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.

5 questions to ask before you ask people to do stuff for no money

Doing stuff for no money is something many of us choose to do in our spare time for our friends, family or causes that we care about. When you start a social enterprise you usually do a fair bit of this in your working day too! But it is not sustainable. It’s obvious, I know – but in spite of the logical conclusion everyone will agree with, people keep expecting it to be different. One definition of madness is to repeat the same action and expect a different outcome.

(If tl:dr scroll to end for the five questions, you’re welcome)

The early days of choice

Several years ago I started getting involved with and running events in my spare time (for free). These were mainly BarCamps, unconferences and in 2008, hack days. The latter grew and through a lot of 24 hour days, the loss of one marriage, many friends (and possibly 100% health of my liver and nervous system) has has now become a successful and flourishing social enterprise: Rewired State (RS), alongside an extremely powerful NfP: Young Rewired State (YRS).

Until the beginning of last year, I managed to build and run this alone, hiring people as we became able to, choosing when to do stuff for free (still a great percentage of the time) and when to not, when to sacrifice the holidays for a greater cause and what to throw everything at.

There came a point when I looked at what the organisation had grown into, what clients were wanting and needing, how we were providing a service that was still ahead of the game. In a rapidly changing world we were suddenly more and more mainstream, organisations were facing very real challenges that we are uniquely able to resolve, and fast. It was time to get serious, scale up fast, or stop. Meanwhile Young Rewired State had a community of young self-taught programmers that was doubling every year, from tens of kids, to 100s, now 1000s of them across the world, and we are changing their lives.

Now I am not a CEO. I am a founder, an entrepreneur, an ideas person with a will as strong as an ox, and two children to support single-handedly – so I am not allowed to fail; that would mean three people up the swanny (not to mention those employed by the organisations). So at the beginning of last year I realised the limits of my own skill in running a business, I had taken this as far as I could on my will and best guess, now it was time for those who know how scale and grow a commercial and social enterprise to take over and make sure we did the right thing: continuing to meet the needs of clients whilst shoring up a well-supported and honoured network of developers. I had to go (well, to the Board at least, and get a job again doing what I do best!).

It took a year to find this person, with some hiccups, missteps and ill-judgments (they are very, very hard to find), and in fact it took a year and some external skill to ready the organisation to be taken forward – I will be brutally honest, we nearly lost it, we nearly lost both of them. All pro bono projects had to go, people had to go, we had to scale right back to super lean, in order to get into the racing blocks.

To Pro Bono or not to Pro Bono – no longer my right

I *had* to step right back to allow those who knew what needed to be done to get it done – this was hard, brutally hard, but necessary and I know it was the right thing to do. The only hangover from last year in this regard, is the shift of the right to do stuff for free.

When I was running the organisations I could choose to do stuff for free. I could donate my own time, and shift profits from one project to cover costs for other pro bono projects, and I was comfortable in that space. It meant we stayed pretty small, but small and stable was fine. This was not about being hugely wealthy, this was about having a sustainable income, providing one for others as and when we could, and finding new ways to solve very real challenges faced by business and government.

I can no longer make decisions on pro bono work, except with my own time, but for a very good reason. In order for us to increase our impact, to scale up to meet the demands of clients, and to scale up YRS in order to include *all* the young people who need to be a part of this community – we have to get very real about money, about skills, about ability and about roles.

I am still asked, as I am sure everyone is who runs a social enterprise, to do stuff for free. I always say if I am happy to give away some of my own time; but if it involves more than me, I say that people are welcome to ask the CEO of Rewired State: Julia Higginbottom, and the MD of Young Rewired State: Ruth Nicholls, if they are wanting Rewired or Young Rewired to do stuff for them for nothing. I warn the asker that it is highly unlikely to pass the test of ‘Is it worth it?’ (bearing in mind both of those people lived through us nearly losing the lot last year), and I do feel a pang of guilt, no not guilt, obligation, that I am letting them down – these people doing the asking. But that is madness…

The consequences of your request

If we don’t do what we do, then right now, no one else does what we do – this is why both RS and YRS are successful social enterprises. We have a responsibility to stay, to grow, to do the very best we can for ourselves and for the communities and organisations we work with.

So, I think there are some questions everyone should ask themselves before they ask anyone, or any organisation to do something for free:

  • Can you do this yourself in your spare time?
  • Is the person you are asking to do this thing for you for free, in a financial or personal position to give this to you for free?
  • Can you trade something that translates into something that saves or makes that other person or organisation actual real cash?
  • Are you a bigger organisation than the organisation you are asking to do stuff for free? (If so, are you being fair?)
  • Why do you need this to be done pro bono? (All part of the same 5th question: Can you find funding? Can you make your procurement processes less impossible to navigate? Can you get a sponsor?)

Asking people to do stuff for free always has consequences for the person you are asking or the organisation they represent. Be mindful of the consequences – whether personal, financial or commercial. It is your responsibility to ask after very careful consideration, not theirs to refuse only if they have a damn good excuse. Even if the whole enterprise has been built on personal sacrifice and doing stuff for free in the early days.

How to have edgy creds in five minutes, no money required

The Festival of Code is happening for the 6th year running on the beautiful, sunny UK coast this Summer. We are pretty much all ready and this year (in addition to over 1000 young coders creating insanely excellent digital stuff out of open data) we have bubble football, photobooth, skate park, graffiti wall, robotics, chiptune artists, 3d printing, wearable tech, George the Poet, Avid Larizadeh and Yoni Bloch.

So how does this give you edgy creds? I hear you cry. Well, we need help, so you can get to be a part of it too, and trust me – it’s amazing.

If you are not familiar with the Festival, the way it works is that we have 60 centres and centre leads across the UK who volunteer their time and space for the week to host their local coding kids. Kids sign up from the UK and overseas and we assign them to these centres. Mentors then also volunteer spots of time during the week to help shape, craft and prepare for the weekend of show and tell.

Inevitably, there is imbalance in a few of our centres and we have devised a poster campaign to fill those spots. (These young people tend to be super-hard to find, it depends on someone realising that this is going on and letting them, their mates or their parents know about it).

So! Here goes, this is how you get your edgy creds, and become an active member of the Festival of Code…

1. Check the list below for spaces available for kids and where we need mentors (mentors in public speaking, products, marketing, open data)

2. Identify the areas where you know you can put posters up in local shops, libraries, offices, schools

3. Use your social media profile to raise awareness of the Festival, using the hashtag #YRSFoC and link http://festivalofco.de

The following centres have spaces for kids and need mentors:

Comic Relief London can take 6 more kids (Comic Relief is based in Vauxhall)
Red, Yellow, Green Dorking needs 2 more mentors
Firstsite Colchester still has space for 15 kids and 1 more mentor
AIR Falmouth Uni Cornwall has room for 8 more kids and needs 3 more mentors
A Fund, West Midlands has room for 9 more kids and needs 1 more mentor
Social Breakfast Birmingham has room for 9 more kids and needs 2 more mentors
Instil Belfast has room for 6 more kids
Metaswitch, Enfield  has room for 8 more kids and needs 1 more mentor
Queen Mary Uni London has room for 5 more kids
Raspberry Pi Cambridge has room for 12 more kids and needs 3 more mentors
Think Big Hub London has room for 10 more kids and needs 2 more mentors
Aberystwyth Wales centre has room for 5 more kids and needs 1 more mentor
Solent Cathedral Southampton has room for 10 more kids and needs 3 more mentors
Met Office Exeter has room for 10 more kids
Superthinkers Romford needs 1 more mentor
STFC Daresbury Warrington has room for 10 more kids and needs 2 more mentors
Dundee Uni has room for 10 kids and needs 2 more mentors
Birmingham City Uni needs 2 more mentors
KWMC Bristol needs 2 more mentors
Freerange Carlisle has room for 5 more kids

Information for kids and for mentors can be found here for kids and here for mentors.

Here is the poster for you to download, print and put up, put in your car, put anywhere – these young people are insanely hard to find, and the mentors are also. We know from previous years that the poster campaign works. Stephen Fry will also be tweeting out about us when he feels the timing is right. So./.. all hands on deck! If you can help out with any of the above, email kait@rewiredstate.org and let her know, and point every child and mentor at the registration points on the Festival website. All of you can officially name check yourself as a volunteer for the Festival of Code, so long as Kait has logged you as helping out! And we will verify your assistance, and thank you whilst lying prostrate on the ground, usually. Also, it is just cool…

 

 

Breaking things better at Young Rewired State

It is year six for Young Rewired State (YRS), and it is growing into a great, international community of young people who have taught themselves how to code. We remain relentlessly focused on fostering the peer to peer nature of learning, and solving real world problems through code and community. We like to call this “Breaking things better”.

Earlier this year YRS separated completely from Rewired State, enabling it to focus on community projects and the the local/everywhere programmes. I also announced my intention to step aside as CEO of YRS/RS.

Excitingly, things have moved very fast since then and Young Rewired State has moved naturally into being its own entity, we have hired some great people to manage the YRS community and projects, and soon we will be able to announce the new Head of YRS. I shall share all of this staffing news when everything is all in place. This is us in Buckingham Palace…

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But the headline news is that I have invited an extremely select and active group of people to join me on the Board, and am going to move to Chair of YRS at the beginning of July. The Board members are as follows:

Annika Small:

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Annika is the CEO of Nominet Trust, but I have asked her to join the Board in a personal capacity, as she has been great at monitoring the growth of Young Rewired State, and gently steering us in the right direction and keeping me focused on the right things – in a completely positive way of course! I trust her judgment and know that she understands this space completely, and is far more knowledgeable than I in growing global communities and projects. Annika is the absolute rock YRS needs.

Bill Liao:

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Bill is a successful entrepreneur, VC and is the founder of CoderDojo. He has been invaluable in guiding us through the restructuring of YRS and RS and it is hugely important to me that there is someone on each of our Boards who is experienced in taking social organisations to global communities, and who has serious creds in the Venture market. Not for YRS (that will remain a non-profit organisation) but for the members of the community. We want them to have the aerial cover from Bill. Needless to say, CoderDojo and YRS have much in common.

Ian Livingstone:

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The Legend, as he is known in my house! Ian has long been a great shoulder for me to collapse on over the years of growing YRS. He has either made me laugh, got me drunk, or told me off but he has always got me through whenever I have yelped for help. He is also a towering inspiration for young programmers and has fought a long battle to bring gaming into many peoples’ lives, and took on government in a very serious capacity – fighting for changes in education (and winning). Being a success himself, and also slightly baffled by some of the things that have happened to him, the board is complete by having him shoulder to shoulder with Annika and Bill.

And finally… we have our very own Angelina Jolie, our Ambassador and friend to the Board: Kathryn Parsons.

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Kathryn has been a pal of mine for a while, and she has been hugely successful with her own Decoded adventure. We kind of fell forward in this space together and she and I have learned a lot from each other. So Kathryn is our Ambassador, a very important female role model for the girl entrepreneurs in YRS – but also a successful entrepreneur and actively scaling, a great example for all YRSers. Kathryn is ace.

And that is it.

This is not a passive Board/Ambassador. I will be meeting with them all every month individually, and then we will have quarterly board meetings to make sure we are doing the best we can by this rapidly growing community.

It is exciting.

The difference between the 97er and Gen Y

I get asked enough times to actually publish about this.

97er is the generation of people born in 1997 or later Gen Y are the Millennials

97ers grew up with social media from as early as they can remember

Gen Y didn’t but they grew up with more digital skills than their parents – they just swerved the natural inclusion of social media

There is a marked difference

My 97er posts all link from here if you want to know more

The 97ers and social activism

I have worked with self-taught young programmers (aged 18 and under) in Young Rewired State since 2009; and in 1997 I gave birth to my own little digital native, and in 2002, another. My passion for learning, observing and being amongst networked communities in various forms, means that I have begun to see some interesting trends and patterns that are fascinating, and I am going to write a series of things about this. Here is the third (the first is here and links on to the second) and in this series I refer to the 97er. By this I mean child born in 1997 OR LATER: The true digital natives.

When I was a child, when I was cross about something I had to wait until I was a grown up to do something about it. This is no longer the case for 97ers.

As I said in my previous post on 97ers and Identity:

97ers are split personality teachers and consumers from as early as seven years old, if not earlier

They are also activists with access to immediate knowledge, discovery and research tools across living and historical communities that have never been available to those generations that came before them. They may have no understanding of democracy, governance or Government, no concept of activism or protest, but what they do have is the basic human ability to discriminate (not as in “discriminate against”, but apply their own judgment of right and wrong) and 24/7 access to what is happening in the world.

Of course these young people are no different to those that went before them in nature, and outraged gossip is as delightful to them as it has always been

gossip girl

… but now they see acid attacks in Pakistan, war-mongerers in the Congo, inequality across borders and seas. And they talk and share videos, news articles, Facebook pages, blog posts, hashtags and campaigns and they have a voice.

Online Advocacy Campaigns(I love this photo, creative commons from Flickr, but the dude who is presenting his slide refers to the story-telling. The story-telling that 97ers use to verify identity as well)

Imagine growing up knowing that your voice counts…

… and that every single person has the ability to activate their communities. Because every person in the digital space has a community, a social network and to 97ers this is completely normal, this is all they have ever known. If they don’t like something they will protest, loudly, in the online space, find campaigns to support their feelings and advocate them to their friends.

People say constantly that online activism makes no difference to what happens on the ground, liking a Facebook page does not stop an acid attack, nor give food to the starving. No it doesn’t, of course not, the other activities those charities and movements have access to at the moment do that. Online activism raises awareness of plights. But for the purpose of this blog post, what the online activism does is to reach the 97ers. They are aware, they will share and their understanding of social and personal responsibility is as much a part of their maturing and growth as traditional education.

The 97er armchair activist

So we can see that the 97ers have grown up with a natural expectation that they have a voice, that they can rally crowds, and almost without thinking they highlight things that trouble them and call on their friends to also be outraged. The outraged teen is tomorrow’s politician, entrepreneur, activist, connector. This has always been the case, but with the digital natives this means big change is coming.

They learn the power of their own voice through the constant value measures attached to followers, retweets and likes. They can measure in real time whether something they have said has chimed with their intended audience, and they adapt and learn how to ensure that the stuff they really care about gets seen by as many people as they can possibly reach.

Not only are they very skilled in reaching their audience, they do this for fun in their social time. And so they are growing up with social responsibility and an expectation of voice as a core part of their being. They have known nothing else.

Once these 97ers hit the post-education world and shatter into the people and positions they will become in business, politics and life (not that far away… 2020 is my guesstimate for the receding-sea-pre-tsunami of 97ers affecting everything we know) they will continue to do what people have always done: activate their networks. But for the 97er who really knows how to activate their networks, and has grown up doing so but now can move into positions of control over what happens as a result – then we will see big change.

A thought for pondering

We all know how we change our behaviour when we know someone is watching and judging what we do. For the 97ers they have grown up in an open world, their social space is open. Their behaviour is shaped by immediate applause or boos across social media. They validate beyond the family (in a different way, of course).

When the 97er is the war-mongerer, acid-attacker, abuser how will their behaviour adapt?

Only the 97er will be wily enough to second-guess and expose that, we (the pre-97ers) need to move into the role of supporter, mentor, offline guardians of everything they will see, face and do. But we will never be able to have this instilled as a part of our core as much as they will. So we must listen as much as we teach.

This is a generation without borders, and separate governance of countries and regions has no effect here, and this is important to remember.

Read previous posts on 97ers here:

The first post where I try to define them

97ers and Identity

For those used to assuming that this applies to GenY, or The Millennials, here is a clarification

Here is the most recent post on 97ers and work

How does the Year of Code wreck become a good thing?

You all know my feelings on the Year of Code. That’s done. But it is a thing, it does exist and I know that they are now talking to great groups like CAS and people like Conrad Wolfram and I am sure they will find something useful to do.

If they are not going to turn it off and on again and reboot the whole thing then it would be great if the following things could happen:

Be able to answer the following questions: Who are you and what are you going to be doing exactly?

If signposting everything that is going on, then signpost. If representing a government initiative, do that (and defend it somehow). If just a massive PR exercise on behalf of coding – get cracking and get some massive advertising and brand agencies on board.

From my experience the subject is too broad for this scatter-gun effect of confused messaging to generally everyone.

Be clear who you need to be talking to. To my mind the group you need to be focusing on is parents. Reassure, explain, find a way to marry the mixed messaging of *the internet is bad and full of paedophiles and danger* and *go forth and code*.

That would help.

Oh and decide whether the Year of Code is a Government thing. If not, take Osborne off the Home page.

*Late edit* Can I please just clarify, I have no issue with Lottie Dexter not being able to code, that is not an issue. I can’t code. Well, not the way people code nowadays – BBC Basic was what I was brought up on, by a Father who was obsessed with computers and educational software in the 80s!! I did not choose to take this as a career path, but I do understand it! The issue is that she has not done enough research, has not been properly briefed, does not have the stories, passion or experience (yet) to be the right person for this. The Sarah Palin of Code. But it is not the coding thing, that is not the issue. Nor am I suggesting that I am right for it! I have a full time job, this is not that. It is the actual harm this confusion is causing, and it really has to end.

That’s it, I am done.

Here is a photo of my kittenIMG_7860 And some lovely Young Rewired State videos.

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