Guest commentary

An open letter to Obama, in support of social participation

On the 70th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s letter to President Franklin Roosevelt encouraging attention to atomic technology and science, Ben Shneiderman, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland, and several colleagues decided to offer a new version. The following is an open letter to President Barack Obama encouraging exploration of technology-mediated social participation.

August 2nd, 2009

Barack Obama
President of the United States
White House
Washington, D.C.

Sir:

Some recent work by entrepreneurs and researchers leads us to expect that technology-mediated social participation may be turned into a new and important force in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the administration. We believe, therefore, that it is our duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations.

In the course of the last few years, it has been made probable through the work of innovators in North America, Europe and Asia to set up technology-mediated social participation systems, by which vast amounts of human resources and large quantities of social benefit would be generated.Technology-mediated social participation is generated when social networking tools (such as Facebook), blogs and microblogs (Twitter), user-generated content sites (YouTube), discussion groups, problem reporting, recommendation systems, and other social media are applied to national priorities such as health, energy, education, disaster response, environmental protection or community safety.

As examples, AmberAlert has more than 7 million users who help with information on child abduction, earthquake, fire, or storm reporting sites, providing information to emergency services, and the site serve.gov enables citizens to offer their service to national parks, museums and other institutions.

This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of social participation tools, and it is conceivable -- though much less certain -- that extremely powerful collaborations of this type may thus be constructed. A single collaboration of this type, promoted by the Internet and mobile devices, might very well revive the economy of whole cities and regions. Other applications might enable efficient citizen reporting during disasters, support rapid health care information dissemination during pandemics, generate a wealth of expert guidance on government issues, and promote widespread community or national service. The lessons of history teach us that any potent technology can have negative outcomes, so careful attention is needed to anticipate and minimize these dangers.

In view of this situation, you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the administration and the entrepreneurs and researchers working on technology-enabled human chain reactions in America. One possible way of achieving this might be for you to entrust the task to a person who has your confidence and who could perhaps serve in an unofficial capacity. This person’s task might comprise the following:

    a) To approach government departments, keep them informed of the further development, and put forward recommendations for government action, giving particular attention to the problem of constructing effective technology-mediated social participation for the United States.

    b) To speed up the experimental work, which is at present being carried on within the limits of the budgets of university laboratories and entrepreneurs, by providing funds, if such funds are required, and perhaps also by obtaining cooperation of industrial laboratories that have necessary experience.

While some companies have gained widespread publicity and active use of their technology, the application of technology-mediated social participation for national priorities is in its infancy. Applications such as health care, energy efficiency, education, environmental preservation, business innovation and disaster response could bring substantial benefits to the United States.

Yours very truly,

Ben Shneiderman, University  of Maryland
Jennifer Preece, University of Maryland
Peter Pirolli, Palo Alto Research Center
Marc A. Smith, Telligent Corp
Gary Marchionini, University of North Carolina
Jonathan Lazar, Towson University

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