Can You Code A Better Government?

Jul 12, 2013
Originally published on July 10, 2015 8:49 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Why We Collaborate.

About Jennifer Pahlka's TEDTalk

Can government be run like the Internet, permissionless and open? Coder and activist Jennifer Pahlka believes it can — and that apps, built quickly and cheaply, are a powerful new way to connect citizens to their governments — and their neighbors.

About Jennifer Pahlka

Jennifer Pahlka is the founder of Code for America, which matches software geniuses with US cities to reboot local services. Recently, she ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events for TechWeb and co-chaired the successful Web 2.0 Expo. She's currently serving as the Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Government Innovation at the White House.

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SYNTHESIZED VOICE: Someone in Yellow Springs, Ohio edited Spanish language in the United States.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: Someone in Ridgewood, New Jersey edited Guy Fieri.

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz and on the show today, ideas about the phenomenon of mass collaboration.

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: Someone in San Marcos edited list of female drummers.

RAZ: When you put this out there, did you ask the question, all right, who's in charge of this, who's going to be in charge of this?

JIMMY WALES: Not really. I was in charge of it.

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: Someone in Athens, Greece edited Visa requirements for Zimbabwean citizens.

WALES: In the early days, I used to read every single edit. As they came in...

RAZ: Wow.

WALES: ...I would click and see what someone had done. That only lasted for a very short period of time. It got very...

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: Someone in Fort Collins, Colorado...

WALES: ...Fast, so, it was impossible to keep up with everything.

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: ...Edited 2003 to 2004 United States network television schedule.

WALES: So we came up with the Arbitration Committee, the idea of administrators and what are the rules and what can administrators do or not do and so forth. So it really grew very organically...

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: Someone in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts...

WALES: ...You know, over a long period of time.

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: ...Edited unemployment.

RAZ: I'm looking at a Wikipedia Recent Changes Live Map right now and it just so happens that...

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: Someone in Birmingham, Alabama...

RAZ: ...Your home state edited the list of reportedly haunted locations in the United States.

WALES: Yeah, yeah. I've seen it. It's very cool. It's that little things pop up as people are editing.

RAZ: Yeah...


RAZ: ...And the country flashes.


WALES: Yeah.

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: ...Edited dependency theory.

RAZ: It's incredible, isn't it?

WALES: Yeah, it's really nice to see.

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: Someone in Tel Aviv edited...

WALES: Tools like this are...

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: SriLankan Airlines.

WALES: ...Interesting because they really help...

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: Someone in Chicago...

WALES: feel...

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: ...Edited American Idol.

WALES: ...The aliveness of the community...

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: Someone in West Bend, Wisconsin...

WALES: ...That there's real people out there.

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: ...Edited Joseph McCarty. Someone in Hyde Park edited list of minor Power Rangers characters. Someone in the United Kingdom edited Of Monsters and Men. Someone in Winston Salem, North Carolina edited Brazil-Canada relations. Someone in edited...Someone in edited...Someone in edited...

WALES: You know, when I look and find some entry on something incredibly obscure and I realize, gosh, you know, six different people have had major input into this and it's just amazing. And they may have come from Birmingham, Alabama or Birmingham, England or who knows where.

RAZ: So that - you may have already figured out - is one of the founders of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. And way back in 2004, Jimmy Wales gave a TED Talk explaining his relatively new website.


WALES: So Wikipedia is owned by the Wikimedia Foundation, which I founded, a nonprofit organization. And our goal, the core aim of the Wikimedia Foundation is to get a free encyclopedia to every single person on the planet. And so if you think about what that means...

RAZ: Now remember, this was Jimmy Wales speaking almost a decade ago. There was no YouTube; Facebook, sort of out there; and Wikipedia, not yet a household name.


WALES: So we're doing around 1.4 billion page views monthly, so it's really gotten to be a huge thing. And everything is managed by the volunteers and the total monthly cost for our bandwidth is about $5,000, and that's essentially our main cost.

RAZ: Just 5,000 bucks a month in 2004. Considerably lower than Wikipedia's current monthly costs of 2.25 million. Back then, Wikipedia had 1.4 billion page views a month. Now, 19 billion a month. And to make it all possible, the engine that actually runs Wikipedia - collaboration. It cannot work without a group of volunteers, about 80,000 of them, who update the site for free. So why? Why would they do it?

WALES: You know, people don't ask the question, you know, why do people play World of Warcraft? How come they don't ask to be paid to do it? And the answer is, it's fun. They do it because it's fun.

You know, I'm sure people at the end of an eight-hour binge of playing a videogame, they think, OK, that was really stupid, I just wasted eight hours of my life. Usually, when people have an eight-hour binge of editing Wikipedia they think, well, I made the world a little bit better place than it was when I started, so I feel happy about that. That feeling that this is something, culturally, that will be remembered in 500 years is something that people find very satisfying.

RAZ: And that might actually be the answer, because what would motivate thousands or even millions of people to contribute hours of their time to collaborate on something for free?

That's what we'll explore on the show today with TED speakers who all depend on that kind of mass participation and who have to figure out how to channel that mass chaos into order. Now in the case of Wikipedia, it actually became a big success because of a big mistake.

WALES: In the early days, we had the great benefit of no one paying any attention to us. So we were able to have, you know, some bad things happen until we figured out what we had to do about that.

RAZ: And that day came...

WALES: When we had a very serious error...

RAZ: ...In December 2005.

WALES: ...About a lovely guy.


NEAL CONAN: John Seigenthaler is a veteran journalist. He's the former editor and publisher of the Tennessean in Nashville, as well the first editorial page editor for USA Today. He is not, and let us repeat, not in any way connected to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy or his brother Robert. He was somewhat surprised, therefore, when he read his biography on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can write for or edit, which linked him to those murders...

WALES: You know, it was a poorly linked article. Probably very, very few people ever saw it and, you know, on we marched. But then he wrote this scathing editorial in USA Today, which then got picked up by lots of outlets and it was our first big splash of media coverage and...


CONAN: And Jimmy Wales joins us now on the phone. He's a founder of Wikipedia and he's with us from his office...

WALES: ...I got dragged on CNN and everywhere else to be yelled at about it.


CONAN: But this information about Mr. Seigenthaler is going to be - A, was copied, we certainly know, onto other websites and it could be bouncing around there for a long time.

WALES: Well, sure now it's...

RAZ: Wow. Yeah, I remember that.


WALES: This particular article is under intense attention from all over the world right now because there's been a lot of press coverage and so forth...

And our traffic tripled in about two months.


WALES: The typical case though is that, by and large, most people are not doing malicious things at Wikipedia.

That was the first time when I really felt we're not just this funny group of people off on the obscure corner of the Internet trying to work on a project. We're actually impacting the world. That was the moment when I said, oh, wow, this is really getting to be big.

RAZ: And it's amazing when you think about how fast things either take off or die on the Internet today. It's amazing that Wikipedia had already been around for nearly four years at that point. Four years earlier, in 2001, Jimmy and a group of collaborators were still trying to figure out what they wanted to do on the Internet.

WALES: I was interested in how programmers were coming together to create all the really great software, as volunteers, that really runs - even today, most of the software that runs the Internet is open source software that's created, not entirely by volunteers, but largely.

And I thought, gosh, this kind of collaboration is very interesting and it's a mode of cultural production that, to me, seemed like it could be expanded to other things. Why just software? And that was really the early beginnings of thinking about, what could people come together to do and build online.

RAZ: But I mean, you've heard this, this sort of foundational principle of economic theory, right? That human motivation is driven by incentive, usually financial, and it seems like your whole model just up-ends that principle, that theory.

WALES: Well, I don't think so. And what's interesting is that, yes, of course if somebody has a view that human beings are only motivated by money, then they're going to have a pretty blinkered view of how humans behave and also a fairly sad life, in my view. And I think that's important to realize, that the Internet, as a tool, allows for really brilliant people to do things that they weren't really able to do in the past.

One my favorite examples is to think about the best bloggers and I think the best bloggers are easily the equal of the best, say, New York Times columnist. That person always existed. 60 years ago, that person existed and all they could do, at that time, was be a, you know, fabulous person to have over for a dinner party. But now they can gain an audience of, well, maybe only a few thousand people, maybe millions of people. And they enjoy it and, you know, it is a remarkable shift in the world

RAZ: When you gave your talk in 2005, Wikipedia was a completely different thing than it is now.


WALES: We have exactly one employee, and that employee is our lead software developer and he's only been our employee since January 2005. All the other growth before that - so the servers are managed by a ragtag band of volunteers, all the editing is done by volunteers.

And the way that we're organized is not like any traditional organization you can imagine. People are always asking, well, who's in charge of this or who does that? And the answer is, anybody who wants to pitch in. It's a very unusual and chaotic thing. We've got over 90 servers now...

You know, I remember early, early days, looking at a list of the top 100 websites and I thought, well, if we do a really great job, we might make it into the top 100 or top 50, and now we're number five. So it's even exceeded my optimism.


WALES: First of all, how good is it? Well, it's pretty good. It isn't perfect, but it's much, much better than you would expect, given our completely chaotic model. So how do we do this? How do we manage the quality control? What makes - how does it work? So there's a few elements, mostly social policies and some elements of the software. So the biggest and the most important thing is our "neutral point of view" policy.

This is something that I set down from the very beginning as a core principle of the community that's completely not debatable. It's a social concept of cooperation, which basically says, any time there's a controversial issue, Wikipedia itself should not take a stand on the issue. We should merely report on what reputable parties have said about it.

So this neutrality policy is really important for us because it empowers a community that is very diverse to come together and actually get some work done. So we have very diverse contributors in terms of political, religious, cultural backgrounds...

RAZ: What do you think could be the next big, kind of - I mean, what are the potentials out there? What are the possibilities for massive participation and collaboration?

WALES: Well, I mean, there's a lot of things that are going on. One of the things that I always tell people is, you know, when I started Wikipedia back in 2001, all of the technology to create Wikipedia had already existed for several years. You know, Web server, Web browser, database, even the idea of wiki was six years old when I started Wikipedia.

Yet, it didn't start until I started it six years later. And so I always say, think of all the technology that we have today, that we've had for several years and what could be created with it that nobody has even really thought of yet.

RAZ: What was the first article put up on Wikipedia?

WALES: You know, that - what's interesting about that, that is lost to history. So the software originally only kept five revisions. I do know the first words in Wikipedia because I wrote them and that was, hello world. And that's something that programmers do. When you learn a new language, you always write a program called Hello world, where you just print out "Hello world," so that's what I did there.

RAZ: Jimmy Wales. Check out his TED Talk from 2005 at Now you might not edit Wikipedia pages, but trust me you've participated in another massive-scale online collaboration without even knowing it, and it wouldn't be possible without Beyonce, Gmail and a lot of frustration. More on that in a moment. I'm Guy Raz and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.