Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web – or rather for this special edition – all elsewhere on just one site. That’s completely unplanned and has never happened before, so a special drumroll for Lost Consciousness:
- The Cassandra Complex « Lost ConsCIOusness Let’s say I start the “Bear profession” which is open to all ursines in good standing. We have brown bears, black bears, grizzly bears, polar bears… What about pandas?Pandas are, I was brought up to believe, just raccoons with pretensions. So do we let pandas into the “Bear profession”? And if we let in giant pandas then why not red pandas?So perhaps we have an entrance exam, one involving little cakes and honey. But what does that tell us? Solely that someone has passed an exam, which may or may not have any relevance to the actual life of bears.
- Castles in the Cloud « Lost ConsCIOusness Part of the problem is that our security model remains essentially medieval. We build a vault, we put our treasure in the vault, we post guards around it. We need a different model in the cloud age, one where security is embedded into the individual atoms of information.
- No Go the Flow « Lost ConsCIOusness Our offices seem deliberately designed to ensure that “flow” is minimised and interruptions are maximised. Similarly we build vast processes which disrupt flow and seek to reduce the human to some Taylorite automaton, incapable of creativity and “flow”.Given that we are never more productive, never happier, never more creative than when in “flow”, why do we seem to actively seek to ensure that we banish the possibility of “flow” from our organizations? Is “flow” such a great threat?If not, if we are supposed to be encouraging productivity, happiness and creativity then why are we not seeking to maximise “flow”?
10 September 2010
I am on a train, going to a meeting about using the next generation of technology in the workplace to improve the effectiveness with which we do business. Next generation in this case means the generation after Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6, so I am containing my excitement, but there is no doubt that there are opportunities to do things better and to do better things.
I am on a train, typing on a device which does a perfectly reasonable job of looking like a laptop while doing the absolute minimum possible to behave like one.
Back home, I have massively more useful technology which is set up to do the things I want to do in the way I want to do them. I could have brought my own laptop with me, but my bag is heavy enough already, and the office laptop is the only way of getting to office (and indeed Office) email. So this post from Bruce Schneier speaks to me powerfully:
If you’re a typical wired American, you’ve got a bunch of tech tools you like and a bunch more you covet. You have a cell phone that can easily text. You’ve got a laptop configured just the way you want it. Maybe you have a Kindle for reading, or an iPad. And when the next new thing comes along, some of you will line up on the first day it’s available.
So why can’t work keep up? Why are you forced to use an unfamiliar, and sometimes outdated, operating system? Why do you need a second laptop, maybe an older and clunkier one? Why do you need a second cell phone with a new interface, or a BlackBerry, when your phone already does e-mail? Or a second BlackBerry tied to corporate e-mail? Why can’t you use the cool stuff you already have?
More and more companies are letting you. They’re giving you an allowance and allowing you to buy whatever laptop you want, and to connect into the corporate network with whatever device you choose. They’re allowing you to use whatever cell phone you have, whatever portable e-mail device you have, whatever you personally need to get your job done. And the security office is freaking.
Mine is an organisation with more than the ordinary tendency to – and justification for – freaking. But the security model, and the wider organisational model from which it derives, are looking increasingly brittle. We can no longer afford to pay large sums for greater disfunctionality. Something will have to give.
That’s as far as I got on the way this morning. Now I am on the way back. Not much has changed, except that it’s late enough for it to be not worth the hassle of battling the woeful combination of appalling mobile service along this line and a laptop setup which means starting from scratch every time the connection coughs. Unread emails will stay unread for a while longer.
The real question, of course, is not whether I should be allowed to create my working environment and link it with the department’s systems. I am pretty clear that I should – but equally sure that that puts me in a pretty small minority (but in five years? ten?). Big organisations tend not to be good at catering to small niche requirements, so that wait will continue. But that does not mean that the subversive impact of what ostensibly started as a routine and unavoidable technology update will not be powerful and ineluctable. The introduction of new tools always gives more power to those best able to use them – and they are rarely those who were the masters of the previous toolkit. That much is standard innovators’ dilemma territory. There is any number of wider effects though, of which three are particularly in my mind at the moment:
Trust and self-control When I wrote about the socially mediated workspace a couple of years ago, it was to make the point that it was no longer just the case that home technology is often more modern and more powerful than office technology, but that the disparity is increasingly about the social use of technology, rather than the technology itself. But the power of social tools to amplify knowledge and connections is only available if organisations and managers are much less controlling, and individuals accept that that makes responsibility squarely rest with each of them – though see that earlier post for some thoughts on why that may be harder to do in some organisations than others. Trust must first be given and then earned. It doesn’t work the other way round.
Knowledge is not power For bureaucracies in particular, knowledge has often been power. Being a gateway in a traditional organisation is not at all the same as being a connector. That will never entirely change: not everybody can know everything, and some forms of knowledge and of the skills to make effective use of it will always be personal and valuable. But knowledge about knowledge is a different matter. What gatekeepers do in practice is often to control knowledge about where the knowledge is, as much as they control the knowledge itself. If everybody has effective tools for finding what they need, the consequences are enormous.
The web is the natural unit of organisation I don’t mean by that that the browser should be the gateway to everything, but that many to many connections are ever more important. That is very different from the hegemony of the organisation chart. Distributed knowledge will reassemble and reconnect itself in unpredictable and powerful ways.
None of those three is a necessary consequence of updating technology. We can probably cling on to the twentieth century for a while longer if we really put our minds to it. Nor are they the only or the most important consequences – I don’t pretend to be able to predict what those might turn out to be. But they are to me a sufficient consequence: sufficient to make it more than worthwhile to invest effort not in making them happen (I am not sure that that can be done), but in tackling things which get in the way of their happening.
This could all get quite exciting. All we need now is the shiny new kit – and only another year to wait.
8 September 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Schneier on Security: Consumerization and Corporate IT Security So why can’t work keep up? Why are you forced to use an unfamiliar, and sometimes outdated, operating system? Why do you need a second laptop, maybe an older and clunkier one? Why do you need a second cell phone with a new interface, or a BlackBerry, when your phone already does e-mail? Or a second BlackBerry tied to corporate e-mail? Why can’t you use the cool stuff you already have?
- A Morose and Downbeat Woman is My Co-Pilot – Boing Boing In over one hundred experiments, research emerging from my lab has shown that social behaviors and responses appear in full force when people interact with technology. That is, people treat computers as if they were real people.
- Paul Rubin: Ten Fallacies About Web Privacy – WSJ.com This notion is counterintuitive; we are not used to the concept that something can be known and at the same time no person knows it. But this is true of much online information.
- The End of Management – WSJ.com Other management icons of recent decades earned their reputations by attacking entrenched corporate cultures, bypassing corporate hierarchies, undermining corporate structures, and otherwise using the tactics of revolution in a desperate effort to make the elephants dance. The best corporate managers have become, in a sense, enemies of the corporation. The reasons for this are clear enough. Corporations are bureaucracies and managers are bureaucrats. Their fundamental tendency is toward self-perpetuation. They are, almost by definition, resistant to change. They were designed and tasked, not with reinforcing market forces, but with supplanting and even resisting the market.
- Stop the Panic on Air Security I tell people that if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. The very definition of “news” is “something that hardly ever happens.” It’s when something isn’t in the news, when it’s so common that it’s no longer news — car crashes, domestic violence — that you should start worrying.
- Multi-tasking media consumption on rise among Britons, says Ofcom study | Media | The Guardian The gap between the way different generations use old and new media is closing fast. For the first time, more than 50% of over-55s have broadband at home, and a third are sending and reading emails each day
- Global Village Governance: Is Open Government absolute? I personally support deliberative privacy with transparency of participation – publication of who is part of the early stage discussions. The results should be disclosed early enough that positions are not fully formed (and we find ourselves in faux consultation), while allowing enough time to develop ideas so that the subsequent dialogue is effective. In many ways, public officials are caught either way: when ideas are first floated they are criticised for being short on detail, and if they present detailed proposals they are criticised for not consulting widely enough.
7 September 2010
The most common search term which brings people to this blog, by a massive margin, is ‘then a miracle occurs’ and variants on it. I am pretty sure that that they are using image search and are looking for the famous cartoon which I used in this post about putting government in orbit. Whether any of them then bother to read the post, I have no way of knowing.
But I amuse myself with the thought that the ineffable wisdom of crowds has discerned that public strategy is inextricably linked with the search for miracles.
(the second most popular search term, even more curiously is ‘emma mulqueeny’ – I do not dare link to the picture it relates to given her response when I used it, but the power of google cannot be gainsaid)
7 September 2010
The end of history will come not when nothing more ever changes, but when nobody can work out what has actually happened. We may be closer to that point than we like to think.
In the world of organisations, historically, the creation of records was a by-product of actually doing the work. It wasn’t hard to remember to do the filing, because the file – and before that the ledger – was the unit of activity. Sorting out the files of a few years before to weed out the ephemeral was a bit more of a chore, but no more than that. And while there might be newer and shinier filing cabinets, and while metal was replaced by plastic at the ends of the treasury tags, fundamentally nothing had changed for decades. Historians of today are still in that world since they operate with the time lag of the thirty year rule, and it will be a few years yet before the reduction to twenty years makes much difference to that.
James Lapping has recently argued that in each of the last eight centuries there has been a standard way of keeping records, but that the explosion of systems and technologies around the beginning of this century means that those standards have vanished:
In the 20th century there was competition between companies supplying organisations with paper, filing stationery and filing cabinets. But none of those companies were trying to disrupt the way individuals communicated or stored information. No company was trying to come up with an alternative to the hard copy document, or an alternative to the practice of gathering hard copy documents together into files. They could not have been able to disrupt these practices even if they had wanted to.
In the 21st century there has been a constant stream of new formats and applications disrupting the way people record and communicate information. Documents are still important. But successive waves of new formats (e-mail, instant message, blogs, discussion boards, wikis, status updates) have come in alongside the document.
I doubt that there has ever been a time when people created records for the sake of it beyond any immediate purpose they may have had for them (though I say that with the insight of a practising bureaucrat, rather than with the knowledge of a historian). If that’s right, it’s probably a safe bet that our successors will be no more motivated to do so than we are. So if progressing the work continues to diverge from creating records of what has been done, the raw material of history may be thinner in future than it has been for centuries (and history here means medium term institutional memory as much as it does the work of historians). That problem will not be solved by exhortations to do better filing: it will be solved, if at all, by tools which support what people are trying to do in the short term while quietly adding what may be needed for the longer term – which is easier said than done, as James Lapping notes:
If you can’t predict what format or what applications people are going to use within your organisation then your only option is to have a system that will manage records produced in any format, in any application. [...] However there are a great many unanswered questions about the model. Even if the functionality is there, no-one knows how organisations could make it work. There are no case studies out there that I have heard of, and no guidance notes from any national archive or professional society.
On the face of it, all that is a strange state of affairs. In the wider online world, the worry is that we will remember too much, not too little, with ever greater concern being expressed. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported an interview with Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google:
“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” he says. He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.
Even more pertinently, the New York Times ran a long essay a few weeks ago called The Web Means the End of Forgetting:
All around the world, political leaders, scholars and citizens are searching for responses to the challenge of preserving control of our identities in a digital world that never forgets. Are the most promising solutions going to be technological? Legislative? Judicial? Ethical? A result of shifting social norms and cultural expectations? Or some mix of the above? Alex Türk, the French data-protection commissioner, has called for a “constitutional right to oblivion” that would allow citizens to maintain a greater degree of anonymity online and in public places. In Argentina, the writers Alejandro Tortolini and Enrique Quagliano have started a campaign to “reinvent forgetting on the Internet,” exploring a range of political and technological ways of making data disappear.
Of course, that may be plain wrong, as Scott Rosenberg has trenchantly argued in a post on the NYT article
There is an entropic quality to everything that is shared online. Data gets lost; servers die; databases are corrupted; formats fall into disuse; storage media deteriorate; backups fail.The Web is now old enough for us to know just how badly links rot over time. Much of the material from the early days of the Web is already gone. Facebook and Twitter actually make it nearly impossible for you to find older material, even stuff that you’ve contributed yourself. The more dynamic the Web gets and the more stuff we move into “the cloud,” the less confident we can be that information that once was public will remain available to the public.
There are plenty of versions of this dilemma around once we start looking for them. Take the apparently simple case of how storing personal photographs differs between the twentieth century and the twenty first. Deane Barker reflected recently on being asked to select some photographs – why choose, he asks, when it is so easy to keep all of them. He concludes with the interesting thought:
So, image media has officially been reversed. The digital version used to be an annoying stepping stone to a physical version. Now, the physical version is almost a weird afterthought.
Almost simultaneously, and as far as I know with no connection, John Naughton was reporting and endorsing precisely the opposite argument:
Parr thinks that we should also print our pictures, and I suspect he’s right. “We are in danger”, he says,
of having a whole generation – and this will continue into the future – that has no family albums, because people just leave them on their computer, and then suddenly they will be deleted. You have to print them and put them in an album or a box, otherwise they could be lost. And write captions. You might think you are going to remember what is happening in a picture, but you probably won’t in 10 years’ time.
So where does all that leave our debt to posterity when, notoriously, posterity has done nothing for us?
The approach for the last ten years or so has been, in effect, to create an electronic version of the old paper filing system. The Modernising Government white paper stated in 1999 that:
It is our aim that by 2004 all newly created public records will be electronically stored and retrieved.
Some departments spent a lot of time and money on failing to reach that objective, others did little or nothing and also failed to meet it. What those systems demonstrated, in my very limited experience, was essentially that users are very intolerant of friction, of doing anything at all which got in the way of their immediate task. Confronted with systems which imposed the least degree of friction, they simply worked round the obstacle. I claim no expertise in this area, so it may be that the tools have now improved so dramatically that the friction has completely vanished, but whatever the degree of improvement, that still feels like a model locked in to an old way of defining the problem.
The old model assumes that archive capacity is a constrained resource. But what if it isn’t?
There are two aspects to that question: what we have the capacity to store and what we have the capability to find afterwards. Historically the two were closely linked: storage was physical and had to be highly organised in order to stand any chance of finding anything later. But on the face of it, both those constraints are now broken. We can store pretty much what we like, and even at eye-watering enterprise storage prices, I strongly suspect that it is frequently more expensive to go through the process of deciding not to store something than it is just to let it be stored (though it is even more certain that those costs fall on completely different budgets, that the second is visible and the first is not, and that as a result the trade off is not optimised).
As Scott Rosenberg put it in a piece I quoted from five years ago,
My in box is not a desk that must be cleared. It is a river from which I can always easily fish whatever needs my attention. Why try to push the river? Computer storage is cheaper than my time; archiving is easier than deleting.
Finding things again remains a challenge: Rosenberg’s argument about entropy and Lapping’s about the need to manage not just current formats but obsolete ones and those yet to be invented are both powerful ones. Even there though, the quality of search tools and the availability of the computing power needed to make them effective strongly supports the shift from the old approach to the new. It doesn’t matter how big the haystack is, if a search for ‘needle’ always returns the needle you are looking for.
History will, of course, look after itself. It always has. But the future history of our time will be different from our histories of past times, and that will not be because we have an eye to the future, but because we are always relentlessly focused on the present.
Image by curiousyellow, licensed under creative commons, some rights reserved.
16 August 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Schneier on Security: A Revised Taxonomy of Social Networking Data Below is my taxonomy of social networking data [...]:
- Service data is the data you give to a social networking site in order to use it. [...]
- Entrusted data is what you post on other people’s pages. It’s basically the same stuff as disclosed data, but the difference is that you don’t have control over the data once you post it — another user does.
- Incidental data is what other people post about you: a paragraph about you that someone else writes, a picture of you that someone else takes and posts. Again, it’s basically the same stuff as disclosed data, but the difference is that you don’t have control over it, and you didn’t create it in the first place.
- Behavioral data is data the site collects about your habits by recording what you do and who you do it with.[...]
- Derived data is data about you that is derived from all the other data. For example, if 80 percent of your friends self-identify as gay, you’re likely gay yourself.
- Ideal Government » Blog Archive » Databases can’t fix society. But society can fix the databases The point about the Databankendämmerung isn’t that all databases are evil. It’s that the state can’t fix society’s complex human problems with giant databases.
Weirdly enough, however, the opposite will turn out to be true. Even the worthwhile databases are still plagued with errors, omissions and duplications, They need our help. Databases can’t fix society. But, given the tools, society can start to fix the databases. That’s a much more promising way forward.
- The minor issue of scaling up by 267 million percent | The Democratic Society More interesting is the (unasked) question of how you can give 65 million people the same sense of participation and investment (and thus the same willingness to be radical) as twenty-four.
- Who talks in riddles, who talks in reasons? – The elephant in the room: web activism and the state I want to come at the topic from a slightly different angle and talk about the interaction between web activists and the state. What is the role of online grassroots and third sector projects in opening up politics and helping government engage with the public? And what are the state’s responsibilities, here – how should government engage with grassroots social enterprise, and how can the state and the third sector best work together to improve our society?
- India – Harry Metcalfe And that, I think, is the lesson. In these villages, everyone knew the Panchayat members. And when the members walk down the street, people go up to them, and air their concerns. As more than one person told us, politics in India is very personal. People know who to ask, and how the system works — primarily because it is simple, and they are close to it. At least, when it comes to Panchayati Raj*.But that is the polar opposite of the UK, where almost no one knows their Councillors, and where engaging with local government means climbing a nigh-impassable mountain of tedious bureaucratic complexity. Where, unsurprisingly, most people decide it’s not worth the effort. And whence the chattering classes are born: that particular breed of people who enjoy traversing the peaks and valleys of big bureaucracies. If that’s the problem that the Big Society is supposed to solve, I’m all for it. And I think the Indians are probably lighting the path.
12 August 2010
I know it left Sheffield last night. I know it got sorted in Birmingham. I know it got to Croydon. I know it’s on a van on its way to me. The only thing I don’t know is the one thing I want to know: when is it going to get here?
That’s partly because there is something genuinely unknowable about this: predicting where a van touring the back streets of south London is going to be at any point of a journey stretching over many hours is a mug’s game, even assuming that the drivers solve the travelling salesman problem in their heads each time they drive out of the depot.
But I suspect that there is another reason too: the reason I am interested in parcel tracking is not the reason the delivery company is interested in tracking. I want to know to know as precisely as possible when it’s going to get here and don’t very much care where it’s been along the way. The delivery company wants to keep track of it along the route, knowing where it is and who is responsible for it at each stage, but it doesn’t matter to them precisely when it arrives within a particular delivery window. Not very surprisingly, their logistics systems are good at answering the questions they are interested in and not very good at answering the questions I am interested in.
There’s one more thing which is interesting about all this: I am receiving a service, but I am not the customer
The customer is the company which sold me the stuff which is now either just round the corner or somewhere the other side of London. They can influence the delivery company’s behaviour by their purchasing and contracting decisions. Presumably one factor they take into account is any complaints they get about delivery issues, but unless the delivery company screws up pretty comprehensively, that is unlikely to weigh very heavily.
So what I get to see is some of the internal tracking information the company has anyway. That doesn’t cost them much to implement but gives the appearance of being an added service. I have no means of giving signals to delivery companies which encourage them either to create better quality information or even to let me see or use information they might already have but either haven’t worked out that I might be interested in or haven’t bothered to make available. I am not sure what that might be – I can’t know what I don’t know – but some combination of GPS tracking of the van and position in sequence (if mine is delivery 50, then knowing whether the most recent delivery is 1 or 49 tells me quite a lot) might give me a much clearer sense of what is going on – and much greater confidence that something actually is going on.
There is, of course, a public service moral to this fable. Making the data you have available is a good thing. It’s also relatively easy, so there is no reason not to do it. Building services which make use of that data is also a good thing. But even those two together don’t necessarily produce the optimum result, because the data may not have been what was most wanted or needed in the first place. And even with the extraordinary creativity of the people who have been turning open data into applications, there are still not enough ways for service users to act as customers, and still not enough being done to compensate for that by involving them much more directly in the process.
And I am still waiting for my parcel.
9 August 2010
My post last week on apps for elephants has prompted some interesting discussion. Steph Gray had some eminently sensible practical thoughts on how government could balance the need to adapt to changing demands with the need to support openness and flexibility:
Of course Government should be developing smartphone apps (though probably not iPhone exclusively) as part of communication strategies to reach mobile audiences, and building on the ‘start simple’ approaches above. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to still be spending such large sums on direct mail to businesses, for example.
But government shouldn’t be a monopoly provider, crowding out commercial or voluntary alternatives, and it should probably focus on the areas with strong social benefit but limited commercial opportunity.
Even more interestingly, Dave Briggs has argued, in effect, that we might be discussing the right issue, but that we started with the wrong question. I think he’s on to something important here: the apps issue is a special case of a much more general question, and there is a real risk that the apps bit (particularly if apps is interpreted as being just about iphones) gets in the way.
The government is strongly committed to the transparent availability of data. Its central public facing website has published an API which allows third parties to build their own variants if they want to or, more probably, to incorporate particular parts of it in their own services. So in effect the model we are moving towards is one where material is generated and can be published at a much more atomic level, making the scope of publication and the range of potential publishers into questions which are separate from the availability of the underlying material. That separation creates four broad options:
- government is a unique user interface provider
- government is a privileged user interface provider
- government is an unprivileged user interface provider
- government is only a provider of data and transactions and does not provide a user interface at all.
Traditionally, government – and all other organisations – have been in the first category. Government has been a monopoly provider of its own services and the monopoly gateway to its own data. The current shift is to somewhere between the second and the third. Even with the application of the data transparency principles, though, I am not sure that we get all the way to the third. The apps question is essentially a question about the fourth option: for at least some devices and services, should government exclude itself from providing the service directly at all? But that isn’t inherently a question about apps at all, and in turn splits between a pragmatic approach (some markets are too small for government to be justified in serving them) and a more principled one (there is a better outcome if government avoids the risk of crowding out nimble innovators).
My instinctive view remains that government cannot abdicate the responsibility for user interfaces, whether online or in any other channel. It has a responsibility to make sure that they exist, that they are usable, that they are accurate and up to date and that they are where citizens and services users expect to find them. The possible paradox is that government has no means of discharging that responsibility in an option four world, even if it were the case that the absence of the elephant led to a flowering of innovation and a better set of solutions.
It is clear though that we are leaving the option one world behind and that what we are seeing is some unresolved tension between options two and three, much of which is about finding ways of giving confidence and safety to the mice without hobbling the elephant altogether. Or perhaps is about looking for ways of being confident that the collective contribution of the mice will fill any gap created by the absence of the elephant. As Steph points out in his comment on Dave’s post, third party providers have not yet shown eagerness even for apparently attractive opportunities, and it is far from clear that there is a commercial model yet established which will come anywhere close to creating a substitute for government’s own efforts. That may mean that we need smarter business models or it may mean that we need to be better about bringing skills and dynamism into government. And undoubtedly it is about better understanding of what customers want and need and about better understanding how to translate that into effective service design. The elephant has not always been very good at that – but the mice have something to learn here too.
More generally, the elephant needs to create space for the mice. But that doesn’t give a mouse the right to require the elephant to be silent. It would be well worth thinking more systematically about how option three might be made to work, but we shouldn’t assume that’s just a step towards option four. And in the meantime, Steph’s five points are not a bad place to start making it all work:
- Establish standards, and good practice (COI already has something, but it needs updating: http://coi.gov.uk/guidance.php?page=319)
- Expect strategies (demand that new mobile projects can demonstrate an audience, a business case, an evaluation process etc)
- Mandate open source data/APIs (so the wider ecosystem can kick in where there’s a desire to do so; and get your licensing straight)
- Control costs (itemise spending on mobile web/apps, count traffic properly, publish it all)
- Start simple (optimise web for mobile devices, use SMS, integrate mobile with regular web platforms, build standards-compliant online services)
4 August 2010
The government is an elephant, as I have noted before. It tries to dance, but finds it hard, and the smaller animals around it can get hurt. The solution may be for the elephant to stand stock still, to do nothing for fear of treading on something more nimble, but more easily hurt. Or it may be to learn to tread more carefully, to place its feet carefully, but to keep moving nevertheless. Or it may be to charge ahead regardless and let others survive as best they can – for it’s the law of the jungle out there. There is still too much of the third around, but that’s not the subject for today. It’s the balance between the first and the second I want to reflect on, prompted by a flurry of commentary a few weeks ago (this is a blog post which has the gestation of an elephant as well as pictures of them) on whether government should be developing iphone apps. It started with Rory Clellan-Jones using FoI to find out what was going on, which became a story only when the Home Office declined to answer on security grounds. The challenge is a simple one: in hard times (perhaps in any times) should government be frittering money on toys for a tiny minority:
Now all of these apps are free to download, so is this really a great use of scarce government cash? You might argue that it is an excellent way for government departments to use the latest techniques to get important messages about health, work and transport issues to citizens. But do people who can already afford a very expensive device really need free help from the government to find a job or quit smoking?
I think that misses the point and misses the more important question. It’s three years since I predicted that:
The iPhone marks a further step in the direction of powerful mobile computers which happen to do a bit of phoning on the side. And the fact that the most recent iPod is pretty much an iPhone without the phone bit underlines the power and attractiveness of the computing platform. That starts to make an important difference. Not now, not even perhaps when everybody has got their next mobile phone upgrade. But it’s a pretty safe bet that by the time of the upgrade after that – and so in three to five years from now – the iPhone, or a myriad of iPhone imitators, will be sufficiently ubiquitous to be a communications platform we will need to consider as a channel in its own right.
Pleasing though it is to be spot on on the timing, I don’t think that’s a forecast which deserves credit for much prescience. For lots of people, the device they carry round with them is now a computer which happens to have phone functionality (but which isn’t necessarily used much for phoning people) rather than a phone which happens to do some other things as well. On almost every dimension – processor speed, storage capacity, graphics quality, bandwidth - the thing I still call my phone has a higher specification than my first computer (and probably my second and third as well). So apps get made, websites get mobile versions, people are less dependent on tethered computers and increasingly use features such as location awareness, which big grey box computers don’t do at all.
What, then, should government do, as a service provider, as a provider of information, and perhaps as a facilitator of popular engagement? One possible answer is to do nothing at all. But though that may be superficially attractive, it has some slightly extreme implications for the longer term. There was a time when telephones of any kind were scarce and expensive. It’s not so very long ago that I remember being told that a service should not be offered by phone because there was no demand and all the customers preferred to go to an office. Not many years after that, I was upbraided when talking about exactly the same service for suggesting that it should be offered online when, I was firmly told, the customers only wanted a telephone service and always had done. In other words, governments cannot stay still in the face of changing technologies and communication preferences – otherwise we would still be dealing with the Circumlocution Office.
Government is not alone in this problem. The BBC has lived with a variant of it for many years, where every technical innovation for the last half century has prompted the question of whether its adoption would represent unfair competition. Interestingly, the BBC Trust has just decided that smartphone apps do not in themselves represent so substantial a change that a full review is needed:
Trustees concluded that the Apps would not represent a significant change to the BBC’s existing Public Services and that a Public Value Test is therefore not required. The Trust also expects the BBC to make its Apps available on other operating systems as soon as possible on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.
The context is different, of course, but self-evidently nobody would now know or care about the BBC if all it were doing was broadcasting medium wave radio for one hour a day. It has had to adapt because the world in which it is operating has kept changing.
So if you start with the assumption that government has to deliver its services and has to communicate, then the argument that it should do so only through the communication channels of the previous generation seems to me unsustainable. If government is in the business of service at all, it should be efficient, up to date, and sensitive to the needs and preferences of the users of the services. That doens’t mean chasing every technological fad, but it does mean it was right for government to have web sites well before web access was anything close to ubiquitous, and exactly the same arguments now apply to the next generation of devices. It also doesn’t mean that because government communication is good, all government communications are good – and similarly, the argument that it may be good for government to create apps, does not at all mean that every app is a good one, still less that it is good only because it was created by government.
But of course you don’t have to start with that assumption. The pure version of the alternative view is that government is no good at service design and so should, at most, do the back office and supply the interfaces to support a competitive richness of user interfaces. There are examples of that to be found – the little ecosystem of apps feeding off the new London cycle hire scheme, for example (though even there the apps aren’t vital to using the service), but none that I know of in the mainstream of government service delivery (with the partial exception of tax returns, though the history and issues are a bit different there). Andrea di Maio comes close to making that argument:
So what should governments do? Well, just step back and think that iPhone is a consumer choice. So why shouldn’t those same consumers who are eager to use the iPhone get an application developed and be made responsible to develop the processes that are required to allow government to use it at no extra cost?
Alan Mather comes down the other way, arguing that the choice should be between having a single centralised app factory, for efficiency and consistency, and government not doing this at all:
Neither solution is ideal but, on balance, I favour the former. At the same time, I favour controls over what gets built and why, to ensure that there are no vanity projects – ie that each app fits a real need that is backed up by strategy and underpinning data.
Between those two views, I am closer to Alan’s. Andrea has uncharacteristically put too much weight on the device and too little on the context. Yes, of course, right now having an iPhone is a consumer choice, just as once having a telephone at all and later having a mobile telephone of any kind was a consumer choice. But in a country where there are more mobile phones than people, assuming that smartphone users will continue indefinitely to be a quirky minority seems a little odd.
All of which clears the way to the potentially much more interesting question: what difference might it make anyway?
The temptation is always to use the new technology to replicate the functionality of the old, and only gradually to recognise that the new technology can do genuinely new things. Martin Stewart-Weeks homes in on that:
At what point does the technology-process reform interaction tip over from one to the other – that is, tip over from making the current process work better (do your tax assessment on line instead of on paper)to coming up with an entirely different process altogether (but which is only imaginable or even feasible if you can do it with whatever is the latest version of ‘online’)?
I’m increasingly interested in how we might speed up the process of imagining, inventing and then innovating what that “entirely new process” might be. The problem right now is that much eGovt talk tends to a slightly self-congratulatory obsession with transformation when the process realities that most people are faced with in their dealings with government are stubbornly untransformed (although, in some cases, mightily changed…which is perhaps enough?).
But smartphones are not just technically different, they are socially different, partly of course because the phone itself is only one part of the difference. David Wilcox has conjured up the metaphorical concept of a social apps store, but it’s a metaphor which may in some ways escape into reality. The devices, whatever they may be, will fade into the background again, where they belong, leaving the interactions between people and between people and the institutions and services of their government to develop as they will.
So the elephant will have its apps. But maybe the apps will help it be less elephantine.
Some further thoughts now added in a new post, prompted by interesting reactions to this one.
3 August 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Memex 1.1 » Blog Archive » Quote of the Day The 20th century was about sorting out supply. The 21st is going to be about sorting out demand. The Internet makes everything available, but mere availability is meaningless if the products remain unknown to potential buyers. – Gavin Potter
- Study: Ages of social network users | Royal Pingdom How old is the average Twitter or Facebook user? What about all the other social network sites, like MySpace, LinkedIn, and so on? How is age distributed across the millions and millions of social network users out there?To find out, we pulled together age statistics for 19 different social network sites, and crunched the numbers.
- Clive Thompson on the Death of the Phone Call | Magazine We’re moving, in other words, toward a fascinating cultural transition: the death of the telephone call. This shift is particularly stark among the young. Some college students I know go days without talking into their smartphones at all. I was recently hanging out with a twentysomething entrepreneur who fumbled around for 30 seconds trying to find the option that actually let him dial someone.This generation doesn’t make phone calls, because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways: texting, chatting, and social-network messaging. And we don’t just have more options than we used to. We have better ones: These new forms of communication have exposed the fact that the voice call is badly designed. It deserves to die.
- jaggeree /Blog : : Developing more thoughtfully for digital inclusion For me it’s quite simple. If you make it enjoyable for people to be online, then any difficulties they had getting online the first time, either through fear, through nervousness about computers or security, or what a mouse is will melt away. They’ll want more wonder and will see some immediate emotional benefits. They’ll learn about being online on the real web rather than on training games. All too often in inclusion people have aimed for the statistical jugular about signing up for specific things and jumping through hoops. This stuff needs measuring, but I worry that unless people find the things online that matter to them and enjoy them, then we’ll lose quite a lot of the people who we’ve got online quite quickly after that initial burst.
- How the Internet Organizes the Unemployed | techPresident Curiously, considering the persistence of high unemployment, and all kinds of evidence that unemployed people are going online in huge numbers to find help (they have more spare time than the average person, don’t forget), there’s very little sign that anybody–government, labor unions, or other kinds of political organization–is explicitly trying to connect with the unemployed using the web.
- Schneier on Security: Economic Considerations of Website Password Policies We conclude that the sites with the most restrictive password policies do not have greater security concerns, they are simply better insulated from the consequences of poor usability. Online retailers and sites that sell advertising must compete vigorously for users and traffic. In contrast to government and university sites, poor usability is a luxury they cannot afford. This in turn suggests that much of the extra strength demanded by the more restrictive policies is superfluous: it causes considerable inconvenience for negligible security improvement.
- brian hoadley – The 80:20 rule of Agile and UCD I think that we need to regain balance in the system. The pendulum has swung from using a methodology (Waterfall) that people felt took too long to get to a deliverable, to one (Agile) that gets there quickly and incrementally, but may never give us the product we wanted.
- TED Global Internet Pledge – TED Global Oxford | Talk About Local The C19th underpinning design principle of state institutions and indeed legislation is the postal service. Long phase, slow, low intensity communication with the public. In the late C20th the institutions adapted to the telephone for service delivery although not policy dialogue by establishing huge contact centre estates. But have not yet made the necessary adaptions for the internet and indeed the C21st.
- How to work with online communities at Helpful Technology There are as many ways to tap into and use these incredibly precious resources as there are facets to human nature. And it’s because of this humanity – and hopefully goes without saying – that communities need to be treated with respect. On the one hand, there is a strong current of volunteering and willingness to help good causes. On the other, there’s the need to eat. Sure, Government is strapped for cash, but there are lots of ways Government can help without spending much money