I am very happy that, as of this week, my work at U.S. Open Data is funded entirely by the Shuttleworth Foundation. The South African organization has awarded me a one-year fellowship, which covers my salary and also provides up to $250,000 in project funding in that time. I’m very happy to have their support, and I’m excited about the work I’ll be able to do in the year ahead to make open data more vibrant and sustainable in the U.S., especially within government.
Ado Annie Jaquith Capron
October 20, 2001–August 26, 2015
I’ve joined a new endeavor this week—the U.S. Open Data Institute. Today is just day #2 for me, and for the organization. The US ODI is modeled on the UK-based Open Data Institute, a year-old organization that’s bridging the gaps between government and the private sector. That’s what we intend to do at the US ODI—help government, businesses, non-profits, and individuals make more effective use of the data being produced by governments and, in some cases, businesses. That’ll be done largely through facilitating collaboration between existing organizations and government agencies, and also by working one-on-one with government agencies who need help opening up their data. Neither is particularly glamorous—basically playing matchmaker and running a free IT help desk—but it’s what needs to be done to unlock the annual $3 trillion in economic value that’s waiting to be capitalized on. A whirlwind of activity has surrounded the establishment of this organization, to which I’ve largely been a stunned witness, with particular credit going to the Knight Foundation, the Aspen Institute, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Open Data Institute, Daniel X. O’Neil, and Max Ogden, although dozens of other people and organizations played important roles.
For a lot more detail, see the Knight Foundation’s announcement of their $250,000 in funding, my blog entry on their site about the US ODI, the White House’s blog entry, US ODI board chair Daniel X. O’Neil’s blog entry, or Robinson Meyer’s especially fun and detailed Atlantic article.
I’m a smart guy.
I’m not bragging. It’s not like I deserve any credit for being smart. I didn’t do anything to make that happen. I’m also tall, but nobody compliments me on that. (Good job being tall!) Intelligence is an immutable characteristic that I have at times capitalized on and at other times let go to waste. So it goes.
It’s not easy to understand what it’s like to be smarter or dumber than one is. I have some friends who are much smarter than me, and I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to experience the world as they do. Like height, intelligence is a privilege, in that we live in a society that places value on both. And although I don’t know what it’s like to be of a different intelligence, I do know what it’s like to be short; we all started out short. Although I have brown hair now, I bleached my hair a couple of times as a teenager, so I know what it’s like to be blond. If I really wanted to, I could probably fake my way into at least being perceived as of a different race, sex, or sexual orientation.
Interestingly, I have come to find out what it’s like to be dumb. I am, at this moment, rather stupid.
On September 1 I returned from a trip to Buenos Aires. During the 14 hours that I spent waiting around the Atlanta and Charlotte airports that day, I became progressively more sick, until I had a full-blown case of influenza. (It’s flu season in the southern hemisphere, after all.) Ten days later, I was still sick. The fever was gone, and my symptoms were muted, but I still felt sick. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t care about eating, I just wanted to lie around and watch TV.
So I went to the doctor, starting to doubt my self-diagnosis. After explaining my symptoms, both physical and mental, he came to a conclusion quickly: I have Lyme disease. (A pending blood test may help to confirm that, but they’re famously unreliable.) I was bitten by a tick this spring—one of many ticks that I find embedded in my skin each spring, summer, and fall—that was bearing Lyme spirochetes, which it injected into me. The immune-suppressing tick saliva allowed the bacteria to establish an infection there. That initial infection raised a nickel-sized welt on my back, which I presented to my dermatologist, who assured me it was nothing to worry about. (In fact, this may well have been a borrelial lymphocytoma.) Gradually, those spirochetes reproduced, spreading throughout my body, through my bloodstream. Some of those spirochetes have hijacked my own cells, persuading them to produce nerve toxins that disrupt my brain’s neurotransmitters.
In short, Lyme has made me tired, listless, depressed, and stupid.
This is a fascinating experience. Or, at least, it would be fascinating, if the symptoms themselves didn’t prevent me from caring. Other than short bouts while ill—when I’ve actually had the flu—I’ve never been listless or unmotivated. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve never been depressed. And I’ve never been stupid. I’m pretty much neurotypical.
So I want to explain, briefly, the bits about depression and stupidity, if only to capture the experience for Future Waldo.
Depression isn’t at all what I thought it would be like. I don’t feel depressed, by which I mean that I don’t feel sad or despairing or anything like that. I just feel less. Mostly, I feel like I couldn’t be bothered. Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t eat much, if anything. I doubt that I’d shower or shave. I’d mostly watch television and nap. My preferences are largely gone. (Should we have chicken or fish for dinner? I just don’t care.) I have a very short attention span; like a puppy chasing a butterfly, I’m happy to pursue whatever shiny thing presents itself, until a new shiny thing comes along. With substantial, headache-inducing effort, I can fake being normal-ish, but not for long. Depression, at least as I’m experiencing it, is the absence of emotion, rather than negative emotion. I don’t mind it, not yet, but maybe depression is what keeps me from minding depression.
Stupidity is also different than I’d thought. Part of my stupidity stems from the depression, I think. My curiosity is muted, my ambition to learn more or consider options more deeply has vanished. But part of it is just straight-up stupidity. I can’t really think about more than one thing at once. When a new thought enters my head, the old one simply vanishes. (Thanks to the depression, though, I don’t really mind.) I have no critical thinking skills, little ability to string together a cohesive argument, and a poor recall of long-held facts. I’ve been stuck at this point in this paragraph for at least ten minutes, unable to think of the other ways in which I’m stupid, or to spend more than five consecutive seconds trying to think of them. Yes, I’m too stupid to explain how I’m stupid. Do me a favor and pause to let the irony of that sink in, because if I pause, I’ll start forget what I’m supposed to be thinking about.
The good news is that this isn’t permanent. I started on an aggressive, two-week round of antibiotics yesterday, and I intend to find an infectious disease specialist with experience in Lyme to chart a more aggressive path to wellness. In theory, once the antibiotics start to kill off those spirochetes, I’ll stop feeling sick and stupid. (Unfortunately, the antibiotics will also kill off many of the bacteria that my body needs, so I’ll be having lots of homemade pickles and sauerkraut, coincidentally ready to eat this week, plus yogurt and kimchi, which will help to repopulate my gut’s microbiota.) I don’t know how long it’ll be until I start to feel better. Again, thanks to the depression, I don’t really care, although I know that I’m supposed to.
I hope that, in retrospect, this will have been a positive experience. It’s very difficult to understand how somebody else’s brain works. It’s hard to sympathize with those who did less well in mental aspects of that great genetic lottery, because usually one can’t really know what another person’s experience is like. Learning to understand depression and a different level of intelligence is a rare opportunity, and I’m optimistic that this is an chance to become a better person.
Our sweet old beagle passed away today.
It seems like it was just yesterday that we took her in. Back then—in late 2006—she was just another foster. My wife and I decided that, rather than fostering lively animals and finding homes for them, we’d pick out the most pathetic dog we could find at the SPCA, as our very own Pygmalion tale. This elderly, frightened old girl was the clear winner, so we took her with us, determined to find her a forever home. There didn’t turn out to be much of a market for elderly, gassy beagles, and come March, we made things official.
Her life before 2006 was obviously pretty rough, and I’m proud that we could provide her with a great retirement home and a proper family. I hope all of her memories of her prior life were gradually replaced with a fuzzy impression of joy, safety, and freedom from want. She certainly provided us with many happy memories of our own.
The Sunlight Foundation has put together a very kind mini-documentary about my open government technology work. (I can’t see that any of its contents will come as news to anybody who reads this blog.) It was fun to participate in the making of it, and it was a joy to watch filmmakers Tiina Knuutila and the aptly named Solay Howell at work throughout the process. I’m a big fan of the Sunlight Foundation (they funded the addition of video to Richmond Sunlight in the first place), and it’s flattering that they’d even be institutionally aware of me.
I don’t normally mention my public speaking engagements, but tomorrow I’ve got one that’s free, open to the public, and liable to be of general interest. Tomorrow is the Democratic Party of Virginia’s Jefferson Jackson Dinner, the party’s big annual event. As a part of the day’s activities, I’m speaking on a panel with former (as of two days ago) U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra, Peter Levin, and Macon Phillips. The topic is open technological innovation and its effects on politics and policy, which is my favorite topic to talk about. It’s at 1:30 PM at the Richmond Marriott.
(Incidentally, I think the women’s caucus should have their own event, focusing on reproductive rights, and call it the “VA JJ Dinner.” Hilarity ensues.)
I started a job with the White House about two and a half weeks ago. (For you federal government geeks, it’s via an assignment from the GSA, which in turn is via an IPA from UVA.) The plan is to take the train up to D.C. once a week, and work in Charlottesville for the rest of the week. I have waited this long to write about it here because I’ve been hoping that I could write the work that I’m doing, because I think it’s interesting and exciting. But the specifics of my project are still confidential, and are likely to be for at least another few weeks, and I don’t think it’s fair to wait that long to say anything, since it affects what I’ll be writing about here. Suffice it to say it pertains to open government technology.
The effect of this is that I will not be blogging about partisan politics for the duration, and generally avoiding political matters. Nobody has told me to do this, or even suggested it obliquely. It’s no in way a requirement of the job. But I think it’s the right thing, for one simple reason: I don’t think I can write honestly about politics if I’m going to make my living working for the president. I could try, but I don’t think I could avoid bias, no matter how convinced I might be that I was exhibiting none. I have restricted my writing accordingly for the past two weeks, and I’m more or less happy with the balance that I have struck.
Oddly, this doesn’t conflict with my other new line of work, as a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation News Challenge Fellow, building The State Decoded. That’s because my $160,000 grant hasn’t actually arrived yet and, based on the paperwork that I got in the mail today, it looks like it won’t for another couple of months. So The State Decoded remains an evenings-and-weekends project for me (though less so with this new job—the folks at the White House work all the time, and I’m just trying to keep up) until I complete this project and return to my prior commitment with the Knight Foundation.
I’m having an adventure.
I mentioned in June that I’d gotten an award from the White House. Now they’re promoting it on their website. On the “Champions of Change” site—that’s the award that I got—they’re featuring the sixteen of us who received awards on that occasion, all in the realm of open data technology. I was in awfully good company, rather outclassed by most of the other folks, all of whom you can read about on that site. The link to information about me currently goes to Omar Epps’ entry (a mistake that, I assure you, is not often made), but my entry is linked to from elsewhere, luckily. There’s even a brief video interview with me, which I find excruciating to watch, but one can do so. (Something about being interviewed on video makes me think that I should probably blink a lot. Somewhere in my reptile brain, something is saying “you should blink a lot—it’ll make you look smart!” Instead, it makes me look simultaneously flirtatious and convulsive.)
Perhaps my favorite bit is being mentioned in a blog entry today by US CTO Aneesh Chopra, along with two other folks from my award group:
Waldo Jaquith used his free time to facilitate a more open government. Despite long hours at his day job, Waldo found the time to launch Richmond Sunlight, a volunteer-run site that keeps track of the Virginia legislature, including manually uploading hundreds of hours of CSPAN-inspired video of floor speeches, tagging relevant information on bills and committee votes, and inviting the public to comment on any particular legislation. He solicits feedback, introduces new products and services, and encourages others to participate. In short, he embodies the spirit that drives the Internet economy – “rough consensus, running code.”
Leigh, Waldo and David are part of a growing network of open innovators tapping into (or contributing to) government data that is both “human-friendly” (you can find what you need), and “computer-friendly” so that entrepreneurs can develop applications that both solve big problems and create jobs in an increasingly competitive economy. I’m confident this growing band of app-developing brothers and sisters will help us invent our way to a clean energy economy, achieve a “quantum leap” in learning outcomes, and strengthen America’s manufacturing sector. To support them, I’ve directed technology and innovation leaders across the federal government to learn from these best practices and scale what works.
I can feel all of this receding into memory, given the title of The Story about the Time I Went to the White House and Won an Award to be hauled out and recited at dinner parties, making my wife roll her eyes as the years go by. It was fun.