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Big, open and more networked than ever: 10 trends from 2012

Social media, open source in government, open mapping and other trends that mattered this year.

In 2012, technology-accelerated change around the world was accelerated by the wave of social media, data and mobile devices. In this year in review, I look back at some of the stories that mattered here at Radar and look ahead to what’s in store for 2013.

Below, you’ll find 10 trends that held my interest in 2012. This is by no means a comprehensive account of “everything that mattered in the past year” — try The Economist’s account of the world in 2012 or The Atlantic’s 2012 in review or Popular Science’s “year in ideas” if you’re hungry for that perspective — but I hope you’ll find something new to think about as 2013 draws near.

Social media

Social media wasn’t new in 2012, but it was bigger and more mainstream than ever. There were some firsts, from the first Presidential “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit to the first White House Google Hangout on Google Plus to presidential #debates to the first billion-user social network. The election season had an unprecedented social and digital component, from those hyperwired debates to a presidential campaign built like a startup. Expect even more blogging, tweeting, tumbling, streaming, Liking and pinning in 2013, even if it leaves us searching for context.

Open source in government

Open source software made more inroads in the federal government, from a notable policy at the Consumer Financial Protection Agency to more acceptance in the military.

The White House made its first commits on GitHub, including code for its mobile apps and e-petition platform, where President Obama responded personally to an e-petition for the first time.. The House Oversight Committee’s crowdsourced legislative platform  also went on GitHub. At year’s end, the United States (code) was on GitHub.

Responsive design

According to deputy technical lead Jeremy Vanderlan, the new AIDS.gov, launched in June, was the first full-site implementation of responsive web design for a federal government domain. They weren’t the first to automatically adapt how a website is displayed for the device a visitor is using — you can see next-generation web design at open.nasa.gov or in the way that fcc.gov/live optimizes to provide video to different mobile devices — but this was a genuine milestone for the feds online. By year’s end, Congress had also become responsive, at least with respect to its website, with a new beta at Congress.gov.

Free speech online

Is there free speech on the Internet? As Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman and others have been explaining for years, what we think of as the new “public square online” is complicated by the fact that these platforms for free expression are owned and operated by private companies. MacKinnon explored these issues in “Consent of the Networked,” one of best technology policy books of the year. In 2012, “Twitter censorship” and the Terms of Service for social networking services caused many more people to suggest a digital Bill of Rights, although “Internet freedom” is an idea that varies with the beholder.

Open mapping

On January 9th, I wondered whether 2012 would be “the year of the open map.” I started reporting on digital maps made with powerful new software and open data last winter. The prediction was partially born out, from Foursquare’s adoption to StreetEast moving from Google Maps to new investments in OpenStreetMap. In response to the shift, Google slashed its price for using the Google Maps API by 88%. In an ideal world, the new competition will result in both better maps and more informed citizens.

Data journalism

Data journalism took on new importance for society. We tracked its growing influence, from the Knight News Challenge to new research initiatives to Africa, and are continuing to investigate data journalism with a series of interviews and a forthcoming report.

Privacy and security

Privacy and security continued to dominate technology policy discussions in the United States, although copyright, spectrum, patents and Internet governance had significant prominence. While the Supreme Court decided GPS monitoring constitutes search under the 4th Amendment, expanded rules for data sharing in the U.S. government raised troubling questions. At year’s end, the Senate voted to extend electronic surveillance authority under FISA for another five years.

In another year that will end without updated baseline privacy legislation from Congress, bills did advance in the U.S. Senate to reform electronic privacy and address location-based technology. After calling for such legislation, the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into data brokers.

No “cyber security” bill passed the Senate either, leaving hope that future legislation will balance protections with civil liberties and privacy concerns.

Networked politics

Politics were more wired in Election 2012 than they’d ever been in history, from social media and debates to the growing clout of the Internet. The year started off with the unprecedented wave of networked activism that stopped the progress of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA) in Congress.

At year’s end, the jury remains out on whether the Internet will act as a platform for collective action to address societal challenges, from addressing gun violence in the U.S. to a changing climate.

Open data

As open data moves from the information age to the action age, there are significant advances around the globe. As more data becomes available, its practical application has only increased in importance.

After success releasing health care data to fuel innovation and startups, US CTO Todd Park sought to scale open data and agile thinking across the federal government.

While it’s important to be aware of the ambiguity of open government and open data, governments are continuing to move forward globally, with the United Kingdom relaunching Data.gov.uk and, at year’s end, India and the European Commission launching open data platforms. Cities around the world also adopted open data, from Buenos Aires to Berlin to Palo Alto.

In the United States, friendly competition to be the nation’s preeminent digital city emerged between San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Open data releases became a point of pride. Landmark legislation in New York City and Chicago’s executive order on open data made both cities national leaders.

As the year ends, we’re working to make dollars and sense of the open data economy, explicitly making a connection between releases and economic growth. Look for a report on our research in 2013.

Open government

The world’s largest democracy officially launching an open government data platform was historic. That said, it’s worth reiterating a point I’ve made before: Simply opening up data is not a replacement for a Constitution that enforces a rule of law, free and fair elections, an effective judiciary, decent schools, basic regulatory bodies or civil society — particularly if the data does not relate to meaningful aspects of society. Adopting open data and digital government reforms is not quite the same thing as good government. Beware openwashing in government, as well as in other areas.

On that count, at year’s end, The Economist found that global open government efforts are growing in “scope and clout.” The Open Government Partnership grew, with new leadership, added experts and a finalized review mechanism. The year to come will be a test of the international partnership’s political will.

In the United States, an open government reality check at the federal level showed genuine accomplishments, but it leaves many promises only partially fulfilled, with a mixed record on meeting goals that many critics found transparently disappointing. While some of the administration’s transparency failures concern national security — notably, the use of drones overseas — science journalists reported restricted access to administration officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services.

Efforts to check transparency promises also found compliance with the Freedom of Information Act lacking. While a new FOIA portal is promising, only six federal agencies were on it by year’s end. The administration record on prosecuting whistleblowers has also sent a warning to others considering coming forward regarding waste or abuse in the national security.

Despite those challenges, 2012 was a year of continuing progress for open government at the federal level in the United States, with reasons for hope throughout states and cities. Here’s hoping 2013 sees more advances than setbacks in this area.

Coming tomorrow: 14 trends to watch in 2013.

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