself as I believe this will be a critical building block for the web. What do you think is the best way forward?
Ultimately, we should be building the web that we want to use, and that we want our children to be using for decades to come. It's time to start to rethink the foundations, before it's too late. If we can move any of these ideas forward in a meaningful way, they will impact billions of people, and billions more in the future.
The web felt very different fifteen years ago, when I founded Drupal. Just 7 percent of the population had internet access, there were only around 20 million websites, and Google was a small, private company. Facebook, Twitter, and other household tech names were years away from being founded. In these early days, the web felt like a free space that belonged to everyone. No one company dominated as an access point or controlled what users saw. This is what I call the "open web".
But the internet has changed drastically over the last decade. It's become a more closed web. Rather than a decentralized and open landscape, many people today primarily interact with a handful of large platform companies online, such as Google or Facebook. To many users, Facebook and Google aren't part of the internet -- they are the internet.
I worry that some of these platforms will make us lose the original integrity and freedom of the open web. While the closed web has succeeded in ease-of-use and reach, it raises a lot of questions about how much control individuals have over their own experiences. And, as people generate data from more and more devices and interactions, this lack of control could get very personal, very quickly, without anyone's consent. So I've thought through a few potential ideas to bring back the good things about the open web. These ideas are by no means comprehensive; I believe we need to try a variety of approaches before we find one that really works.
It's undeniable that companies like Google and Facebook have made the web much easier to use and helped bring billions online. They've provided a forum for people to connect and share information, and they've had a huge impact on human rights and civil liberties. These are many things for which we should applaud them.
But their scale is also concerning. For example, Chinese messaging service Wechat (which is somewhat like Twitter) recently used its popularity to limit market choice. The company banned access to Uber to drive more business to their own ride-hailing service. Meanwhile, Facebook engineered limited web access in developing economies with its Free Basics service. Touted in India and other emerging markets as a solution to help underserved citizens come online, Free Basics allows viewers access to only a handful of pre-approved websites (including, of course, Facebook). India recently banned Free Basics and similar services, claiming that these restricted web offerings violated the essential rules of net neutrality.
Beyond market control, the algorithms powering these platforms can wade into murky waters. According to a recent study from the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, information displayed in Google could shift voting preferences for undecided voters by 20 percent or more -- all without their knowledge. Considering how narrow the results of many elections can become, this margin is significant. In many ways, Google controls what information people see, and any bias, intentional or not, has a potential impact on society.
In the future, data and algorithms will power even more grave decisions. For example, code will decide whether a self-driving car stops for an oncoming bus or runs into pedestrians.
It's possible that we're reaching the point where we need oversight for consumer-facing algorithms. Perhaps it's time to consider creating an oversight committee. Similar to how the FDA monitors the quality and safety of food and drugs, this regulatory body could audit algorithms. Recently, I spoke at Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, where attendees also suggested a global "Consumer Reports" style organization that would "review" the results of different company's algorithms, giving consumers more choice and transparency.
But algorithmic oversight is not enough. In numbers by the billions, people are using free and convenient services, often without a clear understanding of how and where their data is being used. Many times, this data is shared and exchanged between services, to the point where people don't know what's safe anymore. It's an unfair trade-off.
I believe that consumers should have some level of control over how their data is shared with external sites and services; in fact, they should be able to opt into nearly everything they share if they want to. If a consumer wants to share her shoe size and color preferences with every shopping website, her experience with the web could become more personal, with her consent. Imagine a way to manage how our information is used across the entire web, not just within a single platform. That sort of power in the hands of the people could help the open web gain an edge on the hyper-personalized, easy-to-use "closed" web.
In order for a consumer-based, opt-in data sharing system described above to work, the entire web needs to unite around a series of common standards. This idea in and of itself is daunting, but some information-sharing standards like OAuth have shown us that it can be done. People want the web to be convenient and easy-to-use. Website creators want to be discovered. We need to find a way to match user preferences and desires with information throughout the open web. I believe that collaboration and open standards could be a great way to decentralize power and control on the web.
The web will only expand into more aspects of our lives. It will continue to change every industry, every company, and every life on the planet. The web we build today will be the foundation for generations to come. It's crucial we get this right. Do we want the experiences of the next billion web users to be defined by open values of transparency and choice, or the siloed and opaque convenience of the walled garden giants dominating today?
I believe we can achieve a balance between companies' ability to grow, profit and innovate, while still championing consumer privacy, freedom and choice. Thinking critically and acting now will ensure the web's open future for everyone.
(I originally wrote this blog post as a guest article for The Daily Dot. I also gave a talk yesterday at SXSW on a similar topic, and will share the slides along with a recording of my talk when it becomes available in a couple of weeks.)
Yesterday, the White House announced a plan to deepen its commitment to open source. Under this plan, new, custom-developed government software must be made available for use across other federal agencies, and a portion of all projects must be made open source and shared with the public. This plan will make it much easier to share best practices, collaborate, and save money across different government departments.
However, there are still some questions to address. In good open source style, the White House is inviting developers to comment on this policy. As the Drupal community we should take advantage and comment on GitHub within the 30-day feedback window.
The White House has a long open source history with Drupal. In October 2009, WhiteHouse.gov relaunched on Drupal and shortly thereafter started to actively contribute back to Drupal -- both were a first in the history of the White House. White House's contributions to Drupal include the "We the People" petitions platform, which was adopted by other governments and organizations around the world.
This week's policy is big news because it will push open source deeper into the roots of the U.S. government, requiring more government agencies to become active open source contributors. We'll be able to solve problems faster and, together, build better software for citizens across the U.S.
I'm excited to see how this plays out in the coming months!
Earlier this week I returned from DrupalCon Asia, which took place at IIT Bombay, one of India's premier engineering universities. I wish I could have bottled up all the energy and excitement to take home with me. From dancing on stage, to posing for what felt like a million selfies, to a motorcycle giveaway, this DrupalCon was unlike any I've seen before.
The excitement and interest around Drupal has been growing fast since I last visited in 2011. DrupalCamp attendance in both Delhi and Mumbai has exceeded 500 participants. There have also been DrupalCamps held in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pune, Ahmedabad Jaipur, Srinagar, Kerala and other areas.
Indian Drupal companies like QED42, Axelerant, Srijan and ValueBound have made meaningful contributions to Drupal 8. The reason? Visibility on Drupal.org through the credit system helps them win deals and hire the best talent. ValueBound said it best when I spoke to them: "With our visibility on drupal.org, we no longer have to explain why we are a great place to work and that we are experts in Drupal.".
Also present were the large System Integrators (Wipro, TATA Consultancy Services, CapGemini, Accenture, MindTree, etc). TATA Consultancy Services has 400+ Drupalists in India, well ahead of the others who have between 100 and 200 Drupalists each. Large digital agencies such as Mirum and AKQA also sent people to DrupalCon. They are all expanding their Drupal teams in India to service the needs of growing sales in other offices around the world. The biggest challenge across the board? Finding Drupal talent. I was told that TATA Consultancy Services allows many of its developers to contribute back to Drupal, which is why they have been able to hire faster. More evidence that the credit system is working in India.
The government is quickly adopting Drupal. MyGov.in is one of many great examples; this portal was established by India's central government to promote citizen participation in government affairs. The site reached nearly two million registered users in less than a year. The government's shifting attitude toward open source is a big deal because historically, the Indian government has pushed back against open source because large organizations like Microsoft were funding many of the educational programs in India. The tide changed in 2015 when the Indian government announced that open source software should be preferred over proprietary software for all e-government projects. Needless to say, this is great news for Drupal.
Another initiative that stood out was the Drupal Campus Ambassador Program. The aim of this program is to appoint Drupal ambassadors in every university in India to introduce more students to Drupal and help them with their job search. It is early days for the program, but I recommend we pay attention to it, and consider scaling it out globally if successful.
Last but not least there was FOSSEE (Free and Open Source Software for Education), a government-funded program that promotes open source software in academic institutions, along with its sister project, Spoken Tutorial. To date, 2,500 colleges participate in the program and more than 1 million students have been trained on open source software. With the spoken part of their videos translated into 22 local languages, students gain the ability to self-study and foster their education outside of the classroom. I was excited to hear that FOSSEE plans to add a Spoken Tutorial series on Drupal course to its offerings. There is a strong demand for affordable Drupal training and certifications throughout India's technical colleges, so the idea of encouraging millions of Indian students to take a free Drupal course is very exciting -- even if only 1% of them decides to contribute back this could be a total game changer.
Open source makes a lot of sense for India's thriving tech community. It is difficult to grasp the size of the opportunity for Drupal in India and how fast its adoption has been growing. I have a feeling I will be back in India more than once to help support this growing commitment to Drupal and open source.
Volkswagen's recent emissions scandal highlighted the power that algorithms wield over our everyday lives. As technology advances and more everyday objects are driven almost entirely by software, it's become clear that we need a better way to catch cheating software and keep people safe.
A solution could be to model regulation of the software industry after the US Food and Drug Administration's oversight of the food and drug industry. The parallels are closer than you might think.
When Volkswagen was exposed for programming its emissions-control software to fool environmental regulators, many people called for more transparency and oversight over the technology.
One option discussed by the software community was to open-source the code behind these testing algorithms. This would be a welcome step forward, as it would let people audit the source code and see how the code is changed over time. But this step alone would not solve the problem of cheating software. After all, there is no guarantee that Volkswagen would actually use the unmodified open-sourced code.
Open-sourcing code would also fail to address other potential dangers. Politico reported earlier this year that Google's algorithms could influence the outcomes of presidential elections, since some candidates could be featured more prominently in its search results.
Research by the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology has also shown that Google search results could shift voting preferences by 20% or more (up to 80% in certain demographic groups). This could potentially flip the margins of voting elections worldwide. But since Google's private algorithm is a core part of its competitive advantage, open-sourcing it is not likely to be an option.
The same problem applies to the algorithms used in DNA testing, breathalyzer tests and facial recognition software. Many defense attorneys have requested access to the source code for these tools to verify the algorithms' accuracy. But in many cases, these requests are denied, since the companies that produce the proprietary criminal justice algorithms fear a threat to their businesses' bottom line. Yet clearly we need some way to ensure the accuracy of software that could put people behind bars.
So how exactly could software take a regulatory page from the FDA in the United States? Before the 20th century, the government made several attempts to regulate food and medicine, but abuse within the system was still rampant. Food contamination caused widespread illness and death, particularly within the meatpacking industry.
Meanwhile, the rise of new medicines and vaccines promised to eradicate diseases, including smallpox. But for every innovation, there seemed to be an equal amount of extortion by companies making false medical claims or failing to disclose ingredients. The reporting of journalists like Upton Sinclair made it abundantly clear by the early 1900s that the government needed to intervene to protect people and establish quality standards.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Food and Drug Act into law, which prevented false advertising claims, set sanitation standards, and served as a watchdog for companies that could cause harm to consumers' welfare. These first rules and regulations served as a foundation for our modern-day FDA, which is critical to ensuring that products are safe for consumers.
The FDA could be a good baseline model for software regulation in the US and countries around the world, which have parallel FDA organizations including the European Medicines Agency, Health Canada, and the China Food and Drug Administration.
Just as the FDA ensures that major pharmaceutical companies aren't lying about the claims they make for drugs, there should be a similar regulator for software to ensure that car companies are not cheating customers and destroying the environment in the process. And just as companies need to disclose food ingredients to prevent people from ingesting poison, companies like Google should be required to provide some level of guarantee that they won't intentionally manipulate search results that could shape public opinion.
It's still relatively early days when it comes to discovering the true impact of algorithms in consumers' lives. But we should establish standards to prevent abuse sooner rather than later. With technology already affecting society on a large scale, we need to address emerging ethical issues head-on.
(I originally wrote this blog post as a guest article for Quartz.)
The web has done wonders to make government more accessible to its citizens. Take the State of New York; NY.gov is a perfect example of taking a people-centric approach to digital government. The site lets people easily access state government news and services, including real-time public transit updates, employment resources, healthcare information, and more.
One year ago, The State of New York redesigned and relaunched their website on Drupal in partnership with Code and Theory and Acquia. Today, one year later, they’ve nearly tripled the audience to more than 6 million users. The most-visited part of the site is the services section, which aligns well with the governor’s priority to provide better customer service to state residents. Annual pageviews have quadrupled since launch to a record high of more than 17 million and mobile usage has increased 275 percent.
For more details, check out the press release that the State of New York published today.
Building a successful company is really hard. It is hard no matter where you are in the world, but the difficulty is magnified in Europe, where people are divided by geography, regulation, language and cultural prejudice. If governments can provide European startups a competitive advantage, that could come a long way in helping to offset some of the disadvantages. In this post, I'm sharing some rough ideas for what governments could do to encourage a thriving startups ecosystem. It's my contribution to the Belgian startup manifesto (#bestartupmanifesto).
If Steve Jobs was adopted by a Belgian family rather than an American family, it's extremely possible he may have ended up working in a bank instead of co-founding Apple. Why? Because starting a company and growing it is hard no matter where you are, but the difficulty is magnified in Europe, where people are divided by geography, regulation, language and cultural prejudice.
While entrepreneurship and startups have spread tremendously in Europe, a lot of aspiring young entrepreneurs leave Europe for the United States. Very little will stop a true entrepreneur from trying to reach his or her goals, including uprooting their entire life and moving it across the ocean to optimize their chances of success. From my interactions with them, the United States' gravitational pull is only getting stronger.
So, what can Europe do about it? Here are my three recommendations.
Europe produces plenty of small businesses: restaurants, small technology firms, clothing stores, hair salons, and so on. What it doesn't produce enough of are innovative companies that grow quickly and end up big. It's a problem.
Look at the 500 largest companies in the world (Fortune Global 500). According to Bruegel, a European think tank devoted to international economics, Europe created three new, large companies between 1975 and today. The U.S. created 26.
That number is even more incredible when you take into account the fact that Europe has about twice the population of the U.S. The reality is if Europe were to be competitive, it has to produce 25 times more large companies than it does today.
Access to capital continues to be a challenge in Europe. Getting seed capital (1M EUR or less) has become easier, but raising significant money (25M EUR and more) to turn your company in a global business continues to be difficult. Large companies also provide an important 'exit strategy' for startups. Without a vibrant exit market, it's harder to attract both entrepreneurs and investors.
Large companies also play an important role in creating successful innovation centers. They are catalysts for creating angel investors, for providing distribution, and serve as a breeding ground for talent and practiced management.
If you look at Silicon Valley, Hewlett Packard, among others, served that purpose in the early days, and more recently, a number of successful entrepreneurs have emerged from Google.
I recommend that European government stimulus focuses on companies that could become titans, not on small companies that won't move the needle. Too often, there are investments made in companies that have limited or no growth potential.
Anyone who has built a global organization likely understands that European work regulations can shackle the growth of startups. Taxes are high, it's hard to acquire a European company, severance packages can be outrageous and it's extremely difficult to fire someone.
It only gets worse when you attempt to operate in multiple European countries, as anyone with the ambition to build a large company has to. Each country is different enough that it requires setting up a local legal entity, and having local accountants and local attorneys. Setting up and running these legal entities costs valuable time and money, a huge distraction that gets in the way of actually running and growing your business.
Europe needs to roll out unified labor laws that are competitive globally and unified across Europe. My biggest worry is the branches of government that try to promote entrepreneurship are not powerful enough to address Europe's labour rules.
A small business can be started anywhere in the world, but it takes a different level of ambition to aspire to become the next Apple. The biggest thing entrepreneurs need is the belief that it can be done, that it's worth taking the risk and putting in the hard work. Having the right culture unlocks the passion and dedication necessary to succeed.
Silicon Valley is a state of mind. To recreate Silicon Valley in Europe, Europe must first adopt Silicon Valley's culture. I believe Europe's culture would benefit from adopting part of the American Dream: the egalitarian belief that everyone is able to succeed through hard work, and that it is acceptable and encouraged to better oneself economically through hard work.
It doesn't mean Europe needs to give up its strong communal beliefs and its desire to look out for the greater good. I'm a firm believer that many modern businesses can "do well and do good". Businesses that generate value for their shareholders and that also have a positive impact on the world go beyond generating profits.
Our world does not lack business opportunities; there are plenty of people with needs that aren't met. Enabling entrepreneurship enables innovation, and innovation helps change the world. The entrepreneurs that succeed in building large businesses, especially those that are aligned with fixing the world's problems, will transform the lives of others for the better and introduce more opportunity on a global level.
Entrepreneurs, not the government, will change the world. It's time for Europe to help their companies grow.
Many organizations adopt Open Source for reasons like flexibility and agility. Everyone needs to do more with less. But in government, Open Source drives both civic engagement and government participation like never before. Because of digital, the world feels much smaller and more connected. And Open Source gives people the opportunity to rally around a cause, no matter where they live.
Think about how we petitioned our government before we had the We The People website. I bet you have to think pretty hard about how it was done (I do!). Now, a website has brought to life the First Amendment rights of U.S. citizens. Millions of people's voices are heard. People pull together based on common concerns. The White House built We The People using Drupal and shared the code on GitHub, opening up the opportunity for other governments to easily create their own online petitioning systems.
Now, all kinds of open government data made available through the Data.gov project makes it possible for any developer, anywhere, to create a civic app. These apps have made us see our cities and towns in a different light.
Open City is one example of a group of local volunteers who create Open Source apps using government data. While the group is based in Chicago, the idea is that any city can grab code from an Open City app and make it their own.
Here are a few interesting examples: Clear Streets tracks a city's plows in real time. Living outside of Boston, I know we could use an app like that! Crime in Chicago lets citizens compare crime statistics in certain areas of town, which could be useful for people making decisions about where to move their families.
What is perhaps the most gratifying is that as open-source developers, we can collaborate on projects and help people around the world. It's part of what gets us out of bed in the morning. Earlier this year, participants in DrupalCon Portland launched a website in 24 hours to help people in Moore, Oklahoma, find transportation and housing after the tornado. Two weeks later, the site was discovered on Twitter in Germany and was repurposed to help people affected by the flooding in northern Europe. This type of project inspires us all to see how technology can make an immediate difference.
Other events, such as the National Day for Civic Hacking, encourage developers to use open government data to "collaboratively create, build, and invent". The idea that hackathons can help build and create a healthy, citizen-powered technology ecosystem within government is relatively new, and full of promise. Tim O'Reilly believes that government can escape the "vending machine" mentality (citizens put in tax dollars and get out services) by thinking of "Government as a Platform" for participation. I couldn't agree more.
Open Source ideals are already spreading in governments throughout the world, with good reason. A global network of developers is motivated to help. It's one of the best examples of civic engagement. As digital citizens, we all now have the power to contribute. One person's time and talent can make a huge difference. That is a movement I'm proud to be a part of.
(I originally wrote this blog post as a guest article for VentureBeat.)
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