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View from Washington

Change may have come to the White House, but it’s no tech revolution
By Sasha Issenberg

The first words to come out of the new White House were not from Barack Obama, but a junior aide named Macon Phillips. “Change has come to whitehouse.gov,” he wrote on its refurbished blog at 12:01, the first minute Obama legally inhabited the office but before he began his inaugural address.

There was, however, no sign of the tech overhaul Obama had promised, symbolised by his campaign pledge to stream Cabinet meetings online. There were not even any of the web videos Obama had released, in which even his second-tier advisers became familiar faces, to promote elements of his agenda.

Even basic things, it appeared, were too much for the White House to manage: in his first week, new press secretary Robert Gibbs had to begin a televised briefing by apologising that the building’s email system was down. “We’re a decade behind the campaign,” lamented spokesman Ben LaBolt, one of many who arrived at their White House desks and found old PCs in place of new Macs.

“I am a computer nerd, but the technology isn’t as important as how you are going to use it,” says Craig Newmark, the Craigslist founder participating in a public-private White House effort to create a bulletin-board system with “really good collaborative filtering” able to process input from millions of citizens. “There are a lot of smart people in Silicon Valley that can do this fast.”

Yet the techies experimenting with new platforms for responsiveness are losing out to lawyers concerned with potential subpoenas. They’ve banned staff from communication via Instant Message and social networking sites. The president got to keep his BlackBerry, but a specially designed high-security version prevents recipients from forwarding his messages. As with most things Obama, his White House site is refreshing and elegant, but does little to change the way government works.

At launch, the most interactive element of whitehouse.gov may be its mechanism for supporters to register for updates, a reminder that as a candidate Obama was better at using the internet to get people to disclose their private information (email addresses, mobile numbers, credit-card digits) than giving away any of his own.

Pimp my ride

USA [TRANSPORT]

Joseph Prichard is trying to turn Los Angeles into a cycling city, one block at a time. Through his new 4th Street Bikeway Project, the graphic designer has created sharp-looking signs that point out bike routes, crossings and even bike repair shops. Cyclists can download these from his website and post them, guerrilla-style, on streets all over town. The aim: to make drivers more aware that they need to share the road. Will LA soon be the next Copenhagen? Prichard hopes so. “People think of LA as a really hostile place to ride a bike. But a cycling culture can thrive here,” he says.

Cow cops

Brazil [FARMING]

The Brazilian government is creating a special task force to target the growing issue of cattle rustling. An estimated 50 per cent of the cattle farmed in the south of the country is being stolen, often by thieves who whisk the half-ton beasts (worth over €500 each) into neighbouring Argentina or Uruguay.

From March authorities intend to deploy extra police to tackle the criminals. They may even begin implanting chips inside the animals to track them by satellite.

Mystery caller

Canada [TELECOMS]

Canada’s telecom regulator is forcing the mobile phone industry to undergo a major update of its 911 emergency system. Most 911 centres in Canada still cannot pinpoint the exact location of a cell phone caller if the person on the line can’t speak or say where they are.

The US invested in an upgrade nearly eight years ago. But for Canada it’s likely to cost more than elsewhere. Canada has to “factor in reaching people in rural, sparsely populated areas”, says Brian Fontes of the National Emergency Number Association. Mobile phone companies have been given until February 2010 to produce the goods.

Gold meddle

El Salvador [MINING]

Fed up with delays, a Canadian company is threatening to sue El Salvador for denying a mining permit. Through a US subsidiary, the company, Pacific Rim, filed a notice of intent in December to sue the Salvadorian government for hundreds of millions of dollars under the Central American Free Trade Agreement. It is the first time a firm has sued a country under the agreement.

Tom Shrake, Pacific Rim’s CEO, says the company has spent more than $70m exploring the silver and gold deposit, called El Dorado. But Salvadorian officials will not issue the permits to mine the site. Citing environmental concerns, left-wing lawmakers, the Catholic Church, NGOs, scientists and grassroots groups have opposed El Dorado. But it is the pro-business, right-wing ruling party that is facing a tough presidential election in March (meet the charismatic left-wing candidate in issue 18) that has stifled the mine’s progress so far.

While there is speculation that winning public support in March’s election is what has motivated the government, Antonio Pacheco, of the Association for Social and Economic Development, which is opposed to the mine, claims that this is not the case. “Environmental experts have been able to verify that Pacific Rim’s environmental impact study can’t be called a serious study,” he says. “Their study can’t be approved… because it would be a mockery of the Salvadorian state.”

It’s a minefield: Three more Latin American mining conflicts

  1. Venezuela: Another Canadian mining company is threatening to sue Venezuela after it denied the company permits to begin mining a gold deposit. Venezuela reportedly offered the permit to a Russian company.
  2. Costa Rica: Nobel Prize winning president Oscar Arias is under investigation for authorising clear cutting in a forest reserve to make way for a precious metals mine.
  3. Peru: A mining boom has filled the government’s coffers but also led to increased unrest. Last year saw a wave of protests, strikes and, in one instance, police taken as hostages.

Chick magnates

USA [URBAN FARMING]

To save on food shopping, a growing number of US urbanites have taken up a new hobby: poultry farming. Started as a grass-roots movement to promote homegrown, free-range eggs, the fad has taken off in today’s worsening economy. In recent months, dozens of cities across the country have passed or amended local laws to allow residents in built-up neighbourhoods to raise chickens in their backyards – roosters, however, remain off-limits.

Blogs now provide enthusiasts with tips on which breeds to buy and how best to build a chicken run (in hen-crazed Portland there are organised tours of well-designed coops). Even Backyard Poultry, a specialist bi-monthly magazine, is benefiting from the boom, recently upping its print run to 80,000.

High density

South America

More people live at altitudes of 3,000m to 5,000m in South America than anywhere else on the planet. A whopping 38 per cent of Bolivians live in such vertiginous locations. Bhutan is the only other place that comes anywhere close, with 23 per cent.

Spot the inhabitants

Canada

Nunavut is the largest territory in Canada. In terms of land mass it makes up about one fifth of Canada and would be the 13th largest nation in the world if it was independent. But with only around 31,000 it has the smallest population of any Canadian territory.

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