Driven Back To The Edge

I have given up writing to my blog more than once. Sometimes for a few weeks and sometimes for a year but somehow I always end up doing another one. I get frustrated; not that I’m ever going to change world, but sometimes you wish that something would just happen. Trolls  will stop trolling (and stop calling it free speech), government will stop saying it’s transforming itself and listen for once, social media will be just that, a conversation mediated through technology and not a global force for good. I could go on but I won’t you will be pleased to hear.

Like the proverbial bus (if you have them – out here in rural Shropshire we don’t) not one for ages then two turn up at once. I came across two pieces in that last week or so that have revived my faith in the digital world and reminded my why I get so worked up about things.

The first piece is by Paul Waller and Vishanth Weerakkody:

Digital Government: overcoming the systemic failure of transformation
 Digital Transformation Through Policy Design With ICT-Enhanced Instruments

Declaration of interest here: I have worked with Paul Waller and I have a lot of time for the way he thinks about things. This paper is a refreshingly different approach. It covers a number of issues but one in particular caught my attention:
“The extensive constitutional, political and practical problems caused by this repositioning of citizens as consumers experiencing “customer services” are explored in depth by Fountain (2001) and Bekkers and Homburg (2007). More recent research shows that there can be serious consequences. First, for civic participation and democracy, as and when it leads to the creation of a mind-set in individuals (Galen et al, 2012) of being a consumer rather than a citizen: “we are seeing … an increasing body of evidence that the dominance of the Consumer identity is directly undermining the cause of encouraging political participation” (Alexander, 2014). Second, for public bodies, if a focus on the “customer” overwhelms their broader purpose in relation to public policy goals (Alexander, 2014).”

I have argued in earlier blog posts that the movement within the UK digital inclusion community towards seeing inclusion as a value added proposition, save money by being online, simply turned us into a nation of online shoppers. It didn’t make us any more inclusive in the wider sense. Casting public services in the same light simply increased the divide between those who understood the wider implications of digital and those who shopped and then told their friends what they bought. There is no guarantee that acquiring the skills to use a keyboard and order your groceries will translate into a deeper engagement with the digital world. By placing public services on a par with the Tesco delivery does not translate into civic engagement.

The Brexit debate (I use the term loosely) highlighted this being characterised by unchecked, hysterical claims and counter claims to which the most popular online response (apart from trolling) was to ask Google “What is the EU?” And “How can I get an Irish passport?” As a visiting alien observer might say: “I weep for the species”.

The second piece which caught my eye was from a Scandinavian blogger Christoffer O’ Hernaes: “You Can’t Have Financial Inclusion Without Digital Inclusion” in which he raised the issues of the 2.5 billion people worldwide who do not have access to banking, the “unbanked”. There are solutions but without digital inclusion both in a physical and practical way people are unable to access them. The piece can be found on TechCrunch and it highlights not only the issues but also the opportunities afforded by decentralisation of services and mobile identities.

So what am I saying here? Why bother to write this blog and take up your time (always assuming you have stayed with me this far). Firstly I urge you to read the two pieces I’ve talked about. Secondly, particularly if you’re engaged in delivering digital inclusion, consider how much of what you do is fit for the future in the wider scheme of things. Officially we still have 17% of people who are digitally excluded either by lack of access, lack of skills or both.  I’m not anti skills; I believe you can never underestimate the importance of skills, but skills are not the answer. I wonder what the % of digital exclusion would look like if we took into account wider engagement in the digital realm?

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Where next for a digital champion.

When the RSA undertook its recent survey of digital champions in January I must confess to being somewhat down and not very positive. This may be the result of living on the periphery of a large, sparse county and being dependent on a satellite for connectivity who knows. Being in this sort of a situation does equip you for all kinds of other things because you know what the limitations are: I cannot, for example, easily join in Google Hangouts because of latency inbuilt into the satellite service. Unless something is happening in Market Drayton then everything requires a minimum thirty minute car journey and if you’re in the South of the County then it can be one and a half to two hours. Yes, I know, I chose to live here and the benefits outweigh the dis-benefits; it’s a good life Jim just not as most people know it.

Access is a big issue round here and there is a daily tussle between the incumbent supplier of broadband and local people. Years of under investment and people making do with what’s available has led to an environment of poor service delivery and angry customers. It is into that environment that the local authority sponsored Superfast Broadband scheme was launched in 2013 with much publicity and while the excitement lasted all was well and then the stark reality of what the current State Aided scheme really offered came home and battle resumed. Here in the far north of the county we appear to be in line for an up to 27Mb download service by 2016 but that is far from guaranteed. Information is vague, the maps released are worse than useless and should it be that parts of the Parish are not included then implementing a scheme based on acquiring additional funding (not yet identified) could take another two years meaning that some or all of the parish might not get a Superfast service until 2018 at the earliest. Those people who know about such things also complain that the fibre service is really a copper service from the cabinet and that it’s contended and the speed downgrades with distance.

It’s interesting to see the impact of this on the psyche of people in the village: they lose interest in the digital world, they perceive the village as being undervalued, you hear the phrase them and us and a sense of growing apartheid. This is not just about technology it’s about the role of digital in sustaining communities. Which brings me back to the role of a digital champion: at first sight a digital champion might be seen as offering those skills that facilitate participation; a digital surgeon offering social media surgeries for instance. I can subscribe to that model for a lot of good comes out of such activity, but might not a digital champion stand up for the community cause as well? I have been approached to participate in a consultation exercise with the local authority to try and better inform the remainder of the current roll out programme. The invitation is as a result of both my engagement with a disability network in Shropshire and my title of digital champion within the RSA. In putting my name forward my unsolicited sponsor has used by RSA profile. Why? Because it says that I have experience and that I am passionate about the potential of digital to empower people.

Initially seen as a conduit to enable Fellows to communicate and share, surely this raises questions about the role of digital champions as perceived by the RSA. Digital technology has already impacted on Arts; not just how the arts are created but how they are distributed and how they are consumed; digital is the medium of promotion, information and education as well as distribution. Digital technology continues to impact on Manufacturing from concept through design to implementation and beyond and with the steady growth of technologies like additive manufacture the impact will continue to influence the peripheral manufacturing environment in areas such as storage and logistics. We are starting to see changes in ideas about value in the digital economy and the role of data in personalising experiences and goods.

Learning communities build social capital and social capital leads to innovation; innovative communities are sustainable communities. The role of the digital champion within the RSA is capable of evolving and it should be allowed so to do because that wider role contributes to the aims and objectives of the RSA itself.

Rebooting Rural

To those who understand, who get IT, who have vision and imagination that goes beyond a responsibility to shareholders there is no issue in understanding the potential for unlimited bandwidth in rural areas. For everybody else it is sometimes difficult to describe the one big idea that would make it a worthwhile investment.  In a change from my usual blog posting format I acknowledge a fictional piece by Zach Exley in “Rebooting America” called “To: Micah L. Sifry, Personal Democracy Forum 2008”, in which I write to you from a point not too far in the future. As always it is there for people to read, comment and appropriate as they see fit.

2017, today I retire, finally. Taking the ZEV from the community pool would, normally, have bothered me. It was only a 45 minute walk to Higher Heath via the back roads but this morning I wanted to be there and back as quickly as possible. Besides, it was only 5:30 and the ZEV would be returned and charging in its bay before the morning commute at 8:30. I’d even booked the session with the village co-ordinator, so my conscience was clear.

Not that many people commute these days, there’s no need. The national fibre network has made the daily commute to the office and the factory a rare occurrence. You work from where you are; finally people have recognised that value is added, by the person not the person in attendance. Even CNC machine programming can be completed at home and then the operation monitored remotely. Loading, unloading and problem solving can be done by skilled individuals more locally placed.

The breakthrough had come with the Great Green Retrofit of 2012 – 2015 and the realisation that to reap the full benefits of the Smart Grid you needed infrastructure. While you’re in the community lay the fibre, while you’re in the house connect to the network – the rest, as they say, is history; a two year history of unprecedented economic growth and social change.

In 2010 we were told that rural areas might get a form of fibre network, possibly to the pavement by 2017 – now I’m on my way to the parish cloudlet for one final look before I hand in my identity tag. Truth is I don’t need to go there. I’ve been managing the cloudlet for the last two years and I’ve only been there maybe a dozen times even though it’s just a 45 minute walk away. A direct fibre connection allows me to monitor, change, and manage even watch without ever having to leave home. I can hold meetings with the other operators using virtual presence. Today, however, I wanted to visit, one last time.

The cloudlet network was a by product of the infrastructure investment. Back in 2010 the assumption had been that The Cloud would be the way forward. Factory sized server farms with obscene bandwidth hosting applications, storing data, personal information and entertainment; anything and everything for everybody. The problems with the cloud idea were numerous, they were wasteful, huge energy requirements, low carbon efficiency and they were vulnerable; despite redundant systems they were a single point of failure. Worst of all, people didn’t trust them, they weren’t fully understood and they were too remote. The idea that your “stuff” was in a repository somewhere across the Atlantic didn’t have the right feel for many people. The owners of the cloud did little to help themselves. Each of the big corporations wanted the whole cloud to themselves; they were proprietary in a world where people wanted choice and the freedom to change if they weren’t happy just as they did with any service that they paid for.

So the idea of the cloudlets was borne. Any community could have its own small cloud that served the needs of its community. The cloudlets supported each other and provided resilience. The large, corporate clouds became service providers for large corporate customers and the repositories for commercial content; there never was money to be made from the large amount of personal content, it took up lots of space and it never really paid for itself.

The cloudlets charged local people for their local services such as data storage and access to the wider network. They also charge content providers to be the gateway to the local network. What’s more they charged just enough so that it wasn’t prohibitive; the aim was not to protect the channels of access but to facilitate them. People had the option to subscribe to content or to pay a micro charge for individual items. Because people owned the solution they no longer expected free – except to personal content – so it was possible for things to exist just once and to be accessed many times. In this way the community connected to the local cloudlet and the cloudlets connected to each other and to the corporate clouds.

Recently there had been an increasing business in identity certificates. Local people could choose for their identity to be confirmed by an organisation in their locality; a bank, a library, a hospital, a doctor’s surgery, a school or a church. Each of these would electronically host part of a person’s on line identity with the more established providers, banks and doctors, being used for higher levels of authorisation. Each time a person used their identity, such as to make a purchase on line or complete an application for a service or benefit they made a micropayment to the identity provider via the cloudlet. It was just a few pence but because it was a multi sourced identity it was more reliable and it was no longer password dependent – you were who you said that you were. Just as people vouched for people once upon a time, a local service supported a person’s on line identity.

The decision to put out Parish Cloudlet in Higher Heath hadn’t been without controversy. Whitchurch as the major town had wanted to host it and use up one of the empty industrial units. By putting the facility in Higher Heath the small amount of waste heat it generated was piped to the local nurseries and into the district heating project. The new build was sustainable; it used local materials and incorporated low carbon technology. Yes, it still drew power from the grid but we also put energy into the grid generated from methane and a ten gigawatt wind farm that sat on the periphery of what had, once, been the parish tip.

The introduction of the smart grid had driven the need for universal infrastructure, now it exceeded expectations. The scale of the green retrofit programme raised awareness of the need to save energy and local ownership of the programme drove behaviour change; this in turn created the demand for smarter household goods that worked with the grid; the availability of infrastructure created the conditions which gave manufacturers the confidence to develop appliances which met consumer demand. The energy grids had become pro active rather than re-active. The demand for energy reserves to meet peaks in demand had shifted to energy profiling.

The capability of interconnected smart appliances also allowed the food supply chain to become proactive. A profile of user needs emerged based on food usage; local providers registered their ability to meet local need and then national retail outlets backfilled the rest. Transport costs were reduced, overstocking virtually disappeared and the risk of local shortages was eliminated. National suppliers suffered a loss in trade, yes, shops reduced in size, some jobs were redistributed but the lower costs meant that profitability was maintained.

The impact on transport infrastructure had been significant. Fewer people travelled to work every day, some not at all. The infrastructure investment in the small industrial and office units on the village outskirts meant that young entrepreneurs had somewhere to start their business ideas. Perpetual access to the university network provided innovation support. People who worked locally, spent money locally and the number of small shops on Shrewsbury Street began to grow.

Those that had to travel long distances tended to use the trains that ran more frequently as the local spokes fed the town hubs which linked to the city centres. Trips to the station made use of the network of Zero Emission Vehicles which were maintained in pools of half a dozen or so by members of the community. ZEVs were booked on demand, via the cloudlet and at times of high demand neighbouring villages shared. People’s journeys were profiled and a pattern of use built up over time so that more often than not there was space on a ZEV to get you where you wanted to go. Outside of the cities, the infrequent buses no longer ran without passengers.

I arrived at the gate of the small compound and held my pass to the reader, the gate opened. I noticed one of the cameras swivel towards my position, somebody in the Parish was watching me, I looked towards it and waved. I parked the ZEV and entered the low wooden building through a series of doors until I stood inside the server room. A cluster of racks worked noisily in one half, in the other a new installation was in progress. The cloudlet had increasingly started to provide thin client services. It was scalable, reliable, and people no longer needed to buy heavyweight processing. The new installation was a bit of an experiment. Recent developments in entanglement technology offered unprecedented speed of processing over the relatively short distances from the villages to the cloudlet. This did away with the need for fibre. The two ends of the device are brought together and then one end remains with the user while the other is installed in the rack at the cloudlet, which then talks to the fibre network. Somehow, they talk to each other. For now the fibre network is still needed for everything else but within 10 years, who knows.

I returned the ZEV to its bay in the pool and hooked it up to the grid. People were appearing on the streets, the odd vehicle drove along the bypass, and it was going to be a warm day. What now; a holiday, a rest? Possibly but then long walks, take lots of pictures, more time with grand children and who knows, I may even write a blog.

What Should Be In A Digital Inclusion Conference?

I first wrote about this way back in May 2009 in response to the Digital Inclusion Conference 2009. which I thought was pretty good as conferences go. Given the discussion on Twitter on 21st September I thought it would be a good time to bring some of it back to the top of the blog list.

I will declare myself guilty to being self opinionated and state that I have touted these ideas as suitable for Digital Inclusion 2010. I apologise if I’ve bored you with some of this before.

I am proposing that there should be rules for next year’s conference. In no particular order:-

Rule number one – Just because you had a good experience doesn’t mean you have the answer. Present the experience, not the solution.

Rule number two – No PowerPoint slides with tick boxes.

Rule number three – there should be no exceptions proving the rule. We should celebrate success but not at the expense of ignoring the hard to do pile.

Rule number four – remember that the biggest consumers of public services are those people whose lives are most chaotic.

I suggest a twin track conference one for LSPs and Commissioners and one for practitioners. There should be active engagement of the third sector with special rates for them to attend and targeted items on one day so that they don’t have the expense of a two day event. I also suggest a slightly different format with an opportunity for fringe events and small, privately sponsored workshops so that individual projects can present their work to interested audiences.

There were a couple of emergent themes that I think should underpin the “out of the box” approach needed next time:

Innovation: We all know Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Do we really understand what it is to be innovative? The recent Vienna Report has a great sound bite “I2 Inclusive technical innovation and Innovative Inclusive Policies”. Where do innovative ideas come from and what is the journey that they go on? Do we understand innovation or do we oversimplify? Is there a place for horizon scanning?

Entitlement: What is people’s entitlement and do the VCS have a role in this?

Scalability, Duplication versus Replication: How do you break string without scissors? What is the best way, local up or down to local, how do you scale small ideas?

Empowerment: Doing it with not doing it to. Is there a difference between activism and empowerment? What is the role of locally created content? People can be supported to be producers.

Value: Lord Reith’s approach was giving the people what they need, not what they want. What is the role of Value chains in social inclusion? How do you add value in a knowledge society? What is the value chain? How do you create value? How do we connect advocacy to information? Is this adding value? What is the real value of partnership? Is the holy trinity of service design VCS/CVS + LA/LSP + empowered citizens?

Disability: What is the disabled experience? CLG have published a number of profiles on Adults with Learning difficulties and people who use mental health services. How do we bring these to life? What’s it like to be on the other side of the glass?

Access: Is Access still an issue? Should infrastructure be part of the debate? Should we talk about rural in a separate context?

The 2009 conference was, primarily, an event for Ministers. It was an opportunity to understand that Digital Inclusion is a real issue, that there are quantifiable benefits to come from a digitally included society, and that there is some Ministerial credit to be had by being actively engaged with the digital inclusion agenda. The conference was also about celebrating success. I’m all for that and there was a lot of success to celebrate and quite right too. However, try as they might, nobody got any closer to the real nub of the matter – the final third, or the final 29%. The “too hard to do” pile didn’t seem to get any smaller and the “yes we can” pile grew not one jot. That said, the best ideas often come from the most surprising places, the workshops threw up some hope for us all so recommendation that the workshops stay.

Which brings us to the future; what should happen next? When Matthew Taylor closed the conference with an invitation for next year I had a concern that another two days of celebrating success over the 71% (or will it be 75%) of engaged citizens would be re-played. This must not happen and so I have a couple of suggestions. Next year’s conference must concentrate on the things we cannot do, that we find hard, that we need to approach differently. I propose that we have the first half day to celebrate the achievements, it’s important to do that. For the remainder of the conference we should focus on the “too hard to do” pile and we should start the process of thinking well outside of the box. It’s time we left our comfort zone.