Digital humanity

This morning I left my smart phone at home. Realising half way to the station, and in a rush as I had a meeting I *had* to be at, I could not screech back to collect it. I mentally scanned through the things I needed my mobile for… dammit, how was I going to be able to park? Where I park my car (a council carpark) they insist on you paying through an outsourced telephone service: you call, book the car in for a number of hours or days, pay and go – it is all automated and generally a good thing (I think). However, in this instance, I had to accept that I was going to get a parking ticket for today.

Then I thought that perhaps I could call the Council as soon as I got into work and explain what has happened, perhaps pay them directly over the phone for the day, or  pay tomorrow for an extra day to cover today, even though I would not use it. Something like that – anything to avoid the annoyance and high price of a parking ticket. (When it came to it, I didn’t but it did get me thinking.)

I feel I can pretty much get away with the sweeping statement that everyone is needing to hold back on unnecessary expense and save the pennies that they can, certainly avoid additional costs such as fines. You could say that we should therefore be far more vigilant about the tools for doing so – like remembering mobile phones – but when we don’t, wouldn’t it be so much better for the Nation’s collective blood pressure if we could just telephone a human and explain exactly what has happened and find a way to rectify the mistake that perhaps does not incur an automatic fine.

In this financially woeful time, when very few are left unaffected by less money being available, and the resulting stress; what we all begin to value is humanity and community. At the same time businesses, service providers and governments look for ways to save vast swathes of money and naturally test the digital delivery waters, to see if there are any substantial savings to be made.

For the less digitally savvy it is very easy to be swept away with the ease of construction of service delivery tools, ways of (on paper) cutting out expensive staff costs and saving quantities of time. Whilst it is true that savings can be made and that consumers are becoming used to expecting there to be a digital option for pretty much everything – it is a mistake to cut out humanity completely. It is the kind of counter-productive behaviour that makes people very cross and frustrated, normally in times of deep stress or just general state of worry such as we find ourselves in today.

I admit that a parking ticket is not that dramatic, but that is not really the point. The point is that it illustrates a very small example of a problem that, if magnified, quickly becomes a substantial customer relations/satisfaction issue. In the world we find ourselves in at the moment business, service providers and governments cannot afford to have deeply unhappy and frustrated people – ones who genuinely will break if they have to find that extra 3/30/300/3000 quid; emotions are fragile and people depend on the understanding of others in order to resolve problems that work for everyone and break no one.

Digital solutions may well be a great idea for automating some services and making everyone’s lives easier, saving time when staff are suffering under headcount culls and having to do a lot more work during the course of their day, or customers are needing to get access to information quickly and easily, or fill in a form, anything – it is pretty easy to identify those things that can be better processed by a computer than a human. But we should not forget the natural state of worry and concern the majority of people will be feeling whilst money is universally tight – and snatch away the humanity of our respective business, services and governments.

Running a very experimental hack day for start-ups

This is nothing to do with my work in government, therefore I am blogging about it! (Ref previous purdah post)

The idea is to gather together a number of business start-ups, owned by members of Adam Street club, identify the ones with interesting data and information, pull together a number of developers/hackers, some of whom are already working with the businesses concerned, some of whom are nothing to do with it (including some Rewired State developers) – and run a one-day hack event with the intention of creating a number of mash-ups. The mash-ups can take many forms: websites, web applications, i-phone apps, other data phone apps, i-pad apps, games, maps – endless possibilities.

The aim is to see where there might be connections and collaborations between businesses not yet explored, and inevitably see what, if any, new products there are hiding amongst that information. I have no idea what will happen, it could be simple things like more effective ways to exploit the data or better ways to store and serve the information. However, I think it is worth doing, as we all know that one of the best ways to re-generate the economy is through enterprise and entrepreneurship – so why not see if we can be pro-active about this with start-ups.

How will the day work?

The day will start with the owners of the selected businesses standing up and speaking about what they do, what data they have put into the pot, any ideas or issues that have that they would like solved, inspiration etc (this will be very time-limited!). A Rewired State developer will have been working with me to get the data sorted for re-use, and we will explain how to access the data and any APIs we may have.

Planning and coding will start as soon as possible, and will continue through the day – fuelled by delicious food and beverages in a variety of forms. At 6pm there will be a show and tell, where the developers will show what they have made, with the traditional beer and pizza accompaniment, to their peers, the business and data owners, and a selection of interested people.

What happens next?

Collaborations between start-ups, initiated by the mash-ups, are the primary outcome we want to focus on. Where this goes depends entirely on the people involved and the nature of the product. Perhaps products will be created that are completely new and therefore further discussions will take place about how that might be taken forward either by the business owners, or by the developers themselves. We will see, but we will be making sure that whatever support needed going forward is provided and will be looking for sponsors and investors to help us do that.

This first one will hopefully begin a series of start-up hack days, I hope that it does work, it may not.

How to get involved

Well, in order to see if this works we will be hand-picking businesses, but if you are an Adam Street member and have a business that you think should be involved, let me know. If you are a developer and really want to be involved, then get in touch – I have enough signed up, but we are not really squeezed on space so we can take more if you are good.

We could do with a bit of sponsorship for beer and pizza in the evening, but all we can offer in return for sponsorship, is attendance at the show and tell and a first dibs at next-step talks with the business owners and hackers – plus inclusion in any Press we do around this event (although we are not yet decided on whether we will invite Press – thoughts?). Also, all of the developers do this on a voluntary basis, so if we get sponsorship we will try to give them something in return for their work, usually in the form of prizes – you can help us judge these.

We need a server… please…

I think it would be quite good if there was a group of people wanting to run an eye over this, and act as a bit of an advisory panel, so that this does not become just a pointless, but fun, exercise. There are a few involved already, but if you feel that you could bring something to this particular party – please do let me know.

Want to come to the show and tell? Just let me know and let me know why and I will see, we are limited on space for that – so it will be first come first served and relevancy.

Why Adam Street member businesses only?

Adam Street is a club that offers seriously affordable membership to entrepreneurs and start-ups (I made that up from my own experience, it’s not their official line I don’t think!). Most people that belong to it are serious about their business and are looking for good networking opportunities, but perhaps cannot afford to invest in expensive business clubs. These are the people we think would most benefit and appreciate this form of innovation. I am a member and it seems a sensible place to start – apart from the fact that I am not a member of anywhere else. (From the Adam Street side, they started out wanting to provide an affordable space for entrepreneurs, offering them collaboration opportunities – and they are keen to deliver on this, above and beyond the Mojito).

I approached the club about this idea as I thought it would be a good idea for their members and they were enthusiastic, embracing the ethos of hack days as much as me and happy to go with the ‘suck it and see’ attitude <- do not insert crude joke here.

When?

*probably* the first Saturday in June. It has to be a Saturday as we need the best developers, and they are busy all week. Also, Adam Street is shut until 6pm on a Saturday, so we get the run of the club throughout the day when the developers need peace to work.

Rewired State

I am a founder director of Rewired State, but that is really all that is relevant here. This is not a Rewired State hack day – we are über busy with government work, and our only focus is public sector information and hack days. However, I have opened the offer to work on this hack day to our developers as they really are the best; and am really pleased to say that ten of them are joining us to work on this, including two of the Young Rewired State hackers, one aged 15 the other 16 (and mind-blowingly good).

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.

Oh flickr please…

After a lovely few days away in North Yorkshire I went back to my flickr account to upload the latest few photos. To my horror, yet more *sick* people had faved photos of my children, completely innocuous photos (to me), but not apparently to some.

When I checked on the (open) accounts of the people (unknown to me) choosing images of my children to take as their own favorites, I found page upon page of similar images – innocence suddenly turned into something ghoulish.

There has been a slow increase in the number of images being identified and ‘faved’, I am not so creeped out by the ones of my friends and family looking buxom (although it is a bit weird) – but when it is kids, in this instance my own – it causes a fury in me.

Now I suspect that I will be berated for innocently uploading all photos to flickr – ditching the dodgy camera angles and any photo of me with a double chin – but basically uploading the lot; with a sort of innocent mind (double chin being the main cause for pressing delete or private, but of course obviously *potentially dodgy* ones of the children too) – now I feel foolish and as if I have wantonly put up my own children for public consumption <- appreciate that I have. But not intentionally – but how can I be so stupid?

Two things

Two things bother me about this:

1. Why the hell is there not a report button on flickr that can alert someone… (er CEOP?) to those flickr accounts faving images of children, brazenly!

2. My stance on open data in government – I continue to wholeheartedly support this, but my disgust at the use of my own data by people I don’t know, for purposes I don’t endorse, leads me to hesitate… not sure why yet, I need to think about this…

Way more important than what I might think about cataloguing and freeing up data, is question 1. How can people who view images of children as sexually satisfying, even if it is simply a photo of them standing; openly identify, own and then re-use them without any fear of reprise?

I can hear the court defence argument now: there is no proof that this person – who collected a flickr album of pre-teens – was using the images for anything illicit…

It makes me very angry and it also makes me hesitate – again – in the work I do…

If paedophiles can operate so openly because of the transparency of the web, yet be protected by a variety of laws – how can we seriously blinker ourselves to the possibility that this might not stop at the crime of paedophilia?

I am so torn because I fundamentally believe in truth, and that spin should have no place in the protection of society – hence my passion for open data in government (not just politics). But if we open up our own personal data voluntarily – and then immediately become victims of our own mortal/personal enemies (i.e. those predators who hunt our families/children) – then how can I willingly endorse and attempt to enforce the opening of our country’s information?

I could lose, in both situations – catastrophically.

Before I go any further in my open support for freeing up data, I think that I am going to have to put my parental head on, and have a really good think about what practically we could do to apply intelligence to the data we make available (in all formats :)).

In the mean time, Steph Gray has a good post on the open data conversation, I am going to go and calm down (and work through years of flickr photos – making every photo of mine or anyone else’s children private).

I will come back to this in a few days.

Update to the case study on social media and justice

As I said in my first post about this: the title is a bit wrong, but I am still unsure what to call it.

However, I thought that I would just write an update on how the community has built around the website www.justicefortom.com.

As you may have read in the news, Tom Cholmondeley – my mate – has now been charged with manslaughter and sentenced to the three years he has already served plus eight months in prison. Regardless of your own opinion on the case, or Tom, you might be interested in how the simplest of WordPress sites has developed and been a focus point for an incredibly diverse, worldwide community. (Please read the first post to see how it started.)

The people who comment on the site are:

  • Tom’s mother: Lady Delamere
  • Tom’s relatives
  • Tom’s friends and family
  • Old school mates
  • Friends from years ago
  • People who may have met Tom once but have vivid memories of doing so
  • Other prisoners in Kamiti
  • Prisoners who were in Kamiti with Tom, but have left
  • Prison officers from Kamiti
  • Lawyers from around the world who have read/watched the case
  • Press
  • Kikuyu and Maasai tribesmen (one of whom sends messages from his mobile whilst tending his cattle and working)

Many messages come in from around the world after people read an article, or see something on TV and are compelled to reach out to Tom.

Of course there are the death threats, and thundering fury from those who feel strongly against Tom. About 1% of the comments we receive are like this – they are not published or responded to – but referred on to Tom’s lawyer. They are not published – not because there is any trickery, or want to hide the other side of things; but the site is very clear about what and who it is for, and to publish such comments would incite argument and inappropriate content that would/could get out of control.

We do not respond (generally) to comments posted, rather leaving them for other commentors to respond to if they like – for example, lawyers debate issues with each other on there: and provide advice to Fred (not sure how grateful he is but… !!!)

The reason we don’t respond is that the site is a conduit mainly to Tom, and most messages are written as messages directly to him – and are sometimes personal: family news, good memories, bad, pleas to stay sane and so on. If the website suddenly had its own voice, it would lose the feeling of being a direct line to Tom.

The stories and observations around the case and Kenya detailed in the comments have begin to weave a story about a conflicted country – told by those in it, outside it – based around a high profile case that has *possibly* exposed a stumbling justice system.

Tom

Very occasionally they can get online access in Kamiti, it is random! Hence the occasional emails from other prisoners. And sometimes Tom can actually get to see the site and the messages in context – as opposed to printed and given to him. It gives him great focus, and of course news from his friends and family touch him hugely. Stories from other people inspire him and he gets huge strength from the connection made.

Again, regardless of your thoughts on him as a man, his guilt or otherwise – life in Kamiti is grim; I have been there several times and won’t go into details – not actually sure whether I am allowed to – taking photos – even of the outside of Kamiti is an arrestable offence. But there is some stuff on YouTube that is already out there so, here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamiti_Maximum_Security_Prison;

http://kenya740.tripod.com/kamiti.html;

http://www.africanews.com/site/Kenya_Kamiti_Prison_water_issue_half_solved/list_messages/21396;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-kQ27JPZjU

Back to the website

I watch it create its own magic space – simply moderating comments and updating posts as news comes in. It fascinates me, and I am sure that if I were not quite so close to it, it would be a very good study in something.

Anyhow! Thought I would share that.

Oh, and Tom’s case is aired on More4 tonight 19th May 2009 at 10pm if your curiosity is piqued about the people involved.

UsNow film – opinionV1.2

I watched Ivo Gormley’s film UsNow (again) today at its launch – watch it here. (I posted about this after watching it in Brussels and wanted to revisit my thoughts, as I believe I still hold the same opinions 🙂 (you never know!).).

I have a couple of updated thoughts, but pretty much what I wrote then is what I think now; for your viewing pleasure I have managed to copy and paste the old post below my updated stuff.

New points:

  • unfair Miliband editing (or not) but still as funny/uncomfortable today as it was when I first winced at it
  • it confuses public service and Politics, so much so that I cannot unpick it really; but I suggest you watch the film twice:
  1. with a Politics and politician head on
  2. with a public service/community head on
  • it still scares me: what are we actually inviting here? I would ask that anyone who reads this blog, and watches the film, has a really good *think* about the battle this film seems to wage. Before you take up arms and demand crowdsourced e-democracy, think
  • I agree and want crowdsourced public services, and proper consultation on policies that matter to me; Politics, politicking, catching Ministers out? I would rather leave that to the Press (as pointed out today, politicians are their staple diet) – this does not mean that it does not matter to me or you, but I don’t think I should be the one to monitor them this closely (I have a day job and a life)

As was reiterated today: don’t assume the electorate is thick, don’t assume everyone to be criminals… but, if we seriously want this to be the case, then we too must stop assuming that all Politicians are corrupt. (Hard, I know in the current expenses scandal – whole other post, that I will not be writing (not my bag)).

I know this may not be popular (and actually this is almost a direct copy from someone who commented in the Daily Mail on a post about MP expenses – and the comment was given a *boo* vote of at least -300 🙂 ) but: I would like to think that the country is run by people who know what they are doing, are paid well to know what they are doing and are given the relative trappings of success that come with being the most fervent in their field. I don’t like paying them; especially when I am absolutely terrified about mine and my children’s next ten years – but I seriously do not want to take on the country’s woes and debt too. I DO want to make my local community better, and I do still want to do stuff for charity (sponsor me here http://bit.ly/EydYT 🙂 sorry) and I want to get involved in the stuff that I am passionate about – when government is debating/consulting on it.

I stand by my twitter update: @hubmum Crowdsourced public service management/delivery yes. Crowdsourced politics: No

Now… the old post, the stuff I wrote when I first watched the film:

Here’s the blurb:

In a world in which information is like air, what happens to power?
Us Now is a documentary film project about the power of mass
collaboration, government and the Internet.
Us Now tells the stories of online networks that are challenging the
existing notion of hierarchy. For the first time, it brings together
the fore-most thinkers in the field of participative governance to
describe the future of government.

Now, aside from the fact that he is officially my new geek crush, Ivo has created an extraordinarily powerful and compelling film that leaves you pretty speechless and perhaps a little bit disturbed. Here’s why…

Take it as read that the best are interviewed in the film, Clay Shirky has much to say, as does Paul Miller, whom I rate highly, Tom Steinberg, George Osborne, Ed Miliband, Matthew Taylor and so on, really, all the greats (although the decision to interview Ed Miliband over Tom Watson confuses me slightly, but hey ho).

So… we have about an hour’s worth of superb dialogue and compelling argument that leads the audience to a clapping crescendo, nodding and chuckling to themselves about how right they were to believe in this stuff. But… I am left a bit disturbed.

To reduce the whole film to the comparison between the crowdsourced management of the football team: Ebbsfleet United and democratic government would not do it justice; yet it is what sticks, and disturbs.

Without you being able to see the film I know I am being a bit annoying, but let me try to explain. At one point in the film, for a disproportionately long time it has to be said, Ivo follows the success of Ebbsfleet United: a football team managed by its fans; the fans decide who plays, and where… and this ‘citizen-management’ has got them to Wembley (I think, am not a football bird but that seemed to be the gist). There are many clips of over-excited and dedicated fans ‘planning’ the match, deciding who plays where, and when. Great for ticket sales and garments, I presume… also engagement and enthusiasm in a woeful world, granted.

Where this all goes, which is a bit disturbing, is when Ivo transcribes the football playing field onto the Cabinet table, and starts showing us how we could be choosing who sits in what position, where on the table, what part they play. Cabinet Ministers becoming as suggestible/manageable as Ebbsfield United.

Visually compelling stuff indeed. But can you imagine what Sir Alex Ferguson would say? Let alone the rather confused Government of today?
I am not going to get into party politics here, but I absolutely believe that all Ministers sitting in Parliament, whether in power or opposition, are there because they are fundamentally driven to *do* something.

What scares me about Ivo’s film, or just this Ebbsfield bit, is that there is no way I would ever sign up to a society governed by crowdsourced decisions and I am terrified that the digital revolution might, if not managed properly, tip the balance of lively debate into anarchy.

Why?

Because I expect the government voted in democratically by the citizens of this country, to do their job. I don’t want it, I don’t have the time nor the where-with-all to do their job. I don’t want or need the responsibility of running the country, from central to local government, every morning when I wake up. It is enough for me to keep my family going. I *want* to trust the people my country decides are fit to run the country (every four years) to do their job so that I can do mine.

Yes, there will always be dissent, and there will be challenges to the decisions taken by those in power. However, I rely on the Press to keep on the case on this one. I *believe* that if there is a travesty, the Press will pick it up and expose it, I will read about it and believe that if there has truly been an abomination against democracy, that the person/party/people involved will be brought to justice. I do not want to be the person to do that, I want those in the know to do that.

At this point I can feel the groundswell of outrage at my naivety, but I am being a generalist on purpose here… I am really scared abut what *we* are trying to do with our digital enablement of government.

Running a country is a tortuous business, I imagine/assume. It is greater than running a consultancy, a bank, a hedge fund, a football club… all of which we accept requires skill that we do not question. The fact that I belong to a democratic country means that I cannot just sit on my backside and wait to be told what to do, I am allowed to affect the decisions taken, should I care to. The problem is that I don’t always know what these decisions are, where to find them and how to engage/influence.

Surely, the digital revolution is more about a release of shared responsibility for the governing of a country. It is not an abdication of responsibility for those we vote in: please let’s not propose governance that relies on crowdsourcing decision-making on a macro, mesa or micro level. What it is is a new channel for the decision makers (who are busy dealing with enormous stuff, like war for example) to understand what is concerning the citizens of the country, enabling them to address these without relying on expensive ‘citizen insight’.

It also should mean that us citizens will stumble upon apt policies in the making, that we can affect, engage with and potentially influence – because our government is able to understand our concerns and will act accordingly. (Effective consultation.)

That is what I want to achieve by working in this space in the UK government departments. To make sure that those needing to know what we, citizens, think, can do so without too much effort (monitoring of social space); assist engagement where appropriate and be a guiding hand in what is *frankly* a daily explosion of information and data.

Why?

So that they can do their job and we can do ours.