Web 2.0 musings

You have all been too polite to ask but some of you may have been wondering what has been happening with the Virtual Town Hall project that kicked all of this off. This post is intended to explain where are with the project and why things have been rather quiet.

We have been making some progress behind the scenes but things have been delayed for two main reasons:

  • My new job has taken a lot of my focus and I have just not been paying enough attention to the project. As a result things have been drifting for the last 6 months to a great extent. Clearly project management is not just about checklists – its also to a large extent about energy and direction and I have just not had any to spare while we made some fairly big changes in the business. I am always one for biting off slightly more than I can chew and I feel very fortunate that the pilot sites have been understanding of this and still have the interest and energy themselves to take this forward.  Needless to say part of my update process has been to apologise to some people for these delays…they have so far been very gracious
  • We put the technology in the field a bit too early. The initial sites were ok but no-one felt happy enough with them to make a big fuss about the launch. This was really down to UI issues as well as some functionality changes that were obvious once we saw things on the real world

So where does this leave us? Happily – in a much better place. The technology is now in really good shape and we have made a lot of progress – from that point of view the delay has been beneficial. In terms of the pilot sites themselves – I am in the process of visiting them in order to get the project refocused and ready to really go live this time. This week I have spent time with North Lincolnshire, Kirklees and Chorley and in all of those sites I think we have a plan to go forward which I think in all cases is stronger than the original proposition because it is more focused. I will blog separately about what the focus of each site will be but key differences from the initial plans are:

  • A decision to focus on a specific topic or area (be it topical of geographic). We were casting the net very wide in most cases and that lack of focus only added to our indecision in terms of actually getting things working
  • A reduced reliance on the idea of community ambassadors. We still feel that they have an important role to play but we are intending to get the sites up and running without relying on the recruitment and participation of these individuals – instead we will look for them as part of the ongoing sustainability of the process
  • The context of the work has changed hugely since we started in terms of the financial climate and as a result we will be putting a much greater emphasis on two areas:
  • Identifying the costs involved in the process that we are running
  • Identifying areas where our new activities can substitute for more expensive offline activities

In talking to the pilots sites I am very aware of how difficult a time it is to work in local government and I have a huge amount of admiration for anyone who prepared to try something new rather than sitting back and waiting to see what happens. I think however that we all agree that someone needs to actually explore and measure what Carl (@gr8governance) calls “Decision making 2.0” and to really evaluate some of the stuff that a lot of people are speculating about with respect to the opportunities that social media and the online world provides to change the way we work with citizens.

So – things are getting back on track with the Virtual Town Hall and I should be able to outline more information on the specific foci for each of the sites in the very near future.

On a slightly different topic – I was at a meeting the other day when I was accused of looking down on some of the ideas that were being suggested as if they came straight out of The Sun newspaper. After I’d re-schooled my face into something a little more meeting friendly I could see what they meant – it seems I don’t have the right expression for ‘I’m thinking about something else’ and had accidentally used my ‘you are talking rubbish’ expression – needless to say I did apologise. However the reason I had mentally moved on to think about something else because in my view it may be interesting but I don’t think that Council’s should be trying to start projects which are best led by the community. However much we want these projects to happen to try and create them for the community is the same attitude of the paternalism which has got us to the point where we have more consumers of services rather than active citizens.

To be clear – this is not to say that community projects are not hugely important and should be supported whenever feasible – more that I don’t think that Council can or should be trying to create them because Council’s don’t do this kind of thing as well as the community can do it themselves. We need to be supporting and empowering local communities and then leaving them to get on with stuff themselves. Harsh but fair.

In the meantime I believe that Local Authorities need to address some of the bigger problems in terms of how we manage decision making across the whole unit – not just at the community level because we apportion resources and make decisions on this basis. I am relieved to think that there are people looking at the really important hyperlocal level around limited and discrete issues because it needs doing and the community needs to step up to the challenge – but my attention is focused on how we bring these small communities together and help them negotiate with each other for limited resources – because this wider negotiation is the issue that local government is really wrestling with.  This is the point of the Virtual Town Hall project and I am looking forward to getting on and making some more progress.

I was lucky enough to speak at the National Police Web Managers Conference on Friday (slides below). It’s interesting to talk about digital engagement in a different public sector context and the Police are especially interesting because of the challenge that they face in trying to combine operational needs with engagement work. My view is that this really all comes down to good community policing – but with a need to realise that online communities are real and need policing too.

Its about how you start to create a sense of Police indentity online and start to use it both to Police and to engage. One of the best examples I have seen of this is hotelalpha9 on Twitter because he has created a very real online persona that is still very much a Police Officer – but there are of course loads of other good examples emerging. One of the ones from the conference was Sussex Police’s use of twitter during a recent rally in Brighton – hopefully those slides will also be shared. Anyway – I’m speaking at the ACPO conference next week and will post a longer piece after that as my head is very much in the area of thinking about online from a multi-agency perspective. Its odd to realise how vested in Local Government I have got and useful to think about these things in a different way.

One thing that is still very strong common theme for me is the need to start building this civic infrastructure online – like the community police officer – as our online lives become more significant. As I said at the event – the important thing to remember about these virtual spaces is that they are actually very real.

Unfortunately I had to leave without seeing a lot of the presentations – but as with all of the Police stuff I have been doing recently its interesting to see the difference that the absence of elected representatives (at the moment) makes to the engagement process.

I spent most of last week in Leeds at the LGComms conference and just wanted to capture a few thoughts about this.  I also did a lot of tweeting from the conference as I decided to do that as a way of taking my own notes and that worked very well for me – will be doing it again.  Also enjoyed the feedback from the folks who were not at the conference!

Not surprisingly the conference mood was very focused on the recent cost cutting announcements and the knowledge that the next few years will be very tough for the Public Sector – and even more so for Communications which is not a front line service and can expect to be looked at very vigorously.  There was some interesting content around some of the larger public health and safety campaigns which obviously save money in terms of behavior change – but on a slower timescale than is needed to justify the expenditure in the short term – and also on the reputation campaign as a way of valuing communication activity.  However even with these more positive stories the mood was definitely focused on how to save costs.

If you are interested then I have written up the sessions that I attended: (more…)

This post is a bit of a wander about a few topics so bear with me – it should all come together. The first thing was a reaction around the spending cuts and Queens speech from this week. It’s clearly the thin end of the wedge and anyone who works with the Public Sector needs to make sure that they are truly adding value to their clients or they have no business being here – it’s tough enough already (and we are all taxpayers – let’s not waste our money here). I’ve spent the week at the LGComms conference (more on that anon) and it was clear from that that we are all expecting serious cost cutting over the next 2 years.

However – there are huge opportunities in a situation like this to truly innovate and to attack some of the barriers to change which are more understandable when you have more choices – fewer choices means you need to confront the sensible but difficult – or even inspired – ideas.  We are now living in the world of the improbable – because not providing public services really is the impossible.

I know that I am an evangelist for online – but on every level I cannot see how the Public Sector can respond to these budget pressures without really embracing digital communications and engagement and changing the mix. This really means starting to use offline as the add on for hard to reach groups rather than the default channel. And this is without having to make the point that social web engagement also brings big democratic renewal opportunities – something that is needed as much as the cost savings if you are going to take the public with you when you have to cut services.

It is obvious that on a transaction by transaction basis that moving interactions online will save resources around the citizen relationship in the same way that it has saved money around the transactional customer relationship (SOCITIM have done the work on this but I need to dig out the specific research). But there is an inherent contradiction with engagement work in that more engagement means more interactions – which is more expensive – ie you can’t afford to be too successful – or risk cancelling out your initial savings. What this does is to rule out the ‘lazy’ business case which says we have spent less for the same effect – We have spent the same amount the money to achieve more transactions – but at this point the rules for engagement are different to those for transactions and we have to show the benefit of this volume increase – and that’s the point at which the standard business case model breaks up and we need to look at something more sophisticated. Anthony from the Democratic Society has done some work with us (Public-i) on this and written a rather excellent white paper that starts to explore the wider cost case for better engagement and I think this needs to be built on.
The economic case for making more and better use of digital channels may not yet be canon but it is there to a great enough extent that we need to look for other reasons as to why people are not making this shift in droves.

Dave Briggs pointed me at this article on these barriers which suggests a number of headings for these barriers:

  • Access
  • Equipment
  • Staff and Skills
  • Structures
  • Policy
  • Strategy
  • Vision, Leadership and Management

These are a useful start but the detail on the original article shows this as really coming at this question from the point of view of individuals trying to lobby their organization – which is important – but I am more interested in thinking about the institutional barriers. So here is my take on this (in brief as each of these points is probably a post in its own right):

Firstly, some of the simple barriers that really fall under the aegis of work as we know it:

  • Ignorance / training / skills: This can be seen either in officers, management or Members – and really needs a programme to start addressing it now as we upskill the sector to deal with digitial.
  • Legal confusion: there are lots of issues around using technology around democracy – as well as various data protection confusions – that can just be ironed out and the knowledge shared with other organizations.

And then some of the more difficult ones – these will need some structural change or some external reference:

  • Lack of a business case: the business case process has been embedded within procurement but in a way that makes it very difficult to innovate – it really relies on you not doing something for the first time. We need a way to support sensible tested innovation outside of this process.
  • Turf war and structures: In the same way as the web site was wrestled from IT teams by Communication folks we just don’t yet know where digital engagement will sit as there is a legitimate case in both communications and in engagement teams – and a sense of our ownership from the policy and democratic services folks as well. I would ask the question “Who owns the relationship with the citizen?” and then try and structure from there.
  • No process for experiential learning: this really links to the first point in this section but if given the fact that this is an emergent area of technology as well as shift in democratic and social exchange we really are all learning on the job and need to come up with some way of doing this sensibly that ensures that we capture and share this learning as we go along.

And then the really difficult things which rely on someone really grasping the nettle

  • Lack of leadership and no ability to see the bigger picture: Even with the huge pressures that are on the budget we need leaders who are actively shaping the future rather than merely cutting back the past – where is the new growth and how do we nurture it. We also need leaders that understand these new technologies – so if you do nothing else make sure your manager is briefed.
  • Culture: embedded fear of failure or even fear of change – a management culture that doesn’t support innovation. This is another huge one and something that NESTA have an interesting programme on for instance. But without finding ways to support innovation we will find all our responses to impending cuts will be very negative – and we will not find the opportunity within these difficult choices
  • Inability to reconcile participative and representative democratic models – and no way to involve members. Once we start talking about the relationship with the citizen then we are talking about democracy – and this means that we need to think about the impacts and benefits for the democratic system. And I do mean we – the democratic half life of politicians makes it very difficult for them to embrace process change which means the Public Sector needs to be the custodian of this.

So what can you do? The first group of issues you can just work your way through – the second you can figure out if enough people want to solve the problem. But this last set is really about leadership and innovation which is far more difficult. Our Public Sector culture is, not surprisingly, very risk averse. But as the economic climate puts more and more pressure on public services I hope that one of the outcomes is a positive one. I hope that leaders, both politicians and officers – find an opportunity to innovate and turn this into an opportunity.

It’s hard – being good at something is difficult enough – and there are plenty of challenges – but if we aren’t helping the public sector to be excellent then we are just not helping at all.

Just a short piece this week as I had to write something for a print deadline this weekend – and finish that pesky research committee progress report – but I couldn’t let the week pass without just noting a couple of election thoughts.  In doing this I am sure I am joining hundreds of blogs with their twopenneth on #ge2010 – but as there were clearly not enough of those to really turn this into the social media election I feel I should do my bit….

First thing to note – thought social media didn’t have the hyped up effect that lots of people were speculating about I think those of us already using twitter found it a hugely interesting source of extra information and opinion.  I found the leaders debates really improved by the twitterati and I have to say that election night tweeting was outstanding – though as too little sleep / too much booze did change the tone later in the night (can’t decide if this was a good or bad thing – it was certainly social!).  I also found it interesting to start seeing the main stream news more active on twitter.  With most of the big announcements over the weekend, for example news of problems at polling stations, I have picked them up on twitter first (despite flicking between the excellent Guardian live blog and the BBC coverage on the night).  I imagine that newsrooms were focusing on their primary channels rather than new ones for such a big event.  However for the out of hours announcements – and for the rally yesterday – @BBCElection has been right there with proper real time news.

I don’t think any of the parties have made good use of social media on the whole (though I know individual candidates have) and I guess the thing for them to note at this point is that they need to start building their online presence now – especially if we are going to be doing this again really soon.  This doesn’t mean creating mailing lists – its about getting candidates and MPs blogging and using other tools to connect to am electorate that may or may not be pleased to see them.

But the main thing that has really been striking me is the fact that I have never previously really framed my interests in civic engagement and democratic renewal in terms of electoral reform.  I think this is partly because of working at a local level but mainly because FPTP seemed to be a regrettable but fixed part of my terms of reference. How exciting to be wrong.

I really want to see electoral reform happen because I think we deserve a much fairer and more balenced electoral system that has more space for compromise and deliberation and which demands our politicians actually have to work together to find solutions.  I also had pointed out to me this weekend that by moving to a form of PR we are moving closer to European Politics – and this really encapsulated a lot of the concerns I have felt over the way that the leaders debates – though an excellent way to get issues talked about in more depth – moved us towards a much more presidential style of government.  So – I have all fingers and toes crossed that the major output of a hung parliament will be a change in the way we elect the next parliament – and that we don’t have to wait 5 years to see it.

But one thing is sure – new technologies will have to be part of whatever electoral reform comes about because with a deficit the size of ours we have to find cost effective ways to deliver decisions – and perhaps this means that the next election will finally be the internet election we have been promised for some time.

We (that’s the Public-i ‘we’ not a royal one) have recently put our ePetitions software into an open source repository (full details on this can be found here). I know this is a little off topic for this blog but I wanted to comment on it as I get asked why we did this fairly often (both from clients and from shareholders!) and I thought it would be useful (for me at least) to answer that question. I also thought it would be good to see the benefits from the suppliers point of view as so often the question of open source is addressed from the point of view of the user.

But first – I have to say with no word of a lie (or modesty) that it is an excellent piece of code – we have worked with a number of sites to refine it and I do believe it is the Rolls Royce of petitioning products. Arguably we have got a little obsessed – but that’s what pet projects are for I think. You can read more about my love affair with petitions as a democratic instrument here.

The thing is – having built something so lovely – what on earth as we doing giving it away?

But before we get to that, let’s be clear – Open Source is not ‘Free’. All the implementation and management costs that are implicit in a proprietary licensed product are still there and will be incurred at some point. Sorry to state the obvious but I still find that people don’t think of total cost of ownership – they just get excited when they don’t have to pay the licence (in some ways I do think this is like the effect that ‘buy one, get one free’ offers work – have you ever tried to refuse one of these? The expression on the cashier’s face is priceless if you try and explain that making it free doesn’t make it necessarily desirable – you still need to think about the implications of having that extra bag of something rotting in the salad drawer….but anyway). The difference that open source can make in your running costs is entirely down to how you are resourced and skilled internally – but the advantage to the user is that you have this as a choice and you are not locked into a single supplier situation.

Open Source means that the developer of the code has decided – for whatever reason – that they will be better off if people can use the code widely rather than recovering the cost of development (and more) through a licence fee. There are some fairly high level motivations:

  • Philosophy – in the same way as some people claimed ‘Jedi’ as their religion in the census people can have strong feelings about open source that go beyond the commercial. Personally I don’t think this is a bad philosophy
  • Paying back – we all use A LOT of excellent free code – at some point it is a good thing to balance things out and give something back to the open source community that we all depend on
  • Fairness – people who can afford it should help other people by making the outputs of their work freely available

And some more practical ones:

  • Supporting code is a huge hassle and if you licence it you are obliged to look after it – set it free and let it look after itself
  • Integration – sometimes making one thing available freely can make a whole lot of other things a lot simpler to do.
  • Market expectations – with such a lot of talk about open source in the government community it makes sense for anyone who is working in this area to look at it seriously

And of course some that look a little more commercial:

  • Income – the supplier thinks they can generate more from selling services and updates than from a licence fee
  • Reach – you can get your code to more people if you distribute it in this way
  • PR – people like it – ergo they feel more kindly towards you (one hopes)

And then there are the more social motivations:

Can you really build democratic processes on propitiatory code? If you think that design assumptions matter then isn’t this the biggest design assumption of all? Openness needs to be embedded in our democracy in every way possible – and this is one of the ways.

I think that as a commercial supplier to government we would be foolish and short sighted not to be looking at open source models and trying to understand how this could work in the market. We at least need to understand what an open source business model looks like so that we can make a more educated decision about what we want to do – and then be able to communicate it clearly.

However – I think the market also needs to look carefully at what it is asking of suppliers. At the moment the risk of investing in big open source projects is very large. And without someone investing time and energy you are not going to get excellent and stable products – there is not huge community of developers waiting to build anything substantial – or if there is it is just not self organising. I also think it is far harder to charge realistically for services in the UK – something which is at odds with the fact that government seems to find it easy to spend huge sums of cash on consultancy from large firms.

Public-i were able to get the ePetitions code to the stage it is at now mainly because we got project funding from the EU and because we have had excellent project partners from Local Government who have worked with us to develop the code. This kind of funding is understandably scarce in the UK right now but what is also scarce is the idea that you could develop in partnership with a supplier. Democracy is not the only place where trust is currently lacking.

A lot of what I write about here is around co-production – and this is perhaps another form of it – a more honest coming together of commercial suppliers and government in order to build excellent products which are freely available – but which have the support of the market so that they can be developed and enhanced. As someone who is obsessed with the idea of building permanent online civic spaces I think we need to look at open source seriously – but as someone running a company and who is responsible for getting people paid each month I also need to think about how we are going to balance the books and make this work commercially so that the investment in development can be supported.

I don’t usually post from my work perspective (and perhaps I am only doing this to avoid my Research committee progress report which is imminent – eek) but I think this is an area where the two things come together. This is all still working round in my head and I would be really pleased to hear from some folks within Government as to how this feels to you.

Some time ago I wrote on my noticeboard the question “What is new technology good at?” – I thought I should probably have a stab at answering it (rest assured that this doesn’t mean that future posts will be on other topics from the notice board such as how to take clematis cuttings or a reminder to buy flea treatment for the dog).

When I wrote the question I was thinking around what differentiates online democracy and engagement from the offline kind. I am a natural enthusiast for new technologies but am also very way of the ‘silver bullet‘ risk of pinning too much on a single solution.  Part of the confusion and excitement around social media is that fact that we get seduced by its speed, reach and general shinyness before we look at its substance. And because we are all caught on the dazzle we give way to the marketeers who are trying to us it to sell stuff to us – but that’s another post. However I think we can start to identify a couple of areas where social media is moving us beyond the offline world into new areas – moving us beyond just taking offline behaviours online. As an aside – I think that one of the methods you can use to identify the genuinely new is looking at the legal position – if we know how to legislate it well then its probably been around for a while.

So – this post is exploring where I think social media does take us into new areas and I am going to highlight 3 areas:

  • Transparency and the digital footprint
  • Aggregation and the public sphere
  • Identity and the link to accountability

There are also various facets of social media that need to be taken into account – such as speed and reach – but I see these as by-products almost rather than defining features. I almost added globalism to this list – but I think at this point you are straying beyond social media into communications generally and though there is obviously huge crossover one has to draw the line somewhere to avoid the worst of the scope creep…..

Some of these areas show behaviours which were present but not auditable (or audible perhaps) offline – in others these take us somewhere new.

Transparency and the digital footprint
One of the favourite undergraduate philosophy questions is that whole “how do you know if a tree falls in the forest if there is no-one there to hear”. Online you can always hear the tree fall. The fact that this makes your online life auditable changes things – it means that you need to plan for openness and transparency and you need to think more carefully about the consuqences of what this means. We are in a transition with this fact right now but you can see the ‘digitally native’ teens and early 20’s adjusting this (very good Danah Boyd interview on this) as they become more tolerant of mistakes, less private and generally more aware of the consequences of self-publishing than many older people. I would argue that this kind of transparency does make a difference to our behaviour and given the need for trust in a political context I think this is another reason to look to the social web to help us re-engage people – as long as we also align out attitudes to be closer to those digital natives and start to allow public figures to be actual people rather than media soundbites.

Aggregation and the public sphere
I have written in previous posts about the public sphere – the public conversation about issues and ideas that Habermas identified as supporting the democratic process – and so its not news that I see the social web as having the potential to re-knit the public sphere which has been so damaged by broadcast media. But the way in which social media does this is through aggregation – the ability to connect large groups of conversations together and, through semantic analysis and the like, start to draw meta-conclusions about what the whole group is saying. This kind of broadband listening is new – and its something we need to think about how to make the best of as its an amazing opportunity to make our decision making far more responsive without adding a huge overhead of consultation and debate.

Identity and the link to accountability
Identity is a bit of a hobby horse of mine. I am fascinated by the malleability of identity online – but aware that this needs to be able to accommodate the democratic imperative for accountability. However, once we sort out this little blip with a more sophisticated view of online indentity management (I can’t believe we won’t get there) then we will be able to allow people to have the ability to both conceal their identity while remaining accountable. Is this a good thing – I am really not sure – but its definitely new I believe.  Will be posting more about this as this is just a note really – lots more thinking to be done obviously.

So, transparency, aggregation and identity – all vital to democracy and all embedded in the social web. All good reasons to keep wrestling the social web off the marketing folks and put it to work in a more democratic way…..

Last week I spent a day at a social media legal masterclass (details are here if you want them ) with an excellent presenter in Kathryn Corrick. I attended as I wanted to make sure I have a proper overview of what the legal issues are and to get a bit more detail where possible. I was fairly relieved to find that I do have a grasp of the essentials and that actually anyone with a fair amount of common sense and an idea of the basic principles is going to be fine but there were a few interesting points I wanted to note properly. However as it was a legal masterclass I need to point out that I am not a lawyer – and neither was the person running the course – so this is not actual advice!

But first a more general observation. there is a huge difference in the legal and moral positions on various issues and the law is not yet ready for social media.  Social media throws up issues of privacy and identity which are far more complex when you have a complete record of someone’s time online and also a need to balance the personal with the professional roles of an individual. This is particularly true for democratic content where it might be the legal case that copyright is broken for example but where the moral case is very clearly with anyone who is trying to constructively engage in democratic debate. The law is a tool which is there to help is all get along and in the case of social media we don’t really know how we want to get along and how we need the law to help is yet as we are still writing the rulebook.

But more specifically – here are the specific things I noted from the day – they are not all new thoughts – but useful reminders if nothing else:

  • Copyright really is very simple – if someone else created a piece of content then don’t use it without crediting them. If you want to use big chunks of someone else’s content then ask them – and if you want to try and profit it from it then don’t – they made it and they should profit. Democratic content is slightly different in that you want people to take it to some extent – but the problem of people taking selected pieces and quoting out of context can be addressed through copyright legislation. We are about to do some work around making council webcasts far more viral – and I will be looking at the creative commons licence model to see if this offers the right level of protection. Making the webcast player embeddable is a good route to deal with the copyright problem as if people embed content then they are far less likely to abscond with it – its about making the right thing to do the easiest route.
  • You really cannot represent yourself as someone else – this is not news but I did not know that this is all down to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Training  Regulations of 2008 (I say this in homage to Kathryn who ran the course – she claims this as her favourite bit of legislation. The regulation covers things like fake blogs but also using fake accounts to leave comments. This highlights the problem of identity / anonymity for officers in my view as you really do need to use your own identity. And did you know that the act of creating fake blogs is actually known as flogging??
  • Purdah – we had an interesting discussion of social media and purdah over lunch and Kathryn’s view – which I agree with – is that the substantive point which you need to focus on is whether or not you have gained benefit from your role as am elected representative and if you have then you need to disassociate from this during the election process. In a social media context this means that you cannot, for example, use the same twitter account that you use as an elected representative in order to campaign – even if you have set this up outside of the council infrastructure – because you are communicating with followers who you may have picked up as a member. This inevitably means having more than one account on social media sites and making sure that you communicate where you are going to be at any time as it were. Though this makes clear sense in terms of the ‘letter of the law’ it seems to me to ultimately be a very clumsy way of handling identity – but this is what we are stuck with until we have a more sophisticated view of online identity management.
  • Moderating content is actually higher risk than not moderating as once you moderate something you take responsibility for it. This is worth remembering in the context of the virtual town hall pilot.
  • We did talk about aggregation and Kathryn said she would follow this up as its clear that aggregation is something new which means there is nothing in the existing body of law to help us with liabilities and responsibilities. Also a point to note for Virtual Town Hall!
  • Privacy is largely ignored by most social media sites and it really is a shocker when you read the terms and conditions ( I know we all know that but really – how often do you actually stop and think about it!!). One thing to note is that most sites insist that it is actually a person who creates an account – which actually creates some problems where an individual is signing up on behalf of an organisation. Again – this is probably one of those lawyer problems which will never be an actual issue but needs to be noted.
  • While talking about privacy – I was surprised as to how easy it actually is to breech someone’s privacy (for example talking about a friends health in a public place). I think the thing to note here is that you need to be aware of what the other person would be happy with you revealing – not to judge other people’s level of disclosure by your own.

There are some common sense things you can do to navigate all of this – the two main ones being:

  • Have a strong take down policy and remove content quickly if there is an issue – but make sure that the policy tells people what you have done so you can’t be accused of censorship
  • Make it easy for people to complain – encourage people to take responsibility

So – no amazing revelations here as the law is really about clarity of thought and if you have that then you are fine.  Where this gets interesting is in what is best for the individual is no longer the best thing for democracy in general and where the technology starts to expand beyond what we can find a real world simulacrum and hence precedent for.  Will update this if we get info back on the aggregation point.

I spent Saturday in Kent at transformedbyyou: You can see a lot of the content from the day on the Ning site and I know more is being added. I went partly because a knew there would be a lot of interesting people there (there were) and partly because I was interested in the format/objective which was using an unconference type approach to try and instigate some thinking around social innovation. I think it worked well (much helped by some excellent facilitation / social reporting from Amy Sample Ward and David Wilcox ). I joined a group that was focusing on mobile as a channel and we had a good morning discussing what this means and where the potential is for local government. To summarise:

  • We drew a distinction between making websites accessible on a mobile phone and the potential for apps
  • We wanted to design for the near future and make full use of the possibilities for current technologies rather than be limited by ‘lowest common denominator’ thinking (after all it was a Saturday)

In conclusion we described mobile as a valuable additional channel that can help bridge the digital divide – but the you have to keep in mind that it does not solve it because you need to find services and interactions that are particularly suited to the channel and this doesn’t necessary match perfectly with the services and interactions that will work on a desktop device. We talked fairly wide rangingly about QR codes (which are basically like barcodes – but linked to web addresses – that can be read and interacted with by smart phones), location and time based alerts, street scene reporting and community funding ideas. In the afternoon we spilit into two and covered two ideas:

  • Exploring the use of QR codes
  • Looking at how you could use gaming to complement the street scene reporting idea

I worked on the latter – and got rather into it…..I think partly influenced both by Joanne Jacobs from her LikeMinds presentation and Carl haggerty’s recent post World of GovCraft (BTW – I have title envy). The team comprised @sidekickstudios (a software and games designer) , @alteredeye (an academic looking at Human Computer interaction) and Tracy (from the Kent CC web team) we were well resourced for the challenge.

The idea was simple: we want to develop a mobile app which combines reporting of issues your physical community (broken lights / potholes / unkempt land etc etc) with a gaming approach.  We thought this had strong elements of co-production as well as being channel authentic – and so we created “CALL OF DUTY” – which will be flying of the shelves at Christmas…..

Why? We could have just designed a mobile app for street scene reporting – a kind of phone based ‘fixmystreet’ – and I know that other councils are thinking about just that (for example Lewisham iphone app ) and its a really good thing to do. But we thought that adding a gaming element added in two additional benefits:

  • It would be more fun – when did the idea of doing something useful become unfun anyway?
  • It could be used to link people in the area together – using the gaming community to build local community

The game itself should be fairly simple – you get points for:

  • reporting an issue (5 points)
  • rating an issue (1 point)
  • doing something about an issue (10 points)

(points clearly indicative at this stage – currency to be established!)

We assumed that the app would know where/when you were reporting something (probably with a photo) and that you would just be asked to firstly suggest an outcome – do you want it fixed by the council or do you think the community should deal with it for example – and then prioritise the issue by being shown a list of current issues and being asked to place it in the right place in the queue. We felt that this moved the user passed just complaining and gave them some sense of the whole picture. Other users could then ‘rate’ that prioritisation. You would be able to track the status of your issues, as well as getting updates on things that have been dealt with in your area (you might see some before and after pictures for example)…..btw – there is clearly a whole back office integration piece to be done here but we decided not to worry about that…..again – it was a Saturday

The gaming element would contribute a leader board where you could see who else has been active and where you relate to them – you could also have viral options so that you could share issues with your community to get support for your prioritisation. At this point I started getting drawn into a whole top trumps thing where you got rated for the types of things you report, how you fix them etc etc….

The final element was some way of linking game currency – points – to some kind of real world rewards – for example cheap entrance to a swimming pool. We felt that this would provide additional motivation and acknowledge the fact that you are ‘working’ for your community. We also wanted to make it possible to donate your game currency to local charities etc so that they could benefit.

This is not an unachievable idea – as long as you can remain committed to the idea that it does actually have to be fun and to engage with some actual game designers rather than the poor folks who will have to make it work with the back office systems. Its strengths are, I believe, in the fact that it tries to use the channel in a ‘native’ way without actually compromising on the social goals of the project. The first step to doing this would be to do some focus group work around establishing motivations and looking at what the game currency would need to look like.

If nothing else it was great to spend some time with likeminded people and a blank sheet of paper. But I now would like to think about this more – what can be achieved when you actually think appropriately for a channel and when you don’t get constrained with what is currently possible? What happens when you accept the fact that you probably won’t get anything built for at least a year – so why not look that far ahead in terms of the technology? And what happens when you think that actually it should be fun to do stuff for and with your community – and look at building something to do that?

Gaming is a growth area for online – as is augmented reality – and both of these come together in this idea. So – are you intrigued or was this just a way to pass a rainy saturday?

You can hear Adil describe the idea here:

Or how to avoid sounding like a social media guru ……

I realise that I have drifted into the habit of talking about webspace rather than websites and I wanted to work through why this is – mainly to make sure it’s not just an abuse of the English language. I’m a big supporter of the idea that language evolves in order to reflect social changes – but also concerned that that is very easy to start using meaningless words and phrases just to make things sounds more interesting. But sometimes terminology does need to change to help move thinking along – and I think this is perhaps part of a wider debate that I have talked to a few people about recently about the need to find some shared terminology to talk about these ideas around using social web tools to do civic an democratic things.

But right now the real point for me is that that fact that I feel there is a distinction between these two words – but is it a meaningful difference?

Probably the biggest difference in my internal definitions of these words is that fact that a website is self-contained – it might have elements of external content but it is clearly the editorial property of the domain owners – which means they also control the purpose. Webspaces on the other hand are formed by the aggregation of content from the users and are therefore not editorially controlled.

Secondly I see webspaces as being primarily social – they are defined by the interactions between people – where websites are more likely to focus on non-user generated content. This makes the potential for co-production in a webspace greater than the potential within a website.

But finally I think the move into more architectural metaphors – the use of the word space rather than a more technical description – starts to bring in the thought that what is being created is more than the technology – and that it has more of an identity of its own. In the real world the difference between a site and a space is one which we all recognize but actually the definitions are not actually that different:

  • site noun (PLACE): a place where something is, was, or will be built, or where something happened, is happening, or will happen
  • space noun (EMPTY PLACE): [C or U] an empty area which is available to be used

Perhaps the difference is that a site is there for something to be built but the word space offers us potential for greater opportunities – perhaps this is why the word suits social web activity better than the more practical word ‘site’ – we want to talk about the potential and impact rather than just the building blocks. The sense of potential comes from the, in one sense, infinite nature of space, and in another sense, from the sense of emptiness. It is a more grandisose and open term than site as a result seems to better suit the grandiose ambitions that can be talked about with respect to social web.

But does this make it the right term? I don’t know – it feels more suitable to me but perhaps we will have to wait while the terminology evolves to see if it continues to make sense.

One way to explore it though is to use it. When I talk about civic webspaces I am trying to describe something with the following attributes:

  • You know when you are there
  • It can give visual and social clues as to how you should behave their
  • It sets expectations as to the type of conversations you are going to have – and these interactions will be about your local community
  • It will evolve and change as its community changes – but it will always be identifiable
  • There is an expectation of shared action and purpose – rather than just talking this is a space to get things done

This final point – this sense of shared action – is where the biggest departure from what I would call a website occurs.

I often go on from there to ask people if they acknowledge the difference between Facebook and LinkedIn – they all do. When you think about it like that it becomes clear that we are missing a public sphere (back to Habermas again!) and that we need to think about how to build it. But the question as to what we are building is not yet clear. The Virtual Town Hall is one possible building – one possible definition of the space – but its fairly specific – if we want to talk about a wider set of possibilities we are still in the position of talking about a space and how we can define it.

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