Aldon Hynes's blog

NCSL: Monday morning random notes.

Last night I went out to Moules and Frites at Central Kitchen. Kim had searched online and recommended it. My searches came up with similar recommendations, so I headed over and ate at the bar. I was down at the end of the bar where staff chatted and I had a good discussion with some of them. It was the birthday of one of the bartenders and his girlfriend came in and talked with the waitresses about different trips that they had been taking. It helped keep the annual meeting in context.

This morning, as I walked to the convention hall I passed John from Below Boston. He is passing out Obama stickers to anyone interested. He says that he has gotten a lot of thumbs up.

I sit next to a delegation of legislators from South Africa as I have some breakfast. During the morning networking, I run into Rep. Steve Fontana and Rep. Diane Urban. They are talking with former Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopf. Mayor Knopf’s name tag also has a green ribbon indicating that he is a member of the press. He disappears before I get a chance to find out which press outlet.

For the first session, I walk past the “Public Hearing on Internet and Electronic Commerce - Breakfast”. The program describes the event as follows:

The committee will conduct a public hearing to solicit the viewpoints of consumers and industry representatives regarding NCSL’s Internet and Electronic Commerce Policy Statement.

Presiding: Representative Phil Montgomery, Wisconsic
Speaker: K. Dane Snowden, CTIA – The Wireless Association, Washington, D.C.
NCSL gratefully acknowledges the sort of CTIA – The Wireless Association for breakfast.

I wonder which consumers they solicited viewpoints from. Most of the sessions you have to be a registered attendee of the annual meeting to enter. I had considered seeing if they would let me testify, even though I’m here as part of the press. In the end I decided not to engage. However, it does seem like the industry representatives are all over this and there isn’t a lot of consumer viewpoints being expressed.

Instead, I go to the session, “Capital Hill Tackles Climate Change”. There was a large turn out to the Climate change session, a couple hundred people. It was even better attended than the internet and electronic commerce session. Nikki Roy, from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change spoke about the chances of meaningful climate change legislation over the next few years. A staffer for Rep. Markey spoke about climate change, and Eric Holdsworth of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) spoke about the industry’s response. EEI represents the shareholder owned utilities, which make up around 85% of the electricity generated in the United States.

He noted that in 1994 they signed a memorandum of understanding to voluntarily cut greenhouse gases. They went on to sign agreements with the Bush administration. He claimed that the EIA is projecting energy growth of 43% BY 2030. This is based on population growth and changes in energy consumption patterns. The numbers seem high to me, but I do know the assumptions that were used. Also, my assumptions are that we will see people conserving energy and finding new ways to be more energy efficient. As a side note, in the exhibition hall, America Electric Power was giving away compact fluorescent lightblubs. On the other hand, if we ever get plug-in hybrids or other electric vehicles, that could increase the demand.

He argued for an energy policy that included all the current sources of electricity. He mentioned that New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington State all have CO2 regulations in effect. He spoke about Illinois, Texas and Wyoming having Carbon Capture and Storage systems in place.

During the questions and answers, one person asked about wind. He noted that the wind is always blowing somewhere and that by putting up windmills in places like North Dakota, Wyoming and Texas considerable renewable energy could be tapped. He talked about the need for a smarter grid to get that energy from the windmills to cities where the energy demand is greater. I hadn’t really thought about the grid issues. There are enough battles over simply the placement of windmills, such as you find with Cape Wind. The issues of transmission lines, as they’ve been fought over with new lines in Fairfield County or cables going under Long Island Sound only exacerbate the issue.

All in all, the session was long on speech making, a little short on details, but did have some bright spots.

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NCSL: Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Economy: State Leaders in Education Technology

As I waited for the late afternoon education session to start at NCSL, I had a fascinating discussion with a woman who works for Connections Academy an online school for grades K through 11 that kids attend from home. It is a pilot, mostly charter schools in 12 different states. On first glance, it appears to be an interesting nexus of public schooling, home schooling and internet based training. Checking around, it seems like some home school purists view it as an effort by public school systems to get involved with and to gain more control over home schooling. Others view it is a useful resource. I’m wondering if any of the home schoolers that read this blog have any experiences of or opinions about Connections Academy.

The session started off with Marie St. Fleur, a State Rep from Massachusetts who talked about the Wireless Learning Initiative at the Lilla G. Frederick Middle School in Dorchester.

It was a very good presentation as Rep. St. Fleur talked about many things that are important to me in education. She talked about the need to think out of the box, to use an integrated curriculum and to foster a life long love of learning. She pointed out that it isn’t about bringing new technology into the classroom, but about getting teachers to think about how this new technology can be used in new ways.

She noted that in other communities, students have been allowed to take laptops home. There was concern about this in Dorchester, and the school came up with a great solution. Parents need to come in and get trained on the computers. Parents that make the effort get a refurbished computer that they can take home for their children to ue for school work. She said that if you invite the parents in and tell them what they are there for, they will come.

Many people suggest that some of the larger issues with schools and our society as a whole stem from a lack of parental involvement. Connections Academy and most of home schooling efforts are dependent on parental involvement and that may be a key to their successes. The Wireless Learning Initiative at Lilla G. Frederick Middle School appears to likewise benefit from improving parental involvement.

Yet getting a family a laptop they can use isn’t enough, if there isn’t access to broadband and Rep. St. Fleur also spoke about efforts to make WiFi available in neighborhoods in Dorchester. She spoke about how getting parental buy-in is important, but you also need to get teacher buy-in, community buy-in and business buy-in.

After her presentation, Tom Gluck from the Pennsylvania Department of Education spoke about efforts to get a laptop on the desk of every high school student in Pennsylvania. He spoke about changing the way teaching is done through the introduction of “smart” classrooms. Like Rep. St. Fleur, he spoke about the importance of professional development so that teachers could make the best use of the new technology.

Both presentations talked about students creating blogs or podcasts. I asked to what extent the student created content was being shared on the web with the other schools and the community as a whole. Both speakers said that this was going on. I was directed to lgfnet.org for the Lilla G. Frederick school, and to www.pde.state.pa.us/edhub for the Pennsylvania system.

Neither site has any student generated content up right now, but that is understandable since it is summer vacation. The Pennsylvania initiative does has a student produced video up at http://www.nasd.k12.pa.us/media/cff.wmv

It is great to see successful projects like these talked about amongst state legislators. Hopefully the ideas can be spread and expanded upon. Yet as people noted in the student produced video, the teachers at the Pennsylvania schools feel that they are just scratching the surface of how they can teach in new ways using these tools. By getting teachers, students, parents and other interested parties sharing more ideas and experiences, we can help our education system get even better at preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s economy and I hope we see a lot more collaboration between projects like these.

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Interactive Technologies

The National Association of Legislative Information Technology, NALIT, had a great session entitled Interactive Technologies. It was attended by around 40 people, many of which appeared to be legislative staff.

Panelists included House Majority Leader Steve Harrelson from the Arkansas House of Representatives. He spoke about his site, Under the Dome. Senator John Valentine, President of the Utah State Senate spoke about his site, The Senate Site which is the “Unofficial Voice of the Utah Senate Majority”.

They spoke about these sites being unofficial sites, financed either individually, as is Rep. Harrelson’s case, or by a PAC in Sen. Valentine’s case. In Sen. Valentine’s case, they have a staffer who works part time for the State Senate and part time for the Senate Republican PAC. The staffer clocks in and out of each job according to the task he is working on. The PAC has bought its own computer and pays $25/month for electricity, internet access and desktop space in the Utah Senate office.

One advantage of having these sites be independent is that it avoids some of the issues around freedom of speech and who can moderate what on the site. There was a lot of discussion about maintaining a level of discourse that encourages intelligent discussion and not the brow bashing so common on many blogs. Sen. Valentine noted the difference between having an opinion and being well informed.

One person, talking about the importance of strong moderation asked the question, “How many of you legislators would allow town meetings where people speak with brown bags over their heads?” It was suggested that technology rarely changes human behavior and many people suggested the people you see on the blogs are the same gadflies you see all the time. The question was posed about how to reach a broader audience.

Jeffrey Griffith, former Associate Director and Chief Legislative Information Officer for the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service spoke about his recent research into efforts to bring legislative information systems to various organizations in Europe. He noted independent research done on one British Member of Parliaments constituent emails which resulted in 25% of the respondents claiming they had had their opinions changed and had voted for the MP as a result of his email outreach. This study indicates that at least in some cases, internet outreach is changing opinions and reaching new audiences.

Sen. Valentine observed that his traditional mail hasn’t decreased as his email increased. Instead, older constituents continued to use traditional mail and younger constituents used email.

I asked if any one was doing anything to reach beyond the current online groups, using Facebook, MySpace or similar sites. Rep. Harrelson spoke about his Facebook and MySpace presence as well as mentioning the Democratic Party’s PartyBuilder.

I asked about people doing anything to widgetize or deportalize their websites. Rep. Harrelson spoke about his blog’s RSS feed being picked up by Arkansas based aggregators and Sen. Valentine spoke about having a large number of people subscribing to his site via email. Sen. Valentine also spoke of the importance of media crossover when information from the blog would be talked about in the newspapers or during drive time radio.

It was good to hear about various state legislative bodies here in the States, as well as people in Europe making strides to build communities that engage in intelligent discussion about the issues. We need more of that.

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NCSL: Wireless Broadband: Answering the Call

Around 100 people are attending a luncheon. The focus is on the advantages of broadband, areas with broadband see housing values increase and improved healthcare delivery. Concerns are presented about tax issues, consistency of policy from state to state and private sector access. The speakers thank people who helped make the luncheon possible, AT&T, Cisco, Comcast, Dell, Ebay, Time Warner, Verizon and others.

The keynote speaker is Steve Largent, former NFL Football player, Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, and now head of CTIA, the Wireless Association. The board of directors of CTIA includes people from Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and so on.

During the keynote, Steve shows a video, “Wireless There’s Magic in The Air.” It traces the history of wireless in the United States, leading up to a futuristic view set in 2015.

He points out a survey by MyWireless.org. Like their website, he doesn’t mention that MyWireless.org is an offshoot of CTIA. (See this article from Common Cause about MyWireless.org).

He focuses on tax policy and regulatory policy. He encourages legislators to ask regulators if their policies “will reduce or increase the costs of companies providing wireless services.” It seems like the question is not if it will reduce or increase costs to companies, but will it increase or reduce costs and options for individuals.

One person asks what State Legislatures should do where there are rural districts that national carriers aren’t building out in. “I can tell you that we’re coming,” he answers. The 700 mhz auction will help greatly. “It is just a matter of time.”

There are subsequent questions about identity theft and the number of lives saved by e911 services, number portability, safe driving and issues about placing of cell towers,.

It is interesting that in the crowd, I am the only person with a laptop, even though there is WiFi available throughout the conference. The industry association is out in force. I speak with a representative from T-Mobile at the end of the keynote. Yet there is very little representation from those fighting for more open telecommunication policies.

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NCSL, Initial Impressions

This morning, before heading over to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) annual conference, I read some emails, including some with State Legislators that aren’t attending. Over the next week or two, I’ll be leading sessions at various places about blogging.

One of the great half truths of blogging is that anyone can do it. On one level, this is true. Just got to Blogger, Wordpress, or many other free sites, and set up your blog. You don’t even need a computer or internet connection of your own. There are many places where you can get online for free, such as public libraries, government centers, or even convention halls.

However, there is more to blogging than just having access to a free website. You have to have something to say and have people that will read it. You can get a lot to say by visiting meetings like the NCSL annual meeting or YearlyKos. Yet these are expensive. Even if you can get press credentials and attend for free, you still have costs like travel expenses. I just couldn’t swing the expense of going to YearlyKos this year. NCSL is a bit more affordable. I took Amtrak up from Stamford which is fairly economical. I’m staying at a friend’s house in Boston, so the expenses remain small, but still signficiant.

I think of all the people that have important things to say, but can’t afford to get to important gatherings like this or YearlyKos.

At NCSL, the staff is incredibly friendly. Many people have greeted me and asked if I need help. Perhaps some of it comes from working in a profession that needs to keep constituents happy. Perhaps some of it is that my hair is a little shaggy and the ‘Blogger’ embroidered on my shirt identifies me as not your typical legislative staffer.

There are many people who are here with their families. Kids are going out for walks on the Freedom Trail. The book store has great children’s books about getting involved in Government. Many people are greeting old friends with big hugs. Is NCSL a homecoming week for State Legislators, a great time to see old friends and visit interesting cities, paid for, in part, I imagine by state taxes?

Staying with the ‘follow the money’ meme, a large exhibition hall is in the process of getting set up. Computers flank the side of the entrance hall advertising SGAC.ORG, Connecting the business community with NCSL and State Legislators for more than 30 years. I wonder where DFA, and other groups connection State Legislators with grassroots constituents for a few years now. I know that the Progressive States Network will be here on Tuesday, but I have to miss there session.

So, it is now time to check in and plan my afternoon.

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