What the Facebook Hearings Teach us About Government and Technology


I have a confession to make. I am old enough that I had a Friendster page. In fact, I am old enough that I had a Friendster page, a MySpace page and a Facebook page. I used them for social networking. And maybe also some dating long before the rise of OKCupid, Tinder or Hinge.

Along the way I came to see the power of these platforms as ways to communicate with large groups of people at once. It was like a newspaper, but unmediated by pesky journalists. It was like a town hall meeting, but one where you could attend at any time without having to leave home. This was where people were hanging out already, not some grim overheated “community room.”

This week’s hearings on Capitol Hill with Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg have transported me back to a decade ago when I worked for the City of New York. I was the pointy tip of the spear, part of small cohort of communications staffers at various agencies trying to create social media and open data policies for the City.

“How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) asked Zuckerberg early on in the hearing.

“Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg replied

It turns out I am young enough to understand new technologies, but also old enough to be able to communicate about it to agency heads and deputy mayors. And they didn’t sound too much different ten years ago than our congressional leaders this week.

People worried about accuracy, privacy, records retention and more. They were very reluctant to adopt a new way of communicating with constituents or to share more of the data the City was collecting as part of their daily operations. I came to see that this was because they fundamentally didn’t understand how these social media platforms, or the new apps that were being built using the data that the City opened up, worked. This led to distrust and to pulling away from this new technology. This instinct keeps leaders even more in the dark.

One of the most powerful parts of the push to use new technology and to open up data is that it can open up a conversation and the opportunity for learning.

Public sector leaders must feel free to ask questions about how technologies work, how the business models for these companies work, and what the unintended consequences might be. They must make data that the government collects openly available, and in doing so ask questions about how this data can be used, learn from private companies who build maps, apps and services with it. In return they should also ask or even require private companies to do the same with data they create using public assets.

This alone might not be enough. This is why in the Fourth Plan, RPA called for the creation of a new regional census organization to serve as strategic planner, capacity builder, and synthesizer of data to complement public-sector agencies across the region. While data might still be collected by multiple private and public-sector entities, the Regional Census would coordinate and standardize data collection and dissemination. In some cases, the Regional Census would collect data that is not the responsibility of any single agency, and also provide the technical expertise agencies need to implement policies, evaluate technologies, and set security and privacy policies. It is past time for government to start leading on tech.   

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