“… consider it a Braxton Hick…”

I find myself tweeting the evening after a hack weekend we have just run for the Department of Education in the UK under the self-explanatory hashtag #pupildata. I tweeted this to a teacher disappointed on a Sunday evening that he could not interact with the data used to produce these prototypes. Who said teachers were in it for the great hours and holidays?

Braxton Hicks for those who are not aware is a false feeling of labour that women feel late in pregnancy, sometimes implying impending delivery, sometimes not!

His frustration is shared by the developers who did manage to attend the event, a hack weekend thwarted by so many foreseen and unforeseen challenges – who KNEW that the fact that the Wimbledon final would be on the Sunday afternoon and coincide with Show and Tell would actually be a serious issue for the UK devs and public servants? This plus the:

  • Grand Prix
  • Gay Pride
  • Bar Camp
  • Mozilla event
  • Google event
  • Nike 10k

All in London, all this weekend. Challenging…

This weekend’s hack was on the National Pupil Database, a dataset that does divide opinion but is important whichever side of the fence you choose to set your hat. It is important to every child, parent, teacher and futurologist. So we tried to bring a good representation of those groups to the room but by far the group most represented were the under 18s, the very pupils whose data this was. Agreed this is probably skewed by the fact that I asked YRSers to come along, but welcome to the future, in my opinion people expect to be able to access their data and to do what they want with it – no matter their capabilities.

It is sensitive, but we only worked on anonymised data – and the restrictions on its use were such that the trusted people in the room working on it were also there as protectors of the data. No one, believe me, no one wanted to be able to identify students through the data. And they tried, they tried just to see if they could – I can understand that.

Most notably the under 18s went straight for the: “Can I find me” hacks. One thought he had managed to identify himself because he had achieved an A* in an uncommon subject and could search his own school results and filter by A* “uncommon subject” and try to remember the rest of his GCSE results. He thinks he found himself in the database but he is not 100% sure.

Was he bothered? No, but he wanted more data, because if he  (and let’s remember FF ten years and this will be the norm) could find out the information about himself, he could compare himself to others.

Well, through collected results he could.

His first question was: how can I find other data to quantify some of these numbers? I was not in the country at this time, my stats are borked… ’twas ever thus with education assessment, no? But open data brings us true opportunity to break this open.

On the subject of identity, one 18 year old was keen to point out that if they removed the school identifiers, this would disable individual identification – is this perhaps the answer?

But the story is not in what was discovered in the data at this hack day, the story is simply that the old alchemy works – still. Allow data, information, truth if you like, to be the central theme. Breathe some life and time into it with people who are artists, information artists (bit wanky but you know what I mean), to try to draw stories from the data and see what can help inform or cause.

Add pizza and Haribo and a time limited period.

That’s a usual hack day formula and this was running steadily, if a little faster than most, down that route. But this time we chose to remove the competitive element that usually defines a hack day, you can’t compete over pupil data discovery – bit sick – so we in RWS bought a load of MiFis and Geek Manifestos for everyone taking part. Making it a non-competitive show and tell helped us focus on what this is really about: what’s the story here?

The story was very clear. This data is interesting. Who knows what tales it tells, if any. As Zoe so rightly showed through the medium of sheep, collecting data is pointless just in and of itself, it only becomes useful when you explore it – obviously, right?

Closed and restricted access offers a very tantalising glimpse into its riches. Nothing to do with identity. No hunting grounds to be found in this anonymised data.

Restricted access was a bit of a beast but not insurmountable. In fact, honest appraisal at the end of 36 hours of programming meant that the department was shown a magnifying glass reflection of the state of its collated information. The geeks had begun to make sense of it, in an attempt to create prototypes and visualisations and were in no way deterred, in fact so much so that they were already working hard to make it better and easier for parents/teachers/other kids to understand and that in itself is a win.

Did the Department for Education get a shiny app happy hack day? No

Why not? Access to the data was very restricted

Was this right? Yes

Should further work be done and the data open? Yes

Here is our Easter Egg:

The Sec of State for Education: Michael (divides opinion) Gove, came to the hack day show and tell. He was given an opportunity to get out of it, when we realised that the hack day was not going to result in happy, shiny, popcorn prototypes we sought direction on how we play this. Do you really want to leave the sofa and the tennis to see that we couldn’t do much? We will do a video and show you on Thursday, sorry… we tried :/ etc etc

I have to tell you, my face could not have been more gobsmacked when we were told that regardless of the out we had given him, legitimately: Wimbledon final, Nike 10k, Grand Prix, data is a bit crap the outputs are not so shiny and you might be a bit bored by geek speak… he had decided to come. I have a sneaking suspicion that even the civil servants were surprised by this – he was on his way…

Normally this would be a big thing, well… a thing anyway. But on a Sunday afternoon when everyone has had about 2.5 hours of sleep, everything has conspired against any hope of shinyness, the only way is to crack on, basically and make good with what we have.

The best I could make with the people I had at the Hub Westminster this afternoon was to have a chat. How often do you get a Sunday afternoon with Cabinet Office civil servants, departmental civil servants, Special Advisers, Press Officers, Geeks (under 18), Geeks (over 18), parents, open data enthusiasts, people who just thing it is interesting and the Secretary of State for Education… there are under 25 people in the room… a great leveller.

We needed a chat, not a scripted chat, just – a chat.

Respect was the name of the event

Respect for the data and respect for each other. And so we all welcomed the SoS for Education with respect, although I think a few kids ran (literally) when they saw him, not through celebrity awe, rather a clock that started ticking the minute he walked in, they knew presentations were on and like anyone who gives a shit, performance time is mighty and preparation really important.

And without wanting to seem really wanky, I think he met us on that common ground. He was not watching the tennis, he was here even though we had given him a really easy “out”, and lets face it, he is a politician, he knows this is not going to be an automatic breeze, there is a very real risk that he could be on the spot this afternoon.

He pitched in, chatted to everyone, did not stand on ceremony (those not in the civil service will think this normal, it’s not  – especially on a Sunday afternoon). <- I have worked with many Ministers, this is very unusual.

Whilst Murray fought on the Wimbledon courts, a far more dull, tedious and tiny conversation was taking place. But it affects every pupil in this country, and I think that it is for this reason, probs for his son who was chillaxing in front of the match in PostCodesomething, that Michael Gove rocked up. Not only did he rock up, but he stayed, he talked and he listened. Properly.

Look, this is as astounding to me as it is you, OK? I do not agree with _some/many/most/no idea of the stats_  no *some* of his policies, but the man is a good Minister and a good person because he did not do the usual Ministerial thing of sweeping in and out of an event with no interest or engagement.

You can be a good person as well as have some dodge policies, right?

In a democracy being fully briefed is half the battle, having receptive politicians: the other half (I too am surprised at my typing tonight)

Is democracy not about having people represent us and helping those representatives understand our point?

Well… I think/hope, we will see <- you see how shattered and fragile my illusions are, but you know what, I have no reputation to salvage, nor brand to represent and so I am probably the most obvious yet unlikely candidate to voice what we were all saying after he left (two fricking hours, not sure I ever got that with any other Minister!):

Michael Gove is a good man – in a democracy you need that – someone who will take time out to go to an event with no press whatsoever to see what is happening within his department and with information he ultimately controls, on a Sunday afternoon, when he could have sacked it all off.

I am speechless.

Edit 11th July 2012 Here is the official video, see for yourselves

Tell Gove what you think (the easy way)

When I was working in government, in the Cabinet Office and the Home Office, much discussion went on about how to make government consultations more available to everyone. Commentable format, that would be accepted, read and considered. In the digital world we were in, it was recognised that the consultation process needed to be changed to that everyone could have a democratic voice.

Well, the work continues on how to make that open, but we have a situation here that we just need to forget about fixing that  for the minute (make it my problem for how we formalise the responses in order to make sure your voices are heard officially,there will be a way) and take the JFDI route.

No, not the…

This one…

Michael Gove has opened his consultation on ICT in education, the one he referred to in his speech last week. His speech was very long and full of lots of information, some have accused it of not saying very much – but what he definitely said was that this consultation was coming, and that he ackowledged the problem. Which is a great start.

This is a very important consultation and opens a whole new door to open education and should not be ignored. But the consultation is in the formal format and requires you to answer specific questions, and not see what anyone else has said.

So, Craig Snowden @CraigSnowedIn, a 17 year old developer from Scotland who answered a twitter call to open the consultation, popped it into Google docs.

In Google docs you can read and comment, and see others’ comments, and properly understand what this might be saying.

Now, this is not the formal process, but there is no reason why the comments cannot be fed into the formal process and I will volunteer to do that. So if you fancy meandering over, having a read and saying what you think should be said, then go here. It is unbranded, it is not pretty, the formatting remains from the original. But it is a document, and you can comment as you wish, inline. (Just highlight the part you want to comment on, go to the ‘insert’ tab, scroll down to comment and Bob’s your Uncle).

The original and official consultation is here should you wish to formally respond directly.

Note: Closing Date: Wednesday 11 April 2012

If you have no idea what this is all about, here are a few blog posts that might help:

Year 8 is too late

Teach our kids to code e-petition

Paragraph Seven

Open Education – it’s not impossible, it is already here

The Guardian tech weekly podcast on tech skills and education

Lazy, layabout teens

My ICT teacher can’t mark my homework

My head teacher won’t let me teach computing

Open education and the freedom to teach computing

Open Government Data *wince* it’ll take a while… Open Education? Next September? No probs

Open Government Data *wince* it’ll take a while… Open Education – next September? No probs

Bear with me, I have a point.

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, today delivered a complete coup de grâce for ICT education by accepting wholeheartedly that ICT education, and indeed the cross-curricular syllabus, was fundamentally broken. He accepted that traditional methods for mending a broken bureaucratic, micro-managed education system would not address the immediacy of the problem, and so he threw it open to the floor.

He made Open Education possible (potentially mandatory) in one speech, and he heralded the Government’s move into…” it’s over to you, gang, do your thing”.

To be fair I am obliterating much of his speech here, but the bit we are most interested in is the fact that Government has seen the problem, examined it and accepted that the answers probably lie out there – somewhere on the Internet.

Let me be clear, this is a good thing – Open Education is the future – BUT YOU CAN’T JUST SPRING IT ON US!!

We need to be able to relax about certain basic human needs: education, health, environment (getting the money in to pay for this through tax, our direct debit to government) and we have to assume that the elected governors will take care of that for us, with the right people helping and advising, steering and delivering – without brain-bleeding charges to the public purse. (Martha Lane-Fox took time and focused advice on how government delivered its open online presence, resulting in the Government Digital Service – which took years to curate, even after her report was published and it is still in its infancy.)

We know about Big Society and we know that the world and its borders are opening up and it is becoming fundamentally digital. We know this and are all pitching in as and when we can, but we definitely still look to government to horizon-scan and come up with a scalable, secure plan for the future – that goes beyond:

Have you *seen* this website? Codecademy.com is awesome

Yes… it is, but…

Let’s pretend

Let’s pretend the education system was the tax system.

Our tax system is fundamentally flawed, we all know this. It’s:

  • Not fit for purpose
  • Deeply complicated
  • Is still run by people working without access to the Internet
  • Requires experts to explain information that could be easily garnered from the web (free – if you have the time)
  • The OFFICIAL BOOKS measure in inches, if you intend to master it yourself

Have you *seen* this website? http://www.justanswer.com/ is awesome <- link chosen to back up point, not after in-depth analysis

The fact is that out of all the 28,000 teachers who qualified in 2010, 3 – THREE – were computer science majors. Three chose to go into teaching, the rest chose to reward their hard-earned degree in the City, or on their own start-ups.



Money is the elephant in the room here that no one wants to address. It takes money to solve this problem and we do not have money, as a Nation, nor most of us as individuals – not disposable income at any rate, and believe me – it will take many people with disposable income to help solve this across the UK. Hands up, anyone?

What if this was tax?

What if we were saying:

Yes, OK, the tax system is not fit for purpose and fundamentally flawed. But we are not going to spend years over-hauling the tax system and doing what we as government usually do! We say – Yes! You are right… you are vocal and on point in your suggestions so yes, go forth – and fix it… it’s still mandatory, natch, but you can do what you will with all the resources available to you on the Internet. Lots of industry leaders in accounting are going to be making up some new measurements, but it’s OK – we know it’s broken and you have the answer, so go on then 😀 we will be doing stuff over here…

I am being facetious

Of course I know this would never be the case. Of course I understand that the tax system is way too tricky for me to make such an analogy.

In my opinion if we do not treat education in the same way we respect tax, or even open data – then what exactly is democratic revolution all about?

How can we accept and wholly applaud a Government measure to turn education over to the ‘people’ when it is so utterly broken? This problem has been highlighted ad nauseum (more to come on Friday with the RSA report saying pretty much the same thing as everyone looking at this in any depth).

The issue has been accepted as a given – yes, it’s a terrible state of affairs, thank you Mr Gove for accepting this. However, you cannot step away from the fact that the solution lies in a big collaborative effort between industry and educators, between large and small businesses, corporates and social enterprise – all working in happy harmony with schools, full of children, children whom we protect (rightly) with stringent rules – particularly when we are talking real-life interaction with children, not just digital (but even digitally :/… ) this stuff does not vanish in a well-intentioned speech.

Are we sensible in being so care-free with our youth? Is education really the space where we feel most comfortable throwing open the doors and embracing Open principles without further thought? Let’s face it, Open Government data has been a minefield of risk aversity and open-eyed horror  – but Open Education can be rolled out on a whim, because micro-managing didn’t work?

I worry that in the excitement over freedom granted today to educators for something so utterly fundamental as Computer Science in the UK, so the doors open to frozen blind panic from schools and teachers, turning to potentially unethical opportunists wanting to make a buck and chaos and failure as the result. We cannot afford this.

I worry about publishing this post as I campaign for Open practice, loudly. I have campaigned hard for government to debate the subject on teaching our kids to code – please sign the petition, it has a long way to go… but if a subject is swept away in a general wiff-waff of ‘go forth and educate yourselves’ that we miss a proper, tax-payer funded (probably quite pricey) look at every issue raised – not just the problem. I also fight for Open Data. I welcome collaborative process.

Anyone who has googled Chaos theory will have a basic understanding of the fact that change is exacted through chaos. But also, that chaos is carefully crafted. And studied.

Much though it pains me hugely to say it – we have to keep pushing for a debate. We need this to be taken seriously. Education is not low-hanging fruit.

Today was great, but it was not enough. And I am so sorry to be saying this.