Personal Democracy Forum – Day Two

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 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…?

One Response to “Personal Democracy Forum – Day Two”

  1. Storyful. » Personal Democracy Forum 2010 – some highlights Says:

    […] As always with PDF events, the guest list was exceptional and the panel discussions even more so. Below are some of my favourite audio and video from the event. It would be difficult to post all of the exceptional talks and discussions from the PDF but I’ve picked three of my favourites. I may write another post with some of the other best ones. Carrie Bishop wrote two excellent roundups of each day at the conference – Day One, and Day Two. […]

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