So – yesterday’s post on civic architecture was I have to confess a little text heavy – below is the diagram which I think encapsulates the different areas of the digital ecosystem which we need to consider the need to create civic architecture online:

Civic architecture diagram

The Machine layer refers to protocols and TCPIP or the convention of things like HTTP. The infrastructure layer refers to choices of operating system or web server (for example the choice of open source Apache vs a proprietary web server). The Application layer refers to things the specific service such as Facebook or Twitter and the Content layer is as it says – the content – and includes the semantic information needed to make this portable and accessible.

. Running through all of these layers are on the one side the rule of law and the organisations managing this and on the other the influences of culture and identity which effect choices in each of these layers.

I am proposing a civic communicative layer which fulfils a number of needs:

  • To ensure information and cultural exchange between applications and operating systems which are currently controlled by market forces often in proprietary systems
  • To ensure that the conditions of a healthy public sphere are met in terms of ensuring free exchange of information and views rather than a reliance on market managed media sources
  • To ensure balance between social and financial outcomes

There are alternatives which might also deliver civically vibrant online space; for example the new economy might create collaborative and open norms or improved take-up of open source technologies by content creators might swing the balance in favour of a more civic digital ecosystem. However, while waiting for these outcomes to happen and while matters of identity and culture develop I am proposing we ensure the robust existence of a civic communicative layer.

This weekend you’ll be pleased to know I have been reading the recently released update of the OXIS survey (which you can get hold of here – but large thanks to Tim Davies for posting me a copy!).  I have also been updating my Facts Glorious Facts page if you like that kind of thing so this post is really just a few highlights and observations from the report.

For those of you who haven’t come across it the Oxford Internet Survey is the UK answer to the Pew report and consists of a questionnaire sent to a weighted sample of 2057 people on the UK (response rate is just less that 50% which isn’t bad).  Its not huge but its an excellent summary of where we are as a country with respect to internet usage and as this is now the 5th year (its been running avery other year since 2003) it is now a good source of longitudinal data about internet habits.

The headline number of people that are online according to OXIS is around 73% of the population with household and individual access being almost the same.  Reasons for not going online are interesting however:

And reasons to stop using the internet are also revealing:

Next Generation – how star trek

One of the main findings of the report is the emergence of what the authors (William Dutton and Grant Blank) call next generation internet users.  They define these as

someone who accesses the internet from multiple locations and devices.  Specifically, we operationally define the next generation user as someone who uses at least two internet applications (out of four applications queried) on their mobile or who fits two or more of the following criteria:  they own a tablet, own a reader, own three or more computers.  By this definition 44.4% of internet users in Britain were next generation users

The interesting thing is that these are not just “The Young People” (have started capitalising this since turning 40) – there is a stronger correlation with income and employment – though students are a large part of this new group.  Given the fact that reasons for not using the internet are closely linked to the costs as well as the access to technology that is driving this next generation use then I for one will be watching very carefully to see whether or not increased market penetration of smart phones and cheaper tablets starts to change this picture.

Yet more content….

According to the report content creation online is a generally increasing activity with around 25% of internet users creating something (higher that the OFCOM estimates).  The graph below shows these increases:

But the next generation users are more likely to be doing this:

Overall the use of social networking sites has moved from a minority position in 2009 to a majority activity (60%) in 2011.  Importantly schooling is not important to the use of these sites – but as we saw earlier income is.

Government – meh

Overall the levels of participation with government and democracy indicated by the report are small – and though the next generation of users are more active this is as likely to correlate with the fact that they tend towards a higher income than specifically being linked to their next generation use – if indeed you can separate this at all.

Political efficacy is shown to be positively associated with internet use but there has been no significant increase in online political participation evidenced by the research desipte the 2010 election having been held since the last survey in 2009.

Civic participation is also not huge (NB they use a difference definition of civic to the one I use and are talking about participation in non-political associations rather than the wider desire to connect to your community with or without formal organisations).

Given the levels of disatisfaction with the political process and the results from for example the Hansard Audit these findings should not suprise us – though they should be of some concern.  It would be interesting to see what the results would be if the questions explored membership of online campaigning movements such as Avaaz or other online campaigns such as ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight” – are we really these low levels of participation or are we seeing them specifically with respect to the formal political process?

Internet use is settling down to be very very important

The report is detailed and I recommend having a read.  The entry point of the nature of your access as a way of codifying your relationship with the internet is a useful one and the next generation internet category is a good way of exploring the differences in internet use that we see.  I would like to see more exploration of which came first – the behaviours or the devices but we probably have to accept that they drive each other.

The nature of the digital divide is clearly changing and with respect to my work I think we need to be even more conscious than ever that the people we see creating content and demonstrating their political efficacy are a fairly specific group.

The good news is that if you can give people access then indications are that there are few barriers to them participating – but the question is whether or not enough people will get smart phones for Christmas in order to start changing this picture.

Overall the picture from the research is of internet use becoming more and more embedded – there is a lot of detail on this but I was struck particularly by this graph showing the effect on other media:

I am reading the brilliant “Amusing ourselves to death” at the moment and I must say that we have to ask whether or not the passive entertainment that the television has provided us is going to be a bit of a blip with respect to how we chose to spend our leisure time – ask me again in 2050.

Within this section there is some important stuff about levels of trust in different media and organizations (sorry government – last again here with trust levels being between 2.5-2.3 out of 5).

And one of the other interesting details was the fact that the desire to regulate the internet has reduced since 2009:

And that has to be good news as far as I concerned and probably a good place to close…

Addendum 24th October

This is a more in the way of a note to self hence the late addition.  Throughout this report the authors have spoken about respondents ‘using social networking sites’ – but the fact is that according to the OFCOM data this really means using Facebook for the vast majority of people.  It may not be the case for the content creators who make wider use of social media services (we have found it around 50:50 with the social media audits) but we need to be careful I think about whether or not we are seeing one successful service – Facebook – as opposed to a general trend.  My personal view is that we are seeing a general trend and that the next generation users are embedding the social web in their lives in lots of different ways but the overall growth may be less that these stats show as Facebook take up is masking other kinds of behaviours.

Mmmm….not sure….one to think about…

When I say Facebook is evil its firstly a cheap shot aimed at getting an immediate laugh out of the audience – I have to say that it usually works. I think it hits a chord with people as all good jokes should. While evil is perhaps an overstatement its true that my values and those of Facebook are not aligned – they are making decisions which effect me which I don’t agree with – over which I have no control.

 Lawrence Lessig ( ), a Stanford law professor, wrote this about internet architecture in 2005:

 The first generation of these architectures was built by a noncommercial sector—researchers and hackers, focused upon building a network. The second generation has been built by commerce. And the third, not yet off the drawing board, could well be the product of government. Which regulator do we prefer? Which regulators should be controlled? How does society exercise that control over entities that aim to control it? (Lessig, Code v2)

 The architectures that he refers to are the fundamental underpinnings of cyberspace – our virtual plumbing of transfer protocols, the addressing, the packet shifting that turns bits and bytes into space and place. Lessig points out the very simple truth that what is good for commerce may not be good for government – and I would go further than this and ask whether what is good for government is also good for democracy. You only have to look to the Middle East to see a clash of government and democratic and in the West we see the cultural and practical effects of cyberspace colliding with our formal decision-making – for example the role of twitter in the recent super-injunction furore and the ongoing shift towards open data in government. We need to start making some conscious decisions about how this new world is going to function.

 Transparency and ‘public-ness’ online is both a cultural remnant from the academic antecedents of the current social web and a practical result of the depth and availability of our new digital footprint. The identity play of the first social spaces (Life on Screen, Turkle) is at odds with the commercial drivers that want to join up your data so that the sites you use can sell it. Facebook isn’t really free you know – we just don’t yet really appreciate the currency we are paying with.

 There are two thoughts I want to capture in this post – both related to the need for government to start building civic architecture online. This first is an observation that if we want to understand what we want from civic space online then we should look at where people are already creating their own civic spaces. The second is to consider the differing needs of government and democracy.

 What are these civic spaces anyway?

I tend to get in conversational trouble fairly early on when talking about civic spaces – particularly online ones – exactly what do I mean? The word ‘civic’, at least with respect to space, has become associated with municipal architecture – civic centres – but this is a limited application and perhaps an attempt to claim effect and ownership through naming.

When I talk about Civic spaces, both online and offline, I am referring to those spaces which support the user motivation of ‘I want to talk to my community’ where ever they are formed. Offline we are talking about spaces where communities come together for a variety of reasons – social and civic. This could be community centres, sports halls, local schools, pubs or libraries – these are places where you can connect to and ‘touch’ civic life. There are many other examples of civic connection – neighbourhood watch, meals on wheels and countless forms of the co-production that Tony Bouivaird has identified (Bovaird et al 2009) with varying levels if intervention or involvement from the state and civic spaces are also not necessarily provided by the State.

Online these spaces are being created by the people who choose to build community websites, hyperlocal sites or who blog and report on their locality. We have people contributing to FixmyStreet, The Good Gym connects runners with isolated people in their community, and there are countless examples of support groups and community of interests based in localities such as Mumsnet or even the RSPB. People are digitising some of the offline activities as well – neighbourhood watch networks using email, schools with facebook pages and community centre blogs –places where you can ‘touch’ civic activity online.

These spaces are an important element of civic life – community works better when you know where to go and find it – and its a central social capital argument that says that stronger communities have higher levels of participation in these informal groups of community life (Putnam, 2000). I would argue that online these spaces are also potentially a location for democratic debate.

One the central elements of my thesis is the belief that these new online civic spaces do not meet one of the criteria of democratic decision making which is an understanding of the degree to which the participants and their views are representative of the wider community – new spaces are needed in order to knit the different networks of a community together and create a more representative and shared space. In an offline, traditional context this doesn’t matter to the same extent – we have offline democratic structures and a representative democracy that should address exactly this point. However we know that citizens are increasingly disconnected from the democratic process (Hansard Society, 2011) and this has been a consistent trend for decades now.

Is there a good reason to consider online civic participation differently?

Earlier writers about cyberspace were immensely optimistic about the ability of the social web to create a new kind of democracy and universal conversation. Look at the rather grandly titled “Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace”:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

I am not sure its happening like that. That statement is an artefact of that first phase of cyberspace architecture and doesn’t reflect the deep embedding and connection of our online and offline lives. However I do believe that there are different qualities to online civic participation to participation in the offline world and it is one of the things which I am examining with my research.

One of these differences is the depth and breadth of access to debate which comes about when you remove barriers or time and place – reach and access is far greater online. This makes no difference if people don’t want to get involved but the recent Hansard research that talks about 28% of people wanting to be more involved in local decision making and the membership growth of organisations such as Avaaz and MoveOn shows some indication of an audience for online civic activism which could, in the right circumstances, support increased democratic participation.

What are the right circumstances?

However there is a core concern here – that the people creating the legislation and enabling commerce seem to have little or no appreciation for the consequences of what they are doing – and there is no discussion of the implications of government activity online beyond the vital debate around privacy.

I think we need to move this debate beyond privacy and start talking about identity and we also need to start thinking about the needs of democracy as being beyond the needs of the State to govern.

The classical view of the territorial state finds architectural expression in the government assembly buildings (usually augmented by bureaucratic support structures) that traditionally have been erected at the hearts of governed territories……..clearly the technological means are now emerging to replace these spatial and architectural arrangements with electronics and software, and it isn’t hard to construct plausible arguments in favour of such a substitution (Mitchell, City of Bits)

I agree with Mitchell, and also with Stephen Coleman when he talks about the need for a civic commons in cyberspace. However its not enough and it also doesn’t separate the process of democratic debate from the process of government.

Identity and an understanding of representation is just one democratic requirement. Information is another. Sunstein’s concerns about the ‘daily Me’ (Sunstein, republic 2.0) and the impact of the information personalisation being the fact that we only choose to read content we agree with is the automation of the ‘dailyme’ is writ large in current technology which focuses us on content selected not only on our preferences but on the preferences of our friends. Google is filtering our searches to show us results tailored to their belief in our interests – our information is being filtered to show a rose-tinted view of the things that we agree with. Eli Pariser talks about this as “The Filter Bubble” (worth watching the RSA talk on this) which he wrote after realising that the same search terms do not provide the same results. This is not just a google issues – as Pariser says there are a lot of topics that are important that you don’t ‘like’ – the simplification of reactions in Facebook mean that our cultural drift toward this as a major networked public (Boyd, 2010) is robbing us of our ability to have a meaningful public discourse. We have noticed this at a local level with the social media audit work – google does not reliably rank significant civic sites in the top 10 or even top 20 results and what this means is that you will only be directed at the groups you are most likely to agree with.

Code is law online

Returning to Lessig: code is law online – Lex informatica. The worry is that the law makers and code makers are not currently speaking to each other in a way that we can see or understand. We are legislating on the fly and in reaction to changes because we are responding the commercial imperatives and expecting the market to sort this all out. It won’t because though strong government is in the interest of commerce democracy is being seen as a by product of that government rather than the engine on which it runs.

Commercial providers believe that they can offer us an answer to this – I am not sure they can. If we want privacy online then we’re going to need to find another business model and if we want democracy online then we can’t always direct people to the content they agree with.

People are creating civic spaces online, however they are doing it within the constraints that the commercial platforms put upon them – for example a definition of openness that goes only as far as the data needed to sell advertising. If we want to make these civic spaces truly open and democratic then we need government to start thinking about what democracy needs online – not just what it needs to govern.

I have been working on my literature review – this post is focused on Manuel Castells who is a Sociologist / Communications academic and a major commentator on the Information Society. You can find out more about him here.

Lots of things interest me about Castells; the scope of his work is vast and he is comfortable (and credible) in his attempt to create a unified view on the effect that the internet and the network society is having on our culture. Its also really interesting to read an academic who is properly bi-lingual (English / Spanish) and to realise how different a perspective you have when you are truly multi-cultural.

His analysis of the relationship between the media and politics is compelling and he manages to narrate this against a backdrop of the impact of the internet on both of these strands of society.

More than that he is very good at teasing out the newness of what a networked society means as well as putting this into a global perspective. He also write beautifully – and passionately – which as you know always pleases me.

I also agree with the way that despite seeing many flaws in our political and democratic systems he also sees them as a starting place to make things work better in our new context:

“ Until we rebuild, both from the bottom up and from the top down, our institutes of governance and democracy, we will not be able to stand up to the fundamental challenges that we are facing”

Anyway – you get the picture – but that’s probably enough for anyone not doing a literature review. If you want to read more then please feel free.


We had our second VirtualTH project meeting yesterday so this is just a short update on that.  The pilot is now full with Kirklees and Redbridge joining Chorley, Essex CC and North Lincs as pilot sites.  We are also lucky to have Carl Haggerty participate as a ‘critical friend’ on the technology strand which is hugely helpful.  We have got an excellent balance of sites in the pilot now and I will document them in more detail at a later date.  The addition of Kirklees is of particular interest as we are running the VirtualTH alongside their 21st Century Councillor project – which is a great fit.

For th pilot however the focus right now is on two things:

  • Technical build – getting the pilot sites up and running
  • Recruiting the community ambassadors who are going to actually make these sites work

The technical stuff is moving along well and we had a fairly complete demo – including Ady making good on our claim that you can build a new page in 10 minutes.  More on the sites in a month or so once the team have had chance to get each of the pilots properly set up.

However interesting the technology is (and it really is if you like that kind of stuff) it is, in my view, clear that this is not the difficult part of the project.  The real issue is of course in the social stuff.  We are approaching this as follows:

  1. Carrying out a ‘social web’ audit so that we can get a picture of what is going on already.  We’re breaking activity into News / Council content  / Blogs & social reporters / Social networking.  This exercise has clearly shown which sites already have relationships with the social web presence in their area and where we need to start making those connections
  2. Once we have this in place then we need to identify the community ambassadors – real people who are going to be involved in spreading the word about the project using social tools as well as moderating some of the content.
  3. We then need to get a draft social web policy in place for use with citizens, officers and members

We are now planning workshops at each of the sites which will help bring internal and external teams together as well as briefing members and generally getting people ready to use the sites.

There were a number of interesting debates during the day but the one which really struck me was around the social web policy.  Firstly, we have decided to have the same document for use by the external content providers as for officers and members.  I think this is an important change as it points towards the sense of co-creation which we are trying to achieve but by combining the internal and external audiences we highlight the issue as to how possible it is for officers to participate as citizens.  When we asked whether people felt that they could express their personal opinions online there was, I felt, a real sense that whatever the policy said about officers being free to express their opinions if they did it in the appropriate way that no-one thought that it would ‘work’ to take a position which was, however constructively, in opposition to council policy.  And this is a huge problem – officers are amongst the most community minded and engaged individuals in the community and if they are effectively silenced online then not only is that not democratic it is also missing a big opportunity to encourage and increase democratic activity.  I think this is an issue which we will return to as we tease out what the idea of virtual civic space really means.

Finally, we all agreed that part of the ‘education’ process that we need to undertake is around digital identity management – it’s about helping people grow a civic persona and make some choices as to how they do that.  A more sophisticated approach on this will mitigate the officer/citizen dilemma as well as help allay concerns which also emerge around the customer/citizen axis.

Thanks again to all who took part – am looking forward to the workshops and also the promise of sausages and mulled wine at our next meeting!!

Ok then – this is not just a continuation of my “I need an iphone” lament but here is a quick article on the BBC site talking about the growth of the smart phone market.

The striking quote is about the fact that mobile internet is poised for the kind of growth we saw for the internet as a whole in the late ’90s.  Mobile web means realtime practical applications which deliver data and service at the time and place of your choosing.  This is not just the rather rubbish read only world of WAP – it’s a potential entry point to augmented reality applications which are HUGELY interesting.  Imagine being able to get directions which are overlaid on the scene you are seeing – that’s augmented reality and it’s not a million miles away.  In my world – imagine being able to turn on a feed of local information that gives people the chance to connect to their local community.

Now – I don’t want to get all sci-fi on you but its worth looking at some of the work of William Gibson (hes the Neuromancer guy who coined the term cyberspace).  He’s been playing around with ideas around real/virtual world intersections for a while – check out Pattern Recognition for one.  Given that we now use one of his phrases as an everyday piece of language then its worth seeing what he thinks.  And if this is all a bit much then just try searching for augmented reality on the Wired website.

It’s easy to say that all this is far too much in the future and we need to concentrate of connecting more people the internet as it is and figuring out what it all means.  But we may not have the time to do this.  Mobile web has the possibility of overtaking PC/Mac web in terms of penetration into hard to reach groups (think of third world infrastructures that leapfrogged tradditional comms and moved straight to mobile) so we really need to think about democratic and social applications of these technologies now if we want to be at least on the curve.

Thats all a bit much for a Monday morning…time for a cup of tea I think……

Interesting article today from the Guardian – talking about the fact the BBC are planning a major website re-write with social media at the heart of things.  You can read the article here.

At Public-i where we do a lot of work using video for democratic projects we really saw a huge boost from the iPlayer – it seemed to take the use of video mainstream in a way that YouTube didn’t.  I know that YouTube created the social network but it was still something your children would do not you – iPlayer is used far more widely demographically speaking.  This is of course an impression – I will dig about in the Ofcom numbers next year to see what they say on this.

Anyway – if the BBC are making social media a central tenet of their new site then this could be the signal for all those councils and government agencies to start using new technologies far more systematically and with more confidence – lets wait and see shall we?