FiReGlobal : West Coast CTO Challenge: Public Participation

by Brenda Cooper, Moderator, CTO Challenge II

We decided to write about last week’s FiReGlobal : West Coast CTO Challenge because it’s an iceberg process: FiRe participants get to see the part above the water on stage, and the rest of the iceberg is also interesting. This is an excellent tool that might be useful inside of some of your businesses. Last but most important, we want your ideas about our work.

At the opening of FiReGlobal, Mark Anderson mentioned that one real problem plaguing America today is a preference for sniping at one another rather than collaborating and actually solving problems. Sometimes it feels like either side (and there are sides) would rather see the others fail than be proven wrong themselves. This is fairly evident in the debates we’ve had over almost any issue we’ve bothered to spend actual attention on lately, from bailouts to health care.

Our CTO Challenge squarely addressed this issue:

“How do we promote intelligent discourse and decision-making on regional and national civic issues, given the deterioration of newspapers and other media, and the polarization of politics? Can technology assist in the promotion of rational discussion? Does the necessary communication, content, coordination infrastructure, already exist, and if not, what’s missing and how do we go about building it? Do we do things differently when dealing with issues of local, state, national level?”

First, some context on the idea of a CTO Challenge. Originally based on the History Channel show The Archi-techs, hosted by [SNS Member and] science fiction writer David Brin, a core premise of the CTO Challenge is to gather a varied, smart group of people who have proven capable of solving technology problems, give them a problem out of their comfort zone, and ask them to apply technology to the solution. The basic idea is that problem-solving skills in one area translate to others.

Past CTO Challenges have been about improving urban wildfire response tools and guaranteeing a safe supply of clean drinking water for cities in the midst of a desert, like San Diego, CA.

We started out knowing two people and roles: I would be the “host” for this topic, and Chetan Sharma would “lead” the group. We were given two weeks to gather a team, meet, and brainstorm solutions. The final team consisted of:

When I called David Brin for advice, he told me to worry first and foremost about scheduling. He was right. It took a multitude of emails to gather the group at the Pearl Restaurant in Bellevue the Friday night before FiReGlobal. A private room turned out to be a table near the very noisy bar draped with black mosquito netting. The food and conversation were both great, and no one got laryngitis from talking over the noisy bar scene. There were so many ideas flowing around that circular table that the hard part was focusing down on what to work on. Now, the group had been working beforehand via email, largely developing ideas cobbled together in one pre-meeting of a subgroup and from airplane seats all over the country. You know how they say that if you want something done, give it to someone who’s busy? So we had a start, and Chetan laid out tasks for the team.

Two days later, the group met again, this time in a private room in a Bellevue Starbucks. The intent had been to practice the presentation, but instead we honed ideas more sharply. By now, we had a framework and some principles. And we had a wiki, which Joe Hietzeberg had put together over the weekend and dropped the pithiest bits of all our previous emails into. (The entire presentation is available on the wiki, at

One more late-night conference call and multiple iterations of slides later (which Chetan patiently gathered and finaled) and we were ready to take the stage at FiRe. We didn’t know Mark was going to set us up so well with his opening remarks, but that helped us.

Some key insights include:

We hope to have opportunities to pilot some of these ideas, hopefully in Seattle, and hopefully soon.

In the meantime, the idea of putting a lot of smart people onto a problem that’s fresh for them is a good one. It certainly worked here. Some observations from team members are:

Brenda Cooper: The diversity of team worked great. We were gender-diverse, nationality-diverse, age-diverse, industry-diverse. And every one is a star in their own field.

Sailesh Chutani: The moderators’ and analysts’ roles are critical to keeping the conversation objective, civil, and fact- and science-based.

Joe Heitzeberg had three observations:

  1. Applying technology to politics isn’t something that I had thought much about prior to this panel, but certainly it was incredibly interesting as a topic and very exciting to discover how profound the and numerous the opportunities are for positive change. If I can be “awoken,” then we can surely awaken others in the community.
  2. The notion of “civic engagement” is one aspect of our system that we can clearly change without it being bogged down in partisan politics. Not once did our problem-solving process on the panel stall because a particular idea would favor one political party over another.
  3. I’m impressed with the openness and encouragement to new ideas that the representatives from government (Brenda and Bill Schrier) brought to the discussion. This broke my stereotype of government and gives me hope that we can move new technology initiatives past the panel discussion and into real-world trials.

Sajal Sahay: You don’t need a heavy technology investment for this framework to work. Utilizing existing infrastructure, such as SMS from the wireless carriers, is a cost-effective way to get citizen engagement started. The key will be awareness with the citizenry that such an initiative exists… the rest will work itself out.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this whirlwind tour through a [FiRe-based] CTO Challenge. Please, stop by the wiki at and add your ideas or send us your questions. One goal of these challenges is to create ideas for the real world. Help us hone these ideas!