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Since I started working on Discourse, I spend a lot more time thinking about how software can encourage and nudge people to be more empathetic online. That's why it's especially hard to read articles like this one:
My brother’s 32nd birthday is today. It’s an especially emotional day for his family because he’s not alive for it.
He died of a heroin overdose last February. This year is even harder than the last. I started weeping at midnight and eventually cried myself to sleep. Today’s symptoms include explosions of sporadic sobbing and an insurmountable feeling of emptiness. My mom posted a gut-wrenching comment on my brother’s Facebook page about the unfairness of it all. Her baby should be here, not gone. “Where is the God that is making us all so sad?” she asked.
In response, someone — a stranger/(I assume) another human being — commented with one word: “Junkie.”
The interaction may seem a bit strange and out of context until you realize that this is the Facebook page of a person who was somewhat famous, who produced the excellent show Parks and Recreation. Not that this forgives the behavior in any way, of course, but it does explain why strangers would wander by and make observations.
There is deep truth in the old idea that people are able to say these things because they are looking at a screen full of words, not directly at the face of the person they're about to say a terrible thing to. That one level of abstraction the Internet allows, typing, which is so immensely powerful in so many other contexts …
… has some crippling emotional consequences.
As an exercise in empathy, try to imagine reading some of the terrible things people say to each other online to a real person sitting directly in front of you. Or don't imagine, and just watch this video.
I challenge you to watch the entirety of that video. I couldn't do it. This is the second time I've tried, and I had to turn it off not even 2 minutes in because I couldn't take it any more.
It's no coincidence that these are comments directed at women. Over the last few years I have come to understand how, as a straight white man, I have the privilege of being immune from most of this kind of treatment. But others are not so fortunate. The Guardian analyzed 70 million comments and found that online abuse is heaped disproportionately on women, people of color, and people of different sexual orientation.
And avalanches happen easily online. Anonymity disinhibits people, making some of them more likely to be abusive. Mobs can form quickly: once one abusive comment is posted, others will often pile in, competing to see who can be the most cruel. This abuse can move across platforms at great speed – from Twitter, to Facebook, to blogposts – and it can be viewed on multiple devices – the desktop at work, the mobile phone at home. To the person targeted, it can feel like the perpetrator is everywhere: at home, in the office, on the bus, in the street.
I've only had a little taste of this treatment, once. The sense of being "under siege" – a constant barrage of vitriol and judgment pouring your way every day, every hour – was palpable. It was not pleasant. It absolutely affected my state of mind. Someone remarked in the comments that ultimately it did not matter, because as a white man I could walk away from the whole situation any time. And they were right. I began to appreciate what it would feel like when you can't walk away, when this harassment follows you around everywhere you go online, and you never really know when the next incident will occur, or exactly what shape it will take.
Imagine the feeling of being constantly on edge like that, every day. What happens to your state of mind when walking away isn't an option? It gave me great pause.
I greatly admired the way Stephanie Wittels Wachs actually engaged with the person who left that awful comment. This is a man who had two children of his own, and should be no stranger to the kind of unbearable pain involved in your child's death. And yet he felt the need to post the word "Junkie" in reply to a mother's anguish over losing her child to drug addiction.
Isn’t this what empathy is? Putting myself in someone else’s shoes with the knowledge and awareness that I, too, am human and, therefore, susceptible to this tragedy or any number of tragedies along the way?
Most would simply delete the comment, block the user, and walk away. Totally defensible. But she didn't. She takes the time and effort to attempt to understand this person who is abusing her mother, to reach them, to connect, to practice the very empathy this man appears incapable of.
Consider the related story of Lenny Pozner, who lost a child at Sandy Hook, and became the target of groups who believe the event was a hoax, and similarly selflessly devotes much of his time to refuting and countering these bizarre claims.
Tracy’s alleged harassment was hardly the first, Pozner said. There’s a whole network of people who believe the media reported a mass shooting that never happened, he said, that the tragedy was an elaborate hoax designed to increase support for gun control. Pozner said he gets ugly comments often on social media, such as, “Eventually you’ll be tried for your crimes of treason against the people,” “… I won’t be satisfied until the caksets are opened…” and “How much money did you get for faking all of this?”
It's easy to practice empathy when you limit it to people that are easy to empathize with – the downtrodden, the undeserving victims. But it is another matter entirely to empathize with those that hate, harangue, and intentionally make other people's lives miserable. If you can do this, you are a far better person than me. I struggle with it. But my hat is off to you. There's no better way to teach empathy than to practice it, particularly toward those who appear to have none.
In individual cases, reaching out and really trying to empathize with people you disagree with or dislike can work, even people who happen to be lifelong members of hate organizations, as in the remarkable story of Megan Phelps-Roper:
As a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka, Kansas, Phelps-Roper believed that AIDS was a curse sent by God. She believed that all manner of other tragedies—war, natural disaster, mass shootings—were warnings from God to a doomed nation, and that it was her duty to spread the news of His righteous judgments. To protest the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members held signs with slogans like “GOD HATES FAGS” and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS,” and the outrage that their efforts attracted had turned the small church, which had fewer than a hundred members, into a global symbol of hatred.
Perhaps one of the greatest failings of the Internet is the breakdown in cost of emotional labor.
First we’ll reframe the problem: the real issue is not Problem Child’s opinions – he can have whatever opinions he wants. The issue is that he’s doing zero emotional labor – he’s not thinking about his audience or his effect on people at all. (Possibly, he’s just really bad at modeling other people’s responses – the outcome is the same whether he lacks the will or lacks the skill.) But to be a good community member, he needs to consider his audience.
True empathy means reaching out and engaging in a loving way with everyone, even those that are hurtful, hateful, or spiteful. But on the Internet, can you do it every day, multiple times a day, across hundreds of people? Is this a reasonable thing to ask? Is it even possible, short of sainthood?
The question remains: why would people post such hateful things? Why would they reply "Junkie" to a mother's anguish? Why would they ask a father of a murdered child to publicly prove his child's death was not a hoax? Why would they tweet "Thank God for AIDS!"?
Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to this question, and you're not going to like it.
I don't like it. I don't want it. But I know.
I have laid some heavy stuff on you in this post, and for that, I apologize. I think the weight of what I'm trying to communicate here requires it. I have to warn you that the next article I'm about to link is far beyond anything I have posted above, maybe even on this blog, ever. It's about the legal quandary presented in the tragic cases of children who died because their parents accidentally left them strapped into carseats, and it won a much deserved pulitzer. It is also one of the most harrowing things I have ever read.
Ed Hickling believes he knows why. Hickling is a clinical psychologist from Albany, N.Y., who has studied the effects of fatal auto accidents on the drivers who survive them. He says these people are often judged with disproportionate harshness by the public, even when it was clearly an accident, and even when it was indisputably not their fault.
Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.
In hyperthermia cases, he believes, the parents are demonized for much the same reasons. “We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters.”
This man left the junkie comment because he is afraid. He is afraid his own children could become drug addicts. He is afraid his children, through no fault of his, through no fault of anyone at all, could die at 30. When presented with real, tangible evidence of the pain and grief a mother feels at the drug related death of her own child, and the reality that it could happen to anyone, it became so overwhelming that it was too much for him to bear.
Those "Sandy Hook Truthers" harass the father of a victim because they are afraid. They are afraid their own children could be viciously gunned down in cold blood any day of the week, bullets tearing their way through the bodies of the teachers standing in front of them, desperately trying to protect them from being murdered. They can't do anything to protect their children from this, and in fact there's nothing any of us can do to protect our children from being murdered at random, while at school any day of the week, at the whim of any mentally unstable individual with access to an assault rifle. That's the harsh reality.
When presented with evidence of the crippling pain and grief that parents feel over the loss of their children, due to utter random chance in a world they can't control, they could never control, maybe none of us can ever control, the overwhelming sense of existential dread is simply too much to bear. So they have to be monsters. They must be.
And we will fight these monsters, tooth and nail, raging in our hatred, so we can forget our pain, at least for a while.
After Lyn Balfour’s acquittal, this comment appeared on the Charlottesville News Web site:
“If she had too many things on her mind then she should have kept her legs closed and not had any kids. They should lock her in a car during a hot day and see what happens.”
I imagine the pain that these parents are going through, reading these words that another human being typed to them, just typed, and something breaks inside me. I can't process it. But rather than pitting ourselves against each other out of fear, recognize that the monster who posted this terrible thing is me. It's you. It's all of us.
The ability to see through the fear and beyond the monster to simply see yourself is often too terrible for many people to bear. In a world of hard things, it's the hardest there is. And we could sure use each other's help and understanding in the process.
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Well-executed partnerships can create better solutions and place them on a bigger platform. Poorly executed ones, on the other hand, can send federal agencies into a bureaucratic tailspin.
To partner or not to partner: That is the question.
“If you are going to do one, don’t do it because it seems like a good idea,” says Sandeep Patel, open innovation manager at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Idea Lab. “Make sure there is value in it.”
There are benefits and drawbacks to any potential collaboration. A federal agency planning a challenge should have a good reason for working with another agency or organization.
Should money motivate an arrangement?
“Funding is the least important reason to partner,” Patel says.
Typically, partnering offers more important benefits through leveraging marketing, better prize operations and access to data or expertise your agency may not have.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology joined forces with the NFL, Under Armour and General Electric in the name of stimulating innovation and advancing the development of new materials that could be used to protect athletes, members of the military, and others from impact injuries.
These heavy hitters all brought their own agendas to the Head Health Challenge III.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, says Heather Evans, senior program analyst in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Program Coordination Office.
“Make sure you agree philosophically on what you and your partners are trying to get done,” Evans says. “At the same time, understand that your partners might have different needs. That’s OK.”
You might call the challenge a win-win-win-win situation for the partnering organizations.
NIST saw a need to expand its measurement capabilities in materials science of energy absorption systems. The agency was involved in the testing of participants’ submissions, which included a number of novel materials strategies that divert energy from a collision such as a shock-absorbent honeycomb material. Now, NIST is working with the winning teams to improve the materials they entered into the competition so they can compete for the $500,000 grand prize to be awarded at the end of 2016.
“That’s why we did the partnership and the challenge,” Evans says.
The Head Health Challenge represented a new type of partnership for NIST, but wherever possible, agencies should look to existing relationships when looking to form a challenge team, whether it’s with local, state or even foreign governments.
HHS teamed up with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service for the Obesity Data Challenge. This partnership saw the spread of an idea across the pond as each organization ran separate, concurrent challenges to use open data in the fight against obesity.
Many U.S. agencies run their challenge competitions under the legal authority of the America COMPETES Act. Partnerships are among the more useful activities under the COMPETES Act prize authority, even allowing pooling of public and private funds for challenges. In addition to international partnerships like the one exemplified by the Obesity Data Challenge, the law allows government to partner with industry (a la NIST’s Head Health Challenge) and charitable foundations.
The law is the law, though, and agencies should be thorough in how they apply it to their partnerships.
“Every Agency attorney is going to interpret the COMPETES Act slightly differently and in the context of the Agency’s mission,” Patel says.
Working closely with your acquisitions and legal teams early—and often—will be essential to the success of any prize competition you design, partnership or not.
For more information on partnerships and other aspects of planning and running prize competitions, check out the webinar videos from the Expert Training Series: How to Design & Operate Prizes to Maximize Success.
The agile transformation at the Census Bureau started several years ago after GAO recommended Census implement a standard Systems Development Lifecycle (SDLC). Around the same time came the newly released Digital Services Playbook as well as a general shift in the industry to using a more agile approach in software development to improve product delivery and business customer satisfaction. Along with the clear benefits, there was a general appetite from individuals and teams to introduce agile concepts into their project. This all led the Bureau to initiate an agile transformation, starting with the development of an agile SDLC in 2013.
In the last several years the ongoing agile transformation has been gaining tremendous momentum across the Bureau. In late 2014, the IT Directorate engaged industry experts to help focus and further enhance the Transformation efforts. The Information Systems Support and Review Office (ISSRO) conducted an enterprise assessment to understand the state of agile adoption and more importantly, understand the challenges that were preventing further adoption across the various Directorates. This assessment provided a “backlog” of items or topics that have since guided the transformation efforts.
Some key initiatives resulting from the assessment that have furthered the transformation effort include:
One of the reasons why the transformation has gained momentum is because we have focused on the needs of our customers and improving collaboration with them. This brings the unique needs supporting the Census mission as opposed to adopting agile approaches just for “agile’s sake.” The mantra that we use at Census, “We want to be agile, as opposed to doing agile.” Being able to blend the transformation with business needs is a strength for making the change stick as it gives desire to the people taking it on. Another key to the adoption is that we’ve implemented a “pull-based” approach. Teams have the option to determine the approach that works best for them, and are not forced to use agile.
While we have made some great strides in the last several years, the transformation is still not complete. In true agile form, we continue to inspect and adapt and seek continuous improvement to our processes, policies and resources to ensure we are focused on the main objective, which is to provide value to our customers. Some of the key things we plan to focus on in the near future deal with product ownership and developing the appropriate business and technical metrics for internal and external stakeholders.
There are many scary tales in the world of knowledge management and data management. Tales of missing data that was lost through the administrative cracks, such as the story of the missing Apollo 11 moonwalk tapes that most likely were erased by accident. Or the 36-year search for the original Wright Brothers’ patent, which was happily re-discovered this month. As more data is being created at ever-increasing speed and complexity, there will be more missing data horror stories.
Data is easier to create now than ever before in history. The government has always been a major creator and collector of data. Whenever I think of government data, I think of the enormous government warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That warehouse has grown even larger as more and more data has been lost in the endless rows of storage. I wrote about the problem of “dark data” in a column last year:
“When different parts of the organization are not collaborating on data collection or data analysis, they could also create dark data. Also, the organization may not have the tools or the analytical skills to analyze the collected data. Finally, dark data may happen because the organization does not have good documentation on the organizational datasets. Dark data is like an attic or storage shed, where boxes of information are stored away with the promise that we will, one day, get around to working with the data.”
Dark data, if kept for too long, can become toxic data. At a panel for a recent government-wide event, military officials discussed the dangers of storing data past its useful life: “Datasets created and stored before the development of advanced cybersecurity protections can potentially offer easy pathways for hackers.” Systems to store and utilize the data have to be maintained way past their useful life, which also increases the risk of hackers penetrating other, more modern systems through well-known vulnerabilities in the older systems. Like chains, which are only as strong as their weakest links, computer networks are only as secure as their most vulnerable network component.
I’ve been in several projects where a data solution was implemented because of immediate need. There was some data modeling and analysis performed, but not enough long-range planning was performed to help future-proof the datasets. Thus, you have data locked into old systems where the limitations of the systems prevent the office from adopting newer, more effective systems. In one project, we just had to cut our losses because it was impossible to migrate the data from the old system into the new database. Therefore, the past data is locked away with very little hope to make it accessible again.
Sometimes, data science reads like an Edgar Allen Poe story. Datasets are locked away in a forgotten (computer) prison or trapped behind a (data silo) brick wall. Datasets grow toxic over time and turn into menaces to network security.
Data has to be managed, stored and used carefully and effectively. The ability to create and collect data has become a blessing to the government as it helps us to make better-informed decisions and is a major component of today’s global economy. However, data can also be a curse because of bad decisions based on expired data or lost data. The key is to have clear objectives for collecting and using the data while having a management plan for the lifecycle of the data. Data horror stories are not good for government or the American public.
Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends.
Dr. William Brantley is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. You can find out more about his personal work in open data, analytics, and related topics at BillBrantley.com. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.
ComScore released a report with a lot of great data about how mobile digital media usage continues to explode in 2016. It has 70 pages of charts and information to digest.
Here are seven key mobile trends and takeaways:
All of this data is very interesting but should be taken with a grain of salt, as it’s focused on mass-market media. But, it’s useful to know where government agencies can use digital media trends to serve their constituencies best. Stay tuned to DigitalGov for more trends and mobile news.
You probably have heard this before, or may even hear it all the time, “Content is King.” What that means is, that in today’s fast moving digital communications age, with social media as the driver—organizations (agencies) must have a content plan to stay relevant.
Sure, not every agency has the resources, or frankly is as interesting as NASA, with spectacular 4K video of the Aurora Borealis as a show on their own non-commercial consumer ultra-high definition (UHD) channel. But each agency has a citizen-base to serve, to connect with and meet their needs—they just need to do it differently.
Give your audience, and your potential audience, what they want, and in many cases, what they need. As government communicators, some of us with less than interesting content for the average person, we need to think outside the box on ways to display the valuable data our agency has for the American’s who need it. Providing value should be our focus, and can be done by considering the context to our content. But you can’t do that until you understand what each piece of content is, and eventually which platform—social media-wise or other—to publish it on for maximum value.
You may already know what each one of the following content types are, but let me try and break them down as it’s always good to have a refresh. These content types might mean different things for different people—and I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section (or send me a tweet @SSgtKRich!)
These days, it’s essential for any communications/marketing department to have access to high-quality videography skills, whether it be a videographer (or two) on staff or outsourced to a talented firm. With each social media platform vying to keep its loyal visitors, implementing native video, that trend looks continue to grow. In fact, one marketing firm predicted that in 2017, 74% of ALL Internet traffic will be video.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, not all of us have the spectacular footage that NASA has, but look to produce videos on topics important to those you serve.
This is a totally different monster. Livestreaming is dependent on so many factors outside the control of the producer, the largest being the connectivity bandwidth to push the message out.
Last year, for the first time ever the Digital Gov Citizens Summit was live streamed, including interviews before and after, for online viewers across the country. The US Navy has been livestreaming its graduation ceremonies for a while now, with thousands of excited parents and family members ready to see their son or daughter take those memorable steps.
During the livestream of your video, traffic will be flooding into your site, so consider inserting calls-to-action for your agency services, while not going overboard. More best practices for live streaming is available on Digital Gov.
Not to be confused by infographics (below), graphics are a fun way to take some textual information and inform your audience about a certain topic or encourage them to take action. I really like what DoD Inspector General did with this graphic—it’s quick and to the point, and grabs attention for anyone who may casually pass by it.
Often used, rarely perfected. Infographics allow content creators to display a lot of statistics, data, processes and images in one graphic. Infographics are eye-catching, and can be used for almost any subject, to display it another way. When shared on your social media channels, such as Pinterest, infographics can also be good for bringing people to your site. We’re a visual generation, and it’s been proven that a person’s craving for any form of visually-strong information arises from the human brain’s penchant for the more visually-appealing graphic information rather than text.
From a simple infographic like USA.gov did, to a much more complex infographic like the Congressional Budget Office produced, infographics are meant to be informative in nature, and to teach the audience something.
By now, probably most of us know what a blog is—you hopefully have a blog on your website, which you regularly produce content in an easy readable, hopefully plain language format, for your audience to read. A blog can take many forms, it can be posted natively on your website, on a social networking page, etc. For example, recently at FirstNet we launched a Tumblr account, which we use as an extension of our blog to tell real stories of our nation’s first responders.
As Tyrus Manuel said in a previous Content Corner post, “there is great benefit in allowing a subject matter expert (SME) to simply convey the knowledge that they have”—and a blog is a great platform to allow for that.
Not since recent memory, have animated GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format) been mainstream on the Internet. Originally created in 1987, the aforementioned blogging platform Tumblr has brought GIFs back into fashion with a passion. These fun animations can add an interesting visual element to your content. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) does a great job with GIFs, animating their textual archived content to “make government records relevant,” according to experienced GIF’er Darren A. Cole from the Office of Innovation at NARA. Said Darren, “A picture is worth a thousand words? Well a GIF is worth a million.” More on GIFs is available on DigitalGov.
Event though it’s 2016, there still are some out there (especially in government) who can’t, or refuse to, access social media sites like Twitter. Embedding content onto your website changes that, providing a seamless viewing experience to social media channels and promoting your social media presence right on your website. The CDC takes microsites to another level, stating their goal to have all of their content collections available, allowing users to embed collections on their websites. #OpenData!
A term allegedly coined in 1976, catchy, fun, memorable—these are terms used to describe memes. It’s basically an image or GIF with text over it. Generally the most popular memes are comedic in nature, and can help you establish or put on display your agency’s personality. This can be dangerous territory for agency accounts. Some memes aren’t appropriate, some aren’t relevant, and sometimes it just makes the brand look quite lame. As I said in a previous post, stick to your agency’s message—try not to stray from your brand message or demographic for the sake of trends.
Believe it or not, there can be great value in podcasting—both video and audio versions. Podcasts are said to be great for on-the-go professionals who want to learn while they commute or travel. Successful podcasters build ardent followings through their base of subscribers. Podcasts are typically hosted on iTunes or through another podcasting website, like Soundcloud, and can be filled with calls-to-action. A reminder, all DigitalGov podcasts are available on iTunes and Soundcloud.
So of course I couldn’t hit on every piece of content in this post, so here’s a catch-all—and I look forward to reading about other types of content you may use, in the comments section.
Let me just briefly mention a snap. Recently trending hard, even in government circles, Snapchat is an image messaging application. Snaps can be edited to include filters and effects, text captions, and drawings. USA.gov recently launched a Snapchat account, to “give the government more of a human face.”
As you look to develop your content strategy, remember these words from Gary Vaynerchuk, renowned entrepreneur:
“Every single tweet, every comment you leave, every post, every image you make becomes part of your brand. Period. Every time you post, you need to be laddering it back to your brand’s goals. Your core story needs to be consistent and your personality needs to be constant too. Doing this sets up a larger narrative, the broad context, for your content to succeed and have a clear message.”
What other types of unique content do you think agencies should be leveraging?
You’ve just finished reading the latest article from our Monday column, The Content Corner. This column focuses on helping solve the main content issues facing federal digital professionals, including producing enough content and making that content engaging.
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