Sunday, October 30, 2011

Occupy is not equality, it is Equality.

Read Occupy London is a nursery for the mind by Madeleine Bunting at the Guardian. Think this through. 

Let's be clear. The Occupy movement is not about equality. Sure, they talk of "the 99%", but this is more a description of the world around them, rather than who should act. 

It is not about forcing a one-size-fits-all, globally-empowering solution, but about the personal ability to build a better world where you are. The most important message coming out of the Occupy movement is that there is no global solution. There is only what you can do.

Those striving for equality rely on some kind of Universal Right - but such Rights always require a centralised and authoritative power to maintain that equality. Capitalism "fought" against communism with this very tenet in mind - that the network is more sustainable and more adaptable than a single viewpoint.

Now maybe history is being repeated - the New Network is flexing its strength around an old one that has crystallised. The old market has laid out its flaws for all to see (imbalance, resource exploitation, workforce exploitation, future exploitation), and challenges the centralised authorities (the State) to fix them. The enemy and the saviour are on the same side.

The Occupy movement is not about equality as we understand it because requires effort, and responsibility, and right now, the motivation to employ this effort scattered between individuals. Instead, t is about inspiration. The idea of "equality" is shifted fundamentally, from a notion of identicality - in terms of living arrangements, in terms of spending power, in terms of life expectancy - to a notion of potential.

The difference is huge. It almost seems to speak more to traditional market values than those who defend the markets as they stand. The idea that you get out what you put in, and that if you create true value then you will be valued. Be smart. Be authentic. Be happy. Be hard-working. Be connected. Be helpful. All of these are network values.

And all of these are values inherent to each and every one of us, not "skills" that we "choose" to get "taught".

Commonality is the new equality. Everything else - how you live, how you die - is just what you do with it.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Networked Knowledge Worker in the 21st Century

Harold Jarche talks about the new knowledge-worker (via @DavidGurteen) as defined by Neal Gorenflo,  highlighting the role and importance of information sharing, systems thinking/complexity and mixable politics to a certain (emerging?) group of people.

But I like the way Harold ties the idea into a lot of what I've been thinking - that this kind of "worker" is a big part of the puzzle staring us in the face. He raises the question of how companies and organisations can attract such a person, and says they need to become more caring, flexible and ethical to take advantage.

But why is this such an important question?

Because right now, it feels like we've run out of map. We can see a cliff looming, built out of superfluous bureaucracy, management fear, economic uncertainty, and political distrust. There's no map, no plan. Optimism is the main strategy still running, and another bit of it drops off the cliff every week.

Knowledge workers, as outlined above, are fundamental to where we go next, for the following reasons:

  1. We need to know what the possibilities and the alternatives are. The "solutions" we've been relying on at all levels - economic cutbacks, party politics, representative democracy, quantitative easing, debt-first economics... - will take either a long time, or will continue to entrench non-solutions. New solutions, or new takes on existing solutions, require local/small-scale thought and experimentation, but rapid communication to interested parties, like any other meme.
  2. We need to understand a more diverse population and set of viewpoints. Maintaining a status quo "intended audience", or idea of what constitutes the "general public", will result in outdated and narrow answers. To caveat, I think there's always a danger of birds of a feather forming into networks, rather than diversity being realised inherently, but at the same time networks are key to "making diversity more transparent". The old, broadcast-only models of understanding who we are are no longer relevant or useful.
  3. We need to maintain a systemic perspective. This is tricky, because we're so unused to organic modes of thought. We like to simplify in order to communicate and persuade, but over-simplification is useless - it leads to faulty solutions and worse, to solutions that create new problems. The logical approach of a single person is irrelevant when dealing with organic systems. The "wisdom of the crowds" needs to step up to meet the way of the world - some people will have some of the solution, but networking is the only way we can bring the pieces together.

Blocking the transfer of ideas happens all over the place for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. Yes, it's bad to inflict rapid change on people. Yes, it's bad to inflict badly-thought-out change. But it's also dumb to wait for an answer that everyone will agree to. It's dumb to old back from doing something because there's no short-term economic gain. Understanding when and how to apply change needs to be a skill that knowledge workers, and knowledge management need to get to grips with.

Guess what? The networks are massing. But in their raw form, they're only good at disrupting - tearing down existing structures, routing around "slow power". But the ability to problem solve collectively - to bring about unity rather than entropy - still has yet to be proven.

It's about more than knowledge. Or work.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why we need Worst Value Guidance

CLG's recently-published Best Value Guidance (2 page PDF) is a fascinating subject, all wrapped up in some fairly dry linguistics. At its heart is the question "How can we get most bang for our buck, without screwing up communities and the environment?"

(For further background, go and read Toby Blume's piece "Planning for people or for profit?" and Jo Ivens' piece on the risks of open data being used primarily by the private sector. Done? Good.)

Muffin Tops
Photo: karlfrankowski
It's fascinating because this is the big question that we (as a whole, interconnected society - even if we don't know it) are grappling with today. On the one hand, we've come to define "efficiency" as money spent vs money gained - or rather, in today's new landscape of austerity, money spent vs money saved. Headlines dealing in rhetoric proclaiming "£100,000 OF TAXPAYER'S MONEY SPENT ON STATIONERY/MUFFINS/HOOKERS" are a stab at inefficiency - and the idea that we can get the same thing for less, or even do without it.

On the other hand, we all know that Money Isn't Everything (although you wouldn't think anyone actually believed that schmaltzy crap, given recent doom-mongering, market-crumbling headlines). It's easy to see what happens once we f--k the environment enough - it goes from not having green space to "enjoy", to pollution, health problems, food supply issues and a generally over-industrialised future which people love to see in movies, but not on their holidays.

Community is a funny one though. We've kind of divided up and lived without "community" for a while now. We have TV and the Internet to hold our hands, and large-scale institutions that we pay up front for to catch us when we're ill/depressed/untrained. Is "Community" too often seen as something that fills in the gaps where both the market and the state fail?

But intriguingly, it's when it's clear that economics alone isn't going to get us out of our current troubles that the impetus to reach out to alternative lines gets stronger. We expand our idea of "measurement" to include the stuff which we don't normally measure - and/or that we might consider important. We start looking at things like crime stats to get an idea of how "nice" we all are. Or community perception stats to see what we think of each other.

Worse Value

Is this enough though? In fact, let's go crazy for a minute - is the "Best Value" approach enough any more? When does "Best Value" turn into "GREAT VALUE BARGIAN BASEMENT"?

A digression. Years ago I realised the need to become, at least partially, an "irrational consumer" - that is, to disregard the assumption that you want to spend as little as possible and get as much as possible. Over the years, this has kind of happened. Freed from needing to find the next bargain (assuming that "rationality" is defined fairly narrowly), I feel more able to focus on some other hugely important factors:

  1. Long term quality. An item might look and act the same as another, but the old phrase "you get what you pay for" often stands up. Pay 50% more to get 5% better now, but with the hope/expectation that you won't have to replace what you're buying in the next week.
  2. Funding values I agree with. Sometimes it's not just about what I get. It's what I give. And what I give can support some hugely talented people to create some amazing, inspirational things - things of real value (at least to me). In-advance music pledges are a great example - I don't buy anything immediately, and I may even pay more than latecomers, but at the end of the day, I feel happy to put money into something I like to exist.
  3. Buying The Unknown. Some time back, I went through a phase of buying random music albums. Often they'd be dire. Every now and then I'd be in awe. But it kept me on my toes. It introduced me to things I didn't know I liked, and it introduced me to things I didn't like, but glad I know are out there. That's pretty huge in terms of staying flexible, staying creative. Don't just stick to what you know.
If I'd have stuck to the idea of "Best Value" then I'd probably only buy the stuff I was sure I wanted, and I'd probably only get it if/when someone offered it to me at half-price. This is the world of Christmas sales. A world of bargain basements. But it does nothing to help me grow into new ideas.

So what is value then?

Photo: Robert Couse-Baker

Sure, not spending all your cash on crap is important too. I don't go buying luxury food because I don't have that much money. But there is more to life than money, so nor do I try to buy crap, industrialised food - which would probably, under a few definitions at least, count as "Best Value".

Remember that the "Value" range in supermarkets is always the cheapest. "Value" is a weird, indefinable quality. "True value" is something else. "Beyond value" is probably just a dodgy marketing device. But "Value" - what is valuable to you - isn't necessarily something that we can purely base on measurements. It's a gut feeling. An unexpressed response. An imagination.

There are things we can measure, beyond the realms of economics. We should do this. We should make it open.

But measurabilityness isn't everything. Money isn't everything because money is just a measure of life. Money is not a "thing", in the same way that a survey about emotions is not a "thing". The emotions are the "thing". People feeling those emotions is a "thing".

Numbers have a value. But it's these "things" which are valuable.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Not on social media blocking after all

Oh God I was going to write a blog post about how social media blocking could work in practice, and why it wouldn't work. But then I came to my senses.

Seriously. I mean, how distant an understanding of the world do you need to try to get communication services shut down whenever some 18-year olds are planning trouble? If that's the route to go down, why do we even let anyone under the age of 30 have access to the Internet, or phones, or paper? It's like people think we can be parents on the whole Internet. It's like technology MUST have a master. (Although ironically this is the reason why AI will always tend towards either failure or SkyNet [tm]. OMG that's it - teenagers are the manufactured cyber warriors we've bred to become in perennial war with. The only solution is to send Justin Bieber back in time to KILL TIM BERNERS-LEE in an increasingly self-parodying series of movie-style events.) Come to think of it, it's probably best to ban youth clubs and schools as well. At least that might achieve something of value. It's not like young people trust, respect or believe anything that supposed teachers and role models tell them. I mean, young people seem to have all these ideas and passion to change the world and make it a better place - or at least a more fun one with, y'know, trees and shit in - but then when they realise how the world works and that there's no money or enthusiasm to do it, or the whole "change" thing is oppressed with "process" and tut-tuting, you can ACTUALLY SEE their eyes roll back in their head. There's a reason why zombie films are so popular now, y'know, and it's nothing to do with the gore. The long, slow, gradual, crushing drudgery towards inevitable consumption. The lack of flow. The life which never ends, but never goes anywhere. When was the last time you saw a happy zombie? Welcome to the real world, here's your desk and a keyboard.


Sunday, July 31, 2011

Overviewing the Government Web Presence

The Government released a list of about 440 current websites listed by department, which was fairly easy to turn into some PHP code. Hoping to release the code soon (once I've got Github working), but so far you can see what's below. Both projects try to get an overview of the Government's total web impression - it'd be interesting to repeat this, say, yearly to see what changes.

Click here for a page showing screenshots for all 400+ homepages

I also scraped the listed pages and did a bit of processing to turn the content into Wordles. OK, not terribly exciting. But I kind of like the idea of turning open data into "art".

Here's the front page content with some common and site-related words removed (click through for original):

Wordle: UK Government websites [unfiltered]

Here's the same data but with more common words removed by

Wordle: UK Government websites [filtered]

As I say, hope to post code and data soon, even though it's not much work to re-create... In the meantime, any suggestions welcome.

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Forget the data."

Holy crap, Emma Mulqueeny's (@hubmum) blog from yesterday on the next challenge for Open Data is possibly the. Best. Thing. I. Have. Read. In. A. Long. Time.

In particular:
Open data? Awesome, and we are making tracks.

Open Government? HARD, and we are not banging on that door yet."
So what’s the next challenge for Open Government data?

Forget the data.

Find a way to enable these revolutionary ideas, apps, websites and widgets that save time, money and mind-numbing frustration from those who have to engage with government.

Do that, and only that.
This is the conversation we need to be having. Why? Not to work out "how to do it", but because it questions what is valuable and necessary in government.

Open data isn't a technical thing. It's about relevance. If you could do everything, what would you do? If you were hungry, would you eat, or would you talk about how to find out what the best thing to eat is and what the best way of eating it is?

"Open data" that lacks a medium for turning creative use into real-world change is irrelevant. It's what bad businesses do - they invent a million great things, but never actually want people to use them. Instead they use them as examples to tout how great and creative they are, in the strange hope that a people will think a symbol of progress is as good as progress itself.

Until, that is, someone comes along and not only has a better idea, but also actually builds it. For everyone to use.

Is that difficult? Of course - building stuff requires foresight, management, flexibility and the wisdom of knowing what your goal is. Do people do it all the time? Look around you.

Open data needs to be about other things now - including how it's funded, what the audiences are, and what the future holds. But none of these are about data. None of these are technical. We already have a society that runs on data, so data itself isn't a new paradigm.

We can't keep thinking of open data - and possibly even our entire creative efforts - as some kind of "continual prototype". We need to apply it like we applied sewage systems and electricity.

We need to understand that this isn't just about making the game easier to play, but about a whole new game.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Open data funding - experiments and ecosystems

Paying for the Open

The funding aspect of open data development came up at Open Data Brighton & Hove (#odbh) last night - who should (or shouldn't) pay for it?

While one camp says that there are lots of people who will build on top of open data for free and for passion, the camp at the other end of the hall wants to see return on investment for work paid for. The latter works both ways - people want to be paid to develop, and people want to pay for development. If the payback is enough, of course.

In a sense, both camps are "right" - the model you believe in depends on your daily interests, daily funding models, and where else you get money from. So it's easy to see that some people are fine building free side-projects, while for others it's a day job. Sometimes one person may have a foot on both sides, depending on what's going on that particular day/week/whatever.

This will always be the case. So it's really really important to understand that there is no "correct" model. Any open data ecosystem needs to fundamentally take this into account. Making data available is great - some people will run and play with it. But working out funding and collaboration is also great. Both are essential, even in the context of open-source, cutbacks, austerity and liberal progressiveness etc etc.


The more I think about #odbh, the more I notice how much I'm influenced by the openness of the Bitcoin community. Other open communities exist, of course, and do similar things, I'm sure, but Bitcoin is the one I'm closest to at the moment.

(Background sidenote: Ignore what Bitcoin is, and whether it's a good idea or not. The relevant and important point is how people are organising around it.)

One funding model that seems to work is the "Bounties" model - a kind of funding pledge, but one based on identifying desired functionality rather than, say, group activity or a band's next output. This list of bounties isn't complete, but it illustrates how it works and the kind of work people want done.

Could this work for open data development? If people are serious about wanting an idea turned into reality, shouldn't they put their wallet where their mouth is? Does it offer a "third way" to both working for free or having to "prove" your idea in advance?

I suppose what I'd envision is a bit like the Ideas section on, but with more ... oomph, more "I really want this" instead of "This'd be nice".


To wrap up, what this says to me is that open data is more than just about getting data out there, and even more than just about how we weave data into our everyday lives. It's about how we commission progress, how we organise collaboration, and how we identify needs.

All stuff we've been doing for ages, really. But here's a chance to try new ways of approaching old problems, and to bring all of that experimentation together. To create a very real open ecosystem.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Averages in the Tabloids

Comparing the original report on public-vs-private pay to the tabloid coverage just makes me want to give up talking.

Nearly all of the caveats in the report are missed out of the tabloid piece. All of the interesting analysis is omitted. The result is a headline designed to get people angry. The common name for this is "ignorance". Irresponsible ignorance.

As the report points out extremely clearly, many factors affect what is basically a comparison of averages between apples and oranges:
  • The public sector has recently outsourced low-cost jobs, pushing up averages

  • The public sector similarly has more educated people, pushing up averages (at no time does the tabloid ask what value is added by staff)...

  • ... but also, people with a degree earn almost 6% less in the public sector than they would in the private

There are some other interesting points such as whether banks are classified as public or private, age and gender differences, and comparison between highest and lowest earners in each sector.

For me though, this is a reminder that averages are hard - especially for people who "just want to read a newspaper". Understanding evidence is tricky, and presenting is even trickier (something we tried to take into account on the Improving Visualisation project.) It's too easy to fool people, and the tabloids keep. doing. this. all. the. time.

How much stats do people need to know to engage "fairly" with demcoracy? Should they need to know about mean, median, mode? Should they trust the media? Should they trust statisticians?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Re-uniting Democracy: 1: The myth of limited power

Part One, in which we try to escape the trap of thinking of power as a limited resource.

Synchronicity is a useful thing - it allows us to begin to make connections we otherwise wouldn't have made.

For example, this morning's diverse reading brought together two articles that really need to be meshed. Hence this blog post.

First read Richard Veryard's post on Contradiction and Ambivalence .

Now read WeLoveLocalGovernment's post on whether Central Government cares about Local Government.

Both look at the ongoing issue of whether we should be more centralised or more decentralised. Reading through the speech that David Cameron made shows how embedded in our thought this issue is:

"When we see a problem, we don’t ask what central government can do...

...we ask what can local people do, what can councils do?"


"That doesn’t mean I want us locking horns on an ongoing basis.

In fact quite the opposite."

It's clear from this that the modern political model is fundamentally competitive. It views Power as tension, as a resource, as something that is owned and fought for and handed out by one group just like money can be.

Allocation of a resource depends on division. In the same way that we're forced to deal with party politics and left-vs-right, we're also shoe-horned into a political model that plays central-vs-decentral, inner-vs-outer, top-vs-bottom. Zero-sum all the way. A quantum of power can be given to one group or another, but not both.

Power-as-a-resource means it can be bargained with. I'll give you X power but it means I can do Y. A barter under difficult conditions. An assumption that there is a limited amount of power to go round.

This is wrong. It is a distraction. Smoke and mirrors.

Guess what? All the exciting stuff happening right now is all about people collaborating. Not just across parties, but across layers. Left/right/top/bottom/centre/edge/institution/freelance/private/public.

Synchronisation, rather than tension. Collaboration is a new form of power.

No, not a new form of power. A new form of power creation - collaboration is more than just a way of distributing power, it is a meta-power, a means of actually increasing the power available to all.

How it does this is another blogpost. What matters now is that this creation of power is essential. As the power/resource/money model gets itself into knots and ever-decreasing circles, things get more and more vicious. Things get underhand. Things get confusing. We divide ourselves and we end up conquering only ourselves.

We need a way out, to reverse the trend, to grow rather than shrink. And right now, collaboration is the one act firmly keeping real progress alive.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Kettling: Illegal and Counter-productive

The High Court has ruled that kettling tactics at the G20 protests in 2009 was illegal. But the Police say that kettling "is a necessary tactic to tackle the potential for violence".

Potential is an interesting word. Crowd control is a fine line between structure and chaos.

But that line isn't one created or maintained by the Police. It's one that manifests through trust.

Public demonstration is inherently problematic - if an issue has reached this stage, then there's already a lot of anger around. A lot of people who feel like they haven't been listened to. Of course the potential for violence exists in a demonstration - "successful" politics avoids all physical confrontation, walking or fighting.

A demonstration is a final call to be listened to - but more than that. It's a final show of order and solidarity, a challenge for the ruling parties to trust this potential. If the Police - as the on-the-ground representation of the parties - cannot display this trust, and actively suppress this physical demonstration, then of course anger will turn violent.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

How do you network yours? (Why the medium is not the message.)

Even co-operation is in competition, it seems. Social media has sprung up all over the place, and even those that "get it" are feeling fairly confused. Should we set up a new conversation, or find an existing one? Should we post our thoughts to Facebook or to a blog? Should we be broadcasting or engaging?

For some people, the answers to these will be "obvious". But often what we think is obvious is actually just what's lacking - what we're arguing for more of.

Really, the answer is that there is no answer. Sometimes broadcasting is useful, sometimes listening is useful. Sometimes blogs are fine, sometimes Facebook is fine. It depends. It matters. And yet at the same time, it doesn't matter. Conversation is more than a blog post or what-have-you, because conversation is about ideas - and good ideas will spread across networks, across media.

Stepping back a moment, Louise Kidney does a great job of picking up on digital inclusion/exclusion within existing groups, and takes a practical line of engaging people with the communication tools they need in the modern world.

I think this is vital. It's ridiculous to think that our democracy is limited to pre-defined routes of communication. Imagine if you couldn't phone a council because they were afraid of misusing the telephone. Imagine if you couldn't e-mail them because they weren't sure whether to say "Hi" or "Dear Sir".

But at the same time, I think we need to look beyond this. (Hey, I like big ideas.) We need to look under the hood and ask why there seems to be a continual mismatch between the tools being used by citizens, and the tools being used by authorities. Can we really afford to re-assess every new website as it forms? Following on from that, should all forms of communication be used to engage with citizens? And if not, which ones should be? When should support for old networks get killed off?

(I don't have answers for these. What I do have is a different way of approaching the situation, rather than going in circles. I'm a geek. I abstracterise things. Big ideas come out somewhere along the line. Sometimes these make things clearer. Sometimes not.)

In my mind, the "problem" is not, fundamentally, one of tools - but of how and why we organise ourselves.

Go and read this article on Scotland's social media efforts. Go on. I'll wait.

Now notice - the strapline there mentions social media. The article mentions Twitter and Facebook a couple of times. But really, the core point of it, is not what people are using, but who is doing it, and how. Social media are just one way this manifests.

But the tools are ephemeral. In the real world, groups form around issues, and tools form around groups. Not the other way around. I use many websites and I even go to a few face-to-face meetings. But, largely speaking, the networks are the same across all of these. Sometimes bits of these networks use tools I don't use (e.g. Tumblr) but that's fine - I participate using the tools I find most useful (e.g. Beer).

Learning how to use a tool/interface is useful, but it's not essential. True engagement happens whatever the tool - it comes from getting involved, turning up to meetings, listening to people, feeding back, taking things seriously, having fun.

And I think it's this level of engagement that people are struggling with - new social rules, not new interfaces. People are afraid of turning up to workshops or pubs in the same way they're afraid of using new websites, but if we're to make something that benefits everyone, we have to work out what methods and, more importantly, what networks suit each person best. (That's one to return to in a different post, though.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hackers, transparency, and the zen of failure

This week I picked up the Hacker Ethic from my library (remember them?) by Pekka Himanen, with an intro by Linus Torvalds and an outro by Manuel Castells. It was hard to resist it with names like that splashed across it.

The book was written in 2001, back when the browser wars were in full swing and streamed video was still a bit of a novelty (so nothing's changed that much). But the theme addressed by Himanen is anything but dated - and contains some key threads which I want to think about and blog about more.

A lot of the text deals with the idea of what makes a "hacker" tick -and not just geek hackers, but anyone with a passion for what they do, rather than a bitter feeling that they work because they have to. Central to this hackerness is a passionate creativity, and a desire to share knowledge - including the results of that knowledge, such as code.

The truth and untruth of progress

This act of sharing knowledge is partially a form of status, true. But when you read articles like this about incorrect data being published, you start to notice what else open knowledge (including data) is about - social learning.

Hackers and open government are both (now) keen on sharing data - knowledge, code, ideas. But the real difference is in how they learn - for the hacker, openness brings about learning and improvement through public failure - there is an assumption that what you create can be improved, and an attitude that anyone else is welcome to improve it.

Now compare this to CLG's response to the LGC article above - a response filled with defensive language and finger-pointing. There is something rather scientific - or, rather, legal - about this discourse: claims are made by one party and refuted by another. Slowly the "truth" is "sculpted" from what is left.

But for the hacker, the truth is only what is created - not what is undisputed. Hackers fork code, create new communities, start new websites, run unconferences. If "truth" exists, then it is what emerges, not what is discovered, or what remains.

What do hackers sit on?

Can a highly hierarchical structure such as our democracy adapt to be creative rather than competitive? The open data movement is driven by both of these - data for transparency can be thought of as "evidence" in a legal bid for the justification of an organisation's existence. Data for new apps, on the other hand, only needs a use, and to be useful in a creative context.

This split in attitude is key when considering efforts like the recent consultation on local data transparency, which clearly puts "open data" into the evidential context:

The Government wants to place more power into people’s hands to increase transparency by seeing how their money is spent.

Transparent screen 1
img by AMagill
My fear is that this inherently makes "open data" unuseful to the hacker crowd - an essential crowd to interest when the data is being released in CSV files, or other formats that require some parsing. If hacker's can't create something with the data, they won't do anything with it. The idea of an "army of armchair auditors" becomes a functional paradox, as the people the Government has in mind for the data apparently sit in armchairs, while the hackers sit in cafes, meet in pubs, and generally find comfy chairs far too comfy to code in.

To return to this post's title, what role will failure and learning play in this paradox? Looking at the draft code, we can see a desire to use the "many eyes" approach to fixing data:

18. Data should be as accurate as possible at first publication. While errors may occur the publication of information should not be unduly delayed to rectify mistakes. Instead, publication and use of the data should be used to help address any imperfections and deficiencies.

The hacker approach agrees with this - fix things as we go along. But does this fit with the idea of "armchair auditors"? As we saw in the LGC article, how can an auditor tell the difference between what is incorrect, and what is wholely disagreeable? And if they can't, why should they trust any of it?

(Maybe we need a "stable release" system like that of open source projects? Maybe, like the Linux kernel or desktop distributions, data can be released with an "unstable/testing" tag, then marked up as "stable/trustable" after enough testing has been done on it.)

Transparency is a lovely thing - but everyone has different uses for it. If it's used for creativity, then there is, perhaps, an implicit assumption that things can and will change. If, on the other hand it's to be used for accountability, then there needs to be trust in it.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

GovFiction: The Beast Made Transparent

Richard picked up the flaming Torch of Transparency and held it in front of him.

"I can see it," he whispered. "I can see everything."

The creature lay before him, barely breathing. Its belly was half-open, but Richard couldn't tell which parts had been clawed apart by an unknown swarm, and which had been torn open by the creature itself. Quick, but deep cuts littered the remaining flesh, but it was clear that most of the creature's lifeblood had leaked away long before.

Richard looked on guiltily - he couldn't suppress a faint sense of pity for this beast which for so long had had so much control over him. He felt a sense of anti-climax - a romantic desire that such a mighty being should meet its demise in some proud battle, rather than like this. Rather than in dark obscurity.

With slow, steady breaths, he put out the flame, and headed back towards the surface. Somewhere, there was still daylight.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

#UKGC11: Hooking into DIY Data

Following on from data relativity, the second thing that grabbed me at #ukgc11 (UKGovCamp 2011) happened during Will Perrin’s introduction to “Making a Difference with Data”, and followed up in conversation with Helen Jeffrey (@imhelenj) on community-led data. Will talked of comparing his local authorities’ data on lamp-post repair time to his own count for how long a lamp-post had been broken for (encouraging crime). Helen talked about data that a group of volunteers had collected themselves, and then turned into a report to feed into government decision-making.

In both cases, what struck me was that people don’t have such an aversion or fear of data that is often assumed - if they start by generating it themselves.

To go back to data relativity, the most confusing and scary part of data is figuring out the thought processes and assumptions that have gone into a dataset, as well as figuring out what the hell’s important (often around 0.01%-0.5% of the data) and what’s “noise” - to an individual. Self-generated data doesn’t suffer from this, because all the scary background and assumption bits are part of the citizen’s/volunteer’s mindset and experience. Voila, understanding data comes from experience. And as such, successful engagement with data is about creation as well as consumption.

OK, it’s clearly a little more complicated than that, but it’s a principle that’s often far too implicit for some datasets (crowdsourced maps, etc), and far too often forgotten about for others (most centrally-gathered stats). There are also a whole bunch of stereotypes about what “people” “want” from “data”, and often these stereotypes do little except re-establish the status quo. When data comes up against real-world users (yes, even geeks), and the magic “fails to happen”, we’re left wondering if natural engagement is such a given after all.

It’s difficult to get excited about thousands of datasets when you have no idea where to start or where they can be relevant to you. It’s much, much easier to get excited about data that is relevant to to you, that you understand, and that you can see how it will benefit you. I think that’s why I love the idea of Mappiness or Christian Nold’s maps - both involve getting people to create data they find interesting, and through this “personal” data, the need and relevance for other data suddenly becomes instant and appreciated. (For example, if I’m feeling most happy on street X, what other properties does that street have, and how do they relate to me - house prices? Pollution? Streetworks?)

This seems to be an issue that is bubbling along - everyone knows that organisations collect data, for instance, so an open data system worth its salt will take that into account. But there are still assumptions about the scale and complexity of that data, I would argue - whereas really, data can be as simple as counting, and everyone can count.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

UKGC11: A General Theory of Data Relativity

First of a small series of small thoughts coming out of UKGovCamp 2011.

One of the key points emerging for me is just how much “data” is tied to the groups or people using it - not just the content, but the structure of it, the tools used to manage it, the background of the data, the assumptions behind it, and so on and so on. This comes up all over the place - standardised, central taxonomies often fall out of favour for being a jack-of-all-trades, useful to none. File formats are a direct result of people wanting data as an easy-to-edit spreadsheet, an easy-to-email PDF, or an easy-to-parse data file.

More fundamentally, even the understanding of what a dataset means becomes embedded in the structure of the data. If something is being measured , what defines that thing? What assumptions are inherent to the way data is measured? Is a van a form of car? More importantly, why are these definitions in place? Reasons are forgotten long before hard drives expire.

If you assume that all data is “relative” - I.e. a combination of the data itself and the people viewing it - what does this mean for linking it? Do we need more effort on translation? Or do we need more effort on fuzzy inferences between metadata, rather than direct mapping? (I suspect the Semantic Web rears its head here, but to me it always feels like a simpler solution is waiting to be seized on.)

Knowing how and where to ask questions about a dataset is a huge part of this - metadata about origins and background is vital; questions help build up an idea of how to fit a dataset into your own world view, your own data model, or your own database. Perhaps development needs to focus on making these links between contexts as transparent as possible, rather than fixing a single, over-arching context in place to fit all.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why democracy is getting routed around

Recent events have brought me back to thinking about an old topic - what's the best way of making a point? This time round, though, I'm slightly more fatalistic about it all.

What seems more obvious now is that established democracy, in its current form, is being outpaced - traditional representative democracy is no longer a priority, to put it bluntly.

Why? Two reasons:

1. Communication has changed. Everyone knows this. Everyone is routing around voting. Electronic voting is boring - we have electronic memes now. Public meeting videos are boring - we have hashtags now. I am talking to national and international strangers about the future of politics more than I talk to my neighbours. Never mind AV, we need something more than simple, single representation.

2. The topics of politics have changed - or, rather, they change ever faster and faster. We have a while to go before the singularity, but nonetheless, we no longer believe the future is 'distant'. Good sci-fi is becoming rare. We do not dare to imagine what we'll be able to do in 4 years' time let alone know what government party we'll want to cope when we get there. The future is flexible, party politics is boring. Far better to rely on the fluidity of networks and social knowledge, than on the heavy infrastructures of politics.

We have secure and instant comms, so we have Wikileaks. We have flashmobs, so we have street protests. We have crowdsourcing, so we have inspirational projects, both as showcases by individuals and as industry-standard, open source giants. Bit by bit, there are people doing stuff, instead of waiting for politics to change for them.

Screw "Government 2.0". Food prices, climate change, economic sustainability, education, wisdom? The next decade will tell us if modern democracy is even out of beta-testing yet. If government is to survive in any respectable form beyond its current version, it needs to "get" reality - the kind of reality that everything else is now trying to work out how to do better.