Category Archives: Tech

The FCC releases its argument supporting municipal broadband in North Carolina

Map of broadband availability in and around Wilson, N.C., from the FCC's ruling pre-empting state law limiting its growth.

Broadband availability in and around Wilson, N.C., from the FCC’s ruling pre-empting state law limiting its growth.

Here it is: 116 pages in PDF.

Here’s the FCC’s full page with statements from all FCC commissioners on the issue.

Here’s the Times Free Press in Tennessee on their part of the issue.

Here’s Multichannel News on what happens next for muni broadband.

Short version: North Carolina’s law limiting town broadband expansion is bad law (it was House Bill 129 from 2011).

And arguments that criticize existing muni broadband in Davidson, Morganton, and Salisbury as examples of the dangers of muni broadband are hogwash. See pages 34-36 in the PDF.


Crossing the streams: N.C. politics (and sometimes media) on Flipboard

Flipboard screenshotFor an easy way to see curated stories on N.C. politics and civics, check out my Flipboard magazine.
Frequency of posts is fairly high, almost every day.

For less-frequent media curation, see my Flipboard magazine on that topic, ranging from net neutrality and drone journalism to N.C. media moves.

Supporting N.C. journalism through public notices and legal ads

So far, 15 bills mentioning the word “newspaper” have appeared in the N.C. General Assembly this session. They range from bills honoring the Rev. Billy Graham to bills allowing cities and counties to publish public notices digitally.

Legal advertisements and public notices, required by law, have been a little-noticed subsidy of local newspapers since Ben Franklin’s time. In the last few years, talk has increased about eliminating the requirement of placing some public notices in newspapers because of the cost to government and the dwindling reach of newspapers. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute wrote a good roundup about legal notices a year ago. I wrote about legislative bills affecting legal notices in North Carolina in 2011.

Some N.C. towns have already eliminated required print legal ads. This year, more towns (Greensboro, Morrisville, High Point) and counties could join them. With the changing face of journalism, including new digital startups, enhanced TV station websites and pay models at established media outlets, North Carolina should rethink how we write laws that require public notices. Our government’s goals should be leveling the playing field, supporting strong independent reporting regardless of the source, and providing government transparency about how legal ads and public notices get placed. The original intent of the ads – notifying people efficiently about government actions that affect their jobs and lives – must remain a key goal. Government websites cannot reach that goal alone.

The word “newspaper” appears 310 times in North Carolina’s general statutes. Rules requiring public notices grew organically over time, lack uniformity and tend to favor established newspapers. Sometimes, another news organization has broader reach, more reporting resources or more local reader engagement. In many cases, the rules allow non-elected officials to choose winners from among news sources, possibly fostering a spoil system that erodes trust.

The North Carolina Press Association keeps its eye on legislation affecting newspapers, and it has opened its doors to new journalism startups including the nonprofit Carolina Public Press in Asheville and the Raleigh Public Record. It must consider its own members’ interests and will likely lobby for rules that continue existing subsidies through legal notices to newspapers, especially newspapers of a certain size. While that support could erode this year, that issue shouldn’t be the only question on the table. Figuring out how to foster the growth of new news startups should also be a consideration in the General Assembly.

Federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission are studying how to preserve journalism as old business models fail. Journalism school deans from across the country, including the University of North Carolina’s Susan King, have written a statement urging the IRS to quickly approve nonprofit status for emerging news sites as a way to foster innovation in journalism.

At the same time, our N.C. General Assembly members should bring independent, thoughtful approaches to encouraging quality, local reporting, from for-profits and nonprofits.

Steven Waldman, writing in a special report, “The Information Needs of Communities,” for the FCC in 2011, made one suggestion:

“One possible solution that would benefit all parties would be for governments to save money by hosting public notices on their own websites and paying a lesser amount to run banner ads on other sites about the notices and linking back to the government site. The municipality would be able to spread information about the public notices to a broader range of audiences than they would by just publishing them in a particular newspaper. They would generate more traffic for their own websites, provide ad revenue for local news operations and advance the cause of government transparency.”

Posting public notices and legal ads on town and county websites furthers open government. But to reach people in our fragmented information age, using multiple methods (including print for some areas), at lower costs, seems like the right solution. Our new laws should be fair, encourage innovation and provide flexibility as technology and news sources change.

Here are some samples of the words in existing bills filed this legislative session in the N.C. General Assembly:

“The County shall advertise a notice for interested parties to submit qualifications in such form as the County may require for possible selection as the private developer or private developers in the public‑private project in a newspaper having general circulation within the County.”

“Advertise the sale by publication in a newspaper having general circulation in the county in which the property is situated. [AND] Make the following information about the property being sold available to the public both on its Web site and by mail. …”

“…sealed bids shall be solicited by advertisement in a newspaper widely distributed in this State or through electronic means, or both, as determined by the Secretary to be most advantageous… .”

“The secretary‑treasurer shall annually, at a time and in a law magazine or daily newspaper to be prescribed by the Council, publish an account of the financial transactions of the Council in a form to be prescribed by it.”

“The Charter Board shall distribute information announcing the availability of the charter school process described in this Part to each local school administrative unit and public postsecondary educational institution and, through press releases, to each major newspaper in the State. … ”

Disclaimers: I am not employed or paid by any of the news organizations in this post. I’m a former employee of the Charlotte Observer, and I’m working on a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina in digital communications. These words are my own.

Privacy, sunshine and the electronic frontier: That slippery slope in North Carolina

Electronic Frontier logo

N.C. legislators have introduced a bill that would allow local governments across the state to opt out of providing copies of email lists they maintain.

Several other local bills specifically allow the governments of Charlotte, Cornelius, Huntersville and Greenville to opt out of providing the copies. The contents of the list would still be open to public inspection.

The statewide bill says this, in part:

“AN ACT to make effective statewide a local act providing that a list of the email addresses of persons subscribing to local government email lists is open to public inspection but is not required to be provided, and to provide that the local government may use that list only for the purpose that it was subscribed to.”

Under North Carolina’s open records law, governments must provide copies of the records they maintain. But in the Charlotte area, some people have expressed concerns about how copies of email addresses can be used for marketing.

Specifically, the Charlotte Observer came under fire after an open-records request for email lists maintained by the city of Charlotte, Cornelius, Huntersville and Davidson. Editor Rick Thames wrote a column responding to the criticisms.

It’s no wonder email lists and marketing nowadays make people nervous. The most recent visible case happened when hackers obtained names and emails from the marketing company Epsilon. Thousands of consumers had their email addresses stolen. Organizations affected included the College Board and Target.

But that’s just the most recent case. Consumer concern about the privacy of their data has been growing for years. They’ve joined email lists for one purpose and watched their addresses be used for a different purpose. And as political battles heat up for 2012, partisan groups are collecting email addresses as fast as they can, without clear direction on how those emails will be used in the future.

Still, the proposed N.C. bills and any move to greater secrecy should cause concern among citizens. Exceptions to open records have a tendency to grow, with open records statutes adding clauses for government agencies that feel they need to do their work in the dark.

Open government data gives everyone a chance to watch how government is spending money and time. And sometimes, that data also can serve to grow new, independent businesses, like the crime mapping company already used by the town of Cornelius. Access to that kind of data needs to be available to everyone on an equal footing, not only to specific firms that cut deals with local governments.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has wrestled with the balancing of privacy and sunshine for years. Formed in 1990, the foundation’s mission is to defend free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights.

In 2004, the foundation issued a white paper about email. The title: “Noncommercial Email Lists: Collateral Damage in the Fight Against Spam.”

Much of the paper deals with the technical issues some email list owners face with spam filters, but it also includes strong recommendations for best practices for those owners.

It also highlights an important principle:

“Individual recipients should have ultimate control over whether they receive the messages they wish to receive. They can be assisted by software or anti-spam services, but knowledge of and control over receipt of email should remain with recipients and end users.”

The most relevant best-practice recommendation in this case: Allow the consumers a chance to opt in to email lists. That’s a basic principle of good marketing firms that work to protect the reputation of the companies they represent.

The specific words:

Senders must ensure that recipients have taken positive action indicating that they wish to be signed up for a mailing list.

More from the paper:

“While this problem is less of an issue with noncommercial lists, recipients do report that they have been added to noncommercial mailing lists without their consent. Sometimes this happens after they participated in a single call-to-action or responded to an issue online. Other times, organizers use or purchase a mailing list set up for one purpose as a ‘starter list’ for another, with the incorrect assumption that the people on the first list are likely to be interested in the second.”

The paper from EFF is worth reading for anyone owning and using email lists and anyone who signs up for a list. But the best practices aren’t law, and they won’t stop marketers, politicians or community organizers from using open records laws to obtain email lists when they can.

So should North Carolina limit access to copies of email lists compiled by local governments?

If so, N.C. legislators should proceed cautiously and choose the law’s words narrowly to avoid shutting off access to information that doesn’t threaten personal privacy. The proposed laws do take a step in the right direction by limiting government’s use of email lists for purposes different than initially intended.

But the contents of emails sent to subscribers of government lists should remain public and should be able to be copied electronically for data analysis.

Also, the number of subscribers to the government email lists should be easily available and easily duplicated. Any other data about the data that the government collects and that does not threaten privacy should be available electronically. As technology evolves, the value of that data about the data can grow in ways that are unclear now.

Any law to protect privacy that affects sunshine should be written narrowly to allow the value of information in the future to grow. Legislators should also proceed cautiously with granting exceptions to the N.C. open records law. Exceptions have a tendency to grow as well.

Statewide bill: House Bill 544, sponsored by N.C. Reps Ruth Samuelson, Tricia Cotham, Frank Iler and Joe Tolson.
Local bills:
Charlotte: House Bill 543, sponsored by N.C. Reps Ruth Samuelson and Tricia Cotham.
Huntersville: Senate Bill 270, sponsored by Sen. Malcolm Graham.
Cornelius: House Bill 441, sponsored by Rep. Tim Moore.
Greenville: Senate Bill 182, sponsored by Sen. Clark Jenkins, Louis Pate and Richard Stevens.

Disclosure: I work at the Charlotte Observer as a community editor covering an area that includes Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville and parts of the city of Charlotte. Opinions here are my own and were written on my own time.

Three women in technology for Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women who are successful in technology.

Ada Lovelace was one of the world’s first computer programmers. She wrote programs for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, a general-purpose computing machine. She also wrote the very first description of a computer and of software.

I’m lucky to have worked in a place where women in technology are not rare, though their contributions were perhaps little seen by the wider world. My Ada Lovelace Day pledge was to write about one woman who excels in technology. I found at least three who serve as role models for me, and now you.

So today, to acknowledge the great contributions women are making in technology, especially in traditional media, here’s a Q&A with three women I admire and hold as role models.

Jytte Nielsen

Jytte Nielsen

The three are Jytte Stavnsgaard Nielsen, a product manager with CCI Europe, a company that provides pagination and content management systems to newspapers; Salem Macknee, an IT worker at the Southeastern group of IT for McClatchy newspapers, based in Charlotte; and Jackie Gruber, regional infrastructure manager for the Southeastern IT group of McClatchy, also based in Charlotte. I used Facebook to share questions with them, and I’m publishing their answers mostly unedited.

How exactly did you get into this technology thing anyway?
Jytte: In the beginning of the 80’s I finalized my Master of Arts in Danish and French from The University of Århus. The normal next step would have been teaching at a college. But helas, not only were there no jobs to get, I was also a bit scared about getting into that career after trying it out for a couple of months at a college at the westcoast in Jutland. The people there were so buttoned up and seemed to lack any enthusiasm about their work.
But as I was not the only one in Denmark with a long education and no job I was lucky enough to get into a special course targeting exactly that group of people. This was an 8 month course at RECAU (The regional IT center of the University of Århus). We were 18 students: psychologists, social workers, research librarians, architects you name it… The course was a big success. We all had jobs and I have been working in IT ever since. My first jobs were in programming, but I quickly moved into supporting, installing, training, documenting, selling, doing proposals etc. In many years I did most of these at the same time. Currently my main function is product management.

Salem Macknee

Salem Macknee

Salem: I drifted into it at several jobs because I was one of those people who could figure out computer problems. People get used to asking you (in the help desk industry this is called peer-to-peer and is considered a wasteful and expensive way to provide computer help) and when the time comes for someone to be an official computer geek, your name comes up.
Jackie: I was in accounting for years and just had an aptitude for geek stuff. I like gadgets.

How big is (are) your monitors?
Jytte: I have one and it is not very big.
Salem: Um, 19 inches I think? I have two on my main machine at work and I always feel crippled with just one.
Jackie: Home 24 inch flat panel…Work 19 inch flat panel.

Do you know who Ada Lovelace is? Have you ever heard of her before?
Jytte: Wasn’t she the Worlds first programmer? I think she did a program for a weaving machine or something like that. She also had a programming language named after her: ADA. As far as I remember she also did a not-very-successful program that would predict race results.
Salem: nope!
Jackie: No…I should know but I do not.

Hardware or software?
Jytte: Software.
Salem: Software, definitely.
Jackie: Hardware.

Do you have to do tech. support for all your friends and relatives?
Jytte: No, they finally found out that I am hopeless. This doesn’t bother me at all as I read a very sensible article years ago about how women actually get the most out of technology because we let men deal with all the bothering technicalities and just use technology to help us do our ‘core’ work and pursue our main goals. Kind of having the use of a car but not needing to repair it.
Salem: Only my husband. My children and my parents are at least as tech-savvy as I am.
Jackie: YES!

Jackie Gruber

Jackie Gruber

Have you ever been in a tech. meeting and looked around and realized you were the only woman?
Jytte: Many times. I still am almost every day. I enjoy working with men so it does not bother me. I am also sometimes in meetings where we are only women. These are strangely different from mixed meetings. We often start with jokes and laughter, then quickly get down to business and then we are much more focused and efficient and agree easily on decisions and plans. This keeps surprising me. Another thing that is nice about women is that they most of the time actually carry out the tasks that they take on. Maybe I am being sexist now?
Salem: I may have been the only woman in some meetings, but I’m not sure I ever noticed. I’ve also been the only woman in other kinds of meetings, like a dinner of circulation directors, which was probably the most offensive crowd I ever had to endure.
Jackie: Often.

Mac or PC?
Jytte: PC
Salem: PC! Macs are SO visual. I’m a word person.
Jackie: PC

What new tech. thing are you learning?
Jytte: I want to learn more about photo manipulation. Mostly for private needs. I do art work in my spare time and I love to integrate old and new photos in my work.
Salem: I have handed off direct user support to a very talented team of people who do the floor support I used to do and understand our new editorial system much better than I do. My new role calls for deeper server skills, and as someone who has spent her whole tech career operating intuitively instead of taking classes to get certifications, I’m definitely feeling brain strain. So far I have managed to do most of what’s asked of me, but I’m breaking a sweat for sure, because my unix skills are all learned on the job and pretty superficial. Also, with the layoffs and cutbacks I find that when people are desperate for help, they still tend to turn to me because they know I’ll find them the help they need if I can’t provide it myself. And troubleshooting is still what I’m best at, so I do tend to let myself get sidetracked just for the joy of flexing those muscles again.
Jackie: Citrix

Would you suggest to your daughter(s) that they go into technology?
Jytte: Definitely. They are both very talented in this respect.
Salem: I’m glad my kids all grew up with technology and understand how to use it. I wouldn’t suggest they go into it as a profession because it changes so fast you need to really love it to keep up. But I know being tech-savvy will help them do whatever job they end up in. I’m just glad none of them inherited their father’s total bewilderment about computers.
Jackie: Yes.

What’s the hardest challenge you’ve faced in technical work?
Jytte: The hardest challenge is to get credibility.
Salem: It changes so fast and I’m not a live-breathe-eat-sleep geek; I am never just studying the newest scripting language for fun; I don’t track tech trends, I manage to keep up with my own little apps, but then I go home and have a life outside technology. So I had to accept a while back that the true geeks will always just be tolerating me as a necessary evil. (That is, someone who can bridge the gap between them and regular people.) Getting the help I need from them and not minding if they think I’m a moron is probably my biggest challenge. And being able to admit what I don’t know.
Jackie: People. (with a smiley emoticon).

To what do you credit your success? (I know for you, Salem: a magnetic field.)
Jytte: As I am working mostly with workflows I think it is a natural interest. When I started learning housecraft in school in my teens I found most of it extremely boring, as my mother already taught me how to cook, bake, clean, do laundry etc. But then we had a new teacher and she taught us how important it is to plan house work, menus, kitchen layout etc carefully not only to save time and raw material but also to save resources. We even calculated all meals in respect to nutrition and cost. Finally something that I could relate to.
Salem: 1. Being able to listen to a regular person and translate what they’re saying into tech language has been one of my top skills. Both sides get so frustrated over these language gaps.
2. Intuition plays a big part, and you need an analytical approach when troubleshooting; change one thing and try again, so you know which thing ends up working.
3. Having the kind of mind that enjoys puzzles. Computer programming is very much like solving a puzzle.
4. Defining success so that it matches my current circumstances!
Jackie: Dumb luck…seriously, I can geek speak in non-threatening terms.

What didn’t I ask that I should have?
Salem: I think it’s important to have a focus besides tech; the folks I work with all have a comfort zone — newsroom, production, circulation. Knowing how the newsroom works is a huge part of my being able to help them do their jobs. So don’t be a computer expert; have another profession on top of which your computer knowledge sits.

For more on Ada Lovelace Day, follow @findingada on Twitter.

Note: Images are provided by Jytte, Salem and Jackie.

Mark up stuff for the thing

Matt Waite at Wired Journalists relayed a memorable quote from the recent Atlanta 3G conference, from Mitch Gelman, senior vice president and executive producer at

“We put stuff on the thing.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter what stuff, and it doesn’t matter what thing.
For the web, CSS enables that work with standards-based markup.
What if we did that for print media as well? Many news organizations have moved that way, with standard tags or markup to be shared eventually among different publications. Those tags are defined by function, not typography.
What if we took it to another level, with markup that said, “I want to do something here. I’m just not sure what, or I want it to be different in different places. I’ll use another tool or script to define that later.”
That’s what CSS can do, at places like CSS Zen Garden. Surely we can figure out a way to do that for print.