Balance. The philosophy of yin-yang teaches among other things that a struggle of energies provides balance and can even serve as a flywheel of momentum. In a recent post, I attempted to present some unique giving propositions for the OSET Institute which were focused – in part – on the nature of our work product.
Today, I’ll describe another unique aspect of the Open Source Election Technology Institute that borders on the stuff my learned colleague who is leading our Technical Ranks is focused on: problem solution approach.
OK, I’m off and typing, but really trying to stick to the point. This stream-of-consciousness blogging approach combined with 65WPM typing is a dangerous mix. So, buckle in and keep your cursor firmly on the scroll button (it’s Saturday early before I start the weekend).
Some, including the technology professional seated next to me on a flight recently from Boston to San Francisco, have observed this characteristic, I am about to describe, as novel if not downright breakthrough (if we can pull it off, he notes). Yeah sure, I’m talking his ear off about the OSET effort, and why not? The more technologists I can engage the better. I believe Linus Torvalds put it succinctly: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”
Seriously, we spent months performing “blink tests” of our own with political, policy, and technology thought-leaders in the early part of 2007 before we decided to leave the comfort of our regular paying professional pursuits to strike out on the most challenging start-up of our lives: the OSET Institute.
And the blink tests were (almost curiously) highly supportive. Sure, we had very savvy technology policy thought-leaders like the Honorable Mozelle Thompson (former Commissioner of the FTC, to name names) advise us to make sure we had “accountability feedback loops” in our design of everything right down to the organization itself. And another whip-smart technology policy thought leader – Peter Harter (to name another), cautioned us to engage the right mix of technology and policy geeks in order to achieve a balance in solution that could equally withstand the nuances of government guidelines and legislative think as well as the rigors of publicly well vetted invention… and to do so by leveraging learning from our time at Netscape way back when. But in all of that, the words of encouragement consistently echoed: “you must do this.” The key was figuring out how to tackle this large and thorny problem. That’s where the balance of yin-yang plays in.
The Breakthrough in Approach
What we believe is breakthrough – and supported by the thought leaders we’ve spoken with – is in how we are going to approach the terrible trouble with voting technology. I’ll leave the details to John Sebes, OSET Institute CTO, but let me summarily try to put it as follows. It involves, as suggested, two elements that have a natural tension between them, but if balanced, will provide a flywheel of momentum and unprecedented results.
1. Yin: High Assurance Methodology. First, the demands of highly trustworthy digital voting technology approach what I like to call “fault intolerance.” And in fact, there is an entire specialty in the disciplines of engineering that addresses fault intolerance (at least to the notion of fault tolerance). It is generally referred to as high assurance systems engineering. And it is often employed in so-called “mil-spec” or military grade technology design and development. It equally plays in medical technology, aerospace industries, and anywhere a requirement exists for highly reliable and trustworthy devices and services. The hallmark of this discipline is a highly structured methodology (with lots of accountability feedback loops) that is rigorous in practice and application. The results are single purpose devices with high grade reliability. Let’s call this the Yin half of our breakthrough approach.
2. Yang: Open Source Process. Second, we have a DNA-level conviction (and thus our Foundation’s name) that the only way the cornerstone of a digital democracy – the technology of voting – can be truly assured trustworthy and in the public’s best interest is to place the underlying architecture, specifications, designs, and (at least draft) standards for the same in the public trust. This means open, transparent, publicly well vetted work. We believe this means operating under an Open Source mandate. As repeatedly discussed elsewhere, “open sourcing” software, hardware, and systems alone is insufficient. And we are focused on the processes of open source development more than the resulting things that come from it. But the only way an open source initiative can succeed is if it operates in a truly meritocratic environment that necessarily is built on volunteerism from a highly distributed population. Open source efforts operating at maximum efficiency and productivity are by nature, chaotic and even at times ad-hoc. Let’s call this the Yang of our breakthrough approach.
And so the yin-yang of the OSET movement is a required balance between  the highly structured and disciplined methodology of high assurance system design with a fault intolerant mandate, and  the highly chaotic, rapid-prototyping, distributed volunteer nature of open source development.
That’s breakthrough. That’s unique to the OSET Institute.
Check it out: Producing a digital public works in this manner has never been done before anywhere we can determine.
So, to make this work, by necessity, means a core team of highly experienced full-time senior technical architects, who in turn, must guide a large distributed community of volunteer developers – mostly across the Internet – in an open source environment, complemented by “on-loan” senior technologists from the corporate technology world, to actually flesh out everything… absolutely everything from design guidelines and principles, to architecture, specification, engineering, and then actual code and digital specifications for hardware design. And all of this must happen in the public view, publicly vetted, and held in the public trust.
Really, if we can pull this off, it may just suggest an entirely new way of public works development in a digital age.
BTW: Keep this theme in mind: a digital public works project funded through non-profit donation and grants, managed by and for the public through an open source community, rather than funded by tax dollars and managed by necessary corresponding government bureaucracy.
And as you can imagine this requires a capital commitment (and not as large as you might think). To be sure, specific projects on the long and complex road-map that our CTO and his fledgling team are in the early days of “imagineering” will be funded by larger philanthropic sources on a project-by-project grant basis. And the road-map will not be any result of “ideating” (with apologies to IBM), but a carefully thought out map that will not be complete until it, like everything else, it has been publicly vetted with your help.
But your help can also come in other ways… simple small donations of not just time to review and comment on documents and works, but even (yes) money (small amounts). To be sure, our specific projects are funded by larger grants as I mentioned above. But the operations — including the small cadre of core senior technologists to shepherd everything is covered by the support of the community at large — those who stand to benefit from secure, trustworthy digital voting systems — every U.S. citizen, probably even yourself.
If we consider discussions in earlier posts and elsewhere in this online community, we know that the power of the populist to have a financial impact of the proportions of corporations is real (e.g., witness the online fund raising success of political campaigns). You’ve heard of the “wisdom of crowds.” I think of this as the “investment of crowds.”
Oh, and if you think you might be one of that cadre of core technologists we intend to hire, by all means get at us before any decisions are made.
Apologies, I’m really trying to shorten up these posts, but I just get so dog-gone excited about sharing what we’re thinking. Enough.
Your ball. Please tell me what you think.