Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How to Download eBooks From Your Local Library...

According to a report by the American Library Association and the Information Policy & Access Center at the University of Maryland, three-quarters of all public libraries in the U.S. lend ebooks to anyone with a library card. These ebooks can be downloaded for free to anyone with an iPhone, iPad, Android device, or directly onto one's computer.

But according to a new report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, even though 75% of all public libraries are doing this, fully 62% of Americans have no awareness whatsoever about the service, and even among ebook readers, only 12% of people say they have actually borrowed an ebook from a library in the past year.

This is not only a shame; it's also quite surprising. In an era where libraries consistently rank among the most popular public services in opinion polls, and where people tend to seek out (and usually find) free ways to consume digital media, you'd think this service would be taking off.

My money says it's only a lack of awareness that's hindering it.

So, to that end, here's a brief guide for how to download ebooks from your local library, for free, onto your mobile device or computer. I'm running this experiment on my Android phone, but the process should work on iPhones and iPads as well.

  1. Take out your library card (yes, you actually need to have one).

  2. Go to, click on "Library Search", and make sure your local library is listed.

  3. Download the Overdrive app. Click to download the "Overdrive Media Console", then on the right choose your computing or mobile platform (Android, iPhone, etc.). Once you've done this, the page will refresh and display a button underneath those options either to download the app from the App Store, Google Play, etc. Click on it.

  4. Install the app through the App Store or Google Play the way you normally do. This usually means just clicking the "Install" button.

  5. Click on "Settings" -> "Get Books" -> "Add a Library" -> Enter your library's zip code -> click on your library on the resulting list -> click on "eBook" as your format.

  6. You're basically finished. But now comes the annoying part. Libraries still only have a limited number of each digital book available, so you need to not only shop around for what books you want, you may need to shop around for books you want THAT ARE AVAILABLE. Depending on your particular library, this could be very easy or pretty tough. When you do find some books for yourself, add them to your cart and proceed to checkout.

  7. This is the point at which you finally need to enter your library card number and (maybe) your PIN. "Confirm" and "Download". Each library is slightly different.

You're done. The books should be available to read on your device through the Overdrive app. Just keep in mind, even though this is all digital, this is still a library, which means each eBook has to be returned within 7-14 days unless you check it out again.

Happy hunting.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Leaked Documents Show the U.N.'s Internet Power Grab...

With very low visibility, a small agency in the United Nations - the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) - might be about to quietly try and regulate the entire Internet.

The ITU has planned a meeting this upcoming December where each of the 193 member nations will vote on various proposed Internet regulations.  What's striking is that the details of the proposals have been kept secret, so it was impossible to know what authoritarian governments were plotting or how the U.S. was responding. 

Until now.  A pair of researchers from George Mason University created a website called in the hopes that someone with access to the secretive proposals would leak them and make them available to the public.  Last Friday, that's exactly what happened.  Someone leaked the 212-page planning document being used by governments to prepare for the December conference.  You can read it yourself here.

What it shows is breathtaking.  First, China is proposing "to give countries authority over the information and communication infrastructure within their state" and require that online companies "operating in their territory" use the Internet "in a rational way"- in short, to legitimize full government control.

Second, several proposals would give the U.N. power to regulate online content for the first time, under the guise of protecting against computer malware or spam.

Third, Russia and some Arab countries are proposing to be able to inspect private communications such as email.

Fourth, Iran and Russia are proposing new rules to measure Internet traffic along national borders and bill the originator of the traffic, as with international phone calls - essentially creating national toll booths for data.

Fifth, there is a proposal that would give the U.N. control over the Internet's Domain Name System, replacing ICANN which operates under a contract from the U.S. Commerce Department.

Take all of this in its totality and what we see are proposals that would A) grant power and authority over the very functioning of the Internet to the United Nations, and B) grant authoritarian governments the ability to censor, monitor, and more strictly control both the content of the Web itself and people's behavior on it.  What's at stake is nothing less than a system based on open flows of information, as opposed to an "information world order" based on government controls.

L. Gordon Crovitz from the Wall Street Journal is right in his assessment:  "Authoritarian regimes are busy lobbying a majority of the U.N. members to vote their way. The leaked documents disclose a U.S. side that has hardly begun to fight back. That's no way to win this war."

Everyone better wake up.  Soon.


Monday, June 11, 2012

What the Police Are Doing on Twitter...

To what extent can police forces use Twitter to increase civic engagement?  How transformational can social media be in redefining the relationship between the police and the public?

These are the questions asked by Jeremy Crump from Cisco in an article ripe with fascinating cases and statistics.  Looking at how U.K. police used Twitter over a time span in 2010-2011, including the riots of August 2011, his data suggests that police forces using Twitter most successfully use it simply as an extra channel for broadcasting messages, not as a means for enabling dialogue with the public.  He concludes that Twitter’s strength is publicizing issues and conversations that will actually take place elsewhere.

So how exactly are the police using Twitter?  Their activities can be broken down into four categories of message-types:
  1. Patrol - reports of frontline policing activity, whether patrolling or carrying out follow-up action resulting in an arrest, the resolution of a situation, or the conclusion of a case.
  2. Information - police requests for information from the public (e.g., about incidents, missing or wanted persons) and flows of information to the public, in crime prevention and public safety advice and general reassurance messages.
  3. Partners - the development and management of partnership relationships, either with other emergency services, local authorities, educational establishments and voluntary bodies, or with the public. This category includes all exchanges with members of the public.
  4. Other - messages that did not relate directly to any of the above policing functions. They were either about supporting issues (internal police business, whether official or informal) or about the mechanics of social networking, or were about matters relating only tangentially to the business of policing (e.g., television programs, local celebrities, or national events which did not engage the local police).

In order to increase civic engagement, the first step is for police departments to attract a large number of followers.  In one 24-hour experiment on October 14–15, 2010, the Greater Manchester Police published a short message about every incident notified to their control room over that time span using Twitter.  They tweeted about 3,025 incidents in all.  By the end of the exercise, the number of followers of GMP’s Twitter account had increased from 3,000 to 17,000.

Clearly, this large increase in Twitter followers over a 24-hour span signals that there is, indeed, some citizen demand for such engagement.

But there is an important distinction that must be made between the types of police accounts on Twitter.  As of August 2011, "force"accounts (managed by police forces centrally) had accumulated 259,972 followers, while "local" accounts (managed by individual officers or teams working at the neighborhood or local level) had accumulated only 165,841.

Thus, centralized official police Twitter accounts tend to attract more followers than individual or local accounts.

Additionally, the data showed that there is a moderate positive correlation between the number of followers and the number of tweets.  More content = more followers.

Furthermore, the number of Twitter "mentions" using the @user or #user tags was very low in almost all cases.  This is evidence that while certain strategies have proven effective at gaining more followers, those strategies have yet to be effective at broadcasting beyond the initial group of followers.  In other words, nobody is forwarding or sharing posts.  Police interaction with the public on Twitter is still very much characterized as one-way broadcasting, and not much actual discussion or dialogue is taking place.

Crump says, "the conclusion to be drawn is not that this effort is wasted, but rather there is a potential that can be realized through clarity of aims and methods".  That's an optimistic spin.  I'm more convinced of his point that Twitter lends itself to use as a broadcasting tool (e.g., for sharing press releases, publicizing meetings, or sending out notes about incidents), but doesn't pass muster when it comes to serious deliberation and activism.

Networks, he says, "are suitable for increasing some kinds of engagement, but not for fundamental change, for which more committed styles and methods of leadership are needed.

All Internet evangelists, please take note.


Tuesday, June 05, 2012

"Democracy Bubbles" and Online Political Participation...

The Obama Administration has taken many steps in using the Internet to enhance citizen participation in government.  It has developed Open Government Plans, encouraged more Electronic Town Hall meetings, and co-produced Online Community Forums on health care and job creation.  But as citizens are able to participate more actively in democratic governance, is it possible that their high expectations can produce negative effects?

That is the question raised by Thomas A. Bryer in his article, "Online Public Engagement in the Obama Administration: Building a Democracy Bubble?" (Policy & Internet).  He argues that the Obama Administration's efforts at online public engagement have led to a "democracy bubble" - meaning that as more citizens participate, the greater are their expectations for affecting political change, and these high expectations, when they fail to materialize, will actually make citizens feel deflated, reduce the sense that their actions matter, and ultimately make them far less likely to engage in the future.  The end result would be leaving society and communities worse off than they were initially.

Bryer goes on to suggest three policy recommendations to fix this:  1)  Ensure that citizen expectations are managed, and capacities for meeting expectations are established;  2)  Be explicit about under what conditions, and with which policy issues, citizens are given power;  and 3)  Provide agency officials with the tools required to moderate online discussion, and educate citizens on how to effectively communicate their interests.

This article is ripe with fantastic catchphrases - "democracy bubble", "democracy crater", "democracy dropouts", and "democracy demand".  However, on its substance, the argument is unconvincing.  Since when is the idea of citizens being able to participate more actively in their democratic government a bad thing?  To suggest that it is a bad thing because it raises people's expectations, and that we should temper those high hopes and enthusiasm in order to avoid disappointment, is dangerously paternalistic.

By this logic, would Bryer also suggest that voting itself was potentially harmful to the collective American psyche?  I mean, wouldn't voting for the losing candidate, or voting for the winning candidate and then being disappointed by what he's able to achieve in office, also be psychologically "deflating"?

This is not to say that the article on the whole isn't without its merits.  There is great potential value in research on the Administration's various initiatives in using the Internet to enhance public engagement, and I hope further quantitative work is done in that area.  The article simply might have been strengthened without its interpretation.  As it stands, you get the sense it's an exercise in logic more than it is something based in reality.