“Two households, both alike in dignity,”

Romeo and Juliet Act 1 Scene 1 William Shakespeare


While growing older may have given me a more considered view of life there are some things that even now will drive me into a rant. One such thing is people in responsible, public facing roles who grab a headline by stating the obvious. Take, for instance, Eddie Copeland Head of Technology Policy at Policy Exchange: http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/people/research/item/eddie-copeland . I don’t know Eddie but he has a blog http://policybytes.org.uk and an impressive CV ranging from being a Parliamentary Researcher, a Congressional Intern, and Project Manager of large infrastructure projects and so on.

His offense on this occasion is his recommendation, widely publicised in the press and on the BBC last Tuesday, that the Government should offer the elderly lessons in the internet to encourage them to ‘discover life online’. I know that this is a sound bite from the Policy Exchange Manifesto which suggests that £875m is the figure required to get the final 17% online but aren’t we entering into a world of unreality here? Actually I would challenge the idea that we need £875m to tackle the problem of the final 17% (approximately 6.2 million people); that’s £141.13p per person more or less – what’s the 13p for I wonder?

It’s not that I would deny people working in the field of digital inclusion access to a slice £875m it’s an agenda that’s very close to my heart and I do not for one minute underestimate the importance of the work; it’s the approach and the short sighted attitude that makes me so cross. This is a technology manifesto intended to influence Government policy and the headline grabber is get older people online to help with problems of loneliness.

Contrast this with the interview on Giga Om with Usman Haque on May 20th just one week earlier: https://gigaom.com/2014/05/20/thingful-wants-to-crawl-the-internet-of-things-but-is-this-the-right-model/ . Usman Haque also has an impressive CV he is a founding partner of Umberellium http://www.umberellium.co.uk , founder of the Internet of Things data infrastructure and community platform Pachube.com. He is an architect, creates responsive environments and dozens of mass-participation initiatives in cities, festivals and galleries throughout the world.

His view is that being on line empowers people and gives them the opportunity to take control of their environment. He is interested in how cities can talk to people and how people can interact with where they live. While there is a view that you have to have the skills before you can interact – a little obvious – that view misses the point. If you are setting out policy you are driving something forward not focussing on remediation of the obvious problem. If the vision for the future is realistic and enticing then the means will be found to redress the issues but if the focus sets out that we have to do A before we can progress to B then we may never realise the vision never mind succeed in including the final 17%.

Policy Exchange also falls into the skills trap: teach the skills and surely the rest will follow. It is widely recognised today that skills only approaches have pretty much failed – which is why we still have the 17%, the long tail that grows ever longer. We have to address the issues of trust, confidence, and belief and benefit which means that skill is just one piece and it doesn’t follow that it has to come first.

Policy Exchange and Eddie Copeland are seeing people as passive participants in the digital world; consumers and employees. The trick is to see people as active participants who are taking control and realising value in a digital economy. In the digital world full time mono occupations have gone forever and we need to be agile, self reliant, just in time learners. Let us look at the means to achieve that as a headline.


Smart Cities but are they smart places?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way” Charles Dickens A tale of Two Cities

One of the best things (worst things?) about being in the digital inclusion space is that you get to move in all sorts of circles: last month it was infrastructure at the Digital Agenda Assembly, last week it was knowledge sharing at a discussion in Birmingham and how that is becoming a government issue worldwide. While others will recognise that this demands a little understanding of everything it means that we have to hold our hands up to a detailed understanding of little.

I’ve always had reservations about City Regions as an underlying principle for economic and social development. Let me qualify that: it’s not that I don’t understand the importance of cities as centres of population or as drivers for economic growth it’s that we tend to think of them as independent systems that exist outside of any other context; we make the system boundary too constricted. I understand that we cannot have an unbounded system but we make the world view rather myopic and the city system looks in on itself or at best on other cities that are also looking inwards. This perception is shared not only by those who discuss cities but also those who live in them. Any recognition of a wider context for a city is limited to “trickle down effects”. Now we are moving into the realms of “Super connected cities” which begs the question: connected to what?

The piece by Dr Rick Robinson on how information can support forward looking decision making highlights the need to identify long term social, environmental and financial outcomes. I concur; outcome based strategy provides a better driver for innovation and investment than simple short term financial return. However, there are a couple of missing pieces from the picture.

The city operations centre in Rio de Janeiro is a well publicized example of Smart City Technology. I have never been to Brazil; I have never been to South America, much less Brazil and I don’t speak Portuguese. Everything I see and read about Rio de Janeiro is full of superlatives: biggest, highest, richest, and poorest and the fastest. Brazil has overtaken the UK as the world’s sixth largest economy but I read about it most in the context of Smart Cities.

I’m an admirer of the work of Anthony Townsend and Rachel Maguire of the Institute of the Future, particularly “A Planet of Civic Laboratories”  because they recognise not only the value to be gained from the high level information systems as a driver for decision making but also the importance of ownership by the people who live in the cities: in the Brazilian context they highlight the use of personal sensing and access to open data to inform citizens who can be empowered to make a difference locally. This chimes well with local currencies and trading systems and was emphasized by Greg Lindsay in a 2010 piece “The Battle for Control of Smart Cities” .

The second missing piece is about the context for cities. I’m not just talking about the peri-urban hinterland, I mean the rural context which sits between the cities. I recently had the pleasure of a discussion with colleagues at the THINKlab at the University of Salford www.thinklab.salford.ac.uk about the use of sensor technology to manage food supply chains. This arose from a consideration of the popular, simple idea of local food boxes and barter systems in communities. Looked at in the wider context of rural food distribution (rural areas tend to produce food, export it to urban areas then re-import it in order to buy it at retail outlets). An efficient barter system and food boxes are potentially disruptive and could undermine the local retail outlet which closes. Apart from the loss of amenity this works until there is a period of shortage at which point the community is drawn back into the food supply chain but must go further to obtain food. This is inefficient in terms of carbon use and creates hardship for those who cannot travel easily. The solution we explored was to look at how information systems could manage demand and inform local supply in a way which incorporated the food boxes into the established supply chain; the internet of things at a very small scale.

How is this relevant to the city? Ownership by the citizenry cannot be ignored. The Mckinsey and Company report into “Cities, Information and Inclusion” emphasizes the public value that arises from digitally included populations. Such supply chains of goods, labour and information already exist between cities and their rural context but we fail to recognise them when considering the smart systems. There is a strong outcome based case for “smart places” for while the urgency lies with the cities of today to ignore the wider context is not only inefficient but poor system boundaries increases the future risk of unintended consequences when we encounter periods of disruptive change.

Modernising the Third Sector – Echoes and Resonance

In my last post “A Tale of Two Cities” I made an assertion that:

“The sector, which is expected to take over the delivery of services as local authorities move to commissioning rather than delivery, is not ready for Digital by Default; ergo it is not ready for Assisted Digital. While the Government may point to the success of its digital champions and its one million UKOnline successes it has yet to address the principle client group of many Third Sector organisations, the final 20% who are the biggest users of services. The Third Sector is not ready of the impact of personalisation nor is it prepared for co-production.”

Hold that thought!

More recently excellent blog posts by Carl Haggerty and Martin Howitt on Local Government as a Platform moved me to comment first and then to think about how such a platform might work with the Third Sector as they become a key service provider.

Martin’s Diagram, reproduced here, places Service Providers as an arm linked into the Local Gov Hub along side People (in places with needs). My argument to both Martin and to Carl was that while we can identify why Local Government sits at the centre (fundholder, standards assurance, governance, political oversight) if you were designing a system to deliver services to people with needs you wouldn’t necessarily design it this way. There are additional issues around political oversight and democratic representation of the most excluded that I refer to in my response to Martin’s blog post so I won’t go into them here.

Val Lewis (AKA @otherhalf and the Val in Penval) was approached this week to do a short presentation on modernising and the role of ICTs in a Third Sector organisation where she is a member of the board. Given my opening statement and the questions posed by Martin and Carl it seemed an ideal opportunity to think about how that might look.

While this might fit into Martin’s “Service Provider” square hopefully I’m going to explain how it overlaps with that, the Local Gov Hub and the People in Places with Needs. The diagram has sections that are deliberately blurred; this is not a hierarchical organisation in the strictest sense. The curved lines represent the flow of information, from left to right and up and down the organisation. The organisation is “Social” in the sense that it uses social channels to engage with a wider stakeholder group as well as providing a direct service and receiving feed back. The organisation also uses “Social” in business; that might be a platform like “Yammer”.

The organisation uses ICTs to run its business processes, it has Customer Relationship Management, It monitors contracts, it invoices, it produces reports; it may even be big enough to have a resource management system, my point is that it uses business software along side its social software. Together they provide the Business Intelligence, intelligence that goes beyond raw figures and facts. Because the business is “Social” the opinions, the feedback, the ideas can all go into the mix. To this is added open data, the wider information that can both inform the bigger picture and can provide insights that impact on the lives of the client base. All of this informs strategy.

If knowledge and opinions are shared within an organisation then the organisation begins to resonate, ideas flow informed by formal and informal knowledge, the whole day can become a watercooler moment or a corridor conversation that oils the wheels of service delivery.

When we talk about modernising our Third Sector it’s not a question of Microsoft or Open Software; it’s not a choice between lap tops, desk tops and tablets; it’s not even about smart phones it’s about re-thinking the approach. The backdrop to all of this is Digital by Default and it’s shadow, Assisted Digital. The positioning of an organisation in a digital context begins to prepare it to support its client base in a digital by default world. This is about more than building the capacity to support ICTs, this is about how we work and what we do that constitutes work that enables us to create organisations that ultimately provide better outcomes for their clients – who are some of the biggest cost users of public services – so we all benefit.

Hopefully this post will contribute something to the discussion and I welcome people’s comments and thoughts. I would like to thank Martin Howit and Carl Haggerty for getting this discussion out into the wider world  – let’s see if it leads somewhere.

A Tale of Two Cities


Tuesday 21st February 2012, London. We wearily made our way past the groups of school girls huddled outside the O2 ready for the Brit Awards. We left the queue to the cold wind and entered   Ravensbourne, http://www.rave.ac.uk/ winner of the RIBA award for London 2011, for “See IT in Action”. This was billed as a market place for Local Government and many of the same old faces were stood, seated or prostrate in front of a sea of pull up banners like the vestigial remains of a defeated medieval Japanese army. They outnumbered the delegates who were encamped around a small temporary stage sipping hot drinks served from vacuum flasks into white cups. Having said “Hello” to the familiar faces I joined the camp followers, perused the information supplied and sipped the coffee. Francis Maude MP had been promised but a late withdrawal meant that the day fell to Helen Milner from UKOnline who gave us the news we were probably expecting – that UKOnline were on the cusp of converting their 1 millionth digital acolyte; then the news that some probably weren’t expecting, that public services will be digital by default and the fall back position for the digitally excluded will be assisted digital. There should have been a lot more detail and a lot more discussion at this point but no, we had the percentages, the older person case study and then it was time for workshops.

While Revensbourne may well be an RIBA award winner it’s design does not equip it as a conference venue. From this point until the end of the day we were engaged in a turf war with the students; given that this was their space we were the invaders it’s easy to see why they weren’t in the least bothered and hard to see why we were there at all. For all of that the content of the workshops wasn’t bad and the messages were good it’s just that the channel was poor; bad sound and appalling visuals. I managed to take away three key points: Working through communities that are close to disengaged groups is an effective way to tackle issues; channel switching can be encouraged by using technology that is relevant to people’s needs and recognises their preferences; the government knowledge hub is live and has a strong social interface because this is an effective way of both sharing knowledge and of bringing relevant knowledge to you.

At the end of the day there was a draw for a bottle of whisky and a bottle of sparkling wine; I didn’t win either. I was photographed holding a promotional mug in front of the Learning Pool stand by the most excellent Paul Webster (@watfordgap) and then it was time to leave. The queue outside the O2 was both longer and deeper and the crowds were starting to roll in. I slipped away on the Jubilee Line and headed for home.

From out of this conference dystopia some salient things emerge. While many will look at the key points from the workshops and say “we could have told you that” it must be remembered that even twelve months ago it was unlikely that such messages would have been heard at a government conference: the messages were always centralized, top down, “done to” and “Social” was something new and to be controlled from the core. This reflects a real change in approach brought about by economic and political necessity as much as anything. For me the biggest disappointment was that here was an opportunity to take “Digital by Default” by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake while framing searching questions about the details of “Assisted Digital”. Alas is was not to be and given the potential impact of these things for those who are excluded by lack of access, lack of engagement or disability this was an opportunity lost.

Friday 24th February, 2012, Liverpool. There was an almost school boy anticipation as I walked through the doors of 151 Dale Street, just round the corner from John Moors University, for “socialXchange: social in the age of digital” . The atrium stairwell of this George V building is a reminder of the civic pride of a city and a magnificent history. Down to the basement, a white label stuck on with my name and Twitter handle and, yes, more coffee from vacuum flasks served in white cups. The main conference room was buzzing, screens round the room showed the Twitter stream and we had easy access to the wifi network. Smarts phones, iPads and the odd laptop clicked away and we started to introduce ourselves to people we had never met before or who we had only met through one of the social media channels.

A chaotic call to order and we were off; a quick round robin for expectations of the day then four short presentations by practitioners working in the voluntary sector and local government. Great visuals and sound, good use of Prezi and one, consistent message: you can do things differently and make a difference. With presentations out of the way and a clear focus the screen was lifted and the blank white board, ruled into time slots was revealed – an unconference – YES! What did we want to talk about? Who had something to say?

A quick break whilst the rooms were re-organised and we were off. There were so many messages to come out of these informally organized workshops: the Third Sector has within in a wealth of talent and experience; discussion ranged from the role of social media in a matrixed managed organisation via how to introduce social media into organisations to finish at the potential for open data as a resource and as an organisational philosophy. The sector, which is expected to take over the delivery of services as local authorities move to commissioning rather than delivery, is not ready for Digital by Default; ergo it is not ready for Assisted Digital. While the Government may point to the success of its digital champions and its one million UKOnline successes it has yet to address the principle client group of many Third Sector organisations, the final 20% who are the biggest users of services. The Third Sector is not ready of the impact of personalisation nor is it prepared for co-production. The difference is that as a sector it is willing to say so, it is willing to tackle the issues and it is determined to meet the needs of its client groups.

Conference organisation apart – and the people in London would do well to learn from the people in Liverpool – the digital inclusion agenda has not gone away it has simply moved into new territory. The messages from the London conference are good ones in many ways but the messages coming from the Liverpool conference are the ones to which people should be listening. If the readers of this blog haven’t yet done so I strongly suggest they visit http://www.so-mo.co/ and connect to this network and don’t just watch but “act” in this space.

Place Based Social Innovation

On Wednesday 4th May 2011 @Coprodnet asked: What would a place-based social innovation infrastructure (people-relationships, places, processes tech) look like? For what they are worth these are my thoughts…..

I have been known to bang on and on about an article written in 2006 by John field who was Deputy Principal of the University of Stirling at the time where he worked as Director of the Division of Academic Innovation and Continuing Education. The piece in Observatory Pascal was entitled “Social Networks, Innovation and Learning: Can Policies for Social Capital Promote both Economic Dynamism and Social Justice?” It had a profound impact on my thinking that has lasted until today. Field describes a situation in which learning communities develop social capital and communities with social capital are innovative communities.

In traditional terms we could describe a community of place where people have shared values and an interest in the wider community. In 2006 I was working on a rural community broadband project and part of that was community learning. I presented a paper on it at a conference in 2006 which can still be found here: http://www.ics.heacademy.ac.uk/italics/vol5iss4/nash.pdf which has the inglorious title of “Testbed Learning Communities in Craven Arms. Building confidence through meeting locally expressed demand by aggregating need and sourcing local supply. A pre-requisite to digital literacy.”  The key argument of the piece was that bringing together people with shared needs and then sourcing local solutions made it possible to solve a problem, in this case the need for learning.

The other thing that is needed is a gathering place. A venue where people come together naturally and the majority will identify as being an accepted point of contact. Some communities will have more than one but in our experience it was often a community centre but sometimes a pub or a post office or a village shop, sometimes it was a church or a church hall the common feature was the broad acceptance by the community that this was a place where they were comfortable and where activity could take place.

The question of what brought people together and sourced supply to meet demand was an interesting one and we did work on the role of community brokers. These were trusted agents and not always the people that you would expect. Often they had no official role and frequently functioned outside of the official lines of supply, occasionally they functioned despite them. These were people who knew people, who had a friend of a friend; very often they had knowledge that was just one step ahead of the person seeking a solution. The key thing was that they could identify the source of answers or bring people together to affect a solution; they also had access to the gathering places.

With these elements it became possible to see Social Capital in action, bridging relationships and bringing people together with a common purpose. While this is a somewhat stylized view of community action, missing out the in-between steps which involved identifying the problem or need, the gossip leading to the conversation which leads to the introduction and then the negotiation, essentially these are the parts for place based social innovation. It would be wrong to underestimate the complexity of innovation processes. The classic identify, analyse, generate, test, implement and review cycle misses the mark and Leydesdorff’s triple helix model which includes geography, politics the economy and the knowledge infrastructure is probably closer to the reality.

Regarding technology this has to be pervasive: it has to be continuous, high speed and mobile. The Knight Foundation http://www.knightfoundation.org/mii/ has produced some interesting work on the information needs of communities. McKinsey & Company has published interesting ideas on how informatics can engage citizens and nonprofits in problem solving http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/uploads/files/96ee5693-a844-4f3e-b56f-54fdef7650c9-1-mckinsey.pdf . Most persuasive is the work of Institute for the Future on “The future of cities, information and inclusion” http://www.iftf.org/inclusion Where high level mapping impacts downwards to a realm where personal sensing informs decision making. The key messages here are that the “tech” should empower by giving people the information to solve problems from their perspective. Place based social innovation is done “by” the people “with” the people not “to” the people or “for” them.

So we end up with a list of sorts for what place based social innovation looks like:

  • Shared Values – knowledge
  • A gathering place – shared space
  • Community Brokers – shared information
  • Social Capital – shared capacity
  • A realistic expectation of innovation as a process
  • Pervasive, accessible, mobile infrastructure
  • A desire to empower – shared politics

The Clue Train Manifesto says “Human communities are based on discourse – on human speech about human concerns” That is as good a starting point as any.

Shropcamp Report

Shropcamp was a great success. It brought together people, not just of like minds but of shared curiosity and I am hopeful that the curiosity will spread. There is also a side benefit; for many this was their first ever unconference and I came away feeling that the format had found new friends. For those of us in a supporting role there was a great sense of anticipation at the start of the day. While a very busy Ben Proctor rushed around finalising everything from wifi login to coffee and biscuits we stood and wondered what people might make of things. We needn’t have worried, the room filled up, food was consumed, networking commenced and the unconference was underway.

My own session on The Geek Layer attracted a room full of curiosity. For some it was a maiden unconference session and it took a while for the idea to take hold, it’s not about the body at the front of the room – it’s about what the participants have to say. It didn’t take long and they were soon getting stuck into the issues. By lunchtime there wasn’t a maid to be found.

I went to three excellent sessions. Nicki Getgood and  Benjiw’s session on storytelling took an idea that’s close to my heart, personal stories and looked at how they can be cathartic but also a call to action. When we put real stories with open data we get new insights into the how people’s lives can be affected by what we do.

The session by Jon King on Open Data for Social Gaming was truly excellent; using QR tags and GIS data as part of the work of museums and archives in Shropshire as a way of enhancing experience was interesting but the possibilities of linking with things like bus routes and user generated content opened up all sorts of possibilities.

Dave Briggs talked about micro-participation how using the potential of the internet and social media could create a big impact from small contributions and hence make complexity manageable was a refreshing view of how local government could become accessible thus promoting participation – simples.

The whole day was brought together by Ben Proctor and Andy Mabbett who deserve a huge round of applause for a magnificent effort. The other big plus was meeting new friends and catching up with old ones. The experience of meeting people in the flesh whom you have only previously known through Twitter still amazes me; media is truly social in this way. So I have to finish by saying Hi to Jools Payne, Jan Minihane, Jennifer Deacon, Jane Edwards, Chris Pritchard, Fay Easton, Phil Oakley, Paul Masterman, Kevin Campbell-Wright, Roger Greenhalgh and Dawn O’Brien. There are those with whom I have had good conversations and haven’t listed here because you are too many but you all made it a great day.

I am hoping that this will become a vibrant community of interest which will drive the use of open data and social media in helping to engage and empower communities in rural areas such as Shropshire so that next year’s Shropcamp will be bigger yet and who knows, it may take on a wider rural participation.

Digital Inclusion & Public Value – Have the States Got IT?

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?