Government Technology
By Ulf Wolf: Citizen engagement and responsibility in the digital age.

Digital Paper

January 26, 2009 By Ulf Wolf

Will there in fact be printer newspapers and magazines fifty years from now? Will there be books?

As I sit down, as I do every morning, to find out what has happened over-night here and there in the world, I go to my browser favorites and I head for the Guardian online, arguably one of the best digital newspapers in the world.

And as I find an event, a story, that catches my interest, I burrow down into it for more detail; I may even branch out to some side-stories that shed some more light on this issue. Then, just to get a fuller picture, I may rush over to the BBC News site to get their take on this issue.

All of this without having to kill any trees for the paper or blacken my fingers from the ink. Heck, I don't even have to get out into the cold to collect the darn thing; I can do it right from my cozy desk, in just over a blink of an eye.

For a few months last year I subscribed to the Guardian Weekly, a weekly newspaper (as opposed to a magazine) with in-depth coverage of current stories, informative and sometimes intriguing interviews, book reviews and such; but the only real advantage, to me, was that I cold fold this paper into a comfortably readable size and kick back in an armchair to read it, for the data, the stories, were--for the most part--also available online.

I cancelled my subscription and returned to the LCD screen: better resolution, smoother cross-references.

True, you don't need a computer, nor do you need an internet connection, to read a newspaper, be it the Guardian Weekly, or your local community paper. And perhaps that is what is still keeping the presses running.

But fifty years from now, when the digital divide has indeed been bridged, and virtually everyone will have access, either via what wonder the personal computer may have become by then, or their PDAs or cell phones, will there still be paper papers?

I for one seriously doubt it.

And as for books.

I own a digital book reader, which--surprise, since I do love my paper books--I often use.

And why not?

It can store up to a thousand books, it has a pleasantly readable screen, and a rechargeable battery which can last a month or more on one charge (the digital ink devices only draws power to paint a new page, once painted, it draws no current, and can literally display this page forever without drain on the battery). I turn to the next page with the soft touch of a button. Light, comfortable, roomy (an 8 GB SD card could hold up to 10,000 books).

But whereas I think the paper newspaper will eventually bow out, I don't think (and hope not) the book will meet the same fate. Book readers are certainly not a ubiquitous as computers or cell phones, and although's Kindle is doing its best to remedy that situation, I doubt that it will ever get there, if for no other reason than that books, the physical thing, the pages, the spine, the smell of it, all of these things, for me anyway, make up a sentimental and pleasurable whole that I would never want to part with, no matter how many books my digital ready may hold.

Still, check back with me fifty years from now.


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The Digital Citizen's Voice

January 18, 2009 By Ulf Wolf

"Today we begin in earnest the work of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today." President-elect Barack Obama

So reads the banner on Mr. Obama's site and it is obvious at first glance that he is open to suggestions on how to make the world a little better.

Your Vision

At, for example, each visiting citizen is asked to share his or her vision for the country. A nice wide-open digital door, if I ever saw one.

The key issue here, of course, is not that as many as possible make their voices heard to let the new President hear how they see the country and where it should be headed, but that this input is actually read and digested (for, let's face it, Mr. Obama is not personally going to read the thousands of daily responses he's likely to get) and then presented to the President as good and constructive ideas.

Citizen's Briefing Book

At you'll find an even more open door: the Citizen's Briefing Book, where we are asked to share our ideas on any issue facing the new administration, and then rate or comment on other ideas offered in the same forum.

The best-rated ideas will then be gathered into a Citizen's Briefing Book to be delivered to President Obama after he is sworn in. The idealist in me sees Mr. Obama leafing through these suggesting later in the afternoon on the 20th, or at the latest sometime this coming week. Then the cynic in me is very aware of the words "after he is sworn in," which, by definition, could be anywhere between 1/20/09 and, oh, say, October 2022. Let's hope the idealist is more right than the cynic is.

A Technical Note

The tool Mr. Obama's transition team is using to harvest our ideas is SaaS CRM software.

No stranger to harnessing technology and the strength the Internet, Obama's website is using this Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software to introduce a more collaborative approach to citizen feedback, and his technical staff has selected the aptly named CRM Ideas application from software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendor, working with consulting partner Reside.
This application is now live.

Video Call to Action

In a video on the website, Valerie Jarret, co-chair of the Obama-Biden Transition Team, urges us to "log onto and give us your idea.

"You decide what is important to you. Other citizens will then be able to read your ideas and make comments and suggestions. You may even hear from the transition team," she says.

We can post our ideas in a variety of categories, such as the economy, education, energy and environment, healthcare, and homeland security; and can then also read ideas from other citizens and promote the ones we like the best.

Jarret adds, "The Citizen's Briefing Book will come directly from the American people. It is yet another way that we will ensure that this transition is the most open and transparent one in history."

I feel strangely hopeful.

The Issues

Just out of curiosity I checked how many views, per subject, had we offered so far - and here's the tally as of Sunday 1/18:

The Economy - 11,701
Education - 4,862
Energy and the Environment - 5,543
Foreign Policy - 3,819
Health Care - 4,917
Homeland Security - 3,372
Service - 2,948
Technology - 3,739
Veterans - 1,689
Other Issues - 7,022

And counting...

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Disaster Around the Corner?

January 11, 2009 By Ulf Wolf

Last week, President-elect Obama urged Congress to postpone the long planned February 17th 2009 retirement of the analog television signal, citing problems with the plan and that too many Americans--those who still depend on roof-antennas and rabbit-ears--would be left without television service should the switch go ahead.

Now, aside from the fact that considering today's less than stellar programming quality this may be a blessing in disguise, it does put the FCC and the television companies in a bind: to turn analog off or not. A question with quite a few repercussions.

It was the Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta who on Thursday last week suggested that the digital transition needs to be delayed primarily because the Commerce Department has now run out of money for coupons to subsidize digital TV converter boxes for consumers.

In part, Podesta's letter--addressed to top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House Commerce committees--said, "With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date."

One response to this letter came from California Democrat Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, who acknowledged that the transition to digital only television was not going as smoothly as hoped for, and indeed admitted that millions of Americans could experience serious problems--as in losing television reception--come February 17.

He went on to say, "We also know that many Americans will experience difficulties connecting their converter boxes, that there could soon be a shortage of boxes, and that the federal government is not prepared to answer the many questions confused consumers will have.

"I am reviewing the President-elect's letter and will work with his team and my colleagues to address the problems created by this poorly managed program," he concluded.

Now, on the other side of this coin we find the face of somewhat controversial FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who took questions on this very topic at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

"Ultimately," he said. "This is Congress' decision." But he goes on to say, "we've spent a lot of time and energy getting ready for the February 17 date. I am concerned about the consumer confusion that would be created.

Martin also pointed out that "This transition has been a huge challenge for the industry," and that most broadcasting--marching to the February 17 drum, has not provided any budget fro continued analog transmission after that date, leaving them in quite a financial pickle should Congress decided to prolong analog transmission.

And this decision affects not only consumers and television companies, but also those wireless operators who have already bought the freed-up analogue and plan to use it for next-generation 4G broadband networks.

So, should Congress pick another day, to let the Government's efforts to smooth the transition? Martin disagrees. "The concern is that whatever date we pick again, people won't believe. What kind of a message will that send if we've been telling everyone that is the date and we don't do it?"

I, for one, agree with Martin. The February 17 date is not news, it has been the target date for years, and the DTV plan has been in the works since the 1990s. It seems to me to be another one of those issues that are symptomatic of our tendency to view anything planned for "down the road" to always remain down the road, to then surprise the daylight out of us when the date arrives.

I also believe that postponing the date would create more confusion, and would leave the country no less able to cope with the conversion as if it happens now--for as we go ahead with the February 17th date, the impact will suddenly shift from projections and guesswork to reality, and then--and now with the urgency of having to react--the FCC and Congress, as needed, can do something about bridging this particular Digital Divide as soon as possible.


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A New Digital Divide?

January 4, 2009 By Ulf Wolf

I found this very interesting, and not a little disturbing, press release on the other day. It is written by Wade Henderson, and well worth reading, offering as it does some little known, and even less promoted, statistics.

Washington, DC -- December 29, 2008 -- When most television broadcasts in the US go all-digital in February, it will mark a new triumph for communications technology. Across the country, the conversion from an older method of transmitting TV signals, known as analog, will give way to digital technology.

The transition to digital TV, which is taking place around the world, will bring vast improvements in both picture (high definition) and sound quality, and the ability of broadcasters to multicast -- sending multiple signals over the same airwaves used for one analog signal. There are other benefits as well. There will be more space on the airwaves for public safety communications, allowing police, fire and rescue squads to keep us safer. In addition, it will make a new generation of wireless technologies available. Multicasting may allow more free ethnic media broadcasts.

Yet, there may also be a serious downside: We may be creating a new digital divide.
While many Americans take their cable and satellite TV services for granted, millions of families still rely on rooftop antennas and rabbit ears to receive their television stations. On February 17th, when most television stations must broadcast digitally, those old over the air televisions sets will not pick up the stations many Americans rely on.

Not surprising, low income families and communities of color will be impacted the most. The Nielson Company, leaders in television viewer research, has completed a study with stunning results. Their report shows that 12.5% of African American households and 13% of Hispanic households are using analog televisions and are not ready for the digital transition. Moreover, households with annual incomes of less than $25,000 are five times more likely to be unprepared for the digital conversion than households earning over $75,000.

The impact on communities of color is underscored by Nielson's listing of locations with the highest percentage of households with analog televisions; most have large minority populations. For instance, 15.8% of Houston households aren't ready for the conversion, 14.3% in Dallas-Ft. Worth, 14.1% in Tulsa, 13.4% in Salt Lake City, 13.3 in Milwaukee, 12.7% in Albuquerque-Santa Fe, 12.0% in Minneapolis-St. Paul, 11.6% in Austin, 11.6% in Los Angeles and 11.6% in Memphis.

The data paints a disturbing picture. Many low-income and people of color who were part of the broad coalition that lifted Illinois Sen. Barrack Obama to the presidency face the real possibility of not being able to follow his progress once he takes office. Moreover, as the nation confronts one of its most challenging economic crises ever, millions of people won't be getting the latest news and information about public policy changes from their television sets.
It's crucial that public officials, as well as corporate, community and civic leaders join in the effort to inform those with analog televisions how they can obtain converter boxes that will allow their televisions to continue receiving stations after the conversion.

The government is sponsoring a conversion assistance program. A Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon is available; households can receive two $40 coupons for the purchase of converter boxes. Depending on the television, converter boxes cost between $40 and $70. For more information, visit, or call 1-888-388-2009 (voice). The process can take up to six weeks, so people must order their coupons now.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is urging civic, community and political leaders to help their constituents keep their televisions on. Here are ways to assist those who need our help: 

  • Post flyers to community and office bulletin boards.
  • Place announcements in newsletters, bulletins, and newspapers.
  • Send postcards or emails to everyone in your address book.
  • Give bookmarks out at your neighborhood school.
  • Attend conversion education events in your community.

There are 21 million households currently relying on analog television. As our nation breaks many barriers, including the election of its first African American president, we can't allow millions of people to lose their source of news and information. That would be taking a giant step backwards.

Let's help those who can't afford new televisions keep their access to the airwaves.

(Mr. Henderson is the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which is the nation's premier civil and human rights coalition. Information regarding the digital conversion can be found on their website at . To arrange media interviews regarding the digital conversion, please contact Alicia Ingram at 404-493-1724.)

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Digital Citizen Pulse

Digital Citizen Engagement - or how Government-IT empowers Citizen Participation and Input - is an important aspect of 21st century life given all the challenges communities face. This is a subject very dear to my heart and one I like to keep a constant finger on. This blog shares my findings and impressions with those interested.