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

Every day I love you less and less

Communication used to be fun for me. Digital communication especially so. In the mid 90s it was a blank sheet of paper, or one only scribbled all over in pencil. Common sense was all it really took to say what you wanted to say, online, to the audience you wanted to reach.

Since the digital revolution of the last decade (at least) – and as ‘organisations’ make their online presence a strategic priority – it has become increasingly hard to keep that clear line of sight.

Take website rationalisation in the UK government. It is a perfectly simple and absolutely right policy. The information was often badly managed, not maintained and completely impossible to find, notwithstanding the cash that was being poured into a plethora of websites.

Put in its simplest form, website rationalisation means that all public sector information for citizens can be found on Directgov, and for business on businesslink.gov.uk (corporate information stays with the departmental websites) by 2011. This requires convergence of the content on the two main sites and throws up the inevitable cry of: what about the old stuff? Clearly, content that was written yonks ago needs to be re-written and there are new style guides to consider &c &c. But we can’t just switch off the old sites, it is wrong to have broken links in recorded answers to PQs/PMQs, that information must remain in perpetuity; and once you go down that path you end up in all sorts of mind-boggling complications. The National Archives provides the obvious solution (but that is so not as simple is it sounds – because I am nice I will not drive you down through that particular ‘detail devil’). Nor can you switch off urls, as to do so risks cyber squatting (on non-.gov domains) by questionable folk.

*sigh* you see… by the time you have wound yourself up in knots about this, the simple pleasure of getting the right information to the right audience is swept up in such a maelstrom, you wish you never started! but you can’t do that…

Then along comes a new lovely clean simple way of communicating online: one that is not simply a push of content…

WEB TWO (twenty if you’re cool)

Oh how attractive this is to the frankly ragged people like me; and to be fair the bemused policy units, communication and marketing teams, press officers and the rest: aching to be relieved from the too complicated discussions around getting the ‘old, flat’ content to the spangly new macro-sites (and keeping the… yes you get where I am going).

And so we have seen the remarkable rise in supremely fantastic new work across the public sector digital arena, using social media tools: monitoring, influencing and engaging in the *hopefully* appropriate digital communities… so much so that I cannot keep up (unless I give up the day job and simply watch).

In the last 18 months the most desired digital skill set has not been the ability to craft and manage online content, rather the canny knowledge of the community manager: someone who understands how everything works NOW, and can steer a department/organisation into utilising crowdsourcing, cloud computing and Open Source software.

This is all well and good; it honestly is the Good Life of the internet: community based communication.

But it’s not that simple.

Now we have embraced social technologies we come to the problem of data. In order to continue with this trend of ‘going to the people where they are communing’ we must listen to what they need – and increasingly those who enable us to utilise these social tools demand that the raw data be free. I don’t mean personal data about you and I, I mean the data feeds. Give it to us, they say, and we will make our own stuff in a way that we understand.

The answer to the eternal cry of ‘How can we engage the young people’? Give them the data and let those who know what they are doing, create something that their peers will understand.

And so we find ourselves in a quandary. Not because anyone is precious about the data, rather it is not ready; often it has not been held in any format that is easily shared; sometimes data sets have been held in different formats and updated by a variety of people; borders and boundaries differ &c &c.

In order to free this data, a cross-government (central and local) audit needs to take place; and as with the rationalisation of content onto Directgov and businesslink.gov.uk, a redrafting and ordering of the raw data needs to occur, APIs created, ratification of the accuracy, maintenance contracts drawn up, SLAs…

*sigh*

It’s just never as simple as it seems, but we need to do this work. All of it.

I just wanted you to understand how complicated this all is 🙂

Oh and by the way, go and sign up to this: http://www.mashthestate.org.uk/index

#babysteps

PS Apologies to the Kaiser Chiefs… er not sure what I am legally up for when using a song as a blog title.

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.

Web standards and guidelines for UK Gov websites

Are here: http://www.coi.gov.uk/guidance.php?page=188

Don’t get too excited, much of this is still in consultation (opportunity, folks, to get involved) – for example, the following:

  • Using social media (in consultation)
  • Metadata (in consultation)
  • Minimum standards for web metrics (in consultation)

Sadly, I am unable to fathom how to contribute to these consultations, but someone will know – I know many of you would have some great insights into this, so I will work alongside you to find out how to be included in the consultation.

I am disappointed, and I so SO did not want to be, that the section on domain name guidance and use of a dotgovdotuk url is still in the dated and a bit wonky section of the Cabinet Office website. I know many of the individuals involved in developing this, and I promise you that this apparent belligerance belies the passion of those involved in developing the new standards in light of website rationalisation and convergence.

In my own opinion only, I believe that it is a simple message: no content is to be published online for citizens or business, unless through the adequately funded Directgov and businesslink.gov.uk. Saving the public purse from a hammering through unnecessary website deployment. (That means, you and I no longer have to fund the near on 1000 websites published by the UK government – each with their own design and marketing budgets (it can add up quite quickly)).

Yet it is a very difficult message to deliver. I could bore on about how hard it is to join policy makers with their communication teams, and to establish enough of a relationship to even discuss online delivery of what is happening – my explanation: it is as hard as trying to explain a rave to your parents (for those born in the 70s/80s). Neither party is too fussed by the detail, but both want the outcome to meet our needs, whilst successfully avoiding our worst fears.

These guidelines are the detail, the ‘yada yada’… but they are key, paramount to success. We need to understand the (un)spoken rules – let’s just clarify them and get on with it. But as ever, the devil is in the detail (I really did not want to use that phrase but hey ho) – and probably there is an element of JFDI and if there is a fallout – manage it. (But what fallout will there be, other than brand arguments and ownership concerns? This is the public sector – there is no argument).

Frustration all around.

My reason for posting about this is to show you where the guidelines will be published and to encourage you to keep a close eye on this. Please do join in consultations where you can, and please don’t use it as a stick to beat the beaten. There will be some super cool stuff coming out of this huge change – and this change will benefit us all.

Who could do with a ‘tell us once’ policy and delivery channel that works? All of us, birth, marriage and death – pretty salient and definitely doable… if we can get this absolutely right from the start.

Let’s get on with it.

PS Anyone who knows any more, please let me know, particularly on the status of the consultations.