Can Greece become a Rewired State?

We owe Greece big time. We owe Greece for one of the greatest infrastructures upon which our societies have been formed: Democracy.

The irony is that it is because of Greece we are being given a cracking big mirror into why democracy based on land boundaries cannot and does not work.

I am sure many other people are having the same conversations I am: where are the multi-billionnaires so determined to “make the world a better place”? Were I a multi-billionnaire who would not miss 1.6bn I would definitely use it to buy Greece a year to work out how it is going to break itself better.

I don’t have 1.6bn, but if everyone who lived in a democracy gave a few pounds/euros/dollars we would quickly be there. Indeed, here is the Indiegogo crowdfunding page for doing just that (set up by a 29 year old from York).

But instead of asking for olive oil or something from Greece in return, let’s say it is our gesture of thanks to you for democracy.

In return we would like to work with the people of Greece to build a new democracy. That recognises the new world, the geographical borders that become more irrelevant every day, those inconsequential maps that are transcended by the digital Renaissance. We have a chance. A real chance. To rewire this. End the rhetoric. Enter the rubicon. And once again Greece can build the infrastructure of the future.

We cannot laugh it out of Europe as a massive failure. It has provided the basis upon which we stand and scorn. It is once again pivotal.

Here’s how I think it can be done:

For many years now many of us have been talking about how technology can save the world. Rewired State was born out of that rhetoric and its community of both young people and the civic techs. We wanted to break things better, find new ways of making all the stuff we were talking about become reality. Stop talking, start building.

For the past seven years we have been working with governments, Parliaments and industry applying the Boolean logic of “if this, then that” to real challenges and creating and launching real solutions.

We have led debates, found new ways of thinking about things and last year I spent much of it on the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy, examining what was happening worldwide and giving a baseline for a new form of engagement and representation.

But the Commission could not go far enough. It was bound by its terms. And what we found challenges representative democracy.

Now Greece is in crisis, and people are trying to fix it based on old paradigms and infrastructure that is no longer relevant anywhere.

Rewired State has the community, the connections and the experience to work with the young people, the civic tech community and democratic philosophers of Greece. Our extended community of civic tech organisations and democratic philosophers around the world can form Rewired Greece. In a year we can create a new system of democracy that insures the rest of the democratic world against suffering the way the Greeks have had to suffer.

Here are the actions:

1. Crowdsource the money on indiegogo but forgo the oil (yes — no demands for oil in return please gang! That’s the way wars start — even if it is olive)

2. Join Rewired Greece. I am going to be working on funding this and will host an evening for those who want to come and help work on next steps and making this real. Please email nat@rewiredstate.org with the Subject line: Rewired Greece and I will send you details of the event when I have an idea of numbers.

Sod the horses, ride the algorithm!

Last night I was explaining representative democracy in the digital age, in a bar, shouting over loud music, jaegerbomb in hand – because that’s how dull exciting I am!! Anyway, I thought it was good to write down here because it might help make sense of why everyone is banging on about digital democracy.

In the olden days men would ride to Parliament from towns and villages across the land, to bring the wishes of the people. They would return with news of what was happening in Parliament. And so representative democracy worked (in a very crude explanation!).

Nowadays the algorithms are the horses.

This is why marked up content, open data and social media – all the digital shizzle, is SO important for representative democracy.

And girls can ride algorithms too.

Digital voting and democracy: a Q&A with myself

Yesterday I was on a panel as part of the BBC Democracy day, discussing all things digital and democratic. I was there partly because I like to hack government and have set up a business based on doing just that, and because I also sit on the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy.

(For those who did not click on the link explaining what I mean by hacking government, I suggest you do before freaking out!)

Much was discussed of course, but I was not able to process fully or comment thoughtfully on the extended discussion about online voting. (Stuart Dredge has written this conversation up very well on the Guardian site here but I would like to continue the discussion after having slept on it.)

Those who have read my blog posts over the years will know that I tend to write when I am in the process of noodling stuff, rather than after I have fully formed an opinion. It helps my brain but also your input really helps me understand what it is I am not considering – so please do pile in.

This topic is very clearly divided into:

1. Should it happen? and

2. How will it happen?

The how is the technical conversation, and quickly becomes a topic that few can follow with full understanding of the words people are using; it starts with encryption and gets worse from there. I cannot add to this, nor can I hand on heart take part in this discussion with full knowledge of the facts, examples and technology required, so I would rather leave that to those who do. And I do hear your impassioned pleas to understand more, I am doing my best (the Commission has had a *lot* of input from experts on this).

So let’s stick to the should question… I am going to write this in the form of a Q&A just because it makes the most logical sense in my head right now, feel free to write it up more thoughtfully!

Should people be allowed to vote online, with their phones, tablets or laptops?

I believe that the answer to this is definitely yes

Is this just to increase voter participation?

No. Not at all.

Why then?

This is to ensure that those who prefer to use digital tools are able to, and that the feel-good factor of sharing participation in a representative democracy is extended to the community tools we use in all other aspects of our digital lives. I am passionate about bridging the digital divide: not the one between those who do digital and those who don’t. I mean the perceived separation between online life and offline life. Community interaction, influence, learning and celebration is as valid online as it is offline – and the needs of the multiple digital communities must be met in their own space. This includes being able to vote digitally.

The analogue process of voting is not perfect, indeed as Bill Thompson said on the panel yesterday: “… paper ballots are broken in ways that we understand”, but it does the job and we are familiar with it. But there needs to be a digital way to participate in voting for a representative, because otherwise the most important part people play who live in a democracy is totally absent from where many of us choose to interact, learn, share, influence: in online community spaces.

Will being able to click-vote cheapen the whole process of democracy?

No more so than some of the behaviour we are familiar with in Parliament!! I would hasten to add that (especially young people) voting would be far more rigorously researched in an online environment. I would suggest that actually being able to vote online would do the opposite of cheapening the whole process, I think it would (or could), make people take it more seriously.

How do you stop undue influence being brought to bear with people standing behind others and forcing voting a certain way?

I mean, in the same way that someone could influence you walking into a booth and ticking a box, I see no difference because it is online. It is an illegal practice, and the person who was forced to vote online a certain way will have the same recourse to law as their offline persona has. It’s this old digital divide again – why does digital suddenly make illegal practice OK? It doesn’t.

In conclusion

It is up to those who are a part of a democracy to take their role seriously, both the representatives and the represented – and that has nothing to do with technology. But technology and digital information, communication and tools can greatly enhance and amplify active participation, and it is unthinkable that this could be ignored because it is a technical challenge.

Do we really have such little faith in the behaviour and morals of those in the democracy that they cannot be trusted to play their part unless forced to walk somewhere and be watched over by GUARDIANS OF THE VOTING PROCESS with their flip board and pens? If so, I think we have a greater challenge on our hands than representative democracy in a digital age.

The podcast of the BBC panel is available here for you to listen to the whole debate, should you fancy.

PostScript and disclaimer

I am writing this just purely from riffing the thoughts in my head, I am not writing this as Commissioner for Digital Democracy, although obviously my thoughts on this have fed into the Commission’s discussions. The report on Digital Democracy is being published next Monday, and covers many topics – I shall write more after it is launched about all of the other many ways that a representative democracy can work in a digital age.

Young Rewired State: bringing back open government data

Young Rewired State was born back in 2009 when a small group of us decided that we needed to bring the open government data revolution to the next generations. Our intention was to show them what had been fought and won on their behalf for democracy and scrutiny, introduce them to the potential for open data, open government or otherwise, in a non-dull way.

Google hosted that first weekend for us but the legend now goes that it took us three months and a massive credit card bill for hotels and trains to find 50 coding kids in the whole of the UK for a single weekend hackathon at the much-lauded Google HQ in London. Our original sign-up was three kids… three… for a free weekend in Google HQ London.

Photo by Lettuce
We wanted to introduce coding kids to open government data, instead we discovered
  • schools were not teaching programming, computer science, or anything really other than the PE/Geography/any spare teacher showing the kids how to turn on a computer and use Word/Excel/How to photoshop a kitten pic (the only nod to programming – some of you will get this)
  • this was not something the teachers were happy about and I found acres of frustrated geeky teachers fighting a Latin Goliath
  • young people were being driven to teaching themselves, something well-served online with a tonne of lessons on YouTube, websites with individual lessons in the greatest detail, should you care to look, but these kids were isolated and bullied
  • some/many were being failed at school <- when I posted that blog post 25,000 people on Hacker News clicked on it within the first hour…

M’esteemed colleagues were well-renowned software engineers and designers and did not have the capacity to fight this particular fight, except by continuing to do good – most of whom are now in the UK Government Digital Service – but I was able enough, and I was a Mum and I was an entrepreneur, and I was an open government data campaigner – and I had to stay to do something.

Through personal and professional means I turned myself into a lobbying machine to teach our kids to code and, through Rewired State, continued to run Young Rewired State as an annual event, growing from 50 kids to 600 kids, now 1000.

I gave up my job.

I fought battles.

I lost battles.

I won them.

I did school runs.

I got cross about girl engineers (lack of).

I wrote.

I did.

I talked (although I am not a natural speaker – BetaBlockers FTW).

And I found a community of fabulous people: Mathematica, CodeClub, Mozilla, Nominet, Nesta, Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Jam, MadLab, Birmingham City Council, CoderDojo, Treehouse, General Assembly – seriously so many people… and now I feel like I can step back from that fight now. I have been as much use as I can be… and a *lot* is happening.

I need to look to the future and I need to re-focus the kids we are now finding in increasing numbers, and as the others teach them how to code, and as the others fight the battle with institutions and education – I want to go back to what we wanted to do in the first place.

And so I think now is the time, as we grow beyond the UK, to re-focus what we are doing on finding these kids and introducing them to Open Government Data. I will always fight for education, but I fight for democracy, transparency and accountability over all – and I would like our children to grow up understanding Open Data as freely as they understand Open Source.

Starting now…

Our aim is to find and foster every child driven to teach themselves how to code – and introduce them to open government data

http://youngrewiredstate.org

Young Rewired State – it happened

Young Rewired State is now over. The good news: 16 applications/websites were developed enough for presentation (within a weekend, with roughly 12 real time hours of dedicated work) <- that is pretty impressive. The projects will be uploaded here: http://www.rewiredstate.org/projects (and most are, the apps developed by the 15 to 18 year olds are from ‘how’s my train‘ onwards, no need to separate them on the site yet).

We diverged the Rewired State *thing* into a second event for young people, simply because we were curious, what would a different age group do? This curiosity built into something else when we found, through talking about the concept, that there were a few useful things that could happen:

  1. government wants to bridge the gap with young people, (by ‘government’ I mean both civil service and politicians)
  2. there are some scarily good coders, scientists and statisticians out there – and they are aged 15 – 18
  3. someone needs to boot someone else in order to make the connection

We’re quite good at that.

The event happened – and you can follow #youngrewiredstate on twitter or !yrs on identi.ca to catch the tweets over the weekend (and prob after) or google *young rewired state* for the blog/tech press coverage.

Lessons learned

  1. the society that we live in does not start at 18
  2. we had a grand aim to *get young people to engage each other*, simply meaning give the tools and information and see what happens – in fact, the frustrations addressed the basic frustrations of life that government could solve (*for example* by giving up the data and letting the talented/passionate make it less horrendous to *for example* wait for a bus)

Interesting things and the most important things to note

  • our message is harsh but the reality is that government departments, ministers and civil servants took time (Sunday afternoon) out to come and see what young people were taking their own weekends doing to try to help/make better things
  • this event happened, as in we could afford to do it, because we were sponsored <- and a greater percentage of our sponsors were government (costs were food, travel, accommodation <- for the 15 to 18 yr olds outside London, server, printing)
  • there were three girls (out of 50) this was not for lack of trying, Dan Morris and I spent a painful three weeks on the hunt for more girl geeks aged 15 to 18 (something needs to be looked at there, but…)
  • Directgov are brave – we got funding from Directgov, and they sent a judge: Mike Hoban, and their directgov Innovate man: Brian Hoadley, proving their support and proving that they are listening <- this is good. We dedicated our one donated prize (an X-Box) to a recasting of the Directgov homepage, just to see what young people did with it. The reality was that they had little exposure and we have a raft of free feedback plus a few redesigns (here’s the winning one http://twitpic.com/f09io)
  • the catalyst effect of #youngrewiredstate means that all we do is chuck a rock in the pool; but we do it with friends, colleagues, communities, Ministers and civil servants and see what happens
  • we can inspire, Julia Chander from DFID (who already is doing awesome stuff in the social innovation space but really struggling with data, as in ‘what do you need?’) blogged her first post <- super chuffed about that

We can all see the 15-18 yr olds did what they signed up to do <- so much so that they were up and working, ahead of their mentors, on day #2 and perhaps ahead of the RS and Google people.

Government and the industry signed up also and has to be applauded for stepping wholly up to the plate.

It’s super hard to make these practical connections. Everyone is there for differing reasons, but the same goal: let’s make stuff better (we can worry about the *how* afterwards). A fact that is pondered in the Public Strategy blog.

Update: two blog posts that really round the weekend up for me are: from one of our *rather clever* mentors: Christian Heilmann’s and one of the 15-18 year olds who was involved in the dev: TFHell Jordan Hatch.

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…