Scotland the Brave

It’s a brave thing that Scotland is about to do.

Are you for or against Scottish independence? I’ve been hauding ma wheesht for a long time on the matter. Thinking it through. But with a week to go until the big decider, I wanted to take part.

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Wear it with pride @rossferg :-)

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I don’t get a vote in the #indyref because I live outside of Scotland. A fact that is very hard for a tartan-totting, loch-loving, bru-swilling born-n-bred Scotsman like me to bear. Instead I need to find other means of participation. People who know me know that I believe it’s incredibly important for citizens to engage in democratic processes like the opportunity presented to the people of Scotland on September 18th 2014.

On the night of the first televised debate I was in Scotland, back in my home town. Instead of sitting in the house glued to the Salmond and Darling Show, I was out the back of my pal’s house playing cricket. Cricket?! I never play cricket but here I am in Scotland, in the town where William Wallace killed his first Englishman, with two other fiercely-proud Scots, one of whom is a big ginger sporting a tattoo of the Lion Rampant on his leg, and we’re dabbling in a spot of leather on willow. My point being that these Scottish lads are fundamentally the same in outlook, values and spirit as my mates 500 miles to the south in Billericay.

For me, the differences aren’t so apparent between Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland as to justify a yes vote. No one is oppressing us. We are a recognised nation. People beyond our shores already recognise and love Scottish. People get that we are different to the rest of the UK nations, yet we can still have all the benefits of association when we want it. Devolution has barely gotten started. We can have the best of all worlds, why limit ourselves on the basis of a plan that amounts to little more than a longwinded party manifesto. That’s my view. I’d be a no.

Whatever the result on the 18th, the Scottish people are going to have to go bravely into the future as one. What’s clear is that we have to reconcile ourselves quickly with the result and take full advantage of this renewed focus on being a nation again, a forward-thinking nation of people who are good to one another and good with other people beyond our already well-kent border – whether we’re an independent state or not.

I’d think it was the wrong decision to go independent, but if that’s the choice I’ll get fully behind it and help to make it work. Hell, I’ve seen enough of British politics to know it needs a big constitutional change to reinvigorate it. Independence isn’t what I had in mind but I’ll run with it, if my people make it clear that they want it.

But it has to be a clear result. The worst that could happen is that the people don’t turn out. The Scots have shown ourselves not to be the hottest at voting in recent opportunities, especially Scottish parliamentary elections. When I was up the road recently too many people said they might not bother voting. As a proud and passionate Scotsman that was hard to hear and I implored them tae think again. That’s why the news today that a historic 97% of the adult population registered to vote in the referendum is so amazing.

And that’s my say. Not to push an aye or a naw. But to push for Scotland the Brave. For Scotland to turnout in droves and make themselves heard whatever the decision. The legacy of this event depends on it.

Make sure you get involved. Good luck with it all folks.

The pleasing difficulty of judging a hack day

Bath:Hacked is asking the brightest and most creative people in our city to spend two days thinking, playing and hacking an untapped seam of BANES data.

It was with huge excitement that I headed along to Coworking Bath on Sunday morning for the judging of the first Bath Hacked event.

I arrived around 11AM, by which time the teams had been working for over 24 hours on their hacks. I spent 5 minutes or so with each of the teams in turn, looking at where they’d got to and getting a feel for where they were heading in the rest of the time they had.

There were no set judging criteria as such but I constructed a set of questions that I asked of each team I met to get a feel for:

  • The clarity of user need(s) being addressed
  • The importance being placed on the quality of user experience created
  • The application of locally-sourced data, especially that recently released by B&NES for the event
  • Tactics employed to clean, munge and splice data to make the data meaningful.

Around 3PM, the teams gathered together and presented to one another, the judges and a big group of curious onlookers for 4 minutes. Then it was over to me, Doug Laughlen and Valerie West to try to decide which team should win in each of 4 categories:

  • Grand Prize (£1k) – awarded to the best overall project, judged most imaginative, well conceived and likely to benefit the community, local business and/or the environment
  • Community Impact (£250) – awarded to the project most likely to resonate with the wider community
  • Best use of data (£250) – we’re looking for useful, clever or just plain surprising ways to use local data
  • Best completed project (£250) – shipping certainly isn’t mandatory, but there’s glory for those who manage it!

Continue reading “The pleasing difficulty of judging a hack day”

Recommended reading… the quantified self, BBC’s multi-lingual websites and British attitudes towards UK’s international priorities

'On the platform, reading' by moriza
'On the platform, reading' by moriza

People still read, right?

‘The Measured Life’ by Emily Singer in Technology Review

Whether it is to get fitter, better or just to have a go at hacking the human condition, people are beginning to turn ‘big data’ technologies on their sleep, diets and productivity. Athletes and sufferers of certain medical conditions have been at it for years, but evidently the ‘quantified self’ is going mainstream and it’s bound to be big business.

‘BBC World Service Language Websites: user experience and typography’ by Kutlu Canlioglu on BBC Internet Blog

The FCO publishes in 50+ languages on our platform and in 20+ languages on the social web. We know a thing or two about multi-lingual publishing. But there is still an awful lot we can learn from the way the BBC Worldservice approaches publishing its non-English websites. What I find impressive is the way the Worldservice provides custom editorial in so many languages yet maintains consistency in user journeys and page layouts. This blog post is about how they do it.

‘British Attitudes Towards the UK’s International Priorities’ by Robin Niblett for Chatham House and YouGov

This is the second survey of British attitudes towards the UK’s international priorities that Chatham House has developed with YouGov. The survey examined the attitudes of two groups – the first a representative sample of GB adults, and the second a group of ‘opinion-formers’. The differences between the two are fascinating but what is truly revealing are the discontinuities in the public’s thinking about foreign policy. The ultimate conclusion, for me, is that there is a lot of communication and engagement that needs to get a lot better.

Recommended reading… Google is a normal company, the most menancing malware in history and putting strategies to the test

'The Best Way to Read a Book' by pixelevangelist
'The Best Way to Read a Book' by pixelevangelist

A few good long reads that I think are well worth the time…

‘Don’t Be Evil’ by Evgeny Morozov in The New Republic

Evgeny Morozov uses a book review of two new studies of Google as a company to do an iconoclast job on the Silicon Valley behamoth. It’s cutting stuff. He calls Google ‘a for-profit American company that combines the simplistic worldview of George W. Bush with the cold rationality of Barack Obama’. Perhaps, the most painful accusation that Morozov makes is that Google is an not exceptional corporation and its inability to accept this is dangerous not just the company but for us all.

Morozov says ‘writing about Google presents an almost insurmountable challenge. To understand the company and its impact, one needs to have a handle on computer science, many branches of philosophy (from epistemology to ethics), information science, cyberlaw, media studies, sociology of knowledge, public policy, economics, and even complexity theory’; but in this article he gives it a good stab. May I suggest, as an apertif, Steven Levy’s Inside Google+ — How the Search Giant Plans to Go Social.

‘How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History’ by Kim Zetter in Wired

A proper whodunit? for the cyber age. Expertly written by Agatha Christie of the cybersecurity genre (just made that up). I shall say no more.

Have you tested your strategy lately? by Chris Bradley, Martin Hirt, and Sven Smit in McKinsey Quarterly

The Office invited Charles Roxburgh in – over our lunch break – to tell us how McKinsey & Company approach strategy. There were lots of good insights from a man who really knows his business strategy (and the American Civil War) and amongst these one of the most useful, I thought, was the 10-point test McKinsey applies to the strategies of its clients to determine whether they are good or bad examples. Lots of useful further reading pegged off the article itself.

Eden at 10 – What a disused clay mine taught us about good leadership of people and projects

'Eden Project is 10' logo
'Eden Project is 10' logo

When you think of the Eden Project you think of plants. So the book about ‘Eden‘ by it’s founder, Tim Smit, is going to be about plants.

In fact, there are hardly any plants in ‘Eden’. There’s no room for them because on every page there are portraits and portrayals of the people who worked to bring us the Eden Project. There really are loads of them and their story is fascinating.

Harnessing people to a dream

We think of the Eden Project as being built of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene but it is in fact made from people. The people in ‘Eden’ swarm like a bivouac of worker ants, linking up to nurture and protect something truly unique and valuable, and at the centre of it all – holding the concept – is Tim Smit.

The Eden Project is about plants but the reason is people. It was launched to be an educational and social enterprise that would demand public attention on a superb scale. But such ambition does not deliver itself easily. ‘Eden’ captures and emphasises the depth of enterprise, teamwork and leadership that went into the realisation of an attraction that over 10 million people have travelled to experience, and which to all intents and purposes had its genesis in a Cornish pub.

Tim Smit uses the opportunity of ‘Eden’ to reel off his thanks to as many of the characters as he can who mucked in along the way. He gives each the stage and tells us about what they did, how they did it in their own unique way and how none of the Eden Project would have been possible without them. But the book is not just an extended acknowledgements page; it is a great story with as many vivid twists and turns and suspenses and feel-good endings as any classic of fiction.

Continue reading “Eden at 10 – What a disused clay mine taught us about good leadership of people and projects”

Recommended reading… what China will do next, the failure of humanitarian intervention and a vision for online consultation

Here’s what’s been keeping me enthralled on the commute this week…

1. With China projected to overtake the United States in terms of economic output within the next ten years, many commentators are again speaking of a new ‘Asian century’ and the ‘decline of the West’. At Chatham House recently, Niall Ferguson drew on the last 600 years of world history to offer an insight into the changing global balance in terms not only of economics but also of geopolitics and ‘soft power’. Transcripts, video and audio are on http://chathamhouse.org.uk/events/view/-/id/1945/.

2. Adam Curtis consistently causes me think again about what I think I know. His new documentary series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is classic Curtis fare: sinsiter music + archive footage + dogma + elites perpetrating that dogma + scathing critique = licence fee well spent. But I am an even bigger fan of his blog, and this article on the ‘idea of humanitarian intervention‘ I found provocative against the backdrop of Mladic’s arrest, extradition and trial.

3. Consultation is a ‘set piece’ of government. Doing it better online is a coalition commitment. But how? As well as tackling search, usability and agile development on a centralised government website, an Alphagov sub-team also turned their attentions to consultation and policy engagement. What they came up with was a succint and persuasive proposal that deserves attention and further development, particularly what it has to say about ‘layering’. There’s an introduction from Neil Williams and a copy of the deck on the Alphagov project bloghttp://blog.alpha.gov.uk/blog/a-vision-for-online-consultation-and-policy-engagement.

Crossover appeal… why we need to link GDS, GCC and ICT

'autocomplete3' by Paul Annett
'autocomplete3' by Paul Annett

March 2011 saw a bonanza for those of us with an interest in government information and communication technology marked as it was by the unveiling of the Government Digital Service, the publication of the ‘Review of COI and Government Communications‘ and the release of the new Government ICT strategy.

First came the Government Digital Service (GDS) which gave ‘Codename Martha‘ formal status, an official title, a boss, a timeline, and put money where before there were only words. Government will have its single domain and from this point onwards will be looking to deliver of all its services and communications through a digital lens. To prove as much, a crack (or SWAT for MLF Review afficiandos) team was introduced headed up by Tom Loosemore and a man close to my appraisal, Jimmy Leach, who are soon to unveil a proof-of-concept for the single domain, going by the nom de guerre, AlphaGov.

Next up was the ‘Review of Government Direct Communication and COI‘. This set of recommendations, pulled together in which the Matt Tee, the outgoing Permanent Secretary Government Communication, called for the exiting of the COI and the creation of the Government Communication Centre (GCC) in its place. The GCC’s task will be to spend significantly less people and money delivering fewer but better marketing communications by amplifying cross-government themes over departmental campaigns. Propositions are to be sharper, ROI will be taken much more seriously and digital will underpin it all.

And last but not least we got sight of the Government ICT Strategy. And a very enlightened and on-trend ICT strategy it is too. In it are contained committments to open source, interoperability, green credentials, cloud, web, use of Agile and even democratic power shift (which is a boon for the likes of an old worthy like me). Another departure from the norm is that this document is mercifully brief, very clear on the actions required and very exact on when they should be done by.

Each release demanded attention in its own right. But the commonalities also ring out.

  • Money… set against the backdrop of the deficit, each sets out to save billions of pounds. £1.3 billion for GDS. £54 million for GCC. And an unspecified figure for Government ICT but a stated ‘presumption against projects having a lifetime value of more than £100 million‘.
  • People… There will be fewer people and the staff remaining will work to new skill sets and efficiency and effectiveness goals.
  • Digital… is an standout common theme but not one that is inevitable. Yes, you would expect the GDS to have lots of digital, but for the future of government marketing communications to be so acutely spearheaded by digital and then for the ICT strategy to talk in such ‘webby’ terms is a real watershed.
  • Centralisation… At a time when even the US Military is restructuring itself as a network, each of these HMG developments seek to put more strategic and delivery capacity in the centre. That’s intriguing, and like the point on digital above, is a real step-change.

Each release appeared independently and has been picked up by different practitioner communities. Colleagues in digital may have read one release and not the others, and the same goes for communications and IT colleagues. But they must be conversant in all three.

The trick is to understand them not as three separate entities but as a trinity. None can achieve its ambitions in isolation of others.

Regardless of the new budgets, new team sizes or new technology, it is this blurring of lines between three previously separate disciplines that is the point and the most exciting challenge of the next 4 – 5 years.

Recommended Reading… multi-lingual accessibility, cyber-scepticism and cybersecurity

1. Nomensa has suggested 7 tips and techniques for multi-lingual website accessibility on its Humanising Technology blog. Good practical advice and an excellent introductory note for anyone thinking about creating or managing a multi-lingual site.  (via @neilfranklin)

2. Paul Harris writing in the Guardian accounts for the new wave of cyber-scepticism rushing through American academia, this time focussed on social networking. A well-weighted article on an increasingly mainstream debate about the sociological influences of increasingly mainstream communication tools.

3. Foreign Secretary, William Hague, gave a speech to the Munich Security Conference which set out Britain’s call for international norms in cybersecurity.  For an international perspective on the risks, OECD‘s Reducing Systemic Cybersecurity Risks report explores the potential of cyber-related events to have the capacity to cause a global shock.

Evolution is alright by me – it’s what got us here

It’s not just in North Africa that there’s talk of revolution. I understand that over the next three months we should begin to see the Martha Lane Fox review of government digital move from the PDF to the browser.

The review proposed its recommendations were ‘revolution not evolution‘. But in practice expect the proposals to be much more of a progression than a drastic, fundamental restart. That is not to try to kill the buzz; the proposals are exciting, their acceptance at the highest levels is inspiring and there are very smart people running the development. Instead it is to argue that this development has a long lineage.

To demonstrate what I mean let’s compare the recommendations with one contemporary government site – a site I know well – www.fco.gov.uk.

[I paraphrase…]

1. Establish one standardised front-end… in 2008 the FCO launched the current fco.gov.uk, which brought 250+ sites and public services on to one platform and one domain. A central team (based in London and 4 regional hubs) was mandated to set standards and manage their development.

2. Become a wholesaler as well as a retailer… although it didn’t launch this way, nowadays the FCO makes its travel advice, news, speeches and other forms of content available as feeds and promotes their reuse.

3. Devolve editorial… FCO directorates and teams who had their sites rationalised still produce and upload content directly as and when they wish.  Around 400 staff have the ability to work the CMS while following centrally set objectives, policies and editorial plans.

4. Appoint a CEO for digital… FCO’s digital leadership comes from its Head of Digital, who has responsibility for editorial, engagement and technical aspects.

None of this to say that the FCO site gets it all right; the FCO has a long history of admitting its digital weaknesses and of making concerted efforts to address them, improving or rather adapting steadily to the ever changing environment. As have other departmental and public sector sites.

The intention here is to show the new ‘supersite’ (or, probably more accurately, the new digital service) will inherit features from current sites and services, and in this sense, the products set forth by the review will be ‘evolution not revolution’.

While it will resemble previous generations of government digital undoubtedly it will do the good things even better as a result of its heritage.

Where I hope (and hear) the revolution is more likely will be in the building of the thing.

Expect Agile rather than PRINCE2. More iterations rather than finished products. Prototypes and proofs of concept. User-centred principles and creative over corporate design. A preference for open source and extensibility. Decent, longterm investment.

It can’t be done any other way. Otherwise, today’s revolution will end up being tomorrow’s ancien regime.

Government data in the public domain – intrinsically good, right?

data.gov.uk homepage

Data.gov.uk explains ‘Public Data‘ as ‘the objective, factual, non-personal data on which public services run and are assessed, and on which policy decisions are based, or which is collected or generated in the course of public service delivery.’

The release of ‘public data’ will be regarded as one of the most significant government policy programmes of this century because of its economic, political and social disruption. Although it is still in its infancy, the UK’s ‘Public Data’ initiative, which was started by the Labour government, has survived the transition to the Coalition. The Coalition have consciously nurtured ‘Public Data’; if anything the Government has turned things up a notch.

Try to choke it in its sleep or hang it in full-view, in truth there would be no way that any government could get away with killing off ‘Public Data’ once it has taken root. The release of data into the public domain by governments is, after all, the latest in a long term trend toward more openness and transparency in public administration. It is one perfectly in tune with and enabled by the digital age.

But while it might intrinsically feel like one of the most significant things to happen to UK democracy, hang on. How do we know? Where’s the proof? Can we say with confidence that the release of data held by government is good? Continue reading “Government data in the public domain – intrinsically good, right?”