Chocolate cake and digital democracy

As a part of my role as a Commissioner on the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy, I have been running a series of informal chats at my dining room table with tea and cake. Some of these I have recorded (see here for the first ever one) and some I have not, because they have accidentally happened! This post captures the latest and final one I will host before the Commission retires to start putting all the evidence and knowledge gleaned into some robust recommendations. (If you want to do the same thing with tea cake and democracy then feel free:  please contact the team on 0207 219 2606 just so we know).

We always start from a general chat around the main themes of the Commission (detailed here on the Parliament website alongside key dates) and then disappear down a few rabbit holes before the conversation really kicks off. I have two recordings of the latest one (because I tried to take a photo *and* record on my phone – mistake!).

and

There is also the rather wonderful mind map of notes taken by Lucy Knight, to give you an overview:

imageThe discussions usually fall back into the merits and failures of a representative democracy in a digital world. And I am not going to attempt to write a blog post covering all of that – but if it interests you, please do explore this topic more, it is worthy of some mulling.

What I would like to leave you considering, though, is the question about responsibility:

In a representative democracy, experiencing change as we are, is it the responsibility of Parliament to actively engage and empower citizens, re-invigorating and reminding us of our role ? Or is it the responsibility of the already engaged and enthused citizens to ensure that the majority of peoples’ voices are heard?

This question sits behind a lot of the conflict and confusion, I think, and I would be interested in your thoughts. Here’s a poll (for fun)

And whilst we are on the topic of polls, I have another one running (albeit statistically pointless as I am not gathering any data about those taking part, but interesting nonetheless for those who like this kind of stuff). The results are publicly available here – and occasionally surprising: https://www.surveymonkey.net/results/SM-MNQG6PS8/

Should you wish to engage with the Commission formally and have your voice heard – please do – the ways to do it are:

TwitterTwitter – Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy on Twitter

FacebookFacebook – Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy on Facebook

LinkedIn – Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy on LinkedIn

Post a comment – Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy Web Forum

Email – digitaldemocracy@parliament.uk

 

Rewired State’s massive March

Those of you who know me, or follow me on twitter (@hubmum), can’t have failed to notice that we (Rewired State) are putting on quite a few events in March. Also, the more eagle-eyed will have noticed that we have also turned ourselves into a grown up Limited Company.

Why?

As James Darling observed on our blog post about this – we were ready to hang up our collective boots and move aside after the launch of data.gov.uk and the apparent very public commitments to opening all data and enabling transparency. But then there began a series of conversations and online discussions about how the value of data.gov.uk could be explored, departments were asking for help unlocking some of the stories their data could tell; this, alongside the unsettling assumption that developers would carry on playing with this for free and would eventually come up with the *big* one (other than THE newspaper – a defining moment in data realisation), meant that we thought we still had a point.

We decided to reconvene and see how we could help government departments get to grips with the untold value of the data they were releasing, whilst showcasing the talents of the Rewired State developers in not only creating exciting applications, but also in problem solving using Agile methodologies. And so Rewired State was reborn – with more of an organic message (as you will see when our brand new site is launched next week!) <- we are all about Agile.

Why a proper limited company? So that we can be paid, it was achingly difficult getting sponsorship and past procurement issues for the other hackdays without a formal company; also, it seemed the right thing to do. We are forging ahead with the view that what we are doing is right, and we will see what value we can provide for developers, and for government. It may be nothing, it may be something – we’ll see.

What’s on in March?

11th March Rewired State: Justice and Home Affairs – Ten developers are going to play with data from the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. It is an open hack day with a presentation at the end of it to senior officials, comms teams, Press office and the CIO’s office. Statisticians will be invited to go and have a look at what is happening during the course of the day.

After the presentation, each ‘hack’ will be written up with details of what data was used, whether it was available (or scraped), how long it would take to create a fully operational version and an idea of how much. This is not to say that Rewired State would then take on the full development, but to give the department a realistic starting point, should they want to develop it themselves. (The IPR remains with the geek, of course, as with anything we do).

I have to say that everyone within the departments that I speak to, is very excited about this (as are we).

19th and 20th March Rewired State: DotGovLabs – 30 developers will work over the course of two days solving some of the more specific challenges faced by Directgov, businesslink.gov.uk and NHS Choices: including localisation, personalisation and a cross-site(s) topic of pregnancy. (We are hunting pregnant (or young parent) developers for this – so please do spread the word).

The event will start with developers working with key people from the three super-sites, as well as policy/departmental bods. Challenges and issues will be explored then the developers will be left alone to work on some technical solutions. The following afternoon the groups will meet again and see how the applications are coming along, ready for mass-presentation at 4.30pm on the Saturday to invited people from the three super-sites and across government.

Beautifully, we have decided to hold the National Hack the Government Day on the 20th, so there will be an almighty powerhouse of development going on in The Guardian offices, with the 30 developers from the dotgovlabs hack, cheered along by the wave of random Hack day developers – who may themselves come up with some interesting things for the dotgovlabs people (but the presentations from the National Hack day will be later – and over beer and pizza as opposed to tea and biscuits!) and will be completely random.

Last but not least, we have the much evangelised Rewired State: Culture event on the 27th March. Mark O’Neill, CIO for DCMS and brilliant blogger, wrote this about what is known as ‘Rewired Culture’:

Britain is a creative culture. We have a vibrant developer community, a growing and active entrepreneurial base and a vast, rich array of culture assets. How can we bring these together to create new opportunities for data owners and developers? How do we encourage links between data repositories such as museums, broadcasters and the wider community like data.gov.uk or the “London Datastore”? How do we ensure that the exciting work already underway in a number of organizations is shared more generally, so even smaller bodies and SMEs can learn from best practice and find workable routes to market? What are the cultural content business models for the 21st century? How do creators, curators, developers and entrepreneurs work together?

Rewired Culture is a day long event on 27th March 2010 organized by DCMS and Rewired State which is intended to explore these issues and more besides.

Rewired Culture has two strands – the first is a hackday bringing together data owners, data users, developers and people with ideas to see what they can create in a day. This builds on the very successful Rewired State events held in 2009.

The second strand is a halfday unconference style event starting at midday and running in parallel with the hackday for data owners, entrepreneurs, data users and communites to discuss business models, funding mechanisms and challenges.

We will be encouraging constant communication between the two strands because by the end of the day we want the event to have come up with a number of projects that people want to take foreward on technical or business grounds, preferably both!

As you can see: four very different events

And we are wanting to work up our offer back to departments/organisations around these four – plus a few other one off events during the year. Please bear with us, we won’t be able to answer too detailed questions about our future right now – but we are going to carry on, and yes, we are definitely doing another Young Rewired State (we are also pretty chuffed that some of the younger devs are rocking up to some of our other events).

This has all happened rather fast, and as with anything, the last thing we have focused on is our own website – we are working all the hours to get everything sorted, in the mean time, if you want to come to any of the days, either signing up as a developer or as a voyeur, here’s the rather haphazard sign up:

Rewired State: Justice and Home Affairs http://rewiredstate.org/home (As there is such limited space, this will be invite only)

Rewired State: DotGovLabs email info@rewiredstate.org with the subject line ‘dotgovlabs’

National Hack the Government Day email info@rewiredstate.org with ‘National Hack’ in the subject, who you are, whether you have been to a Rewired State event before, and if not – an example of something you have created

Rewired State: Culture Sign up at: http://rewiredstate.org/culture but everyone wants to come, so you have to beg

Want us to do one for you? So long as it’s not March – I’m sure we can, just email info@rewiredstate.org with the subject line: ‘It’s OK, it’s not in March’

Otherwise – we will keep you posted

*I get asked quite a bit who the Rewired State team is, here goes: James Darling (boy wonder), Richard Pope (super clever), me and a new addition Rob Carter (@hubdad) the sensible money/business man. But the extended family is definitely The Guardian who host many of our hackdays and Harry Metcalfe, founder of the Dextrous Web, who has been extremely generous with his time, thoughts and brilliance. And, of course, the team behind data.gov.uk – who we won’t individually name as we know they are a little bit busy!

** we need sponsors for The National Hack the Government Day: only beer/pizza/lunch money for the 100 geeks and the show and tell guests email us info@rewiredstate.org with ‘sponsor’ as the subject line

*** next you will hear of us will be specific hack day deets and the launch of the new website

Why? Why not?

I get asked why a lot. Why should we do a Facebook fan page? Why should we get on twitter?

There are many sites, if you Google these questions, that will give you compelling reasons for doing so. The simple answer really has to be why not?

If people are getting information from these sources, if online journalists are reaching audiences you need to engage with through their blog posts, twitter streams and Facebook information pages, then – if you are in an organisation that can afford to be there too – then why would you not?

The question is, can you afford to be there, as much as it is can you afford not to be there?

Developers are great but…

Doing wonderful things with data: creating apps that everyone can use to seamlessly skip through their lives, or educate/reveal information through linking the data is always going to be awe-inspiring and useful/needed. We know this, hence there is a real revolution in the way the developer community is being trusted to help government open data in a useful and appropriate way.

But equally there are other benefits to having people freely playing with data – what are they doing with it and why?

Take for example the fact that two of the apps developed independently from each other at Young Rewired State were for finding safe routes to school. This tells us more than just: oh there’s a clever app, let’s talk to the IT people and data people to get this live as a government service. It tells us that young people do not feel safe going to school and in a group of 50 people aged under 18, two groups have chosen to give up their weekend to try to develop a solution to this. (That’s quite a high margin).

To any business, organisation or government, this is extremely useful information. The solution is not the app, that might form part of it, but what the development of such an app tells us is that there is a fundamental problem, a very clearly defined one, that needs some attention.

I could go on to give countless examples, but I know that you are all brilliant enough to think through the implications of this for yourselves. And why I think that it is important that those beyond the geek community keep a very close eye on what comes out of making data available.

On that note, I am hoping to get some of the gen on the apps being created behind the closed Beta at data.gov.uk as I suspect that there some early lessons we can all take from this. And when they do open it all up, please take time to look through what has been done, and see what clues you can find to making your own businesses better – in and outside of government.

Homework

There have been two publications this week that have caught my attention, and I have been a bit surprised by the lack of reaction to them. The first was from the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit, entitled Power in people’s hands: learning from the world’s best public services and the second from the Lords Information Committee on creating connections between people and Parliament.

Power in people’s hands

This is a very interesting report, driven by the fact that there is just not a great deal of money about and a recognition that the way out of any recession is innovation. This is good news for everyone, it means we are going to get creative. Liam Byrne MP writes the foreword and says that ‘in the next decade we need to be radical about power; realistic about money; and relentless on innovation’. The report has shown that there is a worldwide shift of power from the State to the citizen, but what excites me most is that Mr Byrne has picked out freedom of information and data to be the UK’s pièce de résistance : ‘We aim to be world leaders in making information on services accessible’. OK his words are not quite so dramatic, but in Ministerial speak that is quite a statement, the stall he has set out is the information one – and that is a huge win for the UK. We have a wealth of entrepreneurial and geek talent ready and willing to take such information and help create services that work at hyper-local and individual level. (You might just have to trust me on this one).

I suggest you skim read the whole report, but I am just going to cut and paste the bits that jumped out for me below if you need further convincing:

Overall, the importance of public services is likely to grow rather than diminish. For example, sources of increasing wealth creation – such as the emerging low-carbon, life science and pharmaceutical, and digital industries – will create new opportunities. But every person, and the country as a whole, will only have the potential to benefit fully if they have access to excellent schools, training and employment services.

… stepping up the drive to improve value for money by taking hard decisions on priorities as needs change, redesigning services, sharing assets better and cutting bureaucracy.

And for you working in local government and devolved: more exciting news, this does recognise you are the front-liners:

In considering lessons, it is also important to recognise that the public services that are covered in this study are delivered by the Devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and by local authorities. It will be for these bodies to consider the most appropriate insights. At a time of necessary innovation, however, the best organisations look outward – for practices which can be replicated and to spark new ideas and challenge existing ways of thinking.

Here is the bit that interests me most, Chapter Two expands and I recommend that you read all of it if the following interests you slightly:

Empowering citizens in the information age

A revolution in the use and re-use of information on public services is being stimulated by new online technologies, giving the potential to empower citizens to hold services to account far more easily than in the past. The leading-edge systems, such as StateoftheUSA.org and data.gov, are not only disseminating information rapidly. They are also breaking down government monopolies on information presentation and use by making it easy for people to analyse information themselves. At the same time, blogs, wikis and other web 2.0 tools are enabling citizens to get more deeply involved in validating information and collectively making decisions. In Cologne, for example, participatory budgeting uses new technology to give citizens a stronger voice over how public money is spent.

The shift required for governments to enable such changes is cultural as much as technical. It is no coincidence that American public services have been at the forefront of these changes,  for they already had an understanding that all government information should be in the public domain. Government should, however, do more than just liberate information. The global leaders will be those who invest in ensuring that information is high-quality and balanced, can be shared through common standards and facilitates joint working by professionals and citizens.

Fascinated yet? Whole report here.

So Cabinet Office is saying it needs to get revolutionary on us… and now Parliament, specifically the House of Lords, agrees. For those of you not clear about the role of Parliament and the role of the Cabinet, let me grab some explanations for you: can’t use my own words as I may explain it wrong, so forgive the use of even more quotes.

The Cabinet Office aims to ensure that the Government delivers its priorities. It does this by supporting collective consideration of key issues by Cabinet and its Ministerial Committees, and by working with departments to modernise and co-ordinate government, aiming at excellence in policy making and responsive, high quality public services.

Parliament is an essential part of UK politics. Its main roles are:

  • Examining and challenging the work of the government (scrutiny)
  • Debating and passing all laws (legislation)
  • Enabling the government to raise taxes

*more detail on Parliament here

And so the fact that the House of Lords has come to a similar conclusion about its own work is equally as important.

Creating connections between people and Parliament

The report has been written by the Information Committee which ‘considers the House’s information and communications services’. The report has the tagline: are the Lords listening; and if you read my explanation of the difference between Parliament and Cabinet then perhaps it is important to us that they are. The report is in such an easy to use format that it negates the need for me to pull out the interesting bits. Go and read it here it seriously is a very important report. You could just read Chapters 3 and 4 if like me you are most interested in communication and data, but I don’t recommend it (read it all!).

CHAPTER 3: ONLINE COMMUNICATION AND ENGAGEMENT

CHAPTER 4: SETTING PARLIAMENTARY DATA FREE

And of course, always the best bit, the list of recommendations:

CHAPTER 11: SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS AND ACTIONS

Especially good is this one:

We recommend that information and documentation related to the core work of the House of Lords (including Bills, Hansard, transcripts of public committee meetings, evidence submitted to committees, committee reports, records of divisions, expenses and the register of Lords’ interests) should be produced and made available online in an open standardised electronic format that enables people outside Parliament to analyse and re-use the data.

I am not sure that I need to conclude this post other than to say I hope that I have helped you find two very interesting reports! And apologies if I bored you…

Goodbye Tom

Tom Watson announced his intention to resign from goverment today – and that’s sad. Politics aside (for a moment).

Tom was great for us in the digital space because he *got it*. He spent time understanding the digital portfolio, and more than that – he had the talent, guts and skills to create change through support, encouragement and sometimes direct JFDI.

I am not remotely reticent in extending my thanks and appreciation to this Minister for all the work he has done in the digital space.

For sure great things will happen from now on, the work does not stop; but I think it would be churlish not to recognise the fact that he has championed civil servants, experts, talented amateurs and enthusiasts throughout the last few years; and that has had a huge impact on the attitude of those geeks and experts inside and outside of government: keen but often disillusioned – to re-engage.

Thanks

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