Aphorism 28

22 June 2010

Social media spells the end of communicative discretion. This may be a good thing.

Charlie Beckett

Strategy, or the quest for world domination

22 June 2010

Another splendid cartoon from Rob Cottingham. Should be a helpful starting point next time we update the team plan.

Aphorism 27

21 June 2010

Responses to information are inseparable from their interests, desires, resources, cognitive capacities, and social contexts. Owing to these and other factors, people may ignore information, or misunderstand it, or misuse it. Whether and how new information is used to further public objectives depends upon its incorporation into complex chains of comprehension, action, and response.

Archon Fung, Mary Graham, and David Weil, Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency quoted by Lawrence Lessig in ‘Against Transparency’, The New Republic October 2009

From data to information… to insight?

21 June 2010

4IP announced a new investment last week:

Everybody has economic transactions with the government, whether outgoing in the form of tax, or incoming in the form of benefits, loans or grants, and in these times of fiscal austerity the project has widespread relevance by making the huge numbers we hear on the news mean something to the individual.

Where Does My Money Go? has the potential to stir things up, not only by challenging government at every level to stand by spending decisions, but also by challenging people to take pride in the financial contribution they make to society.

The Government are busily publishing hitherto secret public data and recently released the COINS database which lists detailed estimated and actual departmental spending under thousands of category headings. It’s a behemoth: 24 millions rows of information that reveal how our taxes are spent.

This is great news for those people interested and members of news and media organisations but in practice the effort required to learn where to look for information and how to interpret it is a barrier to access for the vast majority of us.

Where Does My Money Go? proposes to change this. By identifying, structuring and contextualising available data on government spending, then offering it for customisation both in a raw, standard format and through a user-friendly graphical interface. The Open Knowledge Foundation, the not-for-profit organisation behind the project, aspire to make a chess move forward in spending accountability: from transparency to accessibility.

I am not quite sure what it means to “make a chess move forward”, but the sentiment is clearly the right one. Better still, this is not the only attempt to present and make sense of the data: Rosslyn Analytics [but beware of loud sounds] has very rapidly built a front end to the COINS data, as has has the Guardian. These are all great examples of exactly the sort of thing I had in mind when I was writing last week about the move from data to design, with Where Does My Money Go? having a particular strength in clear visualisation.

But at another level, they are an indication of just how far this process has still to go:

  • It’s still a thin veneer: It’s fairly straightforward to get a sense of the big comparisons (health and defence, education and our streets), but things get patchy very rapidly.  What, for example, does ‘our streets’ cover? Well half of it turns out to be ‘housing’ (not at all the same as streets in my book) and most the of the rest is ‘unknown’. It is still very hard to work out what money is actually being spent on.
  • It’s an interpretation: The question of what goes with what, and what it should then be called is necessarily a matter of judgement.  There is nothing to be ashamed of in that, it’s completely inevitable, but if the (equally inevitably) arbitrary way that data is structured and reported drives the way that it is interpreted, there is a risk that we are not as much further forward from traditional expenditure reporting as we might like to think.  So £4 bn of ‘housing‘ expenditure under ‘our streets’ appears in a completely different place from £0.6bn of spending on ‘housing‘ under ‘helping others’.  That difference says more about the responsibilities of different government departments than it does about the fundamental difference between the different ways government contributes to the cost of housing – or does it?
  • It’s about inputs: If you work hard with this data, you can get a sense of what government spent money on.  But you can’t get much of a sense of what it used the things it bought to do, still less what happened as a result.

That risks sounding like a churlish response to some excellent work, which isn’t my intention at all.  On the contrary, it is not only useful in its own right, it helps to show what more is needed – and allows me to repeat the basic point behind this and the previous posts, that all this will be less and less about data and more and more about interpretation, presentation and engagement.

Interesting elsewhere – 18 June 2010

18 June 2010

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

  • Pareto Problems for Digital Innovation? : Tim’s Blog Is the promise of more efficient and cheaper digital services simply the result of a slight-of-hand – measuring the costs of a service based on it’s provision in the easy cases and bracketing out the tough cases which would require re-engineering systems and adding significant cost and effort if a digital service were to be a universal service?
  • ntouk – Jerry Fishenden’s new technology observations from a UK perspective The existing UK model seems to provide the worst of both worlds. In theory almost everything is outsourced, but the client is still often making the call on much of the infrastructure and the technology it embeds. Why? The result is both high cost and low impact in terms of improving our public services, whilst all the time risk is retained within the public sector (and ultimately underwritten by the taxpayer).

    From commodity services such as word processing and email to more complex service requirements, such as realtime taxation and welfare, we need to move to a model that defines very precisely the needs of the UK public sector. We also need to update our assumptions around governance, architecture and procurement to enable the public sector to become much more agile, relevant and cost-effective in the acquisition of services and capabilities.

  • The UK’s public data tsunami gathers speed But, as we all know, the usability of the data is just as important as the data itself. To the ordinary citizen, a gargantuan list of numbers means nothing. Data only becomes useful when it is rendered accessible to the citizen: the task traditionally of statisticians and, increasingly, creative web developers who ‘mash’ different data sets, drop them into data crunching tools and turn them into citizen friendly applications. From Tube schedules to postcode databases, information works best when it can be overlaid with other datasets and correlations can be made, as services such as those created by the Government’s new Transparency Advisor, Tom Steinberg.
  • How to run a GovCamp It’s a ten point plan to organising your own GovCamp type event – and it really is quite easy!
  • They’re Just Irrational? « The Baseline Scenario The problem isn’t that people have cognitive biases in assessing unlikely events. When you’re dealing with a big company like Citigroup or BP, you have many people applying lots of clever thinking to these problems. The problem is that there is a systematic bias within these companies against certain assessments and in favor of others. That is, the guy who shouts, “Danger! Danger!” will be ignored (or fired), and the guy who says, “Everything’s fine, the model says disaster can strike only happen once every hundred million years” will get the promotion — because the people in charge make more money listening to the latter guy. This is why banks don’t accidentally hold too much capital. It’s why oil companies don’t accidentally take too many safety precautions. The mistakes only go one way.
  • Survival of those that Fit « Life and Physics I was surprised to hear that the idea that the planets orbit the Sun dates back at least to ancient Greece (Aristarchus). In fact I am now reading Simon Singh’s “ Singh’s “ Big Bang“, which points out that even Copernicus’s work was ignored for many years. Copernicus and Aristarchus would have struggled for tenure and grants based on citation counts during their lifetimes. tenure and grants based on citation counts during their lifetimes. lifetimes.
  • Johnnie Moore’s Weblog: Strategy, schmategy I'm wondering whether much of our efforts to create strategy, rather like cultivating leadership skills, are based on a rather idealistic notion of what really goes on in organisations. And possibly actually conceal rather than acknowledge the very individualistic expectations of the supposed strategists.
  • How IBM does the Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) IBM employees can live where they want and work in virtual teams based on their own schedules. What holds the workforce together is the use of social networking tools and the occasional face-to-face meeting. As Paterson writes, “If IBM can do this with 200,000 people so can you.” [...]

    Another great example from IBM is how well the virtual team works even though employees are in different countries and different time zones. Allowing people to work at their natural productive hours means you will have better work and happier people. An interesting point in the IBM experience is that face-to-face meetings are used to help workers build trust and tend to be about team-building rather than doing work. I wonder how much more effective government workers would be if agencies devoted substantial time to team-building?

  • The customer is a stranger If you simplify things for the customer then they will respond positively. That’s easier said than done because simplifying for the customer requires creating extra complexity for the organization. Nobody likes to have their job made more complex. What is even more problematic is when something you do to make life easier for your customers makes life harder for one of your colleagues. That makes you unpopular within the tribe.
  • Centrelink to open online community forum – Gov 2.0, Department of Human Services, centrelink – Computerworld Centrelink's move to open its own forum will complement its existing practice of participating in online communication through external sites, such as other forums, blogs as well as social networks.

    "Centrelink monitors traffic in relevant online communities, blogs and forums – listening to customer feedback and contributing where appropriate to answer questions or clear up confusion about Centrelink services, for example student forums, parenting forums and seniors forums," the spokesperson said.

  • Good and bad transparency Government is a fascinating study in unintended consequences. Its scale and diversity, and the interplay between ministers and the civil service, the centre and the frontline mean that things often don’t go to plan. Broadly-speaking, government is a risk-averse organisation in many ways, sometimes to the extent that on occasion it has preferred ineffectiveness to perceived impropriety, waste to uncertainty.
    The coming wave of transparency could transform this in a hugely positive way, using open data on costs, opportunities and performance to become a much more creative, cost-effective and agile institution, mindful of the money it spends and the results it achieves, and ensuring individuals are accountable for their work.

    But it might make things worse, frightening senior managers into becoming more guarded, taking fewer ‘risks’ with even small amounts of money, and focusing on the process to the detriment of the outcome.

The battle for data, the battle for design… and the battle for empowerment

17 June 2010

Just after posting earlier this morning on data and design, I came across a post from a couple of days ago by Dan McQuillanmaking a very closely related point. His focus is on the point that opening data does not in itself create empowered communities – and by implication, may well relatively disempower those groups less well able to take advantage of the new opportunities:

Open data doesn’t empower communities. I’m not saying open data is a bad thing, but we need to highlight the gap between the semantic web and social impact. Otherwise we’ll continue to get swept along on a tide of technocratic enthusiasm where hope lies in ‘a flood of data to create a data-literate citizenry’.

I’m inspired by the idea that nuggets of opened data could seed guerilla public services, plugging gaps left by government, but i don’t see any of that in the data.gov.uk apps list. The reasons aren’t technical but psychosocial – the people and communities who could use this data to help tackle their own disadvantage and marginalisation don’t have the self-confident sense of entitlement that makes for successful civic hacktivism.

That’s a valuable perspective, which is well worth having in mind when reflecting on these issues. 

And while I am at it, Steph Gray’s thoughts on good and bad transparency are also well worth reading:

The coming wave of transparency could transform this in a hugely positive way, using open data on costs, opportunities and performance to become a much more creative, cost-effective and agile institution, mindful of the money it spends and the results it achieves, and ensuring individuals are accountable for their work.

But it might make things worse, frightening senior managers into becoming more guarded, taking fewer ‘risks’ with even small amounts of money, and focusing on the process to the detriment of the outcome. It may also make public service less attractive not only for those with something to hide, but for effective people who don’t want to spend their time fending off misinterpretations of their decisions and personal value for money in the media. And to mirror Lessig’s point, it may push confidence in public administration over a cliff, in revealing evidence of wrongdoing which in fact is nothing of the sort.

The battle for data, the battle for design

17 June 2010

In the heat of battle, sometimes it can be hard to tell that you have won.

The battle for government data has been hard fought and bloody. For a long time the outcome was unclear. The battle ebbed and flowed, with clouds of smoke and seas of churned up mud making it hard to see who was really in the ascendant. But now we can say with some confidence that the battle has been won. There are still pockets of resistance. There is still danger of counter attack and much greater danger of guerilla insurgency behind the lines. But the battle has been won.

The veterans of that battle deserve great honour. They have been persistent and persuasive campaigners and they have been demonstrators of the most powerful kind: not demonstrating by marching with placards (though there has been some of that too), but demonstrating by doing, by building, by showing what is possible.

Winning a battle is not the same as winning a war. Sometimes the result of one battle is to set the opening positions for the next one

The availability of data is a critical enabler, but what matters in the end is what it enables. The recent release of the COINS database of public expenditure illustrates the point: it is useless to any normal person without the skills and tools to manipulate 4Gb datasets – but the point is more subtly true for most of the rest of what is now available. The existence of data.gov.uk is without question a good thing, but its audience is necessarily a specialised one.

It is hard to believe that it was not much more than a year ago that Rewired State so clearly represented both challenge and achievement. The solutions presented there were brilliant and the ingenuity involved in acquiring the data (or in diverting to a different problem when data acquisition proved insuperable) was deeply impressive. But that ingenuity is already less necessary and will become less necessary still. With all the precision of hindsight, it was possible to see at least the beginning of the end at Young Rewired State last August. I recorded three reflections at the time. The first and third – that we needed to find ways of not repeatedly starting from scratch, and that we needed to find ways of harnessing the same kind of energy and inventiveness to deeper transactional problems – are less directly relevant here. But in between them was an idea which is, I think, at the heart of this turnng point:

The second – for which doing the first would create some space and opportunity – would be to bring in users and customers more explicitly. These projects can get off to a great start using their originators as their own use case, but they won’t become sustainable on that basis. Government has painfully learned – or, rather, is painfully learning – that starting off with the assumption that you know what is best for people doesn’t deliver the greatest results. I am not quite sure where the tipping point comes between creator-evangelists and customer-centred design, but I am sure it has to come somewhere.

My sense is that we are fast approaching that tipping point, and indeed in many areas are already beyond it. The next battle, the battle which is moving from tactical skirmishes on the flanks to the core of government transparency and service, is the battle of design. Transparency is vital, but it is not sufficient. As danah boyd recently argued:

The issues with transparency are similar to the issues with Internet access and the digital divide. In focusing on the first step – transparency or access – it’s easy to forget the bigger picture. Internet access does not automagically create an informed citizenry. Likewise, transparent data doesn’t make an informed citizenry. Transparency is only the first step. And when we treat transparency as an end in itself, we can create all sorts of unintended consequences. For this reason, I think that we need to critically think through not just transparency, but the information landscape around transparency.

So the first key question is how do we achieve transparency rather than just moving the boundary of opacity?

Part of boyd’s answer is to focus on information literacy:

Information literacy includes the skills necessary to interpret information in a context. Information literacy isn’t something that people develop just because information is available. So assuming that they will emerge once we unlock information is naive. Furthermore, skills aren’t distributed randomly across the population. Eszter Hargittai has consistently shown that those who are most privileged in our society are more likely to have information literacy skills. What this means is that those who are most privileged are more equipped to make sense of and use the information that they have access to. If you want information access because you want a better informed citizenry and a fairer society, you must start embracing the importance of information literacy and the need to provide infrastructure to help people build these skills. Providing broadband access is wonderful, but without the skills to make sense of what the Internet provides, access does nothing. The same is true for information transparency. And we can’t wait until we get transparency to start creating a citizenry who has the skills to interpret the data that will be made available.

That’s clearly an argument with some pretty big implications for approaches to digital inclusion, which I am not even going to touch on here beyond the obvious point that information literacy is not created by the more open availability of data. Instead, I want to pose as the second key question, how do we use new sources of data to create services which are compelling, useful and attractive?

The answer, I think is to look in slightly different directions, not because people whose initial focus is on pummelling the data can’t do design and usability – a moment looking at They Work for You puts paid to that idea – but because the ecosystem of players and providers and of the kinds of problems which people attempt to solve are different ones. Some of that is to be found in well established (by the standards of such things) companies such as FutureGov, some newly emerging from a pure design background such as Snook. But that’s not the only source of such thinking, as a glance at the online car tax renewal service shows, the one government online service which consistently gets unprompted praise.

One implication of all that is that the time for a one size fits all model may already have passed.  There were some good arguments for what has become the web convergence project, to bring govenment content together in a small number of so-called super sites, but of necessity each of them embodies a single architecture and a single navigation model.  If there has to be a single solution, they may be the best single solution there is,  but convergence is looking increasingly like an inflection point rather than a destination:  the question of whether they are in fact the best solution there is becomes much less relevant if solutions don’t have to be single.  I wrote a couple of days ago about an example of the Guardian being re-presented in a radically different way from that used by the Guardian’s own site.  It may be valued and used only by a tiny minority, but the needs of that minority are met vastly better than the necessarily lowest common deniminator single site can possibly achieve.

The Guardian has got that external benefit as a result of opening its data.  Directgov will – we must hope – get some of the same benefit from doing the same thing. The point here though is not to argue about whether Directgov can be improved on, but to underline the fact that the nature of the problem has changed:  it is no longer fundamentally a data extraction and manipulation problem, it is a customer experience design problem.  So the third question this prompts is, how do we embrace the power of fragmentation?

There is another Young Rewired State coming in a few weeks.  Eager young developers will be mentored by ninja data geeks and will produce views of public sector data which will be new and exciting.  That much is predictable with considerable confidence.  But will they produce embryonic services which make a real difference to the lives of users of public services and members of the public polity?  I think that is less certain, but no less important.  The next battle will need a newly constituted army, not rejecting the winners of the last battle, but augmenting their forces to fight on new fronts.

Update:  I have added a couple of additional references in a supplementary note here.  Well worth reading the articles it links to.

The case for reimagining data

14 June 2010

I have had a blog post half written about transparency and opening government data for a couple of weeks, but the words aren’t yet saying what I want them to – it needs a bit more focused concentration than I have been able to give it.

While I have been musing, a new and superb example both of the power of opening data for reuse and of the power of design has emerged, though one which has nothing to do with government data at all.  It comes instead from the Guardian’ Open Platform, which among other things allows developers access to Guardian content through an API.

Phil Gyford has used the API to create an entirely new view of the Guardian, a view with the extraordinary beauty which only comes from radical simplicity.

The Guardian’s website – and its home page in particular – has some big challenges. It’s the way in to a rich set of rapidly changing material, much of it closely linked with the print edition, but an increasing proportion complementing the print edition without being part of it.  Trying to provide a window on to all of that results in a front page which is often arresting but can only be described as busy.  At a rough count, there are about 200 links on that one page.

Phil’s version could not be more different.

There is no agonising over which of those 200 links to click.  A single story appears on the screen. The only choice is whether to read it or to move on to the next one. A minimalist but information rich indicator at the top of the page shows where you are in the structure of the newspaper and allows you to move between sections, but not between individual stories.  There is a link back to the story on the Guardian’s own site.  And that is it.

This powerful simplicity is not accidental. Phil has written a fascinating essay on the thinking behind his design choices, built around the concepts of friction, readability and finishability.

I find those arguments pretty compelling.  But that isn’t the point of my writing about this alternative Guardian.  The essential point is not whether you like it, or like it better than the Guardian’s own version; it is that it exists at all.  It may be that only a tiny minority of people share Phil’s mental model of how news is best consumed.  I have no doubt at all that the Guardian has very good reasons for preferring the very different model which underpins its own web presence, but precisely because of the way it has chosen to address the large part of its audience, it cannot reach the smaller part with the same effectiveness.  The Guardian’s self confidence in opening its API makes that much less important, though. There doesn’t have to be a single solution, because the tools permit of many  - and not only permit, but encourage and support.

I cannot remember the last time I came across a website which gave me the sense of absolute rightness which this one instills. It has instantaneously become my preferred way of consuming news on the web. I hope you share that same sense of excitement.  But even if you don’t, you can share in the richness of opportunity which allows it to exist.

I do though have a gripe.  Just a small one. The Phil Gyford Guardian is perfectly formed to work on a mobile phone screen – except that the ‘next story’ links don’t appear in two of the Android browser I tried and don’t work properly in the third. If that could be fixed, this really would be the perfect site.

Much more importantly though, this act of creativity sets the challenge for big organisations with many pressures and with roots in an earlier world – whether they are newspapers or governments.  To its great credit, the Directgov syndication pilot is now live.  Like the Guardian’s site, Directgov is built on a mental model of how its parts should fit together. That model probably works for many people, but certainly will not work for all.  Alternative Directgovs, built on alternative organisational concepts, will make for a better overall experience.  Let us hope that Directgov is as fortunate in those who rise to the challenge as the Guardian has been.

Aphorism 26

4 June 2010

In every organization, there is at least one awesome idea that can upset the status quo. The challenge is finding it – and freeing it.

Umair Haque

Interesting elsewhere – 25 May 2010

25 May 2010

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

  • In the loop: How Twitter transformed political reporting – Features, Gadgets & Tech – The Independent The secret of Twitter’s success is that it sounds stupid. No one has to take it seriously, which means anyone can use it for anything they want. And, because the idea is so devastatingly simple, they do. You write short messages to a group of people who choose to read them, and read short messages written by people whom you choose.
    [...]
    But it was ever thus. Theatres were a distraction from the pure religious life. Novels encouraged hysteria. And in most modern music you can’t hear the words. Television was going to kill books. Video killed the radio star. The internet was going to kill books. Texting was going to kill literacy. The Kindle was going to kill books. Books are still here. Amazon turned out to increase book sales. So did the Richard and Judy Book Club. Each wave of technology (apart from the fax machine) has enriched intellectual life. One or two technologies appear not to have survived. But then surprising things happen.
  • Security engineering: broken promises | ZDNet For several decades, we have in essence completely failed to come up with even the most rudimentary, usable frameworks for understanding and assessing the security of modern software; and spare for several brilliant treatises and limited-scale experiments, we do not even have any real-world success stories to share. The focus is almost exclusively on reactive, secondary security measures: vulnerability management, malware and attack detection, sandboxing, and so forth; and perhaps on selectively pointing out flaws in somebody else’s code. The frustrating, jealously guarded secret is that when it comes to actually enabling others to develop secure systems, we deliver far less value than could be expected.
    (h/t: @marxculture)
  • “Is that Google or the Internet?” – Podnosh One [question] really made me stop and think: “Is that on Google or the internet?”.I was stumped for a moment. It felt like a cartoon character has just looked up at me from a drawing and asked me to explain the world of 3 dimensions.

    It’s a perfectly reasonable one mind (all questions are). “You can find it through Google or you can go straight to the web page using the web address,” I tried to explain, adding: “they’re all on the internet” to a rather puzzled frown.

    It happened to be Silver Surfers this week. I’m not keen on the idea myself but marketing minds often feel it is working and perhaps that question explains the need.

    If even the concept of the world wide web is still slippery for some (hence the question) how do we describe this fundamental shift in information and relationships for those who have yet to grasp it?

  • Imagining the Internet Tim Berners-Lee offered his “Five-Star” plan for open data. He said public information should be awarded a star rating based on the following criteria: one star for making the information public; a second is awarded if the information is machine-readable; a third star if the data is offered in a non-proprietary format; a fourth is given if it is in Linked Data format; a fifth if it has actually been linked.
  • The Coalition: what now for digital? So, a week into a new kind of government, what does the outlook for digital look like? [...]
    There seem to be three big ideas about the role and potential of the internet:
    Transparency: the internet as a publishing medium for government spending and Parliamentary expenses…
    Collaborative individualism: the internet as a decentralised network enabling individuals to come together as civil society…
    Efficiency: the internet as a lower-cost approach to delivering government IT programmes effectively including through smaller and more modular approaches.
  • The net is not just for the young One of the most important things that the new government could do with its services is to break away from the idea that each department or ministry has “a website” that is a gateway to the “real” department behind it.This is the sort of thinking that businesses abandoned years ago.

    Amazon simply is its website, and the Guardian is an online news service that also prints a daily paper. If we required government departments like Revenue and Customs to act in this integrated way then it might be able to perform its role far more effectively.

    But we can only do this if almost everyone is able and willing to access these services online, so that the costs of supporting those who are simply unable to do so are manageable.

    We should not compromise on the quality of the public services we deliver, and nobody must be left behind when they are offered online.

  • open government for the UK – new report launched We believe that there is a natural potential alignment between our UK system of government, our long tradition of liberal democracy, and what technology now makes possible. But it will take a strong political will and the implementation of a series of practical steps to get there.This is, after all, not about our government and our public services as they currently exist. But how they would be if we were to design them now. It is in that spirit that this paper aims to add momentum and support to make open government pervasive, routine and sustained by offering a series of recommendations that we believe will help advance and embed the necessary cultural and technical changes required to help make open government an embedded reality in the UK.