USPTO and Google partner on opening patent and trademark data

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) faces a major challenge: an overload of patent applications (including sinister patent trolls) and far too few analysts to evaluate them. The quantity problem is compounded by difficulty of searching for existing patents and prior art that might discourage additional applications. The result is absurd wait times for would-be patent holders, lots of mockable patent granting decisions, and an overall lack of transparency of the patent process to the public.

But USPTO lately deserves more credit. Nearly a year ago to the day, I wrote about Peer-to-Patent, an innovative effort to open up the difficult and time-consuming task of researching prior art to the scientific and technical communities who possess the subject matter expertise to quickly evaluate patent applications. It was an early #gov20 success and its creator, Beth Noveck, was soon plucked from her job in academia to become the United States Deputy CTO for Open Government.

Today, Google announced another step forward. The USPTO is partnering with Google to bring 10 terabytes of patent and trademark data to the web for easy download. Analysts now have the data necessary to perform exciting trends analysis and otherwise parse the information to demystify patent granting. This must be a costly endeavor and I applaud USPTO for letting Google bear the costs. It's not often that a government agency so fully relinquishes control of its data for public consumption and this is a major #gov20 win.


America Speaking Out may be the worst community website ever created

Hi GOP, how desperate can you be to attempt to crowdsource your agenda?

America Speaking Out is your attempt to hear the voices of America, but the thoughtless design violates just about every principle of a good community website, featuring pure anonymity, no structure to the "discussion", lame "badges" to reward participation, and zero moderating. The result is a vapid waste, but what did you expect when you failed to put any of your own ideas out there to kickstart a discussion? If you won't take this seriously, neither will the public.

Rep Lungren (R-CA) offers:

House Republicans are offering the country a new set of policy solutions, but rather than handing an agenda down from the Washington DC, we want to include the American people in building it... So to show that the voices of the America people can still make a difference in Washington, we are introducing America Speaking Out and giving citizens a new opportunity to lend their ideas to the creation of a new national policy agenda.

Connecting to the public online to get input is actually a good idea.  But the public isn't here to do your job for you, GOP. A much more effective way to engage would be for you to actually draft a set of policy options, put together the key elements of the agenda, and then let the public comment on, vote on, and prioritize the elements.

Take a page from Less Wrong, one of the best community websites out there. Its model allows writers to compose thoughtfuls piece that are opened to the community for voting (more votes bring it closer to the top) and comments (that are threaded so there is actually a robust discussion). I would love to see Republican leaders compose an opinion piece on each of the elements of their agenda that they then open for annotation and comment.  That's a real way to engage the population in a civil discourse. Soundbites destroy real policymaking; take a moment to write out your argument and post it online. See what ideas stick and which flop. You may be suprised. That would be a discussion worth having.


Amend the CPSIA and save the vibrant p2p e-commerce community

I'm not usually much of an activist, but this is a micro-cause worth fighting for. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act needs to be amended to exempt small-batch toy producers from draconian testing requirements that were created in response to unethical massive toy distributors but will serve to make much of the safe, handmade market illegal.

In its current form, the bill advantages large Chinese-based firms that mass-produce toys and kills small home-based shops where personal care is put into every item. The latter simply cannot afford the marginal cost of testing each item.

From the Handmade Toy Alliance:

The CPSIA simply forgot to exclude the class of children's goods that have earned and kept the public's trust: Toys, clothes, and accessories made by small businesses where the owners are personally involved in the creation of their goods.  The result, unless the law is modified, is that handmade children's products will no longer be legal in the US.

A good summary of the arguments can be found here on Etsy's blog. I've followed the developments beginning here when the bill first passed the house, here when the community scored a temporary win in convincing the regulatory commission to put a one year stay on implementation, and here as the Handmade Toy Alliance sought to rally the artistic and crafting community to a unified approach to repeal. As I've said before, it's time for the law to recognize that an online community of trust can incentivize better behavior than the threat of government recall.

Graphic: Hilary Williams of Blynken & Nod


Polling for facts; or, an idiotic pandering to crowd wisdom

Sean Hannity has an innovative approach to intelligence analysis applying cutting-edge crowdsourcing principles: Ask a bunch of uninformed viewers what they think is the answer to critical and sensitive national security questions and present the results as meaningful.

On his homepage today, readers are invited to respond to the poll featured to the left. I just voted "with the Taliban" but alas, I was in the minority of only 41%. Rather, 53% of Hannity viewers believe that Faisal Shahzad acted "with al Qaeda" despite the announcement of Attorney General Eric Holder this afternoon that we have actual evidence that Shahzad was funded by the Pakistani Taliban.

But who needs facts when you have crowd opinions?


Not much to see here...I'm off hiking the Inca Trail

Taking a break from the internet, computers, my iPhone, and the rest, I'm off to Machu Picchu carrying only a backpack. See you when I get back!


Turning internet companies into law enforcement agents

The record this week for privacy online: one win, one potential loss, and a hazy tie. In a remarkably busy week for online regulation, important legal and international negotiation developments emerged, and one trend is clear: internet companies are going to be playing an increasing large role in the law enforcement of citizens.

Click to read more ...


New peer-to-peer market opens in long-haul "volcano taxis" in Europe

Crazy / entrepreneurial types are trying to cash in on the volcanic ash-induced flight shutdown in Europe. At VolcanoTaxi, you can bid (starting at 500 Euros rising to 4,000+) for a car ride anywhere across the continent.  The site does all the pairing on the backend, rather than opening it like Craigslist, which maybe adds a touch of legitimacy.  Of course, if people are willing to rent bedrooms from strangers on airbnb, why not bid for a ride especially if multiple passengers are grouped together? For single rides, as in single night's stay, cutting out the middleman should always make things cheaper.


With microfinance, more transparency (and realism) required

Today's NYT offers yet another set of indictments against microfinance. The charges are: 2) interest rates are unfair and exploitative, 2) banks are making profits off ventures originally meant to be charitable; and 3) loan pricing is not transparent enough to consumers.

As a lender myself, I too have questioned the high interest rates charged by the major lenders - at Compartamos, the average rate is 84% - but let's be honest, lending in micro-amounts to the poor is an expensive proposition. It's considerably more expensive to lend 10 loans of $100 than 1 loan of $1,000 especially if none of those people has any credit history, nor employment history, or even access to a bank. If I lend someone $100 for 1 monts divided into two payments at an 18% interest rate, I will make 75 cents and that probably doesn't cover my costs. I don't doubt there is abuse in the system - just as payday lenders and other loan sharks abuse financially illiterate American consumers, but interest rates that seem high by our American standards are not necessarily exploitative.

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SecDef responds to WikiLeaks video, but why not online?

Secretary of Defense Gates finally responded this weekend to the Wikileaks video "Collateral murder" that depicted American soliders gunning down several Iraqis and two journalists from their Apache helicopter.

After my recent post asking why the Department hadn't responded, this was a welcome development, especially since Secretary Gates did the right thing and defended the troops. But I must ask ... why was the response provided only on an ABC weekend news program? How many people did that reach? The Wikileaks video has spread so virally because it is a compelling link. Credit to @SumitAgarwalUSA, the new Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Outreach and Social Media for tweeting about the Gates response, but honestly a Yahoo! News article is a weak response to a powerful video.

Especially given DoD's release of its Open Government plan this week, the Wikileaks incident would have offered a perfect opportunity for the Department to engage on a difficult issue directly with citizens online. There is not even mention of the Gates response on the Department's website. In the battle of the narrative, Wikileaks has won.


Department of Defense Open Government Plan Embracing Good Ideas (first step at least)

Today the White House announced that all US government departments and agencies would be releasing their Open Government Plans to comply with the President's Open Government Initiative.

I clicked immediately to the Department of Defense page, expecting to be disappointed. When EVERY agency receives a green rating, as seen here, surely the bar is set too low. But I was pleasantly surprised: the DoD plan at least has 3 good ideas, suggested by users, that it has committed to implementing:

Click to read more ...


I'm robbing the bank, you should too: earning 13.59% through peer-to-peer lending

These days, it's easy to hate the banks. The government has managed them with bailouts and now special taxes, policies that you and I may agree or disagree with but likely have no impact upon. But there is a micro, market-based way to fight the problem: steal their business.

Traditional banks charge exorbitant rates for personal loans, as high as 29%. In the peer-to-peer marketplace, I can undercut the banks by funding loans at far more reasonable rates and still make a nice profit. My current expected returns? 13.59%. After kicking off my $1,000 p2p lending portfolio on Lending Club in early December, I've slowly built up my portfolio over the past few months, periodically adding $500 every couple of weeks until this week when I felt comfortable enough with the platform to drop in the final $2k. My portfolio at a glance:

Through these first few months, there are a few things I've learned....

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Crowdsourcing a book club; when will it end?

The adoration of the crowd has really gone too far.

Jeff Howe, of Crowdsourcing fame has "a dream. An idea. A maybe great notion."  He wants everyone on Twitter to read the same book at the same time to form “a massive international book club.” The idea, One Book One Twitter (#1b1t) is modeled after some city programs that took off earlier in the decade and were publicized by local libraries and politicians to encourage, for example, residents of the city of Chicago to read To Kill a Mockingbird in 2002. Howe writes:

“When the program works — and it doesn’t always — it gets more people reading, more people talking and more people generally appreciating the written word. What’s not to like?”

A lot.

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Innovation contests should reward products not ideas

Following up from my recent post about the rise of contests, I’ve been thinking about what is the key differentiator between good contests and bad. My hypothesis is that the best contests produce products, not ideas. To test this theory, I think of the contests that I admire – Netflix, NASA Lunar Lander, Department of Energy L Prize – versus all the contests that I find less compelling – Awesome Foundation and to a lesser extent, Apps for Democracy – and realize that the former produced real products that were created in response to a real problem. The latter seem to be more about a call for “innovation” and to create a response to an undefined problem set simply because new tools are there to do so.

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The government technology contest model continues its ascent

The White House memo, “Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government” released this past week frees US government department and agencies to open up contests to the public to help confront their most challenging problems.

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Most terrifying application of crowdsourcing ever

The term alone is mildly disturbing - "human flesh search" - and its application - vigilatism translated from the online to real-life worlds is terrifying. Simulatenously, it may be one of the more impressive examples of crowdsourcing around. Human flesh searches in China have tracked down individuals accused of wrongs ranging from stomping a kitty to death to instigating the suicide of a young woman based solely on images and videos uploaded to the internet. Intensively active chat room users put together the pieces to identify the wanted individuals' identities and place their personal details online for the community to enact its retribution.

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