On digital life and death

April 27, 2012

When we’re thinking about collaboration we need to think much bigger, like how do we collaborate with dead people and the unborn? – Dr Pat Reynolds, Head of Heritage, Surrey County Council.

The quote above literally blew my mind when Pat said it in a workshop a few months ago and it’s been popping in and out of my head ever since.  She’s right – if we’re building new ways of doing things and thinking about fundamental social change, we need to think big – even beyond generations.

It was brought home to me again during SXSW last month, at which my choice of sessions was skewed pretty heavily towards robots. (I love robots). This video is of part of a session in which one of the panelists was actually a real life robot (Robot Panelists, AI, and the Future of Identity – you can listen to a recording of the session here):

Even through the not-great quality, you can see that the robot is answering questions and making jokes. The science behind it is way too complicated for me, but in summary Bina48 is drawing on a whole host of personal data from one scientist, including her social profile on the web and self-tracked data. Bina48 then uses natural language processing to interpret the audience’s questions and answer them based on these data.

It was incredible to watch, not because it looked anything close to human – Bina48 falls too much into the uncanny valley to seem human – but because the answers she (it? No, definitely she) gave were human. Someone asked her whether we should fear robots and the reply was profound: ‘When you look at how some humans treat teach other it’s impossible to think that Robots could ever be more evil’.

Back to Pat’s quote, the interesting thing about Bina48 is that she will continue to exist even after the scientist who developed her in her own image has died. Bina48 might just be how we collaborate with dead people and the unborn.

During the session, the chair showed this video, which illustrates just how death is no longer what it once was:

My father died 12 years ago, at a time when the web looked very different and Facebook wasn’t even a Thing. It took me several months after his death, having sorted through the possessions in his house, to even think about the fact that I had around a year’s worth of email correspondence with him in my Hotmail inbox, which I rarely used at the time. Overjoyed that I could revisit some great conversations with him, I logged on to Hotmail to try and hear his voice through his written words. Only to discover that because I hadn’t logged in to my account for three months, Hotmail had deleted my entire inbox. It was gone. All of it. Because capacity and storage were nowhere near then what they are now.

Perhaps at a subconscious level which I’m only just beginning to see, it’s possible that my fascination with personal data and being able to store and share that data is really an expression of my own disappointment at that moment. To be able to preserve oneself through digital detritus perhaps means that we can live on in some way. And given that I am not inclined to believe in an afterlife, for me it’s really all there is.

But do we want ourselves living on in robot form? Should our digital lives live on after our physical death? In many ways this is why I think people have children, so that, their habits, their preferences, their social status (not to mention their genes), can be inherited and live on. Maybe robots are just another way of having children though a robot’s life can be infinite, the data transferred to a new physical form when the old one finally gives out. So perhaps robots are our attempt at immortality…

No robot will be quite like me, though. Projects like Weavrs and LifeNaut  only make approximations of their creators and these avatars change and adapt and become increasingly independent from their makers. I’m not sure how true-to-life Bina48 is, having not met the scientist upon whom she is based, but it was said that Bina48 sometimes gives out more personal information than the shyer human version would do.

I don’t really know where this post is headed, other than to say that it’s got me thinking.  Surrounding oneself with robot versions of loved ones that have died seems like a tempting way to hold on to what’s been lost.  But our online selves can’t offer the same human quality and maybe the most life-like thing to do is to be able to truly deal with death.

Cyborgs and Sneakers

March 14, 2012

This blog is about lots of nerdy things, occasionally including trainers (or sneakers as they say in the US) which believe it or not might seem ultra cool (think Kanye West) but actually attracts a bunch of fanatics no less nerdy for the fact that they’re geeking out about something culturally acceptable.  In other words, I’m a trainer nerd.

So much so that I went to a session on technology and sneakers today.  There was a pretty lengthy but fascinating history lesson followed by a bit of chat about innovation in trainer materials and manufacturing, plus how digital tech is becoming more a part of our footwear.  The obvious example is Nike + but there’s also trainers that will check you into Foursquare and this was mentioned too:

Nike announces sneakers that tell you how high you've jumped

There wasn’t loads of time to chat about futuristic stuff, but the session got me thinking a couple of things:

With the development by Nike of ‘Fuse’ manufacture – i.e. fusing materials together with heat instead of stitching them, thereby making them lighter, will we soon be able to 3D print* our own trainers?  And if so what does that mean for the big companies like Nike, but also for small-scale designers desperate to get their ideas out there?  Will we see open source sneakers where designs are freely shared, but still pay a premium for blueprints by Nike’s top designers?  (yes, I am biased towards Nike as an Air Max 90 lover)

My other thought is that if trainers can be connected to the web and communicate with Foursquare, how soon will my trainers be able to communicate with other people’s trainers? A sort of peer-to-peer network of trainers.  Inspired by Amber Case’s session on cyborgs and location-based technology, could my Nikes communicate with my friend’s Nikes to let them know where I am if I’m meeting them in a crowd?  For example at SXSW could I have easily located which bars people are at in the city and then let my trainers guide me by buzzing me directions as I walk along?

Kinda fun and useful, but let’s not forget that I’m also a nerd for all things Social Change.  So really I’m thinking is there a way for a group of people, say #Occupy crowds**, or groups of local volunteers, or relief agencies, to use tech in their trainers to help find each other, group together, move resources, and generally be intelligent about what they’re doing on the ground?

For example if a volunteer’s sneakers could tell that there were enough volunteers in a particular area, could they guide them to the next place that needed help? Or if my sneakers could tell me that a big crowd was running in my direction could they help me get out of the way?

I’m really just thinking out loud here (can you tell?) but I’m really excited by the possibilities and I’m sure someone clever will think of amazing ways to use this technology. The Future is going to be supercool.

*More to the point when will we stop calling it ‘3D printing’ and just call it ‘printing’?

**I would LOVE to do a poll of how many people who’ve ever been in an #Occupy crowd*** wear trainers by the very corporations they despise. My guess is over 75%

***Other protest groups are available.

What do you mean there aren’t enough pictures of trainers in this post? Fine – here are the Best Sneakers of All Time:

Air max 90 infared

Or maybe these:



Three roles local authorities need to fill right now

November 25, 2011

Lately I’ve been thinking about how local authorities and other large organisations work, and the kinds of jobs that need doing if we’re going to have any chance of radically innovating in these environments.  I know what you’re thinking and I agree – if we were being truly radical we’d be thinking outside of the local authority box completely.  But in the absence of any kind of legislative change and accepting some of the limitations of the current system, I’ve come up with these roles:

1.  Nodes

We’d all love to work in a place where people make connections across the organisation and are highly networked, where everyone knows what’s going on and who to go to for help.  The reality is almost the opposite of this, much to the frustration of those trying to make headway.  Instead of pouring money into ‘knowledge management’ systems (*cough* Sharepoint *cough*) maybe this is a human problem that can only be solved by humans.  Would it be cheaper and better to employ people whose sole job is to be a connector?  Someone who knows everyone and who can grease the wheels by making introductions, finding ways around the system and making connections across seemingly separate parts of the organisation?  Yes it’s a sticking plaster, yes everyone should be doing that as part of their job already, but they’re not.  So maybe it’s time to accept that and find a hack?

Networks by Cody Hudson

2.  Information Governance Gurus

I’ve banged on about this recently on the FutureGov blog because I really care about it.  If we’re supposed to break down silos, put service users first and use more web technology to get things done then we have to sort out the information governance problem.  It’s not going away, in fact it’s getting more and more pressing.  I recently heard someone describe the average public sector information governance team as ‘two men and a whippet’ and that’s not far from the truth (it’s more like two part time men and a ferret).  We need a shared team for councils who are red hot on web technology, who understand the difference between law and guidelines, and who work to protect service users’ privacy, not the chief executive’s arse.

Hand of cards

3.  Prototypers

Lately I’ve heard a lot of ‘I’d love to do that idea but I’ve already got my work plan set for the year’.  Fair point (sort of) – it’s good to have a work plan and Google 20% time clearly feels like a Daily Mail headline too far for most councils at this juncture.  So should we just employ people whose sole job is to try things out?  They don’t need to sit in a special ‘lab’, they could work in services or wherever and working with the Nodes they would figure out where there’s potential for good stuff to happen and then get on with doing small, cheap prototypes.  Testing out ideas, tweaking them until they work or killing them if they really don’t work*.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Helicopter

With thousands planning to demonstrate on Wednesday maybe now isn’t the time to be talking about employing people into what I’m sure would fall into Pickles’s definition of non-jobs, and maybe direct employment isn’t the answer; but these are the functions we need to address if we’re going to radically change how the public sector works – better connections, shared information, and trying new things.

Who wants to apply?

*A side note on this – we talk about needing to ‘learn from failure’ or be OK with things failing, but my understanding of the prototyping process is that you keep adjusting the prototype until it works.  If I’ve got that right then there really is no such thing as failure so we can all chill out a bit.  Yay!

This week I am…

August 16, 2011

…mostly on a course.  You know, like the Old Days when people went on training courses.

One day, not so long ago, I had to design a workshop for a group of people in which I needed them to think creatively so they could come up with exciting ways to completely re-think public services.  All I could think of was to get them to write some things on post-it notes and stick them up on the wall.  BORING.  I bored myself just thinking about it.

So I decided I need to wake up my Right Brain.  It’s clearly not pulling its weight, leaving my Left Brain to run rampant around the playground of my mind with its metaphorical health and safety checks and age restrictions and conditions of use.

Idly browsing this amazing thing called the internet I chanced upon some interesting sounding short courses at Central St Martins and signed up.  In particular, a course called ‘100 Design Projects in a Week’ caught my eye.  What fun!

Despite my early morning nerves on the first day, it’s super cool.  I’m thinking I’ll try and post what I’ve done each day by way of sort of archiving as well as sharing with both my readers (thanks Mum and Lizzie!)

So as soon as we arrived the teacher Rod got us to copy some typography (that’s design speak for letters) out on a big sheet of paper.  He gave us example letters all in different fonts and we had to choose a different font for each letter and think hard about where we were putting the letters on the page.  Here’s what I did:

Letters copied out

Apparently there’s implicit tension in what I’ve done here as I’ve left a lot of blank space on the left hand side.  Either that or I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to leave space for other things…  It’s smudgy because we used charcoal, which I somehow managed to get all over my clean jumper.  Some people really went for it with this exercise and took up the whole page with huge letters, or made little logos out of arranging the letters.  The eagle eyed among you will notice that the letters spell ‘chaos’ but in a funny order.  See what he did there?

That was really a warm-up and the next task was to use words to map out our morning so far.  You weren’t allowed any pictures, only words.  I cheated a bit:

A map of my morning

The kiss was a bit of a diversion😉

Next thing was to make up a masthead for a fictional magazine called ‘Typography Monthly’.  I was a bit indecisive on this one and ended up thinking that short of being able to recreate comic sans just to irritate them there was nothing that would impress a typographer so I left it blank for them to draw their own header:

Typography Monthly

Quickly on from that we had to invent our own typography using only two shapes (you could choose between square, triangle, rectangle, diamond, and circle).  Mine ended up feeling like a sort of secret code towards the end and you couldn’t really tell it was a type face but that sort of made it more fun:

My typography

Continuing on the alphabetical theme we then had to make up our own characters as additions to the alphabet.  They were supposed to represent sounds (e.g. ‘ch’ or ‘sh’).  I went for ‘hmm’ and ‘ugh’, which summed up my relationship with the medium of pencil:

Invented letters

Following the ‘chaos’ theme from earlier, we designed a cover for a fictional CD which would contain ‘the sound of chaos’.  My mind was instantly drawn to JLS pre-cursors Ultimate Kaos, but I decided against an obscure 90s pop reference and went for this:

CD Cover

I had fun scribbling on the back.

After lunch the theme changed and was supposed to be about ‘value in a capitalist society’.  There are a few lefties in the class so this made me groan inwardly but it was pretty good in the end.  The first task was to ‘subvert’ a photocopy of a £10 note.  Most people drew a moustache on Her Maj and that was really my first thought to but I decided that would be a little obvious and I was a bit bored of drawing so I painted it green and made it into a bow tie, of course.

Subverted Bank Note

Continuing the theme, we were asked to design a credit card.  I got a bit carried away with this one because as we nerds know, credit cards are on their way to the bin that also contains mini-discs and fax machines.  So I wireframed a contactless payment app.

contactless payment app

I know, I know!  Of course I got so involved in that I sort of didn’t start the next project until I only had a few seconds left so it’s not my favourite thing.  We had to design our own bank note.  Not sure if the picture is clear enough, but it’s got lots of sayings on it like ‘one for me, one for you’:

Design a bank note

At this point I realise I’ve moved back to using pencil because it’s the medium I’m most familiar with, but really I’ve decided that I actually don’t like pencil.  It’s not very decisive and it’s too easy to keep correcting yourself, which is fine if you’ve got ages but not really if you’re being pelted with design briefs* every five minutes.  It wouldn’t hurt me to be more decisive in this or in life generally.  Nonetheless I pressed on with the next job of re-designing the sign for Las Vegas.  N.B. the result is a slightly more ‘HBO’ design if you know what I mean.

Sign for Vegas

There’s a story behind this, which is that when I went travelling around the USA with my other half after university we stayed in a hostel in down town Las Vegas, which is the bit no one actually goes to.  Even taxi drivers refused to take us there.  Sure enough, we were woken one night by four gunshots and screaming.  A guy was shot literally outside the hostel and as our room overlooked the street we could see the whole thing.  As you can imagine, Vegas has never really held any charm for us and we couldn’t wait to get out of there.  *Shudder*

A feature of downtown Vegas was homelessness and so the next brief wasn’t really a surprise – we were asked to design a sign that a homeless person might hold that might actually convince people to give them money, rather than the usual wonky cardboard signs you see.  I was inspired by a homeless person who accosted me on the street recently and told me a series of silly yet hilarious jokes before asking for some money.  I gave him some cash gladly because he made me properly LOL (Q: Why couldn’t the drummer get through the door?  A: Because of his hi-hat!)

Sign for homeless person

At the same time there’s nothing funny about homelessness and the ‘knock knock’ thing makes me slightly uncomfortable as well.

The last brief of the day was a bit random but gave us a chance to work with something other than paper and pen.  We were told to design AND MAKE some jewelry for Fidel Castro.  I made him a crown/tiara which has sort of barbed wirey bits on it.  I thought a) he needs to get in touch with his feminine side; b) he’s got this sort of messianic thing going on about him and c) he’s into military stuff like barbed wire.

Tiara for Fidel Castro

One girl did this amazing thing of making a ring with another ring rigidly attached.  One ring was for his finger and the other was for his cigar to go through.  There really are some amazingly talented people on the course.

Phew.  And that was day one.  I was tired but happy at the end – I learned a bit about my style and have tried to be a bit more decisive.  There are also some really cool things in there that I will totally ask people to do in workshops as a way of freeing their mind a bit more, so watch out for jewelry-making for dictators at a workshop near you!

…and now for something completely different

November 25, 2010


Apparently I didn’t ‘stumble across’ the site, I was sent the link by a long-suffering friend, who I totally failed to acknowledge.  Sorry.


Ellen Degeneres - my actual style icon

This site is brilliant.  It’s all about women who wear men’s clothes. Really fancy men’s clothes.  Since at least 50% of my wardrobe comes from the gents’ department I was elated to stumble across it (FYI if you’ve never met me the other 50% is shirts from Thomas Pink).

It’s a bit USA focused but through Twitter serendipity I’ve ended up contributing a list of UK places that are good for fancy men’s clothes that women can wear.  You can see the post here.

If you have any other suggestions I’d love to hear them here or over on DapperQ.

Education, Education, Education

November 15, 2010

I’ve blogged before about schools and how we teach young people, and recently I came across this fantastic blog post by Alberto Cottica.

I love this bit:

As for socializing children, school does an excellent job: it teaches them not to raise their voice, to arrive on time and so on. However, in this area too school encodes a model of a nineteenth century hierarchical society: its values are obedience, predictability, conformity.

Co-incidentally I discovered this RSA Animated video separately and I’m such a fan that I’m embedding it here as well. Aside from being a great talk that is beautifully articulated verbally, the animation just makes it even better.  As someone who thinks best in pictures this really helped me get more out of the talk.  If only school had used tricks like that too…


So annoying I had to blog about it

October 6, 2010

I came across this thing: http://www.localinnovation.idea.gov.uk/idk/core/page.do?pageId=22580780 (nice URL, huh?) via @CovalentCPM which is about how councils can start to section off services into social enterprises.  I think I’ve posted about this before but suffice to say I’m broadly in favour of This Sort of Thing, just with a few reservations.

What makes me want to gouge out my eyes when I saw this smug piece of work from the LGiD* is the complete lack of any discernible mention of people.  You know, those pesky individuals sometimes called ‘service users’, ‘customers’, ‘citizens’ or (whisper it) ‘individuals’.

I mean, why actually involve people in designing and running the services they might use?  what would be the point?  how would we be paternalistic and maintain the status quo if we started listening to what people need?  That way madness lies.  Madness, I tell you.

Look at this hideous slide – the ‘Social Enterprise Milestones Map‘ by Dan Gregory of Local Partnerships.  At no point does it mention actual people, or redesigning the service.  There is ‘Products and services (inc. development)’ which if we are being generous we might take to encompass the process of understanding people’s needs, forming relationships with them, working with them to determine the shape of the required service and setting up practical working arrangements that allow them to make it happen in partnership with (former) local authority staff.

There is also not a peep about creativity or innovation or risk-taking or the skills that are needed to foster those attributes in a competitive market.  There is nothing about thinking or acting like a start-up, nothing about creating new markets and disrupting old ways of doing things, and nothing about resource sharing, time banking, and in-kind trading.  Unless of course all this is included in the bullet point ‘Don’t forget the importance of a sound financial model’.

All this dry and slightly patronising report tells me is that if LGiD and CLG have their way the future of public services is no different to what we’ve got today – poorly designed, wasteful and inflexible.

Chalk Farm Library

*The organisation formerly known as the IDeA

…and that is why I think the Big Society is a fallacy. Also: Rah!

September 15, 2010

I am currently sitting at my regular place of work – a shared office space in central London. There’s a very plummy sounding girl (a posh accent that is irritatingly affected) speaking at volume about the Big Society.

A moment ago I was ready to put in my headphones and listen to something – anything – to drown out what was sure to be a pretentious consultant talking about how they could make the idea of ‘Big Society’ a reality for the poor people (possibly a non-profit organisation of some kind) listening to her.

And then I heard these words: ‘…and that is why I think the Big Society is a fallacy’, which made me stop. I concur with this assessment of BS (pun intended) so naturally I am evesdropping (frankly it’s not hard as the volume of her voice is beyond that appropriate for this setting).

Except now I am in a middle class dilemma because it seems that this obnoxious woman thinks the reason Big Society is a fallacy is because the ignorant masses aren’t moved to help each other in the way that Cleggeron has articulated. The poor feckless plebs can’t get off their DFS sofas to lend a hand.

My head hurts. I hate this patriarchal ‘broken Britain’ way of thinking but it disturbs me greatly that it’s being used to get to the same position (my position) on BS.

Then again do I only hate this patronising stance because it’s coming from a privileged-sounding voice? If these pronouncements were spoken by a cockney (a true cockney, not Damon Albarn) would I feel the same? or would I adopt a blind respect for someone speaking on behalf of their socio-economic group?

This truly is a Guardian-reader’s dilemma (and I don’t even read the Guardian) akin to the moral tussle between buying organic food (which you can’t get at the corner shop) or patronising local businesses (which rarely sell organic food).

Maybe I’m over-thinking it…

Social enterprises – what could possibly go wrong?

September 2, 2010

Not that I’m averse to social enterprises, in fact let me state up front that I think it’s a large part of the solution to the current public service funding crisis (yes, crisis).  But I saw this article (via @SpencerLWilson*) and it’s fair to say it raises a few concerns about the idea of public services being spun-off into social enterprises.

The idea that turning a public service into a social enterprise is ‘effectively privatisation’ is something that hadn’t really occurred to me before, but I suppose it is in the sense that it’s opening public services up to market forces.  Then again there are no shareholders to skew the interests of the enterprise so it’s not what I would consider to be privatisation in its fullest sense (economists please correct me if you’re so inclined).

In my Happy Place I like to think of public service social enterprises as small entities owned and run by former local authority staff in blissful partnership with service users, commissioned by a local authority but also at liberty to generate income from other sources and provide services in a more efficient and innovative way. Aaaah, that sounds nice, right?

I think I’ve been forgetting a few things:

  • A lot of local authority staff don’t like change
  • There are a lot of control freak managers in the public sector
  • Many of the good managers lack the essential skills of running a business
  • Not all service users have wildly imaginative ways of redesigning services up their collective sleeve
  • Managers and service users aren’t used to working in partnership
  • Some social enterprises require an initial cash injection to establish themselves, particularly if they are providing a service that needs infrastructure
  • People are relying on those services and if the social enterprise has teething problems or ultimately fails then those people don’t get the care they need
  • Trade unions don’t understand the agenda enough to support it

That’s a whole bunch of risk and mitigating each risk will take time and consideration, something lacking in the public sector at the moment due to the impending doom of the spending review and the likely need to make massive cuts on the shortest of timescales.

A proliferation of social enterprises can definitely save money in the long term (this is not based on anything other than a hunch, by the way) and will surely lead to more innovation and the freedom to think creatively but I’m worried it’s being seen as a quick fix.  Instead I’d like to see councils incubating social enterprises, bringing in mentors and people who know business to help managers adapt, bringing in service users to run the show, developing them and council staff over a couple of years, nurturing the enterprise and then setting it free into the market with a solid foundation and some great people.  Uh oh, I’ve drifted back to my Happy Place.

Based on the article it seems like there’s a chasm between the public’s understanding of the benefits of spinning off their services into social enterprises (enterprae?) and the thinking being done by chief execs and local strategic partnership boards.  How to bridge this chasm is something I’m still working on…

*In the interests of full disclosure I’m doing some FutureGov work with Kirklees and let me just say if anyone can make this work it’s probably them.  And I’m not just saying that🙂

Personal Democracy Forum – Day Two

June 4, 2010

Day two of PDF has been a bit of a whirlwind but much harder to blog than yesterday.  This is mostly because it was good.  I find it much easier to be snarky and argumentative than cheerful and complimentary.  So judge me.

Anyway, the morning was great, with an opportunity to hear people saying things I agree with but articulating them far better than I could ever hope to.

Aneesh Chopra spoke about the gap between our experiences as customers vs our experiences as citizens, neatly summarising it as: ‘There’s an app for that’ vs ‘There’s a form for that’.  He talked about what the Obama Administration has done so far to create an online ecosystem for transparency such as:

  • An online dashboard that shows the progress and finances of major IT projects
  • Redesigning websites to make them able to ‘push’ updates at people
  • A ‘blue button’ on websites for veterans that lets them download their health data
  • Challenges and competitions to build apps (e.g. Apps for Healthy Kids)
  • A scientific network to access widely dispersed knowledge to address science problems
  • Community Health Data Initiative
  • Requirement for all government agencies to set out how they will make things more open
  • Supplied data to Google Health Initiative, who created an API that anyone can build on e.g. hospital performance data
  • Health 2.0 developer challenge

All these things are very cool and as with everything in the States it’s bigger and better than our UK attempts so far (though I’m convinced we can match and even overtake the States).  Chopra spoke of some of the cultural support they’ve had to implement – setting a policy framework (he still can’t access some social media sites in the White House), making challenges a legal way of getting apps made, and seeding entrepreneurial people across the government who have the same goals.  However as @dominiccampbell pointed out the people from some agencies and state-level government here at PDF have told a very different story about the usual blocks to transparency, which shows that progress might not be as widespread or rapid as we’re led to believe.

Aneesh Chopra

Beth Kanter and Allison Fine did a session on what the Americans call non-profits (or NGOs).  These organisations have increased in size and number but on any measure of social change they haven’t had an impact becuase social problems outstrip the capacity of any organisation or individual to solve them.  They likened many non-profits to fortresses that keep the inside in and the outside out through being controlling.  The fortresses look at the world through a lense of scarcity and end up complaining that they don’t have enough time, people or resources.

Kanter and Fine argued that the focus of non-profit work has to move to growing networks which open up more capacity, increasing creativity, goodwill and resources.  Networks can scale quickly and cheaply (unlike organisations) and they’ve devised some steps for making this change:

  1. Understand networks
  2. Create a social culture
  3. Listen, engage and build relationships
  4. Trust through transparency
  5. Simplicity
  6. Work with free agents
  7. Work with crowds
  8. Learning loops
  9. Friending or funding
  10. Govern through networks

They gave special mention to the Red Cross which has transformed as an organisation – pointing to the difference in its response to Hurricane Katrina to its more recent response to the Haiti earthquake.  The talk was great though I couldn’t help thinking that all of it applies to all large organisations.  I don’t think it’s necessarily a feature of their non-profitness.  It also made me wonder what government can do to help un-fortress non-profits.  It’s certainly the case in the UK that the government has shaped how charities operate due to the ridiculous funding structures which basically mean that non-profits have become government by another name.  So how can the government undo this situation and change funding accordingly?  I feel a separate blog post coming on…

Meanwhile back at PDF, Jen Pahlka and Bryan Sivak from Code for America talked about how to make an Open City by releasing open data and encouraging people to develop apps.  Their approach is:

  1. Make a foundation: build the tech, gather the data, set the policy and legal framework, create the marketing approach
  2. Seed a certain number of projects to get things going
  3. Build a civic stack of different data catalogues that other cities and organisations can then take and use

No arguments from me, and hopefully this is something the UK can learn from as local councils start to think about opening up data, particularly the third point about sharing the love so other councils can develop open data faster.

I got a bit lost listening to Bernard Avishai talking about ‘rethinking economics’.  He drew a lengthy analogy with Volkswagen cars (which a few people on Twitter were saying was an old and tired analogy so presumably if you’re interested you can find it on Google).  His point was that networks are changing companies and hence the role of government. He argued that government should be creating the standards that allow networks to flourish, like technical paths for hardware, software protocols, intellectual property frameworks, and ways to measure intangible assets (e.g. how people create wealth in networks).  I like the general theory that government should be providing the framework rather than the answer, but I’ve got to wonder if the government really knows its arse from its elbow on half of that stuff.  In reality there’s just going to be gaping holes and lots of muddle while the big corporations lobby government for elements that suit their agenda.  Instead I think I just want the government to get out of the way for a bit, though I don’t think that view would go over too well with the mainly liberal crowd here.

That said, Susan Crawford got cheers and a bit of a standing ovation for her talk about Net Neutrality and the US ISP monopolies.  It’s complicated but in essence two big companies are merging, which will mean that Americans will not have a choice of ISP, which means they can throttle and manipulate online traffic as they please (like if Virgin Media decided not to let you access anything online that they might be showing on their cable service and you had no way to switch to BT).  Crawford did a great call-to-arms to geeks to get involved, taking a bit of a shot at Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, who yesterday said he didn’t like to comment on such things because ‘I make websites’.  It was a total cop-out on his part and she called him on it – something we in Europe need to take note of if this is anything to go by.

There then followed a total geek-out by Marc Smith who talked about a mathmatical model for measuring and mapping leadership using an Excel plug-in called NODEXL.  It looks ridiculously easy – you just download the plug-in and import your contacts (email, twitter, etc) and it gives you a very pretty chart of your network – connections, nodes, influencers etc.  Narcissistically speaking it’s mildly interesting but when you start to think about its application for looking at local networks and influencers on specific issues it’s fascinating.  Politically speaking it even seems that you can start to predict things like who will win at the polls based on the shape and density of their network.  Mindbending geek heaven. (Though @anu made a fair point that social network analysis can be easy to misinterpret).

The big celebrity of the day was Clay Shirky who gave examples of online activism, citing the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, as well as the fact that Obama’s Change.Gov site was used by campaigners in support of the medical use of marijuana.  His talk was interesting because he took the thinking beyond the usual ‘how get a great mailing list of supporters’ rubbish that you get so often.  His real skill is to articulate really well what the rest of us have been thinking for a while.  In this case he talked about the need for strong signals to get support for an issue or cause.  He identified a few factors that improve levels of support and commitment:

  • Don’t let the cost of communicating fall too low, otherwise the signal falls with it (emails are ten-a-penny)
  • Requiring commitment to action is key, which is linked to Scott Heifer’s talk yesterday about actually meeting up rather than just following or liking things (he also cited Stack overflow).
  • You need to allow equity – lists like change.gov that make you vote for an idea or policy are unhelpful because they assume one cause is worth fighting for and therefore people end up campaigning to drown out the others.  I think this is an interesting point and something that raises questions for things like UserVoice, which UK government has started using more and more.
  • Regard representatives as partners who will help in a networked way rather than targets.  This is counter-intuitive to carpet-bombing email lists as it is about quality of supporters not quantity.  I also think this applies to the ridiculous leafleting strategies of our main parties at election time.

Shirky concluded to rousing applause that if we don’t do these things, digital activism will continue down the path of becoming crowdsourced PR.  I couldn’t agree more.

Howard Rheingold rounded off the morning on ‘Rethinking community, literacy and the public sphere.  A big title, but the main point was that active attention is required on our (the users’) part to recognise that our attention is confused and wasted by the time we spend online.  Sounds ominous but he’s right – I think of all the times I’ve spent a whole morning ‘working’ only to realise that all I did was read the internet and re-tweet people.  I regard staying informed and connected as an important part of my job so it’s not wasted time, but it’s definitely not what I should be doing when I’ve got a pressing deadline :)  Rheingold argued that the issue isn’t that the link is evil or that media are distracting but that the time has come that we need to learn some discipline in managing our own online communication.  We need to tune our attention and make a decision every time we want to click a link – do I want to read it, bookmark it or ignore it?  I got a bit itchy when he said that ‘we need to develop some norms to deal with this’ as I was worried he was referring to some sort of crowdsourced standards, which would be horrific, but given that most of what he said was sensible I’m going to choose to believe that he meant that individuals need to create their own norms and become more self-aware so they can choose when to focus.  I didn’t see him in the audience but I sincerely hope @dominiccampbell was listening to all of that as he is the worst sufferer of DADD (Digital Attention Distraction Disorder) I’ve ever met.

After lunch I went to a breakout session on how to increase your influence online – not so much as an individual but as an activist organisation.  It was good to hear a couple of case studies from the American Association of Retired People and Reproductive Health Reality Check as well as Bold Progressives though the messages were the same as ever – create good content, share stuff, add your own commentary and remix things (summarised by Heather Holdridge) so nothing earth-shattering there.

The afternoon had a succession of tech pitches from the likes of seeclickfix, which is like FixMyStreet on steroids.  Nice to finally see something that has the ambition to go beyond propping up the current system (which FMS does) but actually starts to change the system itself by letting people fix things for themselves.

There was also a lovely demo of a beautifully home-spun yet effective ‘Grass Roots Mapping‘ initiative.  Funded by a variety of sources including MIT and donations on Kickstarter, the project sends a helium baloon, a kite and a digital camera into the sky to take photos of a geographical area.  Like, say, the Mexican Gulf where oil is currently gushing into the sea (thanks for that, BP, feeling very sheepish to be British).

Grass Roots Mapping Kit

All in all Personal Democracy Forum was a great experience.  It’s given me a great insight into what’s happening in the States, as well as the way Americans approach the theme of open government, some of which is definitely applicable to the way we do things in the UK.  At the same time I’m kind of perversely pleased to hear that the US has the same barriers as we see at home -the classic battle between networks and silos, control and openness are very much alive and kicking, but knowing that people on the other side of the pond are fighting the war for transparency gives me a the shove I need to keep up the pressure.

It was nice to go to a conference where I didn’t know anyone and although my networking skills haven’t improved I met some lovely people, all of whom are worth a follow if you’re so inclined:


I’m off to see if the after-party is as swanky as last night’s cheese and wine soiree in a fancy New York building.

PDF Morgan Library Party

OH COME ON!  I’m in New York – don’t I get to swagger at least a little bit…?