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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.

Highlights:

  • 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 FullFact.org
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.

 

Transforming the world through digital innovation, technology and openness. How could I resist a conference with this as its strapline?  Last in my set of 4 events, this promised to be a busy day, with a packed lineup of speakers.

My highlights were mostly in the morning, a range of panel debates, interviews, and lightning presentations from innovators, but the panel discussion on open data near the end was interesting too.

So here goes – hopefully my last epic post for a while:

Started off with Chris Vein, chief innovation officer at the World Bank, who I heard from earlier this year when he visited DFID.
His theme was open development, and his aim at the Bank is to embed this in everything they do, the way they work as well as outcomes. His key message was that all activities should start with the individual and their problem/situation, systems and approaches follow.

His eight principles of open development – it should always be:

  • User centred: dig deep to understand needs and work out solutions together.
  • Data driven: tech gives us the option: real time data to make real time decisions. An example was Ureport – a project in Uganda, where instances of banana disease can be reported, via SMS. 45,000 responses in 48 hours led to a to map of the spread of the disease, which led to distribution of info about how to solve the problem. Real time decision making.
  • Reusable: too many examples of programmes started afresh.
  • Scalable: everyone wants to try something, suffer from pilotitus as 1,000 flowers bloom. World is littered with dead flowers, we need to think about scalability.
  • Sustainable: consider how to sustain after the initial success.
  • Ecosystems: old adage of release data and people will come isn’t necessarily true, need to work with communities to get them
  • involved in the process.
  • Open: Example of community mapping as what happens when data is open and the community involved.
  • Security and privacy: Should always be a priority.

His final message: Technology is a potential gamechanger. Individuals are central, new voices are involved.

Next up was Maria Eitel, President of the Nike Foundation

She talked powerfully about the girl effect – how it is vital to stop poverty before it starts, and their absolute focus on adolescent girls.

Her points included that if you design for girls, you design for everyone. They are the hardest to reach, most likely to be illiterate, lacking electricity etc. so, design for them, likely to reach all. When girls get tech, they are
most likely to teach other. Good for families and communities. May not own devices or have a contract, but will figure out ways to make it work, eg
use missed calls to communicate safe arrival when they don’t have any minutes, or urine to power generators to charge phones.

Her challenge to all was to think big – and she mentioned the partnerships Girl Effect has built, including with another foundation, and with DFID. Working together enables them to achieve more. When asked if she had a message for all the billionaires out there looking for something to focus on, she said “dont build more stuff – find partners and work with what we already have”.

A brief interlude followed where Jeff Jarvis gave a live demo google glass……. Which took a while to set up and pair with mobile. And he did have to keep flicking his head back, but once set up, recording photos and video, quick google search, getting directions, all worked OK. He called it the “post page” world, as it takes info out of context. Also said in response to concerns about privacy, that in its current state, as it was impossible to be subtle, that people shouldn’t be worried “OK GLASS…. TAKE A PHOTO”

Demonstration of google glass

Jeff demonstrates google glass

Next up was Denise Turner of Hamas media, whose talk was titled:
Can tech companies survive the big data scandal?
She introduced their meaningful brands research: a big, robust global analysis which looks at relationship between people and brands. Besides things like look and cost,  also covers how/ if it makes a difference to your life, does it make you happier, make life easier etc. An intriguing point was for example a company like google which has an extremely high “makes life easier” score, but has been criticised for its tax arrangements – people still like it. Perhaps for some of the big tech companies, high scores on one side mitigate lower ones on the other?

Her conclusion was that tech companies need to explore more all round meaningfulness. They can survive data scandal if they do this. They have so much data they have power, but this means even greater responsibility.

Hans Vestberg, CEO Ericsson, talked about the impact of lowering the price of tech. He said that currently there are  roughly 2 billion subscriptions. In five years time, there will be six billion. Implications of this are huge, the advances of the last ten years can only increase. He agreed we need innovative solutions to bring improved connectivity to rural areas – the google experiment with balloons was an example of this.

He remarked that connected devices are definitely the thing of the future, will make more efficient society, business and life. Examples go way beyond fridges and washing machines. Networked society is the next phase beyond the rollout of tech and infrastructure. It will affect us in ways we cannot yet imagine – and raise issues that will have to be thought through. Those with smart phones are already transformed, note that the majority of the time you are on the phone you are not calling someone.

He was asked whether he thought the pace of innovation was slowing. Have we hit the limits? No, there will be devices of different sizes and shapes. Limitations have been imposed by chips, this will change. Different devices for different purposes. Hub of connectivity will be something we’ll probably call a smart phone, but may look different.

A panel followed chaired by Jemima Kiss, technology head at the Guardian, which talked about cities and innovation. Most talk was of the Tech City initiative in London: what was it that created the right environment for tech  business to thrive at this time? They also talked about how to support other clusters outside London,  but there was an interesting thread that British people not good enough at promoting their successes. The media doesn’t help – we need to celebrate entrepreneurship. Programmes like the apprentice really don’t help, no positive role models, this is how people think business is……(do they?!).

Also the British are quite balanced, need perhaps to be a bit unhinged to take
risks and build huge companies. Need to allow people to dream big. Perhaps a cultural message about our society? Do we need more eccentricity.

Three talks followed in the Kucha Pecha style – 20 slides each allowed 20 seconds. All were fascinating.

Clive Biehl, of the raspberry pi foundation, reminded us that computing has deep roots in the UK, and looked at next phase, when people want to create their own stuff. Raspberry pi let’s you experiment and play. Its a toolkit for thinking, which reaches across all areas of the curriculum. Means computing not seen just as geeky, lots of wider applications. Once people shown how to code, they get very creative. Aim isn’t to make an army of coders, it’s to expose people to range of ideas then let them pursue their own interests.
Meta cognition through play!

Patrick Hunt from Therefore (product design consultants) talked about a crowd funding campaign, to develop a unique off grid light, an alternative to kerosene, which works by gravity.  Started with an idea from solar aid, but
weakness in solar was the problems around battery storage. Aimed to raise funds for a trial, aimed for £55,000 and got almost £400,000. How did they engage with the crowd? They produced a short film which showed how life could be improved by this product, made content blog friendly, and reached target by day four. Buy one give one idea took off, appealed to people in west, they could be a part of changing the world.

Danae Ringelmann is the founder of indiegogo – the crowd funding platform that was used in the gravity light story above.  Basic premise is that the internet has opened up person to person activities.  People want to fund things, people need finance. Problems arise when there are gatekeepers in the finance system. Indiegogo is largest gatekeeper free crowd funding system. No judgement, no barriers to applications. Power is in the hands of the people to decide which projects get funding. Had to create a data security team, to stop attempts to try and break it or use it in appropriately. Have to allow failure, it’s ok to have an idea that actually people don’t want. Makes better ideas come to life. ” unleashing more happiness in the world”.

Does sometimes lead to more traditional finance deals – initial funding from a crowd funding platform means VCs can see that something is valued and people want it, so gives them confidence to  fund it  next.

The previous day, the Guardian cafe had held a dragons den style event where small projects were pitched to a panel. The two winners presented next – both intriguing ideas, I definitely hope peerby.com takes off (although I think it needs a better name!)

Daan from Amsterdam introduced peerby. Lots of things that we buy, we only need once, or once in a while. How about you could just borrow the things you needed?
People value connecting with peers, and prefer to use rather than own.
Look at the rise of sites like airBnB, car and bike sharing.
Peerby.com enables you to borrow from people in your neighbourhood.
Revenue model? Borrowing is free, but borrower is offered an insurance in case things get damaged.
Launch by pinpointing key early adopters. They need one hundred to start, then viral referrals. In Amsterdam, where there are 10,000 members, 60% of requests are fulfilled within 30 minutes. Saves money, saves carbon, less waste. The team has moved to London and joined techstars.

Second winner was Libby Powell who talked about radar. Their aim is train and support reporters from some of the most isolated and excluded communities in the world to share news and influence policy. Their small team of journalists, trains, mentors and supports citizen reporters, especially rural poor, women and girls who are consistently excluded from debate. They use mobiles to send messages, which are then edited and  shared. Train people on reporting, they send mobile reports to central digital hub in London, where content is verified and edited for publication. It is also pitched to mainstream media outlets.

Their case studies show that voices from the margins CAN contribute to policy.

A panel discussion followed which talked about funding models – 10/10 to the Guardian for  bringing together a balanced panel with 2 women and 2 male reps of venture capital organisations – to talk about a field where I’m sure the gender ratios are not so balanced. Also, 10/10 to the women for looking really smart and professional, and talking smartly. I’m afraid I wasn’t impressed by the men. Top of their fields they may be, but scruffy and slouching, I found I didn’t take them as seriously.

The last slot before lunch was a wonderful talk with Vint Cerf.

Vint Cerf

Vint Cerf, interviewed by Jeff Jervis

Often introduced as one of the fathers of the internet, he has a wonderfully rich voice and shared many fascinating insights.

First question was topical, around  recent privacy related issues.
A: Are a lot of dangers around the net that need to be worked through. Once something is out there, it can  get into the hands of people whose views don’t necessarily match your own. Must work constantly to protect the network, build in defences, but there are also things that individuals can do to protect themselves eg good passwords. Two factor authentication while annoying is a good thing. Basically there is no such thing as bug free code.
Q: What do we lose if we react too far to recent issues? Could too much encryption mean we can’t do the things we want anymore?
A: Work to authenticate users, work to make sure users don’t interfere with each other, more encryption not the answer. Not good for business or consumer. Careful architecture, that says once you are in, you are safe.
Q: Sitting here in the Guardian, which is trying to bring itself up to date. What did he think about traditional news media?

A: Still thinking about a product, thinking in nouns. Vint and his world thinks in verbs, in actions. Online is completely different model to print, so how do they rebuild the model? What if the info you got from the news also led you to a place where you could take action? Might not work for every item, but as a product turns into a service, it could start to, especially with the Internet of things. Following that, if you re-imagine media, how to re-imagine government? People want it to be as simple as possible, take out friction, interaction should be whenever individuals want it.
Q: Where does VC see the Internet going?
A: Concern about keeping it safe. He’s an engineer, so that’s a problem to be solved. Wireless, higher speeds, better access, all coming.
Next big thing? What Doug Engelbart thought: computers could augment human intellect. Eg google glass project, a computer almost becomes your partner, facilitator and enabler in comms. He envisages a day when you have a conversation with a computer instead of typing commands.
Q: about how web content is changing the way knowledge is structured, eg books in different print sizes can have different numbers of pages, so how do you reference a page number. Possibly need a new structure, a DNS for knowledge?
Q: about libraries, is google one of their biggest challenges?
A: VC firm about ensuring the notion of libraries continues, role will evolve to becoming curators of knowledge. Need to save bits and their context, avoid bit rot. Augmented computing capabilities will augment librarians, but can only do that if we retain the notion of a place where knowledge is curated. Need the infrastructure to be sustained.
Q: At what stage in the development of web was notion of ‘state’ added? As this has am impact on privacy. Is the answer technical or institutional?
A: Has to be the latter. The ability to infer information from partial info is very powerful. So managing has to be mix of legal and social frameworks. People are quick to rush ahead and adopt new tech, don’t think about the implications. What about people who are accidentally in an image that is shared ( ref google street view issues). New tech can have unpredictable outcomes. Haven’t yet figured out the conventions to protect people. Will probably have to keep on learning by mistakes.
Q: Does google glass negate or trump any concerns around NSA?
A: Don’t blame tools, it’s about how you use them. Google glass has been released in prototype simply to see how people use them, and are starting to see some amazing applications.
Q: about copyright.
A: What happens to concept of control in a digital environment? Pretty much gone. Creative Commons idea is important, opens up range of choice. People need to pause and think about new models now there are new options made available by tech.

A panel on young tech talent came next. Interesting comments from a 13 year old who now runs a company. His parents thought he was playing games, not building them. His advice to teachers was to let students find their own way – set them challenges, but dont be too prescriptive about how they address them. The panel shared a range of views about the value of university, mentors, and incubators.

Helen Clark was the next interviewee – the former Prime Minister of New Zealand who is now head of UNDP.

Helen Clark

Helen Clark

She spoke about the process to come up with the successors to the Millennium Development Goals, and in the context of how tech can support engagement, made the perceptive comment that governments now have no excuse for not knowing what their citizens are thinking. Recognised however that government needs new structures to be able to listen effectively.

When asked what  she would like to see tech companies do, she replied that
Tech is huge supporter and enabler of development. It has many roles to play, not least enabling the conversations.

She shared practical plans to deal with the revolution in development f#data that the transparency agenda is bringing.  Data is made available. Yes, UNDP has teams analysing it, but they also put data out there, and if others come up with different analyses, that’s good.

She was asked about her distinction between citizens and consumers. She prefers to talk about citizens, as it implies involvement, rather than ‘I don’t like that brand, I’ll try another’. Need to overcome ennui. Tools we have now should mean two way communication between those in power is the norm.

Matt Simons talked about  Thoughtworks – a consultancy that uses tech and disruptive thinking to help organisations achieve big changes. They are doing an increasing amount in the development sector.

Three more lightning talks followed, of which the most fascinating served to remind us that tech does not always mean web.

James Sharp, a systems biologist at the Centre for Genomic Regulation
talked about a project called swarm organ.
It was complicated, but basically talked about how a combination of computer science and biology is going to change the way we build things. Currently, a thinker and doer are external to the actual object. Inventions are fragile, they break. The best analogy was  Lego.  Take a leap of imagination, and imagine Lego bricks which didn’t need a builder, they could choose themselves which place to crawl back to and thus a broken model could heal itself.
Mini robots do exist, so the doing should be possible. The thinking bit is the programming, each robot would have to be programmed to tell each brick where to go, but problem is that it can’t see the whole picture, can only see neighbours. This is where biology steps in. Each cell in your body knows how to develop in relation to other cells. Look at how some creatures can regrow a limb if they lose it. Cells are like little robots.
If you could create this swarm, what would you build? The limits are only your imagination.
Once the gap between thinkers and doers is removed, objects will build themselves and be less fragile.

The final three sessions were a panel discussion on open data – which I think I’ll cover in a separate post (give me the opportunity to bring in other examples I’ve heard recently) – then a slightly overlong interview with Ev Williams – who has a fascinating CV as he was co founder of blogger and Twitter, and is now behind the long format writing platform of Medium. Not sure they really addressed the title of the session, which was billed as being about the future of long form journalism.

Last was Nick Bostrom from Oxford University who shared his early thoughts about surveillance and privacy issues. He made one intriguing point that even just putting a poster of a pair of eyes in a workplace would cause people to change their behaviour – just the idea of being watched is enough to deter some?

As I said at the start – a bit of  an epic post – but lost to think about, lots of nuggets of information and ideas that will take a while to digest.

 

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 tinymanblog.com 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: http://data.gov.uk/  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!

The fifth annual get together, and the theme this year was officially ‘Hands-on technology: rise of the makers, the dynamic and the disruptive thinkers in Africa’. For me the two stand out themes were around women – both in technology and in business, and entrepreneurs – some success stories, and some common themes as to what was needed beyond funding.

Hosted by the BBC in the new Broadcasting House, the first afternoon was packed out, and the format was a series of panel discussion, where inspiring speakers were introduced and said a few words, then there was lively debate stimulated by questions from the floor.

First panel was probably the liveliest. Its title was: Meeting the challenge – women in entrepreneurship and technology. “Reaching for the Stars”.

Panel of inspirational women

Panel of inspirational women

From left in the photo above: Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock (space scientist), Hannah Pool (journalist), Saul Parker (Nike Foundation/Girl Hub), Rebecca Enonchong (CEO of AppsTech), Jamilla Abassi (CEO of MFarm Ltd) and Vera Kwakofi (editor, BBC Africa).

The line up was amazing, I’d love to have heard each of them talk longer, and could write a whole blog post on the examples they gave and anecdotes shared, but key themes were:

  • inspire women to have dreams and aspirations, and set up the infrastructure so they can achieve those dreams
  • women tend to be invisible. Need to raise profiles and choose people in spaces where African women perhaps are not expected to be
  • women not seen as a business opportunity (see the tweet below which raised applause!)
tweet: give microfinance to the men

Give Microfinance to the men… Tweet from Ruskin 147

And, if you have time, I recommend following the link to Hannah’s TEDx talk.

Next panel discussed: financing innovators, investment in Africa. Members were: Rolake Akinkugbe (Ecobank group), Loren Treisman (Indigo Trust), Tony Burkson (tech analyst), Peter Garrard (Avanti), William Hoyle (Techfortrade) and William Senyo (CEO Slicebiz, Apps4Africa 2012 winner).

Again, enough ideas for a whole post, but key ideas, which came up repeatedly:

  • entrepreneurs have to make themselves ‘investment ready’
  • cash is not the only resource needed – people need information, mentoring, support
  • Barbara James (Founder and CEO of the first independent pan-African private equity fund) appeared by video and said: ” Billions of dollars are available, and millions of people who need that investment for their business. Bridging the gap is the challenge”.
  • Intriguing debate around a comment from @africanpundit, that it was easier for a white man to get funding for a startup in Africa. Lots of cultural and social issues discussed about how people from different cultures market themselves
  • Successes need to be shouted about – that is what will change attitudes

During a short break, we saw a promotional video for the BRCK – excellent example of something invented and being developed in Africa, to solve a particular African problem of internet access.

Third panel centred around disruptive thinking – and talked about the [missing] link between policy makers, grassroots and advocates of change.

Another fascinating group which included: Caroline Kende-Robb (Africa Progress Panel), Yemi Adamolekun (Enough is Enough, Nigeria), Jamie Drummond (ONE), Eliza Anyangwe (Guardian development professionals network), and Rebecca Enongchong (CEO Appstech).

The question asked was whether there is a disconnect between those who are working at grassroots level, and those who have the ear of decision makers.

Key quotes/points made:

  • Development narrative has changed substantially in last few years
  • Policy making process is not simple – its a complex, often muddled process
  • Interesting how problems seen previously as developing countries, are now seen as global – discussions about issues such as extractive industries, land rights, shell companies and tax are now discussed at the highest levels (theme of last weeks G8 conference)
  • What is going to make change happen is information. People need to understand their rights and responsibilities, they need to understand for example how corruption in their local communities is tied to corruption at national level
  • A challenge, when public sector talks to private sector, they mean coca cola, and big business, not local entrepreneurs. They should talk to them too!
  • Social media can break down barriers and can help make change happen
  • Important not to surround yourself with people who agree with you. It may be uncomfortable, but important to find out what real picture is. Need constant mechanism for feedback.
  • Empathy shouldn’t be the sole basis for action

Partway through the discussion, we were introduced to TMS Ruge, on the big screen via skype. He talked about how social media offers the opportunity to reach millions of Africans. Organisations can listen, distill data, and can find out what issues the grassroots are concerned about. He talked about the diaspora perspective. People shouldn’t just lament inability to attract funds, should be looking to each other. He took issue with Marieme’s comment that young Africans are lazy. Some are, but many are hustlers, doing whatever it takes. Need to build mechanisms to make it easier for people to meet their needs.

Just before we finished, we were introduced to Tonisha Tagoe.  She has worked in tv for 12 years, and is now focusing on creating content to document African situations. She has an extremely popular YouTube channel, one of her films has over 10 million views. She confirms there is a big audience out there: when she publishes stuff, she gets reaction, people listen. Young people especially are interested.

Day two was less crowded, and dare I say it, slightly more chaotic? We were welcomed by some wonderful African musicians.

Photo of 2 African musicians

Baba Adesose Wallace & Mosi Conde, playing djembe (drum) and kora (predecessor of the harp)

And while I could have listened all morning, we heard from yet more inspirational speakers. First up was Mac Jordan – introduced as blogger, social media and ict4d consultant.  He writes more about his work on his blog: www.macjordangh.com It was good to hear him talk about Ghana Decides, a project to monitor and report on elections in Ghana (and part funded by DFID), but even more interesting to hear about the evolution of the tech scene and blogging community in Ghana. From the days when iHub in Nairobi was the only example people quoted, Mac described the 5 networks in Ghana and the many new businesses that are emerging form them. He also showed a great infrographic credited (I think) to Whiteafrican.com I haven’t been able to track it down – so if anyone has a link, please share in the comments!

Second speaker was Jamilia Abass from Kenya. She’s a software engineer who is one of the co-creators of MFarm (also http://mfarms.org/) – simple idea on the surface, but only happened when Jamilia met two other women with a similar approach and attitude to her – who were able to take a step back and use their collective knowledge to see a solution to one of the problems caused by the rural/urban gap. She is also involved with Akirachix, an IT forum for girls in Eastern Africa – it would be great to hook up the members of that network and the people who attended the teacamp women in tech meeting, bet we’d have lots of things in common!

Mariamme Jamme speaking with Jamilia Abass

Marieme Jamme speaking with Jamilia Abass

Third speaker was Vera Kwakofi, current affairs editor from BBC Africa, who spoke briefly about the wide range of services they offer, which include monthly debates held in different cities, a daily programme called Focus on Africa, and two series: Africa dreams which is about entrepreneurs, and Africa beats which features young musicians.

There were lots more speakers lined up, and while I would have loved to have heard from Edward Tagoe, the founder of nandimobile, and joined in sessions on following up the MDGs, or hearing more thoughts from digital women and entrepreneurs, my head was already swimming with all the ideas heard and conversations had, so I sloped off early.

Many thanks to Marieme and her team for organising yet another Africa Gathering – long may they continue!

Great to have the opportunity to hear this lunchtime from Chris Vein. He is the new Chief Innovation Officer for Global Information and Communications Technology Development at the World Bank.

He leads the implementation of the World Bank’s Technology strategy, particularly helping developing countries build their communications and open government infrastructures, and is in the perfect position to come and talk innovation, in particular his plans around rolling out the World Bank’s technology strategy and their work on open government and open data.

If I’d had the tech in my hands, I’d probably have live tweeted lots of what he said – it was a real reminder of the inspiring examples that were shared at the Open Up! conference last year and the sort of stories I wish many more of my DFID colleagues could have heard.

His three main points were:

1. Technology is an amazing asset when made directly available to people.

2. The digital divide as an issue is growing. Its changing the relationships between government and citizens. There are many different ways that  an increase in the use of technology can have an impact – both positive and negative. One challenge that must be faced is the expectations that can be raised by activities on social media – people expect that real changes can happen and their voice matters, then can feel even more frustrated and let down when change isn’t immediate.

3. In general, we are too timid in our willingness to try new things.

This last point was the one that struck home most firmly. He shared loads of examples – talked about the internet of things, approaching 50 billion connections, mobile is everywhere, social is everything, and the role of big data.

He talked the language that needs to become commonplace – of minimum viable products, of pilots and iteration. He emphasised the absolute need to focus on the effects of interventions on the individual.

Questions from colleagues followed – and answers included new approaches to solving problems, the Presidential Innovation Fellows, how it was important for leaders to protect the overall vision and let innovators do their work, and how important it is to assemble and involve people who are not locked into the ways things have always been done.

One answer that really struck a chord with me was the importance of sharing stories of what works – and using prototypes to show what is possible.

I’m also intrigued to follow up his comments about the extension of Code for America and the idea of civic commons.

An inspiring lunchbreak.

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, AuntBertha.com, 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 legislation.gov 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.

Later than usual, I’ve revisited the notes I made when I attended the Open Up! conference and captured them in a blog post.

The reason I was late pulling my thoughts together and deciphering my notes, was that I’ve been working with colleagues to draft DFID’s first digital strategy.
This was mandated in the overarching Government digital strategy, published by the Cabinet Office last month, and our own strategy was mentioned in the speech given by Secretary of State Justine Greening at the Open Up! event.

So, all the digital stars seem to be aligning for DFID at the moment, and the challenge now is to build on the momentum and enthusiasm I sense among many colleagues across the department. I look forward to working through plans to help people to make the most of opportunities the whole range of digital and internet/mobile technologies offer for us to communicate better about our work, engage with existing and new audiences, explore new ways of getting feedback, and also, most excitingly, to investigate ways in which digital solutions can support delivery of actual programmes in developing countries.

While preparing the strategy, we looked for case studies to illustrate the ideas and points we were making, and it was fascinating to find out about what is already going on. Lots of pockets of expertise and experience – the challenge now is to make this more systematic and more the norm across the whole organisation. For us, digital success will be achieved when digital solutions
mean we can help even more people to lift themselves out of poverty.

Which brings me back to the Open Up! conference. As part of the introductions, we saw a short film from the Prime Minister, in which he talked about how technology and digital solutions can support what he calls the golden thread of development: supporting property rights, the rule of law and strong democracies, while giving people a voice so they can take control of their own future.

The first speaker was Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, and while her examples were all about North America, the concepts behind what her organisation does are extremely relevant: transparency, efficiency and participation. CfA takes volunteers who take a year off their (often extremely well paid) work and are assigned to work with government on projects.

The main ideas behind projects are that the outcomes should be “simple, beautiful and easy to use” – which sounds very familiar to anyone aware of the work of the Government Digital Service. She cited two end results of the process – both perhaps surprising. You might expect that when you put government data out there, people will complain and be angry, but often the opposite happens, and two sides can be brought together. Also, what made an even bigger impact, was the people inside government, who found working with the CfA fellows ended up energised and enthused.

Next speaker was Rakesh Rajani, head of Twaweza (which means “we can make it happen” in swahili).  He talked about what can happen when you sprinkle the “magic dust of mobile phones” on a project – not only the good that happens when it works, but also some of the examples when it doesn’t. He described the value people place on connections – they may give up food to be able to make a call and the desire for connectivity drives all sorts of ingenuity. He has seen old tube lights being used to make antennae. He was honest enough to say that if you are looking for examples of projects which have delivered on a grand scale, there are not too many out there yet, but there are some noteworthy successes.

He also talked about failure – in particular the Daraja project Maji Matone (which was also showcased in the lunchtime show and tell sessions.)  This was an idea which centred around citizens holding their government to account using their mobile phones. The idea was that at any one time, almost half the waterpoints in rural Tanzania are not working, so people were encouraged to report broken pumps via SMS. Simple idea, but at the end of the first phase, only 53 SMS had been received (their target was 3,000). They stopped the project immediately, and did thorough evaluation, which brought up a number of reasons, including the cultural one that people didn’t really expect that reporting the problem would have any effect, and the issue that the majority of mobiles are owned by men, and water collection is a women’s issue.

A panel discussion followed, where Juliana Rotich (ushahidi) and Anne Jellema (World Wide Web foundation)  were joined by Dr Nii Quaynor from Ghana.

Juliana talked about how technology is changing the way information flows. In particular the example of ushahidi which has evolved from something that took 3 days to set up, and now takes 3 hours, meaning it can be extremely effective in supporting an immediate response to disasters. She warned of the dangers of technophilia – it is not a magic bullet, but it is a vital part of the solution. Finally she referenced the power of crowds – using technology not just in crisis situations, but to respond to all sorts of issues they care about.

Anne is the CEO of the World Wide Web foundation. She too talked about how people have to be part of the solution in order for things to change. She highlighted situations for example where people are scared they will be punished if they complain about faults of problems with services, and referenced some Africa polling results which stated 85-90% of people had never contacted a member of parliament or official to report something (although they had dealt with local community or faith leaders.)

Nii gave us a fascinating overview of progress in Ghana, in particular around transparency. He too talked about the importance of building communities – in this case around particular datasets – and this would help keep up the pressure for more to be released.

Many questions followed, including some which came via twitter. Panelists were asked about role models (My Society and ushahidi mentioned, plus a range of country specific examples were shared). What about projects involving young people? Besides Shujaaz, people mentioned Makutano Junction and the Map Kibera project (about which more later). When asked about incentives for openness, the answer was clear – this is not one for donors, but people and organisations, in particular civil society, who need to put on the pressure, publicise evidence and celebrate success. Questions about ethical issues got the response that solutions have to be flexible – protect those who report problems but also protect those who might be wrongly accused. The importance of mixed solutions was also clear – think through which technology is appropriate for the people you are trying to reach – voice may be better than SMS in areas of low literacy and traditional forms of knowledge shouldn’t be forgotten in favour of formal (eg given was of land registration – where one country allows for oral history records to be included). Open source and open standards were applauded, and the question of balancing experimentation with the need for immediate results stimulated broad discussion.

An extremely stimulating session, which has turned this post into a bit of an epic – so I’ll close part one and continue in part two.

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