Discovery in the White House

 Last summer, while sitting in the East Room of the White House, I discovered that Twitter can help me hear. This experience shed light on the parallels to the principles of Open Source technology: You never know how someone may find an innovative use for existing solutions for social, human, and/or environmental good.

When technologists like Jack Dorsey were first developing Twitter, I don’t think he stood up in front of venture capitalists and said, “This thing! It’s going to help a deaf girl in Washington, D.C., one day hear the President of the United States!”

As some background—I’m deaf and hear with a cochlear implant. It’s an awesome piece of technology that helps me hear and communicate with everyone. Because of this, technology has become a huge part of who I am. I’m constantly finding new and improved uses for technology around us to bridge the accessibility gap.

First-Ever Twitter Town Hall

Last summer, I was invited to the first-ever White House Twitter Town Hall event with President Obama and Jack Dorsey. I only had 48-hours notice, not enough time to request and find an interpreter to ensure that I’m getting access to the dialogue between President Obama and @Jack.

This Town Hall event was a really cool concept, in a little “d” democracy kind of way—anyone canObama talking to Jack Dorsey Tweet a question to President Obama with the #askobama hashtag (basically “keywords” surrounding an event) and he just may answer it. No one in the audience could. Cool, right?

Back to the story. Once Obama and @Jack started talking, they were telling jokes, laughing, the audience was laughing along, except me. Then Obama started talking about the economy and jobs, you know, the usual. Except, I wasn’t understanding anything.

I felt left out.

Pretty soon after the jokes ended and dialogue started, the LCD screens just next to President Obama projected the “tweeted” questions for Obama to answer. There. I could at least have some context to what he’s talking about – whether it’s jobs, the economy, or healthcare. I still wasn’t understanding what he was saying. I wanted to be able to tweet what he was saying to my network – I wanted to be a reporter since I was there.

And that’s when I had my “ah-ha” moment:

Audience Members as Twitter Reporters

You see, I realized that I’m not the only “reporter” in the room—not in a room full of DC’s notable technology leaders and politicians. A lot of mobile phones were out, people’s heads down staring at the screens – I immediately realized, they were live-tweeting what Obama and @Jack were saying. I quickly took an inventory of all the hashtags surrounding this event and ran a search on my iPhone twitter app, and Bingo! There were tweets that were live-tweets as quotes from President Obama as he answered the questions that were projected on the LCD screens.

@WhiteHouse

 Cut through the Noise

This was a great discovery, however, there were thousands of tweets saying essentially the same thing. I wasn’t about to spend the next hour staring at my phone, filtering through all the tweets, when the President of the United States and the Founder of Twitter were sitting twenty feet in front of me. I noticed that a few Twitter accounts had good, live-quotes – not commentary and reactions – that’s what I needed; I needed someone to give me the information in an unbiased manner so that I could form my own opinions. So I figured that the “White House” and “Twitter TownHall” Twitter accounts would be good ones to follow for the event, as opposed to the thousands of tweeters.

Follow Key Accounts

I created a feed of select Twitter accounts that I felt were providing a good report of the dialogue. This became a “smart captioning” tool of sorts. I rely on closed captions on my TV to understand what the speakers are saying, so this Twitter feed became a “live, smart closed captioning” tool of sorts on my iPhone in nearly real-time. It was a lot better than the alternative: not understanding what’s going on at all.

The best part is, through this experience, the organized live-tweets enabled me to become a participant. It was a great feeling to get in the East Room of the White House.

I told a lot of my deaf friends about that experience, and although most were initially Twitter naysayers, they joined because they, too, wanted to be able to follow along with live dialogue in conference and event settings. Twitter as a “smart closed-captioning” tool was better than nothing at all.

So, viral tools like Twitter are very much like those that are Open Source. You never know how someone will use the technology, especially when it comes to improving products and services. As someone focused on accessibility in open source software for Phase2, I am excited to see how people will leverage the tools they’re building in Drupal for social, environmental, and human good.

In a lot of ways, open source software like the Drupal platform that we build here at Phase2, has the same kind of “disrupt and improve” ethos, and it’s why it’s so exciting to be working with it.