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

Opening up the non-personal data in the Home Office

Over the last couple of months I have been working on getting some non-personal data sets published in re-usable form (as recommended in the Power of Information report here). This all a part of the digital engagement strategy, but something close to my heart because of Rewired State and Young Rewired State. I have already seen the huge potential of making this data available: the Rewired State creations page showcases what can be made for next to no money over the course of 12 – 24 hours – imagine the potential?

Not only does it mean that awesome web and mobile apps are created – but it also means that the people who actually need to use this information, can create what they need, in a way that answers the problem they are trying to solve – traditionally this would have taken weeks/months of customer insight, and the solution then developed by industry experts. I really like the approach of looking to the digital community, to find the people facing whichever problem an organisation is trying to solve – and then finding those who also have the ability to create solutions, the geeks, the coders. Young people are an obvious example, and we have proved the success of that; but it can also be applied to say those with long term illness – a group that I know the Scottish government is trying to reach and help.

I thought that it might be useful to explain how we in the Home Office have been approaching responding to the recommendation:  ‘The government should ensure that public information data sets are easy to find and use’, and what we plan to do next.

Taking the simple remit to locate the non-personal data, find the original source and publish that, we began by looking at all of our publications. Most roads led to the Research Development and Statistics unit. So we – in communications and the Office of the Chief Information Office (OCIO) – started to talk to the statisticians about getting access to the raw data. Because we did not really know what we were asking, and RDS did not really know why or what we were asking either, we had a series of telephone conversations, email conversations and finally a good old coffee and a chat. (I tell you what, this is what I love about this work – you get to meet the most incredible people. I had not any idea of the work of the statisticians and I am in awe, and a little bit in love, with what they do). At the end of that, we had a clear understanding of the process of data being analysed and released, the varying degrees of complexity and statistical implications of disclosure (which basically means if we go to too much granular detail, there can be a chance that individuals or locations could be identified <- that’s very bad). Now we all knew what we were asking for, we had an idea of what we wanted to do and so we began to do it.

We have separated data into two high level categories: data that is currently published, and data that is yet to be created.

For data that is currently published we are working closely with the statisticians to get the raw data and we are now publishing it here www.homeoffice.gov.uk/data (published by the rather wonderful Carly Moore in e-comms). (You will see that we also link to PDFs that have data in, just so that you can see what will be coming up). It is working, and we are looking at how we can make this all better: easier to sort and find datasets.

For data that is yet to be created, we are talking to the relevant parts of the Home Office about the data that is required, and will be publishing this on an ongoing basis. We are also preparing guidance to enable officials to produce future data in a format and to standards that will facilitate its reuse. In the longer term we aim to establish a process whereby data is published in reusable form as a matter of course, and is made available promptly, whilst maintaining appropriate controls regarding the security of personal or sensitive data (in accordance with the Hannigan report).

So that’s how we are handling this. Does that help? I hope you will keep an eye on how this progresses. If you do anything with any of the reusable data, do tag it #honpdata and then we will be able to see what you do.

I would seriously love to have a developer session where the statisticians and coders work together – that would be alchemy.

Thursdays ROCK – but this Thursday was the best this year

If I was to pick a day out of this year that summed up me and what makes me happy – today would be it. Here’s what I did:

3.15am Shriek at daughter and daughter’s friends for still being awake and over-excited after watching High School Musical 3 (OK bad start)

6.15am Wake up and lie in bed considering how to get out of all today had in store – FAIL

8.30am Meet Michelle Acton-Bond for breakfast to talk about her work for Channel Four’s Battlefront on cyber-bullying. We talked about this, as well as personal stuff, mutual friends and general how-dos. As ever, it was delightful and a wonderful way to start any day: inspired.

9.30am Hit desk and email – happen to have a discussion with someone who has a desk close to mine who can help Michelle get to the relevant people in government who have cyber-bullying as part of their policy areas

*between* organise lunch for next week with two people I adore, and who happen to be available on the same day as each other, and me… bonus

11am Meet with someone with whom I have a difficult professional relationship to explain how I felt and how we might move forward. SUCCESS: WITHOUT SWEARING

Show off to boss

12pm Meet a bloke who’s company is potentially doing some critical web audit work for us: fully believe, after meeting, that the company can deliver

1pm Complete to do list: extraordinary achievement – done by plugging self into two computers and ipod

2pm Meet UKBA, UK Visas and Directgov to discuss the way forward for delivering online content for the overseas audience: potentially a very controversial meeting, but turned out fine

*between* secure the time of an editor I have been chasing for a while to work with us on the IPS content for Directgov (thanks Fran and Christi)

4.30pm Meet Ministry of Justice, Atul Sharda, to make sure that the two depts (HO and MOJ) are working in alignment for website rationalisation and general loveliness – we are! (Can this get any better?)

5.45pm Get to One Alfred Place early for Oli Barrett‘s networking event, meet Alice Sherwood from the KitCat Club – bore her silly with public sector news… pitch for place at the KitCat table (WIN)

6pm network network: how I missed this. Great people, sometimes inspiring, sometimes boring – but nothing is boring when you realise that Tom Steinberg from My Society has not met Robert Loch.

It is like bubble wrap, you think you have popped all the all there is to pop… then you find a couple more.

Ad Nauseum Post Script: yes I did do more than this today to earn my crust, but have chosen not to bore you with it…

Further blogging sin- updating after I have posted BUT – I do not include my family in my BEST THURSDAY EVER post… that is mine but it did end with reading Maximum Ride to my daughter before she slept

So, I drive my car to the hand car wash

This post will hold little relevance for anyone not interested in government interaction online – and even then…

Every time I go to the Guildford hand car wash – funnily enough there is no website, there is a mobile number on my air freshener but I am sure it is unnecessary – I am astounded by how brilliant they are. That does not do them enough credit to be honest. I drive in, they descend on my car in a pack and clean the outside with almost extra-terrestrial efficiency; then they offer to do the inside, which I always accept as my children are wont to eat their breakfast in the car on the way to school. I drive into the next shed, hop out and read the paper whilst a further dozen descend upon the car – spitting it out a gleaming (if elderly) specimen of blue metal. Job done.

This über-efficiency has nagged at me, every time I go I want to somehow apply it to my life. I absolutely salute the genius who created this perfect business: an abundance of happy staff, the tools always work, responding to a need: lazy Surrey car owners.

Today whilst waiting sans Sunday paper (bad planning, Emma) I wondered how I could perhaps apply this to my life… nope, nothing. Then to work: *ping* – why this business works so well is because it effortlessly understands my need, responds to it, charges me a reasonable sum, job done.

Here comes the pedantic bit

So, in order for me to get my car to the car wash, I have to know how to drive. In order to know how to drive I have to pass a test. In order to pass a test I have to understand the laws of the road. Behind each of those three simple ‘to dos’ there are a multitude of rules, regulations and learnings that I have to comply with; as well as an acceptance that the car wash will have covered their arse with various ‘insurance’ statements around the joint as I pass through their premises.

Now, if this car wash was a government website *grin* it would be fully versed in what your need was, the people designing the service will have researched and will know exactly what it is you need to know/do. HOWEVER… in order to deliver the service, it will have to ensure that each policy unit that may have an interest in the service provided is 1. aware of it and 2. signs off the content/tool.

Each policy unit will insist that the right information is given before or during the delivery of the service, so all of the terms and conditions, the precautions, the advice (beautifully crafted) will be given to you, before, during and after you have done what it is you need to do. And how can this be ignored? Of course people need to be aware of what they are doing, the consequences and possible risks.

Coming back to the carwash a second, if it were a government website, from the moment you drove onto the land owned by the carwash guy (assumption here that it is a bloke) you would have a multitude, nay a dearth, of signs directing you down various routes, large bill boards explaining the rules of the road, the instructions for driving a car, possibly a small inlet for the DVLA to check your licence and insurance on the way (not collecting data of course). All done in the very earnest belief that you need to *know* this stuff.

Well, OK, we do. But we learn this stuff en route to getting to the car wash. It has probably taken years and really the re-affirmation of ‘the rules’ at point of service is firstly irrelevant and secondly hugely annoying. More often that not rendering the beautiful simplicity of the carwash service pointless. Far easier to go home and get the kids to do it/do it yourself.

Enter Directgov

Directgov is going to be, by 2011, the only place you will need to go to online to interact with government. Their strapline: Public services all in one place. Transformational government and website rationalisation – (jargon for those in the know, put simply: stop wasting millions of pounds on thousands of disparate websites giving often conflicting advice; spend the next few years getting it all in one place online: Directgov for citizen info, businesslink.gov.uk for business and departmental corporate sites for the ‘corporate’ stuff) – has meant that Directgov is now going to be your Guildford hand carwash for… everything.

This post is already long enough but you get the problem? Poor old DG comes in for much criticism, and I have my own frustrations trying to marry departmental need with DG requirement, but basically what I am trying to do on behalf of the department I am working in – is ruin the simplicity of their service by doing the ‘yeah but’ signs. There is no way to avoid this. Public sector information must carry all health warnings, all of it. The information the Home Office delivers through Directgov on Immigration, Identity, Passports, Police and Border Control comes with a very definite list of ‘yeah buts’… so how on earth can Directgov maintain its simplicity and integrity?

I don’t know

But what I do know is that this problem needs to be solved.

If I were to be actually helpful in my scribing here, I would suggest that the carwash efficiency is looked at as a business model.

It works because:

  1. It assumes that you know how to drive
  2. It assumes that you know that they will not pay for any damage to your car
  3. It assumes that you are familiar with the rules of the road
  4. It knows what you want done
  5. It knows it is not your mate
  6. It does not try to sell you anything else

Perhaps Directgov should be brave enough to make some assumptions. Perhaps departments and policy owners should ensure that the R&Rs of the service are fully understood before the customer gets to using any online service. Perhaps there should be various points of entry… I don’t know and as I write I feel the wrath of my dear friends Paul Clarke and Sharon Cooper who work tirelessly at developing a working proposition for Directgov. I am not trying to develop tin-pot solutions, I just think that sometimes we need to take a GIANT step back and have a look at it from the simplicity of a working service.

Maybe it won’t work, but it will be a damn shame if it doesn’t – if not taxing on the public purse.

Keep up at the back…

I tell you, playing in the social media space in government departments is like hording a marathon. I run with those at the front, well try to (fitness levels vary), listening to what they are saying and trying to keep up; falling back to chivvy along those enthusiastic middle runners (some in costume); then pitching backwards to round up the casualties lagging behind who are beginning to think (in horror) that they have made a terrible mistake. Then I have to race to the front again to keep up with their progress. Repeat.

I am not alone.

However, take tonight as a classic example.

I noticed that my friend Mark O’Neill (CIO for Dept for Culture, Media and Sport – ironic) had posted on his blog about how wary bureaucrats were in engaging in social media http://tiny.cc/7ePOs. I responded by saying that however wary they were, by ignoring it, they were making matters worse. Add this to recent discussions here on creating a social media toolkit that can be used by everyone, starting with the key component: the ability to listen and to discover where people were talking, then engage with them there.

Rather handily, a good example of ‘listening’ came about by someone from MyLifeMyID (a Home Office website about ID cards aimed at 16-25 year olds). Ray Poynter, a moderator of the site, posted a comment here in response to a posting I wrote that received some interest from the user group the Home Office were targetting.

This I then highlighted earlier tonight in a second post about MyLifeMyID.

A colleague of mine then commented, ‘revealing’ the true identity of Ray Poynter – as an owner of the company running the MyLifeMyID site, rather than an administrator.

I have replied at length to Shane’s complaint, you can read this in the comments bit over there on the right of this page and I am not going to re-hash that. However, I think that it is an important point that if we are to offer a direct line of communication to those people doing the asking, we do not scupper this, or degrade its value by using the openness of the web to pick unnecessary arguments. If harm is being done, fine. If not, then perhaps a matey joshing, small rebuke, reminder, warning, anything that can be done in a sentence, followed by what you actually wanted to say on the topic being discussed.

In this instance, the fact that the owner of a company running a survey chooses to find out where the conversations are, and encourage further debate – regardless of what outfit he is wearing – is only good! The message was: you guys have gone quiet, does this mean you are OK now or is there anything more? Oh and by the way, we were listening and we have not only published the good stuff.

Shane, I do not mean to pick on you. It is a good point that you cannot hide here on the web. But by concentrating on the ‘scoop’ like this, rather than what is actually being discussed is what could be the downfall of our pleas to government to be more open.

Pant…

Right, back up to the front again… how far? Lawks

MyLifeMyID website: and my thoughts

Anyone who has had a looked at my LinkedIn profile now would see that I am working for the Home Office. I am there working on website convergence (a part of the transformational government strategy) and the Home Office presence on Directgov and Businesslink.gov.uk.

The website: http://www.mylifemyid.org/node first came to my attention as it was a new site that had been set up by the identity and passport service, therefore I needed to include it in the Home Office web estate, and so include it in the list of sites we need to rationalise/converge.

This has been duly done and I won’t bore you with the detail, it is temporary.

When I saw it promoted on the BBC news tonight, I thought that I would have another look.

It is worthy, yes people need to interact and to understand, prod and question the ID scheme (DISCLAIMER: I have nothing to do with this policy area, or the Identity and Passport Service other than collaborating with them in the effort to redefine the Home Office web presence).

However, I thought that much effort has been expended here, the Minister has gone out into the student community to explore this, taking with her this website as part of her tool-kit (as it were).

If we could establish social media and online social engagement in departments, removing the fear of the unknown, reducing perceived risk and so on – this drive to engage people and encourage dialogue would be very simple, and I believe more effective.

The website is good, it is a gentle mix of information pages alongside an invitation to collaborate. However, in order to interact, personal detail must be divulged, registration is mandated. Bearing in mind that one of the chief concerns about ID cards is the risk of government misuse of data (something that I do not buy into at all), it is slightly ironic that the ‘consultation’ website demands disclosure of potentially sensitive/indentifiable information.

Hopefully, in the future, the opportunities offered by social media to help inform and challenge controversial policies will be welcomed by Ministers and policy units – in the same way the websites are now.

DISCLAIMER: I am a contractor to the Home Office, I certainly do not represent their own views, all of these are my own, and on a personal note, I think the efforts being made are valiant.

Here’s to encouraging and sharing opportunities across departments to make this a more democratic society.

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