Fast Company’s recent article “Inside Obama’s Stealth Startup” provides a nice overview of how industry experts have been steadily joining forces to transform how the United States government is using technology to provide services to its people. One of the key elements of this strategy is open data and open source — there’s little or no stealth in this “startup.”

One of my proudest moments after I joined 18F was when we announced our open source policy. Developing in the open creates an unprecedented level of transparency and offers new potential to engage members of the public in the operation of our democracy.

Before that time, most projects from the Presidential Innovation Fellows and the new 18F team were open source, but each project required specific sign off by agency leaders for it to be open. Creating a policy dramatically streamlined this sign-off process. Working in the open saves time and money:

  • streamlines communication
  • increases code reuse
  • reduces vendor lock-in

In 2013, the Open Data Executive Order set the stage for this work. By making it so that open data was the default expectation, it means that thousands of civil servants may provide open data as part of their process, without needing to get permission for each individual data set to be published.

It’s great to see industry press starting to take notice of this transformation happening inside the US Government. We’re really just getting started. If you want to read more, check out the 18F blog

boy's face lit by the light of a video game -- sense of urgency, a little bit of fear, but intense concentrationJane McGonigal’s TED talk “Gaming can make a better world” has some highlights from her research on what games make us good at. She talks about the “epic win,” an extraordinary outcome that you didn’t believe was even possible until you achieved it — almost beyond your threshold of imagination, something that teaches you what you’re truly capable of.

“Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible, and that it’s always worth trying, and trying now.”

What capabilities does gaming create? what are their superpowers?

  • Urgent optimism The desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.
  • Tight social fabric Playing a game together builds trust and cooperation. Playing creates strong social bonds. “We trust that they will spend their time with us, that they will play by the same rules, value the same goal, stay with the game until it’s over.”
  • Blissful productivity Humans are optimized to do hard and meaningful work. The average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week hours per week — that’s like a part time job. Gamers are willing to “work” really hard, given the right kind of work.
  • Epic meaning awe-inspiring missions, planetary scale stories. World of Warcraft has the 2nd largest wiki in the world, with almost 80,000 articles. McGonigal describes this as building an epic story.

10,000 hours

The average young person in a country with a “strong gamer culture” will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the age of 21. This is an interesting number:

  • 10,080 hours of school from 5th – 12th grade (with perfect attendance)
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of success based on cognitive science research that with 10,000 hours of effortful study anyone could become a virtuoso by age 21

She challenges us to think about what we might do with this incredible human resource. At the institute of the future, she has invented a few games, which have been played by thousands of people, focused on solving serious real, world problems. I wonder how a new generation with these problem-solving skills and ability for extended focus will transform our society. With any luck, we’ll successfully game-ify the real world, rather than creating ever-increasingly delicious virtual escapes.

An Epic Mission

I love the way she describes the elements of online games that make it so compelling:

  • Lots and lots of different characters who are willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, right away. B
  • You get a mission that is perfectly matched with your current level in the game
  • They never give you a challenge you can’t achieve.
  • You are challenged with what you are on the verge of what you’re capable of, so you have to try hard.

“There’s no unemployment in World of Warcraft; no sitting around, wringing your hands — there’s always something specific and important to be done. There are also tons of collaborators. Everywhere you go, hundreds of thousands of people ready to work with you to achieve your epic mission.”

How can we apply these ideas to make our real lives and real challenges more engaging?

Watch Jane McGonigal’s whole talk: Gaming can make a better world

I’m curious about my twitter followers… who are you? how many people do I know who follow me on twitter who don’t tweet at me?

I experimented a bit with the data of my Twitter follower, displaying the distribution as a histogram, grouping my followers by their number of followers. I’ve got some outlier followers with a crazy number of followers themselves, the max is SamsungMobile with 10,592,003 followers. Twitter also claims that HillaryClinton is following me, but her account makes it seem like there are only 16 people she’s following — do famous people get to follow people in secret? or was this some weird glitch in the Twitter API

Twitter Stats

As of this writing the Twitter UI tells me I have 7,058 followers,
but I seem to have been able to get 7,481 from the API.

Unsurprisingly, my followers have a relatively low median number of followers (281) with a large standard deviation (157,367). The distribution looks a lot like you would expect. Cropping the outliers to make the graph more interesting, here’s just the lower 90%:

Twitter followers - lower 90% by number of followers

Is it just me who wonders about this kind of thing? We have the ability now to connect with so many people, somehow sustaining relationships with more people than we can ever really know in real life or keep in our heads.

For the Coders
To download the data, I used a python twitter collection script (twecoll). Getting the list of my followers, wasn’t clearly documented, but just needed an option I gleaned from the source code:

git clone
./twecoll init ultrasaurus --followers

More data is still downloading…