The New Higher Education? – by “Jacob W – YLT2012”

A couple hundred years ago, higher education was not something that could be sought by anyone. Only rich white males could ever hope to continue on in academia past basic literacy and arithmetic. Fortunately this is no longer the case. Now, people from all backgrounds can attend through grade 12 for free and can apply to colleges via need-blind application processes that assure a more level playing field for those seeking traditional higher education.  But even now, there are those that think higher education should abandon the brick and mortar edifices that have housed great libraries for centuries. They suggest that knowledge could be disseminated much more efficiently through technological means, and with the price of an elite Yale education currently sitting at $200,000 (and rising quickly), I have to admit that I agree with them.

The Access to Knowledge (A2K) movement is a recent movement that has sought to reform the way people think about education. According to its proponents, education is not something that should be denied to anyone. In fact, it’s put on the same level of importance as justice and freedom, and with education‘s profound effect on the economic development of a country, this seems reasonable. After all, if a developing country is dependent on foreign aid for educated reformers and leaders, then how can the country hope to become self-sustaining?

Some pretty high profile universities are jumping on this A2K bandwagon, and the results are pretty astounding. MIT OpenCourseWare was launched in 2002, yet already has over 2000 courses online, 46 of which have complete video lecture series. These courses have been visited over 146 million times by more than 104 million viewers worldwide. Yale followed suit in 2007 launching Open Yale Courses with 7 full video lecture series. Since then the library of video lectures has grown to include 42 courses and is still rapidly expanding. Other programs that aren’t linked to universities include Khan Academy, which boasts a large collection of over 3600 videos explaining high school and college topics.

With the vast amount of resource online, many people are now seeking some sort of proof that they have completed online courses. Many users want some sort of certificate that they can show to potential employers to show that they have mastered certain material and others seek credit at the institution that provided the open courseware, but open course providers are reluctant to offer any sort of accreditation. Administrators insist that these programs are designed to help with the University’s goal of disseminating knowledge, but are in no way meant to serve as a duplicate to a Yale or MIT education.

As a student at Yale, I would have to agree with the administration of OYC that credit at the provider institution would be unearned. The course material is an important part of a Yale education, but in no way is it the only part. For example, students who learn via open courseware are able to view videos of lectures and complete assignments, but it would be nigh on impossible for professors to grade and provide feedback for the millions of people that are viewing the courses. Furthermore, an education at an elite institution is about more than just the knowledge you acquire in class. A degree from an institution such as Yale or MIT signifies not only that you are extremely knowledgeable in your field of study, but also that you have spent 4 years cultivating a new way of thinking by engaging with some of the brightest professors and students on the planet. This isn’t to say that interaction among peers is impossible via an online course, but it certainly isn’t the same as what you would experience on an elite college campus.

This being said, it is still possible that some sort of certificate could be presented to those users who demonstrate an adequate knowledge of the subject via an online test (that could feasibly be graded electronically), but the value of this certificate would have to be decided by potential employers. It wouldn’t be the same as a degree earned at an old-fashioned brick-and-mortar institution, but someone who had already proved their aptitude in, say, applied mathematics, would certainly be more valuable than someone who hadn’t done so.  And when you consider the possibilities of open courseware in the developing world it once again seems worthy of high praise.

With the high cost of textbooks and the added cost of transportation of those textbooks it seems unreasonable to even suggest transporting small libraries to the developing world, much hiring world-renowned staff to go give lectures there. However, open courseware makes a similar reality much more plausible. Rather than purchasing hundreds or thousands of books, schools in the developing world could instead purchase a small handful of computers for a fraction of the cost. These computers could support satellite internet connections and thus circumvent the need for infrastructure improvements. Most open courseware was created in English, but many open courseware resources are being translated into multiple languages, so it is likely that students will be able to learn in their native tongue before long. Furthermore, exposure to computer technology is likely to be instrumental in helping developing countries establish themselves in the developed world.

So maybe open courseware isn’t ready to completely replace brick-and-mortar institutions, but in the coming decades, it will certainly play an important role in equalizing access to education for people across the globe.


Keep seminars offline – by “Clinton W – YLT2012”

Yale professors are asking the administration to conduct online seminars or sections in the name of spreading knowledge. If Yale College Dean Mary Miller moves forward with the recommended program, it would be a slap in the face to Yale students and a surprisingly hasty move given how Yale has dragged its feet in hosting MOOCs.

Imagine yourself in a Yale seminar sitting next to a student from Quinnipiac, and you’re both getting the same credit for the course. The benefits? That QPac student is probably part of the grading curve. The downsides? Everything else. I’m all for spreading the knowledge around, but can’t we do this without degrading the Yale student’s experience? MOOCs are perfectly fine for that  – I can’t see or hear you on the other side of the screen, so I don’t care if you watch the video of my lecture.

Sure, maybe the application process selects only outside students who would contribute to the course (and who are willing to pay the exorbitant price). But the Yale experience is still compromised when an outside student is able to take the place of a Yale student, even one who would not contribute as much in the classroom. Typically, the best seminars or sections are all filled up by lucky Yale students who were able to get in during shopping period, either through the course lottery or application. So if Yale students now had to compete with outside students to enroll in a course, then we will have lost a very fundamental right as Yale College students.

I doubt that accepting outside students will in itself bring novel perspectives to the seminar that couldn’t be found by bringing another Yale student in instead, since so many of Yale’s own students have a broad range of experiences and come from a variety of backgrounds and countries. Even though previous online courses have included outside students, the courses were held over the summer, where they wouldn’t need to compete for spots with Yale students and where taking courses is not a right for Yalies, but a privilege that must be paid for (and costs $3000, to be precise), and where professors were also free from their responsibilities during the school year. This issue is less one of being open-minded and willing to welcome outside students into our classrooms as it is about preserving the benefits of being a Yale student. We can only share the Yale education insofar as it does not infringe on Yalies’ right to attend the classes of their choice and benefit from the Yale education – particularly considering how difficult it currently is to get into many good seminars.

As far as using the online medium itself for seminars and discussions, I’m unsure that it does anything to enhance the experience. While it no longer allows students to sit quietly in the back of the classroom, it now allows students to surf the web or their email during class. It is also harder for students to directly engage each other in discussion via the bizarre combination of instant messaging and video chat, and it may also make it more difficult for the professor to get to know the students in the class.

I understand some forward-looking professors may want to experiment with the online medium, and having the online option for summer classes alone is useful since students who are at home or studying abroad can continue to take classes, giving them more flexibility rather than being forced to stay in New Haven for Yale Summer Session. But during the school year, it simply doesn’t make sense to have the entire class held online unless it actually improves the class experience, which hardly seems to be the case.

Online-only courses have great potential to improve introductory math and science lectures, where a great professor’s online lecture would do much better than a graduate student’s poorly delivered lectures in person; where skills are adopted by students at widely different rates; and where most students merely take the course as a prerequisite, or to develop foundational technique and knowledge. But unlike lectures, seminars are based significantly on the interactions among the students, and thus there is so much more that is lost when a seminar is moved online versus a lecture. And after all, seminars are often the classes that come to mind when Yalies think of their best classes – not lectures (and for those Yalies whose favorite class is a lecture, they probably never took a class that wasn’t a prerequisite, and/or the professor should probably be teaching a seminar instead).

Dean Miller, keep seminars offline, and at least keep outsiders out of our seminars.

Online Learning and MOOCs – by “Zachary H”

As is made clear by the readings for today – particularly the New York Times article – the internet is drastically altering education in two ways.  Firstly, the internet has provided an incredible technical tool for universities and other educators to make their courses widely available.  Secondly, the internet’s ethos – free, easy access to uncensored information – has infected a large swath of educators, encouraging them to rethink the way in which our society trains and educates its youth.  Let’s take these two aspects in order.

Technological Advantages

It’s not difficult to see the enormous advantages that an internet classroom can have over a physical one.  For starters, the internet removes almost all logistical constraints – no need for a classroom that can fit all the students, and no need for a commonly scheduled time that works for every student, for instance.  Whereas before classes had to be held in specific locations at specific times, the internet allows students to take in their lectures at any time, in any place.  Now you can go to class in sweats (oh wait, that’s nothing new).  It’s easy to see why university administrators – and students who aren’t fond of waking up for early classes – are thrilled by the prospect of technology that allows you to watch lectures when students are awake, alert, and actually interested (if you’re watching the lecture voluntarily, you probably won’t be checking facebook the whole time).

Increased Access

Although the technical details of the internet explain why making virtual classrooms has such allure, it is really the change in attitude about access to knowledge and education that is driving the proliferation of online learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  I believe that this evolving attitude comes directly from ideas about the internet being, at heart, open, cheap, uncensored, egalitarian, and accessible to all.  Consider the mission of Wikipedia: to provide free, accurate information to everyone worldwide.  Open Yale Courses and other similar initiatives all have in mind similar goals: to take what was previously an extremely expensive product available to a select few (like a complete Encyclopedia Britannica) and turn it into a free product that can be accessed by anyone, at any time, for free (like Wikipedia).  To most, this is a cause for celebration; for a few, it is a cause of consternation, as they realize that:


Will it Work?

Before we get too excited about a future of all-online universities, let’s remember that we’re all still Yale students for now – we don’t yet know whether virtual education will become the norm.  For now, the vast majority of those taking online courses (69%, in Yale’s case, according to the New York Times), are independent learners – adults who are taking the courses to exercise their minds or to explore an interest.  The next generation of engineers is still being trained on college campuses, not online.  I believe that there are two very important functions of an institution of higher learning that online educators have yet to successfully replicate.  The first is the community of a university, and the attendant benefits of integration into that community; the second is an effective evaluation/grading system.

Consider the demands that we place on a university: between the time they matriculate and graduate, we expect students to transform from snotty high schoolers who know little about the world into wise, well-mannered and well-adjusted adults.  Surely all the skills required for adult life aren’t taught in ECON 110 or ENGL 120 – or even CPSC 183! If we expect universities to be centers of socialization, can an all-online university ever be successful? I believe that we will have to change our expectations about the goals of a university education (to more technical and less social ones) if online education is ever to reach a wider audience than casual adult learners.  Furthermore, we should consider the functions of a university campus – it is a hub of intellectual thought and research.  If the campus becomes little more than a studio for the production of lectures to be put online, surely it will lose some of the vibrancy and academic exchange that we now associate with universities.

Are MOOCs the future? (source:

Grading and Accreditation

Beyond the normative argument that the current university system has important benefits, there is a practical argument to be made against online education: no one has yet discovered an effective and simple way to perform one of the most important functions of a university – giving its students a grade.  Programs like Open Yale Courses do not give feedback to someone auditing a course, and besides courses in very technical subjects, MOOCs are not able to provide their students with certificates of completion or any other accreditation.  Like it or not, educational institutions are more than just places for students to learn – they are sorting mechanisms for employers.  A university degree tells employers that an individual is capable of performing at a high level (and the high price of college is related to the large spike in earnings that a college graduate can expect).  Until MOOCs provide degrees or certificates of completion, they will not be acceptable substitutes for regular universities.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It is hard for anyone to say what the future holds for online education, but there is little doubt that the tools the internet provides will continue to be integrated into our current model of education.  In fact, it is likely that our education system will be changed in significant – though hard to predict – ways by the arrival of this disruptive technology.  In particular, it seems likely that online education can be a boon for those in developing countries and for employed adults who wish to continue learning.  Given the poor alternatives currently available for these two groups, online education has the potential to be an extremely important tool in providing low-cost (but hopefully high quality) education to them.  However, whether online education can drastically alter the core of our system of higher education is yet to be seen.  At best, it will lower the cost of an elite education and ultimately raise levels of education and productivity across the workforce – but we won’t know until further along in our young experiment with online learning.

Online education for students, by students: an introduction to openlectures – by “Jie Jessica Y – YLT2012”

Secretly, we spend all of our budget on researching the perfect duckface.

Since January this year, I’ve been involved with a Singapore-based educational startup called openlectures. A little like Khan Academy, we offer video lectures in several academic subjects, freely accessible to anyone who can view YouTube videos. This year we hit 1000 lectures filmed and are continuing to produce them at a steady rate. Unlike Khan Academy, our approach is specifically focused on complementing a country’s official school system, so the lectures available right now focus on some of the most common subjects Singaporean pre-university students study like economics, chemistry and math. In time, we hope to create things like SAT and AP prep materials for the American market, then material for the Abitur, and eventually conquer the world. Our founder and “strategy” (that’s just what he calls himself) both just started their first year at Columbia, where they’ve roped in an unsuspecting French freshman to help kick off openlectures USA efforts. The rest of the team includes people from Yale (cheer), Harvard (hiss) and several other top schools in the US and UK – and of course students back home in Singapore.

I was originally supposed to lecture on art, art history and art theory, but my legendary procrastination skills meant that by the time we went through the first complete overhaul of the lecture system (imaginatively named “OL 2.0”)  I was still working on how to prioritize works in the school syllabus without falling into the trap of evaluating art in a vacuum. Those lecturing plans are now on indefinite hold (“nobody studies art anyway!”), and my current role in the organization is “Artistic Director/Cake”, where my main contribution is anal-retentive criticism on web design and user experience. Nevertheless, I’ve been with them for quite a bit, and thought I would use this blog post to give everyone an insider look into one online education initiative, especially “official” responses to the project.

There are already so many free learning resources online – why add openlectures to the mix?

Although knowledge is universal, openlectures was still created to address some educational problems specific to Singapore. Firstly, although Singapore’s education system grew out of the UK system, over the years changes in both countries have resulted in Singaporean-style education being quite different from what you find in open courseware from any other country.* For instance, the way microeconomics is taught at A-level (equivalent to grades 11-12) is very different from how it’s taught here at Yale and many other Intro to Microeconomics college courses on iTunes U. Singapore A-level economics looks at the big picture and almost always relies on general models instead of quantitative analysis, and examination responses are supposed to reflect this. openlectures takes that into account and you will be hard-pressed to find numerical examples in our economics lectures.

Secondly, the philosophy behind openlectures (similarly to the Access to Knowledge movement, we believe that education should be freely accessible to all) is very general-sounding, but was driven by a specific phenomenon: Singaporean schools cover a lot of material in not a lot of time, which is great for helping us skip introductory-level courses if we attend college in America, but also makes classes hard to keep up with for many. At the pre-university level, most information is disseminated through huge lectures to 700 students at a time for the more popular subjects, supplemented by a few hours of “tutorial” time per week that is closer to traditional 25-kids-in-a-room classroom teaching. Private tuition outside of school is seen by most Singaporean parents (and, sadly, students) as a necessity for keeping up with school – a shadow educational system exists next to the one run by the government, one that you can only access if you have the money to pay private tutors. We believe this reflects a shortcoming in the school system, and wanted to do something to help students. In the spirit of open access, openlectures’ terms are also based on the idea that “since we’re here to offer something for free, we’d like to do it with as little [sic] strings attached as possible”.

How stuff gets done at openlectures.

We do have a long-term goal more similar to Khan Academy of “anyone who wants to learn anything can come here”, but realistically, we’re more focused on test prep for now. But as our lecturers start taking more fun college courses and learning about things beyond what we did in high school, who knows? One of us might just decide to do a series on underwater basket-weaving in the summer.

The openlectures model and how we work

Our efforts are mostly coordinated via Facebook. It is a little weird that I haven’t met many of the people I work with – or if I have, I don’t have any impression of them. The guys whose web designs I bash whenever I’m procrastinating on a paper? No clue what they look like (never bothered checking their Facebook albums).

Our coordinators put up announcements like “Session as usual come this Saturday.
Who’s coming?”, people respond, and magic happens in the small green room we film in. How we actually do the lectures is one area I can’t provide much insight into, unfortunately, because I’m not particularly involved with it. My contributions usually go along the lines of:

And since we are a bunch of teenagers after all, a fair amount (probably too much) of the material on the Facebook group looks like this:

Cost is perhaps where openlectures stands out the most from other open education initiatives. If you take a look at the openlectures website and videos, what you’ll see isn’t too shabby: every one of our courses contains video material, and the newer ones undergo intensive post-processing where we add in animated lecture aids. A New York Times article explains how much it costs traditional education providers to put their material online (bold mine):
Open course material on the Internet may be free, but getting it there definitely isn’t. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the principal financial backer of the open educational movement, has spent more than $110 million over the past eight years, with more than $14 million going to M.I.T. The cost of re-creating the educational experience is high. Only 33 of the 1,975 courses posted by M.I.T. have videos of lectures. Another hundred or so contain multimedia material like simulations and animations. The rest is simply text: syllabuses, class notes, reading lists, problem sets, homework assignments.

Relying largely on money from Hewlett, Yale has spent $30,000 to $40,000 for each course it puts online. This includes the cost of the videographer, generating a transcript and providing what Diana E. E. Kleiner, who runs Open Yale Courses, calls “quality assurance.”

openlectures started producing our first complete courses with a budget of something around S$1000 – around US$820. We are literally a bunch of teenagers in a room with a camera, microphone, green dropcloth and computers. The whole project is run by volunteers; we have a team of over 100 people doing lecturing, admin, public relations, design etc. but no one has ever gotten paid. There’s money involved (grants! free money!), but it goes to buying filming supplies, our domain name, and coffee to keep the lecturers running. We’re also not picky about our setup. Until someone threw money at us, we filmed all our lectures in a tiny room near a busy street (I think we still use that room, actually; I haven’t been there in a while because, you know, studying overseas).

Zooming in carefully would give us videos like this:

And now that we have a green screen (basically a green bedsheet), we can do this! (This video also shows that 1. we’re aware that the Singaporean accent is kind of weird, and are working on subtitling all the lectures; 2. we try not to repeat school lectures and try to share strategies that have worked for us instead)

While we’ve previously tossed around ideas for improving the learning experience on our Facebook group, truth be told, openlectures is not revolutionary. The earliest openlectures videos used the traditional “guy standing in front of a whiteboard” model of remote education. Newer videos have replaced that whiteboard with a green screen onto which we can superimpose animated graphics, but it’s still a very traditional approach to lesson delivery, especially compared to things like Khan Academy’s computer science lessons which teach by actually getting you to write programs on the spot. (When I asked founder Linan Qiu why we used this model, he justified it with “you always want to see a person […] explain something to you […] seeing his passion/his gestures”.)

So openlectures isn’t that special – we just explain topics better than our school lectures do, put the videos on the internet to make them rewatchable, and do it for really, really little money. But the way the Singapore government has treated us suggests they view us as a serious competitor to the official education system.

Responses to openlectures from “traditional” education providers

Shortly after we started to get off the ground, openlectures began to attract interest from several parties. First there was the press…

O hai bilingualism!

And then came several private tuition companies who approached us about “partnerships”, i.e. running ads for the very industry we are opposed to. (We gave them a polite middle finger and they learned to stop bothering us.) But then we received word from Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) – government attention! How nice! While I’m not too clear on the specifics, I know that the the Permanent Secretary (= big shot) of the MOE has tried meeting us a few times but (quoting Linan Qiu) “couldn’t get anything out of us”. I’m not too sure, but I believe the Minister for Education himself, one of the most important people in the country, has also asked for a meeting with our CEO this month.

I initially thought they were concerned about copyright and intellectual property issues. Most of our lecturers work based on notes from school, though of course we break them down and incorporate our own examples or external knowledge. But my counter-argument to this would be that we choose what to teach based on government syllabi, but what we teach itself is universal knowledge that cannot, and should not, be copyrighted. Also, educational generally gets a “fair use” free pass when it comes to copyright enforcement. And it seems the MOE isn’t really interested in that at all.

Speaking with the founder reveals he thinks the MOE is more interested in understanding how we work, and then probably taking over us. “They’ve been trying to do an online system for the past decade ever since the SARS crisis, but failed”, he told me, “and we came over and did it with a budget half the salary of their admin executive, i.e. around a thousand bucks. […] they tend to think that they have a claim over what you do simply because you’re a student. Oh and second thing is that they feel threatened and just wanted to make sure that we’re not trying to subvert the school system.”

“[…] they wanted us to be subsumed under them – they didn’t make it so explicit but they wanted to “fund” us, or give us support. And usually what MOE does is that from then on they start putting their own staff here. Oh and they wanted ot [sic] “supervise” what we are doing.” (edited for punctuation, because we were talking on Facebook Chat)

The government probably felt threatened because there has been much buzz about open and free education replacing traditional educational providers, but for now at openlectures we hope to complement traditional school-based education instead of replace it. Hence our lectures are all structured around helping students taking Singapore-style examinations. Still, that our education ministry thinks we’re doing a good enough job to feel threatened is high praise indeed.

A bunch of kids teaching other kids: what about quality?

This is a legitimate concern, and probably the most important. But students teaching other students has been around for a long time already: it’s called peer tutoring. The openlectures system is highly reliant on lecturers knowing their stuff, but based on our academic transcripts it’s generally assumed that we do.

Some quotes from the openlectures staff when I asked them about this problem:

Founder Linan Qiu: We don’t admit to have error free content all the time. But we do admit to our mistakes and refilm vigorously. Those whose videos have been trashed by the terabyte by Kenneth [CEO] and I will know this.

CEO Kenneth Lim: We do a lot of ground work before a lectures comes into place. There’s the syllabus outline which everyone works on, the scripts, the slides, the post-processing and the uploading/publishing. At every stage the person who’s doing it is keeping an eye out. Sometimes it’s a technical problem, sometimes it’s a content problem. If it’s a technical problem, we see whether we can do anything in post-production. More often than not we can, but if we can’t, then we refilm. [name of lecturer] is one such victim . Entire lesson refilmed because we couldn’t key her nicely. If it’s a content problem… since we introduced OL2 we’ve not had any content problems. We are awesome like that.

Most importantly, as students, we have an advantage in knowing what our audience wants. Most lecturers begin lecturing right after graduation, and quite a number lecture while still in school. Every one of us has fallen asleep in a useless lecture; every one of us has had the experience of frantically trying to make sense of confusing school notes the night before the big exam, so every one of us also knows what confuses other students the most, and what works in helping people understand the material.

Reception from the public

People seem to like what we’re doing. So far our website has had 41000 unique visitors with 350,000 page views, of which about half are returning visitors. The average visit duration is about 5 minutes, enough to view one or two lectures, and 30% of our visitors show browsing patterns indicating that they watch several videos a time – presumably they are working through a course. And then there are heartening YouTube comments from students – not just Singaporean students:

Although sometimes we do get annoyingly patronizing comments.

But yes. Overall, heartening comments.

And now because the deadline is approaching I am going to abruptly end this blog post: I hope this has been an interesting post from the other side of open education! Feel free to comment with any questions or criticism for me or the team.

* Open courseware is also dominated by providers from the US. Just saying.



Government Data: Balancing Transparency and Privacy – by “Katherine L – YLT2012”

God knows this meme's been used to death on this blog, but I betchya weren't expecting this background image!

The government owns a lot of data. A lot. And a huge portion of it is public information that you’re allowed to request (i.e., through a Freedom of Information Act request/local equivalent, or by filing out some paperwork at City Hall). The information is always technically available to you, but more often than not the process is pretty cumbersome–your request might not be responded to quickly, it might be denied for various reasons (some of them pretty dubious), they might give it to you in hard copy, you might be charged for the printing costs, the information they give might not be quite what you requested…the list goes on. To illustrate that point, here’s an awesome blog post by Ian White of Urban Mapping describing his very humorous, VERY maddening dealings with various municipal transit authorities, just trying to get basic data from them like train schedules and locations of stations. It’s worth a skim, if only to see the incredible amount of incompetence and/or obstinacy one often must deal with just trying to get data out of government.

Sometimes, it feels a little like this.

The idea that citizens should be able to access data is rooted in two basic facts. One, the US government isn’t allowed to hold copyrights. The reasoning behind this makes sense–if the taxpayers funded the creation of the data, they should be able to see the results. Turns out this provision of the US Code doesn’t apply to state or local governments. But that shouldn’t make much of a difference in terms of most datasets, because as we saw in Feist v. Rural, the Supreme Court ruled that a mere collection of facts expressed in a database is not afforded copyright protection (I say “most” because it’s not always quite so simple…but in general, much of the data cities collect is not protected by copyright).

In recognition of these facts and citizens’ right to data, some governments have adopted open data policies, encouraging the publication of government data. This often takes the from of an online portal–at the federal level (, on the state level (, among others), and at the local level (, among others). The benefits of an open data portal are great, both

from a public perspective:

  • Increased government transparency
  • Lowered barriers to access for government data
  • Data now available in more useful forms (i.e., not a ream of paper printed single-sided)
  • Data now available in one centralized location (i.e., not spread across various department websites)

and from a government perspective:

  • Reduces corruption by making ethics reports, employee salaries, campaign finance data, etc. public
  • Citizens can sometimes uncover inaccuracies or omissions; thus public availability can acutally improve government’s data
  • Developers can use data to develop useful applications at no cost to the city (examples from San Francisco)
  • Can pre-empt information requests by posting data publicly, reduce bureaucratic costs of complying with initial and duplicate requests
SF's open data portal. If you looked at the other examples and are wondering why they all sort of look the same, it's because one company (Socrata) pretty much has a monopoly on open government data at this point.

Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right? So why doesn’t everyone have one of these? The overhead costs aren’t huge, and if you have a competent IT department the technical administration isn’t a terrible burden. Turns out the main objections are cultural. I worked on San Francisco’s open data policy this summer and found that the biggest concerns for departments reluctant to post data is just that they don’t recognize the larger benefits of open data, and therefore feel little motivation to commit resources to the cause. Another major concern was that many departments just didn’t know what they should and should not post. Every department has a ton of data, but it’s very much a subjective call to determine whether data is of public value and worth posting.

But beyond the public value question is an even larger one–the question of privacy, and this is of particular concern for local governments. The data released by the federal government tends to consist mainly of huge aggregations. Thus, the privacy concern from the release of that data is quite low for the average citizen. But local governments collect a lot of data that could be of concern to an individual citizen if it’s released–say, for example, crime data for incidents in front of your home that could lower its value just as you’re trying to put it up for sale. The laws currently in place in several local jurisdictions don’t provide much guidance on the matter. For example, San Francisco’s policy, which is sort of vague on the privacy issue:

Data prioritized for publication should be of likely interest to the public and should not disclose information that is proprietary, confidential, or protected by law or contract;

New York’s policy has several more provisions, but still leaves a lot of questions for those determining what to include on an online portal. Thus far, the interests of privacy and transparency have been balance-tested on an ad-hoc basis, and sometimes the data is modified to reflect privacy concerns before it is published. Crime data, the example above, has in many cases been aggregated to the block level so that individual homeowners are not targeted. Names are redacted, information related to ongoing criminal investigations is not released, and more. Local governments have mostly erred on the conservative side when cataloguing data for publication. Every once in a while, they mess up (and then learn their lesson). But for the most part the privacy concerns seem to be protected by these sites. However, lacking bright-line standards, governments will continue to have to make subjective calls of transparency versus privacy (having helped to write San Francisco’s policy this summer, I can say from experience that coming up with bright-line standards for this sort of thing is extremely difficult–maybe impossible).

More available data makes for more useful apps (just ask any third-party app on Facebook that’s stealing your information), but at a certain point government needs to weigh the interests of developers against those of their residents. We worry so much about private companies that have data about us online, but often don’t even think about all of the data that government collects. Concerns about online privacy extend here too, and only time will tell if less blurry standards for determining datasets for publication will be developed.

This generic government official knows ALL of your home resale value secrets.


Further reading:


Image credits: then,,,

Final Project: Making Things – by “Nick D”

The Makerbot Thing-O-Matic (Attribution: Makerbot on Flikr)

I finally posted my 10th thing to Thingiverse! The road has been fun and the interactions I had with the community were better than I expected!

The idea of my final project was to ask friends and classmates for ideas for physical objects that they would like to have that could be 3D printed on the Makerbot. I designed them on an educational version of Solidworks, printed them out on my Makerbot Thing-O-Matic 3D printer and gave them to the people who requested them. I also uploaded the designs onto Thingiverse (an online site maintained by Makerbot Industries to facilitate sharing designs of physical objects with other users) which made them available to anyone else who wanted to use or improve them. I released all of my designs under an Attribution – Non-Commercial – Share Alike license. This project explored first hand the collaboration and network effects that we had been talking about in class. It allowed me to get some really neat ideas into people’s hands and onto the web community so others could benefit from the designs.

If you don’t know, the Thing-O-Matic is an open source, open hardware 3D printer developed by Makerbot Industries. The Thing-O-Matic is capable of making 3D parts out of ABS thermoplastic within a build envelope of approximately 4″ x 4″ x 4″. For those of you who didn’t get the chance to see my presentation in class, here is a time-lapse video of the device’s construction and the device printing out a toy bell.

Each design started out as an idea or suggestion. Many times I found designs online that served as a good starting point and I worked from there. When I had decided on a plan, I designed the object in Solidworks, a 3D Computer Aided Design (CAD) software package. Solidworks is a parametric feature-based modeling tool, where 2D sketches are extruded or cut to create 3D objects. Here is a quick run-through for creating a simple square cutout on the program:

Step 1 - Draw a 2D Sketch and Add Dimensions


Step 2 - Extrude Features


Step 3 - Create 3D Body


Step 4 - Draw Another 2D Sketch for New Features and Add Dimensions


Step 5 - Cut Features


Step 6 - Finished Model


Step 7 - Scale, Rotate, and Adjust before exporting to the Makerbot


Step 8 - Commence Creation!


Step 9 - Let Cool and Remove Print

With a lot of sketching, extruding and cutting (and a few other tricks) you can make any 3D object you can think of – when it comes to a generative hardware technology unconstrained by the vendor, this is where it is happening!

Did the project work out as well as I hoped? It sure did! All in all, I have nearly 100 combined “likes” (to date) from other Thingiverse users on the things I designed, which ranged from medical devices to toy planes. One of my designs was featured on Thingiverse, having caught the eye of an administrator as a particularly good design. I even had other users printing out my designs (and taking pictures of them to show off!).

So, you may ask, what did I end up designing? Here is a run-through of the 10 “things” that I made.

 _   _   _   _

Thing 1: X-Acto Knife/Hex Wrench Holder


Likes: 7

Thing 1 - A Thing for Tools


This thing was an integrated tool holder that attached to a pre-existing part on the Makerbot. It was something I had been thinking about for a while and wanted to make, and it served as a nice upgrade to my printer. Another user thought so too –

“Nice. I had been thinking about some kind of clip or mount for the wrench for some time.” – DigitalBytes, Okotoks, Canada

This design was featured the next day, having caught the eye of a Thingiverse Admin. For my first “thing”, it was such an exhilarating feeling to have been featured. In retrospect, this may very well have been by design (maybe all first time posts get featured?). In any event, it accomplished the goal of getting me excited to contribute more.

 _   _   _   _

Thing 2: Parametric Radial Ornament

Likes: 8

Thing 2 - A Thing for a Tree


This thing was an ornament, which played with the printer’s ability to create enclosed negative space. I was asked to design an ornament by a friend and I was inspired by the tear-drop shaped ornaments and a whisk.

 _   _   _   _

Thing 3: Decorative Coat Hook

Likes: 11

Thing 3 - A Thing for a Coat

This thing was a coat hook for a friend who had run out of her 3M hooks and wanted something a little more aesthetically pleasing. I designed it to accept adhesive backing as well as a nail, for some flexibility in mounting.

What was exciting about this design was that another user MacGyver in Salt Lake City, UT liked the design and printed one out for himself! He commented:

“I’ve been looking for just this thing for awhile now. Thanks for the upload!” – MacGyver, Salt Lake City, UT

He also posted a picture of the design. This was electronic transmission of hardware! Talk about COOL!

A Copy of Thing 3 Printed by MacGyver

 _   _   _   _

Thing 4: Recycled Bottle Coat Hanger

Likes: 38

Thing 4 - A Thing for a Closet

This thing was an attempt to do some recycling while designing and was requested by a friend who is very environmentally conscious. I was inspired to create this design from a similar product by Chinese designer Xuan Yu. I thought this was a great way to recycle 2 bottles while utilizing the printer’s capabilities. Here is an image of the print before I cleaned off the support material and assembled it.

Thing 4 with Support Material

This was the most “liked” design that I put together and the comments were so encouraging –

“This idea is amazingly clever! What a wonderful way to combine a 3D printer and recycling bottles to make a useful product. ” – PolygonPusher, Sweden

“What a brilliant idea!!” – Rasle500, Denmark

“This is genius !” – mrule,  Providence, RI

I didn’t really expect to get such good feelings from sharing my designs with the community, but here I was, excited to post more!

  _   _   _   _

Thing 5: Glasses and Cleaning Cloth Moustache Stand

Likes: 7

Thing 5 - A Thing for a Pair of Glasses

This thing was suggested to keep a pair of glasses safe and cleaning cloth handy. It a “moustache stand” – a play on a design my girlfriend found here. The Makerbot is capable of printing out in different colors (depending on what color raw material you have). I had a spool of black ABS and I thought it would work well with the design.

   _   _   _   _

Thing 6: Arrow Bookend

Likes: 4

Thing 6 - A Thing for Books

This thing was requested and designed using inspiration from a similar bookend.

At this point, I was really getting into the groove of cranking a couple of designs out a day! It was really fun watching my designs and waiting for comments, “likes”, and printed copies by others!

    _   _   _   _

Thing 7: Plantar Fasciitis Pain Reduction Apparatus

Likes: 4

Thing 7 - A Thing for Pain Reduction
Illustration of Using Thing 7

This thing was suggested to me by a Physical Therapist who sufferers from pain due to Plantar Fasciitis to help alleviate discomfort. It was a resting splint for sleeping or relaxing (not walking) designed to apply tension on the ball of the foot. This was an improvement over current devices that put tension on the toe using a tight fitting sock, which causes discomfort to the toe. The printed component allows the foot to be supported with the commercially available straps.

    _   _   _   _

Thing 8: Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel Toy Model

Likes: 7

Thing 8 - A Thing for Fun
The Sentinel (Thing 8's Inspiration) ©TruthDowser / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GFDL

This thing was suggested to me by an engineer and enthusiast. It is a miniature mockup of the Sentinel stealth drone (also known as the Beast of Kandahar) developed by Lockheed Martin.

I thought I would have a little fun with the caption too, given recent events in relation to this story.

“Iran got an early Christmas present… So can you!”

    _   _   _   _

Thing 9: Photo Keychain

Likes: 2

Thing 9 - A Thing for a Photo

This thing was the only design that featured two separate interlocking parts. A suggestion came along for a photo frame keychain for backpack or purse. One could place a photo within (1″x1.5″ size) along with a 1″x1.5″x.25″ piece of plexiglass and snap/glue the pieces together to create the keychain.

Thing 9 Separated

_   _   _   _

Thing 10: Watch Stand

Likes: 14

Thing 10 - A Thing for a Watch

This thing was modeled after those watch stands they have in stores for holding watches up in display cabinets. A friend wanted one so that they could hold their watch up to the light to charge their solar watch during the wintertime.

_   _   _   _

I want to thank everyone who contributed ideas and helped me make this final project possible!

If you would like to check out my things on thingiverse, visit Indigojin.


Happy Holidays everyone!

I couldn't resist! (Design by tc_fea)

Breaking the Great Firewall: The Effectiveness of Government Imposed Internet Censorship – by “John G”

As students at Yale, it is likely you or one of your close friends has spent some time studying abroad in China.  While there, it is likely that they circumvented “The Great Firewall of China,” and if they went while as a Yale undergrad, they likely used Yale’s VPN client service to accomplish this.  For us, the Great Firewall falls with just a single click and a NetID.

Twitter has been blocked in China since 2009

In discussing internet censorship, it is easy to get bogged down in discussions of oppressive government control, Web companies and their compliance/defiance, or the inherent civil rights that may be violated, but the pertinent discussion to have before all of these is: Are these governments actually effective in their attempts to censor the internet?

Reporters without Boarders maintains a list of countries which “censor news and information online but also for their almost systematic repression of Internet users,” and bestows the lovely title of “Enemies of the Internet” to them.  On this list currently are: Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.  Each of these countries have a variety of control mechanism in place and are mostly aimed to limit access to information of political opposition, discussion of religion, pornography, gambling, and site about human rights.  To determine the effectiveness of these controls, one must focus on each mechanism, and the ease or difficulty of it’s circumvention. The central tactic is that the government limits the access of the internet to the people,  often being the sole provider. They then are able to monitor the activity of all the users in the country and can limit access through a variety of methods, most of which have a work around to circumvent.

IP Address Blocking

Technique: Blocked IP addresses are made inaccessible. This is one of the most popular techniques, and the main one that is used to block specific sites, such as Youtube in China.  If an IP address is hosted by a web-hosting server, all sites on the server will be blocked.

Circumvention: Establish a connection to a proxy which has access, such as the Yale VPN.  A VPN service has the added bonus of being very secure. Another technique is using a Web to Email service, which emails you the text content of a website of your specification.

Domain Name System Filtering

Tecnique: Blocked domain names, maintained in a registry, will automatically return an incorrect IP or fail to connect.

Circumcision: Input the IP address (try hex and octal if decimal doesn’t work) instead of the domain name, using sites such as NSLookup

Packet Filtering

Technique: Ceases transmission after or takes away access if triggered by uses of keywords.  In Cuba this technique is extended by monitoring word processors, where upon entry of a dissenting keyword the word processor is closed.

Circumvention: Reduce the IP stack’s MTU/MSS to reduce the content of each packet.  If the amount of text is small enough to divide up the trigger words, they will not be detected by the program scanning the string.

Portal Censorship

Technique: Remove specific portals of the internet, such as search engines, making it difficult to find information effectively.

Circumvention: Slowly build up a library of useful domain names and URLs, stumbling from site to site.  This one is really annoying to deal with.

As you can see, the effectiveness of these techniques increases when they are used together.  For instance, blocking search engines and IP addresses would make it difficult to locate an proxy that would circumvent the IP blocker.  However, there is still one tactic that is more powerful than all the rest:

Eliminate Access

Technique: The most extreme case is presented by North Korea, where in efforts to censor information to the public, only specific government officials have internet access.

Circumvention: None

With the exception of the North Korean extreme, there still exists a way to circumvent almost every kind of censorship that these governments impose.  How then can we treat these acts of censorship as effective?  One has to consider the framework of an insider attempting to circumvent from the inside.  We enter this problem with all of our prior tech knowledge and tools.  Most importantly we know of the existence of sites that may be restricted in other countries, and we are able to search ways to circumvent them.  In many of the countries listed above this is not the case, as another one of the main control measures they take is to limit the information about internet circumvention, by the same techniques of IP blocking or packet filtering.  New users in these countries don’t have the groundwork we have from time growing up with unregulated access to information on the internet.

This is the true nature of the control of these countries. It doesn’t matter that they are actually effective in censoring the internet, but that they impede the population.  For us American college kids, full internet access is a necessity. We need our daily doses of Facebook and Youtube or else we will go into withdrawal.  We will find ourselves circumventing these Great Firewalls within a day or two of entering a country that takes removes access from them.  It’s likely that the population of these countries just accept some of their lost access rather than going through the risk and hassle of circumventing it.  The long term goal is to impede the users enough, continually making it more annoying to circumvent so that eventually new users do not even know it is possible, and gaining that information is just as impossible.  At this point the government has become effective in censoring, even though it is not the censoring technology that accomplishes this.

TL;DR: Some governments suck and try to censor the internet with circumventable ineffective means.  The true danger is what happens when people stop bother to circumvent these measures, and give in to the censorship.

IBM vs. open-source – by “Shirley B”

This past Tuesday, IBM sued a French software company called TurboHercules.  This would seem to be a relatively unimportant phenomenon: people get sued over patents all the time.  But here’s the twist: TurboHercules is an open-source software company.  IBM, in 2005, made a list of 500 patents over which they promised on good faith not to sue anyone.  Two of these patents are on the list of items IBM is suing TurboHercules over.

The fight seems to be over system emulators, and the issue of allowing users to get around using only IBM’s System Z to run the operating system.  IBM continues to make money with its hardware because you need its hardware to run the software.  Hercules was an open-source program that allowed you to emulate the System Z software onto common hardware, a program that IBM had no problem with, even though the licensing for it was vague.  TurboHercules offered Hercules to companies as a way to backup their systems, a venture that proved rather profitable.  While I don’t entirely understand the technology part of the controversy, the role that patents, profit, and open-source play in this, and will continue to play in software development, seems incredibly important.

Technologically Impaired Duck does not understand.

IBM has, for a long time, claimed to be an avid supporter of open-source software; this has been evident most prominently in its support of Linux.  Many are concerned that this new suit will pit IBM against open-source.  But what does this even mean in a world where most software is written in an open-source way?  Will it just be that the smaller software projects slip through the cracks, and IBM enforces its patents where it sees fit to support its business model, as it has done here with TurboHercules?

In a post on cnet, Matt Asay, a COO at Canonical, says that this lawsuit heralds the true “arrival” of open-source software into the world of legitimate software.  The fact that IBM is treating this open-source program as a legitimate one, which can be sued, taken to court, and is a veritable business concern to a huge company like IBM indicates the importance of open-source.  Perhaps this lawsuit is, in fact, IBM’s recognition of open-source as an important power in software, rather than their pledge to protect open-source by not enforcing patents.  Open-source can rival their business interests – it’s no longer a hobby for enthusiasts.  But will open-source’s efforts be hindered by this new enemy – patents?  That seems rather dramatic, but stepping on the toes of patent owners  certainly seems more likely.  Time will tell.

The Economy of Exclusivity – by “Heather R”

Publish or perish. Academics need to continually publish work to keep their jobs. Universities evaluate their faculty based on how often they publish work and, often more importantly, where they publish that work. In each field there is a hierarchy of journal prestige, which is used by universities to evaluate the work of their faculty. Ideally the university would also review the work itself, but it is much easier to trust the peer review process of prestigious journals. This system can be side stepped of course, like when Grigori Perelmann published his proof of the Poincaré conjecture online and later refused the Field’s Medal. Clearly, prestigious journals are not a necessary component to groundbreaking research. Although it is possible to publish online without dealing with journals, most academics don’t. Most academics use the journals precisely because they are prestigious.

So why are these journals prestigious? In most cases they are very old publications with a history of publishing important research. Assuming that the prestige of the journals is merely a result of reputation within a community, there is no reason why these publications cannot be moved online and made available to the public.

The journals will of course resist this move, because they make a lot of money on subscription fees. If the journals won’t move online and become open access, then perhaps academics should abandon those journals completely.

Of course academics can’t abandon the publication system because they need the recognition of those prestigious journals. There are respectable online journal options, especially for developing fields, but it is more difficult to develop online, open access journals that need to compete with an existing journal. The online journal will always be seen as less valuable because if it is free and open to the public. If the work is worthwhile, then why is it being given away?

The idea that something is more valuable if it is expensive or exclusive is an element of human nature. In 1944, C.S. Lewis delivered a speech to King’s College entitled “The Inner Ring”. The inner ring is that ever elusive group of people that are cooler or smarter or more informed than we are. Some inner rings, like the cool kids at the lunch table, don’t serve any purpose other than to make their member feel superior. Other inner rings, like a group of respected academics, seem more justified. Journal publication is a fine way to increase one’s prestige within the academic community. There is nothing evil about academics pursuing prestige and respect, but the fruits of their work should not be confined to an inner circle. The research published in those journals should be available to everyone. Knowledge should not be confined to an inner circle. Restricting knowledge to those people who have the means to pay for it reinforces economic and intellectual divisions in society.

Social inner circles will never be eradicated. People will never stop trying to distinguish themselves from their peers. This may or may not be a productive element of society, but it’s not going anywhere. We can’t remove social inner circles, but we can eradicate economic inner circles that make information unavailable to those left outside.

The Game 2.0 : Open Access, Harvard vs. Yale – by “Paul R”

To start off, I’d first like to point to a short article that I wrote for the Herald just a few weeks ago advocating for open access policies at Yale. Geared toward a general audience, the article discusses open access at Yale especially in light of Harvard’s recent mandate requiring its faculty to upload all of their scholarly work to their new online repository. To follow up, I thought I’d use this space to detail more of what I’ve learned in terms of recent advances in open access at Yale and other universities.

Harvard has been the leader in the open access movement — on February 12, 2008, after months of discussion with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the faculty unanimously voted to mandate open access for scholarly work. The full text of the proposal can be read here and you can find an overview at their website here but in short, the faculty basically agreed to allow the university to make their work available online in a digital access repository (which as you can see already contains almost two thousand articles). The requirement of making this work available online does not, however, mean the author cannot publish in a traditional journal. Indeed, many do — this form of open access where a university self-archives but still allows traditional publication is usually referred to as “Green Open Access.” Finally, just to be clear, the system does allow faculty to waive the open access requirement upon request as long as the faculty member explains the need.

But the digital repository (Green OA) is just one part of the equation that provides for open access on the university side. As is detailed in our reading for today, the other part is publication in open access journals, otherwise known as “Gold OA”  (a directory of these journals can be found here). This form of open access is much harder to sustain because it requires funding for authors to pay for processing fees in OA journals. To this end, Harvard also created a fund, called the Harvard Open Access Publishing Equity (HOPE) fund to reimburse Harvard authors who aren’t grant-funded for processing fees in open-access journals. The fund gives reimbursement up to $3,000 (although there are currently no known journals that charge that much. The average amount of processing fees is about $1,000).

Harvard’s leadership in open access is significant not only because it was the first university in the United States to mandate open access, but also because it provides a model for implementation. In the past, most institutions had been skeptical of the beauracracy and funding needed for open access (see, i.e., Waters, “Managing Digital Assets in Higher Education: An overview of Strategic Issues” in the February 2006 report of the ARL), but Harvard has shown that they can make it work.

After Harvard announced its open access policies, a handful of other universities have also adopted similar open access policies. In particular, Stuart Shieber, the main proponent of open access at Harvard and now the director of its Office for Scholarly Communication, established the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity which currently has five signatories: Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley. Outside of this compact, there are roughly fifty institutions that have adopted at least green open access policies, and a full list of them can be found here.

Where is Yale in all of this? Currently, Yale has no such open access policies. Last year, the organization Open Access at Yale  did interviews of seventeen faculty members and found that although there was some faculty interest, Open Access was something that was little discussed. I recently exchanged emails with Meg Bellinger, the director of the newly created Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure, on the state of OA at Yale and she said that while open access was “the topic of much discussion,” currently most projects are focused on digitization, i.e. cultural heritage materials from Yale art museums. The closest thing that I’ve been able to find to Open Access at Yale is the new Digital Commons Repository created by the law school, but its still vastly underutilized (submissions from this year from faculty can be counted on one hand).

Obviously, Open Access is not something that can appear overnight. Stuart Shieber at Harvard has stressed the importance of faculty support for the issue, and this can only come with sustained advocacy and discussion. With time and effort, I hope that Yale too will soon join in on this global and open exchange of ideas.