Reflections on what might have been
The best blog post often emerges when you get worked up about something. That may be a bad thing. Journalism is about exposing the facts, blogs tend to be cathartic. I get worked up about something most weeks but it’s only now and again I’m tempted to write a post. Hopefully, what emerges from my posts is a process, where a line of thinking develops; as opposed to a simple rant about something or other. During February Shropshire, through its Council and Local Economic Partnership, indicated that it wanted to be in the next wave of funding for Next Generation Broadband funding.
Broadband Infrastructure must be one of the few public procurements where form does not follow function. Form rules in terms of technology, there are wireless champions, cable champions, and fibre champions yet nobody seems to be sitting down to consider exactly what it is we want to deliver. If speed were a commodity then everything would be fine, everybody agrees that they want speedy communications but given that we are embarked upon a significant public spend ought we to not at least debate what we are looking for in our communities?
I picked up an item from Knight Foundation; this is an American organisation established by two brothers with a background in printed media. The website is interesting in its own way and well worth a visit. The item concerned a Community Information Toolkit the aim of which is to establish the information needs of a community. Think about this: what does a community need to know in order to operate? Take simple things like time tables, surgery times, opening times, and church service times. Then think about more complex things like where to get information, advice and guidance and where to get social support? There is more esoteric stuff that might inform service development such as how many older people there are, how many disabled people? Where do people get this information now, what is the accuracy of that information, what happens if the information source disappears? How can that information be improved, how might access be improved and, of course, is there a role for technology? In short, it promotes the idea of designing an information system around the needs of the community, a demand led rather than a supply led system.
This links to the work from the Institute for the future on “A Planet of Civic Laboratories” which I mentioned here. This promotes the idea that by using open data we can empower citizens to understand what is happening in their communities and then involve citizens in the design and implementation of services to make their communities better in ways that meet their needs. Digital Inclusion needs to empower individuals and communities to take control of their own environment.
There is a tendency to assume that people who live on the fringes of mainstream society, who are excluded by lack of access to education, by worklessness, through crime, because of abuse or any number of social issues exist in a kind of limbo world. In fact they have their own survival networks which allow them to function. Digital Inclusion should support those networks and empower them.
Alongside the Institute for the Future material I found a presentation from McKinsey & Company which looked at Cities Information and Inclusion (Presentation can be found here) which again considered the impact of information on inclusion and asked key questions: How can we deliver more value from urban informatics? How can we increase its impact on inclusion? The whole area of public value is one that we see as part of the Big Society agenda but I’m not seeing public value being discussed in the context of digital and social inclusion, it seems that we in England are still wedded to the notion that delivering public value is something we do to people and not with.
All of this material is being delivered in the States and it’s all city based. I found this inspiring presentation from the Spatial Information Design Lab (available from here) which showed how crowd sourced data when used with the communities to which it refers can make an enormous difference. I can understand why it’s all city based, there the problems have the highest visibility and many are compounded by the sheer weight of population. I believe that we underplay the linkage between urban and rural and that there is a case to be made for looking at how open data can impact on the issues in rural communities. There is a business case for Smart Villages which looks not only at the hidden social problems that exist but also the impact of food supply, carbon reduction strategies and sustainable communities. There is a business case if only because addressing those rural issues will impact on the urban supply chain.
So, what is it that I’m worked up about? Well the Broadband Delivery UK waves are being tendered for and I can see in the tenders I’ve looked at so far that the need for speed is high on everybody’s list; the digital inclusion business case is being defined in terms of access. I think we should be defining the digital inclusion business case in terms of outcomes, in particular outcomes for the most excluded of our communities. Which brings me full circle, what do they need to know and how can we empower their networks to use that knowledge to define the services that they need?