As more than one of today’s speakers said, a good talk starts with bragging, moves on through philosophical meandering and ends with something interesting. All elements of today’s GovBlogCamp – with an emphasis on the interesting.

Organised by GDS (credit to the team, it all went really smoothly – great venue in Bermondsey) this was the first time members of the government blogging community had been brought together to share ideas and ask questions. And that community is bigger than people think “92 blogs with over 7 million visitors”.

First sessions contained a healthy dose of nostalgia, led by Giles Turnbull  of GDS, who illustrated his blogging credentials with screenshots from blog platforms of long ago. Anyone remember blogger? I  love his sentiments “blog, as though there are no rules…… because there ARE no rules” and “the web belongs to everyone, so make your bit of it reflect you”. Also the thought provoking “contradiction is OK, it shows an organisation can adapt and change. He ended with some reasons to blog, which included: thinking out loud, documentin the dull stuff, and talking to your future self. He also name checked Janet Hughes’ excellent post on boldness.

Next up was Neil Williams, head of the GOV.UK team at GDS, who is no.1 ambassador for civil servants and blogging. He described how his team are all encouraged to contribute, post about what they are working on, share learning and challenges – its a way they talk to each other, and how stakeholders talk to them. He too injected a dose of nostalgia – first by reminding us of his own credentials to speak about blogging – as the civil servant who set up the first ministerial blog.

Neil with the first ministerial blog: David Miliband at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Neil with the first ministerial blog: David Miliband at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

He moved on to show a slide which gathered some of the early pioneers of blogging in government – I’m honoured to share a screen with people who I have enjoyed reading and learned lots from.

Neil with some of the early government bloggers

Neil with some of the early government bloggers

His “reasons to blog” include that it saves you time, helps you think (‘rubber ducking‘ is a new term to me, but I recognise exactly what it means), helps build confidence and make you bolder (2nd ref to Janet’s post), and helps you do what matters. Top tips: keep it varied, talk – don’t (just) announce, embrace individuality, and lower the barrier to entry.

Next session was led by Louise Duffy of GDS, who described how she handles planning and shared some of the things that can derail even the best laid plans. These include long sign-off chains (familiar to many in the room!).

Pete Wilson of InnovateUK shared lessons from their first year of running a blog. Lots of familiar experiences:

  • Blogs are ravenous – consistency is more important than frequency, and the importance of engaging with authors
  • Process is not a dirty word – running a blog with lots of authors needs co-ordination, someone has to own it
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of images
  • Not everyone is a Hemmingway – convincing people who are used to writing academic papers or business cases about the different style needed for writing a blog post takes effort, he talked about the value of good headlines, and constructing a good story
  • Comments – see photo below
Pete Wilson with his comment categories

Pete Wilson with his comment categories

A series of sessions advertised as clinics – which turned into roundtable Q&A, was followed by Sam Spindlow from Public Health England, who asked some questions which challenged current assumptions. Lots to think about including:

  • the growth in some of the major platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google offering quick access to content
  • established wisdom around non-duplication of content (although I’ve always thought that if the mantra of placing your content where your audience already is, is true, then you will always need to place it in more than one channel – unless your audience is very small!)
  • thoughts about the statement “don’t build on a rented lot” – eg don’t put a lot of effort into something that may not exist the next day, or change the rules so your material is no longer findable.

I think a lot of people will be looking into Facebook instants! And I’d be interested to talk to anyone with experience of Medium as a blog platform – especially to share content among a specific community.

Penultimate session was led by the double act of Kirsty Edwards and Andrew Rees from the Intellectual Property Office. Introduced as “a department who doesn’t write like government” they shared some of their skill in breathing life into seemingly dry content. Part of their skill is I think in building a community of people who actually want to share stories about things they are passionate about. I’ll be reading Girl with a Curl, Discover the Force and many more on their site. They shared lots of tips on how best to exploit opportunities, including scheduling posts to match popular topics (although advised steering clear of dead celebrities!).

And final speaker was Stuart Heritage – aka Man with a Pram. Neil managed to capture his list of reasons not to blog, which followed closely on his assertion that most of the good things in his life had come to pass because of blogging…… There were lots of wry references to live blogging the Eurovision song contest (get the strong impression its not top of his list of fun things). To follow the model of a good talk described at the start of this post, he ended with some useful stuff around finding time, finding inspiration and finding your voice (in order – routine, audience, and practise).

And as with all good workshops, besides what was actually said, I’ve got tons of scribbled notes on tangents and thoughts that speakers sparked off – lots of good ideas and lots to follow up.


Notes from a fascinating workshop hosted at the National Audit Office in April.

Nick Halliday opened the workshop by introducing the data analytics framework in NAO.
Start with understanding what you have, who owns it, are you actually in a position to publish or republish?
Does anyone really know all the data that exists around their organisation?
NAO ran an internal data hack, used examples to draw out more data sets and help people think through what might be able to be done with them.
Whole process helped generate more ideas about doing different things with their data.
Question about appetite. Transparency has generated more interest and there is a growing demand from journalists. Often people are interested in the raw data that sits behind the tables that orgs publish eg in annual reports.
Question about formats: across government there are an awful lot of PDFs, but we’re seeing a gradual move to more open formats.


  • what story are you trying to tell
  • what are the key messages, is the central message clear. It takes experienced journalistic approach to look at a lot of rough data and see the story tools and training
  • what do users actually want – are you publishing just because you want to share or have seen a cool tool

Other refs:
ODI blog: Five stages of data grief.
Data journalism handbook – free open source reference book

Next presenter: Nick Bryant, head of design at ONS
He shared their experiences in developing infographics. First, a definition: Self contained visual story presenting information, data or knowledge, clearly with meaning and context, without bias.

If you search google, you get over 20 million results. There are a lot out there, which could indicate appetite, but also possible saturation.
To make yours stand out, you need to work hard and look at using different channels to disseminate them.
The story for ONS started in 2011 (back when a search only returned half a million results).
Article in the independent Hot Data: the art of the infographic – mentioned some of the pioneers: David McCandless – Information is beautiful, Guardian data team etc.
Need to trust your design instincts.
There was an element possibly of distrust – have to make sure data is reliable, the graphic won’t hide or mislead.
They tested the water in 2012 with a couple of simple ones, starting to think about a house style and consistency, while still experimenting with different models.
By 2013 starting to take off. Raised visibility across the office, which led to questions about differentiation between infographics and other info products. Do they add value? Better not just to duplicate. Find a new angle where the infographic is the best way to tell the story.

Looked outwards. BBC global experience language was a good pointer, evidence that having clear guidance that people follow means outputs will look more professional. Consistency is key.
ONS published their Infographics guidelines.
Included all parts of the process, including getting the right people involved in the team from the start, getting the story clear, and agreeing sign off routes. Reinforced the need to be consistent with design elements: accessible colours, consistent use of fonts.

Ref Design Council publication: Leading business by design.

Martin Nicholls (@martyandbells) heads up editorial team in digital publishing at ONS.
First point: content is king. If the data doesn’t contain the story, don’t try and force it.
Collaboration is queen. Editorial and designers can only produce material when working closely with statisticians and data experts. Need them to make sure the data is not being misinterpreted.

Golden rules
Everything created has to be for people: they want people to engage with it, understand it. How? Use the vocabulary real people use. Recognise that content has to be crafted, can’t simply be harvested. Don’t just cut and paste text others have produced.
Aim to be interesting, but sensation free.
Add human elements, and look for the international context.
Apply news value – what is being reported at the time.
Agree objectives and target audience with the business areas before you start to create.

Correlation doesn’t imply causation (ref chart with numbers of storks and babies being born in Oldenburg!) don’t always aim for the biggest number. [since then, have seen the fascinating site Spurious Correlations which provides many illustrations of this]

Take care with headlines. Basic stats publications tend to have dry factual titles. Be alert to how infographics can highlight slightly odd angles.

How to measure success?
Syndication is a good marker. If others use your infographic, that is seen as a success.
Social engagement, how are people reacting on twitter. Either love or hate, people who are indifferent don’t tend to comment.
Internally, if people want to work with you again that is a good measure. Especially among statisticians who tend to be divas! (Think their data is already cool.)

Recognise different needs of different audiences. Those who engage with statistical releases are very different to public with a passing interest.

Recognise there is no silver bullet. It is impossible to have a short checklist which will guarantee great content every time.

Next presenter was Will Moy from
Recognise they are on a journey. Stories that aren’t good enough don’t get retold. Brevity is key. Don’t waste people’s time.
Shared the example where they were asked to live fact check the debates between Farrage and Clegg.
Pressure helps you develop skills in clarity when people have an agenda to push. Often their [Full Fact’s] role is to explain that things aren’t quite as simple as people may want you to believe. Not contrasting right and wrong, more about showing shades of grey.
The debate gave them the chance to test new toy. As the video of the debate runs, each fact check explanation pops up.

New tech means they can be much more engaging. But they also tend to keep it extremely basic, illustrate a single fact or definition. They draw out full picture. Things that make headlines are dramatic changes, which if you then look more closely, it’s explained by seasonal peaks. Tells you that you should always look at trends rather than individual steps. Good idea to add keys and notes to charts.

Key point: infographics don’t have to be hugely complex things. Can be just the right data presented in the right way to get the right message across to the right people.

Reinforced point made by earlier speakers about using the vocabulary that the audience is using. Retail price index or cost of living?

Ref book: The tiger that isn’t: seeing through a world of numbers. by Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland.

Talks about clusters, which can always be found if you look, but don’t necessarily lead to facts.

Mentioned the danger in averages: The average person only has one testicle………

The challenge is in finding the stories that people want to tell their friends.
Key though is trustworthiness. Challenge is for example when a fact is provided, and it says ‘source ONS’ and doesn’t send you directly to the specific fact or data set.

Ref balance between time spent on publication and time spent on conversation. Eg spending a lot of time on preparing the perfect infographic compared to thinking time around answering the questions people are actually asking when you publish something.

Alan Smith (@theboysmithy) ONS Data visualisation centre.
Together with Rob Fry, talked about interactive infographics.

Started with quote from Simon Rogers, formerly guardian data blog: “ONS has incredibly useful data on its website, but also has world’s worst website…..”

Andrew Dilmott talks a lot about citizen users. They are different from traditional users, as people like the Treasury and banks would work out what they needed and work out how to get it.
Visualisation not really aimed at specialists, they are for the more casual visitors. Eg the best visualisations cause you to see something you weren’t expecting.
Shared the example of recent New York Times interactive infographic around dialect and vocabulary which resulted in a map.
It was the most popular NYT item that year, even though only released 21 December.
Why? It was visual, personal, and social. Immediately you got a response to your actions, you could share it.

Talked through some interactives that they produced, the first of which was around 2011 census data. It allowed comparisons between cities and ways of comparing the data by overlaying or showing scale.
Similarly, the team used the data to tell their own story, and added value by including context.

Another interactive was on the annual survey of hours and earnings The statistical release looks at overall trends, gaps between male and female etc. But what about other stories? For the team, there were geographic examples, where plotting the numbers on a map showed some obvious pockets. But much more dramatic when you skew the map to show where jobs actually are. However, much harder then to understand what you are looking at. Their solution was to show both maps side by side.

Question of skills – how do you learn them?
Team in Hampshire are hosting a conference on the graphical web, supported by W3C. August 27-30th. Theme is visual storytelling.

Tom Smith (@_datasmith) Oxford consultants for social inclusion.
Talked about data for social good

Concept of open data: Government publishes increasing amounts of open data which is available for reuse. There is a common belief that this is a one way street, lots of publishing with no sense that it might deliver benefits, and a reliance on an army of armchair hackers who may or may not actually make something of it.
BUT there are already some really good examples of good things being done with data.
UK probably leading the world in open data (or at least up among the leaders) Open Data Institute, and open data user group doing good work. ODUG recently published set of case studies.

Shared the case study of Community insight – a tool based on open data for housing associations to start basing service decisions on data. OCSI worked with the housing associations to find out what their needs were.

Had to be simple, to be used by housing officers. Contained lots of maps. Not sticking to govt boundaries, eg need their own definitions. Needed to be able to generate reports.

Then he talked about closed data.
Sometimes this is for legitimate reasons, but there are issues around how the data is used, perhaps about allowing limited access. Its not necessarily always about publishing the data. Departments who hold the data could use it to answer questions, without giving out the actual data itself. An example might be the percentage of people whose circumstances changed after a particular intervention.

Referenced the ONS virtual microdata lab. Controlled access allowed to academics and other authenticated users to the raw data that ONS holds.
There are conditions of use: has to be lawful, support public benefit and what you pull out has to be non-sensitive.

Ministry of Justice did something similar to allow access to data on re-offending. The potential of closed data is a good counter balance to the power of open.

Dan Collins (@dpcollins101) from GDS
Data, information and the user.

Dan is one of two data scientists at GDS, and introduced the main work areas of GDS: GOV.UK, transformation exemplars, assisted digital, user research, IT reform, performance and delivery.

He sits in the latter, focusing on measurement and analytics.
So what does a data scientist do?
Estimate probabilities, statistical learning theory, data visualisation and task automation.
In reality, most of the job is data collection and cleaning.

Introduced the performance platform. Aim is to give simple and clear access to the performance of services. Gives real time info to service owners, but also transparent and available to all.
Aim is to combine data sources, from back office systems, from call centres, from web stats and social media.

Raised question around whether data needed a narrator? Subject matter experts know their data, but not necessarily best people to talk about it to others.

He is currently working on DCLG data – not just on the data specifically, but looking at what skills are needed in the dept to do this sort of thing, and what technical blockers there are.
He shared an example which allowed for a lot of filtering and displaying London Fire Brigade data. This would otherwise just be a massive spreadsheet and it would be virtually impossible to spot patterns.

Nick Smith (@geckoboard and @nickwsmith)

Was originally going to talk about building better dashboards, but evolved to how to use dashboards more effectively. (Focus is on using the geckoboard products.)

Geckoboard is a startup which aims to bring data from different systems together into a dashboard. Their dashboards pull together data sources and display data in real time. Must be simple to use.

Shared five insights:

  • First, need to understand why. Eg what are you trying to achieve by using data to tell a story. Maybe it’s an issue about accessing up to date information, or data is lost in lots of different places.
  • Second, decide what matters. Don’t just communicate “because I can” Need to gather and share metrics that contribute to overall objectives. All else is vanity metrics.
  • Third, try to kill vanity metrics, they are not actionable.
  • Fourth, good stories evolve, as do good dashboards. Organisations don’t stand still, people come and go, objectives evolve.
  • Finally, ignore him! Sometimes it’s right to trust gut instincts, work out what is valid and valuable for your own organisation.

Martin Stabe (@martinstabe) Interaction team at Financial Times
Martin closed the session with a highly engaging talk – introducing this topic as a weird new sub genre of journalism.
Described FT as a typical news organisation not famous for depth of statistical knowledge.
A data journalism team needs three types of people: computer assisted reporter, data visualisation specialist, eg graphic designer who works with numbers, and web person, who probably works elsewhere not in the news room. The aim is to bring those people together and get them working on specific projects.
Not a new thing – journalists do dig into statistics to find stories. This has been going on for longer in the US and Scandinavia, as tradition of access to public data has longer history there.
Early example shown from pre computer days, was a story illustrating racial distribution in Atlanta, compared with banks lending data. In that story, map was a tiny part of the story. Data journalism about rigorous reporting based on data.
Pretty pictures not necessarily the aim. Best reporting using statistical analysis may just include a couple of clear charts to illustrate the story that has been discovered.

So, what is new?
In the UK in particular, it’s access to data. Since 2000 FOI act, start of acceleration. Also, the evolution of the web – being able to publish content that is truly useful to readers. This has supported a range of new ways of telling the story.
Traditionally the choice was either explanatory or exploratory. Now both can be offered. Martini glass narrative structure: Big picture, then we walk you through a narrow channel, they we turn the whole database over to you.
Can do both near and far views, national and local.
Opportunity for personal relevance – eg extracting your school from the national stats.
Integration with social media – story can be shared with friends.
Again, different from traditional view that news is tomorrow’s fish wrapper. Digital products are reusable and have longer lifespan.

Shared a slightly more light hearted example, which used mortality data to calculate the likelihood you might live to see King George VII.

Another example was a calculation to work out the value of twitter just before it launched in stock exchange. Hid most of the tricky stuff, but gave people a couple of variables to tweak. And a similar exercise to work out what your personal data was worth.

In order to do their job, they need high quality open public data, that is free to use. They have to be able to access it fast, and it needs to be analysable, openable and reusable.

Note, data journalists are weird. They don’t want tidy tables, they don’t want to read the stuff you release, they want raw data that they can load into a tool to manipulate it. Eg they prefer CSV Nb they also need the look up files which help understand the data.

What next?
UK data explorer, set of tools for exploring UK public data. Mass produced interactives, scripts written once, so any new versions of the data can simply be uploaded.

If you are just updating a time series, could have automated stories (which would leave journalist free to do proper analysis.) Example shown of Washington Post and job statistics every month. Los Angeles Times has a similar scraper which takes data from USGS earthquake notification service, and writes a basic story on data. Can produce something virtually immediately after the data is available.

And that was it – a fascinating afternoon with a wide range of interesting speakers. Data and visualisation is a topic that is really causing a buzz at the moment – and these speakers combined to show that doing it right rather than doing it for the sake of it is key. And its not as easy as perhaps the simple output might indicate.

If you are interested to see any of the slidesets, ONS have published them.


Feeling the sense of relief when something you have worked towards for a long time reaches a significant milestone. Tuesday saw the first meeting of DFID’s digital advisory panel. First mentioned as an idea when we went through the process of drafting our first digital strategy, it has taken a while to canvas nominations, appoint a chair, and start thinking through a programme of work. But this week, I’m just pleased we met. It wasn’t the whole group unfortunately, trying to find a date that all 9 could make proved impossible, but we did have five in the room, one via video link, plus myself and the chair.

Following introductions (and it honestly is appropriate to use the word ‘awesome’ when you hear their CVs and experience), Tim Robinson, the chair set out his aspirations and I gave an overview of how we got here, and where our current activities are focused.
Next followed an hour of interesting questions and debate over the scope of their remit, medium vs short term goals, definitions/scope of digital and technology, … And agreement as to how the group will work together.

There will be a more formal post on the main/official DFID blog platform, with information on the members and their wide ranging and diverse careers [I’ll add the link once it is published].
Each member was chosen to represent different sectors, including academia, NGOs, entrepreneurship, private sector and philanthropic organisations, and judging by the level of questions and debate today, I’m expecting lively future meetings.
This panel is unique among government departments although the GDS/Cabinet Office did convene their own advisory group to inform the overarching strategy and GDS work.
The agenda and remit for ours will evolve and solidify, but in essence their role is to advise and challenge us, on both in house and external activities/commitments as set down in our digital strategy. Their collective voice will have the weight to request answers, and to commission more work, and I look forward to working with them all.

Have been in a bit of a blogging hiatus for a while, with lots of half complete drafts, some not able to be published yet, some simply overtaken by other events, but I’m hoping that this milestone and the meetings that follow will give new drive and momentum to both my own work and wider digital programmes at DFID. All positive in view of the challenge from our Secretary of State: “Since taking charge of my Department, I have been clear that technology and innovation will be a constant theme in my work at DFID, and that I expect to see the department making the most of the latest advances in technology and research. ”


Update: Since I published this post, I have blogged on the main DFID platform to introduce the panelists.

At tea camp last week, we re-visited the topic of a digital press office.

Stephen Hale has published an excellent overview of the session with his thoughts in a bit more detail, but for those who want the flavour of what others said – read on. The session consisted of six planned lightning talks, and one which was added at the last minute!

Fist up, Lloyd Davis, first digital press officer in government – who reminded us about just how far things have evolved in a short time. He worked in Ministry of Justice in 2008, on a short project to explore what might be possible. Back then Number 10 had just launched their site on WordPress, and people were questioning use of twitter and YouTube. Obama visited and Lloyd live streamed from mobile phone. Lots of people saw all this as bizarre, but, gradually, started to look at how these tools could be used to build better relationships, in particular with journalists. He devised template for social media release, which it was thought might replace press releases. Main issues then were around press officers wanting to retain anonymity. They didn’t like the disruption of the relationship between individuals and journalists. There were fears about copyright. And other fears this was just a fad, why learn? it wasn’t going to stay around and wasn’t the kind of thing professional press officers should be doing.

Next on was Anthony Simon, head of digital at Number 10, who was accompanied by Alan Ross: a press officer. They have worked to break down barriers between traditional worlds of digital and press.
Alan started on this path back in 2010 in Home Office. He soon realised it wasn’t about a few tools, but about a change of attitude and approach . Press teams needed to be aware of immediacy, of opportunities for two way conversation social media offered. He introduced the idea of every comms plan having a digital element. Cuts meeting had a slot to cover what was going on online. He did a weekly report with stats to show range of coverage. Experimented with rebuttals, where initially people said don’t worry, no one is talking about this…… meaning nothing was appearing in mainstream press. Not realising that the story was out there, and actually there was a whole lot of blog and twitter traffic about it, none of which had the HO line.
At No 10, besides the main account, they also set up No 10 press, to engage directly with the media. They live tweet events, and PMQs. Current plans include encouraging press colleagues to be more creative about visits, making most of opportunities rich media offers. They use
Use twitter alongside traditional channels, but as amplifier, eg when contacting a broadcaster or journalist, besides direct sharing of lines and content, ask they retweet.
Anthony emphasised that the main thing is to look at capabilities: explore what are you trying to do, and then it’s up to departments as to how they configure themselves to reach those goals. Some separate teams work well, sometimes having a digital enthusiast embedded is needed to change the approach. Need both skill sets, they should complement each other.

Penny Fox and Verity Hanbrook from Defra followed. Penny is deputy head of news and digital, Verity is senior media officer – in a merged team. Don’t have either a press office or digital team, or marketing team etc.
Change has been about who is actually spoken to, press used to be extremely precious, only spoke to journalists. But gradually started to use tools, published own press content, eg news and speeches. Opened twitter account. Biggest step change was around badger cull. Did realise what the chatter was going to be, so got three cleared lines which they punted out all day on all channels. Got mixed reactions, but showed ministers and colleagues that level of engagement was possible, and had more benefits than risks.
All communications team have digital as part of core objectives. No longer have strategic comms team or marketing, so now have to work with a very mixed team. Planning always done with expert advice. Verity often involved as a supporter, encourage people to think of wide range of ways of reaching audiences, and first step is to think through who those audiences are!
Individuals encouraged to take a human approach, if one of the biggest detractors gets on a hobby horse, reason with them directly, has been shown to work.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and then evaluate. Once something does work well, create a process, or how to note, because then people feel more comfortable and confident.

Christine from Food Standards Agency talked about how they managed to kill, or at least tame the press release.
Digital and press have always worked closely together, but process was a bit crazy. Press would draft press release, editors would write news, press release cleared, web story not. So, as they worked together, the content and story was the same – potential confusion for recipients, definite duplication of effort. What is now produced is hosted as a news story, but shared in the same way a press release would have been, and also in many more channels. People are encouraged to think beyond the format, sometimes experts do YouTube or podcast interviews. Team work out how to share content that would traditionally just have been packaged for journalists and making it clear to all those interested in the topic.

Lizzie Bell from DfE was originally a press officer, moved to digital role around three years ago. She sits next to press office, but not integrated. One challenge is time, getting press officers off busy press desk even to do training is a challenge. Churn is a problem, have trained many who have left. Don’t always recognise the specialist skills that individuals have. People who can film and edit can’t always write, people who can write great speech can’t boil it down to 140 characters.
Why is this feeling such a big challenge? Lots of digital change happening across other bits of the dept, so why so different in news?
Press office is essentially about a private relationship with journalists, then about broadcast. Digital is about conversations, public, responding, continuous and sustained interaction.
She echoed Allan Ross. Need to stop just tacking social on to the end of news. Lots of examples in traditional media where news teams are gaining new skills to produce YouTube ready content and produce content specifically for digital news, recognising it is different from print proposition.
Better not to make digitising press offices sound like a massive shopping list of additional things for them to do, need to start thinking differently.

Stephen Hale from Department of Health has, as mentioned above, blogged his points eloquently – he both agreed and disagreed with Lizzie.
For me, the key paragraphs were:
“Press offices do need to get digital. Some press offices may need to accelerate the process of digitising while others have already transformed. But I don’t think the digital community need to take full responsibility for this process. We should own the overall strategy, offer advice, coach, cajole, run workshops and provide guidance. But, with a little bit of help, press officers – like other groups of our colleagues – will digitise themselves, because they will have to in order to do their jobs effectively.

Digital people should have confidence in the things that they do to provide real value to their organisation beyond the news agenda, which might mean running sustained digital engagement, developing policy engagement campaigns, product development and channel management, and all the other things that good digital people do.”

As also mentioned above, there was a late arrival tagged onto the end of the planned speakers: Betony Kelly, now at BIS, but spoke at teacamp a while ago when she was in her previous digital role, at a Bank. She was invited to share her thoughts now she is inside the civil service.
Her final thoughts on the press/digital question were that press officers really need to be left to get on with it, they will find their level and way of being effective. Just as you don’t put all your senior people in front of broadcasters, some people you just shouldn’t force.
Best to keep exploring: keep investigating what works, showcase and celebrate and evaluate it.

The first question was about the relationship between policy people and press: what about a specialist niche blogger with large followers, do press engage, or leave it to policy specialists?
I recognised lots of the responses that followed, as they are familiar in relation to the work I’m now doing around DFID’s digital strategy, as a lot of the work we grandly label as capability building, is really just supporting people to investigate their own digital environments, sharing the tools used to monitor, evaluate, and curate information. They will get to know their stakeholders, build networks – and possibly even other parts of the business will be able to use those networks to communicate too. Their skills will include knowing when you can respond to an expert in your field, and when to ask others to advise or support.

And PS, I haven’t forgotten my promise to report on the open data session from activate….. that will follow.

Not an official conference season, it just seems as though a lot of opportunities to get out the office and hear about the bigger picture (several different angles on different big pictures) have come up around the same time.

First up was Africa Gathering – and I’ve already blogged about that inspiring couple of days.
Next was a completely different community – the Government Communications Network event: headlined “Towards exceptional government communications”.
Timed to build on the recently published Government Communications Plan , it was a morning of quick fire presentations (probably a bit too quick fire – the whole timetable overran unfortunately and I had to leave before the concluding remarks), and some speakers tried to pack way too much into their slots, but overall the headlines were clear and the challenge of meeting those aspirations lies in the year ahead.

Some highlights from the sessions follow:  first, the challenge, as laid out by Alex Aiken, executive director og government communication, who chose that day to join twitter.
Overall role of government communications people, no matter which bit of it you are in, is to save and improve people’s lives. The aim is to change behaviour for the public good (which sounds kind of big brother-ish now I see it written down) – but examples are clear: blood donor recruitment, fire safety, Scottish government campaign against breast cancer (powerful evaluation which followed up with calculating how many lives saved).
So, there is much excellent work, but the problem is that this is not universal.
Two acronyms mentioned: the old = SOS, sending out stuff. The future is ROSIE: research, objective, strategy, implementation, evaluation. Future government communications needs to remember and implement this planning cycle, needs to be more professional, more shared services, better planning.
And that was the event in a nutshell – these themes came up in all the sessions that followed.

Conrad Bird presented a case study of the GREAT campaign – whose overarching purpose is about jobs and growth for Britain. It uses credible voices and showcases Britain as world class destination for business, investment, education and tourism. It is rigorously evaluated, has a strong visual identity and the campaign leaders message was to “Think big, be iconic.” And calculate business benefits relentlessly, as this is the way to secure future investment in the programme.

Conversation followed about the role of the Government Communications network in supporting the work of individuals. Lots is planned – and shared via the website. Again and again the importance of evaluation was mentioned, and a key quote for me was that one of greatest barriers overall is inertia, people just don’t want to change things.
A later speaker endorsed this – in the private sector, evaluation is your best friend, a way of getting the best impact out of limited resources. You can go to a board and show what is working, what should be invested more in and what can be stopped.

A key point from another speaker reflected the change he saw in the role of communications teams is that we are no longer communicating for our organisations, but communicating through our organisations, getting as many others as possible to be chief narrators and brand champions/advocates.

A session on digital gave a powerful example of what can happen when end users are actively involved in designing a campaign. He spoke about the disability working campaign, where at the start, activists were their biggest critics, now they sit round the table, and are becoming advocates. He mentioned the written by one of their partners. Other quotes that rang true: “Social media is a discipline not a tool”. “Measurement should focus on conversation and communities, not coverage”.
“Experimentation is key to success”.

An intriguing session about the changing environment commented how we are moving from deference to reference: Katie Price has 1.8 million followers, David Cameron has 400,000 – conclude from that what you will.

Next conference was Civil service live 2013  – again using word exceptional, this time as their strapline: “Be exceptional”. The event took place in 3 separate locations this year. I spent a day in London Olympia hearing from a diverse group of speakers and looking at case studies from right across the public sector. Where else would you find in one hall a heap of tiger, bear and zebra skins, a full size Austin 7 car, a “workplace of the future” that looked like the Starship Enterprise – all white surfaces and shiny gadgets, plus a military installation complete with camouflage-clad soldiers and sand bags.

Interesting points I picked up included from Carole Thompson, former COO of BBC, on managing change. She oversaw the move to Salford, and talked about how she built a team to focus on the vision, not just manage a project to build. It was about creating a new BBC, “the BBC of your dreams”. She also talked about the need to continue to manage even after official project end, so that it continues to work successfully.

I heard about the Vodaphone better ways of working initiative which is spookily similar to our new offices, with people being equipped with laptops and able to work anywhere in the building, with a variety of different spaces depending on whether you need to be quiet and focus on your own work, or catch up with colleagues. They, as we, have introduced a system of shared spaces, where no one has their own desk. They have identified different profiles for fixed, field and flexible staff (defined as those who need a fixed location like receptionists, or security guards; those who are virtually always away from the office like engineers; and the rest – who can work wherever is needed to achieve their objectives.

I saw the Kahootz collaboration platform in action. Its more like share point than yammer, but has a clean looking interface. I’d heard someone mention it recently, so its good to find out how it works and what its strengths are (also interesting uses in consultations, and finding people interested in an issue even if they don’t self select.)

The main plenary speaker was Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who shared his reflections on civil service reform.
Unknowingly continuing the theme started in the GCN event, he repeated that in some places things do work fantastically well, however the task is to identify these, showcase, and make things work well everywhere.

He reminded us that when the civil service reform plan was published a year ago, it was criticised in some quarters as it wasn’t very high flown, with grandiose ideas, but it was actually practical, gritty. In a week or so, a one year on report will be published, a sort of scorecard which monitors how well we’ve done.
Openness is vital, he said the civil service needs to be more open, more permeable, more honest with ourselves. ‘Confront the truth, so can be clear about what needs to change …. And make it happen’
Statements about the age of the generalist either being dead or having arrived are not true. Organisations need both: generalists who can think issues through, prepare choices, make decisions; and experts with deep knowledge. The era of the specialist makes people less likely to admit when they don’t know something, while a good generalist will be quick to recognise, and find the person who does know.
A reformed civil service will be smaller, flatter, more unified, more accountable for delivery, with better talent management and modern terms and conditions. He repeated that it’s not about just one thing – however if he had to, he’d say it’s about being focused on outputs, not on process.
Interesting side comment about traditional civil service values – impartiality can be interpreted as indifference – passion is what is needed so people think differently and come up with innovative solutions to challenges.
End comment: one of the reasons he enjoys his job is because its difficult, Times mean we need to live by wits, innovation etc. What civil service does IS important, it matters, and it can be done.

Next main speaker on civil service reform was Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service.
He echoed Francis Maude in saying that the true story of civil service activities rarely gets any exposure, especially in the media.
His message covered why reform is good for Britain, for the civil service and for individuals.
For Britain, because it will improve services for individuals across the country. In focusing on services to the public, they will be made clearer, easier, simpler.
For the civil service, because it will make us more unified, reduce duplication, and people will be able to move around more easily. Policy making will become more collaborative, working across departments.
For individuals, because they will have well designed workplaces, equipment and tech that works, simplified security arrangements so people can work in different places, plus better performance management and flexible working.

The day ended for me on an interesting and energetic note, with the presentation on open data and innovation by Paul Maltby. I’ve already used some of the examples he shared to help illustrate these concepts to colleagues.
He started with a brief overview of what open data is – and the main thing is that data is freely available, no conditions placed on reuse. He talked about the much wider environment, which includes linked data, big data, and the internet of sensors/things.
Common questions are what people do with this data – and he mentioned the familiar Guardian data log and their bubble diagram visualisations.
The Cabinet office team focus on extracting the data and making it into raw material for others to use. He praised the government portal:  as a world leading model which is influencing many which are being developed in other countries.
Note that besides making data available, it is responsive: people can use it to make requests for data.
Recent highlights in the open data world include the Shakespeare review which lists priorities, plus the Lough Erne open data charter.
He mentioned the Open government partnership, of which the UK is co-chair, and planning going on for their conference in the Autumn. He described the formation of Open Data Institute, which is focused on creating value from open data by incubating startups and providing training.
So, lots happening, and positive glimpses of how things could be in the future.

Which works as an overall wrap up of these events – lots happening, and positive glimpses. Three down, one to go!

My fifth govcamp, and a new venue south of the river. This year our hosts were IBM, and despite the grey weather outside, the meeting space was bright and shiny, and filled with about 150 people.
The has been a lot of talk in digital/tech circles about the lack of women at events like this, so it was good to see this broke the pattern, with almost equal numbers of men and women standing up to pitch for sessions. I pitched two, and was almost on the chart to run both at the same time…… but this was spotted last minute. After that potential clash, the grid worked well for me this year, and I found something interesting in each slot, with not too many unbearable choices to make.
Steph had set up a live blogging platform: which worked excellently well for me during my first two sessions, but then there was a wifi glitch. Resorted to offline note taking, which hopefully makes for a more succinct and reflective blog now.

My five sessions were on personal/professional identity in a digital age, the evolution of digital teams, how to discuss failing fast and lesson learning, the successes of govcamp and what might come next, and finally an overview of the Open Government Partnership.

I liveblogged the first session here – a packed hour, some of my highlights were:
– Having a name that is a “google unique” raises all sorts of questions. Examples of linking between blog, twitter account etc, whether this is explicit or implicit, accidental or deliberate.
– Question – how we know when we are interacting with someone that it really is the person we think?
– When making links between data stores, how to make sure that John Smith in one is the same as Johnny Smith, or J Smith?
– Is identity some thing we have, and choose to project, or is it something that is accumulated around us and reflected back?
– Discussion around the difference between assertion, and validation.
– Even if you want to keep identities separate, it’s becoming increasingly hard to do – even for those with a certain level of technical know how.
– Back to big data question, the big providers who are joining up and using the masses of data they have about you. Surely a point will be reached (soon?) when something big happens that will make it real to people and cause mass concern, but by then, will it have gone too far to do anything about it?
– Issue that traces in the real world may linger, but fade in relatively short time. – Digital traces hang around indefinitely and are findable in all sorts of ways.
– Digital makes it so much easier to triangulate.
– Back to public sector, low levels of clarity as to what levels of identity are genuinely required, needs to be more discussion about this as services are designed. [ Absolutely agree]
– Civil servant example, distinction between barriers, and what people are allowed to do or say, and the right of freedom of speech.

Next up was the session I pitched on digital teams – what peoples experience was now as to the skills and activities covered, and how they saw things evolving in the future. Again, live blogging worked so my full notes are here. There is fuel for a full blog post from the session, and its something I’ll continue to think about, but for now, my edited highlights were:
– Look at digital team as a consultancy, go the team for advice on how to use it, and to keep an eye on innovation and change.
– Reputation is a significant issue, it’s different when you are in a self selecting group eg on Facebook, but within an organisation, there do have to be rules. Digital teams can have oversight of this and share best practice.
– Is delivery fragmenting across government – after web rat will we need twit rat? No sense of coordination and anyone looking across the whole picture, or a department, let alone the whole of government.
Comment: some departments do have that as part of the role of their digital team.
Further comment on reflection – does this matter if people have the skills and licence, and are engaging with the communities they need to, and both sides are aware of the relationship – why worry that there is no central control?
– Lot of people still say “I’m not technical” need to challenge what that means.
Is this a dilemma for now, and in a certain amount of time, digital skills and tools will be commonplace?
– What might teams do in the future? Good at building relationships, identifying local forums, finding connections, working with marketing teams (or whatever they evolve into). Goes way beyond broadcast model.
– Comment: recent digital strategies contain a lot around upskilling and creating capacity. Lot of talk about setting up digital teams, but these are actually a different beast from what we in the room may mean when we talk about a digital team, these new ones are about developing services, new techniques, agile development etc.  In some areas, this service focus is because that’s what people want. Danger or risk though that its seen as a single model and that is all that is needed – oversimplistic?
– “Digital” as a term is becoming overloaded, being used for so many things, and all to mean different things. (Much like agile) So, what might the new terms be?
– Difference between digital champions, some are there because you have to have one, some are there because they are passionate. Elsewhere there are passionate people who are not in a position to make things change.
– Quote: digital teams should not go off in a teenage huff complaining people just don’t get it. Another useful role is in evaluation, and providing evidence, with numbers attached, especially when those numbers are closely related to money – costs and savings.

NOTE: Interesting serendipitous related blog noticed Sunday :  Why every organisation needs a digital comms specialist:”In essence: We all need to be doing more of this digital communications stuff from the hard-bitten pr to the frontline officer. There shouldn’t be a digital comms team and a traditional comms team in a different part of the building.
There should be one. Which doesn’t mind if frontline people use digital too. But this is the tricky bit. Every organisation now needs a digital communications specialist to help make this happen.”

And update: Ann Kempster has also blogged about this topic- think we’ve hit on a hot topic!

After lunch my first session sketched out the scenario that we are hearing a lot at the moment about how important it is to fail fast and learn from it, and in particular in the entrepreneur/start up world failure being seen as a badge of honour. This is all good, but what happens in reality – in particular in the public sector, when people want to do that, but it is blocked.
Highlights from this discussion were:
– To develop a culture where people are comfortable talking about what is done when things go wrong, its good to do it internally first, or at least among a community who understands that you are sharing in order to learn
– In exploring the idea mentioned above re startups, they are talking about failure from a position of success: they have the scars, and have learned, and have since had success
– There is a school of thought that says “Don’t talk about it until you can clearly state what the learnings are” but what if that means a long gap in between issue discovery and sharing. If sharing could be ongoing, then perhaps lessons could influence other projects?
– Difference between useful and useless failure, so the question is whether we can get very quickly to a position of useful failure
– Focus on small incremental improvements, and talk about each step and say what you are hoping to achieve, and why you are doing what you do
– Make sure all levels of an organisation are involved, so senior people completely understand (avoid the scenario where seniors say that people must do something, then are aghast when they do)
– GDS are in a powerful position at the moment, and could do a bit more publicity of their revisions and changes based on feedback, instead of only talking about string of successes
– Don’t underestimate the power of actually showing people what you are doing.
– Don’t confuse the art of the possible and cheap throw away pilots, with the fact that to build and deliver something secure that will work for the whole of a process WILL actually cost money, and may take considerably longer to develop, so balance that there will be failures and challenges when translating those pilots into real products
– Interesting comment about having a portfolio approach to projects, as when several things are worked on at the same time, there will be both successes and failures and it is easier to walk away from those that don’t work, while if you just have one shining star main project that your career depends on, then you are less likely to be prepared to walk away from it
– Fear of negative press coverage does drive the fear of taking risks and the fear of talking about anything that has gone slightly other than perfectly

And finally there was an interesting question about whether there is any evidence that projects where failure and iteration is part of the process actually do achieve better results at the end? And that programmes run in this way do receive more funding?

Penultimate session was around celebrating the successes of gov camp and wondering what might happen next.
People talked about the value it gives, for individuals, the confidence to challenge and a support network you can call on. Many of the spin off camps were mentioned – regional, and thematic, such as blue light camp, the more informal teacamps, and if I heard right, brewcamps. (not sure if these are teacamps with beer, or an analogy for tea?)

A fascinating discussion followed that questioned whether the sort of people who attend these events then had almost a duty (or at least were in the ideal position and could have a stated ambition) to use the knowledge gained to bring about real change at the highest levels. There were many views, not least the question as to whether one particular self selecting event can really claim a mandate, but the counter was that it’s good sometimes to have a set of things to follow up. One persons shared statement is another ones manifesto, lots of cultural baggage and interesting anecdotes here!!

A point that struck a chord with me (and echoed other sessions earlier in the day) was that outside the immediate network of active digital enthusiasts, there are many people who think they get digital, but still haven’t really got the restless curiosity that characterises digital innovation.

Two opposite examples were described – one person who was inspired by gov camp to leave local govt and go freelance, another who went back into local gov, and now talks about these sorts of issues, but is the only one in his organisation. Which brings us back to the original contention: how do we get more people exposed to this sort of event and make explicit the permission to go out and innovate, and make changes based on using technology to meet user needs.

Shining a light on issues and using the sorts of technique stalked about is ultimately what will bring about change. Some can be left to chance, and that is the direction the community is evolving in. Once you reach a certain period of maturity, then perhaps something else can emerge.

My final session was on the Open Government Partnership – something I was faintly aware of, but had no clear picture of what was actually happening. Rather than give background – which is here: the key points for me is that this agenda could be a real hook on which to hang all sorts of he kind of innovative and transformational things that digital can offer to improved participation among communities, decisions which affect all our lives being made with real input from those directly affected, but, at the moment it appears to be a fairly London centric talking shop, trying to reach out, but with not many people involved.
Looking at the site, their aims are written in fairly impenetrable government-speak, so I wonder if effort could be made to pull out some really clear and practical examples, and perhaps that would lead to more people understanding what was happening, and therefore deciding to get involved?
One participant commented that it sounded like something the Open Data Institute was doing – a challenge to local authorities which actually had a pot of funding available for innovative examples, and another person suggested perhaps a weekly chat around a unique hashtag to address some key questions might spread the initiative out beyond those currently involved.

Despite best intentions to make this blog more in the style of the “20 things I learned from this event” posts that appear regularly, I’ve failed – too many interesting points, things to follow up and classic quotes I don’t want to lose!

Thanks @lesteph and @davebriggs for excellent organisation, and IBM for hosting – and to all those who gave up their Saturdays to share, think, entertain and record.

To continue my notes from the recent Open Up! conference, the next session was led by DFID Secretary of State Justine Greening MP. As an aside, she mentioned she had chosen today to launch her twitter account – so follow @justinegreening if you are interested in hearing her priorities.

Justine Greening MP speaking at the Open Up! conference

Justine Greening MP speaking at the Open Up! conference

Her speech made it clear that she recognised technology and innovation would be a constant theme of her work at DFID, and she emphasised the importance of investment in research. She talked about deepening the commitment to transparency, and challenged all funders to present their data in the same formats so aid can be traced. She previewed the Making All Voices Count initiative (which launched on 5 December) and also mentioned the DFID digital strategy which I referred to in my previous post.

She took lots of questions, and answers included the importance of unlocking the culture of innovation and risk taking, plus the need for a closer co-operation between tech hubs around the world.

Next speaker was Tim O’Reilly. His main theme was that government should focus on “doing the hard stuff”. He cited an example of the unexpected consequences when GPS was opened up – from car navigation systems to four#square. He praised the Code for America accelerator programme which had led to loads of startups, such as Captricity,, measured voice and mindmixer. He commented that not all innovation is purely digital though –   referencing Maker Faire as a celebration of innovation that now has global reach, and also mentioned the Afrigadget blog, something I discovered back in 2009 and am delighted to be reminded of.

Change should happen by example – someone sees something is possible and wants to follow that lead. Often people want to do the right thing, they just dont necessarily know what IT is. His advice to organisations looking to open up data echoed comments made in the morning sessions: reach out beyond the usual suspects and invite those who complain about you to come in and hack your data. His final quote paraphrased Larry King: “Government should make easy things easy, and hard things possible”.

During the lunch break there were a whole series of show and tell booths set up in the basement, enabling delegates to see working examples of things they may have heard mentioned during the talks. My colleagues were there showcasing the alpha version of the new aid information platform (DM @johnthegeo if you are interested in seeing it and commenting).

After lunch a whole series of lightning talks took place – with Chairman of the event Wired’s David Rowan doing an excellent job keeping speakers to time. We heard from Felipe Heusson of the Smart Citizen Foundation – as previous speakers, he talked about the need to focus on the hands which hold the tech, not the tech itself.

Gustav Praekelt addressed the concern that many pilots struggle to get beyond the pilot phase – talking about cost, complexity and scale.

Kepha Ngito talked enthusiastically about Map Kibera and their focus not on doing things as quickly as possible, but of working with the community to keep people informed and get valuable feedback.

Gautam John talked about his experiences in primary education and how open data can be used to create choice.

Yemi Adamolekun represented Enough is Enough – how social media is used to support protest in Nigeria. She talked about one particular project around the elections, which was non-partisan, but encouraged people to participate, and mentioned the mnemonic RSVP – register, select, vote, protect. She also mentioned Revoda – an app which supports reporting on elections.

Jay Bhalla from Kenya talked about different initiatives around open data, including building a community of activists, and one particular training scheme which aims to help journalists how to understand and use data in their reports. I can imagine such a subject could usefully be taught all around the world.

Chris Taggart talked about open corporates – the largest open database of  company information in the world. Each entry has a URI – something that I can imagine becoming useful as organisations release project data, in helping to support consistent traceability of aid.

Gavin Starks is CEO of the Open Data Institute – which formally opened on 6 December. He talked about a range of projects including and green cloud computing. He outlined the role of ODI as unlocking supply, enabling re-use of data (training, courses etc), unlocking demand (offering innovation space, funding and access), plus communicating examples and sharing standards.

The final session was a double header when DFID’s Michael Anderson shared the stage with Ethan Zuckerman – with Wired editor David Rowan as chair.

Michael Anderson and Ethan Zuckerman at Open Up!

Michael Anderson and Ethan Zuckerman at Open Up!

Their talks were fascinating and wideranging – it would take a whole blog post to do them justice, so if you have time, I recommend watching their conference videos. Michael’s points included finding ways of delivering services to the poorest people which are responsive to need, plus better accountability and tracking. He talked about how we are all fascinated by “the state” and discussed how the state as it currently exists may be less relevant in the future, as we rely on different models. The state may occupy a smaller, but perhaps more effective space. Just as the Secretary of State had earlier, he talked about the need to experiment and iterate – and the importance of being comfortable discussing failure and gathering evidence.  He mentioned a phrase which could be my motto for life : we need to have “restless curiosity”.

Ethan talked about how participation in social media is shifting politics, and asked how we can make it possible for people to be more engaged citizens. He articulated  his definition of “civics” – how we can speak for and organise ourselves. He talked about the new skills needed in this space – learning how to represent ourselves, how to amplify messages, and what can happen when lots of similar voices come together. He gave Kickstarter as an example of the new model and said we need to figure out how to do distributed deliberations.

There have been many other reports of the conference (I recommend a quick read of one by my colleague Mark Robinson on the Open Government Partnership site) – and the conference website is still live – containing lots of material, including videos of speakers.

Thus ends a double helping of blog posts reporting on a single day – but I hope I’ve managed to give a flavour of just how inspiring and fascinating a day it was – to say nothing of giving myself a whole lot of web links to follow up and refer to as we continue to attempt to address the challenges of using digital to support development.

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