ANOTHER VIEW— 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.


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 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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Reader Comments

Sat, Feb 20, 2010

I would encourage the nay-sayers to look at the incredible rescue advances that were made in Haiti due to Ushahidi- a crowd sourcing crisis application. This is the first time we're seeing our government (i.e. US military) not just actively using, but relying on user-generated content (gasp), to do the most basic, important work- save lives.

Wed, Aug 5, 2009

While Social Networking technologies do have a place, they are way immature for governmental use because there are HUGE security implications for enterprise and public use. Not surprised that several proponents are university related as universities as a class of institutions (with a handful of exceptions) are notoriously compromised and currently are a significant source of botnet attacks.

Tue, Aug 4, 2009 Flo Williams

Well, I have often wondered why minds with a stake and expertise in some areas of this nations concerns have not been more willing to speak at the table. Some are more prone to negativity than really trying to help solve our problems. This is a democracy and the more thought through perspectives the better to come up with lasting solutions. This is the antithesis of bypartisanship, if done well. I would have liked to see them talk more about the downsides and how to mitigate them, like how could any one person get through every haphazard thought thrown in the direction of such a conversation. But if some of the vetting could be done in small communities and the best ideas sent upwards there could be much good done. The applications mentioned and referred to as part of the drivel are only examples of what we know today. Tomorrow we could have social mechanisms much superior to those listed. And yes I agree that more organization and focused direction is probably needed more than funding.

Tue, Aug 4, 2009 Edmund Perry Mountain View, CA

To compare this drivel to Albert Einstein's appeal to President Roosevelt regarding atomic technology is ludicrous. But, then again, perhaps "social networking technology" is the only technology remaining in America with any "market appeal" to its purveyors or users. What next? Decisions made by national referendum via "voting applications" on Facebook? Perhaps we can mediate a mid-East peace by twittering a solution.

Tue, Aug 4, 2009

This tells us why social participation sites should be used, but doesn't say what could happen if they aren't used. What would happen to the US position in cyberspace if they weren't used? Would we suffer a decline in knowledge that would give educational and competitive edges to the rest of the world that did use them? Reread Einstein's letter, then try again...... This probably is a decision alone the level of Einstein and the development of nuclear knowledge, but there was a real reason to do it. What would have happened if Nazi Germany would have beat us to it? This is probably similar, but you have totally missed the mark.

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