June 2014

On Privacy and Technology

[T]he protection of society must come mainly through a recognition of the rights of the individual.

– Justice Louis D. Brandeis and Samuel D. Warren,

“The Right to Privacy,” 1890

Earlier this month, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith gave a principled address on privacy and technology at the 11th annual Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) here in New York.  His message regarding the role of technology in our society was clear: that while the pendulum may have swung too far, we can and must find a center of gravity that is true to the values on which the US was founded.  Doing so requires progress in terms of both technology and governance.

Having heard Smith’s remarks, danah boyd, noted researcher, author, and founder of the Data & Society Research Institute, later tweeted that she was “in awe of his efforts.”  Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media, called it “one of the most spirited defenses of democracy” he had ever heard at PDF.

On Tuesday, Smith visited the Brookings Institution to share this message in Washington, DC – the heart of the US federal government.  He posed four central questions to the audience:

  • How do we ensure transparency…that people have a right to know in an appropriate way what governments and companies are doing?
  • How do we ensure the public has appropriate control over personal information?
  • How do we ensure accountability [in both the governmental and corporate contexts]?
  • How do we ensure international norms and collaboration?

Answering these questions will take the combined efforts of governments and the technology community. As Smith said at PDF, “Technology is a tool that needs to serve people. Government is an institution that is founded to serve people.  Fundamentally, what we all need to continue to do together is ensure that technology and government come together in a way that serves people.”

We often discuss “privacy & security” as though the two were inextricably connected.  But in reality, the two are distinct: security is often a technology issue while privacy remains primarily a policy issue.  However, solving the pressing challenges around security and privacy requires joint efforts from both governments and the technology community.

Microsoft, Smith explained, is working to increase encryption and transparency, and to improve contractual protections for users.  The Microsoft Technology & Civic Innovation team will work together with those on both the technology and policy fronts to make progress towards our shared goal of empowering people.  After becoming a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, in his dissent in Olmstead v. United States (1928), Louis Brandeis described the “right to be let alone” as “the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men.” Civilized men and women across sectors will continue to debate how best to interpret, preserve and protect that right in the Data Age – and Microsoft will continue to stand up for you.

Related articles: CNET, IDG, TechCrunchThe Hill

New Tech City

Hello, world! Welcome to our blog. We’re Microsoft’s new Technology & Civic Innovation team based in New York City.

Microsoft’s mission is to empower people and organizations through technology to do more and be more. We’re driving that mission forward by building cross-sector solutions to our shared cross-sector challenges. Our work requires internal collaboration across Microsoft, but every bit as importantly, it takes collaboration with governments, non-profits, academic institutions, businesses, and startups. Because we believe that by working together we can make game-changing progress on key issues facing society, including: Data, Transparency & Openness; 21st Century Jobs & Opportunity; and Smarter & More Resilient Cities.

We’re excited to be here. And we can’t wait to work with you to make New York even better than it already is. Please reach out with any comments, ideas, or just to say hello: @MicrosoftNY, @johnpaulfarmer, or john.farmer@microsoft.com

Scalable Individuality: The Maker Movement Democratizes Manufacturing through Grassroots Innovation

Today – June 18th 2014 – has been declared the first-ever National Day of Making. However, the maker movement has been growing for some time now, and will continue to make huge strides in the months to come. In September 2014, tens of thousands of tinkerers and inventors, artisans and civic hackers, will gather at the Maker Faire in New York for what has been described as the “greatest show and tell on earth.” Brooklyn is the heart of the maker movement, and New York more broadly has long been a primary gathering spot for makers. Now, all across the country, these grassroots innovators are transforming the manufacturing model for the 21st century to bring jobs back home and provide sustainable economic opportunity.

The maker movement is democratizing not only manufacturing, but also capability more broadly. It flattens the supply chain by empowering each maker with a broader range of productive capabilities. In a very real sense, the movement represents a return to craftsmanship. In previous generations, makers were constrained by a lack of technology to serve as jacks-of-all-trades in making their goods. Now, by contrast, it is technological innovation – computer aided design, social networking, 3D printing – that enables makers, acting as generalists, and with the support of services such as Shapeways and tools such as the MakerBot, to produce goods that without such technology would require a broad range of specialized skills beyond the capacity of one individual or even a small group of individuals.

In the words of Chris Anderson, maker movement evangelist and former editor-in-chief of Wired, “There is really nothing standing in the way between an idea and the realization of that idea and then a company around that idea and then a community around that company.” Thanks to a collaborative and inquisitive spirit, as well as the technologies underlying the movement, everybody can have a factory.” Anderson contextualizes this phenomenon as the third global revolution succeeding the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and the Digital Revolution of the late 20th century, whose signatures were the personal computer and the internet. While the digital Revolution democratized the process of “creation” and “distribution” of information, the maker movement and the technologies that drive it have a similar democratizing effect on manufacturing. Put another way: Just as the internet distributes information, so does the maker movement distribute capability.

Recognizing the economic and social value in the maker movement, governments in the US and abroad are supporting grassroots innovators with new programs, recognition, and funding. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has recognized movement luminary Dale Doherty as a Champion of Change and is hosting its first-ever Maker Faire today. And in the movement’s spirit of distribution and diffusion, OSTP has announced a locally-focused initiative, the Mayors Maker Challenge to encourage making in communities from Brooklyn to Venice Beach. It is important to understand this is not solely an American phenomenon; the Chinese government has provided funding to fuel its own growing maker movement, for example.

Microsoft both embodies the maker ethos and supports the movement’s potential. Just as the Windows operating system spearheaded the rise of the personal computer in the Digital Revolution of the late 20th century, today we are committed to the new revolution, this time taking place in manufacturing. That is why we launched The Garage, a maker space at our worldwide headquarters in Redmond, WA. The key role of Microsoft can be found outside our walls, as well – in the innovation taking place in schools we support, and in the smart utilization of Xbox Kinect to affordably scan and digitize 3D objects, for instance. In addition to working with long-established maker spaces such as New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) and newer ones such as the Columbia MakerSpace, Microsoft is excited to directly collaborate with those leveraging Kinect and other accessible tools as they become, as President Obama put it, “makers of things, not just consumers of things.”

Powered by new technologies such as 3D printing, the value of tinkering, toying, and hacking at the movement’s core appeals to people of diverse backgrounds, young and old, women and men. The maker movement is truly a grassroots phenomenon, something at once personal, communal, and nationwide. Like the productivity of the digital revolution before it, the maker movement contains the seeds of a future in which jobs, creativity and a new kind of scalable individuality can become the standard. Microsoft looks forward to taking part in this journey, because our mission is to empower people and organizations to do more, to be more, and to make more.

Harnessing Data to Improve Disaster Response and Recovery

For many in the New York area, Superstorm Sandy brings to mind painful memories of blackouts, neighbors’ homes damaged beyond repair, elderly left without access to care, friends stranded, and long lines at gas stations. But for all of the damage caused, the storm also brought out the best in the community, as neighbors helped neighbors and citizens from across the country did what they could to lend a hand. The technology community, too, responded. Much as they had after Hurricane Katrina, tornadoes in the Midwest, and other disasters, citizen hackers self-organized to develop tech solutions that could alleviate suffering and speed recovery. It was inspiring to many of us in the civic tech community to see people spring into action to help, by crowdsourcing data and collaborating across public and private sectors on tech-driven solutions.

The more we delved into developing tech solutions, the more we heard about similar situations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. During those disasters, too, technologists volunteered to help. But the excitement of building solutions was quickly replaced by the realization that utilization by first responders and survivors remained low, as many were too overwhelmed with immediate needs to locate or learn how to use new tech tools, no matter how helpful they promised to be. And then, as the frantic response period drew to a close, many of these newly-developed applications and products began to gather dust.

There must be a better way. Microsoft believes that technology can empower citizens to become constructive partners in disaster response and recovery, and the Technology & Civic Innovation team is committed to working with partners from every sector of society to achieve that vision. Governments and first responders have begun to embrace new tools, and as information and communication technologies become more widespread among citizens, so too are they becoming a larger part of our disaster response toolkits. In the words of Michael Beckerman, President and CEO of The Internet Association, governments have “thrown the old response playbook out the window” in favor of a more innovative approach.

Driving this change, technology companies have contributed expertise and products to make this new approach feasible and robust. Microsoft has helped through its Corporate Citizenship project, which in Haiti worked to restore internet access and build an online communications portal for first responders. Others have contributed too, including Google and Palantir through their Crisis Response and Philanthropy Engineering initiatives, respectively.

These laudable efforts are just the tip of the iceberg. The road ahead demands a formalized and systematized process that can allow information to travel between citizens and their governments more efficiently and reliably than is currently possible. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Energy have taken the first steps through a Tech Corps Program and “Lantern,” an app that provides citizens with helpful updates and information. Open data initiatives at the federal and local levels allow civic hackers to build solutions fueled by available data resources. More can be done, particularly as third-parties are further empowered to build even more interoperable solutions.

New tools and innovative initiatives are paving the way to a more engaged, connected, and empowered civic movement with which governments can team up for maximum effectiveness in the face of future emergencies and disasters. In the coming years, we must expand and refine our use of digital tools to create the most effective partnerships possible between citizens, businesses, and governments. June marks the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season and should not only remind us of how far we have come since Superstorm Sandy, but also should inspire us, in preparing for what may lie ahead, to take the next steps to more fully develop the solutions that 21st century technology makes possible.


Open Data Insights: From Lewis & Clark to the 21st Century

Open government data has the potential to generate over $3 trillion in annual economic value, according to a recent report by McKinsey & Company. Recognizing this untapped bounty, President Obama last year signed an executive order and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released an Open Data Policy, together making open and machine readable data “the new default” for federal government agencies. On a local level, New York City broke new ground the year prior with its own Open Data Policy, which outlines an inventory of public datasets and puts a 2018 deadline on their release.

Earlier this month, I was thrilled to speak to the tech community in San Juan, Puerto Rico on the occasion of the island’s unveiling of its new open data portal, which is modeled on data portals such as those of  federal government, New York State, and New York City. The movement toward open data is happening locally, nationally, and internationally and the power to combine these data resources will rely on increasing collaboration among governments, businesses, academic institutions, startups, non-profits and civic hackers.

The realization that open information can bear economic fruit is not new. Before technology allowed us to free information from its confines and share it in real-time, governments sent explorers to map out unknown territories. One notable example in the United States is the Lewis and Clark expedition from 1804-1806 to gather information about the Louisiana Purchase. The purpose of this mission, according to President Jefferson, was to catalogue information “distinctly, & intelligibly for others as well as yourself.” In the 20th century, accessibility of weather information has fueled a variety of innovations, including evening weather forecasts. More recently, Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have proven to be invaluable tools for governments and businesses to become more effective and efficient. They have given rise to numerous geo-located mobile innovations, providing a taste of what open data on a large scale might mean.

What is so exciting today is the convergence of 1) greater availability and accessibility of big data, 2) increasingly sophisticated analytics capabilities, and 3) an entrepreneurial mindset throughout New York and across the country. In addition to enabling organizations to open data more seamlessly, Microsoft tools from Power BI to Bing are empowering people and organizations to have deeper insight into their ever-growing data resources.

Still, the vast majority of government data sets still are not open. With such enormous latent value, every step to create access to data resources that are more real-time, more granular, and more standardized can make a substantial impact. As governments in the US and around the world embark on open data initiatives, they must take into account not only the availability of data but also its usability.

While there are challenges ahead, opening up data held by governments at the local, national, and international levels has the potential to unleash a new era of economic prosperity, efficiency, and accountability. The time is ripe to take on the challenge of opening data. Microsoft is committed to collaborating across sectors of society to further open information and continue building and refining the tools that turn data into insight and empower users to create tangible impact throughout society.