Wonks R Us

Where Public Policy and Small Business Meet

Tag Archives: Community

And now for something completey different

Two of my favorite things about Portland are the people and the breakfasts.  On the theory that one can never have too much of a good thing, J-P Voilleque (aka @lawduck) organizes a bi-weekly breakfast tweetup.  We alternate sides of the river and a different configuration of folks come each time.  The one constant is the high quality of the conversation.

Perhaps we were inspired by Olympians striving for gold, but yesterday’s conversations raised an already high bar. After we lamented not having recorded ourselves, I took it upon myself to record our ideas for posterity.

If the #pdxbreakfast folks ran the world, these are some of the improvements we would make:

  • Airplane trains – so that one could take a train trip around the world. The trains would be able to fly across oceans, land on the next set of tracks and continue its journey.
  • Sea trains – this is a variant on the airplane train idea.  Basically, amphibious submarines.
  • America’s Test Kitchen in space – I recently ran across an article in New Scientist about The Astronaut’s Cookbook and have been thinking about food in space ever since.  Then @natronics told us about a video on You Tube of Japanese astronaut making the first sushi in space.  Although I would suck at it (I am a very imprecise cook), I would love to work in the Cook’s Illustrated Test Kitchen. So why not combine the best of both worlds and set up a test kitchen in the International Space Station?
  • The long tail of stupid’nuff said.
  • Atomic Pirate Trains – This is @reidab’s vision of our apocalyptic future.
  • Robotic French Penguin Armies – A great money-making scheme if we can sell them to the Russians.
  • People in glass houses should not slingshot covered hoppers with giant vibrators – Some sage advice from @pdxflaneur.
  • A pithy description of our contemporary navy – Now that the Pentagon has lifted the ban on women in submarines, we think this should be their new tagline – “The Navy: It’s all atomic power and sex.”
  • Toddlers as a renewable energy source – Anyone who has watched a toddler for 35 seconds has observed their seemingly endless kinetic energy.  If harnessed appropriately, toddler energy could completely eliminate the US’s dependence on fossil fuels.  After discussing toddler wheels and magnetic shoes, we finally found the perfect solution: Piezo-embedded toddler clothing.

And , last, but certainly not least:

  • Hacking the International Space Station’s (ISS)  Wifi – Our resident space expert, @natronics, who was lucky enough to go to Space Camp, has observed that the ISS is filled with off-the-shelf laptops. For the sake of national security (which is the best excuse ever), we are keeping the details to ourselves.

Groupon has helped us select the location for our next #pdxbreakfast by offering a 52% discount at Hash.  Come join us in our brilliant madness.


Wonk meets Geeks

This week, as part  of his “100 businesses in 100 days” effort, Mayor Sam Adams wandered into the Wonderful World of Geeks when he met with Portland’s open source tech community to discuss his economic development strategy.  A diverse group of folks, including:  Rick Turoczy, Raven Zachary, Audrey Eschright, Scott Kveton, J-P Voillique, David Kominsky, myself, the Mayor and Skip Newberry (from the mayor’s office) gathered to discuss ways to support the ongoing economic development of Portland’s open source community and what can the City to do help meet those needs.

We began with a discussion of the strengths of Portland’s open source tech community.  Portland is incredibly fortunate in having community leaders who have done very well in creating a vast array of peer teaching/mentoring opportunities.  User groups, code sprints and events such as BarCamp provide opportunities for people to meet, share and develop ideas.  The type of opportunities that one normally only finds in the context of a large university setting.  What we lack are mentorship opportunities or the matchmaking necessary to bring together great coders with great businesspeople.  The most effective solution to the mentorship issue must come from within the community itself.  Better communication and collaboration is all that is needed to address that issue.

The communication and collaboration question naturally led to the mayor asking how to find the tech community.  The group responded with a resounding “Twitter,” all in unison. Sam acknowledged that Twitter was a great conversation medium, but too transitory. What he really needed in order to adequately understand, and therefore advocate for, Portland’s open source tech community is a census. The group readily offered their respective networks to start building a census of Portland’s tech community.

The mayor also asked what distinguished Portland’s community from other cities.  We came up with the following responses:

Telecommuting – We have all read about Portland’s “Brain Gain.” People move here from all over the world because of our high quality of life. What we rarely read about are the many new transplants who arrive with jobs. Portland is filled with people who work for companies based all over the world.  Anecdotally, we all knew several people who fit into this category. How many are there and where are their companies located? That’s what we need the census to find out.

Affordable domestic coders – It remains true that the hourly rate of overseas coders is significantly lower than even entry-level coders in the US. However, time zone, inter-cultural communication and code maintenance issues can make overseas coders more expensive in the long run.  Portland’s relatively low cost of living and highly skilled coders have made us an increasingly cost-effective alternative.

Geo-mapping/geo-location – Portland has more than its fair share of geo-location enthusiasts, as was evidenced by the success of the first WhereCamp event last year. This is a field with a huge amount of growth potential and Portland has an opportunity to make a name for itself here.

Mobile applications development – The hugely popular Obama Iphone application came out of Portland and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Portland has set the bar high for innovation in mobile application development, a field that remains in its infancy.  With its low barrier to entry, mobile application development is looking like another niche that Portland is looking to dominate.

So what can the mayor of Portland do to help support the open source community?

1. Advocate for open source solutions for government software – Governments have huge software needs, and proprietary software solutions require a significant up-front investment and updates are often delayed by other priorities.  Open source software has a much lower barrier to entry, and much of the cost can be split with other jurisdictions.  But, government bureaucracies, by their nature, are cautious and slow to accept change.  A champion, especially one in a highly influential position, can expedite the rate of change. Having the mayor champion open source software, especially in these challenging economic times, can make Portland a leader in the field.

2. Advocate for a variety of funding options – Many of us have grown tired of hearing about how Portland does not produce companies that interest VC funders.  If you want an earful on this subject, just go ask Rick Turoczy. However, what we also lack is access to the kind of startup capital that small businesses that want to remain small businesses need. Those companies where the founder(s) would like to make a living for themselves and their employees, but not make 30% on the original investment. This is another place where some targeted advocacy by our mayor could make a big difference.

In the end, everyone was pleased with the meeting.  The open source community representatives felt that both Sam and Skip understood the value that they bring to Portland and were eager to help where they could.  Skip commented that this had been one of the most productive of Sam’s business visits.  I attribute the meeting’s success to the attendees’ ability to articulate both their needs and what they had to offer.  There had been no pre-meeting prep or preliminary discussions.  Portland has a very self-aware and reflective open source community and that serves us very well.

Simplicity isn’t that Simple

This evening I went to the first of several public information meetings for small business trying to participate in the Go Oregon! program. Don’t know what I am talking about?  Well, you are not alone.

I consider myself to be more web-savvy than the average bear, and I know I am much more comfortable wading through legislation and government websites than most people (a useful skill, but one that is guaranteed to never make you rich or famous).  This afternoon, I wanted to confirm the meeting time and see in what building the event was to be held.  I then spent approximately 30 minutes searching my email, running several google searches and poring through the Small Business Administration site with a fine tooth comb. I eventually found it (although the announcement did not specify a building after all) and headed west to the Rock Creek campus of PCC.

I have to admit, given the difficulty I had in confirming the event, I was surprised at the number of people there and even more shocked to learn that there had been 400 people at the morning session.  I asked some of the folks around me how they had heard about the event.  Almost all of them had accessed some services associated with the SBA in the past and received announcements in the mail.  The other folks I spoke to said they had heard about it from fellow business-people. No one mentioned a web site.

The entire event was structured around showing us the landing pages of the Oregon University System, Portland Community College, City of Portland’s and ORPIN (the state’s system) procurement pages.  Each presenter reminded everyone that with the timeline is so short and the actual pool of money available so uncertain, they should be sure to check all of these sites on a daily basis.  As they were only focusing in the stimulus money released through SB 338, there was no discussion of how to keep an eye on opportunities created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Let me reiterate a key point I would like to make: small business owners were instructed to check multiple web sites  daily in order to keep tabs on opportunities as they arise (all of the sites lack RSS feeds, although you can subscribe to email updates on some of the sites).  That is a lot to ask of people who are already working really hard just to stay in business.  But, I also need to say in defense of these jurisdictions that they have been facing decreasing budgets and increasing needs for over a decade, and setting up RSS feeds (though simple) just doesn’t rise to the forefront in their list of priorities right now.

Small businesses are the lifesblood of our city. According to the Portland Development Commission’s draft Economic Development Strategy, 90% of businesses in Portland are small businesses and 3/4 of employees in this city work for small businesses

I would like to to make an offer to you, my readers.  I will continue to post links and information about both state and federal stimulus opportunities as I learn about them so that there will be at least one one-stop resource page for the information Portland’s small businesses need.  In exchange, I ask that when you learn about an opportunity or resource that you do not yet see on this blog, please add it to the comments.

I love Portland because Portland is a city that values community.  Please share the link to this blog with your fellow-business-owners, neighbors, family and friends.  I want to help local businesses prosper in this challenging time.  Local business owners and employees are part of our community, and I strongly believe that if we work together, we can weather this storm.

Starry-eyed Optimist

Keeping up with the Obama administration is a serious challenge for an amateur wonk like me.  I can barely keep up with everything they are doing (which I see as a good thing), and I certainly can’t blog at their speed.

I was writing my post on transparency and accountability last night and took a break to watch Obama’s address (apparently it is not called a State of the Union speech when a new president has just taken office).  My intent had been to go back and finish that post afterwards, but one initiative Obama mentioned excited me so much that I had to write about it first.  I will let you read about it in the president’s own words:

That’s why — that’s why we will support — we will provide the support necessary for all young Americans to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That is a goal we can meet.

Now — now, I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why, if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education. And to encourage…

And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch, as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country, Senator Edward Kennedy.

Some background on why I think I find this announcement so exciting.  When President Clinton launched the Americorps program in the early 1990’s, I was very excited that there was a non-military option for national service.  In exchange for service, members received a (minimal) living stipend and an educational reward that could be used to forgive federal student loans or to pay for school.  Although the living stipend has had cost of living adjustments, the educational reward remains unchanged.  The end result being that a year or two of work did very little to help members pay for college.

I watch Americorp funding closely because I have had a front row seat during the Bush administration,  I have been a peer reviewer for the Corporation for National and Community Service (Americorps’ administrative entity) for several years and I have seen an increasing number of applicants who are struggling in their recruitment efforts.  I am also a commissioner for Oregon’s Commission for Voluntary Action and Service, who administers Americorps programs for our state, and that offers a different, but not less bleak, perspective.

I first learned of the increase in Americorps funding when I read the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  I have been keeping an eye on the implementation roll out.  So given that background, what was so new and exciting about Obama’s speech?  Last night it became clear that national service is a priority once again.  I happen to think that is a very good thing.

Heralding back to a better day

January 20, 2009 was an emotional, historic and ground-shifting day in more ways that I can count.  There have been so many excellent blog posts on how it affected people (I should know, as I have many of them opened in tabs in Firefox so I can catch up on reading them when I get a free moment) that I don’t feel I have much to add to the zeitgeist.  Nonetheless, I have been drafting this blog post in my head since yesterday, so I may as well add it to the blogosphere.

Yesterday we held an inaugural viewing and potluck breakfast at CubeSpace. I can safely tell you that neither David nor I put much thought into whether we should host this event or not.  It was just an instinctual, “there is a momentous event and we have a community gathering space, so we should put out an invitation.”  However, my perspective changed as the day began to unfold.

The morning started with the usual crowd of early arrivers.  These are the folks that I usually get a little more time to chat with before the chaos really begins.  Then more and more folks began to arrive, with partners, friends and in one case, children in tow.  As we got closer to the actual swearing in, the general tenor of the room changed.  There was an almost palpable sense of anticipation and some folks (myself included) started to get a little teary.

As attendees of the actual inauguration were asked to rise, there was some discussion here about whether we, as television viewers, should rise or not.  I like to think of that point as being where I began to really fathom what was going on. Even though we were watching these events that were taking place 2,800 miles away, on a relatively small 32″ screen, we somehow felt that we were part of something bigger.  A feeling that I kept hearing repeated by folks all over the world as new coverage continued throughout the day.

Once upon a time, not every one had a television set.  So family, friends and neighbors used to gather at the home of whomever was lucky (or an early adopter or wealthy) enough to own a television set.  Television programs were a notable weekly event, often eagerly anticipated.  Everyone knew that Uncle Milty or Lucille Ball would be topics of converstion around the water cooler (before they became figurative) or in the playground or over coffee.

Fast forward to now.  People have giant HD tvs with surround sound home theater systems, so that they now have a better set-up than most movie theaters.  There are so many channels that television has become an individualized experience, often with family members spread throughout the house, watching their own shows alone.

Yesterday was a remarkable exception to the norm.  The twittersphere was filled with folks who were watching the inauguration with friends and family.  The news was filled with reports of people flying to Chicago and DC to stand out in the cold and watch it on giant Jumbotrons.  Something was compelling these folks out of their warm comfort zones and into community.

President Obama (oh, how I love getting to type that!) has been consistent in his call for community since his campaign.  Both his speech at the We Are One concert as well as his inaugural address reiterated his message of the power of community.  Not just those of us in the US who need to work together to recover from the damage of the Bush era, not just the need for our government to be inclusive of not only those who agree, & those who disagree, but also the need for the US to rejoin the community of nations.

Yesterday I had to run to a meeting in Gresham right after Obama’s inaugural address.  As someone who spends her days running from pillar to post, I found it unusually hard to disengage from the gathering at CubeSpace.  Apparently I was not the only one.  When I popped my head in at 3ish, there was still a good crowd in Agora (including some new folks who weren’t there for the inauguration).  Once again, the pull remained.

As much as I would like to claim that yesterday’s global communal experience will result in a lasting change, I know that is not the case.  But, given how much we seemed to all crave community yesterday, I am hopeful that we have opened a window into the past when Americans gathered together and shared daily experiences.  Back to the time when community service (either through fraternal organizations like the Lions, Elks, Rotary, etc. or as individuals) was almost a given, as everyone was clear that it takes a community to maintain a community.

In this time of stress and uncertainty can we look outside of ourselves and work for the greater good?  Yes we can.

How to Argue

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me (but a bit worrisome nonetheless) I have found myself picking apart a lot of people’s arguments lately.  To be specific, three times in the last week.  This is behavior that I usually associate with David.  Has our marriage hit that pivotal point where couples start integrating their spouse’s habits as their own?  Possibly.  But I don’t think so.

Given whose arguments I was picking apart, it is possible that conflicting thought processes or communication style were the source of the disagreement.  However, this is a community that I have been a part of for the past 2+ years.  Why would this only happen now? One possibility is that the community has gelled to a point where we feel comfortable presenting arguments and I feel comfortable responding in my normal way (I am capable of the “smile and nod” response to theories as well, I just don’t default there).

One of the arguments turned into a lesson for my sparring mate on the tools necessary to more effectively frame his arguments.  That happened because my sparring partner was a highly intelligent and articulate individual who was making a very poor case on an issue for which he clearly has a great deal of passion.

Perhaps it was the topics being debated?  Two of the issues were based in my field of study for both my BA and MPA, so perhaps I felt freer to argue the ins and outs of fields in which I am very comfortable? Possibly.

The one negative reaction to how I picked apart a theory was clearly an issue of style.  The presenter wanted a metaphorical pat on the head for having done the work of developing the theory.  However, my response to a intelligent individual who presents a theory to me is to ask questions so that I understand it better.  I have been told that my response is helpful (albeit challenging) in that it forces the presenter to be explicit about any underlying assumptions, and therefore clarifies his/her thinking.  Thus assisting the presenter be clearer when presenting her/his theory in the future.  But apparently my response was unexpected in this case.

There is likely not a single answer to the question: “why now?”, but I am going to go ahead and blame the scapegoat de jour.  I think Snowpocalypse 2008 gave people a lot more time to sit and think while they were trapped at home.  Thus theories had more time to percolate without the benefit of outside feedback.  But, you should feel free to argue with me if you disagree.


Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you…

When I ask people who are new to Portland about their favorite part of the city, community always comes up in the short list.  We are a city of folks who like to hang out in parks, cafes, pubs and restaurants.  Newbies also tell me about how friendly Portlanders are, and how they are quickly welcomed. It has not been my experience that folks brand new to any community are adopted so quickly and easily.  It makes me very proud to live, work and hang-out with the community that has developed in my 20 years as a Portlander (yes, I do count the 6 years that I was in exile in Philadelphia, because Portland was always home, I was always up to speed on Portland and Oregon politics and policy and I found ways to come home with great regularity).

But, community is something that needs to be actively maintained, and Chris O’Rourke has instigated an effort for us to get to know each other better.  Chris had participated in an interview experiment a few months back, and thought it might be a great way to encourage us to talk about topics that might not otherwise come up.  I signed up and I am looking forward to being interviewed by Melissa Lion, who just gave a great presentation on narrative structure for blogs.  David brought home her books from the library, and I have read Swollen, and am waiting for him to finish Upstream, so that I can read it.

I get to interview Kelly (aka @Verso & Banana Lee Fishbones), which should be very entertaining.  I run into Kelly with great frequency, but she is a popular woman with many folks vying for her attention, and that makes it hard for me to get to know her well.  From our interactions, both in real life and on the twitterverse, I know that she is a True Star Wars Fan (as defined by me), loves yarn (even though she crochets more than knits), enjoys bowling (as do I and we are suckage sisters, together) and her IPhone.  I also know that she is well-loved and respected in our community,  and that alone is enough to make me excited at the prospect of getting to interview her.

Stay tuned for the interview write-up.  Interested in joining the interview experiement?  You can check it out here.