Random Selection and Food Safety

I love the phrases “randomly selected” in this statement from Jeni’s Ice Cream about their recall of ice cream after listeria was discovered:

Jeni's Ice Cream Recall Statement


The impression is that perhaps if that pint hadn’t been picked on by a worker from the Nebraska Department of Agriculture (according to the FDA notice here) that everything woulda been just fine.

Glory to the government workers who select things randomly. #taxes #health #government.

Popularity + Impact in Volunteer Movements: Alcoholics Anonymous, Poetry Slams, and the Path to Impact for the Civic Innovation Movement

Here’s a presentation I’m giving here later today.


Hi, I’m Dan O’Neil, and I want to talk to you about popularity and impact in software. All of us here are somehow a part of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry, which has largely been a volunteer-driven movement.


There are some lessons to be had by looking at other volunteer-driven movements. Specifically, I want to dive in a tiny bit into other movements that I’ve seen up-close, first-hand, because the more I work in civic tech, the more I see value in these other examples.


I am a recovering alcoholic, and have been for some time. I have come to learn and appreciate this program, and it really helps me live a good life. I am also a poet. In the 1980s and 90s, I wrote books and did tours.


I considered myself— in kind of a windmill-tilting way— a member of the entertainment industry. It was a shtick. But the idea was real— that poetry should be at the center of society. And entertainment was— and still is— at the center of society.


And I am in civic tech. I made my first civic app in 1999. It was called KilleronTheLoose.com. It let people know via Wireless Application Protocol when there was a killer on the loose, and they might kill them. True story.


True story. And I’ve worked in civic tech since then. So I have experience with three separate international movements that are based on volunteer labor. Let’s take a closer look.


Alcoholics Anonymous is the most successful decentralized movement in history. There are explicitly no leaders. The whole thing is run, to this day, by principles + suggestions codified in 1939 + 1947.


The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous have not changed since they were first written down. More than 30 million copies exist. There are dozens of groups— we might even call them “projects” based on this text— Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous. Forked code; all of it.


The impact of this movement is widespread in the economy. A huge portion of the health industry, every self-help book. Hell, the entire 70s.


I’ve never competed in a poetry slam, but I was there at its creation. It, too, has a strict set of rules, and they are maintained over time by volunteers.


The rules specifically cover compensation, which is minimal. The winner of the Uptown Poetry Slam gets a $10 bill, presented dramatically onstage. The key is the joy of self-expression, of doing something that is special, unique.


Nearly 30 years after its creation, the poetry slam movement has achieved a certain National Poetry Month/ Sunday Styles section – level popularity. In contrast, rap & hip-hop— another sector of the entertainment industry that relies in some part of spoken word— is dominant, and generates enormous dollars.


Civic tech doesn’t really have a founding set of rules, but we’ve certainly developed routines and norms with hackathons and other volunteer / “for the civic good” programs.


We do have the 8 Principles of Open Government Data, which I helped write, in 2007. It specifically calls out the publication of data with personally identifiable information, noting (correctly) that it should not be published.


Due, in part, to the fact that there’s been little effort to re-combine personally identifiable information in our products, it’s fair to say that civic tech has generated little revenue and had little impact on culture. Meanwhile, the larger technology industry is taking over culture.


So what’s going on here? If we accept this analysis, what accounts for the vastly different impact patterns? To me, it’s a matter of framing and focus. AA is about product + service for the masses, poetry slam is about individual expression + satisfaction grown city by city.


And it’s the underlying attitude toward professionalization and commercialization that makes the difference. AA is radically indifferent— we’re focused on staying sober, not policing adherents. In contrast, the “Slam Masters” from each city that adopts the slam meet yearly. They enforce a sort of sameness that is palpable, and exclusionary.


The result is a default openness in AA. Onboarding is a breeze. People desperately want what people in recovery have— sobriety. Slams, in contrast, have complex modes of operation, full of insider references and tight networks. Above all, glorifying the singular poet with a microphone.


We have our own poets in civic tech, our own open mics, our own singular heroes. The result is separation and divorce. Meanwhile, aggressive startups, all about disruption and de-regulation, eat our lunch in our cities, building software people love.


They are popular. And through their popularity, they have impact. And we don’t make popular things. And we have to, because we’re better than everyone else. The larger technology industry needs us. Let’s make products, not projects.

Integrity & John F. Burns

There is little more on this blue and green and dusty-fragile planet that I hold with more reverence than the words of John F. Burns. He is practically a religion to me. I’ve collected his text like an apostle stitching gospels together. I have wept more often than I’d like to admit, holding New York newsprint in my hands as he typed basic humanity into his datelines from places that made no sense. He is one of the most important writers of our time.

John F. Burns Blogspot

His retirement was announced late last month, and the paper gave him a proper lauding and send-off, with a touching review of his impact and links to his amazing archive. Outlets all over noted his importance; his poetry.

That his final news article was an account of the burial of Richard III was lost on no one who’s read Shakespeare, or has followed power, or both. HIs last two paragraphs:

Some saw the message encoded in the public acclaim less as one of embracing the idea of Richard as a “good king,” as he has been described by Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, than one of redemption beyond the grave, a theme that has had a compelling force, across all ages and religions.

That theme was pervasive in the reburial service, perhaps captured best when Archbishop Welby, standing beside the grave as the coffin was lowered, invoked forgiveness for Richard. “We have entrusted our brother Richard to God’s mercy,” he said, “and we now commit his human remains to the ground, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

But in addition to his normal reporter capacity to file stories while we slept, Burns was always able to come back later, after thinking a while, and synthesize things. To make you see, whether or not you knew you wanted to, whether horrible or beautiful or both, what we can best glean from the facts he discovered.

And so it was today that I got an ink-joy delivered to my doorstep— a John F. Burns piece in the op-ed page: The Things I Carried Back. He writes that “what those years bred in me, more than anything else, was an abiding revulsion for ideology, in all its guises.” And we must all excise our ideologies. His last paragraph:

My catalog of such moments in the grim dictatorships of the world could fill a book, or three. But coming home to the countries of the West, where nobody dies for a moment’s lapse in fealty to a prime minister or a president, it can be depressing beyond words to hear the loyalists of a given political creed — whether of the left or the right — adopt the unyielding certainties common in totalitarian states. Our rights to think and speak freely have been won at great cost, and we abuse them at our peril.

I spend a lot of my waking moments building and protecting my integrity. I do this consciously, with John F. Burns in my mind, like I’m building an automatic movie of my life that knows everything, and puts false notes in the trailer. One day I want to be able to write a paragraph like that with the authority he musters w/o effort.

I can also be a vociferous person. A partisan Catholic, a defender of Chicago, a political bulldog, an intense lover of who’s mine. I vow, however. to watch my unyielding certainties, and keep them checked with free speech; my own. If you are reading this right now, and we know each other, or ever will, I invite you to hold me to this.

Runoff Election Day, April 2015: We are in a Golden Age of Civic Engagement

It is axiomatic to say that it’s hard to recognize you are in a golden age while you are in one. Chicago: we are in a golden age of civic engagement. Treasure it, build it, please don’t let it go.

Today is election day in Chicago. I strongly urge you to vote to retain our Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, in office. He’s earned more time. In the last six weeks I’ve written much about why I support him, on this website and on social media. Please vote today for Rahm Emanuel.

It has been a stressful six weeks. I’ve stuck my neck out for this guy, personally. And that is part of the golden age. I’ve seen hundreds of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, supporters of both candidates, do the same. Taking stands, with integrity, openly, and with love.

I’ve reviewed budget books for the last four years to check facts on funding levels for the Chicago Public Library. I’ve looked up the ordinance covering the Inspector General’s authority. I’ve seen, finally, more media voices in the coverage of TIF spending.  I’ve seen more real talk about the pension crisis than I’ve heard, ever.  I’ve listened to people peppering the Mayor with tough questions at a get-out-the-vote event. Watched debate after debate.

I’ve participated in Twitter fights. I’ve defended my vote on long Facebook threads, and watched as friends have done the same. All of this with respect, and the unquestioned understanding that it won’t affect our real relationships.

I’ve watched with growing awe at the early voting numbers, brought to me by Aldertrack, a service I’ve seen grow over the last eight years into an essential tool for the people of this city. They cover everything, every race, with the detail and attention each ward— each precinct— each person, deserves.

I’ve seen one candidate promise to listen more and the other promise to figure out what’s going on if elected. I strongly prefer the one in office, the one who already knows what he’s talking about, the one who I believe can guide us out.

But the last six weeks, the rest of us have learned— or remembered— that we have the knowledge, the power, and the tools to hold everyone to their promises. Let’s not stop.