Matthew Burton

Category: Ideas & Thoughts (page 1 of 2)

Why designers are more important to government than coders, or: Democracy is a design problem*

I recently said** that designers were more important to successful government than coders are. This statement got a pretty vigorous response from coders:

‘Cause picking the right shade of #0000ff is much more important than an efficient backend.

Definitely. Who cares whether something works, so long as it’s painted a nice colour? ;-)

designers are not more or less important. that is silly. they’re equally important

Design is not the act of making web sites pretty.*** It is the craft of using various tools to encourage a certain outcome or behavior, and its work is driven by countless hours of research and testing in pursuit of the perfect design. This process plays a huge role in shaping the consumer’s world. The same should be true of the citizen’s world. After all, government is just a set of products designed to protect and improve our society. Instead of entertainment or home furnishings, government produces services, rules, and incentives. A speed limit is designed to encourage safe driving; its tools are visual (signs) and psychological (the threat of a speeding ticket). A law that ties school funding to standardized test scores is designed to motivate better school performance.

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Five startup ideas you are free to use (but if you do, you should totally ask me to do it with you)

1. My to-do list model

2. A community-based checklist-making tool. Inspired by The Checklist Manifesto, this site would give you basic tools to build checklists for processes you do in daily life. Those processes could be anything from building a server to cooking a steak. Checklists would be private, but if you’re really proud of your steak cooking process, you could make it available to the rest of the community. Perhaps such lists would be openly editable like Stack Overflow, to continuously update popular lists with the very latest best practices.

3. Remake Vark. Vark was one of my all-time favorite online tools. Then Google bought it and promptly killed it. I think it was ahead of its time. Maybe the time has come to retest the market. (But I would use the web instead of IM as the medium. It’s a richer experience, a lower barrier for non-savvy users, and a less annoying means of delivering ads.)

4. I’m surprised no one has built (to my knowledge) a better, stand-alone version of Campfire. I think synchronous chat is a really underrated means of communication and collaboration. It’d be really nifty if GitHub plugged such a thing into its Enterprise product.

5. I’m surprised that distributed live support hasn’t caught on more with online merchants. Existing customers already help merchants sell their products by leaving reviews. Just about every online store lets customers leave reviews, ostensibly because the content gives potential buyers the confidence to follow through with their purchase. Why not take this a step further and enlist your avid customers as sales agents? If someone is considering buying a pair of jeans, they have lots of questions: fit, care, shade, durability. Providing answers from the mouth of a similar person is probably more effective and cheaper. You could build a network of such shoppers who want to earn commissions by helping other shoppers in real-time, and let merchants easily plug your technology into their site.

Hopefully these are more valuable here than inside my brain.

New York Times: Please make your Travel section a travel web site

The New York Times has one of the most valuable domain names in the world and owns some of the most valuable content on the web. Unfortunately, they haven’t been taking advantage of it, and their new redesign doesn’t fix any of this.

We’re talking about the Travel section. Its content is among the very best travel content in production today: every week, it publishes original, well-written stories across the entire subject: quick tips (how to find deals on rental cars) and long stories; solo adventures and family vacations; local getaways and far-away expeditions. It might be the most extensive, highest quality archive of travel reporting in the world.

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Lessons from eight months as a CIO

This is the second in a series of posts in the aftermath of my term as Acting CIO and Deputy CIO at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The first post was my announcement from last week.

I recently emerged from an eight-month stint as an interim CIO. I knew from the outset that my position would be short-lived, which gave me the freedom to be more introspective and experimental than I otherwise would. The golden rule that I took from this experience is this: In a typical medium-to-large organization, a CIO’s job is not about technology. It’s about enabling your team to work effectively, and setting the right expectations among your peers and superiors. In greater detail:

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So you want to be an intelligence analyst

Students occasionally write to me and ask for advice on getting a job in the Intelligence Community. (I became an intelligence analyst at DIA after undergrad. I was there for about three years, and after that, I did a few years of consulting for various intel agencies.) The below is a gist of that advice. It is heavily biased by my own experience, and none of the below is meant to be universal.

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An idea for to-do lists

I just watched Paul Graham’s keynote from PyCon, where he asks developers to replace email, among other things.

His talk inspired me to write about a product idea that I’ve been baking for about three years. Since the night I had the idea, I’ve wanted to realize it, and I’ve been through a few false starts. But I’ve never gotten around to it for real. The worst part is, I really, REALLY need this product, because I think it would make life a lot easier for me. I decided that if I shared the idea with everyone, one of two things would happen:

  • Someone else would make it, and my productivity would balloon
  • The knowledge that someone else might scoop me would motivate me to finally make the sucker myself

So I challenge you to read the below and build this. Continue reading

DC’s Apps for Democracy: Helping Coders Help the Man (with one small complaint)

Because this is timely, I reserve the right to say some presumptuous/incorrect things that I never would have said had I had time to think it over, as I usually do when I post things here.

The Washington, DC Chief Technology Officer just launched a project called Apps for Democracy, a contest to create apps with DC’s data catalog.

I love this project. DC doesn’t get much revenue to work with, so this project makes a lot of economic sense–the tools they will get out of this contest would, through the standard contracting route, cost about 40 times the $20,000 in prize money they’re giving away.

But the economics, I’m guessing, is what sold the mayor on the project. I bet the initial motivation was much different: the CTO’s office understands that the public will create better tools, and more quickly, than government contractors can. They know that the benefits of opening their data far outweigh the speculated, yet unproven, pitfalls.

Also, I can tell the CTO likes to experiment. That’s really gutsy, because an inevitable byproduct of experimentation is failure. This is why most bureaucrats hate experimentation and would prefer to coast: sure, you won’t make progress by doing things the same way, but at least you can’t screw up!

This CTO (Vivek Kundra is his name) gets it. This is exactly the kind of stuff a CTO should be doing. There are rumblings of such a position being created under a presumptive President Obama. If it happens, I hope they use Apps for Democracy as a model for this title: more technology, less chief officer. Technology is about experimentation, not red tape. A new bureaucratic position should have an eye for counteracting the increased bureaucracy it will inevitably engender. Projects that delegate power to the public are a great way to do that.

I’m excited about Apps for Democracy, but I have some reservations, which I voice below. As a segue, here are a few possibilities for app submissions:

  • Use the Speed Detector GIS data to build an iPhone app that alerts drivers to their presence (though that won’t go over well with the mayor’s budget office)
  • Use the Bicycle Lane and Bike Routes GIS data to build a Google or Yahoo! Maps mashup that creates cycling-friendly directions
  • Use the Trails, Trails NPS, and Crime Incidents data to create safe jogging routes
  • Mash any public safety data–Crime Incidents, Juvenile Arrests, etc–with a SIMILE timeline to spot trends
  • Use that same public safety data to spot correlations between incidents and the proximity of other facilities; for example, maybe juvenile arrests near banks spike in June, while arrests near current construction projects spike in December. (Whether the revelations would be valuable, we cannot say. But I’m sure sociologists and criminologists would find it interesting.)
  • Use any number of the tourism- and transportation-oriented data files to make the ultimate online day planner for

I guess some of those ideas are decent. The problem is, I’m just a citizen. So most of my ideas are for public-facing tools. Only one or two would improve District operations. Public-facing tools are great, and the project is accepting them, but is that really the spirit of this project? I see it differently. The goal here is to help government, and I imagine Kundra is hoping people will create tools that do that. As the CTO, his job is to “develop and implement the District’s IT infrastructure” and provide “technology solutions to improve services.” What he really wants are tools that help the DC Government do its job better. This project can yield a slew of neat-o iPhone apps, but remember: projects like Apps for Democracy ultimately happen because of the possible budget savings, and if the project doesn’t deliver on that front by cutting internal IT costs, there may not be an Apps for Democracy ’09. So he has to deliver at least one great new tool for the inside.

What to build, what to build…there are surely countless opportunities for improving DC’s systems and data management. The problem is, people like me don’t have the good ideas, because we don’t experience the day-to-day frustrations of the problems we’d be fixing. We don’t understand the environment. We don’t know what’s lacking.

The most beneficial tools will probably never be thought of by the general public. People with no understanding of municipal water systems can’t (or don’t) ponder ways to revolutionize the DC Water Authority. Even more important, even if I did have the idea, I would have little incentive to build it on my own. Unless I understand the good that will come from creating that tool, I’m not going to spend time on it. Someone at the Water Authority needs to say, “We need a tool that will do X, Y, and Z, and it would help us because _____.” The _____ is the most important part. I’d love to help DC, but only if I know I’m helping. That’s why there needs to be a way for DC employees to share ideas with developers. Has this project been promoted to District employees? The project site is not targeted at them: it grabs the attention of tech firms and indy developers, but there’s no mention of the end user. Do they have a forum for voicing ideas? Whip up a way for those developers to team with District employees so we can put together something that really changes your business. What do you say, Mr. Kundra?

UPDATE 10/25 11:57 PM: After posting this, I sent an email to Apps for Democracy project manager Peter Corbett to tell him about it. He wrote back in less than an hour saying he’d already read it:

I just read that, Matt and it’s a really good post. I just sent it to Vivek. We have up for collaboration purposes and I suggested to Vivek that he broadcast to that we need ideas from them about what they need built!

I often complain that although the federal government is finally abandoning clunky enterprise software for more modern Web tools, their procurement model has not changed: they still rely on the slow, expensive, clunky contracting route instead of trying the more agile, release early-release often approach that makes Web tools great in the first place. But the speed and content of Peter’s response, and his allowing me to post it here, are all signs that this is a much different DC software project. I like it.

Related: Why I Help “The Man,” and Why You Should Too

Who Is This Biden Character?

Now that Joe Biden is finally getting some attention, a lot of people are thinking, “Who? A senator? For 35 years? Was running for president this year? Never heard of ‘em.”

Below are two interviews from last August–one video, one audio–during the middle of the Democratic nomination race. I think they provide a great primer on who this guy is.

I followed Biden really closely this year. I don’t agree with him on everything, but what I found great about him was his critical mind and his willingness to tell us things we don’t want to hear (especially regarding Iraq and health care). Because of this, he was the only candidate I contributed money to.

BUT…these are critical interviews that ask pointed questions about Biden’s experience and views. That is, I’m not simply peddling pro-Biden propaganda. If you want to be an informed voter, give these a look/listen:

On Point with Tom Ashbrook: Joe Biden (will open a page with a dedicated audio player)

Lessig, selfless candidates, Feynman, etc…

The first draft of my most recent essay had a big chunk on politicians: running for office was the final of three suggestions I made to people who want to reform our government. I removed that chunk, but with PDF 12 hours away, I figured I’d post it anyway, as its own little musing. So here it is:


“Suppose two politicians are running for president, and one goes through the farm section and is asked, `What are you going to do about the farm question?’ And he knows right away – bang, bang, bang. Now he goes to the next campaigner who comes through. `What are you going to do about the farm problem?’ `Well, I don’t know. I used to be a general, and I don’t know anything about farming. But it seems to me to be a very difficult problem, because for twelve, fifteen, twenty years people have been struggling with it, and people say they know how to solve the farm problem. And it must be a hard problem. So the way I intend to solve the farm problem is to gather around me a lot of people who know something about it, to look at all the experience that we have had with this problem before, to take a certain amount of time at it and then to come to some conclusion in a reasonable way about it. Now, I can’t tell you ahead of time what conclusion, but I can give you some of the principles I’ll try to use…’

“Now such a man would never get anywhere in this country, I think. It’s never been tried, anyway. This is in the attitude of mind of the populace, that they have to have an answer and that a man who gives an answer is better than a man who gives no answer, when the real fact of the matter is, in most cases, it is the other way around.”

This is how Richard Feynman explained modern politicking in a 1969 lecture. I often quote this passage, because I think it describes our ideal candidate: someone who puts time into making decisions, who gathers facts before doing so, who doesn’t make false promises in exchange for votes.

That’s why I was excited to see Larry Lessig consider a Congressional bid. But my first reaction wasn’t positive: Is that really the best place for him? He wouldn’t really fit in, and his ideas would fall on deaf ears. Eventually, I got it: not fitting in is exactly the point. The most fundamental way to change Congress is to populate it with a new breed. While Lessig would have been very lonely during his first term, his run would have inspired others among us to do the same, and slowly, the tide would turn.

Lessig decided not to run; thankfully, it was not because he felt Congress was the wrong place for him. I believe that it is, and that his decision not to run makes him an even better fit for the job. Congress needs more people who think about running and decide against it. Such a person is ambitious and passionate, but also humble. Such a person thinks things through and makes prudent decisions, without regard for celebrity or public perception.

If I were to suggest a more long-term goal for Lessig’s new Change Congress campaign, it would be to transform the public’s idea of what constitutes a good public leader: I would replace charisma with gravitas, expedience with prudence, celebrity with humility. I’ve noticed the latter qualities in many of the people I work around—many of them have scientific backgrounds and cannot avoid making wise decisions in spite of themselves. I know it would be hard for them to leave their research-grounded jobs in hard science for the daily life of a politician, and even harder for the average voter to become acquainted with their style. So I’m not expecting this to happen soon. But if we’ve quintupled the number of scientists in Congress by 2016 (there are currently four), I think we’ll be on our way.

Everything I Know About Giving Presentations I Learned from the Government

I love presenting, and I love critiquing other people’s presentations. I’m not Kawasaki or Conway, but I think I’m decent at it. Most of what I know is thanks to a two-week training course early in my government career, about four years ago. For 13 straight days, I watched a series of presenters stand up and make God-awful briefings. I kept myself awake by taking notes on their presentation styles. (Eventually, I ran out of criticisms, so I wrote down lyrics to Springsteen, The Who, Cream…) Therefore, most of the notes are on how NOT to give presentations. I’ve kept the notes in my desk since then. Here they are:

  1. Only use PowerPoint if absolutely necessary. Never use slides as cue cards. People don’t want to see your own notes. It distracts the audience and draws attention from what you’re saying. If you talk and show me word-filled slides at the same time, I try to read the slides and listen to you simultaneously. I end up doing neither.
  2. A slide deck full of bullet points is the hallmark of poor preparation and ignorance of the subject. If you really had a command of your subject, you wouldn’t need to read directly from your notes/slides.
  3. PowerPoint should be used in SUPPORT of a good talk, not instead of it. Use slides to clarify what you’re saying: show videos, animations (especially helpful when speaking on technical subjects).
  4. Don’t print out your slides and hand them to me. No matter what your slides are like, they are meaningless when they aren’t accompanied by your spoken words. If you want to give handouts, give me something written in standard prose. No bullet points. Remember, cue cards are called cue cards because they cue a thought in the mind of the presenter, who then fully explains the thought to the audience. I can’t extrapolate that thought from your brain simply by reading the cue.
  5. If you have any annoying habits (like saying “i.e.” every sentence like this guy does), find them and stop them.
  6. Don’t introduce your audience to a slew of new terminology and acronyms at the beginning of the presentation, and then use those terms continuously throughout the rest of the talk. You’ll leave your audience in the dust.
  7. Flowcharts: Never.
  8. Actually, flowcharts are okay if they actually show something flowing. But I don’t want to see where your office or component or directorate lies within a 26-node chain of bureaucratic nonsense. (It REALLY IS nonsense. The next time you see an organization chart in a presentation, see if you remember what it said afterward.)
  9. If someone asks a question you can’t answer, that’s fine. Tell the person you’ll find out the answer and then let them know later: “Here’s my email address. Remind me and I’ll find out for you.” You’ll instantly connect with your audience if you do that.
  10. Using people’s names does amazing things for the audience’s attention span and interest in your topic.
  11. If you’re unsure whether people will find your talk interesting, ask yourself: if this were on TV, would I watch it? (When I wrote this, it seemed odd–who would ever watch a presentation on TV?–but now, I do: 1 2 3.)
  12. Easy one: don’t condescend. The moment you do that, your audience is gone.
  13. Retractable pointers: No.
  14. Same goes for podiums.
  15. Here’s a good technique: tell your audience that at the end of your talk, you’re going to go around the room and demand a question from everyone. It keeps them engaged and lets them know they’re more important than you are. Not everyone can pull this off gracefully, though. Do it wrong, and you look like a jackass.
  16. Don’t give me a bunch of numbers unless they’re abnormal. The audience won’t remember the precise numbers anyway. I can handle a couple of numbers if you explain their significance. But don’t bother telling me how many tanks, helicopters, cargo planes, parachutes and cooks you have.
  17. It’s okay to speak from a script. But do NOT read it. Be natural. Do it in a way that keeps the audience from knowing it’s a script.

Some of the bad habits became repeated, hence the brevity of the list considering the time span. One last note: I was very frustrated when I wrote these, so that probably shines through…

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