The Atlantic, Microsoft Present Digital Town Hall on Jobs and the Economy

Editor’s note – Feb. 8, 2011 –
The story below was updated to correct the date of the live event on The Atlantic website, which will be Wednesday, and the locations where people can view the webcast. The webcast will only be available on The Atlantic website, not also on the Microsoft on the Issues blog as previously indicated.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Feb. 8, 2011 – The Atlantic magazine and Microsoft have teamed up to present a digital discussion on the “No. 1 issue in America” – jobs and the economy.

A special editorial section called “Jobs and the Economy of the Future” will run on The Atlantic’s website until Feb. 18, and the digital discussion culminates in a live event on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The Atlantic’s special report, “Jobs and the Economy of the Future,” will include stories and discussion about the role technology and innovation can play in the new economy.

The event, which will be broadcast live on The Atlantic’s website, features interviews and panel discussions with national government and business leaders, entrepreneurs and college students. Speakers and participants will explore America’s position in the world economy; the issues facing U.S. workers and businesses; the role of technology, entrepreneurship and innovation in the new economy; and ideas for job creation and getting the economy back on track.

“There are many distinguished guests and a great cross-section of participants – people from Capitol Hill, President Obama’s administration, universities and think tanks – as we talk about what I think is the No. 1 issue in America,” said Fred Humphries, Microsoft vice president of U.S. Government Affairs.

Front and center in the digital discussion is the Microsoft cloud computing tool “Town Hall.” In contrast to its old-school namesake, where people have to attend in person and wait their turn to speak, Microsoft Town Hall makes it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to instantly be a part of the national conversation.

“The digital Town Hall is a first for [The Atlantic]. This is the first time we’ve done anything on this scale with Microsoft, so it’s a pretty exciting new venture,” said Suzanne Smalley, director of event programming and content development for The Atlantic’s website.

Smalley said she knew Town Hall had to be “fairly sophisticated” if one of the U.S. House of Representative parties and NASA were using it. “We saw when we first started working on this that Town Hall has a lot of capabilities,” she said.

Humphries said it’s exciting to see months of work come together, and that partnering with The Atlantic on the special report and live event allows Microsoft to reach one of its goals of “helping convene people, and providing thought leadership on the big issues.”

In addition, powering the discussion with Microsoft Town Hall helps ensure that the conversation about jobs is as wide as possible.

Viewers can use Microsoft Town Hall to submit questions that panelists may answer, and to comment on the discussion.

“I think it’s incredibly important to have the ability to reach outside of Washington, D.C., and really take this to the people,” Humphries said. “What’s great about this Microsoft technology is to be able to have someone in Fargo, N.D., or Sacramento, or Charlotte, have a discussion with some really influential people who help drive the blueprint for jobs and the economy.”

A Town Hall in the Cloud

Town Hall started out as an incubation project in Microsoft’s Platform Strategy Group (PSG), spearheaded by employees Marc Mercuri and Jamey Tisdale. The project continues through a collaboration between their two teams, PSG and Microsoft’s Cloud Strategy Group.

Mercuri observed the huge number of people, organizations and businesses using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as a way of engaging their audience and realized there was an opportunity for organizations to host their own social networks. These new networks would provide organizations with more control over the experience, more access to data to personalize experiences for their audiences, and remove the need to put a third-party in control of their social data, Mercuri said.

A director in Microsoft’s Cloud Strategy Group, Mercuri then helped develop an easy-to-use “social toolbox,” fully customizable and free for Microsoft Azure customers, helping organizations engage directly with their audience(s) without the need for third-party social media sites.

NASA, with its BeAMartian site, uses Town Hall to give people a way to ask scientists questions about the Mars program. Users submit questions that others then vote on, providing guidance to NASA on which questions to answer first, Mercuri said.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives used Town Hall for their site “Americans Speaking Out” in order to have a conversation with the American people.

“Historically, to be able to do something like that with such a potentially large audience, you’d would have to buy a significant amount of servers, have buildings to house them, hire people to maintain them, and then you really wouldn’t know how many people were going to show up to your site. It could be 10, 10,000, or 10 million. You wouldn’t necessarily know up front, and would have to plan for the best case scenario. With Azure you pay for only what you use, and have the confidence that if you need to accommodate tens of millions of visitors, it will scale effortlessly,” Mercuri said.

Whether it’s a presidential candidate or a small-town city council candidate, a worldwide corporation or a local business, using Town Hall and powering it with Microsoft Azure makes it so hosts only have to pay for what they use rather than paying for a party of 1 million only to have a few hundred show up.

“It’s sort of like the electric company,” Mercuri said. “You want to turn on all the lights in your house? That’s fine. You’re only using the lights in your bedroom? That’s fine too. Whether you’re running for town council or president, whether you’re the local town paper or The Atlantic, how you engage your audience is largely going to be the same. The only real difference is scale.”

Log On, Be Heard

Wednesday’s live studio event will feature guests such as U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, and U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

The event also will include a taped interview with Jon Huntsman, U.S. ambassador to China, and live video feed participation from students at the University of North Carolina and Miami University of Ohio. The live event will be broadcast from The Newseum in Washington, D.C., and seven regional Microsoft campuses will hold local events with employees and local officials in conjunction with the webcast.

Viewers can use Microsoft Town Hall to submit questions that panelists may answer, and to comment on the discussion. Partnering with Microsoft helped The Atlantic build a “runway” from which this project could take off, Smalley said.

“It’s a way of integrating real people and the millennial generation with high-level government and industry officials and getting a lot of voices at the table,” Smalley said.

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