Three organizations pressing for change in society’s approach to computing

Taking advantage of a recent trip to Washington, DC, I had the privilege of visiting three non-profit organizations who are leaders in the application of computers to changing society. First, I attended the annual meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery’s US Public Policy Council (USACM). Several members of the council then visited the Open Technology Institute (OTI), which is a section of New America Foundation (NAF). Finally, I caught the end of the first general-attendance meeting of the Open Source Initiative (OSI).

In different ways, these organizations are all putting in tremendous effort to provide the benefits of computing to more people of all walks of life and to preserve the vigor and creativity of computing platforms. I found out through my meetings what sorts of systemic change is required to achieve these goals and saw these organizations grapple with a variety of strategies to get there. This report is not a statement from any of these groups, just my personal observations.

USACM Public Policy Council

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has been around almost as long as electronic computers: it was founded in 1948. I joined in the 1980s but was mostly a passive recipient of information. Although last week’s policy meeting was the first I had ever attended at ACM, many of the attendees were familiar to me from previous work on either technical or policy problems.

As we met, open data was in the news thanks to a White House memo reiterating its call for open government data in machine-readable form. Although the movement for these data sets has been congealing from many directions over the past few years, USACM was out in front back in early 2009 with a policy recommendation for consumable data.

USACM weighs in on such policy issues as copyrights and patents, accessibility, privacy, innovation, and the various other topics on which you’d expect computer scientists to have professional opinions. I felt that the group’s domestic scope is oddly out of sync with the larger ACM, which has been assiduously expanding overseas for many years. A majority of ACM members now live outside the United States.

In fact, many of today’s issues have international reach: cybersecurity, accessibility, and copyright, to name some obvious ones. Although USACM has submitted comments on ACTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, they don’t maintain regular contacts work with organizations outside the country. Perhaps they’ll have the cycles to add more international connections in the future. Eugene Spafford, security expert and current chair of the policy committee, pointed out that many state-level projects in the US would be worth commenting on as well.

It’s also time to recognize that policy is made by non-governmental organizations as well as governments. Facebook and Google, for example, are setting policies about privacy. The book The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used To Be by Moisés Naím claims that power is becoming more widely distributed (not ending, really) and that a bigger set of actors should be taken into account by people hoping to effect change.

USACM represents a technical organization, so it seeks to educate policy decision-makers on issues where there is an intersection of computing technology and public policy. Their principles derive from the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which evolved from input by many ACM members and the organization’s experience. USACM papers usually focus on pointing out the technical implications of legislative or regulatory choices.

When the notorious SOPA and PIPA bills came up, for instance, the USACM didn’t issue the kind of blanket condemnation many other groups put out, supported by appeals to vague concepts such as freedom and innovation. Instead, they put the microscope to the bills’ provisions and issued brief comments about negative effects on the functioning of the Internet, with a focus on DNS. Spafford commented, “We also met privately with Congressional staff and provided tutorials on how DNS and similar mechanisms worked. That helped them understand why their proposals would fail."

Open Technology Institute

NAF is a flexible and innovative think tank proposing new strategies for dozens of national and international issues. Mostly progressive, in my view, it is committed to considering a wide range of possible solutions and finding rational solutions that all sides can accept. On computing and Internet issues, it features the Open Technology Institute, a rare example of a non-profit group that is firmly engaged in both technology production and policy-making. This reflects the multi-disciplinary expertise of OTI director Sascha Meinrath.

Known best for advocating strong policies to promote high-bandwidth Internet access, the OTI also concerns itself with the familiar range of policies in copyright, patents, privacy, and security. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt is chair of the NAF board, and Google has been generous in its donations to NAF, including storage for the massive amounts of data the OTI has collected on bandwidth worldwide through its Measurement Lab, or M-Lab.

M-Lab measures Internet traffic around the world, using crowdsourcing to produce realistic reports about bandwidth, chokepoints, and other aspects of traffic. People can download the M-Lab tools to check for traffic shaping by providers and other characteristic of their connection, and send results back to M-Lab for storage. (They now have 700 terabytes of such data.) Other sites offer speed testing for uploads and downloads, but M-Lab is unique in storing and visualizing the results. The FCC, among others, has used M-Lab to determine the uneven progress of bandwidth in different regions. Like all OTI software projects, Measurement Lab is open source software.

Open Source Initiative

For my last meeting of the day, I dropped by for the last few sessions of Open Source Initiative’s Open Source Community Summit and talked to Deborah Bryant, Simon Phipps, and Bruno Souza. OSI’s recent changes represent yet another strategy for pushing change in the computer field.

OSI is best known for approving open source licenses and seems to be universally recognized as an honest and dependable judge in that area, but they want to branch out from this narrow task. About a year ago, they completely revamped their structure and redefined themselves as a membership organization. (I plunked down some cash as one of their first individual members, having heard of the change from Simon at a Community Leadership Summit).

When they announced the summit, they opened up a wiki for discussion about what to cover. The winner hands down was an all-day workshop on licensing — I guess you can tell when you’re in Washington. (The location was the Library of Congress.)

They also held an unconference that attracted a nice mix of open-source and proprietary software companies, software uses, and government workers. I heard working group summaries that covered such basic advice as getting ownership of the code that you contract out to companies to create for you, using open source to attract and retain staff, and justifying the investment in open source by thinking more broadly than the agency’s immediate needs and priorities.

Organizers used the conference to roll out Working Groups, a new procedure for starting projects. Two such projects, launched by members, are the development of a FAQ and the creation of a speaker’s bureau. Anybody with an idea that fits the mission of promoting and adopting open source software can propose a project, but the process requires strict deadlines and plans for fiscally sustaining the project.

OSI is trying to change government and society by changing the way they make and consume software. USACM is trying to improve the institutions’ understanding of software as well as the environment in which it is made. NAF is trying to extend computing to everyone, and using software as a research tool in pursuit of that goal. Each organization, starting from a different place, is expanding its options and changing itself in order to change others.

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