Michelangelo explains open data

23 September 2010

The pope, it is said, asked Michelangelo, ‘How do you know what to cut away?’

And Michelangelo replied, ‘It’s simple, I just remove everything which doesn’t look like David’

Hadley Beeman wonders how best to characterise the new approach she is devising to aggregate public data to allow questions to be asked of it and services to be built on it which do not need to understand the underlying data. How is that useful to users?

It’s simple. Just throw away everything which isn’t the answer to their question. What’s left is the distillation of value.

Shadow of Michelangelo’s David on wall, Piazza Della Signoria, Florence, Italy by Robert Crum licensed under creative commons, some rights reserved.

Interesting elsewhere – 23 September 2010

23 September 2010

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

  • What Is The Vision For Open Government Entrepreneurship? Why “the fall” of the goverati, then, you may ask. Because while there certainly is a core group leveraging social media, open source software, cloud computing, and mobile and geo-location technology and knowledge of government and the non-profit space to do well (and it may be that technically, this group has grown in size), the general enthusiasm, sense of adventure into the unknown, and novelty of trying things has largely disintegrated into a large conglomorate of events and blogs and apps with no general directon, and no emerging, clear standout businesses
  • A Look at IDEOs Book of the Future – Media – GOOD – StumbleUpon What I actually want right now, much more than a Book of the Future with new “informational layers” and a social recommendation system, is simply more time to read the books of the present.
  • ‘No way to run a life let alone a country’ | Public | Public As Clarke put it: “In my view, greater efforts should be made both to delegate more decisions to junior ministers and to arrange business so that fewer decisions needed to be put to ministers at all.”Civil servants need to be cleverer in getting ministerial agreement to criteria for decisions to be taken under delegated powers. Ministers needed to be cleverer at refusing to be seduced into believing that they need to take every decision or know every individual policy detail. The culture for ministers and officials needs to be changed.”
  • Exciting times – a rare personal blog post But most importantly, suddenly for the first time I feel like people in government are listening and people in society are better able than ever to use the web to just get on and make amazing things happen for themselves with or without the help of government (I prefer with, but that’s just me!).
  • My First Week with the iPhoneBehind the Curtain | Behind the Curtain Last Wednesday, my life changed forever. I got an iPhone. I consider it the greatest thing to happen to the blind for a very long time, possibly ever. It offers unparalleled access to properly made applications, and changed my life in twenty-four hours.
  • Who is offline and who is online? It’s now very stark the difference between the big groups of our society who are online and who are offline
  • Six Reasons Why I’m Not On Facebook, By Wired UK’s Editor | Epicenter | Wired.com My cautious use of the social networks has nothing to do with paranoia about privacy; and yes, I celebrate the unprecedented transparency and connectivity that these services can empower. But what’s increasingly bothering me is the wider social and political cost of our ever-greater enmeshment in these proprietary networks. Here are half a dozen reasons why.
    1) Private companies aren’t motivated by your best interests
    2) They make it harder to reinvent yourself
    3) Information you supply for one purpose will invariably be used for another …
    4) … and there’s a good chance it will be used against you
    5) People screw up, and give away more than they realise
    6) And besides, why should we let businesses privatize our social discourse?
  • The Myers-Briggs Personality Test When you see a topic that purports to be psychological being used in practically every professional discipline except psychology, you have very good reason to be skeptical of its actual value. Should we dismiss the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a psychometric?
  • Improving visualisation – Gallery Good data visualisation can help users explore and understand the patterns and trends in data, and also communicate that understanding to others to help them make robust decisions based on the data being presented. This site supports public sector researchers improve the way that they visualise data, by providing good practice examples and case studies, practical and step-by-step guides on how to visualise data, and links to more detailed resources.
  • The Elephant of Change | Athena’s Lightning – A blog by Lovisa A. Williams A number of people have attempted to tell us what Government 2.0 is.  Some will talk about data as the savior of government, others will talk about government as a platform, more will talk about a great new tool that will change the world and government.  These seem to be the majority of the conversations that occurred at  O’Reilly Media‘s Government 2.0 Summit.  But they all seem not to see the elephant in the room.  And this elephant is change.Change in what government is, how it works, what it provides to people, and who makes up the government.  This change has been caused by the introduction of new technologies that provide us with both opportunities and challenges, but they are only tools.   In order to take advantage of these tools, the government needs to redefine who it is and how it works.  It needs to conquer and embrace the changes coming through the introduction of these disruptive technologies.
  • The Bamboo Project Blog: 10 Reasons NOT to Ban Social Media in Your Organization You’re right. Staff WILL goof off. But here’s something great about social media that I don’t think you’ve realized. Did you know with social media you can actually monitor goofing off even BETTER? I can’t tell if you played solitaire on your laptop unless I actually catch you doing it. But I CAN tell if you uploaded your vacation photos or played Farmville on Facebook during work hours. I don’t know if you spent an hour on the phone to your sister. But I CAN see if you were tweeting about lunch and your favorite episode of Glee when you were supposed to be working on that report. See? Social media is actually your greatest dream–documented proof of all the ways your staff is screwing around! The faster you get them on there, the quicker you’ll be able to prove what you’ve suspected all along!

What if bears had indoor plumbing?

22 September 2010

The pope is a catholic, it goes without saying. But perhaps it would be better if sometimes he were not.

When papal elections come round, there is always a little comment in the press coverage to the effect that the college of cardinals can elect anybody they please – they don’t have to choose one of their own number and don’t even have to choose somebody who is already a priest. In modern times, it is of course inconceivable that they would do any such thing. One effect of that is almost unavoidably to make the inside of the organization more important than the outside, and that in turn may be one reason why the church sometimes struggles to find points of engagement with outsiders.

This though is not an ecclesiastical blog, so my interest is not in debating the strengths and weaknesses of the catholic (or any other) church, but in reflecting on how that approach to leadership is reflected in the UK public sector.

There are public sector organisations whose leadership is purely internal: the police and the armed forces come immediately to mind. There is another group where leadership has traditionally been internal but has become less so: schools and the civil service may be examples here.  There is a third group where leadership is normally provided by people from outside the culture and the history of the organization, most prominently politicians. That effect has been particularly marked in recent UK history: two long periods of government meant that in both 1997 and 2010, few incoming ministers had any past experience in the role: in 1997, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown spent their first days in government as prime minister and chancellor; in 2010 David Cameron and George Osborne had each spent two years as a special adviser, but for them too, their first days as minister were in the two most importatn roles in government.

I have now been through two changes of government as a civil servant. Or rather, as it’s a process still with some time to run, I am now going through my second change of government as a civil servant.  Leaving aside the political changes, my experience is that they bring two things, both wholly to the good – energy and fresh thinking.

The first is very simple.  Government is a relentless and exhausting business. Over the life of a parliament, and even more so over the life of a government which stretches over several parliaments, the constant pressure of daily events gradually drains energy levels.  The second is a consequence of the fact that it is very hard to generate a new set of ideas while still in the middle of developing and implementing your first set. Governments start with a stock of ideas and find it hard replenish the stock as quickly as it is used up. Oppositions – or at least oppositions with a serious wish to be in government – focus on building up their stock of ideas because by definition they cannot point to their record of delivery.  Whitehall may not have the strongest reputation in the world for innovation, openness to new ideas and responsiveness to its external environment – but I shudder to think what it would be like if the party of government were constant too.

This is not an effect limited to politics. We all have a bit of it any time we start a new job, and anybody who has done that will remember the struggle to retain the sense of being an outsider, and the power of the devastaing naive question which that can bring. But even the sum of all those smaller experiences is constrained if we only move within an organisation or a culture which is familiar.  That doesn’t mean a mad merry go round of moving everybody into jobs for which they are unqualified (even within the mandarinate, that approach is less fashionable than it used to be): in my experience, a very small number of outsiders in the right roles and at the right levels can make a massively disproportionate impact (and while ministers certainly fit that description, they aren’t the people I had in mind).

So organisations where that does not happen naturally may be losing something intangible but valuable. Organisations where it is precluded altogether are cutting themselves off from a potentially powerful source of energy, and need to think about how they can substitute for it.

So, two conclusions from all that, one pertinent and one impertinent. The pertinent one is that we would do well to reproduce the benefits of the political cycle into the leadership of other organisations – and challenge the received wisdom that established expertise is always more important than the insight of an outsider. The impertinent one is to wonder who might make a good pope.

Aphorism 33

21 September 2010

Central units excel at producing coherent strategies that departments then don’t implement.

William Perrin

Interesting elsewhere – 15 September 2010

15 September 2010

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

  • A Shiny World: Networks & Nudging (cross posted to Mud in my eyes) Never underestimate the value of knowing others can. Never underestimate the power of following others. But most of all, understand that the key to behaviour change is a weird mix of technology, digital and sociology and psychology these days and more research badly needs to be done to get to the root of what works and is efficient, and what doesn’t and is not.
  • The crisis in customer service : The New Yorker Modern businesses do best at improving their performance when they can use scalable technologies that increase efficiency and drive down cost. But customer service isn’t scalable in the same way; it tends to require lots of time and one-on-one attention. Even when businesses try to improve service, they often fail. They carefully monitor call centers to see how long calls last, how long workers are sitting at their desks, and so on. But none of this has much to do with actually helping customers, so companies end up thinking that their efforts are adding up to a much better job than they really do.
  • Where am I? (Part 1) « The NoBull Way I conclude that the Big Society debate, on a national and theoretical level, just points us unerringly back at the great big questions about the state and the individual, structure and emergence, cathedrals and bazaars, open source and proprietary, analytical and instinctive. David Cameron’s statements about the Big Society constitute a position on some of these things, and amount to a refreshed articulation of them, but unsurprisingly they aren’t a solution to those big dichotomies. Perhaps the most charitable (sic) interpretation is that, applying big society principles to the Big Society project itself, Cameron is conceding on behalf of top-down government that there aren’t any unified answers… and is inviting people to volunteer (sic) a variety of responses to the UK’s current needs, whilst offering to create an ecosystem that will better support and enable those responses.
  • In The Eye Of The Storm: Question 3 – Sharing the Platform The last part of being a platform is transactional. Should direct.gov move into directly providing transactional services into government? We always imagined it should and would. It hasn’t so far (short of providing skins for those who do provide such services). Increasingly I think this is a step too far and that it is better for departments to be required to open up the rules for their transactions and to provide white label forms that can be used by others alongside their own branded ones. The trouble here is that when sending information to government, I think I’d want to be sure that it was definitely going to government and that there was a near-zero risk of someone else seeing it. [...] So there needs to be some kind of kitemark or audit process but, at the same time, people have to recognise the need for their own diligence as evidence by the recent iTunes problems where compromised accounts were used to boost the chart ranking of books and applications.
  • Digitising the Job Centre Plus « The Great E-mancipator The report entitled “RR 679 Literature review to inform the future digitisation of Jobcentre Plus service delivery” by Grahame Whitfield, Kim Perren, David Stuart and Michael Norris is an excellent piece of work towards applying e-government to the range of government service users, over and above those it focuses on. The conclusions include examining digital exclusion due to availability, cost and competence to which the researchers conclude “the evidence strongly suggests that public services should embrace the notion that they cannot – indeed should not – try to do everything themselves. Making data available to external organisations could result in the production of a wide range of innovative applications, services and resources that would be unlikely to be developed in-house. These could augment any provision Jobcentre Plus makes itself.”
  • Political Innovation No1: Towards Interactive Government | Local Democracy When I can follow news from my neighbour’s blog on my phone, why can’t I get updates on local services on the mobile-web? When I can e-mail someone across the world and be collaborating on a document in minutes, why is it so hard to have a conversation with the council down the road? And when brands and mainstream media are doing interactivity and engagement – why are government departments struggling with it so much?

Aphorism 32

14 September 2010

The biggest mistake is to think you know what the best use for your data is, and lock the data away.

Nigel Shabolt (quoted by Yves Raimond, hat tip Lee Bryant)

The love of money

13 September 2010

The next sentence is the most uninspiring opening line you will ever read – which is why I have put this one in front of it.

This morning on my way to work I got some money out of a cash machine.

I have no idea how many times I have done that before – a couple of thousand on roughest of rough guesses.  This time was just like all those other times. With almost perfect consistency, I use cash machines to get cash.  The same amount.  And no, I don’t want a receipt, thank you.

So why, if my answers are always the same, do I always get asked the same questions? A small frustrated tweet went out to the world:

Life would be better if the first question cash machines asked after checking PIN was “The usual?”

The unexpected response, from Ruth Kennedy (who in turn had got it from Amanda Gore) was the extraordinary news that such a cash machine might exist, with a link to a fantastic design project by Ideo for a Spanish bank, BBVA, where

The question was not how to further automate the teller, but rather how to humanize the machine…

It’s what happens when you build an ATM from user up rather than components down.

Watch the video on the project site for an explanation of what’s different, though in one sense the answer is much less interesting than the way of exploring the question. For a public strategist, I think there are two important points to think about.

The first is that even services which are mundane to the point of invisibility can be radically improved, if only assumptions about how it has always been done before are jettisoned and if there is a relentless focus on helping customers get done the things they want to get done. It also requires – though this is less immediately obvious from the BBVA case study – a willingness to change things deep in the structure as well as in what is commonly understood to be the user interface. The problem with today’s cash machines is not just that they haven’t been designed to ask me whether I want the same service as last time; it is also that they and the network of which they are nodes are not designed to remember what that service was in the first place.

The second may appear to contradict the first. It is that change can be disconcerting to customers even if it is a change which quickly becomes second nature. I wrote earlier this year about the fact that however obvious self-service supermarkets and station ticket barriers may appear to us now, there was a time when they were new and disconcerting. So it is as important to understand the obstacles and inhibitors from a customer’s perspective as it is to understand the improvements they seek and will value.

We have no shortage of user interfaces where the underlying design has changed as little for as long as the basic cash machine, where quite literally we ask the question we have always asked and where the opportunities should be so much greater than for a cash machine because the underlying service the process supports is so much more complicated.

And if this is how they do business, I might just want to move my account to BBVA.

New voices of government

13 September 2010

My post from May last year on who is blogging in government is picking up a lot of fresh attention at the moment (with thanks to Dominic Campbell and others for sharing it round).  The questions of whether the approach is a useful one and, if it is, who falls into which category are still interesting ones – but please leave fresh thoughts here, as comments on the earlier post are closed as an anti-spam measure.

Interesting elsewhere – Lost Consciousness special edition – 10 September 2010

10 September 2010

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”?

On the slow train to the future

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.