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”

From Whitehall to Kingsway… my big move forward and back

Been updating my bio and my creds pages this evening to reflect the fact that I have changed jobs.

It’s an overdue refresh. I actually transferred to the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service in December 2011, but I saw out the remainder of my two-year secondment to FCO which. But now I am full time at GDS and loving it.

There’s a proper, serious start-up culture here; it’s an atmosphere I’ve been craving to work in. Everyday feels like a mission to shake things up and everyone is pulling in the same direction with the aim of radically and rapidly changing the way Her Majesty’s Government thinks and does digital.  Continue reading “From Whitehall to Kingsway… my big move forward and back”

Government digital service: is the feeling mutualised?

Government’s use of digital media is undergoing radical change. As digital media use has become more mainstream  and critical – first to communications, then policy-making through engagement and more recently for transactions – so too has government steadily rationalised its digital operations. That trend is now coming to a head with the establishment of the Government Digital Service, which will provide centralised services, a single domain and web platform for all government departments and [most of] their agencies to use.

That each department and agency will no longer have its own, separate domain, CMS, hosting arrangement, support contract, analytics account and maybe central web team is genuinely radical. But could the delivery of government digital services be more radical still?

Frances Maude’s speech at Civil Service Live 2011 made me think so. In that speech he floated the idea of giving public sector staff the right to form new mutuals and bid to take over the services they deliver. Could government digital services be a candidate for mutualisation? In this post I suggest that it could.

Continue reading “Government digital service: is the feeling mutualised?”

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.

#ukgc11 – My Unconference Log

'#ukgc11 t-shirt' by lesteph
'#ukgc11 t-shirt' by lesteph

Back in the day I used to attend and speak at a lot of conferences. I was even instrumental in organising the UK’s first eDemocracy conference.

But since starting at the FCO I’ve had my head down. I don’t get out on work time as much as I used to; these days I rely far more on the likes of Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up on what’s what and who’s who. It works, but I miss the face-time with smart, creative people who are as passionate about digital as I am (my wonderful FCO colleagues excepted).

So it was I was really excited to attend UK GovCamp 2011. This was my first time along and tickets were hard to come by, so I thought to record my experiences and observations here to add to the other great commentary from the day and latterly.

Attendees

It won’t be any surprise that it was a total geek-fest, but it was the number and range of geeks that was impressive.

There were about 200 people there, which I understand was the biggest UK GovCamp to date. Amongst the 200 were local government people, central government people, commercial sector types as well as a few academics and journos. There were developers, policy officials, site managers, CIOs and IT representatives. It was this mixing of the discipline pools that was one of the most interesting aspects of the day.

Format & Venue

I’ve been to one or two unconferences and to be honest attendees sometimes struggle with the participant-led facilitation. But the Barcamp approach was perfect for the attendees and there was no shortage of people stepping up with good ideas for sessions when the grid was opened up. From there it was relaxed and playful but always focussed and meaty.

Microsoft were the hosts, putting us up in their swank Victoria offices. What a place! Loads of room, airy, good meeting rooms and quality breakout areas. Plus a Kinect set up, although I didn’t get time to play.

Sessions

What a choice! You could go to sessions on AGILE, open data, hyperlocality and an introduction to the new HMG CEO of Digital. Unkindly there were a lot of clashes, but such is the way with unconferences.

I made it to three…

Continue reading “#ukgc11 – My Unconference Log”

[Yet more] Praise for Digital @ BIS

BIS Digital website screengrab

In the spirit of openness and transparency, there is a section of some government websites that deserves more of the searchlight. It’s the digital team pages, and one in particular has come under my scrutiny lately – Digital @ BIS.

bis.gov.uk/bisdigital has just recently launched. It’s primarily for webbies in the department and in its agencies, but it also serves to inform the wider public about what BIS does digitally should that public be minded to know more.

Not many departments have such sites even though more or less all have digital teams. Those that do are practicing what they preach.

The BIS example should be considered ‘best of breed’. It knows exactly who its audiences are and in what order. It’s design balances form and function. And it provides the passing novice or the hardcore practitionner with a wealth of content that taken as a taster or as a full course represents a hearty insight into a core function within a key government department.

Continue reading “[Yet more] Praise for Digital @ BIS”

Sun Tzu for our times? Kilcullen’s teachings from counter-insurgency operations

When I describe David Kilcullen to people I describe him as a ‘mash up’. In his look, Kilcullen is a cross between Steve Irwin and an American Football coach on R&R, replete with blazer and chinos. He’s an academic but he also spent 21 years in the army. He’s Australian but he worked for the American military.

He’s not terribly well-known in the UK, but in the States he’s revered as one of the architects of ‘The Surge in Iraq. His area of expertise, as an scholar and a soldier, is counter-insurgency. He’s a very good speaker and a talented writer, receiving plaudits from citizens and military-types alike for his 2009 book, ‘The Accidental Guerilla’, which packs essential reading on CT theory alongside explosive first-hand accounts of a hugely complex and dangerous area of warfare that most of us will thankfully only gawp at.

Having read ‘Accidental Guerilla’, I turned with interest to an earlier 2007 paper, ‘Twenty-Eight articles’ a practical guide for officers engaged in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. One sentence early on stayed with me: ‘what does all the theory mean, at the company level?’ This tickled an idea in my head.

Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, written in the 6th century BC, has been applied ad nauseam to the business world. Maybe in Kilcullen we’ve got a latter day strategist who’s lessons from modern wars can better guide us in the current day. What if we swap out the army’s ‘company’ for civvy-street’s ‘organisation’? And consider ‘out-moded ways of thinking’ and ‘conventional wisdom’ our ‘enemy’ and ‘insurgent’?

As I reread ‘Twenty-Eight Articles’ through this lens, I started to think ‘yes, there is something to this’; especially for managers in my trade. Public sector managers are finding themselves working in alien conditions. There are new ambitious bosses demanding more results with less resources. Money is one thing, but staff numbers have taken a hammering, and managers are finding their feet in new teams and often with new management structures on top. That’s not a complaint, it is a fact of [working] life. At the same time as doing ‘more for less’, many of these managers are trying to embed new ways of working amongst their staff and, crucially, their colleagues working around them.

It’s essentially a bit of fun and it’s comparison I make advisedly but I do believe that there are attitudes, principles and even practical lessons to be gleaned from Kilcullen’s counter-insurgency teachings for those trying to manage and deliver in tough times while also trying to bring about change.

You’ll have to read ‘Twenty-Eight Articles’ to make an informed judgement for yourself. You’ll see the limits (no.19 is a prime example) but I’ve picked out some quotes to give a sense of what I’m leaning at and will leave you to make the translations. As Kilcullen says himself in sign-off:

Like any folklore it needs interpretation, and contains seemingly contradictory advice. Over time, as you apply unremitting intellectual effort to study your sector, you will learn to apply these ideas in your own way, and will add to this store of wisdom from your own observations and experience.

1. Know your turf

‘Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance… Share out aspects of the operational area among platoon leaders and non-commissioned officers: have each individual develop a personal specialization and brief the others. Neglect this knowledge, and it will kill you.’

2. Diagnose the problem
‘…in theater, situations will arise too quickly for orders, or even commander’s intent. Corporals and privates will have to make snap judgments with strategic impact. The only way to help them is to give them a shared understanding, then trust them to think for themselves on the day.’

3. Organize for intelligence
‘Your operations will be intelligence driven, but intelligence will come mostly from your own operations, not as a ‘product’ prepared and served up by higher headquarters… put the smartest soldiers [on intelligence duty]… you will have one less rifle squad: but the intelligence section will pay for itself in lives and effort saved.’

Continue reading “Sun Tzu for our times? Kilcullen’s teachings from counter-insurgency operations”

Interested in Arabs? What I’ve been learning since Yemen

Young Yemenis

When I visited Yemen I had the chance to talk at length with young Yemenis. These meetings both impressed and depressed me.

I was honoured by the Yemenis grasp of English and of British culture and history, despite the fact that they had never set foot in the UK. I was embarrassed by my own ignorance of Arabic or their culture or history. I was determined to set this right and have since made a point of learning more about this part of the world and people who live there.

Amongst what I have read I want to recommend two books in particular.

‘The Arabs – A History’ by Eugene Rogan

Despite traversing 500 years of history in almost as many pages, Rogan’s account of the Arabs is always vivid, eloquent and engrossing. It takes the reader from Morocco to Iraq many times over without losing the reader along the way or scrimping on the crucial details that thread the narrative together.

Although much of Arab history has been spent under domination by non-Arabic peoples, what I particularly appreciated was Rogan’s preference for primary sources written by Arabs themselves. Eye-witness accounts of events are drawn from a tremendous range of sources – from the fairly conventional, such as the accounts of Saudi royal household, to the more esoteric, such as the diary of a Damascene barber. No source is wasted and each is perfectly poised to give the facts a life beyond the printed word.

By the end, I was left questioning the permanence of an Arabic identity. Sure, there is the commonality of language but there was little evidence of a consant or stable geopolitical community. Based on what I read, I’m not convinced that the Arabs recognise themselves by that tag.

Across the centuries up to today, tribal, national and sectarian communities seemed to hold much greater sway and staying power, and I suppose in that regard that the Arabs are much like other well kent peoples – the Europeans, the First Nation Americans or the Africans, for example.

I don’t think it was Rogan’s intent to persuade his readers of the primacy of Arab identity. He acknowledges that the Arabs are one people and many peoples simultaneously, and it is part of the appeal of book that he gives each commonality and singularity the space to breathe.

It was the experience of learning about the many dynamics at play in the history of the Arabs that so enthralled me, and in that regard I think Rogan succeeds in the reasons he set out to produce this work.

If you can’t study Middle Eastern history under Rogan at Oxford, ‘The Arabs’ is the next best thing.

‘Yemen – Travels in Dictionary Land’ by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

For all it’s qualities, ‘The Arabs’ is still a book a history book and an ambitiously over-arching one at that. It could spend too long looking at one country or tribe. Indeed, Yemen only makes an appearance on four pages in Rogan’s tome. As a result, I was left wanting more and that’s where ‘Yemen – Travels in Dictionary Land’ came in.

What a fantastic book this was. It achieved many things for me. It was full of humour from the off. Mackintosh-Smith starts by taking us through his struggle to learn Arabic. It’s not just the pronunciations which prove problematic for him but also the meanings: sada is ‘thirst’, ‘echo’ and ‘an owl’, and siffarah is ‘an anus’ and ‘a whistle’.

This introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book; the author’s aim is not to laugh at the Yemenis but to marvel at the complex character of the people and the lands in which they inhabit.

The rest of the book is a first-rate travelogue (the author’s account of the little known island of Suqutra is fascinating), an informative history (covering even pre-history effortlessly), and a beautifully written appreciation of a rich and mature culture:

the songs are siren songs that tell of the flash of teeth beneath a veil like a silver coin in a well, of the saliva of lovers’ kisses intoxicating like wine, of beauty that is cruelly ephemeral

Despite the quote above, the book is never twee, never condescending. It’s not a book written by a tourist for tourists (Mackintosh was a resident); it’s not voyeuristic or sensationalist. Mackintosh is always an outsider in Yemen, but he is comfortable with that fact and uses it to his advantage. Throughout his years of living there he is driven by a passion to discover but also puts in the work to understand. He never rests in pursuit of experience and learning, and thanks to his writing ability he is able to explain and share his passions.

Even though I was only there for a week, I can vouch for the accuracy and wonder contained in this book. In it I recognised the Yemen I briefly got to experience firsthand and learned so much more about one of the least well-known but deeply fascinating countries in the Arab world.

As Yemen is brought to our attention ever more frequently, I urge you not just to rely on the media. For those who cannot visit in person, then use this book to take you there.

Let’s turn off that tap people – Blog Action Day 2010

running tap

My blog has been something of a desert lately. So with it being Blog Action Day, I thought it would be good idea to refresh BasicCraft.

This years’s Blog Action Day theme is Water. It’s a theme that should speak to us all or as the BAD blog puts it:

Water moves beyond just a human rights issue. It’s an environmental issue, an animal welfare issue, a sustainability issue. Water is a global issue, deserving a global conversation.

Conversation, yes, but also action.

In my office we have toilets (for the time being these haven’t been cutback). One toilet has a stiff hot water tap; it does close but no one ever does it properly. They just wash and go.

This just tap streams away. I turn it off when I see it but each time I go back it’s been left again. Endlessly.

So today – with a well-positioned but cheaply designed sign – I am challenging my colleagues to think more about the water they use and the water they don’t .

And that dialogue is already flowing.

tap sign

Sustainable Surfing – 5 sites to tap into the COP15 feeling

With COP15 very much in the frame, I thought I’d share 5 useful web resources (linked to the environment and living green) that make smart uses of the web:

WalkIt.com– Walking in and around town is the smart choice – no timetables, no delays, no jams, healthy, green, free, with easy access to services en route. WalkIt provides a route map between any two points, including your journey time, calorie burn, step count and carbon saving. WalkIt covers over 20 cities; I’ve used it in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London and it is brilliant. Good blog too.

MunroMagic.com – If you want to experience the scale and power of the environment, then take a train to Scotland and go climb a Munro, Corbett or Graham. All 283 Munros, 221 Corbetts and 224 Grahams are covered in detail including descriptions, pictures, location maps, walking routes, weather reports. Much of which is generated by the people who do the climbing.

PrintFriendly.com

I use this site all the time because, let’s face it, people still need to print on occasion. PrintFriendly makes printing from the web better. Their algorithm removes ads, navigation, and all the junk you don’t want to print. They use ‘best practices’ in print typography to format your document for great readability. You can also use to create PDF docs.

EdenBee.com

I’m not a member of this hive of climate change activists but I’ve been watching this community for a couple of years and have been impressed by the scale and frequency of activity. There’s lots to like about this issue-based network – from the Rails platform to the goals-based interaction between members.

EdenProject.com

The whole story of the Eden Project – then and now – is inspiring. I think every area in the UK should have an Eden Project but until that happens the website is the best [but one] place to be part of it. It’s a great point to start on a journey of greater appreciation for the environment and the way humans can live sustainably. Start with the site, radiate out to the YouTube channel and then who knows where.