“I have a nightmare…”

Tonight Martha Lane-Fox will give her Dimbleby lecture at the Science Museum in London. I was privileged enough to have seen early versions of it as she grappled with how best to use this platform to address the growing urgency for some kind of body to attend to the moral and ethical challenges thrown up by the digital renaissance. You can read a write-up in The Guardian that gives more detail on what she is going to say.

In her words, Martin Luther King did not inspire generations of people by starting his speech with: “I have a nightmare…”. That focuses on the bad stuff, the scary things – basically the Daily Mail approach to informing and inspiring change. Indeed, the Daily Mail has been running no less than four horrible stories on data as I type. Here is one headline:

We know everything about you: Sinister boast of data boss who says he has 5,000 pieces of personal information on EVERY British family – from your salary to your health products and ages of your children…

I shan’t link to it, but feel free to google.

Education has not kept up with the information age, not just our children’s education, but us adults too. I know some but not all, and spend my life keeping up with change, reading and learning – but I am lucky enough that I am able to do this because it lies at the heart of what I do every day. But most people have neither the time nor the opportunity to do so, therefore tales in the media drive their knowledge, often built on half-truths and misinformation.

Ignorance breeds fear.

Fear breeds censorship and defensiveness.

This does not help people make better, more-informed decisions.

I am also announcing the launch of Rewired State’s DATA CITIZEN PROJECT. Our premise is to help people make better decisions by running a five-year long, deeply researched programme looking at how we all interact with data, what it means to us and how we can all be given the knowledge we need to feel like we have control over the information we knowingly provide. Right now there is naff all information on the website, but I have a nice little information pack that can tell you more about what, where, who, when and how (email me emma@rewiredstate.org if you want a copy or want to be a part of it not just sponsorship, natch).

Standing ovation for Martha tonight, do watch it and watch out for what happens when she steps down from her podium – thank goodness people like her use her platforms for the benefit of everyone else. Kudos, my friend.

clap animated GIF

Is sticky content a design fail?

However you wish to define sticky content – be it content that grabs you and keeps you on a particular website, or content that compels you to return again and again – my opinion is that it is an outdated measure of success. We have always been impatient online, now we are impatient and often grumpy – especially with regard to things we are required to do, as opposed to stuff we want to do.

Nowadays, I want my digital content to be instinctive (stincy?!), to be fluid, to understand my behaviour and give me what I need, fast and without too much input required from me.

The way to head towards this is to work hard at the information we produce online, make it data driven, with intelligent delivery on a variety of platforms and mediums. Find ways to identify core, simple customer needs and work really hard at answering that one need quickly and immediately in every place your customer may be looking for the answer. Then repeat.

This is the attraction of web applications and should be the aim for text information as well.

Stincy, not sticky.

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.

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.

Young Rewired State

Young Rewired State is the most exciting thing on the planet at the moment – well for me anyway!

  • nearly 70 people aged between 15-18 years have registered (way more than we had dared hope for, and more signing up – even though we have closed the list)
  • just over 20 brilliant Rewired State geeks on hand to mentor
  • a small band of organisers revving up to a big pre-meet on Wednesday when we start prepping the laptops
  • our judges are lined up
  • Google is restocking the sweets and clearing the rooms (and talking to James about ports)
  • the poster has been designed by the wonderful Richard Pope (yes we did sort the typo before going to the printers)
  • Tim O’Reilly has tweeted about us
  • the trains and hotels are being booked
  • the young people are nagging for more data <- they are data gannets!
  • the freenode irc for Rewired State is buzzing with plans and projects as groups and individuals start getting their ideas together
  • and last but not least, our lovely sponsors have been invoiced 🙂 (Thank you to Directgov, DCMS/CIO Council, 4iP, The Guardian and *hopefully* DCSF <- thank goodness for these sponsors, seriously would not be able to afford to do this otherwise, it is eye-wateringly expensive on the trains nowadays, and we have talent coming from everywhere across the country)

If you want to come along on the Sunday at 4pm to watch what has been crafted and designed over the weekend, you can, but you must sign up http://rewiredstate.org/young.

If you missed out the *what* and *why*. We are giving a bunch of young people as much government data as we can get our hands on (shoving it all up here first http://rewiredstate.org/data), access to some of the best developer minds should they need a bit of help, a weekend at the London Googleplex and see what happens. Why? because we want to showcase the extraordinary talent in this country, make some awesome apps, give the young people the tools and information to engage each other in what interests them, and just maybe add some weight to the quest for more/better/varied programming languages on the curriculum.

What can you do to help? Well at the moment the crisis is laptops, we need as many as we can lay our hands on. We have a titchy bit of money left over to hire them if necessary. If you can help with that great – we need them by Wednesday! Email me.

Please note:

1. The list for young people is closed, we cannot afford any more but we could squeeze you in if you can pay to get yourselves there and bring your own laptop (please make this clear when you sign up)

2. There are still spaces to come and watch the show and tell on the Sunday, but you must register – you have to be on the list to get past the Google doors.